Easily the most open division in the American League, the AL West had potentially four teams that could have made a playoff run at the beginning of the season. The Houston Astros remain heavy favorites, but the Seattle Mariners, Oakland Athletics, and Los Angeles Angels all had some belief they could make a run at the second Wild-Card spot. While the Angels may have become an afterthought after several injuries, the Mariners and A’s have locked themselves into a battle to feature in the AL Wild-Card game.
Thus, as the July 31 deadline approaches, which AL West teams will look to beef up their roster for a second-half push, and which will stand pat?
1 Houston Astros: Buy
The defending champions have an organization overflowing with talent and even though they have the second-best record, they have the best rotation in the majors, one of the best bullpens and a top three lineup, along with the Yankees and the Red Sox.
As a team, the Astros have the best BaseRuns record, the best Pythagorean record, and the best run differential in MLB. Houston probably has the best team in baseball, and they could still win the World Series if they made no moves at the trade deadline. But in baseball, the best team never has a 100% probability of winning, and no team has ever had too much talent. Houston, even with all its strengths, should add one or two pieces to increase its probability of winning.
Houston needs to add another reliever or two, preferably a closer. Hector Rondon, Collin McHugh, and Chris Devenski have all looked excellent in late-inning roles and while Tony Sipp and Will Harris have both performed well, the Astros need a closer. Ken Giles has performed as erratically as the climate in Rapid City. The Astros have fully trusted him with the ninth inning since late May, and the team demoted him to Triple-A as a “baseball decision.”
As he would for every contending team, Brad Hand would fit perfectly into the Astros bullpen. If the Nationals become sellers, then Kelvin Herrera could fulfill as a ninth-inning custodian. The Astros could also talk to the Cincinnati Reds about Raisel Iglesias. Even though the Reds have him under contract through 2020, the Cincinnati front office might want to get rid of him while it still can. He has easily had the worst season of his career. He has lost effectiveness with his fastball, allowing a .438 xwOBA with it, but his changeup and slider have become unhittable, sitting at .258 and .160 xwOBAs, respectively.
As they did with Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton, the Astros could acquire Iglesias while he has a lower value and then improves him by adjusting his pitch mix. Even if he does not improve appreciably, the Astros would still get a closer with a 2.36 ERA, 3.88 FIP, and 3.46 xFIP. If the Astros miss out on Brad Hand, Iglesias could stabilize the ninth inning for the Astros.
2 Seattle Mariners: Buy, if they can
The 2018 Seattle Mariners might be the luckiest team in baseball. Seattle’s Pythagorean and BaseRuns records suggest that they should have lost 10 and eight more games than they have and despite having won 19 more games than they have lost, they somehow have a -2 run differential. Seattle has an unsustainable 26-12 record in one-run games, though having Edwin Diaz with his 43.7% strikeout rate and 36 saves helps tremendously. As Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs pointed out, this team is winning a lot of close games. With the A’s surging right before the All-Star Break, and the Mariners having some genuine issues, the AL race for the second Wild Card spot might tighten.
Now, dear readers, let’s play a game. Name all the starting pitchers not named James Paxton. Did you get them? Did you answer Marco Gonzales? Did you remember Mike Leake getting traded to the Mariners last season? Did you remember Felix Hernandez still pitches for the Mariners? Did you think of Wade LeBlanc? If you did, award yourself with your third favorite chocolate bar. If you did not, do not worry, because the Mariners can do that worrying instead.
Collectively, the Mariners have a middling rotation, largely due to James Paxton’s brilliant performances. But apart from him, the Seattle lacks any real quality depth in the rotation, and the addition of anyone would improve the Mariners. Cole Hamels, Chris Archer, Nathan Eovaldi, Tyson Ross, and JA Happ could all come in as upgrades for Seattle's current rotation, but there's an issue: the Mariners have one of the worst farm systems in baseball, meaning they do not have the impactful, upper-level prospects to make a deal, so the team might not be able to make any moves at the deadline, even they need at least one, preferably two pitchers.
