SweetSpot: Cincinnati Reds

Five things we learned Friday

August, 30, 2014
Aug 30
12:05
AM ET
1. Another Friday, another no-hit bid against the Cincinnati Reds

Last week Atlanta Braves starter Mike Minor tossed 7 2/3 innings before the Reds put a hit on the board. Friday, it was Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander Edinson Volquez who kept Cincinnati hitless for the first six frames. Volquez, a former 17-game winner with the Reds, was picked up off the scrap heap by Pittsburgh this winter and has been a pleasant surprise. Although his peripheral statistics don't necessarily support his 3.45 ERA, he is unlikely to turn into a pumpkin down the stretch after nearly 160 innings of work this season.

Volquez tied a season high with 114 pitches Friday. He was charged with one earned run on three hits and three walks. He struck out six. He pounded the ground with 10 ground-ball outs. Although he has done a lot of work close to the earth, it is his work in the air that has been the big key in 2014. Last year, opposing batters had a .310 average on fly balls against Volquez. This season, that mark sits at .172. Advanced metrics place the Pirates' outfield in a negative light, but someone is converting those fly balls into outs on a consistent basis.

Despite the lack of knocks, the Reds were able to keep both games close, losing in the 12th inning last Friday and briefly taking a 1-0 lead in the eighth inning Friday before conceding the lead and the game soon after. The wins were important to Atlanta and Pittsburgh as both are still chasing the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals in the National League wild-card race. In fact, the Pirates' three-game winning streak has them sneaking back into contention in the NL Central as well.

For those interested, the Reds host the New York Mets next Friday at the Great American Ballpark.

2. DeGrom continues strong season

The Mets are in the midst of another lost season, but once again a trio of young arms gives the organization and its fans some hope. They lack the cool nickname of "Generation K," but Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom may be the foundation of a rotation that gets New York's other baseball team back to the postseason. DeGrom, the only active member of the trio, was on the bump Friday against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Without the hype of Harvey or Syndergaard, deGrom has snuck up on most people this season. The lanky right-hander tossed seven strong innings against the Phillies, allowing just one unearned run. Of his 18 starts, deGrom has gone at least six innings in 14 of them. He has allowed three runs or fewer in 13 of those contests.

The rookie boasts a full arsenal of pitches, but Friday night's game plan centered around a mid-90s fastball that he commanded well. It accounted for nearly 75 percent of his pitches thrown Friday, as deGrom honed in on the lower half of the zone to his arm side. The heater was the weapon of choice on 16 of the 22 outs he recorded.

It's been said before, but "maybe next year" for the Mets.

3. Orioles continue to pound away

After taking three of four from the Tampa Bay Rays, the American League East-leading Baltimore Orioles were back at it Friday night, blowing out the Minnesota Twins 9-1. Baltimore's pitching staff has been largely mediocre this season, but its offense packs a powerful enough punch to push the O's past the opposition on most nights. The club's .163 ISO -- isolated power measures the ability to hit for extra bases by stripping singles from slugging percentage -- is tops in the AL, trailing only the Colorado Rockies in the majors.

Chris Davis is having a disappointing season after his breakout 2013 campaign, but he hit another home run -- this one a grand slam -- on Friday that gives him seven in August and 24 on the season. While that is a far cry from last year's pace, Davis appears to be getting a bit more into the swing of things even if his average sits below .200.

In Davis' void, Nelson Cruz and Steve Pearce have picked up the offensive slack. Cruz signed a one-year deal with Baltimore after a difficult time finding work on the open market. His 34 home runs lead the majors. Pearce was once a top prospect in the Pirates' system, but has spent most of his career shuttling between the majors and minors. This season, he has broken out in a big way with an OPS approaching .900 and 16 homers in limited action. He left Friday's game with an abdominal strain. Considering Manny Machado's injury, the team can ill afford to lose Pearce, as crazy as that may sound.

4. Verlander better versus White Sox

The Detroit Tigers have one of the game's top pitchers (Max Scherzer) and traded for another one (David Price) on July 31. Meanwhile, the team's former top hurler was on the mound Friday night, looking to close the gap in the highly contested AL Central race.

Justin Verlander has been off his game for most of this season. His ERA is approaching 5.00 and he has allowed more hits than innings pitched for the first time since 2006. Friday's effort was not vintage Verlander; however, it was still encouraging since he is no longer considered the team's top gun.

Facing the Chicago White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field, Verlander worked seven innings, allowing one run on nine hits and two walks. He struck out seven batters, throwing 77 strikes in 116 pitches. It was the first time since April 17 that he allowed one run or none in a start.

Despite a recent run of inconsistency, the Tigers are within arm's reach of the division lead. With Anibal Sanchez's future in doubt, Verlander once again becomes a key figure in Detroit's rotation. If he can be just part of what he once was, it may go a long way in the club's quest for a fourth straight division title.

5. Young Cubs on the prowl

The Houston Astros have been painted by some as the poster boys of "process." Meanwhile, the Chicago Cubs have also been in rebuild mode and, unlike Houston, which may have some sour grapes among its bunch, their organizational tree is starting to bear fruit at the highest level.

Javier Baez was first to capture the nation's attention this summer with his risk-versus-reward approach at the plate. His big swings have left nearly an equal amount of oohs and ughs depending on whether he made contact or not. This week, the club promoted Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler to the big leagues. That decision is already paying dividends.

Though he is just three games into his major league career, the 22-year-old Soler has seven hits in his first 12 plate appearances. On Friday, he recorded his first multi-home run game, belting a pair of homers against the St. Louis Cardinals. Soler's first homer was a solo shot in the seventh inning that tied the game at 2-2. Baez put the Cubs ahead 4-2 with an RBI double the next inning, but the big blast came once again from Soler, who smacked a two-run homer to left field. Two innings, two at-bats and two home runs that covered 858 feet. Not bad for the third night on the job.

As exciting as the win was for the Cubs, it was equally devastating for a Cardinals team that is clinging to an NL wild-card spot by the slimmest of margins.

Tommy Rancel blogs about the Tampa Bay Rays at the SweetSpot network affiliate The Process Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @TRancel.
It's not easy getting recognition for your defense when you play in the same league as Andrelton Simmons and Troy Tulowitzki, but such is the fate of Cincinnati Reds shortstop Zack Cozart.

But when we look at the leaderboards in 2014 for defensive metrics, Cozart is leading the way (all statistics through Sunday):

Defensive Runs Saved
1. Cozart +20
2. Simmons +14
3. Jhonny Peralta +13
4. Jordy Mercer +9
5. Tulowitzki/Alexi Amarista +8

Ultimate Zone Rating
1. Cozart +12
2. Peralta +9.7
2. Erick Aybar +9.7
4. J.J. Hardy +9.4
5. Simmons +8.2

Defensive metrics may be subject to some range of error and judgment -- and thus argument -- on a one-year basis, but the metrics agree that Cozart has been the best shortstop in 2014. It's not a fluke, as Cozart was solid in his first two seasons in the majors, with plus-16 DRS and plus-17 runs via UZR. This season, he has played nearly mistake-free defense. But when the game's elite gloves are discussed, Cozart rarely gets mentioned, perhaps in part because he's a .245 career hitter -- and hitting is still a way to earn a little more recognition.

Simmons may win the Gold Glove in the National League for the next decade, but Cozart should be a yearly challenger and arguably deserves it this season. His glove is good enough that even though the Reds need more offense, they're not looking to replace him despite his poor offensive season.

Cozart may not have a cannon arm like Simmons or Tulowitzki do, but he makes many spectacular plays that don't show up on the highlight reels. Here's a diving stop off a high hop where he gets the forceout; here's a nice double play he starts off another diving stop; and here's another diving stop and forceout.

Baseball Info Solutions tracks every play for its Defensive Runs Saved statistic, and when digging into the numbers, we see that Cozart rates so well overall because of his consistency and mistake-free defense. BIS has two categories called Good Fielding Plays and Defensive Misplays & Errors. Through Sunday, Cozart ranked 14th among shortstops with 34 GFPs (Adeiny Hechavarria of the Marlins was first with 60, while Simmons was second with 55). Cozart had just 14 Misplays & Errors. Compare that to Hechevarria (28), Simmons (23) or the flashy Alcides Escobar (40). Even Tulowitzki, known for his steadiness, had 18 (in less playing time due to his DL stint).

Still, the focus much of the year has been on Cozart's bat.

He hit .180 in April and his power numbers are way down from last year, when he had 12 home runs and 45 extra-base hits. It hasn't helped that with Jay Bruce having a down year and Joey Votto on the disabled list, the Reds sorely needed some of the secondary guys to step up. But Cozart hasn't taken his offensive struggles into the field.

"Defense is the thing that's kept me sane all year," Cozart said last week.

Through Sunday, Reds starters had the lowest balls-in-play average in the majors. Their unsung shortstop is one major reason for that.
Last week, after Corey Kluber dominated the Mariners with an 85-pitch shutout, I rashly tweeted that Kluber is one of the best 10 starting pitchers in the game. That seemed to stir things up a bit on Twitter, and Giants fans were especially angered when I suggested Kluber is better than Madison Bumgarner. Kluber came back on Monday with another solid effort, allowing one run while striking out seven in 7.1 innings, improving his record to 12-6 with a 2.55 ERA.

But is he one of baseball's top 10 starters right now?

[+] EnlargeCorey Kluber
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesHe's been very, very good. But is Corey Kluber one of the 10 best starters in baseball right now?
How do you even measure such a thing? We can take the easy way out and just look at wins above replacement for the season.

FanGraphs
1. Felix Hernandez: 5.8
2. Corey Kluber: 5.0
3. Jon Lester: 4.7
4. Clayton Kershaw: 4.5
5. Chris Sale: 4.2

Baseball-Reference
1. Felix Hernandez: 5.5
2. Clayton Kershaw: 5.2
3. Corey Kluber: 4.7
4. Johnny Cueto: 4.6
5. Chris Sale/Max Scherzer: 4.5

By WAR, Kluber isn't just a top-10 starter, but a top-five starter. Even ignoring how much you believe in WAR, the question is: Do you buy into Kluber's four-month streak as a true breakout performance? How much emphasis do we place on history? Zack Greinke won a Cy Young Award in 2009. Should that matter as to how we evaluate him now? Scherzer won the Cy Young Award last year when he was arguably the best pitcher in the American League. How much should that matter as to how we evaluate him in August 2014?

