NL East division update: July edition

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With the trade deadline fast approaching, this update will explore how the teams of the NL East will likely navigate the coming weeks.

Miami Marlins (35-61):

Six weeks ago, Miami was sitting on a 17-44 record, but the Marlins have managed to play above .500 since that update. Management is reportedly hopeful that the core pieces of the roster can contribute to a future contender. So while we don’t need to spend time speculating whether the Marlins will buy or sell, we can expect that much of their young talent will be unavailable. That means you can probably ignore Giancarlo Stanton rumors.

The Marlins’ farm system is not among the deepest and their window to compete may take a couple seasons to open again. This means that there isn’t a short list of needs that a trade must satisfy, so nearly all clubs should be capable of reaching an agreement for the few veterans that are available.

Teams are showing the most interest in Marlins relievers. Steve Cishek, Ryan Webb and Mike Dunn are all solid relievers with plenty of club control remaining. There has been talk that the Marlins aim to keep these pitchers, although the year-to-year volatility with relievers should have the club focused on selling.

One player who may be in demand is veteran starter Kevin Slowey. He has recovered from a rough 2012 by doing the same things he’s always done—strike out a few batters (7.2 K/9), walk barely any (1.8 BB/9), and get a high rate of fly-outs. He’s controlled through the 2014 season, so a club that is short on rotation depth might part with a decent prospect. The Washington Nationals may be the best fit, although that is speculation. Some non-contenders like the Royals may also express interest.

Justin Ruggiano will interest teams in need of a fourth outfielder and probably represents the Marlins most valuable player on the trade block. He’s controlled through 2017, but he’s also in his age 31 season, so that club control is less valuable than usual. He still projects to provide roughly league average production at the plate, in the field, and on the base paths. Any number of teams could use that.

Other names to watch include Juan Pierre, Greg Dobbs, Placido Polanco and Chad Qualls. Cash considerations may be the best return for any of those players.

New York Mets (43-51):

The Wilpons and fellow Mets brass are probably kicking themselves for their frugal ways over the offseason. An utter lack of anything approaching depth has wasted strong seasons from David Wright and Matt Harvey. The club has multiple gaping holes that could have been turned into roughly three wins. Hypothetically, if they had filled just two of those holes, the club could be looking at a second place 49-45 record. At the same time, it’s hard to fault Sandy Alderson’s regime for taking a conservative approach to the rebuilding effort.

The worst of those holes are in the outfield, where Marlon Byrd and recent acquisition Eric Young Jr. have anchored an otherwise uninspiring group. Lucas Duda also contributed his usual strong offense against right-handed pitchers, but he’s been on the disabled list for the past month and rehab is moving slowly.

Byrd is actually the surprise bright spot on the roster and will likely be dealt to a contender in need of somebody who can man center field in a pinch. He’s been close to 30 percent above average at the plate (127 wRC+) and is showing power substantially above past performances. His .235 ISO is a full 200 points higher than his non-existent .035 ISO of 2012. Opposing clubs know that Byrd’s strong performance is at least partially smoke and mirrors, which will limit the Mets’ return for the 35-year-old.

One asset who could fetch a rather substantial return is closer Bobby Parnell. While Alderson and company have publicly called Parnell a building block, the 28-year-old has a blend of potent stuff and club control that makes him attractive to contenders. As Dave Cameron recently pointed out, relief aces tend to crash back to earth rather suddenly. Those who survive into their 30s are the exception rather than the rule. For the Hold ‘Em fans in the audience, retaining Parnell is like knowingly playing ace/king against pocket aces. You can win, but the odds are heaped against you.

The Mets have a variety of other assets who could draw interest. Jon Niese is probably the priciest of those who may be discussed. LaTroy Hawkins, David Aardsma and Carlos Torres could also find themselves headed out of town.

Washington Nationals (48-50):

The Nationals have a seemingly well-designed, talented roster, but they have struggled to climb above .500 all season long. They have already shown themselves to be buyers this season by snagging platoon outfielder Scott Hairston on July 8. Rotation depth remains the only major issue, although the club probably wouldn’t mind adding a reliever or a left-handed bench bat to replace Chad Tracy.

The weakest links in the rotation are Ross Detwiler and Dan Haren. Detwiler has been solid this season but is recovering from a lower back strain. Haren has an excellent K/BB ratio, but that hasn’t translated into success as his 5.61 ERA can attest. As such, the club could benefit from bringing in another starting pitcher to insure against a major injury or continued struggles from Haren. Expect the Nationals to be active in the market for pitchers who can be controlled beyond the 2013 season.

