How Losing Teams Will Use the Last Two Months of the Season

The trade deadline has come and gone, and teams are approaching the two-thirds mark of the season. With the elimination of August waiver season, clubs have little room to adjust from here. Other than the smallest of moves involving minor leaguers or unaffiliated players, rosters are what they are, and evaluators have already moved on to preparing for the offseason free agent class. In some ways, it’s a frustrating time for playoff contenders, as one can feel a bit helpless; all you can do from here on out is watch what happens. For teams clearly out of the playoff race, August and September have a different dynamic, with clubs using their last 60 games to learn about their young players. There is no greater jump in baseball than from Triple-A to the big leagues. The players are exponentially better, and there are prospects who thrive (or shrink) in ballparks with third decks, bright lights, and an army of TV cameras. In terms of the 2021 season, the teams listed below are playing out the string. But they’re also using this time to figure out which of the players on their roster can be part of their next team to play late-season games that matter.

Arizona Diamondbacks

The Diamondbacks had a relatively quiet deadline, but this also wasn’t a team expected to be this bad or loaded with good players on expiring deals. It will be interesting to see if Cooper Hummel, acquired from Milwaukee in the Eduardo Escobar deal, gets some major league at-bats this year. He’s had an outstanding Triple-A campaign, with more walks than strikeouts and a decent amount of power, but he also turns 27 in November, so it’s time to get going. It’s interesting to note that Arizona tried him at third base (it was just his second game at the position as a pro) during his first week in Reno, as most scouts put him firmly in the 1B/LF category. It looks like the D-backs will initially give at-bats to another older minor league slugger in the form of Drew Ellis, with the hope that one of the pair can represent an improvement over Christian Walker, which wouldn’t be asking much. The club also needs more assurances from Pavin Smith and Daulton Varsho, who so far have both looked more like nice bench pieces than everyday players on a contending team. A remarkable 36 players have taken the mound for the Diamondbacks, but the majority of their better pitching prospects are at the lower levels, so all they can really do from here is keep rolling out a variety of Quad-A-type bullpen arms to see if any of them have potential beyond that.

Baltimore Orioles

Like Arizona, the Orioles weren’t well-positioned for a busy deadline, as most of the players teams would have targeted on Baltimore’s roster are controlled past the 2021 season, and this is a team that’s beginning to feel some pressure to show results at the big league level. Now on pace for their fifth straight basement finish in the American League East (not counting last year’s fourth-place showing in a greatly-shortened season), the Orioles decided to hang on to what they have, and while there was considerable interest in Trey Mancini, his value shouldn’t diminish much between now and the offseason. In terms of bad teams playing out the string, few are doing it to the degree Baltimore is, as the overwhelming majority of their prospects are not ready for major league looks other than catcher Adley Rutschmann, who will be unlikely to get one due to the anti-player rules surrounding service time. There seems to be a pretty clear path for Baltimore to be better. Not good mind you, but better, and that’s the one they’re going to take for now.

Chicago Cubs

The Cubs did what they felt they had to do last week by trading away multiple faces of the franchise, along with several bullpen arms on expiring deals. Much like the Yu Darvish deal that preceded the season, the Cubs focused on younger talent in their deadline deasls, so there will be no Wrigley Field auditions for any newly acquired players this summer other than reliever Codi Heuer. On paper, the Cubs looked like they did a good job with their stated strategy, but it will be years before we know if they actually got it right. They do have some interesting questions to answer heading into the offseason. Is Patrick Wisdom an everyday player, as he appeared to be early in the season, or just a whiff-prone power source off the bench, as he’s looked of late? How the hell is 30-year-old journeyman outfielder Rafael Ortega putting up a .900 OPS, and is any of it sustainable at any level? Based on their acquisitions, the Cubs are playing the long game and the short one isn’t going to be much fun to watch.

Colorado Rockies

The Rockies occupy the worst of both worlds, as the team is bad and boring. Their lineup is loaded with Quad-A and bench types, and not ones with any kind of upside, so a surprise from anyone over the next two months is highly unlikely. And there are no notable call-ups to make in order to interest fans, either. The Rockies have one of the worst minor league systems in baseball, and of their top 15 prospects, only one entered the year with any experience at Double-A. That player, Colton Welker, was suspended early in May for a controversial positive test of DHCMT, a performance enhancer. There’s really no reason to pay attention to this team for the rest of the year, other than to see how Trevor Story finishes his Rockies tenure or to watch another fine start from Germán Márquez.

