In part 1 of this 2 part series, we took a look at the teams that are either well out of the race or needing to make a decision about whether to make a long shot run at a playoff spot. This article will take a look at the 7 teams that are firmly in the “contender” category in the National League.
New York Mets (39-36)
If you had to have me pick one of these 7 teams most likely to fade from playoff contention, it would be the New York Mets. Everything about the team seems like it is a smoke and mirrors illusion. They have one star player (David Wright), a resurgent pitcher (Johan Santana), and a pitcher pitching well above his career norms (R.A. Dickey). The rest of the team is stacked with players working above their heads. Now if you substitute “Andrew McCutchen”, “A.J. Burnett”, and “James McDonald” for those three players above, the same is probably being said about the Pirates right now across the country.
Chance of making a trade to make a playoff push – 45%
Potential financial flexibility to make a trade – This past offseason, the Mets had the largest season-to-season drop in payroll in MLB history. Thanks to the Madoff scandal fallout, the Wilpons were forced to drop payroll from $142M to $94M. The Wilpons have been selling minority shares in the team at $20M a pop to generate additional investment capital in the team.
The Mets did not plan on being this competitive in 2012. By slashing payroll and not competitively pursuing Jose Reyes as a free agent, the Mets were entering a half-rebuild phase until they could straighten out their financial house. The Mets great start has changed external opinions perhaps, but the inner sanctum of the Mets has most likely not changed their plan too much. That plan will be to hold steady in 2012 and gradually add payroll over the next 2-3 years, especially when the overpaid contracts of Johan Santana ($25.5M in 2013) and Jason Bay ($18.1M in 2013) come off the books.
What they need – Bullpen help would probably top the list, as their relievers are bland and ineffective by and large. Middle infielders and first base would be on the list, too.
Potential minor league assets to trade – Just last year, the Mets turned 2 months of Carlos Beltran into pitcher Zack Wheeler, who is a legitimate top of the rotation pitcher. Coupled with Matt Harvey, the Mets now have their future 1-2 rotation punch tuning up their games in AA and AAA, respectively. It is hard to believe that the Mets would be willing to give away one of those two, especially Wheeler who they just obtained last year, in a deal for an impact player needed to make the playoffs. The remainder of their system is comprised of players that are the same types of average minor leaguers that every system has.
Atlanta Braves (39-34)
The Braves just recently have had to adjust to life without staff ace and 2012 Cy Young candidate, Brandon Beachy, who is out for the next 12 months after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Tommy Hanson and the venerable Tim Hudson are still on hand to carry the staff, but after those two it gets dicey. Jair Jurrjens is a shell of his former self from 2011 and Mike Minor has been fairly awful.
The Braves have a very balanced, albeit unspectacular, offense. There are no glaring weak spots in the lineup, especially now that Andrelton Simmons has come up and hit and fielded well at shortstop. Although their bullpen hasn’t been as dominant, the game is still pretty much over if you get the ball to Craig Kimbrel with a lead in the 9th inning.
Chance of making a trade to make a playoff push – 50%
Potential financial flexibility to make a trade – The Braves are owned by media conglomerate Liberty Media. Over the years, they’ve kept payroll in the mid-$90M range fairly consistently. This year the payroll sits at $93.5M. Interestingly, the somewhat lethargic fanbase of the Braves has started to support their team to a much higher level this year, as attendance is up over 5,000 fans per game than in 2011. This is on the heels of that epic collapse during September, which is probably encouraging to ownership as they decide whether or not to authorize an investment for a playoff run.
What they need – For the short term, the Braves seem willing to let Jurrjens get first crack at re-establishing himself in the rotation, with Kris Medlen and Julio Teheran lurking in the shadows. A 7th inning type of guy would help lessen the strain on the bullpen, too.
Potential minor league assets to trade – Teheran still has age (21) on his side, but it is becoming somewhat apparent that he may not be as dominant as he was originally thought to be. He still has enough name cache that he can be a very intriguing part of a deal for a key starter, though. With Simmons establishing himself, perhaps Tyler Pastornicky’s best value is as a trade chip.
St. Louis Cardinals (40-35)
It would easy to dismiss the Cardinals as having a Pujols-hangover or World Series hangover or blame their mediocre season on too many injuries to key guys like Chris Carpenter, Lance Berkman, Jon Jay, and now Jaime Garcia. But the Cardinals were thought to be completely out of the race on September 1st, until the Braves collapsed while the Cardinals got white hot at the right moment. They rode that momentum to a very unlikely World Series championship.