Bill James actually devised a method to answer this question a couple of years ago. He wrote:
Everybody starts out with a ranking of 300.0, and you can’t go lower than 300, even if you pitch badly. If you’re at 300, you’re unranked; you’re only actually on the list if you have a current score higher than 300. There would typically be 150 to 180 pitchers who are, at the moment, ranked. Pitchers never actually pitch badly enough that they would rank below 300 (if it were possible to do so) for more than two or three starts, because if you pitch that badly, you lose your position in the rotation.

When a pitcher makes a start, we:

a) Mark down his previous ranking by 3%, and

b) Add 30% of his Game Score for the start.

We base the rankings on Game Scores, which means that we ignore wins and losses, but give weight to innings pitched, runs allowed, earned runs allowed, walks and strikeouts.


James also adjusted for park effects, inactivity (if a pitcher doesn't pitch, his overall rating goes down) and postseason play, which he factored in. Anyway, his site unfortunately doesn't update the rankings, so I don't know how Kluber would rank. So I'll just wing my own top 10.

1. Clayton Kershaw

The best pitcher in baseball, and I don't think anybody is really arguing this. Hernandez ranks higher on the WAR lists because Kershaw missed April, so he doesn't have as many innings.

2. Felix Hernandez

3. Adam Wainwright

Similar in many ways -- veteran right-handers (it seems weird to call Felix a "veteran," but he has been around a long time) having their best seasons.

4. Chris Sale

He's 10-1 with a 2.09 ERA with 129 strikeouts and 20 walks in 116 innings. Incredible numbers. He has cut his home run rate from last year, even though he pitches in a good home run park. I'm not knocking Wainwright when I say this: Sale is better. But he did miss time earlier this year and I think we have to give Wainwright extra credit for his durability.

5. Yu Darvish

6. David Price

SportsNation

Is Corey Kluber one of the 10 best starters in the game?

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    55%
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    45%

Discuss (Total votes: 2,346)

I'm not completely comfortable ranking Price this high -- he's ninth in FanGraphs WAR and 25th in B-R WAR. He has 189 strikeouts and just 23 walks but has allowed 20 home runs, and he goes from a good pitcher's park with a good Rays defense behind him to a better hitter's park with a below-average Tigers defense behind him. It's possible that change will reveal that he did benefit from pitching in Tampa. Or it may not reveal anything. But Price has been good a pitcher for five years, and his new approach of pounding the strike zone has basically turned him into a harder-throwing version of Cliff Lee.

OK, now things get a little murky. Let's start with Kluber versus Bumgarner, because that got a lot of feedback on Twitter.

I know Bumgarner has been a solid pitcher for several years. He has come up big in the postseason. But in comparing 2014: Kluber has the better ERA, the better FIP, the better strikeout rate, a lower walk rate, a lower home run rate, a higher ground ball rate, the lower batting average and OPS allowed, has pitched more innings and has done it in a DH league while pitching in a tougher park with a lousy defense behind him. I can't rate Bumgarner ahead of Kluber.

(By the way, Bumgarner's career high bWAR is 3.8, achieved last year. A lot of that is park effects. Giants fans will point out that Bumgarner has a better ERA on the road in his career than at home, but that's not the way park effects work. Bumgarner still has the advantage of pitching half his games in a pitcher's park.)

Jon Lester? Hmm. Lester is a No. 2 starter having a No. 1-level season. But he had a 3.75 ERA last year and 4.82 the year before. FanGraphs and B-R differ on his value -- FanGraphs ranks him third overall while B-R ranks him 22nd. Kluber, by the way, had a 3.85 ERA last year with excellent peripherals. If you give Lester a little extra credit for his postseason last year, I'll reluctantly give him the nod, although I think his track record works against him just as much as Kluber's lack of track record works against him.

Scherzer is similar to Lester, except his No. 1 season came last year. He's been nearly as good this year, even though his BABIP has once again bounced up:

2011: .314
2012: .333
2013: .259
2014: .316

One reason Scherzer's BABIP is usually high is that he does pitch up in the strike zone, unlike a lot of pitchers who pound the zone at the knees. Of course, the other reason is the lousy Tigers defense. (Take note, Mr. Price.)

Johnny Cueto? I'm not quite sure what to do with Cueto, giving his history of injuries. But we're talking best starters right now, and Cueto has been healthy and effective all season and he has always been effective even when he has missed time.

Garrett Richards is another young starter having a breakout season. While Kluber relies on command and a wipeout curve, Richards has upper 90s heat and a deadly slider. Their numbers:

Kluber: 2.55 ERA, .233/.277/.341, 26.7 percent K rate
Richards: 2.58 ERA, .195/.267/.259, 24.7 percent K rate

Kluber rates a little higher in WAR because he has pitched 12 more innings and Richards benefits from a pitcher's park. Tough call here. Like Kluber, Richards doesn't have much of a track record before this season. There's no denying his stuff. Richards has the fourth-lowest BABIP allowed among starters at .258 (Kluber's is .309) and a low rate of home runs per fly ball (third-lowest among starters). I think those numbers indicate Richards has pitched in more good luck than Kluber this season. But I could be wrong; his stuff is nasty.

OK, where does that leave us? With apologies to Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels, Hisashi Iwakuma, the injured Masahiro Tanaka and maybe a couple of others, the top 10 starters in the majors RIGHT NOW:

1. Kershaw
2. Hernandez
3. Wainwright
4. Sale
5. Darvish
6. Price
7. Cueto
8. Lester
9. Kluber
10. Scherzer

Including Richards, you could rank the final four guys in any order, really. If you want a longer track record, go with Lester and Scherzer. If you like raw, unhittable stuff, go with Richards. If you think postseason history matters, go with Lester. If you like 28-year-olds out of nowhere with curveballs that make major league hitters weep in frustration, go with our man Corey Kluber -- one of the 10 best starters in the game.

ICYMI: SweetSpot trade deadline roundup

August, 1, 2014
Aug 1
11:32
AM ET
Catch your breath yet? What a crazy few days across baseball. Winners and losers at the trade deadline? We've got all of that covered. Let's dive in and see what the local SweetSpot Network writers had to say about the deals that impacted their teams as well as the new landscape for the rest of the 2014 season and beyond.



New York Yankees: It's About The Money
Why Stephen Drew can help the Yankees: Katie Sharp dives deeper than the superficial season-to-date results posted by Drew and shows how he can provide a boost to the Yanks. Spoiler alerts: Bumps in hard-hit rates and a superior defender than the now-departed Brian Roberts (two ABs short of a bonus). Follow on Twitter: @ktsharp.

Trade deadline thoughts and afterthoughts: The Yankees got four proven major leaguers in the middle-to-late parts of their primes for two cheap minor league signings, an injured spare bench part, and two low-probability prospects. Not bad. Follow on Twitter: @IIATMS



Boston Red Sox: Firebrand of the AL
Yoenis Cespedes, Red Sox outfielder: Many have arrived in Boston only to be beat down by Fenway and the Green Monster. Brett Cowett looks at how Cespedes could possibly master Fenway Park. Follow on Twitter: @firebrandal.

Allen Craig and Joe Kelly: Who are they, and how do they fit in?: Shawn McFarland takes a quick look at the St. Louis duo, and how they can be major cogs in the Red Sox machine for years to come.



Detroit Tigers: Walkoff Woodward
The Price is right: Tigers land Rays ace: Alexandra Simon looks at the Tigers' acquisition of David Price and examines some of the fallout after the deal.

The present and future of the Tigers with Price: Grey Papke outlines what the Price trade means for the Tigers both immediately and in the coming seasons -- including Max Scherzer's Tigers future. Follow on Twitter: @walkoffwoodward.



Milwaukee Brewers: Disciples of Uecker
Brewers trade for Parra: The Brewers made their big move of the non-waiver deadline, acquiring outfielder Gerardo Parra from the Diamondbacks in exchange for a pair of minor leaguers. Ryan Topp reviews the trade, including concerns about a slip in Parra's defense. Follow on Twitter: @RDTopp.



New York Mets: Mets Today
Stephen Drew finally heads to New York -- and other deadline news: Joe Janish does a lap around the deals that made the 2014 trade deadline so exciting.



Texas Rangers: One Strike Away
The Rangers Stand Pat: Brandon Land takes a look at what ended up being a rather uneventful deadline for Texas when compared to recent years. Follow on Twitter: @one_strike_away



Cincinnati Reds: Redleg Nation
Early trade deadline thoughts: More swings and misses: In recent years, the Reds have repeatedly swung and missed at the trade deadline. Last season they were the only major league team that didn’t make a single move in July or August. Other general managers come up with ideas that worked for each other and their owners. Steve Mancuso wonders if this indicates a failure of market evaluation. Follow on Twitter: @redlegnation.



St. Louis Cardinals: Fungoes
Cardinals improve, but is it enough? In separate trades, the Cardinals supplemented their starting rotation, acquiring right-handers Justin Masterson and John Lackey. The moves were quintessentially Mozeliakian, as the GM followed his typical script by accurately identifying needs then fulfilling those needs with solid but not blockbuster (or bank-busting) transactions. The only question will be whether they’re enough. Follow on Twitter: @fungoes.



Chicago Cubs: View From The BleachersAn ode to Darwin Barney: Luke Jett sends off fan favorite Darwin Barney with one last look back. Follow on Twitter: @lukejett.



Minnesota Twins: Twins Daily
Twins sign Suzuki to an extension: All-Star Kurt Suzuki was the Twins' best deadline trade chip, but instead of shipping him out they elected to extend his contract. John Bonnes takes a look at the move. Follow on Twitter: @TwinsDaily.


Cleveland Indians: It's Pronounced "Lajaway"
Indians ship Justin Masterson to Cardinals: Adam Hintz takes a look at the Masterson trade, new acquisition James Ramsey, and how the organizational outfield depth chart now shapes up. Follow on Twitter: @Palagoon.

