Buyers or sellers? 9 clubs on the bubble

July 16th, 2021

Roughly one-third of Major League clubs are scouring the trade market for ways to upgrade their rosters for the stretch run, while about one-third are already looking at adding pieces for 2022 and beyond.

The others? Well, as the second half of the season gets set to begin Friday, those teams appear to be in Trade Deadline purgatory, uncertain whether the next two weeks will prompt them to buy or sell.

In the American League, seven teams are in the mix for Wild Card berths, with a 5 1/2-game spread separating the top and bottom of those standings. The National League Wild Card race isn’t nearly as tight, as the Reds are the only team currently within striking distance -- or even above .500 -- of the Dodgers and Padres.

That said, a lot can happen in two weeks -- just ask the Cubs -- that can change a front office’s Trade Deadline outlook.

Which teams might currently be on the fence with two weeks remaining until the Trade Deadline? Here’s a look at nine clubs that could emerge as buyers, sellers or perhaps both (listed in order of first-half record).

Reds (48-42)

Cincinnati remains in the thick of both the NL Central and Wild Card races, sitting just 4 games behind the first-place Brewers and 3 1/2 behind the Padres for the second NL Wild Card spot. General manager Nick Krall said he “absolutely” expected to be a buyer this month, but as we’ve seen time and again, one bad week at this time of year can change those plans.

Bullpen and shortstop appear to be the biggest areas of need; might the Reds -- who ended a seven-year postseason drought last fall -- make a big move for Trevor Story or Javier Báez? Stay tuned.

Mariners (48-43)

It’s been 20 years since the Mariners reached the postseason, so a return to October would be a welcome change for Seattle. A 3-8 start to June left the Mariners four games below .500, but they went 17-8 in their final 25 games before the break, moving within 3 1/2 games of the Athletics for the second AL Wild Card spot.

GM Jerry Dipoto has never been afraid to make a trade or two, though the club’s -50 run differential might be a sign that going all-in for a one-game Wild Card appearance is unwise. Adding a controllable player or two would help both this year and next, though a bad week or two could also turn Dipoto into a seller. Either way, the Mariners appear to be headed in a positive direction.

Yankees (46-43)

Perhaps the most confounding team in the Majors, the Yankees have underperformed this season thanks to injuries and inconsistency. Both owner Hal Steinbrenner and GM Brian Cashman have been on the record saying the Yankees would be buyers, and their recent interest in Texas’ Joey Gallo would indicate that remains the case.

A starting pitcher remains the biggest need, though New York’s struggling lineup -- which ranks 12th in the AL in runs scored -- could also use a boost, likely in the outfield. The Yankees enter the second half eight games behind the first-place Red Sox and 4 1/2 games behind Oakland for the second AL Wild Card spot, but even if those margins grow, it seems unlikely that New York will become a seller -- primarily because there aren’t many pieces there to sell right now.

Indians (45-42)

Cleveland is just 4 1/2 games behind the Athletics for the second AL Wild Card, though it trails the first-place White Sox by eight games in the AL Central after a 4-11 finish to the first half. Should the Indians find themselves closer to the Wild Card by the end of the month, the front office could add a starting pitcher or two and possibly an outfield bat, but it seems just as likely that Cleveland could emerge as a seller.

Should the Indians decide to buy, outfield and rotation help would be the biggest need by far. If they take the other route and opt to sell, Cesar Hernandez, Eddie Rosario and Bryan Shaw would be the most likely candidates to be moved.

Angels (45-44)

The Angels will be adding a monster bat to their lineup in the coming weeks, but they won’t have to make a trade. Mike Trout is expected to return soon from a calf injury, bolstering a lineup that has performed admirably in his absence. As usual, it’s on the mound where the Angels need to improve, and while there have been some promising signs of late -- Los Angeles finished the first half with a 9-4 run, leaving the club above .500 entering the second half -- the staff still ranks 12th in the AL with a 4.90 ERA.

With a nine-game deficit behind the Astros in the AL West and a 5 1/2-game spread between them and the Athletics for the second Wild Card spot -- not to mention four other teams between the two clubs in the standings -- it feels like the Angels will have to go on a run between now and the end of the month for GM Perry Minasian to trade away prospects for 2021 reinforcements. Acquiring a controllable piece or two would be the best-case scenario, though the possibility of trading away players such as Raisel Iglesias, Alex Cobb and Andrew Heaney also remains in play.

Phillies (44-44)

No team needs bullpen help more than the Phillies, but no position will be more coveted around the league than relief pitchers. That could present a tricky situation for Dave Dombrowski, whose club sits 3 1/2 games behind the Mets in the NL East and 6 1/2 games out of the second NL Wild Card spot.

Philadelphia -- which ranks ninth in the NL with a 4.15 ERA for its starters and 12th with a 4.75 bullpen ERA -- could also use another arm or two in the rotation. In the unlikely event that Dombrowski decides to sell, Andrew McCutchen and Archie Bradley could find themselves on the block before the end of the month.

Braves (44-45)

The Braves were in a similar spot as the Phillies before last weekend, when Ronald Acuña Jr. suffered a season-ending torn ACL. Losing your best player during a season in which you were already struggling isn’t the best recipe for a GM to become a buyer, leaving Alex Anthopoulos with some difficult choices to make.

Even after trading for Joc Pederson on Thursday, does Atlanta try to acquire another big bat such as Gallo to help replace Acuña? Or do the Braves play out the next couple weeks, see where they stand in the NL East and Wild Card races, then make the decision whether to buy or sell? Free-agents-to-be Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly would surely draw plenty of interest, though don’t look for Freddie Freeman to be moved, as the Braves are surely hoping to bring him back on a multi-year deal.

Cardinals (44-46)

Although the Cubs and Cardinals enter the second half with identical 44-46 records, St. Louis has not made any declarations about being sellers in the coming weeks. Unlike Chicago, which has several key players headed for free agency this fall, the Cards’ nucleus is mostly under control for 2022 (and in some cases, beyond), creating less urgency for the front office to sell.

That said, the Cardinals are eight games behind the first-place Brewers and 7 1/2 out of the second NL Wild Card spot, so barring a big run to open the second half, the prospect of making a major acquisition seems unlikely. St. Louis could try to make some rotation upgrades with a controllable arm that can help in 2022, even if a postseason spot this season feels like a stretch.

Nationals (42-47)

When the Nationals opened the season 13-19, there was plenty of buzz around the league about when -- not if -- the Nationals would become sellers. On June 12, Washington was 26-35, falling nine games below .500 to match its low mark of this season. The Max Scherzer watch was officially on. Then the Nationals rattled off 14 wins in 17 games to finish June, entering July with a 40-38 record, just two games behind the first-place Mets in the NL East.

Didn’t we all learn our lesson two years ago, when Washington went from 19-31 to World Series champs?

Well, the June momentum didn’t carry into July, as the Nationals limped into the break with a 2-9 record in their last 11. Now they’re six games back in the division and nine out of a Wild Card spot, leaving GM Mike Rizzo waiting to see what the next two weeks will bring. Should they decide to sell, Brad Hand and Daniel Hudson would draw significant interest, as would Scherzer, if Rizzo makes him available.