This year Carlos Beltran has done his best to replace Pujols’s offensive production. The St. Louis Cardinals as a team have not missed much of a beat in terms of overall offensive production, although it has cooled down in the month of June (5.1 runs/game in April, 5.4 in May, 4.4 in June). In contrast to the Diamondbacks from Part 1, the Cardinals have a much easier option in front of them for the playoffs by trying to win the mediocre NL Central, in addition to playing for the wild cards.
Chance of making a trade to make a playoff push — 60%
Potential financial flexibility to make a trade — On the heels of a World Series championship, the Cardinals are attracting 4,400+ more fans this year than in 2011. Part of that expected increased attendance and extra gate revenue from the 2011 playoffs was built into the 2012 payroll number of $111M, a record for the team. I’m sure that there are a few extra coins in the cushions for a playoff acquisition if the front office feels they can do it.
What they need — The Cardinals are stacked on offense, but they wouldn’t turn down a 4th outfielder or an impact 2B if one became available. They do need another starter to compensate for Adam Wainwright’s return from Tommy John surgery, Chris Carpenter’s nerve condition, and Jaime Garcia’s elbow troubles. The Cardinals do not have a dynamic shutdown presence in their bullpen and could use 1 or 2 bullpen pieces.
Potential minor league assets to trade — The Cards have a great farm system that offers intriguing options in all facets of the game. They have two front of the rotation pitchers in Shelby Miller and Carlos Martinez. They have a fascinating future batting champ in outfielder Oscar Taveres and infielders Zach Cox and Kolten Wong. All of these players are 1-2 years maximum away from helping the Cardinals or any other team. The Cardinals have some payroll issues coming up in future years, so keeping cost-controlled talent is important, but they might be willing to part with 1 or 2 if it means a key player comes back.
San Francisco Giants (42-33)
It’s easy to make jokes about the Giants and their GM Brian Sabean (I’ve done it quite a bit over the years, myself). As the story goes, if you have ever been described as “a veteran presence”, “gritty”, or a “gamer”, Sabes will scoop you up in a trade that appears lopsided in favor of the non-Giants team. But looking over their roster, their key players are all either in their primes or still a few years younger than their prime.
The same concept holds true on the pitching side, too, with their top 2 pitchers (Matt Cain – 27, Madison Bumgarner – 22) and erstwhile staff ace (Tim Lincecum – 28) in their primes or pre-prime. The bullpen is a little more gray around the temples, but the loss of Brian Wilson in Spring Training has been mitigated completely by Santiago Casilla.
The Giants are doing everything well enough and getting fantastic individual performances from certain players. They are a very solid overall group with few glaring holes. Their rotation, including graybeards Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong, is solid from top to bottom — as long as Tim Lincecum comes out of his funk.
Chance of making a trade to make a playoff push — 70%
Potential financial flexibility to make a trade — The Giants already mushroomed their payroll to $131M in 2012 from $118M in 2011. It’s hard to imagine that the Giants can take on much more payroll, but it’s also hard to imagine them standing pat, too.
What they need — The Giants are getting very little offense out of their middle infielders, so if someone of that ilk becomes available, the Giants may make a play. An extra bullpen arm, a common refrain among most contenders, could also be used too.
Potential minor league assets to trade — The farm system is not barren, but it’s not fallow either. Gary Brown has had a down year in Double A after his huge year in High A in 2011. The rest of the system has some high upside/high risk players like Carlos Peguero and Ehire Adrianza, plus interesting catching prospects like Andrew Susac and Tommy Joseph. There are also some guys that profile as back-end bullpen guys, too.
Cincinnati Reds (41-32)
At first glance, it seems as if the Cincinnati Reds should be way better than they are. Having a perennial MVP candidate like Joey Votto performing even above his usual ridiculous standards (.355/.481/.645, 1126 OPS, 199 OPS+), with a well-above average supporting cast of regulars would seem to be a great start.
Add in Johnny Cueto and off-season trade acquisition, Mat Latos, and you have a fantastic 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation. Combined with Homer Bailey, Mike Leake, and Bronson Arroyo and that should be the makings of a great pitching staff and team. The problem is that aside from Cueto, the other 4 pitchers have been relatively “blah” and Latos has been a big disappointment (his latest 13 strikeout, complete game aside).
All that said, the Reds are still in first place and are the most complete team in the weaker NL Central. One or two trades could springboard this team ahead of the Central decisively and make them a solid pennant contender.
Chance of making a trade to make a playoff push — 75%
Potential financial flexibility to make a trade — The Reds have seen their attendance increase by 3,800+ more fans per game over 2011. Their payroll is already at its highest level ever ($87M) and they have numerous long-term payroll commitments to consider, so any move would have to be for a short-term rental.
What they need — The Reds’ bullpen is fantastic with Aroldis Chapman, Jose Arredondo and Sean Marshall leading the pack. But as stated above, the rotation could use an extra arm to slot in behind Cueto until Latos gets his act together. Their bench is rather weak, both in the infield and outfield, so the Reds would be wise to grab a veteran or two.
Potential minor league assets to trade — The Reds stripped out some of their top tier talent in the Latos trade (Alonso and Grandal) plus promoted Devin Mesoraco, Todd Frazier, and Zach Cozart to the major league team in 2012. Human rocket Billy Hamilton and Didi Gregorius are both middle infield options with high upsides, plus young arms Daniel Corcino and Robert Stephenson could return the yield that the Reds may desire.
Washington Nationals (42-30)
The Nationals in 2009 and 2010 pulled off the equivalent of what the Penguins did in the NHL draft to get Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby in back-t0-back years and then watch both of them develop into superstars. The Nationals were just terrible enough in 2008 and 2009 to receive Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper as their reward. Both players breezed through the minors and are now franchise cornerstones at the major league level.
Sensing that the major league team was on the verge of contention, the Nationals made the top trade of the offseason by acquiring Gio Gonzalez from the A’s for a large package of prospects. Gonzalez has made the transition to the NL with aplomb and is having a Cy Young-worthy season and has slotted in well behind Strasburg. The 5th starter for the Nationals, Ross Detwiler, has a 3.09 ERA/3.83 FIP/4.26 xFIP that would make him the #2 starter for most every other team in the NL this year.
Add in that their top 4 bullpen arms all have ERA’s under 2 and you can see why the Nationals have far and away the best pitching staff in the NL. The ownership of the Nationals has demonstrated their commitment to winning after not giving their fans a lot to cheer about since moving to Washington. The Nationals are for real and are one of the top 2 contenders for the pennant right now.
Chance of making a trade to make a playoff push — 90%
Potential financial flexibility to make a trade — The Nationals ballooned their payroll from $68M to $92M over the offseason. The moves and strong play have energized their fanbase, as 7,100+ more fans than in 2011. By all accounts, the Nationals will be strong players at the deadline for most of the key trade suspects.
What they need — Not starting pitching…or do they? With Strasburg returning from Tommy John surgery, the Nationals GM has said that they plan to monitor his innings and shut him down when they feel he’s had enough. Has the playoff push changed that mythical limit? Will the Nats need another arm for the playoffs? The Nationals have had to deal with numerous injuries to their position players this year, especially at catcher. The Nationals have also had a seemingly never-ending quest to find a steady CF, but it would be hard to see B.J. Upton and Michael Bourn in play for them.
Potential minor league assets to trade — The Gio Gonzalez trade stripped off most of the top talent by sending Brad Peacock, A.J. Cole, and Derek Norris to the A’s. It’s hard to see a Sammy Solis or Robbie Ray tickling many fancies at the deadline, but maybe the Nationals capacity to absorb salary will be their best asset.
Los Angeles Dodgers (43-32)
Not many people forecast the Dodgers to have this level of success in 2012. Last offseason they were mired in an ownership struggle that had yet to resolve itself. Their GM, not known as a ball of fire in the best of times, loaded up on a variety of mid-tier, 1 year deals for veterans. And that’s why baseball is a funny game.
Matt Kemp went white-hot supernova the first month of the season and practically carried the team of his Bison-like shoulders. He’s been hurt since mid-May, but catcher A.J. Ellis (136 OPS+) and Andre Ethier (133 OPS+) have helped anchor the lineup in his absence.
The always-friendly confines of Chavez Ravine have helped rejuvenate the careers of Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang in the rotation. Clayton Kershaw continues to be a Top 10 pitcher in the NL. The bullpen has Kenley Jansen as the closer with a group of solid, yet unspectacular, relievers behind him.
The game changing event for the Dodgers, though, happened in May when a group figure-headed by Magic Johnson purchased the Dodgers for $2 billion dollars. Billion. With a B. It’s pretty clear to me (and most of the folks involved in baseball) that the Dodgers will be major players at the deadline. You don’t spend $2 billion and then let the playoffs slip through your fingers.
Chance of making a trade to make a playoff push — 95%
Potential financial flexibility to make a trade — $2 billion dollars. They can find $5 to $10M, if need be, for a playoff run.
What they need — The Dodgers don’t have a great offense, as they’re getting next to nothing from SS Dee Gordon and 3B Juan Uribe, plus the consistently sub-par 1B James Loney. They could also use an extra OF, too.
Potential minor league assets to trade — Nearly all of the Dodgers’ top prospects are pitchers, which are always in high demand. Zach Lee, Chris Withrow, Nathan Eovaldi, and Allen Webster all could be on the move as trade bait for a key player. Chase Headley would make an infinite amount of sense for them, but it remains to be seen if the Padres would trade with a key rival.