Baseball’s trade deadline is just around the corner, leaving front offices around the league just days to give an honest assessment of their team’s chances of making the playoffs and, for some, a championship run.
A few teams already have made their choice. The Chicago Cubs acquired left-handed ace Jose Quintana from the Chicago White Sox, mortgaging their future for a chance to become the first back-to-back World Series winners since 2000.
Shortly after, the New York Yankees pulled off a seven-player trade with the White Sox, picking up former all-star third baseman Todd Frazier, former all-star closer David Robertson and reliever Tommy Kahnle for prospects — three players coveted by their division rival, the Boston Red Sox.
All three teams appeared to be justified in their choice.
The White Sox were never a legitimate threat to make the playoffs this year, so it makes sense they would be sellers at the deadline, and the Yankees and Cubs are now expected to win 88 and 85 games, respectively, with decent chances of reaching the divisional series during the 2017 MLB playoffs.
The key for a true contender, though, is to get to the 90-win plateau. Since 1997, 33 teams of the 40 that eventually won the pennant were victorious in at least 90 regular season games. A large majority of recent World Series winners — 17 of the last 20 — also won 90 or more games that year. The lowest number of wins by an eventual champion was set by the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals, who won 83 games en route to a parade down Market Street.
That gives us some solid benchmarks against which to rate this year’s contenders and also shows us who should be buying at the July 31 MLB trade deadline.
Los Angeles Dodgers, 111 expected wins in 2017, 29.7 percent chance of winning the World Series
The team everyone is chasing. The Dodgers are the second-best hitting team in baseball this season, creating runs at a rate that is 12 percent higher than the league average after adjusting for league and park effects (112 wRC+), with the best pitching staff in the majors (3.37 FIP — what a team’s ERA would look like over a given period of time if the pitcher were to have experienced league average results on balls in play and league average timing).
They could, however, use another left-handed arm in the bullpen. Alex Wood solidified his move from the bullpen into the starting rotation after Julio Urias was lost to injury and is 11-0 with a 1.56 ERA, striking out 30.7 percent of batters faced this season, the sixth-highest among starters with at least 80 innings pitched. That leaves Luis Avilan as the only available left-handed reliever for the Dodgers. And among the teams the Dodgers could face on their way to the World Series, three, the Houston Astros, Washington Nationalsand Arizona Diamondbacks, are among the top four teams in hitting against right-handed pitchers.
Houston Astros, 106 expected wins, 17.7 percent chance of winning the World Series
The Astros have a 15 1/2 game lead in the division and are on cruise control until the playoffs.
This team can hit — it is creating runs at a rate that is 29 percent above average (129 wRC+), a level never before seen in baseball history, rivaling the power-hitting Yankees of 1927, a team led by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
Pitching, however, is an issue. Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers Jr. have started just 28 games between them, and Mike Fiers could come crashing down to earth any game now. His 3.75 ERA is well below his 5.18 FIP, indicating he is getting some fortunate bounces while on the mound.
If they can’t pry a starter from a team at the deadline, Houston should address its bullpen. The team’s reliever’s aren’t bad — they have allowed three fewer runs than expected this season when you account for men on base and outs recorded — but the Astros’ bullpen pales in comparison to some of the other World Series contenders, ranking them 15th in the league overall.
Washington Nationals, 97 expected wins, 9.7 percent chance of winning the World Series
Give the Nationals credit for acquiring relievers Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle from the Oakland Athletics on Sunday, but there is still a lot of work to do if Washington wants to be taken seriously as a title contender.
Its bullpen has allowed 40.6 more runs than expected this season — only the New York Mets’ relievers have allowed more, but only barely (40.7) — largely because of its inability to strike out batters (20.9 percent, lowest in the NL) and keep the ball in the park (1.6 home runs allowed per nine innings, the highest in baseball this season).
In fact, if the Nationals don’t find a way to prevent home runs soon, they could end up allowing the most home runs per nine innings since the 1950 Los Angeles Dodgers (1.71).
Arizona Diamondbacks, 93 expected wins, 4.9 percent chance of winning the World Series
The Diamondbacks made a move to shore up their outfield, acquiring slugger J.D. Martinez from the Detroit Tigers in exchange for three prospects, but they can’t stop there — the only batters providing above-average production at the plate are first baseman Paul Goldschmidt (154 wRC+), third baseman Jake Lamb (122 wRC+) and outfielder David Peralta (117 wRC+).
And their defense took a hit when the club learned shortstop Nick Ahmed would miss six to eight weeks with a fracture in his right hand. Ahmed was worth three defensive runs saved this season thanks to his fielding prowess, while his replacement, Chris Owings, has cost the team four runs.
Getting a shortstop with some pop at the plate would help bolster the lineup. And if he could improve the team’s ability to get on base from the leadoff spot, all the better — Arizona’s leadoff hitters have a below-average on-base percentage (.320 vs. 324) this season.
Colorado Rockies, 90 expected wins, 2.1 percent chance of winning the World Series
It’s amazing that Colorado’s pitching, which plays half its games in the most hitter-friendly park in the majors, is allowing a below-average rate of home runs allowed this season. The Rockies’ quartet of rookie starters — Kyle Freeland, Jeff Hoffman, German Marquez, and Antonio Senzatela – have been better than expected, combining to provide 5.1 wins above replacement with Hoffman and Marquez striking out better than 20 percent of batters faced.
But the team felt it necessary to skip Freeland’s turn in the rotation and recently recalled Senzatela after he was demoted for allowing 33 runs in 44 1/3 innings, showing a need for more depth in the starting rotation.
Plus, the starting rotation only gives the team a quality start (six or more innings pitched, three or fewer earned runs allowed) in 42 percent of its starts, a below-average rate that could come back to haunt the team in the postseason.
Boston Red Sox, 90 expected wins, 6.7 percent chance of winning the World Series
The team released Pablo Sandoval this week, just two years after signing him to a disastrous five-year, $95 million contract. Sandoval was batting .212 with a .622 OPS, production below replacement level. Sandoval, along with Devin Marrero, Josh Rutledge and four other players, combined to hit .224 with a .284 on-base percentage and .309 slugging as Boston’s third basemen, by far the lowest production at the position this season.
The Red Sox also need bullpen help in front of closer Craig Kimbrel. Blaine Boyer is allowing a .395 batting average against with a 1.111 OPS in the eighth inning and Heath Hembree has allowed three more runs than expected this season after accounting for men on base and outs left in the inning. Reliever Ben Taylor has seen half his pitches put in play classified as “hard hit,” with five hit on the sweet spot of the bat, giving him the third-highest rate of barrels on the team.