Wrapping up Masterson's Tribe Ccreer: Ryan McCrystal looks back on the roller coaster ride that was Masterson's time in Cleveland, comparing him to not-so-great past Indians such as Roberto Hernandez and Dave Burba. Follow on Twitter: @TribeFanMcC.



Baltimore Orioles: Camden Depot
Orioles gave up too much for Andrew Miller: Typically, prospects who are traded are over-ranked. That said, handing out a top 100 prospect in LHP Eduardo Rodriguez for a pitcher who will contribute at most 20 innings the rest of the season does not seem like the most sensible thing to do. Follow on Twitter: @CamdenDepot.



Los Angeles Angels: Halos Daily
What the big deadline deals mean for the Angels: Despite sitting the dance out, the Halos will still feel ripples from some of the deadline's biggest moves. Andrew Karcher takes a look at which trades could affect the club most down the stretch. Follow on Twitter: @andrewkarcher.


And some of the other non-trade deadline-related items from around the SweetSpot Network:


Baltimore Orioles: Camden Depot
Are traded prospects worth less? Yes, they are, but there is a twist. Matt Perez looks at how the difference between prospect rank and value have changed over the years for players in trades. Follow on Twitter: @CamdenDepot



Chicago White Sox: The Catbird Seat
Frank Thomas memories: In the wake of his emotional induction into the Hall of Fame, the entire writing staff kicked in their favorite memories of the greatest hitter to ever put on a White Sox uniform. Follow on Twitter: @TheCatbird_Seat.



Colorado Rockies: Rockies Zingers
Rockies bloggers panel 7/26/14: Listen to representatives from Rockies blogs talk about what's gone right and wrong for the Rockies team and the front office in 2014. Featured are Rockies Zingers writers Richard Bergstrom, Ryan Hammon and Adam Peterson; Drew Creasman from Purple Row; Michelle Stalnaker from RoxPile; and Zach Marburger from Mile High Sports. Follow on Twitter: @RockiesZingers.



New York Yankees: It's About The Money
Chase Headley more than a rental: Matt Bove examines the idea of Chase Headley being a legitimate long-term option for the Yankees at third base. Follow on Twitter: @rayrobert9.



St. Louis Cardinals: Fungoes
Patience pays off for Carpenter: This year, Matt Carpenter is seeing pitches at a career-high rate. If he continues at this pace, he’ll finish the season with the team’s highest pitches-per-plate-appearance since the stat began being tracked in 1988. Follow on Twitter: @fungoes.



Los Angeles Angels: Halos Daily
The real value of the league's "worst" prospects: For two years running now, the Angels farm system has been classified as the worst in the game. Nathan Aderhold investigates what kind of tangible value the club has derived from its farm hands the last two seasons. Follow on Twitter: @adrastusperkins.


Jason Rosenberg is the founder of It's About the Money, a proud charter member of the SweetSpot Network. IIATMS can be found on Twitter here and here as well as on Facebook.
Eric Karabell and David Schoenfield answered your questions about this week's Power Rankings.

OK, we're already a couple of days into the second half of the season, which actually begins well past the actual halfway point of the season, but here are the key players to watch for each National League team.

Atlanta Braves: Mike Minor
Well, we know it's not Dan Uggla. Minor began the season on the DL after a sore shoulder in spring training, and he hasn't been the same pitcher he was last season. The differences are small, but his stuff and command just haven't played up as well -- his swing-and-miss rate is down more than three percent and his overall strike rate is down 2 percent, and as a result his batting average allowed has increased from .232 to .295. The Braves are hoping that's simply tied to a high BABIP -- .348, seventh-worst among 124 pitchers with at least 75 innings -- but he's allowed 14 home runs in 83.1 innings.

Washington Nationals: Bryce Harper
He's hit .150 since coming off the DL and had two home runs in 123 at-bats at the All-Star break. Is the thumb healed? Is he still too young to be The Man in the Nationals' lineup? It will be intriguing to see what happens here.

New York Mets: Travis d'Arnaud
The Mets are counting on the rookie catcher as a big foundation piece for their future. He had trouble staying healthy in his minor league career and struggled at the plate early on, although hit well in his final 16 games before the All-Star break (.295/.338/.525), following a stint in Triple-A. He's proven he can hit in Las Vegas, but everyone can hit in Vegas. The question is if he can hit at the major league level.

Miami Marlins: Giancarlo Stanton
Must-see TV. The Marlins aren't going anywhere, so all eyes will be focused on Stanton. Could he win an MVP award if the Marlins don't even finish .500? Probably not. But I'm still watching.

Philadelphia Phillies: Domonic Brown
The focus on the Phillies will be on their veteran assets and whether general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. will (or can) trade the likes of Marlon Byrd and others. But this might also be the most important two months of Brown's career. A year ago, Brown was an All-Star after hitting 23 home runs in the first half. In 2014, he was one of the worst players of the first half, with six home runs, a .279 OBP and poor defense -- a combination worth -1.4 WAR. Ouch. Can Brown salvage his season and give hope that he's part of the Phillies' future?

Milwaukee Brewers: Ryan Braun
After dominating the NL Central for most of the first half, the Brewers left the All-Star break with a slim, one-game lead over the Cardinals. They've been all over the place with hot months and cold months and have probably settled near their true talent. In going through their roster, there aren't any obvious "over his head" candidates or "should play better" candidates. The one guy who has the capability of ripping it up for the next 60 games, however, is Braun. He had a good first half but not near his 41-homer level of 2012. Yes, you can assume and conclude whatever you want, but Braun could easily go out and hit 20 home runs the second half and carry the Brewers to a division title.

St. Louis Cardinals: Matt Holliday
Two numbers tell the tale of the Cardinals -- or rather, two sets of numbers:

2013 runs per game: 4.83 (first in NL)
2014 runs per game at the break: 3.75 (14th in NL)

2013 average with RISP: .330
2014 average with RISP: .248

The point: David Price would certainly be nice, but the Cardinals are more likely to rely on improvement from within. Holliday, who homered Friday, is one guy who could improve his offense after hitting .265 with six home runs in the first half. Cardinals fans will remember that Holliday had a monster second half last year -- .348/.442/.552.

Cincinnati Reds: Jay Bruce
Joey Votto's injury issues have left him less than 100 percent and a question mark as he sits on the DL. That leaves Bruce as the guy who needs to power a Reds lineup that is also missing Brandon Phillips as the second half kicks off. At 27, Bruce is at the age that many players have their peak season; instead, after hitting 30-plus homers the past three seasons, he's struggling through his worst year, hitting .229 with 10 home runs at the break. Bruce's main problem is simple: He hasn't been getting the ball in the air. His fly ball rate is down 15 percent from his average since 2009. More grounders equals fewer homers and, against shift, not enough base hits to compensate.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Francisco Liriano
This one's easy. A year ago, Liriano went 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA and then won the wild-card game. This year, he's 1-7 with a 4.43 ERA in 16 starts after allowing an unearned run in five innings on Friday. The difference in performance is clear when looking at his year-by-year walks per nine innings:

2014: 5.1
2013: 3.5
2012: 5.0
2011: 5.0

Yes, wins are team dependent to some degree, but the Pirates need Liriano to pitch closer to the ace he was a year ago.

Chicago Cubs: Kris Bryant
Maybe it says something about the Cubs that the guy we care most about right now is in Triple-A. Then again, he entered the weekend hitting .350 with 32 home runs in the minors. Will we see him in September? He needs a higher league to give him a more difficult test.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Matt Kemp
Kemp began the second half with his agent Dave Stewart proclaiming that Kemp just wants to play every day and "his hope at some point is to get back to center." That's not going to happen, as the Dodgers finally realized Kemp's bad routes lead to too many bad plays in the outfield (he had the worst Defensive Runs Saved total in the majors in the first half at any position). So that means Kemp will have to hit -- and play left field. He had a solid June, hitting .317/.375/.525. The Dodgers will happily take that at this point.

San Francisco Giants: Matt Cain
The fact that Cain is starting the Giants' fifth game after the break tells where he now sits in the San Francisco rotation. He has to do better than a 2-7 record and 4.15 ERA if the Giants are going to catch the Dodgers.

San Diego Padres: Andrew Cashner
Cashner is important because the Padres need him healthy for 2015. He's currently on the DL with a sore shoulder and is supposed to start playing catch again. It's not so much what he does the rest of the season, but that he returns at some point and proves the shoulder is sound.

Colorado Rockies: Troy Tulowitzki
Another lost season for the Rockies has turned ugly, as owner Dick Monfort told a disgruntled fan that "if it is that upsetting, don't come to the games," and then, when asked who was responsible for the Rockies' poor first half, said, "You would have to say it’s [assistant general manager] Bill Geivett. He’s responsible for the major league team." In the midst of this mess is Tulo, who is having an MVP-caliber season for a lousy team.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Ender Inciarte
Just kidding! But I'm struggling to come up with a good name here. Maybe Mark Trumbo, returning from his foot fracture? Aaron Hill or Martin Prado, to see if they bring anything in trade? Tuffy Gosewisch?

Count on seeing a great battle in NL Central

July, 19, 2014
Jul 19
12:26
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For years, the American League East has been considered the class of Major League Baseball. While that might have been true in the late '90s into the early 2000s, the past few seasons are proving to be a different story. While the AL East appears to be a shell of its former self (the top three teams entered play on Friday a combined 11 games above .500), the National League Central -- the only division that sent three teams to the postseason in 2013 -- may now be baseball's best group.

This year's version of the Central has four teams over .500 within a handful of games of each other. Currently, the division is paced by the Milwaukee Brewers, but the defending NL champion St. Louis Cardinals are a game behind, while the next two teams -- the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates -- are a good week away from climbing to the top.

The Brewers top the division thanks to a potent offense. Led by Ryan Braun, the Brew Crew entered the second half of the season with the second-most runs scored in the NL. Braun is the star, but the club has six players with an OPS above .780, including four above .800. The bullpen is anchored by the resurgent Francisco Rodriguez but is also getting fine performances by left-handers Will Smith and Zach Duke.

