With Major League Baseball’s trade deadline just one week away, a group of contenders has firmly pulled away from the pack as bona fide contenders.
And as their playoff chances increase, their needs almost become more glaring.
It’s deal now or face the regrets come October, and no club wants to be ill-equipped for the postseason – or the stretch drive. With pitchers reaching innings limits, rookies hitting proverbial walls and struggling players’ samples now large enough to compel teams to seek additional options, the time has come for midseason makeovers.
USA TODAY Sports identifies the most glaring needs for five top contenders:
Dodgers: Infielder, reliever
Their well-publicized restraint this winter has been justified, as they’ve built a four-game lead in pursuit of their 11th NL West title in 12 seasons while keeping the books cleaner for a Shohei Ohtani bid.
But that winter restraint has created holes to fill.
Most notably, the left side of the infield has thinned thanks to Gavin Lux’s ACL injury and rookie Miguel Vargas’s struggles. It’s not the best look defensively to put veterans Chris Taylor and Max Muncy at shortstop and third base, respectively, while glue guy Miguel Rojas now totes just a 49 adjusted OPS at short.
Meanwhile, a rotation ravaged by injuries is leaning heavily on three rookies, with no guarantees of Clayton Kershaw’s health and Julio Urias’ effectiveness going forward. Yet a mid-rotation starter likely won’t buttress the overall group appreciably; the better play might be an effective to elite reliever to ease the burden on high-leverage guys Evan Phillips and Brusdar Graterol, both ticketed for more than 70 appearances.
How big will the Dodgers go? They should have plenty of options to fit their desired scale, be it a big splash or maintaining their modest approach of last winter.
Names to watch: Cardinals 3B Nolan Arenado, INF Paul DeJong, INF/OF Tommy Edman, RP Jordan Hicks
Orioles: Starting pitcher
In some ways Orioles starters have been too good.
Fans antsy for a playoff squad were disappointed when the club’s only offseason rotation addition was veteran Kyle Gibson on a one-year, $10 million contract. Yet virtually every member of Baltimore’s young rotation has taken a significant step forward, most notably right-handers Tyler Wells and Kyle Bradish.
Wells has posted a 0.99 WHIP with 110 strikeouts in 111 innings, while Bradish has a 3.05 ERA across 97 1/3 innings, and has completed at least six innings with two or fewer runs given up in 10 of 18 outings. Baltimore starters rank 12th in the majors in innings pitched, easing the strain on a bullpen that’s not as deep as last year’s unit.
But the odometers are blinking red.
Wells has already exceeded his 2022 innings total (103) and is closing in on his professional high of 119 ⅓ innings in 2018, as a Twins minor leaguer; he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2019. Bradish will likely exceed his 2022 mark of 117 innings within two starts.
While there’s no hard and fast formula for increasing young pitchers’ innings, there’s still two months remaining in the season – plus the playoffs. Let’s not forget that top prospect Grayson Rodriguez, 23, has pitched decently in two starts since his return from the minors – and he could top his pro high of 103 ⅓ innings in his next outing.
The Orioles score the ball, so they don’t need an ace that can win games 2-1. Just a guy to gobble up innings and maybe start towards the back end of a playoff series.
Names to watch: Cardinals LH Jordan Montgomery, White Sox RH Lance Lynn
Kyle Schwarber still has more than two years remaining on his $79 million contract, but the Phillies should present him a gold watch, anyway – for meritorious service in left field.
Oh, it wasn’t good: Schwarber ranks 70th among 70 qualified left fielders in FanGraphs’ overall defensive rating. But the past two seasons, Schwarber has taken one for the team, trotting to left due to injuries elsewhere.
Now, with Bryce Harper easing into first base duties after elbow surgery, Schwarber will soon be free to settle in at DH – and the Phillies are free to lengthen their lineup and improve their defense.
For now, veteran Jake Cave is getting many of the at-bats there, but a little more pop from a power position will make the Phillies a very tough out – literally and proverbially – and hopefully make up for the ongoing struggles of shortstop Trea Turner (.300 OBP) and catcher JT Realmuto (.305 OBP).
Names to watch: Rockies OF Randal Grichuk, Mets OFs Tommy Pham, Mark Canha
Rays: Starting pitcher
For a moment, this was the year the Rays weren’t just a whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts squad. And then the pitchers started dropping.
Now, a club that started 13-0 and 27-6 has fallen from first place, and those glorious early days are as faint as the memories of Drew Rasmussen and Jeffrey Springs dominating before succumbing to elbow surgeries.
Time to re-tool.
Oh, the Rays could use help in a lot of places, but since they’re already, per usual, heavy on platoons and line-shifting within games (and, like everyone, could use another reliever), one bat won’t greatly remake the club’s dynamic. It’s probably more sensible to get back to their roots, and find another guy to take down effective innings.
Maybe even an old friend.
Can’t help but wonder if the Rays are big fans of Padres opponents this next week, thus shifting San Diego fully into sell mode. That would put Blake Snell, pending free agent and Rays legend, on the block. Snell’s comfort level was sky-high in Tampa Bay, and reuniting with old pitching coach Kyle Snyder would probably return the Rays greater value than any other club acquiring him.
Names to watch: Rays SP Blake Snell, Cubs SP Marcus Stroman
Astros: Starting pitcher
Like the Dodgers, the Astros were a perennial power with modest winter goals and didn’t blink twice in letting a top-shelf free agent – Justin Verlander – walk away. And like the Dodgers, the Astros must adjust on the fly, in the middle of the season.
Unlike the Dodgers, though, Houston’s dereliction of duty falls on owner Jim Crane, who worked without a general manager almost all winter and decided to hold steady on pitching. Now, new GM Dana Brown must clean it up.
It’s almost been a worst-case scenario for Houston, what with Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers Jr. out for the year, and Jose Urquidy down with a bum shoulder. But pitching depth was a known concern and now the Astros – who have clawed within two games of first-place Texas – need to get better on days JP France and Brandon Bielak currently pitch. Both have been passable (3.13 and 3.62 ERAs), but their fielding independent pitching (4.43, 5.41) tell a different story, one of unsustainability.
A sixth consecutive full-season division title may rest on Brown’s ability to upgrade.
Names to watch: Montgomery, Snell, White Sox SP Lucas Giolito.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB trade deadline: Biggest needs for baseball’s top contenders