If it seems like the baseball season just started, we have some news for you: It’s almost Trade Deadline season. We’re 40% of the way through the schedule. We’re two weeks from July, and there's less than a month until the All-Star Game. While there’s still a sizable will-they-or-won’t-they middle of the pack, there are also a few clearly defined sellers and buyers, and the buyers have some serious holes to fill.
Which, then, are the biggest problem spots? Which contenders have issues they absolutely have to resolve if they’re going to get to October, or succeed once they’re there? Let’s take a look doing the same thing we did last December, using FanGraphs projections to identify the biggest rest-of-season concerns.
While projections aren’t perfect, they’re better than just using season-to-date numbers, because they don’t assume that what has happened so far is exactly what will happen. (Another way of saying that: Jackie Bradley Jr. won’t hit .154 for the entire year. The Yankees, with Luke Voit nearly back, won’t give 40% of first base playing time to the departed Jay Bruce and Mike Ford, as they have so far. The Rays will get a lot less Tyler Glasnow going forward than they’ve had to date. So on.)
We will not be including bullpens, because here is the list of contenders who could use another relief arm or three or six: [Literally every single contender.]
In order to qualify as a contender, you need to have (as of Wednesday morning) playoffs odds of 10% or higher. That leaves us with 19 teams, with the Cardinals being the ‘contender’ with the lowest odds (12%) and the Nationals being the highest-ranked ‘non-contender,’ at a mere 3%.
So we’ll take those 19 teams, rate each position by strength of projected WAR from here on out, and find the spots ranked in the bottom 15% of their position (bottom 20% for starting pitchers). Easy? Easy. If you want to see what that big block of numbers looks like, well, it looks like this, looking at rest-of-season Wins Above Replacement projected totals. (While it may seem like there are ties, we chose not to show decimal points for clutter reasons.)
That leaves us with 26 problem spots. Instead of ranking them 1-26, let’s look at them by position, which will make it easier to identify who might be available to acquire.
Teams most in need: Braves, Mets, Astros, Indians
We include the Mets because they qualify via our search, but let’s knock them out right away, because they aren’t going to be replacing James McCann three months into a four-year contract, and after a dreadful start to the season (his OBP was below .300 until last week) he’s been better recently anyway. Cleveland has received little out of René Rivera and Austin Hedges, but they’ll expect Roberto Pérez back soon regardless.
It’s a little different in Houston, where they place a great deal of value in Martín Maldonado’s defense, though he’s hitting only .170/.247/.279 this year. It might be one of the weakest catcher hitting seasons in Astros history, though the team still has baseball’s best offense, and veteran Jason Castro just came off the injured list, so maybe they’ll just stand pat here.
The Braves, however … the Braves could use a catcher. Travis d’Arnaud is hurt. Alex Jackson is hurt. William Contreras has been … okay. (96 OPS+). The problem is that the Braves are going to show up several more times on this list at other spots.
Possible trade targets: Catchers don’t get traded in-season that often. There aren't many top ones available. Are you interested in Jacob Stallings, Tom Murphy, or Stephen Vogt for depth?
Teams most in need: Red Sox, Padres, Indians, Brewers
No, San Diego isn’t going to trade for a first baseman to replace Eric Hosmer. It doesn’t change the fact that he’s slugging only .357 this year, or that he’s only been a league-average first baseman in four years with the Padres, or that he has just six hits (five singles) in June. The projections aren’t wrong, here. But it’s not going to happen.
Cleveland is here because they already designated their primary first baseman, Jake Bauers, for assignment, before trading him. They’ve since been going with combinations of Owen Miller, Bobby Bradley, Yu Chang and Josh Naylor; they have 2021’s weakest hitting first base group for the full season. But Bradley’s off to a hot start, and Shane Bieber’s injury makes the team’s path forward unclear anyway, so they’ll likely just let Bradley run here.
Milwaukee gave Keston Hiura as much run as it could before it became clear it would not work, so the club has been going with the league-average bat of Daniel Vogelbach, which is … fine. It’s fine. They could use more.
But if there’s a team that really needs a first baseman, it’s the Red Sox, who have been waiting all season for Bobby Dalbec (.201/.254/.402, 76 OPS+) to find a groove. Maybe they can get away with Michael Chavis and/or Marwin Gonzalez pitching in, but they could really use some reliability there as the overperforming starting rotation falls back to earth.
Possible trade targets: The National League is having a historically poor first base season, which might limit the appealing options, but Miami’s Jesús Aguilar (12 homers, 125 OPS+) would add another solid bat, or Jonathan Schoop (109 OPS+ last three years) from Detroit, or C.J. Cron (105 OPS+) out of Colorado. Would the Orioles trade Trey Mancini and his 127 OPS+?
Specific to Boston, one of the most righty-heavy teams in the game, how about Pittsburgh’s lefty-swinging Colin Moran, who has a 118 OPS+ over the last two years?
Teams most in need: White Sox, Cubs, Giants
The White Sox wouldn’t have been here a week ago, but with Nick Madrigal out for the remainder of the season, they now have yet another lineup hole to worry about. (Though they did receive good news on Eloy Jiménez’s return to health recently.) You probably don’t really want Leury García and Danny Mendick playing every day. This is why the White Sox have the No. 27 rest-of-season second base projection.
The Cubs may prefer to just let Nico Hoerner return from injury or see what they have in Sergio Alcántara, and they have a bigger problem that we’ll get to. San Francisco probably isn’t in a rush to replace Donovan Solano, despite an underwhelming and injury-plagued season. So if we’re looking at the White Sox, where are they, then, looking?
Possible trade targets: Adam Frazier. This is the obvious move. Beyond obvious, really. Frazier is a 29-year-old Pirate having a good year (139 OPS+), and even if he’s not really that good going forward, he’s a solid Madrigal replacement in that he makes a lot of contact and plays solid defense. (He can even play a little outfield, too, which Chicago probably needs.) Frazier aside, Schoop still plays some second, or veteran multi-positional guys like Asdrúbal Cabrera or Eduardo Escobar or Josh Harrison or Brock Holt could be had.
Teams most in need: Reds, A’s
Just as they were last winter, too. Oakland and Texas swapped disappointing veterans in Khris Davis and Elvis Andrus; the Rangers cut ties with Davis this month after he posted a 65 OPS+, and Andrus (63 OPS+) is deep into his fourth consecutive underwhelming year. Only two teams have had worse offense from shortstop than Oakland, and the fact that Andrus has been a little better in June shouldn’t disguise the obvious need.
The Reds had a big shortstop problem following 2020, and they filled it by … not filling it. Instead, they moved third baseman Eugenio Suárez back to short, and it didn’t work on either side of the ball; Suárez carries a .169/.248/.376 (61 OPS+) line into Wednesday’s games, and the defense has been well below average. He’s actually been playing mostly third with Mike Moustakas out, but a return to shortstop (pushing Kyle Farmer’s 58 OPS+ to the bench) is likely when Moustakas returns soon.
Possible trade targets: Trevor Story is by far the most obvious and appealing option here, though he hasn’t exactly had a great season, and it’s difficult to know how the Rockies will operate. Still, “trade for a superstar two months before he reaches free agency” is a very A’s thing to do. You can also all but guarantee that Minnesota will move Andrelton Simmons, who is only posting a 85 OPS+ but with his usual excellent defense. Story to Oakland, Simmons to Cincinnati. Mark it down.
Teams most in need: Giants, Brewers, Braves
The Braves are not trading for a third baseman. They're here because Austin Riley had matching 84 OPS+ marks in his first two seasons, and understandably it takes more than a good two months to completely change that viewpoint in the projections. That said, he's been good enough this season that you can move right along. They’re happy with him.
The Giants are here because Evan Longoria is 35 and hadn’t been very good for most of the previous four years, so the projections weren’t fully buying his excellent rebound even before he injured his shoulder, which will keep him out through at least mid-July. They’ve been getting by with Jason Vosler and Wilmer Flores, and probably will continue to do so until Longoria returns.
In Milwaukee, the Brewers, as expected, have some truly dominant pitching and a very questionable lineup. They moved early to make a rare May trade for a starting shortstop in Willy Adames, and they’re 17-6 since he arrived. Adames’ arrival pushed incumbent shortstop Luis Urías to a third base platoon with Travis Shaw, though Shaw is now out indefinitely with a shoulder injury. Urías is hitting .222/.326/.397, and that’s by far the best line of his career. This staff could use a bat. A few of them.
Possible trade targets: It’d be fun to think about what a José Ramírez trade could look like, but it’s not likely. You could probably extract Josh Donaldson if you wanted to pick up his contract -- also not likely. Escobar fits here, maybe Maikel Franco, but the most fun name is the one who’s been on the trade rumor block for years now: Kyle Seager, who had a strong 2020 before a just-okay 2021. Still, his track record is solid, but a 2022 option that vests with a trade might be a blocker. Too bad that Kris Bryant is likely no longer an option.
Left field and Center Field
Teams most in need: Yankees, Braves
(Surprised the Astros aren’t here for center? Us too. They ever so barely miss our cutoff, though they’d still be well-served to push incumbent Myles Straw to the bench. Straw did hit his first homer of the season on Wednesday, at least.)
Let’s combine these two teams and positions, because the Yankees and Braves are the two qualifiers at both spots. If you’ve got an outfielder, you should absolutely be looking to the teams in New York and Georgia that have one superstar and two enormous question marks.
As we said: The Braves have some problems. Cristian Pache has not hit at all. Marcell Ozuna was injured and later arrested on domestic violence charges. What’s left is an outfield that has the second-best hitting from right field, and the 30th-best hitting from center and left field combined. Four games under .500, with a slew of pitching problems, it’s not clear how hard Atlanta will push in July. If they do, they won’t stick with Abraham Almonte and Guillermo Heredia.