Kyle Lohse has steadied the rotation, while prospect Jimmy Nelson will look to provide a late-season jolt. Top to bottom, the Brewers look to be the most complete team in the division.

If the Cardinals are to overcome Milwaukee, they will need to do the bulk of the work without All-Star catcher Yadier Molina. A torn ligament in his right thumb will shelve the backstop for the foreseeable future, leaving the heavy lifting to a trio of Matts: Holliday, Carpenter and Adams. NL All-Star starter Adam Wainwright is one of the best pitchers in the league, while Shelby Miller and Carlos Martinez are two of the best young hurlers. The Cardinals have two more starters on the disabled list in Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia, who will miss the rest of the season.

Former starter Trevor Rosenthal has control of the ninth inning, while All-Star setup man Pat Neshek has revived his once-stagnant career. The Cardinals have the resources to fill holes at second base and in the rotation, should they choose to, but may let young players like Kolten Wong and Marco Gonzalez cut their teeth in a pennant race. When healthy, the Cards are the most talented team in the division, but if and when they can get healthy is their biggest question mark.

The Reds opened the second half with a loss to the New York Yankees and without the right side of their infield as Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips sit on the disabled list. Still, the club has Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco --both All-Stars this year -- and Billy Hamilton, who appears to be improving every day. They also have a three-headed monster at the top of their rotation with Johnny Cueto and his 2.13 ERA as the ace.

At the back end of their bullpen, Aroldis Chapman and Jonathan Broxton have allowed a combined 11 runs in more than 60 innings of work. Mat Latos has made just six starts this season and could be the spark needed to make a move even without Votto and Phillips.

The Pirates needed two separate comebacks on Friday night in order to defeat the Colorado Rockies. Of the contenders in the Central, the Pirates need the most help. Ace Gerrit Cole sits on the disabled list, and the lineup has several holes, none more glaring than first base, which was all but ignored this past winter. General manager Neal Huntington has the chips to make a deal but might be reluctant to sacrifice the future on a team that's just four games above .500.

On the other hand, Andrew McCutchen is in the prime of his career, and stud prospect Gregory Polanco is now fronting the lineup.

Each contender to the Central's crown has flaws. At the same time, each has something on which to stake their claim to the throne.

The Brewers' rotation has underperformed in spots, but the lineup has outscored every non-Rockies team in the Senior Circuit. The Cardinals' staff has been infected with the injury bug and the offense is without its best player, but they have a guy named Wainwright, a bunch of live arms and a talented group of hitters, even in the wake of Molina's injury. Cincinnati is also missing its best player; however, it owns a quality rotation, a few mashers remaining and speed on the bases and in the bullpen. The Pirates might be the least talented group. Meanwhile, they have the best player in McCutchen and the system to make moves.

Milwaukee -- with the division lead -- appears to have the best shot, but this race is shaping up to be the best of them all.

Tommy Rancel writes for The Process Report blog on the Rays and contributes to GammonsDaily.com.
OK, we're actually well past 81 games, but we tend to divide the season at the All-Star break, even if that's not the true halfway point. Here's my list of the 10 biggest stories of the first half:

1. The rash of Tommy John surgeries.

On the heels of Matt Harvey going down late in 2013 and missing this season, this year's Tommy John surgeries have included Jose Fernandez, Kris Medlen, Patrick Corbin, Matt Moore, Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin, Brandon Beachy, Ivan Nova, Bronson Arroyo, David Hernandez, Bobby Parnell, Josh Johnson, Luke Hochevar and Pirates prospect Jameson Taillon. Plus there's the possibility that Yankees rookie Masahiro Tanaka will need the surgery if six weeks of rest doesn't help his elbow. That's a devastating loss of talent and has led to much discussion on how to better prevent all these injuries.

2. Best-in-baseball A's make huge trade.

Even with the season-ending injuries to Parker and Griffin and the offseason departure of Bartolo Colon, Oakland had soared to the best record in baseball with easily the best run differential. And Scott Kazmir and Sonny Gray had been terrific at the front end of the rotation. But, worried about depth and fatigue, Billy Beane stunned everyone by trading prospects Addison Russell and Billy McKinney (and pitcher Dan Straily) to the Cubs for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Beane made the move to help hold off the hard-charging Angels; but at the break Oakland's lead was down to a slim 1.5 games.

[+] EnlargeHallion
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesHas instant replay helped? The answer, at least from players, isn't all positive.
3. Confusion over new instant replay rules.

Catchers blocking home plate, the outfield "transfer" rule, the neighborhood play, managers challenging plays they're not supposed to be allowed to challenge -- expanded instant replay has hardly been a smooth transition. Longer-than-expected delays and inconsistent application has left everyone a little confused at times. Last week, after a play at home plate was not overturned despite evidence that a tag was missed, Jose Bautista said, "This whole replay thing has become a joke in my eyes. I think they should just ban it. They should just get rid of it. I don’t really understand the purpose of it, but getting the right call on the field is not the purpose. That’s pretty obvious and evident."

4. New stars emerge.

Besides Tanaka, we've seen White Sox rookie Jose Abreu crush 29 home runs in the most impressive power display by a rookie since Mark McGwire in 1987. Reds center fielder Billy Hamilton has hit far better than anyone expected while stealing 38 bases and impressing with his defense in center field. George Springer of the Astros didn't make his debut until mid-April and didn't hit his first home run until May 8, but has still clocked 19 home runs, several of light-tower prodigiousness. Yordano Ventura of the Royals has gone 7-7 with a 3.22 ERA while displaying his upper-90s fastball. Yankees reliever Dellin Betances failed as a starter in the minors but has been one of the game's most dominant relievers with 84 strikeouts in 55.1 innings while holding opponents to a .124 batting average.

Those guys aren't just good; they’re exciting. Then we've had breakout non-rookies like Gray (who emerged late last season), Garrett Richards, Corey Kluber, Anthony Rizzo, Devin Mesoraco, Dallas Keuchel, Anthony Rendon, Marcell Ozuna and others. The young talent keeps on coming -- and that's before we get to minor league mashers Kris Bryant of the Cubs and Joey Gallo of the Rangers, two guys we can't wait to see reach the majors.

5. Pitchers continue to dominate.

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Even with all the injuries, offense has still gone down -- if only slightly -- to 4.14 runs per game, which would be the lowest total since 4.12 in 1992. We enter the break with 21 qualified starters holding an ERA under 3.00, and that doesn't include Clayton Kershaw, who is two outs short of qualifying for the leaderboard.

Kershaw (11-2, 1.78 ERA), Adam Wainwright (12-4, 1.83) and Felix Hernandez (11-2, 2.12) highlight a season with many top pitching performers. Those three all have a shot at finishing with 20 wins and a sub-2.00 ERA, a feat accomplished just three times since 1980 -- Roger Clemens in 1990 and Dwight Gooden and John Tudor in 1985. Hernandez enters the break with 11 consecutive starts in which he's pitched at least seven innings and allowed two runs or fewer, the longest such stretch since Mike Scott had 12 for the Astros in 1986. Kershaw had a 15-strikeout no-hitter with no walks, perfect other than a fielding error behind him. Wainwright hasn't allowed a run in nine of his 19 starts. Brilliance.

6. The Red Sox and Rays both struggle.

The defending champions and the team many expected to win the World Series both hit the break nine games under .500 and 9.5 games out of first place in the AL East. The Rays actually had the worst record in baseball on June 10 at 24-42. They’ve at least played better since then, going 20-11, but it may be too late to fend off the inevitable David Price trade. As for the Red Sox, one of baseball's richest and supposedly smartest franchises is headed for a second losing season sandwiched around its World Series title.

7. The NL Central race.

With four teams separated by 3.5 games, I have no idea who is going to win. But I know it's going to be fun.

[+] EnlargeTrout
AP PhotoHaven't seen much of Mike Trout's strikeout face lately.
8. The Dodgers catch the Giants.

On June 8, the Giants were 42-21 and led the NL West by 9.5 games. Since then, they've gone 10-22 -- only the injury-depleted Rangers have been worse -- and the Dodgers lead by a game. Collapses in June get ignored, but blowing such a big lead in the span of a month is brutal. It sets the stage for what should turn into another classic Giants-Dodgers pennant race.

9. Remember when we were worried about Mike Trout's strikeouts?

On May 19, Trout's average dipped to .263 and he was striking out like Dave Kingman in a bad slump. In 46 games since then, he's hit .356/.440/.701 with 31 extra-base hits. He's on pace for 38 home runs, 126 RBIs and 17 steals while playing good defense in center. He leads the AL in OPS and total bases. He's the best player in the game, he's going to win the AL MVP Award and we should finally see him in the postseason -- and maybe for more than just the wild-card game.

10. The collapse of the Rangers and Phillies.

The Rangers were supposed to be in the midst of a dynasty. The Phillies had become one of the game's power players with their run of division titles. Instead, both teams have declined into oblivion, the Rangers due to an unnatural number of injuries (including season-ending neck surgery for offseason acquisition Prince Fielder) and the Phillies due to the predictable affliction of age. It may be a long time before either is competitive again.

Reds overcome scare, get much-needed win

July, 12, 2014
Jul 12
12:45
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The Cincinnati Reds got a scare Friday night when manager Bryan Price and athletic trainer Paul Lessard were forced to visit Mat Latos on the mound in the third inning, shortly after Chris Heisey's lovely diving catch to steal a hit from Gaby Sanchez, and then again in the fifth after Latos came grimacing off the mound.

Both times, Latos stayed in the game, and the problem turned out to be back spasms, not his arm. The back spasms might have stemmed from Latos -- who is built like a pitcher, not a sprinter -- being forced to run hard to first base to try to stay out of a double play in the second. (He failed.) In the end, Latos left after just 74 pitches in five innings, and noting that it's not his arm gives cold comfort after the Reds' co-ace (with Johnny Cueto) missed much of the first half recovering from surgery on his left knee.

Latos had a shaky fourth inning, when he grooved a couple of pitches to exactly the hitters you don't groove pitches to, giving up home runs to Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez, whose shot was a three-run blast. But there's a good chance the poor pitches were caused in part by Latos pitching in pain, and one bad inning doesn't change the fact that Latos is an excellent pitcher whom the Reds cannot afford to add to their injury hit parade, which already includes:

Every team has injuries, but the Reds have seen their core decimated. Votto is one of the best hitters in the game. Hamilton is having a surprisingly good year, with better-than-expected defense buoying a WAR (FanGraphs version) that rates behind only the All-Star quartet of Mike Trout, Carlos Gomez, McCutchen and Adam Jones among center fielders. Bailey is 11th in baseball in innings pitched over the past three years, and his ERA over that span is a bit better than league average. Marshall has a 168 ERA+ since 2010 as a high-leverage reliever despite lacking big-time fastball gas. And that list doesn't include the 15 or so starts that Latos already missed or the month and a half the Reds endured without 100 mph man Aroldis Chapman.

All told, the Reds might consider themselves fortunate to have come into Friday's contest against the Pirates just 2 1/2 games back of Milwaukee in the NL Central and just half-game back of the second wild-card spot. Such is the National League Central, with the division-leading Brewers having lost 10 of 11 after falling to the Cardinals on Friday. Speaking of the Cardinals, they're not playing at all like the Cardinals even before losing Yadier Molina, arguably their best player, for two to three months, with the Pirates somehow hanging around despite their second-best player being all-or-nothing slugger Alvarez.

If the NL Central is a war of attrition, the Reds are losing at a rapid rate, and their lack of quality depth is shining through. Latos, should he miss more time, would presumably be replaced by David Holmberg, a polish-first pitcher without great stuff who hasn't missed bats in Triple-A. Tony Cingrani would be a nice option had he not gone down with a shoulder injury shortly after his demotion to Louisville earlier this year. He hasn't pitched since.

This is on top of the team's best idea for a Votto replacement: Brayan Pena, a 32-year-old catcher with a 77 major league OPS+. Pena's never hit before. He's not going to hit now. He's not even all that likely to match Votto's well-regarded defense. The Reds surely know all this; there's just nothing to be done about it at this point short of a trade. They could play Donald Lutz or Neftali Soto, but the former is a 25-year-old who's hit .227/.299/.370 in Triple-A this year and the latter ... well, the latter is actually hitting in the minors, but the Reds have chosen Pena over him both times Votto has gone down, and they know a lot more about Soto than we do. The pattern repeats itself at second base, where Ramon Santiago is now installed. Santiago has gone deep into the playoffs as a member of the Detroit Tigers the past couple of years, but not on his merits: He's a 34-year-old whose main distinction in his career is leading the league in sacrifice bunts in 2003.

On the other hand, baseball being baseball, Friday's game showed that all is hardly lost for Cincinnati. Faced with a 5-1 deficit in the bottom of the seventh, the Reds began to come back with a two-run rally in the seventh helped by Alvarez airmailing an easy throw into somewhere in the vicinity of the loge section of the seats. (Lutz contributed to this rally with a sharp ground single.) In the eighth, against All-Star Tony Watson, Cincinnati closed the gap with a Devin Mesoraco homer, then tied and took the lead on four consecutive singles, the last two from Santiago and Pena.

After Chapman engaged in his standard ninth inning (three batters, three strikeouts, eight pitches clocked at 100 mph or higher), the Reds had hung Watson with his first loss of the season and gained a game on Pittsburgh as well as Milwaukee. Not bad for a bunch of replacements who saw their ace head to the clubhouse early in the game.

The Reds' position players are what they are, and what they are isn't great. Still, worse hitters than Santiago and Pena have had a couple of hot months, and if Latos and Bailey are healthy, the pitching is formidable, certainly good enough to carry the team at least into the NL wild-card game.

Jason Wojciechowski writes for Beanball on the SweetSpot Network.

The Milwaukee Brewers looked so out-of-sync and vulnerable in losing four straight games to the Philadelphia Phillies at home this week, it's only natural that St. Louis and Cincinnati would aspire to reach the All-Star break in first place.

They're certainly not going to arrive in one piece.

Injuries have a way of mucking up the storyline and altering the conventional wisdom in sports, but Thursday unfolded in an especially chaotic way in the National League Central. The carnage began when the Cardinals lost catcher Yadier Molina for 8-12 weeks with a torn ligament in his right thumb. Shortly thereafter, the Reds announced that second baseman Brandon Phillips will miss six weeks with a torn ligament in his left thumb.

Phillips' absence, coupled with the loss of Joey Votto to the DL, will put an additional crimp in a Reds offense that has had trouble getting much traction. Even though his .701 OPS this season is the lowest of his 8 -year run with Cincinnati, Phillips has hit second, third and fourth in the Reds' lineup and made a cameo appearance in the fifth spot. He's averaged 150 games a season since his arrival in Cincinnati in 2006, and he's a four-time Gold Glove Award winner with an aggregate defensive runs saved of plus-55 since 2007.

But the loss of Phillips still pales in comparison to the impact and potential fallout of Molina's injury in St. Louis.

The numbers and Molina's settling influence behind the plate combine to place him near the top of baseball's "most indispensible player" list. Since 2011, Molina leads big-league catchers in WAR (17.5) and batting average (.309) and ranks second to Buster Posey with an .827 OPS. During that span, the Cardinals have a 275-203 record (for a .575 winning percentage) when he starts and a 50-51 mark (.495) when he doesn't.

As the Elias Sports Bureau notes, the Cardinals have a staff ERA of 3.53 with Molina and 3.81 without him over the past five seasons. They've erased 40.9 percent of opposing base stealers during that time frame, compared to 31.9 percent with all their non-Molina catchers.

So when Molina stood at his locker at Busch Stadium on Thursday and told reporters that he "almost cried" when he learned the extent of his injury, St. Louis manager Mike Matheny, his teammates and the front office all could relate.

"It's the equivalent of losing Adam Wainwright," said an American League scout. "Yadi is one guy in the lineup, but this affects 12 guys on the pitching staff. Tony Cruz is a great backup and I guarantee you he's learned a ton from Yadi just by osmosis. But there's no way he can replace Yadi offensively, and Yadi is by far the best defensive catcher in all of baseball. It's going to be a challenge."

Like several of his front-office peers, St. Louis GM John Mozeliak is aiming at a moving target in his quest to make upgrades by the July 31 deadline. There was an on-line frenzy this week over the possibility of a Jake Peavy-to-St. Louis trade. But the reality is, the Cardinals' rotation is second in the National League with a 3.20 ERA and a .238 batting average against, and Joe Kelly should give the team a lift when he returns from a hamstring injury Friday against the Brewers. The Cardinals will also have a better handle after the All-Star break whether Michael Wacha can return from a stress reaction in his right shoulder and help them in August and September.

Of late, Mozeliak has given just as much thought to upgrading an offense that ranks 13th in the NL in runs scored. But where do the Cardinals make changes? They're awash in outfielders, and first baseman Matt Adams and shortstop Jhonny Peralta aren't going anywhere. One possible scenario involves shifting Matt Carpenter to second base and making a run at, say, Chase Headley, to play third. The Cardinals could also leave Carpenter at third and try to add a second baseman. But Kolten Wong is 6-for-14 with three homers since his return from the disabled list last weekend, so maybe he's part of the solution at second.

Asked about the team's next course of action in an email exchange, Mozeliak replied, "We have time to determine our next step." But Mozeliak will almost certainly be on the lookout for a veteran catcher to help take some pressure off Cruz. There aren't an abundance of options.

A.J. Pierzynski, just designated for assignment by Boston, is not on the Cardinals' radar, according to a baseball source. Although the Red Sox probably aren't keen on the idea of moving David Ross after dumping Pierzynski (and irritating free-agent-to-be Jon Lester in the process), one NL scout thinks Ross would be an ideal fit in St. Louis.

"He won't hit much and he can't catch every day, but he handles pitchers as good as anybody in the major leagues," the scout said. "That's who I would go after in a heartbeat."

John Buck, cut loose by Seattle earlier this week, is a possibility. Carlos Ruiz is on the disabled list with a concussion and has more than $20 million left on his contract with the Phillies, so he's not an option. Kurt Suzuki would be a wonderful fit, but one baseball source said the Twins aren't ready to trade him "just yet." Suzuki is also an American League All-Star who's hitting .303 with a 2.1 WAR this season, so it wouldn't be out of line for the Twins to ask for a Stephen Piscotty or Randal Grichuk from St. Louis' ample supply of outfield prospects. Good luck with that.

The Cardinals aren't the only NL Central team in shopping mode. Cincinnati was already in need of a left-field upgrade before Votto and Phillips went down and further weakened the lineup. Pittsburgh could use a veteran starter, and Milwaukee made the decision Thursday to shift Marco Estrada to the bullpen and summon top prospect Jimmy Nelson from Triple-A Nashville, where he was 10-2 with a 1.46 ERA and 114 strikeouts in 111 innings. Brewers GM Doug Melvin has maintained that he has no plans to trade for another starter, but he's likely to at least try and fortify the bullpen for the stretch run.

That's where things stand at the moment. But in a tightly-bunched Central, the four contenders know they're just an awkward slide, a pulled hamstring or an achy elbow away from seeing their best-laid plans altered. For the division's general managers, the three weeks leading up to the trade deadline will be a waiting game and a chess match. For the players, it's a war of attrition.
An early theme of the 2014 season was parity: Through the first two months, just about every team could still sell themselves on a potential playoff chase. But the last month changed all that, especially in the National League, which has sorted itself into contenders and bad teams. A lot of bad teams.

The two groups:

Contenders: Brewers, Dodgers, Nationals, Braves, Giants, Cardinals, Reds, Pirates.

The bad teams: Diamondbacks, Rockies, Cubs, Phillies, Padres, Mets.

That leaves only the Marlins in the mediocrity of the middle.

Some of those bad teams are likely to get worse. The Cubs just traded Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. The Diamondbacks lost Bronson Arroyo and traded Brandon McCarthy. The Rockies' pitching staff has been decimated with injuries. The Phillies are some form of unwatchable wretchedness right now.

