When Major League Baseball decided to change its playoff format, one of the byproducts of that move to add one more team per league was a decrease in the number of sellers at each deadline. More playoff spots mean more opportunities to get into the fringes of the race, and fewer teams willing to sell for the following year, come July. There’s recent history for the middling teams to get excited about too, as the Phillies overcame being the lowest seed in the NL playoffs last year to win the pennant.
This year in particular, there’s a specific phenomenon that has yours truly concerned about the availability of potential improvements. Both Central divisions stink.
The Central divisions in both the American and National League are undeniably the two worst divisions in the sport. As of this morning, only 2 of the 10 teams have winning records: the NL Central-leading Reds (who would’ve thunk?) and the second-place Brewers. Neither team has a winning percentage that beats the Red Sox, who sit in last place in the AL East and are actually three games better than the 36-38 AL Central-leading Twins.
A byproduct of this lack of even decent—much less formidable—ballclubs in a third of the whole sport creates the opportunity for teams who would otherwise sell to instead at the very least hold, or even add, eyeing a second-half run.
The two Chicago teams are a prime example of that. With a 32-43 record, the White Sox enter play today as arguably one of, if not the biggest disappointment in the sport, and yet they’re only four and a half games back. That’s perfectly within striking distance as a roster of underperforming ballplayers chasing down mediocre clubs.
At 35-38, the Cubs are even closer to first place, only trailing the Reds by three and a half games. They’re also essentially one hot week away from playing for first. The Reds themselves just proved that, as they were 29-35 on June 9th before reeling off 10 wins in a row for the first time in over a decade.
Even the St. Louis Cardinals in all their glorious mess aren’t out of it. They might have a putrid 31-43 record, but they aren’t exactly eliminated yet. The Cards trail the division leader Reds by eight games—a sizeable gap, but not unattainable, especially understanding the level of expectation and quality of each of those two rosters.
This is all not to say that these ballclubs would be a lock to provide elite talent to the market if they were willing to sell. After all, underperforming numbers out of most of their would-be trade chips, comprise one of the reasons for their struggles in the first place. However, even those possibilities are more or less blocked, as the only Central team completely out of playoff contention is the lowly Royals, instead competing with the Oakland A’s for the worst record in the sport.
And as far as chips, looking at starters and position players, the Royals list would extend one name long, with Salvador Perez and his hefty contract as the only real trade chip of the Royals, relievers notwithstanding. (It isn’t 2016, so Aroldis Chapman isn’t going to fetch a Gleyber Torres-esque package this time around.)
Whether they’d be ideal upgrades or not, one isn’t likely to know for a fact. But names like Tim Anderson, Cody Bellinger, and even Andrew McCutchen, who all could be available under different circumstances as intriguing rentals, wouldn’t expect to be moved. That’s at least for the time being with no team likely pulling far away from those races.
It’d be remiss not to point out Anderson is actually managing to put up a worse line than Anthony Volpe this season. But at the same time, he has enough of a track record that it would feel wrong to leave him out of this list, and there has been a knee issue which he’s dealt with, requiring an IL stint.
All of this more or less means the Yankees will have a very small window of opportunity to look for external upgrades, thus upping the pressure on each underperforming player, on the active roster. The reinforcement pool might be pretty shallow in 2023.