Meanwhile, the disappointing Yankees lost Aaron Hicks for the season in May, traded Mike Tauchman to the Giants and don’t seem to view Giancarlo Stanton as an outfield option, so they’ve been staffing left and center with Clint Frazier, Brett Gardner and Miguel Andújar, who have combined for a .654 OPS. They’ll almost certainly trade for a center fielder. But who?
Possible trade targets: Fewer than you think. The mostly likely Big Name is free-agent-to-be Starling Marte, who missed a month with a rib fracture but has a long track record and has crushed the ball (.333/.432/.538) when healthy. He’s capable of playing center or left. Could you get Ketel Marte out of Arizona? Maybe, but it won’t be easy; he’s 27 years old and, if team options are picked up, can’t be a free agent until 2025.
Otherwise, in left field, you could probably get David Peralta, Adam Duvall or Kyle Schwarber. Joey Gallo has played mostly right recently, but he does have experience in both left and center, and wouldn't he be a fun add to a Yankee lineup with Aaron Judge and Stanton?
In center, maybe you’re looking at Michael A. Taylor or Victor Robles. Bryan Reynolds has been very good for Pittsburgh, though they may want to hold onto him since he can't be a free agent until after 2025. Wouldn’t it be intriguing, though, to think about the Rays trading Kevin Kiermaier, given that they have elite outfield gloves Brett Phillips and Manuel Margot easily capable of covering the position defensively?
Teams most in need: Angels, A’s
The Angels have received decent production in right, but that’s mostly because Jared Walsh spent time there earlier in the season, and he’s been great. Walsh hasn’t played right since Albert Pujols was cut free, however, and Taylor Ward has been just okay. That said, Jo Adell is slugging .691 with 16 homers in Triple-A, and he’d likely get another look first.
In Oakland, Stephen Piscotty hasn’t had an average-or-better hitting season since 2018, and Seth Brown isn’t likely the answer either. The Cardinals, by the way, didn’t make our list, but we’re putting them here anyway, because they’ve received almost nothing at all from right field.
Possible trade targets: Actually, quite a few. Someone trade for Gallo. Mitch Haniger, when healthy, could probably be had. What about Gregory Polanco? Maybe Anthony Santander?
Teams most in need: Cardinals, Cubs, Rays, Indians, Blue Jays
Most teams, to be clear, would be happy with another starting arm, even ones not listed here (like the Yankees, A’s, Angels, or Padres).
But these are the ones who really need one. There’s probably not a more desperate situation among contenders than in St. Louis (No. 25 rest-of-season projection), which is without Jack Flaherty while he rehabs an oblique injury, and has to deal with the fact that John Gant’s 3.36 ERA is wildly unsupported by any underlying metric (he has a 4.99 FIP and a 6.10 expected ERA, thanks largely to a 42/42 K/BB ratio).
The Cubs have the No. 27 projection and one of the weakest rotation performances to date. The Blue Jays have steady Hyun Jin Ryu, surprising Robbie Ray and promising rookie Alek Manoah, and so many questions beyond that, though the bullpen is a much larger concern. Cleveland had a hard time filling out a rotation with Bieber, so now it’s “Aaron Civale and lots of uncertainty.” The Rays always seem to have pitching to spare, but Glasnow’s injury is not a minor concern. Still, they’ll probably staff from within.
Possible trade targets: It’s … not great.
We don’t know if Washington would trade Max Scherzer, but he’s injured right now anyway. So is Detroit’s Matthew Boyd. So is his teammate Spencer Turnbull. So is Colorado’s Jon Gray. So is Kansas City’s Danny Duffy. So is Arizona’s Madison Bumgarner. So is Minnesota’s Michael Pineda. So is Baltimore’s John Means, not that it’s clear they’d even move him. You’re starting to see a pattern. Can you pitch?
The other problem is that the healthier starters haven’t exactly looked great. Tyler Anderson has a 4.89 ERA. Dylan Bundy has a 6.98 ERA. J.A. Happ has a 6.12. Mike Foltynewicz is at 5.48. Merrill Kelly? 5.14. Mike Minor? 4.63. Matt Harvey? 7.76. Jon Lester’s been OK, but he also has a career low strikeout rate, even by his own relatively low bat-missing standards.
Meanwhile, the Giants have been so competitive that the supposed treasure trove of walk-year starters we thought they’d be able to offer will likely stay put. The recently competitive Reds might keep Sonny Gray for a run, too. Now: Could you get Germán Márquez out of the Rockies, or José Berríos from Minnesota? If you’re willing to pay a very high price.
Otherwise, are we looking at newly resurgent Kyle Gibson, who brought a 4.57 career ERA into the season, couldn’t get out of the first inning on Opening Day, but has managed a 1.51 ERA in 12 starts since, as the best (possibly) available starter? Is it Yusei Kikuchi, who has a much better ERA than last year while allowing a home run rate three times as high? Is that the best we’ve got?
File this group under “big yikes,” or perhaps more accurately, “if you need a starter, just go find three relievers instead.” Of course, everyone already needs three relievers. They always do.