All this means the remaining schedule for the playoff contenders could play a vital role in who wins the divisions and who wins the wild cards. So let's see how many games each of the contenders has remaining against our six bad teams.

Nationals (33) -- Mets (13), Phillies (13), Rockies (3), Padres (4).
Braves (27) -- Mets (8), Phillies (9), Cubs (3), Padres (7). They also have three against AL weakling Texas.

Brewers (19) -- Mets (4), Phillies (2), Cubs (10), Padres (3).
Cardinals (26) -- Phillies (3), Cubs (10), Padres (7), Rockies (3), Diamondbacks (3).
Reds (18) -- Mets (3), Cubs (8), Rockies (4), Diamondbacks (3).
Pirates (23) -- Phillies (4), Cubs (6), Padres (3), Rockies (6), Diamondbacks (4).

Dodgers (31) -- Cubs (7), Padres (13), Rockies (6), Diamondbacks (5).
Giants (37) -- Mets (4), Phillies (7), Cubs (3), Padres (7), Rockies (7), Diamondbacks (9).

Strength of schedule can be overrated, but you can clearly see the potential ramifications here. With four good teams, the NL Central teams have much tougher remaining schedules than the Nationals/Braves and Dodgers/Giants. The NL Central teams may beat up on each other, opening the door for the two wild cards to come from the NL East and NL West.

Digging deeper into the NL Central, here's how many games each has remaining against the other three contenders:

Brewers (28) -- Cardinals (13), Reds (9), Pirates (6).
Cardinals (31) -- Brewers (13), Reds (10), Pirates (8).
Reds (28) -- Brewers (9), Cardinals (10), Pirates (9).
Pirates (23) -- Brewers (6), Cardinals (8), Reds (9).

Something tells me those 13 remaining Brewers-Cardinals games will go a long ways towards deciding the division title.
Steve Mancuso of Redleg Nation wrote about Jay Bruce playing first base in Monday's game for the Reds:
First of all, if you think Joey Votto isn’t going on the DL, I’ve got some World Series tickets from 2013 to sell you. Face value.

Second, this is a huge, gigantic, enormous hit defensively in the OF and likely at 1B, as Jay Bruce *plays the infield* for the first time in his career.

Third, in the short run, all this means is that we get double the crappy left-field platoon. This was always the problem with the plan to play Devin Mesoraco at 1B; it just meant we got a light-hitting catcher in the lineup. The "Hey, we can play so-and-so for Joey Votto" works best when the new player in the lineup isn’t a terrible hitter.

The most important issue is the first one. It doesn't matter how the Reds ultimately patchwork the lineup once Votto lands on the DL as expected. The Reds need Votto if they are going to make the playoffs; better yet, they need a healthy Votto. He has essentially been playing on one leg, and it's showed in his numbers. Since returning from a DL stint earlier this year, he has hit .250 with zero home runs and a .699 OPS, as opposed to .859 before the DL.

"It's becoming apparent in the quality of his play that it's not just something that's an inconvenience," Reds manager Bryan Price said. "It's getting to the point where it's very difficult for him to compete."

Justin Havens of ESPN Stats & Information and "Baseball Tonight" host Jon Sciambi also pointed out that Votto hasn't been the same hitter since he injured his knee sliding into third base in a game against the Giants on June 29, 2012. Before that, he had a career slugging percentage of .559, including .600 in his 2010 MVP season, .531 in 2011 and .639 in 2012 before that slide. Since then, he owns a .459 slugging percentage, and the numbers show he's especially been less effective on outside pitches.

Critics have suggested Votto is too passive at the plate. As Justin points out, however, Votto has actually swung more often at outside pitches; he's just not getting the ball in the air and driving it with power as often. This could be because of the knee and hamstring injuries.

The immediate problem for the Reds is that, without Votto, this is a lineup with OBP issues. Entering Monday's game, Billy Hamilton had a .301 OBP, Brandon Phillips .308 and Zack Cozart .274. Bruce has yet to get on track with a .312 OBP and eight home runs, but he's never been a big OBP guy anyway (.329 career). Mesoraco and Todd Frazier made the All-Star Game with big first halves, but can they repeat those performances?

The long-term problem for the Reds is that this is the first season of the 10-year extension Votto signed in April 2012, and the Reds will owe him $213 million after this season. A first baseman without much power and a bad knee isn't going to be worth that kind of money, even if Votto can continue to post OBPs around .400.

That's in the future. For now, I'm not sure the Reds can score enough runs to stay in the tough National League Central race. The rotation has kept the Reds over .500 with the second-best ERA in the majors, but what are the odds Johnny Cueto runs a 1.99 ERA in the second half and Alfredo Simon goes 11-3 with a 2.78 ERA?

Hey, it could happen. Bruce could swat 20 home runs in the second half, Mesoraco and Frazier could stay hot, and the Reds could pick up an outfielder who provides value for two months. Maybe Votto just needs to rest his hamstring for a couple weeks.

The NL Central is a four-team race right now. But if Votto's injury issues limit him the rest of the way, I see it turning into a three-team race.
Random thoughts for a Monday morning ...

1. As Buster Olney wrote the other day, the Jeff Samardzija-Jason Hammel trade just ramped up the cost for David Price. If the Cardinals want him, they better start with Oscar Taveras. If the Dodgers want him, they’re going to have to start with Joc Pederon or Corey Seager.

2. Joey Votto has basically been playing on one leg, so it’s no surprise that it appears he’s heading to the DL. I’ve been saying I still expect a four-team race in the NL Central, but with Votto struggling and Jay Bruce still yet to get untracked (he just snapped an 0-for-26 skid), the Reds are looking like the fourth-best team in that division.

3. Always love the All-Star controversies this time of year. Many deserving players got left off the AL roster -- Chris Sale, part of the final player vote, is one of the top five or six starters in the game. I can’t believe the players actually think Mark Buehrle and Scott Kazmir are better pitchers and have to think they failed to vote for Sale only because of his time on the DL.

4. If Giancarlo Stanton ends up starting at DH for the NL, the backup outfield pool will be pretty weak -- Hunter Pence, Charlie Blackmon and utility man Josh Harrison could end up deciding home-field advantage for the World Series. Of course, Mike Matheny could just play Andrew McCutchen, Yasiel Puig and Carlos Gomez the entire game.

5. That’s one of the incongruous things about Matheny selecting Harrison, Tony Watson and Pat Neshek: He clearly selected them for late-game matchup and versatility, to give the NL a better chance of winning. I certain understand that reasoning. But if winning is so important, then play some of your best players the entire game. Why bench Troy Tulowitzki just to get Starlin Castro a couple of at-bats if you're trying to win the game?

6. While Sale is the guy I’d give my final player vote to in the AL, I hope Garrett Richards eventually finds his way on to the team. He had another great outing on Sunday against the Astros with 11 strikeouts while averaging a career-high 97.3 mph with his fastball. He’s 6-0 with a 1.45 ERA since June 1. That sounds like an All-Star to me.

7. Of course, he faced the strikeout-prone Astros. Rookies George Springer and Jonathan Singleton went a combined 0-for-8 with seven K’s. Singleton is hitting .168 with 46 strikeouts in his first 32 games. Springer’s contact issues have been well documented. Domingo Santana was sent down after whiffing 11 times in his first 13 at-bats. As promising as those three guys are, and while strikeouts aren’t necessarily a bad thing for hitters, you do wonder if you can have too many strikeout-prone hitters in the lineup. We’ll see how these guys develop and whether it becomes a long-term issue for Houston.

8. Underrated: Kole Calhoun.

9. Love the idea of Justin Morneau returning to Minnesota, but Anthony Rendon or Anthony Rizzo are clearly better players and more deserving of final player honors in the NL.

10. Now trending on Twitter: “LeBron James,” “Cleveland” and “Cavs.” How awesome would that be? But it’s not really going to happen, is it?

11. Andrew McCutchen: Making another run at MVP honors. Since June 1, he’s hit .364 with nine home runs and 31 RBIs.

12. Fun to watch play defense: Adam Eaton. Still can’t believe the Diamondbacks traded him and now they’re playing somebody named Ender Inciarte in center field.

13. Fun to watch hit: Jose Abreu. Loved the Abreu-King Felix showdown on Saturday. King Felix won as Abreu went 0-for-4 with a strikeout.

14. It’s starting to look like CC Sabathia will miss the rest of the season. Joe Girardi is usually an optimistic guy so if he’s saying Sabathia is done he’s probably done. So here’s a question: What if Sabathia is also finished as a quality pitcher? Hall of Famer? He’s 208-119 in his career with a 3.63 ERA and 54.1 WAR. He can stick around and add some wins and a little bit of WAR, but his winning percentage likely goes down and his ERA likely goes up. He’s close now and while improving his win total with otherwise mediocre pitching shouldn’t be the difference in making him a Hall of Famer at this point, he probably needs to get another 25-30 wins for serious consideration.

15. The Yankees also designated Alfonso Soriano for assignment, no surprise considering his struggles. I’m guessing somebody will give him a chance but with 71 strikeouts and just six walks his free-swinging approach finally got the best of him. Hell of a career though: 412 home runs, 289 stolen bases, seven-time All-Star. He was far from the perfect player but he delivered for a lot of years.

16. Underrated: Kyle Seager.

17. Edwin Encarnacion’s injury should open a spot for Seager or Ian Kinsler to make the All-Star Game.

18. Better than I thought he’d be: Scooter Gennett.

19. Just release Dan Uggla already.

20. Mike Trout needs to be in the Home Run Derby.

21. The Nationals have outscored their opponents by 59 runs. The Padres have been outscored by 51 runs. Both teams have one All-Star.

22. That was a terrific Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, right up there with the famous Federer-Rafael Nadal final. Federer won his first grand slam tournament in 2003 and is still competing for titles 11 years later. Amazing athlete.

23. Among qualified starters, toughest fastball to hit this year: Johnny Cueto, .164 average, .439 OPS.

24. Easiest fastball to hit: Ricky Nolasco has allowed a .364/.422/.618 line against his fastball. No surprise to Twins fans.