3 Oakland Athletics: Do nothing or maybe buy only small parts
Two weeks ago, the A’s looked like sellers. The Mariners had an eight-game lead for the second AL Wild Card spot and had just come off an eight-game win streak. But after winning seven of ten games leading into the All-Star break while the Mariners experienced a four-game slide, the A’s now only sit three games back. FanGraphs gives them 29.4% chance of making the playoffs. They have a legitimate shot of sneaking into the AL Wild Card Game with the roster they currently have. Since the A’s could overtake the Mariners without making any additions, and they probably will not overtake the Astros, Oakland does not need to unload the farm this year. They might be better staying put or only making small, inexpensive additions, if any at all. The A’s have enough to contend for years to come, so making a splashy move for 2018 could be detrimental for 2019 to 2023.
If Oakland wants to make an addition, adding an adequate, inexpensive starter should top the list. JA Happ and Nathan Eovaldi are probably the most expensive pitchers they could get regarding prospects. The A’s could also pick up the likes of Francisco Liriano and Tyson Ross without giving up too much. Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman have had mediocre years that could provide a reasonable middle to back-of-the-rotation support, but both have multiple years of team control left, so they will probably cost too much unless the A’s decide to take on a bad contract, which they should not do. Overall, Oakland should probably stick with what they have to do something; they should not mortgage the promising future to play a coin-flip game in New York.
4 Los Angeles Angels: Sell to reload, if possible
The Los Angeles Angels put in an effort last winter to build a team around Mike Trout. The Angels signed Zack Cozart, traded for Ian Kinsler, and won the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes. The Angels looked poised to make a playoff appearance, but real games in the spring and summer and a swarm of injury locusts attacked the roster, putting them largely out of Wild Card contention. Reloading for 2019 makes the most sense for the Angels right now.
Since the Angels rely so heavily on Mike Trout, the front office does not have many resources to trade. Zack Cozart and Ian Kinsler have thoroughly disappointed, and Cozart injured his shoulder and will miss the rest of the season. Andrelton Simmons and Justin Upton remain under contract until 2020 and 2022, and the Angels will want to keep both for 2019. Regarding starters, only Tyler Skaggs and Andrew Heaney could draw trade interest, and both have several years of team control, so contending teams would desire them, but the Angels' price would likely ask for major league ready talent, which would cost too much for today’s teams. Of all the Angels players, only Blake Parker might draw interest in a trade. Parker has recorded a reasonable 3.05 ERA, 3.60 FIP, and 3.68 xFIP in 2018 after having a career year in 2017. For any team looking to make any under the radar additions to the bullpen, Parker would fit the role perfectly.
5 Texas Rangers: Sell as much as possible
For Texas, the championship window has closed. All the fans can do now is acknowledge those who remain and say goodbye to this cycle's brilliance. They can take one last look back at Adrian Beltre's and Elvis Andrus' antics and Cole Hamels' steady presence on the mound, but the organization and its fans have to realize that they must move on.
Even in his down year, Cole Hamels persists as one of the more valuable starters available at the deadline, but the Rangers should not expect to get much in return for the 34-year-old lefty. He has recorded a 4.36 ERA, 5.05 FIP, and 4.10 xFIP, easily the worst line of his career. His ground ball rate has dipped below 45% for the first time since 2013, while his HR/FB ratio has jumped up to a shockingly high 20.2%. Normally, such a high rate does not sustain itself for an entire year, but Hamels' HR/FB ratio has sat at or above 12% for the previous three seasons. More worryingly, his hard hit against rate has climbed to 43.7% in 2018, 7.7% more than his previous worst mark in 2017, and second worst in the AL behind Jason Hammel. Cole Hamels has still generated interest, but the Rangers should not expect of a return.
Shin-Soo Choo, meanwhile, has had a resurgent season and posted some of the best numbers of his career. He has an exceptional .293/.405/.506 slash line and 148 wRC+, while he has produced a 46.7% hard-hit rate (according to FanGraphs, not Baseball Savant), the second highest rate of his career. Choo still plays catastrophic outfield defense, so he would best fit an AL team, such as the Cleveland Indians, where he can sometimes DH. Choo also has an expensive couple years left on his contract after this season. If Texas wants to get even mid-level prospects in return, they need to eat most or all of the money in the contract.
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