5 contenders with a need for speed at the Deadline

July 27th, 2023

We all know what contending teams will be looking for ahead of the Trade Deadline, and that’s the same thing they’re always looking for: pitching, especially relief pitching, and maybe a bench bat to fill a specific role, like hitting lefties or playing shortstop. It’s the same every year.

But baseball in 2023 is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, because it’s the first year under the new rules. Stolen bases are up. Speed is in -- and general managers are openly talking about how they’ve been trying to build their rosters to be a little more athletic, and a little faster.

Speed, by itself, won’t turn a losing team into a winning team. But come October, it’s not that hard to think of memorable examples where speed mattered, whether it’s one of the most famous stolen bases in the sport's history (Dave Roberts in the 2004 ALCS) or Mookie Betts simply tearing it up around the bases in the 2020 World Series.

We know which teams are contenders, and now, thanks to a recent Statcast addition on Baseball Savant, we know which teams are the fastest -- or not.

That the Reds are baseball’s fastest team is no surprise at all, because it matches exactly with the eye test; the Guardians are always among the fastest clubs in the sport; the Phillies are exactly who we projected to be fast before the season. At the other end, well, does it surprise absolutely anyone that the disappointing Yankees are old and unathletic?

If there’s not a great relationship between team speed and winning percentage -- and there’s not, because A) Speed has nothing to do with pitching, and B) Speed is heavily correlated with youth, and rebuilding non-contenders tend to be young -- then it’s worth pointing out that there is a great relationship between speed and value, defined here as taking all sorts of liberties on the bases in terms of being aggressive at the right times and taking extra bases. (Read more about this metric here, which is just about running the bases on batted balls, not stolen bases.)

Remember: Back in 2004, three months before his legendary ALCS steal, Roberts himself was a Deadline Day acquisition, traded from the Dodgers to the Red Sox on July 31. Sometimes, all it takes is one speedy runner, in the right situation, in the right playoff game.

Let’s find some contenders on the bottom half of the running scale -- and see if we can find some fits to help give them a boost.

All stats are entering Wednesday's games.

(30th in team speed, 29th in baserunning value, 22nd in stolen bases)

Whether or not you believe the Yankees are still serious playoff contenders or not is up to you, but they still have a one-in-three shot according to FanGraphs, and they are -- as of Wednesday morning -- only 2 1/2 games out of the final Wild Card spot, with Aaron Judge seemingly on the verge of a return. Being poor on the bases isn’t their only problem, but it’s definitely a problem.

Simply keeping Harrison Bader (the fastest Yankee over the past two seasons) healthy and on the field would help, but aside from him, the club has had a whole lot of problems simply staffing an outfield, as for weeks they’ve been forced to resort to journeymen fill-ins or utility players. It’s probably safe to assume that even if Judge returns, he’ll probably spend part of his time at DH, so let’s focus on the outfield here.

Fortunately, there are options. There’s a pair of bigger-ticket names who have already been coveted by Yankee fans, in Cody Bellinger (73rd percentile in speed) and Lane Thomas (94). Maybe you’d prefer a role player? Try Detroit’s Matt Vierling (93), who can play all three outfield spots and also has some infield experience, too. Bader’s former teammate in St. Louis, Tyler O’Neill (75 this year, though 98 last year) recently returned from injury and could be a buy-low chance on a former Gold Glover.

If you just want pure, top-of-the-scale, speed speed, then perhaps Oakland’s Esteury Ruiz (98) is available, though he’s a poor hitter and defender, and the A’s might not want to move him; a much lesser-known version of Ruiz would be Kansas City’s 30-year-old rookie Dairon Blanco, something of a runner-only player who is, at the moment, essentially the fastest man in baseball.

There are options, anyway -- and even if it doesn’t help the Yankees get into the playoffs this year, they surely can’t return the same roster next year, even older, even slower.

(23rd in team speed, 27th in baserunning value, 27th in stolen bases)

Obviously, nothing here matters at all aside from the endless will-they/won’t-they over Shohei Ohtani, though it’s worth noting that after a few seasons where he looked like one of the game’s elite speedsters, he’s down to merely above-average this season. Their fastest runner, Mike Trout, is out with another injury, but either way, he just doesn’t use his speed anymore, with only six steals in the past four seasons. No team in baseball takes fewer of the extra-base opportunities presented to them.

