Today, Richard Justice, Lyle Spencer and Anthony Castrovince turn their attention to the league at large and the outlook for several contenders as the Trade Deadline draws closer.
1. The Tigers, Angels, Mariners, Yankees and A's have already made meaningful trades. Which contender needs to make a deal next?
Castrovince: The Blue Jays should have a particular sense of urgency, because they've got a legitimate chance at capturing their first division title in 21 years, and, simply put, this is the window for 30-plus stars Jose Bautista, Jose Reyes, Edwin Encarnacion and Adam Lind to make magic together. Getting Encarnacion, Lind and Brett Lawrie back from injury soon will be internal upgrades, and prospect Aaron Sanchez could prove to be a bullpen boost. But Toronto still has reason to target a hitter (possibly in the outfield if Bautista is an option at third) and/or a starting pitcher. The latter is a more pressing need.
Justice: The Dodgers need help at the backs of the rotation, bullpen and lineup. Beyond that, this team needs a jolt. One of those four veteran outfielders needs to go, for two reasons. One is that they're never going to be happy with the current arrangement. At a time when every single player should be focused only on winning, the Dodgers seem to lead the game in distractions. Another reason to move an outfielder is to give 22-year-old Joc Pederson a chance to play, if only in a part-time role. He might provide the spark of energy that Yasiel Puig gave the Dodgers a year ago. Other than Puig, who will not be dealt, Matt Kemp has the most trade value. But the Dodgers will have to pay a significant chunk of the $117 million remaining on his contract, and even then it's unclear if they can move him. The Dodgers are built for October with Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke at the top of the rotation, but if they can't add depth to both the rotation and bullpen, they might not get there.
Spencer: The Giants in the National League and the A's (surprise) in the American League. The focus is always on pitching, but Phillies second baseman Chase Utley is the player who could arguably make the biggest difference down the stretch and into October, given his postseason history (10 homers and .500 slugging percentage in 46 games). He would fit either Bay Area team perfectly, giving the Giants a better version of Marco Scutaro's 2012 impact and providing the A's an all-around force in the most competitive race in the Majors. Utley is from California, having attended UCLA, so he'd be returning home. The Rays' Ben Zobrist would be a solid option as well if he's available.
2. Which contender do you think will stand pat and not make a move?
Castrovince: No team is perfect, of course, but I just don't see much action out of the Brewers, even though general manager Doug Melvin has done some bold maneuvering at this time of year in the past. Milwaukee seems pretty content with the Mark Reynolds-Lyle Overbay tandem at first base despite subpar offensive production, because it's happy with their defense and the market for hitters is ripe for overpays. Maybe the Brewers will go after a right-handed reliever, but they might be better off evaluating what they've got in Jeremy Jeffress, a potential closer in the making.
Justice: The Nationals are good enough to win a championship without doing a single thing. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman's latest trip to the disabled list is a tough blow, but there's no one out there GM Mike Rizzo could get who would provide anything close to his production and leadership. Instead of making a move for external help, Rizzo probably knows that if everyone stays healthy, the Nationals are as good as any team in baseball. At the moment, the lineup, rotation and bullpen are all set up nicely. Rizzo might look to tweak his bench or add a middle-inning reliever, but he has already done all the heavy lifting. All the Nationals need to do now is get Zimmerman back on the field and head for the finish line.
Spencer: There is a lot of talk about the Dodgers making a big move for their rotation, but the cost would be high and they appear to have everything they need for a run through October. The logjam of outfielders might be uncomfortable for the players involved, but it's never a bad idea to have proven talent available at every position late in the season.
3. Which team that isn't currently in first place is most likely to win its division?
Castrovince: Either Los Angeles team. I don't love the outfield discord taking place with the Dodgers, and I'm as curious as anybody to see what they do to sort that out. (Pederson looks ready for his closeup, and the Dodgers could sure use an injection of youthful upside.) But as long as Kershaw and Greinke are healthy, they've got plenty of pulse. And the Angels have done great work to repair their once-bumbling bullpen -- the area that put them behind the 8-ball in the first place. Both the A's and Angels are October-bound, but that's a division battle between two elite clubs that will go to the finish line -- they face each other in the season's final week.
Justice: The Angels have the best record in the game (29-12) since June 6. At the moment, they have the best offense and the best bullpen. They also have the best player on earth in Mike Trout and one of the five best starters in the AL in Garrett Richards. They may also have the best closer in new guy Huston Street. If GM Jerry Dipoto can add just a middle-of-the-rotation starting pitcher, the Angels have a puncher's chance to overtake the A's in the AL West. That said, Oakland is really good, smart, tough and competitive. The A's are a team with virtually no weaknesses, so the Angels are going to have to be almost perfect to catch them. The A's have spent 88 consecutive days alone atop the division, and the best chance for the Angels is having 10 more games against the A's still on the schedule, including three in the final week of the season. Oakland has an advantage in playing 19 more games down the stretch against the Rangers and Astros. The Angels have only 14 more games against those two teams.
Spencer: The Angels have the second-best record in the Majors for a reason. They're good, and they have a chance of getting better now that they've locked down the late innings with Street joining Joe Smith, Jason Grilli and Kevin Jepsen. If Josh Hamilton finds his home-run stroke, their offense would be even more deadly. They've been the best team in the game, and the A's can feel the heat.