Detroit Tigers

The Tigers have taken a huge step forward — from bad to respectful –this year and they’re a lot of fun to watch. There’s a positive vibe to this team, and while they are still several steps away from contention, they can at least start planning for it. And they’ve already learned so much this year about their young players. Akil Baddoo has gone from an unexpected Rule 5 pick to an everyday outfielder, but the Tigers still need the next two months to figure out just how good he is, as his underlying metrics suggest he’s more than a little bit over his skis at the moment. A refined approach and simplified swing has turned Jeimer Candelario into a solid contributor by focusing on getting on-base and hitting doubles. Jake Rogers has hit more than enough to build on his defensive prowess, and while Eric Haase has no such prowess, or even a real defensive home, his long-standing minor league power has finally showed up in the big leagues. There is a core of a deep, or at-least deep-ish, lineup down the road once Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene arrive, to go with the rapidly developing young arms. The two biggest questions for Detroit heading into the offseason are how much of a push they make in free agency this winter (if we have a free agency) and when they make the difficult decision to part ways with Miguel Cabrera, who is still owed $64 million over the next two years.

Kansas City Royals

The Royals have already used this season to try to learn about their young starting pitchers, primarily the quartet comprised of their first four selections in the 2018 draft. Two-thirds of the way into the season, however, the club unfortunately still has more questions than answers. Kris Bubic, Daniel Lynch, and Brady Singer have all had their moments, but as a group have yet to show they are rotation stalwarts going forward. The bigger problem lies in the stagnant offense, mostly manned by middling veterans as opposed to young players trying to prove themselves, although Nicky Lopez has been a mildly pleasant surprise. The Royals will likely ride out the season with the lineup that they have, but 2022 should prove to be much more interesting, with Bobby Witt Jr. looking every bit like a future superstar who should spend most of next season as a leading Rookie of the Year candidate, while a resurgent Nick Pratto will also be deserving of a look at first base. The most interesting question is the future of MJ Melendez, who is one of the better offensive catching prospects in baseball in an organization that has Salvador Perez signed through 2025. This season has been, and will remain, a time to test young pitching, while 2022 will be a time to look at the young bats. After that, the team hopes, 2023 should be where everything starts to come together.

Miami Marlins

The Marlins focused on more advanced talent during the trade deadline, so their next two months will likely be used to check out what they’ve got in an attempt to clarify their offseason plans, with any number of rookies and so-far unproven young players spending the next 60 games jostling for a 2022 roster spot. The three-year Jorge Alfaro stint at catcher is likely coming to an end, and it’s time to see if Alex Jackson can overcome the whiffs and provide anything close to the power production that he has in the minors. Another backstop acquired from Milwaukee, Payton Henry, is more likely to get a closer look next spring. With their entire starting outfield dealt away, this likely represents the final time for Lewis Brinson, Jesus Sanchez, and Magneuris Sierra to get consistent at-bats without needing to earn them, while recently acquired Bryan De La Cruz will also try to establish himself as more than a future fourth outfielder. The Marlins have an interesting group of young, controlled arms, but where the runs are going to come from is still very much to be determined. It should at least be an entertaining watch, with occasional nights where the Marlins can just out-athlete an opponent.

Minnesota Twins

It’s been an incredibly frustrating season in Minneapolis, and it will remain so in August and September, albeit for different reasons. This would be the perfect time to learn about their top two prospects, Alex Kirilloff and Royce Lewis, but both have succumbed to season ending surgeries. Still, there is time to gather information on some young players, as catcher Ryan Jeffers has shown power but little else behind the plate, while Trevor Larnach needs a dramatic turnaround to be seen as an everyday player in an outfield corner spot next year. The most interesting young arm is clearly Bailey Ober, who entered the year as a fringy prospect and is now a sure-fire member of the 2022 rotation after seeing the quality of his arsenal jump significantly this season. The Twins are satisfied with what they have in Ober, and are expected to manage his innings down the stretch.

Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates are bad, and expect to be bad next year, so we won’t see a lot of late-season additions. Their rebuild has been more of a slow burn since Ben Cherington took the reigns, and the club hopes that what looks initially like an outstanding 2021 draft class will help kick things into a higher gear. There is one player to suddenly watch in 22-year-old second baseman Rodolfo Castro, who will get at-bats at the position following the Adam Frazier deal. Entering the year as the No. 34 prospect in the system, Eric Longenhagen detailed his plus power and questionable hit tool. With five home runs in his first 41 plate appearances but a .293 on-base percentage, the Pirates hope that with some more patience and contact Castro can enter next season as an incumbent. The club should also get 8-10 more starts out of Mitch Keller, though with 29 in the books, they should already know if the former highly-regarded pitching prospect can translate his stuff into consistent big league success. Instead, he’s still an enigma wrapped around a mystery.

Texas Rangers

The Rangers are doing things the right way, or at least as right as you can for a club on pace to lose over 100 games. They have a number of players who are proven performers at the upper levels of the minors, and now it’s time to see if they can be part of a future Rangers team that wins more games than it loses. They jettisoned David Dahl this week in order to claim DJ Peters from the Dodgers, a gargantuan human with gargantuan power who has suddenly cut his strikeout rate this season. Speaking of large men with lots of juice, Curtis Terry will get an extended look in a 1B/DH role, while Peters will be joined in the outfield by Jason Martin, who struggled during an early big league stint but had a 1.000+ OPS at Triple-A. Leody Taveras might also see a return in September, as while he’s still been unable to make consistent contact since being sent down to the minors, he is showing unprecedented in-game power. The team has a myriad of young, unrefined, hard-throwing relievers who will get a chance to push themselves up the depth chart heading into next spring but the young starters will not arrive until 2022, with exceptionally impressive Cole Winn leading the way, and the club hoping that 2021 first-round pick Jack Leiter won’t be far behind.

