In NL Central race, making deals is imperative
Even one upgrade can be the difference in super-tight division
The Phillies, the Red Sox, the Yankees and the Braves want to improve between now and Sunday. It would be nice. It would also be a luxury.
The Pirates, Cardinals, Brewers and Reds? For them, it is imperative. In one of the closest races in recent memory, even seemingly marginal upgrades may well make the difference between a season ending on Sept. 28 and one that lasts into October. As much as restraint can be admirable, in a race like the one playing out in the National League Central, the priorities simply must change for the front offices involved.
The background math is complicated, but the results of it are simple. Even a great player, the best player in the game, is worth approximately nine to 10 wins over a full season -- and that's if you're upgrading from Argenis Reyes to the 2011 version of Jose Reyes. You don't have to understand how WAR or VORP is calculated to realize that's about the outer limits of the impact a single player can have.
However, most Trade Deadline deals are for lesser players, so you're talking about less than that. Sometimes much less. Then divide it by three, since about one-third of the season will remain after Sunday.
That is to say, barring big surprises, most Deadline deals simply can't have that much impact on a pennant race. Only two of last year's eight playoff teams won their spots by fewer than five games. Every little bit helps, of course, but in most cases, the same teams would have been playing in October regardless of what happened in late July.
But in the NL Central, one or two games almost certainly will make a huge difference. As Tuesday dawned, three teams were separated by one-half game, with another lurking four back.
Even more important, each of the top three teams still has 10 or more games remaining against the other two. The Cardinals and Pirates, virtually tied for first place, play each other 10 more times, as do the Pirates and third-place Brewers. The Cards and Brewers have fully 12 head-to-head matchups remaining. Everything is ahead of the NL Central contenders, and any small move could make a difference.
But it's not just the closeness of the race. That's certainly a factor, but far from the only one. Maybe not even the primary one.
What's really worth taking note of here is that, well, let's put it nicely ... There are no super-teams in this bunch. All four of the contenders have obvious areas of need. They can all be significantly improved, rather than marginally improved, by a shrewd general manager.
The Brewers need help in the bullpen -- Milwaukee's 20 relief losses, entering Monday, were second-most in the NL and its 4.04 bullpen ERA was 12th (worst among contenders). They need defensive help in the infield and they're getting the least production of any team in the NL from third basemen. These are things that can be acquired in trade, especially relief help.
The Pirates could use offensive help just about anywhere they might get it, but most notably at the infield and outfield corners and from the right side of the plate. They entered Monday's games with the fourth-fewest runs in the National League, and in the bottom three in the league in OPS for first basemen, third basemen and right fielders. There are always right-handed corner bats available at the Deadline, and it wouldn't take a great one to provide a very real upgrade.
"We're absolutely motivated to help this club," Pirates GM Neal Huntington said over the weekend. "We're just not motivated to do something stupid or foolish. This club deserves something to help them, but at this point the acquisition costs are just so high that it's been a challenge. Will that change in the next week? Probably."
The Cardinals? Their needs look a lot like those of the Brewers: bullpen depth, middle-infield defense and maybe a starting pitcher. They rank second in the league in blown saves and one behind the Brewers in bullpen losses.
And Cincinnati could use help preventing runs by just about any means, but especially in the starting rotation. The Reds have the highest ERA of any team still in contention, and no contender has received fewer innings per start. The market for starters may be difficult to maneuver, but they're out there.
"We're trying to win this year," Reds GM Walt Jocketty said recently, "but we want to stay full of talent so we know we can compete for years to come."
This may not be the year for that, though. The division is there for the taking. A bold move could make an enormous difference. While prudence is often wise, it's likely that the team that improves the most -- and stays healthy -- will be the one playing in October.
Moreover, these are not minor needs. This is not like the Red Sox, who would ideally like some more production from right field but will be just fine without it. These are for the most part areas of weakness, areas where even a solid Major League player, not a star, could make a big difference over two months.
Any move these teams make is not to improve the chances of succeeding in October. It's to get there in the first place, which is far, far more important.
Once you get there, every team has something very close to a one-in-eight chance of winning three straight series. Sure, you can improve your chances by bettering your team, but not by a whole lot. There's too much variance, too much weirdness in short series. The better team doesn't win that much more often than the lesser team.
If the Phillies or Red Sox make their rosters marginally better, they've improved their chances of winning the World Series ever so slightly, and their chances of playing in October scarcely at all. If one of the four NL Central teams becomes even marginally better between now and Sunday, it can change the entire equation drastically.
Get on it, GMs.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. Mark Sheldon and Jenifer Langosch contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.