25. Easier fastball to hit than you would think: Batters are hitting .337/.381/.516 against Stephen Strasburg’s fastball.

26. Best curveball so far: Corey Kluber has held opponents to an .080 average and .219 OPS. (For comparison, batters have hit .156 against Adam Wainwright’s curve and .173 against Clayton Kershaw’s curve.)

27. Underrated: Corey Kluber.

28. Toughest slider so far: Johnny Cueto, again. Batters are hitting .176 with a .509 OPS against it.

29. Toughest changeup: In 178 plate appearances ending with a changeup, opponents are hitting .110/.136/.151 against Felix Hernandez.

30. I’m not counting the Rays out just yet.

31. Cool All-Star factoid: For the first time in American League history, the eight starting position players will come from eight different teams. Of course, Nelson Cruz is starting at DH, so there will be two Orioles in the starting nine.

32. For all the David Price to the Cardinals rumors, they need to start scoring runs and that’s going to have to happen from within as there just aren’t big impact bats out there (Marlon Byrd?). The Cardinals are 13th in the NL in runs and last in home runs. Trouble is, where’s the power going to come from? Matt Holliday has only five home runs, so he’s the logical answer, but there’s no reason to expect Matt Adams (nine) or Allen Craig (seven) to suddenly start blasting more home runs.

33. I like what I’ve seen from this Eugenio Suarez kid at shortstop for the Tigers. Not sure about his defensive chops yet but he’s been a positive at the plate.

34. The Blue Jays just got their butts kicked in Oakland and you have to wonder if this team already peaked. They were six games up on June 6 and now trail the Orioles by two games, having gone 9-19 in 28 games since that high-water mark. And don’t blame the pitching: The offense, which scored four runs in the four-game sweep to the A’s, has hit .235/.302/.366 since June 6.

35. Better than I thought he'd be: Dallas Keuchel.

36. Fun to watch: The Mariners bullpen has been lights out for two months. It has the best bullpen ERA in the majors, a 2.02 ERA since May 1 and 1.52 since June 1. Brandon Maurer, the failed starter, is the latest weapon down there, throwing smoke 97-mph smoke since he's been moved to relief.

37. Fun to listen to: My pals Eric Karabell and Tristan Cockcroft on the Fantasy Focus podcast. Here's today’s show, including ramifications of the Samardzija trade, the Votto and Encarnacion injuries and the Brandon McCarthy trade to the Yankees.

38. Hard to say if Tim Lincecum has improved or just benefited from facing some weak lineups of late. He does have a 1.75 ERA over his past five starts but two of those starts came against the Padres and one against the Cardinals. He has 25 strikeouts in 35 innings, so he hasn’t ramped up the K rate or anything. I’m not convinced he’s turned the corner just yet.

39. Not getting any recognition for a solid season: Justin Upton.

40. Underrated: Jose Quintana.

41. Pat Neshek is a great story, a minor league invite to spring training for the Cardinals and now an All-Star. I got into a debate on Twitter last night about All-Star relievers -- people were asking why guys like Jake McGee, Fernando Rodney, Wade Davis, Koji Uehara and others didn't make it despite great numbers. I pointed out that lots of relievers are having great seasons. It's just not that special to have 35 great innings out of the bullpen. As a point of reference, just look at some of last year's All-Star relievers: Steve Delabar, Brett Cecil, Edward Mujica, Sergio Romo, Jason Grilli, Jesse Crain. That said, if you're going to pick relievers, Neshek has been as good as any in the game so far.

42. Unique: Henderson Alvarez. He doesn't rack up strikeouts (70 in 115 innings) but that hard sinking fastball is hard to get into the air (five home runs allowed) and he's walked just 22 batters. I believe he's the real deal, which only reinforces the huge blow to the Marlins when Jose Fernandez went down.

43. Bryce Harper is 4-for-21 with nine strikeouts and two walks since coming off the DL. One Nationals fan tweeted me that he doesn't look completely healthy and has had some awkward swings. I don't the think the Nationals would have activated him if he wasn't healthy, but there's no doubt that Harper put added pressure on himself with his comments about how the Nationals' lineup should look. It's OK to say that if you're producing but not if you're striking out twice a game.

44. Remember that season of parity we were having? Things are starting to sort themselves out a bit. In fact, we suddenly have a fair share of bad teams instead of mediocre teams -- Rockies, Padres, Diamondbacks, Phillies, Rangers, Astros, Twins, maybe even the Red Sox. The Cubs will probably fade even more after Samardzija-Hammel trade. The Mets may or may not be bad instead of mediocre.

45. Which leads to: Tanking! That should be fun in the second half. Remember, it pays to finish with one of the worst 10 records.

46. Large person, large fastball: Dellin Betances.

47. Loving Gregory Polanco. I was admittedly a little skeptical, in part because I didn't want to fall prey to prospect hype. I've been most impressed with his approach at the plate -- 15 walks and 20 strikeouts in 25 games, nice to see after walking just 25 times in 62 games in Triple-A. If that kind of discipline continues, I like his ability to hit for a decent average and get on base. Then maybe next year comes the power.

48. Things I didn’t see coming: Jeff Locke. Now 2-1 with a 3.08 ERA in seven starts and he’s pitched seven-plus innings in five of those games.

49. Must-see TV on Friday: Jeff Samardzija versus Felix Hernandez.

50. Germany over Brazil. Argentina over the Netherlands.

We've reached the most fun part of the All-Star Game: Arguing about the final rosters.

The starters and reserves were named on Sunday and it was interesting to note the different philosophies of managers John Farrell and Mike Matheny in filling out their rosters. As expected, some worthy American League players were excluded and there were a couple surprising choices in the National League.

Some quick thoughts:

Worst American League starter: Derek Jeter, Yankees. While I actually don't have that big of an issue with Jeter starting -- there is no Troy Tulowitzki in the AL that he's keeping out of the lineup -- he's probably the worst starter we've had in a long time, hitting an empty .273 with mediocre defense and no power, worth 0.5 WAR so far. Matt Wieters was inexplicably voted in by the fans at catcher, but since he's out for the season, Salvador Perez will rightfully start in his place.

Worst National League starter: Aramis Ramirez, Brewers. Cincinnati's Todd Frazier is clearly the deserving starter at third base based on 2014 numbers while Ramirez is hitting .287 with 11 home runs. Considering Frazier, Matt Carpenter of the Cardinals and Anthony Rendon of the Nationals are better all-around players than Ramirez, his selection cost somebody an All-Star spot (Rendon is on the final player ballot).

Best ballot stuffing: Orioles and Brewers fans. Who says you need to play for the Yankees, Red Sox or Dodgers to have an edge in fan balloting? Adam Jones was never in the top three among outfielders until passing Yoenis Cespedes at the wire. He's a fine selection, however, and has come on strong after a slow April. Orioles fans also voted in Wieters and Nelson Cruz in that crowded DH slot that included Victor Martinez, Edwin Encarnacion, Brandon Moss and David Ortiz. Likewise, Carlos Gomez passed Giancarlo Stanton for the third outfield spot in the NL behind Yasiel Puig and Andrew McCutchen. Stanton clearly should be starting but Gomez is arguably one of the top three outfielders in the NL. Brewers fans, however, couldn't get Jonathan Lucroy voted in over Yadier Molina, so Lucroy will be the backup.

National League DH should be: Stanton. Pretty each choice here for Matheny. Heck, start him and let him play the entire game. A nation that never watches Marlins games should see this guy get four at-bats.

Jeff Samardzija, almost an All-Star. The players had actually voted for Samardzija as one of the five best starters in the NL, along with Johnny Cueto, Adam Wainwright, Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner. Samardzija had a 1.68 ERA through May, so you can see why he fared well in the balloting. His ERA had since climbed to 2.83 with some bad outings and he was replaced by Julio Teheran of the Braves.

Worst player selection: Charlie Blackmon, Rockies. The players actually did a much better job than they usually do and Blackmon's selection was the only dubious choice, a guy who had a monster April but is down to .295/.341/.463, mediocre numbers for a guy who plays in Colorado. To be fair, the NL lacked obvious choices for the fifth and sixth outfielders, but they somehow came up with a player ranked 21st among NL outfielders in FanGraphs WAR. Justin Upton, Ryan Braun, Billy Hamilton or even Rockies teammate Corey Dickerson (hitting .340) would have been better selections.

The AL crunch: Farrell had some tough choices in filling out his squad. His manager selections were Jon Lester (deserving and the only Red Sox rep), David Price (deserving and the only Rays rep), Glen Perkins of the Twins, Max Scherzer of the Tigers, Kurt Suzuki of the Twins (a third catcher), Encarnacion and Moss. I guess you have to carry three catchers and I don't have a problem with the Scherzer selection. Encarnacion was a lock with his big numbers so the final choice probably came down to Moss or another player.

Biggest snubs: Ian Kinsler, Tigers; Kyle Seager, Mariners. And that led to Kinser and Seager being this year's biggest snubs. Entering Sunday, Kinsler ranked third among AL position players in fWAR and Seager seventh. In Baseball-Reference WAR, they ranked third and sixth, so by either measure two of the AL's top 10 players didn't make it. It's not that an undeserving player made it -- the players voted in Jose Altuve and Adrian Beltre as the backups at second and third -- just that there were too many good players and not enough spots (unless you want to knock out a third catcher). You can debate the Moss selection, but I can see the desire to have the left-handed power off the bench if needed late in the game. (Remember, it counts!)

Matt Carpenter and Pat Neshek are good selections: Matheny picked two of his own players -- third baseman Carpenter and righty reliever Neshek. I'm sure both picks will be criticized but when you dig into the numbers, both are worthy choices. Carpenter isn't having as good a season as last year, but he's still 10th among NL position players in fWAR and 15th in bWAR. Please, I don't want to hear that Casey McGehee is more deserving.

