Not long ago there was a clear line between the contenders and the pretenders. If you weren’t leading your division or among the five or six best teams in your league, chances are you were better off looking ahead to next year.
Now, things aren’t quite so simple.
Entering Saturday, 11 out of 15 American League teams were over .500 and 10 were either in playoff position or within four games of a spot. A similar dynamic is at play in the National League, with nine teams at or above .500 and eight within a game of a postseason berth.
That kind of situation would have been exceedingly unlikely if not mathematically impossible in years past, but thanks to the expanded postseason field, a fully balanced schedule and the historic ineptitude of the Oakland Athletics and Kansas City Royals, we now live in a world where nearly the entire league can realistically say it has a chance to make the playoffs.
And as we’ve seen so many times before, if you make it to October, you can win a championship.
So many clubs having an incentive to buy is inevitably going to affect the trade market. Fewer teams selling means fewer impact players on the block and hotter competition among the buyers vying for those scarce resources. That will drive up prices, which is great news for the sellers, but the high costs could still be worth it for the buyers if the player potentially puts them over the hump.
Plus, landing an impact piece at the trade deadline also means keeping him away from a rival, too.
The calculus for clubs like the Red Sox is particularly complex. Over the past month Boston has been arguably the hottest team in baseball and is set to get one of its best position players (Trevor Story) and several of its best pitchers (Chris Sale, Garrett Whitlock, Tanner Houck) back from the injured list. On the other hand, the club is still in the midst of a long-term rebuild and remains below the playoff cutline despite all of its recent progress.
A compelling argument could be made in favor of loading up for a playoff run or for looking ahead to 2024.
Speaking to reporters earlier this week, chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom indicated the Red Sox will try to do both. Last year they unsuccessfully tried to buy and sell at the trade deadline, but this year the club might be better positioned to execute a similar plan more effectively.
What might that look like?
The Red Sox could start by streamlining their current roster. They’ve already traded Kiké Hernández to clear up the club’s middle infield logjam, and they could follow a similar track in the outfield by trading Adam Duvall, a pending free agent who has been made expendable thanks to Jarren Duran’s breakout season.
Though less likely, they could also sell high on James Paxton, acquiring some valuable prospects or a big league piece, while simultaneously adding another (or multiple) starting pitchers. Maybe they trade away Paxton, acquire another starting pitcher with multiple years of team control to fill his spot and then add another affordable arm to help tide things over until Sale, Houck and Whitlock return — perhaps a reunion with Rich Hill, who’s having another solid season in Pittsburgh.
As far as bolstering the current roster, they could kill two birds with one stone by acquiring left-hander Jordan Montgomery and second baseman Paul DeJong from the St. Louis Cardinals. Montgomery would be a rental but DeJong has a two-year club option the Red Sox could potentially pick up, which would give the team stability in the middle infield while top prospect Marcelo Mayer works his way to the majors.
Or they could do something completely unexpected. You could probably spend all weekend imagining the possibilities.
Every club will have its own decisions to make, but no matter what happens on Tuesday, baseball’s trade season has fundamentally changed — mostly for the better. More teams in contention means more fanbases with real championship hope, which means more compelling playoff chases, more interest in the sport nationwide and heightened stakes across the board.
After all, just because you push your chips to the center of the table doesn’t mean your bet is going to pay off. And while folding and playing for the next hand might seem the safe move, missing a chance to win big is a risk all its own.
Angels all in with Ohtani
Speaking of clubs pushing in their chips, the Los Angeles Angels made their intentions clear this week. They will not be trading two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani, and they’re going to do everything possible to maximize whatever time he has left in Anaheim.
To drive that point home, the Angels went out and made the first big splash of trade season, acquiring starting pitcher Lucas Giolito and reliever Reynaldo Lopez, both pending free agents, from the Chicago White Sox in exchange for two of Los Angeles’ top three prospects.
They’re going all in, for better or worse.
Despite employing Ohtani and fellow MVP Mike Trout for the past five seasons, the Angels still haven’t made the playoffs since getting swept in the ALDS back in 2014. Things looked dire after Trout went down with a broken bone in his hand and high-priced former all-star Anthony Rendon got hurt again, and at one point the Angels fell to 45-47 after losing 10 of 11 games. They looked completely cooked.
But then a funny thing happened. They swept the New York Yankees, won nine of 12 and as of this writing were four games out of the playoffs.
Evidently Angels owner Arte Moreno saw enough.