The Nationals’ most interesting story of the past six weeks has been the emergence of prospect Anthony Rendon. Danny Espinosa‘s season-long slump and eventual demotion created an opportunity at second base for Rendon. He has responded with offense close to 20 percent above league average (117 wRC+) and solid defense despite being a natural third baseman prior to this season.

Despite Rendon’s contributions and a group of well-regarded hitters, only the Marlins and White Sox have scored fewer runs than the Nationals. And the White Sox trailed by only one run heading into Sunday.

Injuries and poor performance from backups have contributed greatly to the meager offense. Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and Wilson Ramos have all spent considerable time on the disabled list, but they are healthy now. Meanwhile, Roger Bernadina, Steve Lombardozzi, Tracy, Tyler Moore and Espinosa have combined for more than 700 terrible plate appearances. Lombardozzi is the only one of those five to bat above .200 and none have made up for their poor batting average by reaching base or hitting for power.

The good news is that Bernadina and Lombardozzi have the track records and peripherals of much better players. Neither can be expected to be a world beater or even average offensively, but production in the area of 10 percent below average would be more in line with expectations. Moore and Espinosa have already been optioned to Triple-A and Tracy is purely a left-handed pinch hitter. It may not even be necessary to acquire additional bench help.

The Nationals’ formula for success in the second half lies in keeping their best players healthy and on the field. The bench has been a bitter disappointment and the most glaring reason for the club’s sub-.500 record. However, there is too much young talent on the roster for the club to be anything less than a buyer. Bringing in an additional starting pitcher should prove to be a boon for the stretch run.

Philadelphia Phillies (49-50):

The Phillies find themselves in treacherous waters. A strong July has seen the club fight its way back to one game under .500 and second place in the NL East. They sit 6.5 games behind the Braves and second Wild Card Cincinnati. Their farm system has only a few fruit approaching ripeness while their roster has continued to depend on aging, injury-prone veterans. An understanding of their marketplace along with a pending TV deal have the Phillies hoping to retool without blowing up the roster and starting from scratch.

With a little over a week before the trade deadline, it’s tough to see the Phillies selling, despite season-long expectations that they would. Buying presents challenges, too, since so few teams are out of the playoff race. The Phillies’ best prospects—namely Jesse Biddle and Maikel Franco—are likely safe for the deadline unless a young, club-controlled player is targeted.

The Phillies’ positions of greatest need are center field and relief. Center field will be tough to address since the market is especially thin with Ruggiano and Alejandro De Aza representing two of the best options. While many back-ups may be available—think somebody like Alex Presley or the recently injured Zoilo Almonte—these players do not represent an upgrade to John Mayberry Jr.

Relief pitching may be an easier need to fill and the talent level required for an upgrade is substantially lower given that most players like Luis Garcia, Joe Savery, and J.C. Ramirez never reach the majors. With Mike Adams out for at least the season, a true set-up man will likely be the club’s top priority in the trade market. They would prefer a player who is controllable beyond 2013. Who they may target is anyone’s guess, but we can say with some confidence that Jonathan Papelbon will remain in Philadelphia past the July trade deadline.

One player who may be dealt regardless of whether the club buys or sells is Michael Young. According to MLB Trade Rumors, there is demand for veteran third basemen and Young in particular. The most notable clubs on the lookout for third base help are the Yankees and Red Sox. The Phillies have internal options who can replicate Young’s overall production, namely Kevin Frandsen, Freddy Galvis and prospect Cody Asche.

Two things get in the way of a Young trade. The Phillies do not need to dump salary, so they will be interested only in acquiring a meaningful player. A reliever or fourth outfielder seem like reasonable additions, but few teams that wish to acquire a veteran rental have excess capacity at those positions. Additionally, Young is lauded for his value in the clubhouse. If the Phillies believe he is helping the team win games simply by being present, he will likely remain.

Atlanta Braves (55-43):

The Braves have been on cruise control all season long. You may recall that Atlanta’s season began with a 12-1 streak and a little math quickly shows that the club has played only one game better than .500 since that hot start. Enviable depth in the rotation has remained the top story in Atlanta. In our last update, Brandon Beachy was “one start away” from re-joining the rotation. Instead, setbacks have delayed his return, although he appears to be nearly ready once again.

Meanwhile, left-handed prospect Alex Wood dominated big league competition while temporarily serving a three-part role as a lefty specialist, long reliever and spot starter. His performance has prompted the club to send him back to Triple-A to stretch out as a starter. He is expected to take Kris Medlen‘s spot in the rotation. In that scenario, Medlen would return to the bullpen and Beachy could either return to the pen as well or be optioned.

