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Five weekend clashes that may determine buyers and sellers

You’d think baseball teams were like product on a conveyor belt, rumbling along for 100 or so games before getting sorted into one lane or another at the trade deadline.

Buyers to the left. Sellers veer right.

Yet in this modern era, franchise fates aren’t necessarily binary. With 12 teams gaining access to Major League Baseball’s expanded postseason, clubs may be weeks from knowing if they’re truly in it – or how deeply – once MLB’s Aug. 1-imposed deadline forces them to largely set their playoff personnel.

This weekend could go a long way towards that end, however.

Monday marks the last full week of games before the deadline, and entering Friday, 23 teams were within eight games of a playoff spot.

While it’s unlikely this weekend will force anyone to throw in the towel, or mortgage the farm for reinforcements, five key series may nudge teams closer to their fates.

A look at the showdowns that should have an impact on the eight crazy days to follow:

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Red Sox relief pitcher Kenley Jansen celebrates the win with third baseman Rafael Devers.  (Credit: Nick Turchiaro, USA TODAY Sports)

Red Sox relief pitcher Kenley Jansen celebrates the win with third baseman Rafael Devers. (Credit: Nick Turchiaro, USA TODAY Sports)

OK, enough about the Mets. Their foibles are well-documented, and frankly rather boring at this point. Wake us up when you win five in a row.

The Red Sox, though, are intriguing, a startling thing to acknowledge after roughly 20 years of mass media overexposure. They sit just 2 ½ games out of the final AL wild card spot and eight games out of the AL East lead, kind of wild in that they trailed the first-place Tampa Bay Rays by 15 games on June 30.

Given the depth of their division and their seemingly foolish decision to jettison franchise shortstop Xander Bogaerts, the Red Sox were largely written off by Patriots Day. Pocket look:

Blossoming second-year man Jarren Duran and Masataka Yoshida, in whom they invested $105 million to bring in from Japan, hit opponents with an .872 and .883 OPS at the top of the lineup. The de facto trade of JD Martinez and Justin Turner with the Dodgers has worked out fine for both sides.

Young Brayan Bello is nearing ace status. James Paxton has stayed healthy. While still erratic, swingman Nick Pivetta has struck out 94 in 75 innings.

And Trevor Story, perhaps intended to take over at shortstop for Bogaerts all along, begins a rehab assignment Friday and should make his season debut by the end of the month.

No, there’s no banner awarded for “more interesting than the Yankees and Mets.” But the new-look Red Sox can certainly make the case they deserve a shot at a real prize should they keep up this 10-4 July pace.

Pitching matchups: Friday – Kodai Senga vs. James Paxton. Saturday – Max Scherzer vs. Cutter Crawford. Sunday – Carlos Carrasco vs. TBD.

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They were the kings of June, going a combined 34-19, but July has tested both clubs’ staying power. Arizona and Cincinnati have plenty of similarities, perhaps most notably that the Reds lead the major leagues in stolen bases (115) while the go-go D’backs are third with 100.

More alarmingly, both clubs face significant shortfalls near the back of their rotation, although both are projecting injury reinforcements: Merrill Kelly should return next week for Arizona, while the Reds can look towards August and the hoped-for returns of Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo.

The D-backs also face the NL West conundrum: They’re tied for second place but trailing the Dodgers by just two games. The Reds can count on a two-team fight in the Central, where they trail Milwaukee by 2 ½. Arizona also holds the No. 2 wild card, although they’re just 1 ½ games ahead of the fourth-place Marlins.

How much do these front offices like their teams? Nice surprise or sustainable? Read the playoff odds or reward players and fans who have endured grim seasons? Perhaps they’ll learn something from each other this weekend.

Pitching matchups: Friday – Tommy Henry vs. Ben Lively. Saturday – TBD vs. Brandon Williamson. Sunday – TBD vs. Luke Weaver.

If you’re the defending champs of your division and sit just two games out of first place, the natural expectation is a club ready to throttle up.

But this is the AL Central, and these are the Cleveland Guardians, and at 47-49, they’d be lucky to hold onto their assets.

There’s nothing fortunate about ace Shane Bieber going on the injured list with elbow inflammation. Yet if there is a big-picture silver lining, it’s that Cleveland will likely be unable to trade its ace, as was a possibility before he went down. The Guardians control Bieber’s rights for 2024, too, and dealing the right-hander would be a blow to fans, even if it fortified other parts of the roster.

So now what? The wild card is almost certainly not an option, so Cleveland has to not only play well but also hope Minnesota continues to underperform; that’s no sure thing.

The needle only points up in Philly, where the Phils hold a tenuous lead on a wild-card spot and the division leading Braves are likely out of reach. Not that that’s going to keep GM Dave Dombrowski’s pedal off the gas.

Pitching matchups: Friday – Ranger Suarez vs. Gavin Williams. Saturday – Zack Wheeler vs. Tanner Bibee. Sunday – Aaron Nola vs. TBD.

Orioles at Rays

OK, so the deadline fates of these clubs won’t be determined this weekend, nor will their playoff fates; both teams should be in and jousting for the AL East title to the end.

But the degree to which these future-conscious, lower-revenue, arbitrage-seeking franchises expend resources on the trade deadline may very well be affected by their performance the next week.

Do the Rays, off to 13-0 and 27-6 starts before pitching injuries slowed their roll, pour significant prospect capital into propping up a roster that’s lost 11 of 14 and its grip on the division?

Do the Orioles, who are once again probably a year ahead of schedule, disrupt their assembly line of middle infield prospects that have marched to the majors and deal some pieces to fortify a playoff roster?

Would either of those clubs – gulp – throw both human and actual capital (about $10 million) to bring in a certain two-way player from a fading team out west?

That latter scenario is least likely. But it will be fascinating to see whether two meticulous (or, if you prefer, cheap) franchises shift into go-for-it mode with glowing playoff odds in their favor. This four-game weekend set – which tipped off with a back-and-forth affair Thursday – might tilt things for either club.

Pitching matchups: Friday – Kyle Bradish vs. Zach Eflin. Saturday – Grayson Rodriguez vs. Shane McClanahan. Sunday – Tyler Wells vs. Bradley gave it.

Blue Jays at Mariners

The lines have been drawn in this Battle for the San Juan Islands: The Mariners’ team store at T-Mobile Park will not sell Blue Jays merch during the series after player complaints that their club was catering too much to visiting Canucks.

Fair enough. The Mariners need as much help as they can get right now.

They’re seventh in the wild card standings and need to make up five games – and leapfrog four teams – to notch repeat playoff appearances. That’s already challenging enough, made moreso by the fact GM Jerry Dipoto isn’t averse to trading away key pieces even if the club is in contention.

They well remember 2021, when Dipoto dealt closer Kendall Graveman to division rival Houston, enraging Seattle’s veteran players. The Mariners missed the playoffs by two games.

Seattle finally broke a 21-year playoff drought last year and even upset the Blue Jays in the first round, but a lineup largely of holdovers ranks 23rd in OPS (.700). If they’re to reel in the Jays – who for now hold a three-game lead for a wild-card spot – they’re going to need to make hay right away, lest their trigger-happy GM pivot.

Pitching matchups: Friday – Yusei Kikuchi vs. Bryce Miller. Saturday – Kevin Gausman vs. Logan Gilbert. Sunday – Alek Manoah vs. Bryan Woo.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB trade deadline: Five showdowns that may determine buyers, sellers