The Orioles and Red Sox have provided some of the season’s juiciest narrative thus far. Everyone (well, almost everyone) loves a good bit of drama, even when it’s remarkably dumb drama. And even though our postseason odds favor Boston by a considerable margin in the AL East, Baltimore has made a habit in recent years of outperforming their projections. The two teams are going to be going for the jugular against each other for the rest of the season, and it’s going to make for some great baseball.
They may find themselves directly competing off the field, as well. Both teams have dire needs on the left side of the infield. The Red Sox haven’t had a strong third-base presence in some time, and the Orioles are hurting badly at shortstop with J.J. Hardy firmly in his decline phase and contributing just a 38 wRC+ thus far. Boston’s third-base woes are particularly bad this year, given that the cast of characters who have taken the position this year have combined for -0.5 WAR. These two problems don’t initially seem to be all that related. The teams will theoretically be scouring two different trade markets, no?
Maybe, maybe not. The simplest solution for Baltimore would be to just go get a shortstop like Zack Cozart, who’s hitting well and playing for a Reds team that probably isn’t as talented as they’ve looked thus far. However, Cozart is currently the only truly attractive shortstop option on a still-evolving trade market and there are other teams who will likely prefer Cozart over someone like Freddy Galvis. The Orioles also don’t have very much prospect capital with which to work, and could easily be outbid. Therefore a more elegant solution presents itself: moving Manny Machado to short and pursuing someone to play third. Machado is one of the best all-around defenders in the game, and is a natural shortstop. He could do it in a heartbeat.
That’s how you wind up with the Orioles and Red Sox going head to head over the third-base scrapheap, which is indeed an apt adjective for what this market may look like at the position. Much of the third-base talent in the league is condensed among contenders, with a few notable exceptions. The Twins are not in the business of trading Miguel Sano. The Reds may want to hang onto Eugenio Suarez until Nick Senzel is ready (at which time they could simply move Suarez elsewhere). The Rays almost certainly won’t move Evan Longoria within the division, if they do move him at all.
The Pirates, however, are interesting. A variety of factors, including the suspension of Starling Marte, have effectively sunk their season. They’re going to be sellers to some extent, but just how far they’re willing to go is the key. They could still have a solid core next year with Marte, Gregory Polanco, Gerrit Cole and others, as well as a small army of young starters. They also have David Freese under contract for next year for an affordable $4.2 million, with a team option for the year after that. He’s a cheap and reliable piece, which means that it could make sense to keep him. It could also make sense to deal him off for parts.
Freese fits the needs of both teams quite well. He’s sporting a robust 126 wRC+ this year and is projected to carry a league-average batting line for the rest of the season. He also won’t kill you with his glove — which would be a welcome change of pace for the Red Sox — and can play some first base. That’s another point in his favor for Boston, since top-prospect Rafael Devers (a third baseman) is currently setting the minors on fire. He’s only 20 years old and has played just 29 games above A-ball, but stranger things have happened. If Devers mashes his way into the big leagues, Freese can move over to first and split time with Mitch Moreland, or whoever is playing there next year.
That’s all assuming that the Pirates make Freese available, though. If they don’t, the rest of the market is slim. There’s Todd Frazier, who’s currently hitting .173, and Mike Moustakas, who has a .282 OBP. Perhaps Martin Prado, who’s been below replacement level and has two years and $28.5 million left on his contract? Travis Shaw, whom the Red Sox traded away over the winter only for him to return to being the productive hitter he was when he emerged in 2015, is looking like a possible long-term contributor for the Brewers. Maybe Josh Harrison, who is also under contract next year for the Pirates, and serves a valuable utility role for the team? Trevor Plouffe, who is, well, Trevor Plouffe?
In short, there don’t seem to be many good options out there right now. There are even fewer at shortstop, though, so it may be in the Orioles’ best interest to get into a mud-wrestling match with the Red Sox over these less-than-ideal options. They may not be all that attractive, but they’re better than the messes that these contenders have at third and short. The market will also become clearer once we get closer to the deadline, and the field becomes more crystalized. Barring a sudden resurgence from Frazier, though, this is going to be ugly. But even an upgrade to passability could be the difference in this mess of a playoff race.
Nick is a columnist at FanGraphs, and has written previously for Baseball Prospectus and Beyond the Box Score. Yes, he hates your favorite team, just like Joe Buck. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets, and can contact him at stellinin1 at gmail.