As for Neshek, his numbers are outstanding: 0.78 ERA, 35 strikeouts, four walks and a .134 average allowed. He has been as dominant as any reliever in the game, even if he's not a closer. He's also a great story, once one of the game's top set-up guys with the Twins in 2007 but suffering years of injuries since. On the day the A's clinched the AL West on the final day of the 2012 season, his infant son died after just 23 hours. The Cardinals signed him in February to a minor league deal with an invite to spring training, so Neshek certainly qualifies as this year's most improbable All-Star (along with Dellin Betances of the Yankees).

I suspect Matheny also picked Neshek for late-game strategic purposes -- his sidearm delivery is killer on right-handed batters (although he has been just as effective against lefties this year), so you can see him matching up against Encarnacion or Jose Abreu if there's a big moment late in the game. Similarly, Matheny picked Pirates lefty reliever Tony Watson, a good strategic move since he had only three other lefties on the team.

Strangest selection: That picking reserves for strategic reasons also led to the selection of Pirates utility man Josh Harrison. I get it: He's having a nice season and can play multiple positions, but it's a little odd to pick a guy who doesn't even start regularly for his own team (reminiscent of the Omar Infante choice a few years ago). Rendon -- who has played second and third -- is the better player and Matheny already had versatility with Carpenter and Dee Gordon.

Best AL final man: Chris Sale, White Sox. Farrell went with five pitchers -- Sale, Dallas Keuchel, Corey Kluber, Garrett Richards and Rick Porcello. I wrote the other day that four of these guys would be battling for a spot or two (along with Scott Kazmir, who got voted on by the players). All are worthy but the best choice is pretty easy since Sale is one of the top starters in the game and would have otherwise already made the team if not missing some time with an injury.

Best NL final man: Anthony Rizzo, Cubs. Torn here between Rizzo and Rendon, but since Matheny has already loaded up with third basemen and second basemen, let's go with Rizzo in case you need to swing for the fences late in the game.

Suggested AL lineup: Jeter better hit ninth. Mike Trout, CF; Robinson Cano, 2B; Jose Bautista, RF; Miguel Cabrera, 1B; Nelson Cruz, DH; Adam Jones, LF; Josh Donaldson, 3B; Salvador Perez, C; Derek Jeter, SS. With Felix Hernandez on the mound.

Suggested NL lineup. Yasiel Puig, RF; Andrew McCutchen, CF; Troy Tulowitzki, SS; Giancarlo Stanton, DH; Paul Goldschmidt, 1B; Carlos Gomez, LF; Aramis Ramirez, 3B; Chase Utley, 2B; Yadier Molina, C. With Clayton Kershaw on the bump.
We're going division by division to look at what each team needs to do at the trade deadline and what may actually happen. As always, you can keep up with the latest trade talk at Rumor Central.


Chicago Cubs

Status: Moving parts to build the farm. Friday night's trade of Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the A's removed two of the biggest names that were available.

Biggest needs: Right now the Cubs have enjoyed some recent success, sporting a four-game win streak that included a sweep over the defending champion Boston Red Sox. However, it’s important to remember where this team is in the rebuilding process. Right now their biggest need is minor league talent, regardless of position, but with an emphasis on near major league-ready starting pitching. They didn't get that with Addison Russell, the 20-year-old shortstop in Double-A, but he was too talented to pass up.

Other possible trade chips: With the blockbuster deal with the A's, the Cubs' available pieces have been considerably depleted. There are still names on the roster that can be had, but they aren't impact players. Guys like Nate Schierholtz, Darwin Barney and Carlos Villanueva are all available, but all figure to be role players designed to help a team fill out the back part of a roster.

The future: The Cubs now have a logjam in the infield, with Starlin Castro, Javier Baez and Russell all capable of playing shortstop. You can eventually move one to second base and one to third, but Kris Bryant is also there at third. Since being drafted with the fourth overall pick in the 2013 draft, Bryant has been a freak of nature with the bat and has accelerated quickly through the system. The rise has been so fast and the success so big (.357, 29 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A) that a lot of Cub fans have begun to wonder if Bryant could see Wrigley this season. It will be interesting to see how all this works itself out and if Baez or Castro will eventually be used to acquire pitching.

-- Joe Aiello, The View from the Bleachers



Cincinnati Reds

Status: Bargain shoppers.

Biggest needs: The Reds are tenth in the National League in runs scored, so upgrading the offense should be the first priority for GM Walt Jocketty. Shortstop has been the least productive position, but at least Zack Cozart has been playing elite defense. Cincinnati would be better served trying to land a left fielder to replace the three-headed Ryan Ludwick/ Chris Heisey/ Skip Schumaker combination. The Reds also need to find an effective relief pitcher or two, as the bullpen has been one of the worst in the league, by almost any measure.

Possible trade targets: OF Seth Smith, OF Matt Joyce; a seventh-inning-type bullpen arm.

That prospect everyone will want but the Reds won’t want to trade: RHP Ben Lively tore through the California League before his promotion to Double-A Pensacola, posting a 10-1 record with a 2.28 ERA, 95 strikeouts, and only 16 walks in 13 starts. He has a live arm, and stands a good chance of competing for a spot in Cincinnati's rotation at some point in 2015.

Likely scenario: Seth Smith, an impending free agent, would look good in red and white, but it has been a long time since Jocketty took any direct action to improve the Reds by bringing in real talent from outside the organization. The most likely scenario, frankly, is that budget constraints and lack of trade bait cause him to continue sitting on his hands. Look for the Reds to seek to land a set-up reliever, possibly a lefty in light of Sean Marshall's continuing injury problems.

-- Chad Dotson, Redleg Nation



Milwaukee Brewers

Status: Trying to lock up the NL Central.

Biggest needs: The Brewers opened play on Saturday with a four-game lead over the Cardinals in the NL Central, which was tied for the largest lead in any division. They've done it by getting contributions from up and down the roster, so there really aren't a lot of big holes to fill here. The main areas of need are the bench, specifically a left-handed power bat who can play first base or a corner outfield spot and a utility infielder who can play short and third. They could also possibly use a right-handed reliever for setup.

Possible trade targets: OF Nate Schierholtz; 1B Adam Dunn; IF Kelly Johnson; RP Koji Uehara.

The untouchables: The Brewers' much-maligned farm system has taken a significant step forward this year, headlined by the breakout performance of starter Jimmy Nelson in Triple-A. Down in A-ball, OF Tyrone Taylor, SS Orlando Arcia and C Clint Coulter are having the kinds of seasons that would make them attractive players to ask for in trade. That being said, it's hard to imagine them giving up any of these players to fill these second- and third-tier needs the team has to fill.

What probably won't happen ... but might: Brewers owner Mark Attanasio and general manager Doug Melvin haven't been shy about making big, splashy moves when contending in the past, so we shouldn't completely rule out the earth-shattering blockbuster. The Brewers did send a scout to watch a recent David Price start, and he would give them the obvious ace that their more balanced rotation lacks. It's not likely because they could easily be outbid by teams with better systems and they don't really need to do it, but don't rule it out.

What probably will happen: Melvin has talked quite a bit in the local media about his desire to add a right-handed reliever who can pitch late in games, so unless either Tyler Thornburg or Jim Henderson get healthy over the next month something will probably happen on this front. Despite some recent protestations from Melvin that they don't have big needs for bats, it's hard to see them standing completely pat without adding at least one player who can hit off the bench.

-- Ryan Topp, Disciples of Uecker



Pittsburgh Pirates

Status: After a slow start, they're back in it. Since May, the Pirates are tied with the A's for the best record in the majors.

Biggest needs: Starting rotation. The rotation has been better since May 2, but even then the 3.90 ERA is just ninth in the National League. Among position players, first base remains the biggest hole, as Pirates first basemen (mostly Ike Davis) have been worth 1.4 wins below average. They already made the Jason Grilli-Ernesto Frieri trade but could use another bullpen arm for depth.

Possible trade targets: SP A.J. Burnett ($15 million mutual option or $7.5 million player option for 2015); 1B Justin Morneau ($6.75 million in 2015); SP Jon Lester (free agent); SP David Price (under team control for one more season); RP Chad Qualls ($3 million in 2015); RP Tony Sipp.

Likely scenario: Jeff Locke and Vance Worley have helped solidify the rotation of late with Francisco Liriano on the DL, but you probably can't rely on those two to keep this up (although Locke's walk rate has been much improved from last season). The rotation is OK enough that it makes sense for the Pirates to only go after one of the big guns -- which means Price or Lester, now that the Cubs traded Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. The Pirates have pitching prospects like Nick Kingham and Tyler Glasnow that are certainly interesting, but the Pirates have to get closer to the Brewers before management would consider such a big trade and added salary. As for first base, maybe Clint Hurdle should see if super utility guy Josh Harrison could handle the position to at least platoon with Davis.

In the end, the Pirates probably stick with what they have and hope Liriano and Gerrit Cole have better second halves and that one of Locke or Worley manages to hold his own.

-- David Schoenfield



St. Louis Cardinals

Status: Chasing the Brewers while in the thick of the wild-card race.

Biggest needs: It's easy to point to the rotation now that Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia are on the disabled list, but the offense is just 13th in the NL in runs while ranking last in home runs. Second base has been a disaster, with a combined line of .201/.268/.260.

Possible trade targets: SP David Price; SP Jon Lester; 2B Aaron Hill ($12 million per year in 2015 and 2016); 2B/OF Ben Zobrist ($7.5 million in 2015); 3B Martin Prado ($11 million in 2015 and 2016).

The big chip: OF Oscar Taveras remains one of baseball's top prospects, despite a lackluster .196 mark in 15 games with the Cardinals earlier this season (he's hit .318/.370/.502 in Triple-A).

Likely scenario: The Cardinals and Dodgers remain the two teams most often tied to Price, largely because they have quality and depth in the farm system to deal from. A lot depends on the prognosis of Wacha; if he can't come back, the Cardinals are more likely to go after Price or maybe Lester if he becomes available. That said, Kolten Wong and Mark Ellis haven't produced at second and that could be filled much easier (Matt Carpenter can always move back there if they go after a third baseman like Prado). Either way, considering the ages of guys like Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday, Adam Wainwright and Allen Craig, there's some imperative for St. Louis to make a deal this year.

--David Schoenfield

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