Despite the drama related to their overstaffed rotation, the Braves’ only issue on the pitching side of the ledger is a lack of left-handed relievers. Luis Avilan is the lone option out of the pen. His 1.38 ERA is superb, but his peripherals suggest weaker performance ahead. This will be the top area targeted in trade. The best options potentially include Glen Perkins, Charlie Furbush, Oliver Perez, or Javier Lopez, but don’t be surprised to see the Braves seek out a lesser veteran option like Mike Gonzalez or Darren Oliver.

With such strong pitching, you may be wondering why the Braves have failed to pull away with the division. Injuries to all three primary outfielders have contributed to muted offense. Jason Heyward looked like he was turning his season around until he injured his hamstring on July 11. Meanwhile, B.J. Upton has been on the disabled list since July 13 with a strained adductor. He was still making automatic outs—either a strikeout or infield fly—in close to 50 percent of his plate appearances. Until that issue is resolved, he will not contribute positively to any big league roster.

The club also lacks a top-of-the-order threat and instead relies heavily on home runs. A true leadoff presence would be a huge addition, but the marketplace lacks anybody who fits that description cleanly. Further, only B.J. Upton has provided substantial negative value and his fresh, five-year contract may prevent the team from taking measures to replace him in 2013.

While the NL East leaders would like to upgrade for the stretch run, it appears that a modest addition to the bullpen is the primary concern. A true top-of-the-order presence would be welcome if the right player became available.

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Comments

  1. Marc Schneider said...

    The mediocrity of this division is remarkable.  As a Braves fan, I am terribly frustrated at their inability to put away the division.  If they had played even a little better than they have, they would have the division largely wrapped up.  Instead, they continue to struggle mightily on the road and lose to poor teams.  The Braves have a strong run differential, largely based on their early season success but they have been mediocre for most of the season, primarily due to their problems on the road.  And, while the pitching has been solid, there is no one dominant pitcher on the staff, which suggests problems in the playoffs (again). I don’t understand the statement that Alex Wood would replace Medlin in the rotation; IMO, he should replace Paul Maholm, who has been brutal in recent weeks.

  2. Brad Johnson said...

    Maholm is also on a short leash and might end up getting bumped to the DL. That still leaves either Beachy, Medlen, or Wood moving to the pen/minors.

  3. D Leaberry said...

    After being swept by the Dodgers in Washington this weekend, the Nats are being written off my most of the fan base and the sports journalists.  The season has been too ugly for too long.  Not only has the team’s hitting been less than stellar, so has the defense.  E-5, Ryan Zimmerman, had Hall-of-Fame written all over him in 2006.  Today, at best, he’s Tim Wallach.  Reliever Drew Storen hasn’t gotten over blowing the fifth game to St. Louis in the playoffs last year and should be moved to another team. 

    The Nats could conceivably be a seller before the trade deadline but the many high contracts make several players like Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche and Ryan Zimmerman untradeable.  Storen is the likeliest to be traded.  Many Nats like seemingly washed up Kurt Suzuki or regressing Danny Espinosa, Stephen Lombardozzi and Roger Bernadina wouldn’t bring much in a trade.

  4. Brad Johnson said...

    I’d consider any kind of sale to be quite unlikely. They may trade away pen arms simply because more can be hired at any time, but I doubt any other players would be moved.

    For a lineup that has only outscored one team, there is a silly amount of offensive talent present. A lineup with Werth, Harper, Zimmerman, Rendon, Desmond, and LaRoche at its core should be among the best in the league. Denard Span and Wilson Ramos aren’t stiffs either.

    5 of the 8 “regulars” have been 20% above average or better at the plate. 7 of the 8 have been above average. Span has been 13% below average at the plate, but still rates out as an “average” 2.0 WAR player.

    I expect the offense to be in the top 6-10 RoS. Whether that’s too little, too late remains to be seen.

    The team could potentially benefit from re-ordering the lineup. Span still frequently leads off despite being their worst hitter. Lineups are questioned all to frequently, but I think the Nats need to consider using their best OBP guys in the top 3 slots – namely Harper, Werth, and Zimmerman. – not necessarily in that order.

  5. William said...

    Considering the predictions I made at the AllStar break in terms of which pitchers may have injury problems, I’d expect the Nationals to still have a shot.  And that didn’t even include freak injuries such as Hudson’s last night…
    William – Pitchingteacher.com

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