It is time for everyone’s favorite game show – “Buy or Sell?”
With just over a month left until the MLB trade deadline (Aug. 2), teams figure out if they are in one of three classes: contender, pretender, on the fence. Contenders will overanalyze their roster and try to fill any true or perceived weakness. Pretenders will wave the white flag and sell off players who can fill voids for contenders. Those on the fence — especially with the postseason expanding to 12 teams this year — will be doing a lot of arithmetic to see if there is a path to one of those coveted playoff tickets.
Things are pretty simple in the National League Central. The Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals are contenders (currently tied for the division lead), with the second-place team in a battle for one of the three NL wild-card berths. As it stands now, the New York Mets (NL East) and Los Angeles Dodgers (NL West) are the top two division winners and would receive byes to the NL Division Series. The Central champ would be the No. 3 seed and face the lowest of the three wild cards in a best-of-three series, while the other two wild cards also play a best-of-three under the new format.
It figures to be a fierce battle for those three spots, with the Brewers or Cardinals up against the likes of the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies from the East and the San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants from the West. Five teams for three spots. That doesn’t figure to change much over the next month unless the Miami Marlins get hot.
Anyways, this is all about the Central and what the teams will do and who they have to deal. Welcome to the latest edition of Central Intelligence.
NL Central Standings
What to strengthen: Fifth starter, bullpen, center field.
Overview: The caveat for the Brewers is they aren’t going to go out and add a bat to replace one that is underperforming. Sure, they could add a platoon partner at first, third or center field, but the way the Brewers operate, they are going to ride or die with the players they have now.
Surprisingly, pitching is where Milwaukee is likely to add. Acquiring a No. 5 starter would be the logical move as that can help the bullpen, too. With right-hander Brandon Woodruff close to returning from Raynaud’s syndrome, which causes a loss of blood flow in the fingers, the Brewers would have four proven starters with Freddy Peralta (right shoulder major strain) not expected back until at least August. Finding a short-term rental to fill the No. 5 spot would allow left-hander Aaron Ashby, who just went on the injured list with left forearm inflammation but is only expected to be out briefly, to move back to the bullpen.
Cutting ties with all-around good guy and fan favorite Lorenzo Cain shocked many, but the time had come. Tyrone Taylor figures to get much of the playing time in center, but that does open the door for an upgrade. Second baseman Kolten Wong (right calf strain) could be activated off the injured list soon, allowing Luis Urías to move back to third base. Wong might end up sharing second base if his offense doesn’t pick up and become consistently productive, a problem afflicting most of the lineup. Manager Craig Counsell might get a little creative with who he plays at second and third with Jace Peterson also factoring in.
On the move could be shortstop Brice Turang or a handful of key outfield prospects, including fast-rising Jackson Chourio or closer-to-the-bigs Joey Wiemer and Garrett Mitchell. Another possibility would be catcher Pedro Severino, who is on the verge of returning from an 80-game PED suspension.
Injuries: Second baseman Kolten Wong (right calf strain) had a setback in his recovery and could miss another week or longer. Peralta has begun playing catch in Arizona. Ashby had been expected to start Tuesday but didn’t recover as expected from a bullpen after leaving his last start early and went on the IL. Infielder Mike Brousseau (right ankle sprain) and right-handed reliever Trevor Gott are starting rehab assignments, while right-handed starter Brandon Woodruff (Raynaud’s syndrome) could return after a rehab start today. Right-hander Luis Perdomo (right elbow effusion) has not started playing catch yet. Third-string catcher Alex Jackson (left middle finger sprain) could be activated soon and sent back to Triple-A. Right-handed reliever Jandel Gustave (right hamstring) might return around the All-Star break.
What to strengthen: Bullpen, fifth starter, backup catcher, shortstop.
Overview: The refinement is more around the edges for St. Louis. Right-hander Jack Flaherty’s return gives the Cardinals a four-deep rotation, with left-hander Steven Matz possibly coming back around the end of the month. Yadier Molina’s knees give cause for concern, which could lead to upgrading the backup from Andrew Knizner. Getting a little offense out of the shortstop position while still maintaining defense would be helpful, which could mean more of Tommy Edman there and potentially going after a second baseman.
Adding to the bullpen, particularly at the back end, could be where the Cardinals would improve the most. Right-handers Giovanny Gallegos (nine saves) and Ryan Helsley (five) are currently holding down the late innings, so getting a veteran closer would make the Cardinals deeper.
Whether the Cardinals decide to move infielder Nolan Gorman, left-hander Matthew Liberatore — childhood friends who made their MLB debuts on consecutive days last month — or third baseman Jordan Walker would be part of the equation and quality of player they are seeking. Also in consideration would have to be Opening Day shortstop Paul DeJong, who struggled and was sent to the minors and replaced by Edmundo Sosa.
Injuries: Molina (right knee inflammation) does not have a timetable to return. Left fielder Tyler O’Neill returned to the IL with a left hamstring strain. He had been on the IL with a right shoulder injury before returning two weeks ago. Right-handed reliever Jordan Hicks (strained right forearm flexor) began a rehab assignment Tuesday as he works he way back into a bullpen role after a failed attempt at starting. Matz (left shoulder impingement) could be ready for a brief rehab assignment. Outfielder Corey Dickerson (strained left calf) just began a rehab assignment.
