Welcome back to The Rotation! Here are five topics in the world of Major League Baseball worth bantering about this week.
1. Is it July yet?
It’s too early to talk about the Trade Deadline.
Counterpoint: It’s never too early to talk about the Trade Deadline..
We entered this season with plenty of unfinished business on the trade front. Obviously, the White Sox are open to moving Jose Quintana, among others. The Pirates could move Andrew McCutchen, the Brewers could move Ryan Braun, the Phillies and Braves have a bunch of vets on short-term contracts and a bad first half could prompt the Royals to hold a summer sell-off of their expiring core (but they’re playing well lately).
All of this was known going into the year, and the changes to the Draft pick compensation system in the new collective bargaining agreement limit the value of retaining certain pending free agents and therefore makes it all the more likely that this year’s Deadline is going to be bonkers.
But already, two weeks into 2017, there are a few developments that could potentially add to the trade fray:
- The Blue Jays are off to an absolutely brutal start (2-10). With the oldest active Major League roster in the game and the need to improve the farm, Toronto could shift from win-now to sell-now if things don’t improve by midseason, and it already has expiring assets in Francisco Liriano, Marco Estrada and Jason Grilli (and Jose Bautista is on just a one-year guarantee). But the big one here is Josh Donaldson, who is 31 and only under contractual control through 2018. He’s hurt right now (and that’s part of the problem), but could a healthy Donaldson on a bad team be a recipe for a blockbuster?
- The Rangers were betrayed by their bullpen early on. That’s nothing we didn’t see early in 2015 or 2016 — both years that resulted in an American League West title. So let’s not get too emotional here. But Yu Darvish and Jonathan Lucroy are among the Rangers’ pending free agents, and the Rangers could totally reshape the Deadline if they wind up dangling one or both of those guys.
- If the Cardinals don’t pull things together, perhaps Lance Lynn could pitch his way into being a viable trade chip on a club likely already open to dealing Matt Adams and Jhonny Peralta.
- The Mariners stumbled out of the chute. The big money owed to Robinson Cano and Felix Hernandez likely means they’re staying put in Seattle for the long haul. But if the M’s don’t recover, Nelson Cruz might be a movable object a year-plus from free agency, if he shakes off the individual slow start that has contributed to the team’s slow start. In it or out of it, you know Jerry Dipoto won’t just sit back and watch the Deadline pass.
- Michael Pineda, who started Sunday night against the Cardinals, had an electric outing against the Rays last week that made you wonder if he could be a viable trade chip midseason for a Yankees team that, despite the strong start, might not be ready to contend. Same with CC Sabathia’s renaissance.
2. Q rating
Much of the above is mere speculation, but at least we know Quintana is very much on the block. The White Sox have held a high price tag on him not just because of his All-Star past but because of his affordable future (he’s owed just shy of $31 million from 2018-20, if his options are exercised).
Alas, Quintana’s performance, to date, isn’t cooperating with that price. He got knocked around by the Twins on Saturday and now has a 6.75 ERA through three starts with a 5.77 mark in his last nine starts going back to the beginning of last September. This wouldn’t be worth paying any attention to if, well, scouts weren’t paying such close attention to Quintana.
Has the added scrutiny gotten the best of Q?
“He’s never shown me he’s not in the moment, as far as where he’s at today and what he’s doing today in the preparation for the next start,” pitching coach Don Cooper said. “Obviously he’s dealt with many, many no-decisions [55 in 97 starts between 2013-15] and tough losses and that hasn’t stopped him from preparing for the next. So he wasn’t worried or concerned or bothered by trade talks. He’s a focused kid.”
So what’s the problem? Last year, Quintana wasn’t able to use his curveball as a put-away pitch as well as he once did, because opponents slugged .448 off of it. This year, they’re slugging .500 off the pitch, and the two-seamer, which last year was used at the expense of the curve, hasn’t been anywhere near as effective an option as it was in ’16 (.786 SLG).
3. Ryan in wait
There have been multiple reports that the Dodgers and Brewers are still talking about a Braun trade — talks that feel like they’ve gone on as long as the Oakland and Tampa Bay stadium discussions.
The Dodgers have some long-term debt issues that complicate matters, as Braun is owed $80 million between now and 2022, when he’ll be 38. The money is why Braun is still a Brewer.
But strictly from a baseball standpoint, Braun-to-L.A. (where he was born and resides) makes all the sense in the world, given the Dodgers’ continued struggles against left-handed pitching. They did good work against Patrick Corbin on Saturday but still have a .226/.305/.350 slash off southpaws so far. The Dodgers expect that last year, when they had an MLB-worst .623 OPS against lefties, will prove to be an aberration, especially with Logan Forsythe aboard.
But given this particular split (Braun entered the week with a 1.227 OPS vs. lefties and has a 1.030 mark for his career) and the uncertainty in the corner outfield, you can understand why these conversations might continue. It is an industry expectation that the Dodgers will be aggressive in their pursuit of a bat, if need be, around midseason.
4. The Bux stops here
When teams sell off veteran assets like a Braun or a Quintana, they are looking for prized prospects with pedigree. But let the Twins’ Byron Buxton stand as the most glaring current example of the maddening difficulty of knowing when or if even the most prized prospects are going to click and stick.
Buxton’s off to a miserable start at the plate. He has struck out in 23 of his first 43 at-bats. That’s not good! He’s hitting .093 with a .292 OPS, and this wouldn’t be so alarming if the Twins hadn’t already sent him down to Triple-A Rochester multiple times the past two seasons in an effort to get him going. This slow start might not yet be enough to prompt another demotion, but it has undone some of the good vibes associated with his strong September in ’16.
And yet, Buxton has still positively contributed to the Twins’ surprisingly solid start with his incredible speed and range in center field. He made the first Statcast-calculated Five Star Play of the season on Opening Day and, per Baseball Reference, has basically balanced his negative offensive WAR with positive defensive WAR to be the equivalent of a replacement player.
Still, it’s OK to hope for more from the former No. 2 overall pick.
5. Not great, Britton
There was speculation going into the year that if the Orioles fall out of contention, marketing Zach Britton at a time when teams are going bonkers for bullpen help might make a lot of sense. Britton, after all, is only under the O’s contractual control through 2018, and his rapidly escalating price tag could be difficult to squeeze into Baltimore’s budget.
Two things aren’t cooperating with this theory: The O’s, following their customary pattern of projection rejection, enter the week with the best record in baseball. And Britton is hurt.
How hurt? Who knows? Britton was placed on the 10-day DL on Sunday with left forearm soreness — an issue that is sometimes a sinister indication of a bigger elbow issue to come or sometimes just, you know, a little soreness. Manager Buck Showalter said it’s possible it could be a minimum DL stay, but that’s only a guess for now, and the O’s did officially report the injury as a “strain,” which didn’t do much to allay fans’ anxiety.
With Darren O’Day, Brad Brach, Donnie Hart and Mychal Givens, the O’s are reasonably well-equipped to handle a short-term absence of Mr. 54 Straight Saves, but obviously a longer — or doomsday — scenario is a different story for them, as it would be for anybody. Britton already dealt with an oblique issue this spring, and he’s dealt with more traffic on the base paths (1.86 WHIP) than he did in his historic ’16 (0.84). Interestingly, Britton injured his forearm throwing a curveball — a pitch the sinker-reliant Britton used just 7.9 percent of the time last season and had only thrown 2.1 percent of the time this year.
* * *
Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor, MLB.com columnist and MLB Network contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince