With the draft officially behind us, MLB’s calendar has officially flipped to Trade Season. With six weeks before the non-waiver trade deadline, teams now have to get serious about deciding which direction they’re going to go; trade talks can often take a while, and teams generally want to get looks at guys they may get in return, which necessitates knowing whether to send additional scouts to cover the majors or the minors.
Of course, no one has to cement their decision on June 19th, and the results of the next month or so will move some teams from one side of the ledger to the other. But as trade talks begin to begin in earnest, let’s take a look at where all 30 teams stand now, and what we should expect them to do before July 31st.
It’s almost impossible to see any of these nine teams moving into seller mode over the next month; every team here has at least a 3-in-4 chance of reaching the postseason, according to our playoff odds, and besides last year’s two World Series teams, they’re all off to such strong starts that even a summer fade will still leave them in a position where they remain in a spot to add for the stretch run. The Cubs and Indians haven’t played like World Series teams yet, but just as our forecasts take into account more than just first-half record, so too will these teams factor in their recent postseason success when evaluating the quality of their 2017 roster.
And here is the muddle. 12 teams are within shouting distance of .500, and based on our rest-of-season forecasts, all of them are expected to finish between 77 and 83 wins. You’ve got three teams that had pre-season rosters that looked playoff-caliber but have struggled thus far (TOR, STL, NYM), but still might have enough hope left for a strong finish to add instead of subtract. You’ve got two expected also-rans (MIL, MIN) who have played well enough to force their teams to begin thinking about whether it’s worth changing course for this season. And then you’ve got the seven mediocre teams who entered the year with hopes that things would break their way, but so far, are right around where the projections forecasted them.
Individually, you could make a pretty good case for all of these teams selling. The upside for most of them is an invite to the single-elimination Wild Card game, where they would be facing a superior opponent and most likely would be the road team as well. Wild Card teams can win the World Series, of course, but how much of your farm system do you want to give up to chase a chance at playing one game with your season on the line?
But in reality, there’s at least one playoff team here. Our definite buyers tier only comprised of nine teams in a sport with 10 playoff spots, so even if none of the teams currently in strong playoff position have a second-half swoon, there’s a spot open for one team in this group. And usually, a team in strong playoff position in mid-June falls apart by season’s end, so in reality, we may see two or even three teams from this group end up in the playoffs.
And a lot of these teams already have their chips in on the short-term. The Mariners and Tigers are old, and each have several high-priced contracts that couldn’t easily be moved. The Rangers only have Yu Darvish signed through this season, and the Blue Jays only have Josh Donaldson through next season, so neither really wants to try to rebuild right now.
The Royals have, perhaps unfortunately for their franchise’s best interests, played themselves back into a dilemma; a fruitless run at a playoff spot that kept them from trading any of their impending free agents could make the coming rebuild even more challenging, but with recent playoff success with this group still in everyone’s memory, it’s not that hard to justify a “one last run” mentality.
So, this is the group where the interesting decisions lie. Most likely, the next month will help sort a few teams out of this group into either the definite buyers or sellers tier, and then a few of these teams will end up just sitting out the trade season, neither buying nor selling, and just see what happens with what they have. But this is also where the potential logjam lies, because these teams have players who would be in high demand if made available for trade.
Besides the short-term guys like Darvish or J.D. Martinez, this is where teams can dream of acquiring a guy like Chris Archer. Until there’s more clarity on what these bubble teams might do, you might see buyers holding off, not wanting to commit too early to paying a premium for Jose Quintana if they think an Archer or a James Paxton might hit the market a few weeks later.
With 12 teams in this big middle-ground area, it seems like we may not see a lot of short-term trade action. There are just too many teams who don’t know yet what they’re going to do.
I’m not using definite here, like with the buyers, because it’s just too easy to go on a bit of a run and talk yourself into holding your chips. And sometimes, the offers aren’t to the seller’s liking, so they just decide to wait until the winter, like the White Sox did with Chris Sale last year. But given where things stand now, I think these nine teams will be open for business over the next six weeks.
Just looking at the playoff odds, you could argue that the A’s, Marlins, and Pirates belong one-tier up, as each of them also project for 77-78 win range that would put them right in line with the Twins, Angels, and Royals at the bottom of the bubble team tier. But in each case, that projected win total is based on a second-half improvement, much of which would have to take place after the trade deadline. It’s a lot easier to buy or hold with a .500 record, thinking the projections are wrong, then it is to do so with a .450 winning percentage based on a belief that the projections are right and the team should start playing better any day now.
Five of the other six teams in this group are the ones that everyone basically knew weren’t going to win this year. The White Sox, Reds, Padres, Phillies, and Braves were pretty clear rebuilders heading into the season, and their first-half performance has just confirmed that they need to continue to look towards the future, turning present value into future value where they can.
And then there’s the Giants. No expected contender has face-planted as hard as San Francisco this year, as they now have a better shot at the #1 overall pick than they do of getting back to the playoffs. Even with a projected .511 win% over the rest of the season — which feels quite generous given what they’ve done to date — we still have them finishing with just 73 wins, just a game ahead of the Braves. And that’s without accounting for a potential trade of Johnny Cueto, a decision to not hurry Madison Bumgarner back in a lost season, or any other future-oriented decisions they might make.
The Giants season is already over. There’s no digging out of this hole, so they’ll join the rebuilders and the struggling fringe-contenders in listening to offers for their win-now guys. It should help them that we’re only looking at nine teams as likely sellers right now, especially since teams like the Padres and Phillies don’t have a lot left to trade away, but they might want to be aggressive in trying to make moves sooner than later, because when some of those bubble teams start looking to sell, the supply of available talent could go up quickly.
In the end, it looks like the league will break down roughly in thirds, with at least one team likely moving out of the bubble into the group of buyers, so we’ll have something like 10 teams in each group as we head towards the deadline. This could make for a pretty fascinating trade season, with perhaps more action than we’ve seen in recent years.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.