Who to deal: Catcher Willson Contreras, catcher Yan Gomes, right-handed starter Kyle Hendricks, left-handed reliever Daniel Norris, right-handed reliever David Robertson, right-handed reliever Mychal Givens, left-handed starter Justin Steele, right-handed reliever Rowan Wick, infielder Nico Hoerner, third baseman Patrick Wisdom, outfielder Ian Happ, outfielder Jason Heyward.
Overview: After last year’s major selloff of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Báez, there isn’t much meat left on the bones of this bird. Contreras and Hendricks would seem to be the most valuable of this lot, although Wisdom and Happ could also be key additions for a contender.
Even those players won’t bring impact prospects to a system Baseball America has ranked 15th in terms of talent and only two top-100 prospects. Even though big names were shipped off last summer, the return wasn’t as marquee because Bryant, Rizzo and Baez were pending free agents.
Injuries: Right-handed starter Marcus Stroman (right shoulder inflammation) is scheduled to throw a bullpen today. Right fielder Seiya Suzuki (sprained left ring finger) has moved his rehab down to Arizona and could be near a rehab assignment. Left-handed starter Drew Smyly (right oblique strain) continues to build up his throwing program and may need a rehab assignment. Second baseman Nick Madrigal (left groin strain) has begun light baseball activities. First baseman Frank Schwindel (lower-back strain) might only be out the minimum 10 days. Left-handed starter Wade Miley (left shoulder strain) is again on the IL after leaving his first start back after just three innings and is taking a break from throwing. Right-handed reliever Ethan Roberts (right shoulder inflammation) exited a recent rehab outing after just four pitches and is being reevaluated. Infielder David Bote (left shoulder surgery) could be close to returning after resuming his rehab assignment following a bout of dizziness. Right-handed starter Adbert Alzolay (right elbow tightness) has resumed throwing in Arizona.
Who to deal: Center fielder Bryan Reynolds, left-handed starter José Quintana, first baseman Daniel Vogelbach, right-handed reliever David Bednar, right-handed reliever Wil Crowe, outfielder Ben Gamel, outfielder Jake Marisnick.
Overview: Quintana would seem the biggest lock to be wearing a different jersey as one of the better lefties available. Reynolds is trickier in that he is one of the pieces the Bucs could build around, but also a player who could make a difference on a contender. Bednar would be tough to move as he looks like a lockdown closer as the Pirates push their rebuild into the next phase. Crowe is in a similar spot after being converted to a full-time reliever this year.
Vogelbach, Gamel and Marisnick would all be good bench pieces for a contender. With Baseball America’s No. 3 system as far as talent, led by shortstop Oneil Cruz — who dazzled Monday in his return to the majors — and catcher Henry Davis among six top-100 prospects, the Pirates could further bolster their minors and be a player in the offseason trade market.
Injuries: Second baseman Josh VanMeter (left ring finger fracture), first baseman Yoshi Tsutsugo (lumbar muscle strain) and shortstop Kevin Newman (left groin strain, left hamstring) are all beginning rehab assignments. Outfielder Ben Gamel (left hamstring strain) could soon join them. Right-handed starter Kevin Thompson (right forearm nerve inflammation) went on the IL after battling through the issue recently. Left-hander Dillon Peters (low back strain) could be about another week away from coming back. Outfielder Canaan Smith-Njigba (right wrist) will be out at least two months. Outfielder Greg Allen, working his way back from a left hamstring injury, recently aggravated his right hammy.
Who to deal: Right-handed starter Luis Castillo, first baseman Joey Votto, right-handed starter Tyler Mahle, left-handed starter Mike Minor, third baseman-second baseman Brendan Drury, first baseman-third baseman Mike Moustakas, shortstop Kyle Farmer, left fielder Tommy Pham, right fielder Tyler Naquin, catcher Tyler Stephenson, infielder-outfielder Nick Senzel.
Overview: OK, so let’s address the elephant in the room. The Reds are unlikely to trade Votto. But they will get calls on the franchise icon and will need to be sufficiently wowed to move him — and only with his permission.
Castillo, however, is a lock to not be in Cincy past the deadline as he is perhaps the top starter on the market and will draw the best haul. None of the other Reds mentioned above are expected to have a major impact on a new team, but all would be nice pieces to add, whether as a starter or off the bench. All seemingly have questions (performance, health or contract) that would limit the quality of prospects coming back.
Injuries: Outfielder Tyler Naquin (left quadriceps strain) is scheduled to run the bases for a second time today before a potential brief rehab assignment. Catcher Tyler Stephenson (broken right thumb) could have his cast removed soon. Right-handed reliever Tony Santillan (lower back pain) could only miss the minimum 15 days. Outfielder Aristides Aquino (left high ankle strain) is expected to be out for another month. Left-handed starter Nick Lodolo (lower right back strain) is expected to make a rehab start Thursday and could be close to returning. Right-handed reliever Justin Dunn (right shoulder) is set for a rehab assignment to begin Sunday and could be back at the end of July.
Note: Injury updates from MLB.com.