Ohtani, of course, has been amazing. He’s now up to 39 home runs and has a realistic chance of challenging Aaron Judge’s new American League home run record (62). He also has a 3.43 ERA, has struck out 156 batters in 120.2 innings and could conceivably win the AL Cy Young Award alongside the AL MVP he’s already effectively locked up.
Trading a player like that might have seemed crazy, but Ohtani is due to hit free agency this offseason and has made it clear he wants to play for a winner going forward. The Angels have consistently failed to build a winner around him, so rather than risk losing him in free agency for only a compensatory draft pick, trading him for what would have surely been a massive package of top prospects to build around going forward could have potentially set the club up for long-term success.
Instead they’ve gone the other way, so these next few months will essentially be the organization’s last chance to prove to Ohtani that he can win in Orange County.
And if they fail, the consequences could be catastrophic.
After missing nearly two months with a torn ligament in his right big toe, Aaron Judge finally made his return to the New York Yankees lineup on Friday. The reigning AL MVP went 0 for 1 with three walks in his first game back, which the Yankees lost 1-0 to the Baltimore Orioles on a walk-off home run by Anthony Santander.
Since Judge suffered the injury crashing through the outfield wall trying to make a catch at Dodgers Stadium on June 3, the Yankees have been a sub-.500 team, going 19-23 over 42 games. Judge has acknowledged the injury hasn’t fully healed, but it’s reached a point where he can tolerate the pain enough to get back on the field.
Even a somewhat diminished Judge could potentially make a huge difference, as the Yankees lineup has struggled mightily without him. During the time he missed, the Yankees ranked near the bottom of the league in OPS (.670, 27th), runs per game (3.88, 27th) and batting average (.220, last).
With key series against the Orioles, Tampa Bay Rays and Houston Astros on the horizon, the Yankees have to hope Judge can help get them back on track.
Mets admit defeat
This past offseason the New York Mets were riding high, tossing around epic contracts to assemble the most expensive roster in MLB history.
Now, they stand at 49-54 and have effectively admitted their season is a failure.
The Mets traded away top reliever David Robertson to the Miami Marlins this week, and more moves could be coming as the Mets complete their shift from preseason championship favorites to trade deadline sellers. As of Saturday night the Mets were reportedly nearing a deal to send future Hall of Famer Max Scherzer to the Texas Rangers, and it’s conceivable fellow future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander could be moved by Tuesday as well.
Could the San Diego Padres follow suit?
Like the Mets, the Padres were among the big winners of the offseason but have badly underperformed despite boasting a star-studded roster. San Diego also came into Saturday in fourth place and 50-54, but the Padres haven’t indicated they will also sell.
If they did, closer Josh Hader and starter Blake Snell are both pending free agents and would be highly coveted on the trade market. They could also get a king’s ransom for Juan Soto, one of the game’s premier players who won’t be free agent until after next season.
As expected, the Chicago White Sox have emerged as aggressive sellers. In addition to Giolito, the White Sox traded starter Lance Lynn and reliever Joe Kelly to the Dodgers for outfielder Trayce Thompson and two prospects, as well as reliever Kendall Graveman to the Houston Astros for catcher Korey Lee.
The Dodgers addressed their void at shortstop by acquiring Amed Rosario from the Cleveland Guardians in exchange for starter Noah Syndergaard, and the Milwaukee Brewers added veteran slugger Carlos Santana in a deal with Pittsburgh.
Among the other big names not previously mentioned, expected to be moved at the deadline are Detroit starters Michael Lorenzen and Eduardo Rodriguez, Nationals third baseman Jeimer Candelario, Cardinals reliever Jordan Hicks and many others.
Big month for BC baseball
Lexington’s Sal Frelick enjoyed a historic MLB debut last Saturday, going 3 for 3 with two RBI, a run scored, the go-ahead sacrifice fly and two outstanding catches in the outfield in the Milwaukee Brewers’ 4-3 win over the Atlanta Braves, and he’s shown no signs of slowing down.
Through his first week in the major leagues the former Boston College star is batting .417 with a home run, three RBI and a 1.222 OPS. His hot start has been one of several notable highlights for the BC baseball program, which also had two players drafted in this month’s MLB Draft.
Outfielder Travis Honeyman was a third-round pick by the St. Louis Cardinals and first baseman Joe Vetrano was a fifth-rounder to the Dodgers. Reading’s Peter Burns, a five-year BC catcher and a former Austin Prep star, also signed with the Los Angeles Angels as an undrafted free agent.