Washington Nationals

This certainly isn’t where the Nationals expected they’d be, as even two weeks ago, the chances of the team dealing Max Scherzer were slim, and the mere thought of Trea Turner getting moved felt like a pipe dream. But those things happened, and that deal, along with others, created obvious holes, though ones that present obvious opportunities. We ranked Josiah Gray as the top prospect dealt at the deadline, and by taking Scherzer’s place in the rotation, he’s not auditioning for a 2022 starting role as much as he’s simply preparing for it. It was curious to see Keibert Ruiz, ranked just behind Gray, sent to Triple-A, as Yan Gomes going to Oakland created the roster spot for him, but it looks like the club wants to give this opportunity to Riley Adams for now. Turner’s spot will be filled by Luis Garcia, who has struggled in the big leagues but finally has a chance to know he’ll be in the lineup on most days. That stability can mean the world to young players, and Garcia had a breakthrough showing at Triple-A. While he’s still just 23, this might be Carter Kieboom’s last chance to nail down a job in Washington, as the former top 25 prospect has looked exceptionally sluggish this year both in the majors and at Triple-A.

Kevin Goldstein is a National Writer at FanGraphs.

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2 years ago

Honestly think the pirates could be respectable in 2022 if they really wanted to be. They have the unspent money and the prospect depth to add a good pitcher or two if they wanted. Every year they put a no-chance team around a cheap Hayes and Reynolds is a total waste of everybody involved’s time. I wanted to say “malpractice” but i figured that’d be over the top lol

OF: Swaggerty-Reynolds-Gamel should be a fine group to start the season. I like Cal Mitchell to take Gamel’s spot in June.
IF: Hayes-Park-Castro/Marcano-Moran/Nogowski-Stallings could be at least relatively interesting. I like Oneil Cruz to take Park’s spot in June.

the rotation needs help, but they have the money and prospect depth to add two good vets if they want via trade and/or FA.

Brubaker, Roansy C, and Yajure should make for a fine 3-4-5. They need to recreate the Burnett-Liriano magic from 8 yrs ago to add their 1 and 2, (yes, i fully know that the equivalent today will cost more money and prospects. but like they said, they have plenty of both of those things).

They could probably add two 20 million dollar starters and probably still have a payroll under 80 lol

I’m not asking for the world. But something to try to “arrive a year early” would be smart.

2 years ago
Reply to  JayGray007

They’ll have a pretty good shot of being better than the Cubs. But I don’t think the rest is likely. First off, it involves them going out and buying or trading lots of prospects for starting pitching when absolutely nothing in either Cherington’s or the Pirates’ history suggests that is in the cards. If Syndergaard doesn’t get a QO maybe he’d get a pillow deal and they’d flip him at the deadline, but they have enough starting pitchers already that they probably should see what they have instead. And teams are not all that interested in dealing 3-4 win starters unless they get back players like Contreras or Oneil Cruz. Second, it involves Oneil Cruz playing shortstop. If you were to say he’d be up to take right field in June I’d buy that a lot easier than shortstop. I suppose they could do it anyway, but it’s not something you want.

2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Okay, the Mitchell/Cruz notes were pretty unnecessary anyway. slot Cruz where you’d like!

My whole point here was that they could add pitching to be interesting *if they want to*. They could probably hand Scherzer and Gray $60 million and still have a payroll under a still-paltry $100 mil. They obviously wont do that (and scherzer obvoiusly wouldnt sign there) but i’m just making the point that they have the resources to add two really good SP.

We all know that they *wont* do this. I’m just holding their ownership and front office accountable by saying what they *could* do.

i understand that it’s not in the Pirates’ or Cherington’s histories. I’m still able to say what they could or should do.

They could be interesting and maybe even good if they chose to be. They wont choose to be.

2 years ago
Reply to  JayGray007

In other words, they could spend a hundred million $$$ or so to become the Rockies? Golly, Jay, how is it that no MLB team has hired you yet?!?

2 years ago
Reply to  Richie


Dick Monfort
2 years ago
Reply to  JayGray007

Joel Gray is off limits. We’re working on a long-term contract with him.

2 years ago
Reply to  JayGray007

I still wouldn’t do it. The pitching this offseason is not that strong and unless you want to take someone who is overpaid from another team like Bumgarner it doesn’t seem likely he could . Plus, 75% of the time free agents are on a downhill slope within a year or two (if for no other reason than their age and increasing numbers of injuries). If they want to see if they can get Berrios or Eflin, or bring back Taillon or Musgrove next offseason that’s a very different story; they’ll be closer to competing then anyway.