Of course, if you look at their team speed ratings, Trout is expected to be back in the next few weeks, and rookie shortstop Zach Neto, their fourth-fastest player, should be back on Friday after missing a week with a back problem. The problem here, aside from the fact that most or all of their adds would be on the mound, is that they don’t really have an obvious spot to add speed. Certainly that’s not a concern at catcher or first base, and the outfield is well-staffed as it is. Would they bother replacing second baseman Luis Rengifo or third baseman Mike Moustakas in the name of speed? Probably not -- and if they want a burner, up-and-down outfielder Jo Adell (93rd percentile speed) is just a call away.

(8th in team speed, 24th in baserunning value, 26th in stolen bases)

Texas is interesting, because the roster is not actually slow; Ezequiel Duran, Leody Taveras, Travis Jankowski, and Marcus Semien all have well above-average speed, and they can simply dip into the Minors to call up Bubba Thompson, who is one of the game’s elite speedsters. But despite that, this team hasn’t actually been all that productive on the bases, regardless of whether you look at Statcast’s value formula (24th), FanGraphs’s version (27th) or just raw steals (26th).

Any move the Rangers are likely to make at the Deadline should be to shore up their vulnerable bullpen, plus the presence of Thompson means that adding speed via trade isn’t really a priority.

(29th in team speed, 19th in baserunning value, 29th in stolen bases)

San Francisco did just call up top prospect Marco Luciano, but he’s not going to offer as much speed as you’d expect from a 21-year-old shortstop. (He has just 21 steals in parts of four Minor League seasons, and his MLB Pipeline scouting report glowingly talks about his bat speed while calling his foot speed “fringy.”) That said, longtime (and currently injured) incumbent shortstop Brandon Crawford is, at 36 years old, the slowest runner at his position in the game, so even a modest speed boost at the position would help.

Similar to the Rangers and Thompson, the Giants have speedy outfielder Bryce Johnson (91st percentile in speed) at Triple-A. But the Giants, even with Luciano, and even with Crawford not all that far from a return to play, still have a problem in the middle infield, in part because Thairo Estrada is still weeks away from a return after fracturing his left hand.

It’s clear they’ll be after middle infield help, in part because rookie infielder Casey Schmitt is hitting just .207/.252/.293. That probably means a veteran like Tim Anderson or Paul DeJong, but there’s a speed option too, one who already wears black and orange. The Orioles have more infielders than they know what to do with right now, and while Jorge Mateo isn’t a starting-caliber hitter, he is a good fielder with game-changing speed, tied with Corbin Carroll as the sixth-fastest player in the game.

But if it’s the right-handed-hitting outfielder they also need -- given that the Giants are the second-weakest club in the Majors against lefty pitching -- then maybe the Nationals' Thomas would make a whole lot of sense, if speed is part of the goal.

Blue Jays
(18th in team speed, 16th in baserunning value, 16th in stolen bases)

To some extent, the Blue Jays are dragged down by the fact that Alejandro Kirk, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Brandon Belt are each among the slowest runners at their positions, and surely the club won’t be -- and shouldn’t be -- moving on from any of those three. Despite the presence of Kevin Kiermaier, the Blue Jays have hit the elite 30 ft/sec mark just five times this year. Bobby Witt Jr., by comparison, has had one of those ‘bolts’ 88 times all by himself.

But if that trio isn’t replaceable, and Kiermaier still retains above-average speed, and Matt Chapman remains one of the faster third basemen in the sport -- and certainly no one’s trying to upgrade over Bo Bichette at shortstop or George Springer in right -- then where do you add? The answer here might be at second base, perhaps indirectly. What we mean by that is that even though Whit Merrifield remains as fast as Kiermaier, he’s spending a lot of time platooning with Daulton Varsho in left field. The rest of the time goes to Cavan Biggio and Santiago Espinal, who haven’t been productive (a combined .222/.300/.347). While Biggio has decent speed, Espinal is slightly below average.

Perhaps this is solved by simply trading for a middle infielder, like DeJong or Anderson, who can play second. But this might be yet another spot where a righty outfielder fits, and while that could be someone like old friend Randal Grichuk, there’s a lot of reason to take a shot on O’Neill here, and not only because he’s a Canadian native (albeit from out in British Columbia). It’s because his glove would help further reinforce what’s already a strong defensive outfield, and because even though his season has been plagued by injury, realize that on Tuesday night, when he grounded out in the top of the 9th, he got up to 29.9 ft/sec as he ran to first.

It was his fastest run of the season. It would have been tied for Toronto’s seventh fastest of the season. It came just a week after his return from a back injury that had sabotaged much of his season. If he’s healthy -- and that run sure makes you feel better that he is -- then that’s a tremendous sign for the speed he still has to offer.