In such cases, the best way to add is with money and perhaps marginal prospects. Assume the contract of a veteran from a team that doesn't want to pay it, and everybody wins.
With other teams, however, there's greater incentive to win this year, even at the expense of future seasons. For various reasons, windows of contention may be threatening to close -- see the Cardinals and Brewers, both of whom could lose some serious star power after 2011. Or in the case of the mega-dollar powers like the Red Sox and Yankees, the money always seems to be there to paper over the prospects who might be lost in a deadline deal.
In those cases, there's less worry about protecting the 2013-14 rosters. Money helps, but a willingness to part with prospects can mean major upgrades for teams with dreams of October glory.
As for the big question, many clubs' optimal tack is obvious. The Rangers, Tigers, Braves and Giants, among others, are clear buyers. The Astros, Orioles, Padres and Royals are among the clubs that should already be looking to 2012 and beyond as the deadline approaches.
In between, though, there's plenty of wiggle room. Here's a look at what a few fence-sitters should do in the next two weeks.
Chicago White Sox: Buy, if possible. The Sox are in a fairly unenviable position. They built for this year but they don't have top prospects to trade and they don't have a whole lot of financial flexibility. Yet they have the second-best run differential in the American League Central, and even a couple of returns to form by so-far-disappointing veterans could turn them into a very serious factor in a strange division. Chicago shouldn't be any worse from here on out than it has already been, and there's room to keep climbing the standings even without a move. It's worth an add -- the question is how.
Cleveland Indians: Buy. This one's easy. Unlike the Pirates, with whom they're often compared, Cleveland's path to the postseason is a good bit clearer. The White Sox and Twins both have a shot, but they're both a few games back from the Tribe and Tigers. Being one of two teams separated by a half-game is a better position than being one of three teams separated by a half-game. The Indians still shouldn't go crazy; they should hold onto pieces like Jason Kipnis and Drew Pomeranz. But they should be taking this chance at October baseball very seriously.
Minnesota Twins: Sell. It would be painful for a franchise as used to winning as the Twins are, but it's the right course of action. They stand a relatively small six games out of first place, but they trail three teams. More distressingly, they have the second-worst run differential in the AL, an indication that even with improved health, they're not likely to make the kind of run it would take to steal the Central.
The Twins have a quantity of what everyone always wants at the deadline: relief pitching. They should part with some of it and focus on bolstering a core that should be plenty good enough to win again in 2012.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Buy, within reason. In a typical year, in a typical division, the Pirates are just the sort of team that would make a mistake by buying. Often a surprising team that flirts with contention will lose sight of the long-term plan and give up key rebuilding pieces for a hopeless swing at a long-shot playoff berth.
However, the National League Central isn't a typical division. While the Buccos would only be on the fringes of contention in either the East or West, they're right in the mix in the Central. Their chances of playing in October are real, if still far from guaranteed, and Pittsburgh should look to make upgrades -- within reason.
The Pirates shouldn't part with key pieces of their future. The long view needs to remain the goal. But if they can add an outfield bat or a reliever for only a minor prospect, or in exchange for taking on money, they should do it.
Tampa Bay Rays: Sell. This is coming from a fairly consistent and shameless Rays apologist. My preseason predictions included Tampa Bay winning the AL Wild Card. But the season has shown that this year's edition of the Rays just isn't as good as those of the Yankees or Red Sox. That wouldn't necessarily be a huge problem if the three teams were in a dead heat, but they're not. Tampa Bay has to make up 6 1/2 games on New York just to win the Wild Card, and even then they would also have to hold off the Central and West runners-up.
So while the Rays gave it a good run, surprising many observers by even making it this far, it's time to get back to the plan. This always looked like a transitional year in St. Petersburg, a season to retool before returning to the top in the next year or two. There's nothing wrong with returning to that plan of attack, parting with replaceable pieces in order to strengthen the next two or three Rays teams.