Baseball finds itself at a crossroads.
The players on the field have never been more talented, but increased velocity from pitchers has led to record strikeout totals and low batting averages. There is a new generation of stars emerging, but with every bat flip comes another conversation about whether it violates the unwritten rules. Major League Baseball is exploring new rules that could help solve its pace-of-play issues, but is also balancing ways to appeal to traditionalists hesitant to embrace change. Meanwhile, labor issues loom that could threaten to put a stop to any potential progress.
As MLB faces these challenges with the future of the sport at stake, we are embarking on a season-long look at The State of Baseball, examining the storylines that will determine how the game looks in 2021 and far beyond. To start, Howard Bryant, Bradford Doolittle, Doug Glanville, Alden Gonzalez, Tim Keown, Tim Kurkjian, Joon Lee, Kiley McDaniel, Buster Olney, Jeff Passan, Marly Rivera, Jesse Rogers, David Schoenfield and Clinton Yates weigh in on what they believe are the most pressing issues facing baseball today.
MLB’s looming battles
Baseball must decide what it really wants baseball to be
The state of baseball is eternally in flux. It’s subject to the whims of the athletes who play the game, the billionaires who run it, the technocrats who populate front offices, the analysts foraging for the slightest advantage, the scientists exploring unseen frontiers, the lawyers tasked with keeping it afloat, the doctors who perpetually put Humpty Dumpty back together again and especially the fans, whose divergent passions and desires make striking a perfect balance between the game’s history and future a near-impossibility.
Its present is a mishmash — a historically great array of young talent unleashed in how it celebrates itself but hamstrung by the game becoming too smart, too efficient and, consequently, too plodding. There are levers to pull that could free the game from the weights dragging it down — and the fear that doing so would alienate the core fan at the expense of the hypothetical one. The past and the future intersect in the present, and baseball’s present is confusing: exquisite players playing a fractured game.
This is the time to examine not only what baseball is now, but what it wants to be. Because that’s the sort of thing that will drive the decision-makers, the people who are supposed to be the game’s stewards. For all of its issues and all of its foibles, baseball’s greatness remains on display every night, from April to October. It is the century-old house with good bones. But upgrades are necessary. Change is imperative. And it’s incumbent on all the game’s stakeholders, from those on the field to those in the ivory towers to those in the stands, to find a shared vision that best fits the modern expectation of what a professional sports league can and should look like. — Jeff Passan
Can MLB and the MLBPA actually get along?
What we have in baseball is a failure to communicate, and that could not have been borne out more clearly than in 2020. Millions of people in the U.S. were losing their jobs — including many working under the MLB umbrella, from longtime scouts to minor-league coaches to devoted ticket-office employees — as the coronavirus surged. Yet even against that stark backdrop, the representatives of the league and the Players Association continued to talk past each other, and an ugly, unseemly labor dispute over what would turn out to be a 60-game season spilled into public view in the midst of a pandemic.
The working relationship between the union and MLB appears to be the worst in decades, with the two sides struggling to find any common ground — let alone sharing the videoconference time necessary to sort through extremely complicated issues that will require collaboration and cooperation. With the current collective bargaining agreement set to expire Dec. 1, the most important question in the industry is whether the two sides will communicate less like angry, bickering divorcees and start working together on behalf of the kids — as in, the next generation of baseball patrons who want everything fast/faster/fastest and might not have the patience to wait for baseball if a long labor stoppage obliterates some or all of the 2022 season.
The business of baseball appears to be at a tipping point. With an incredible generation of young stars like Fernando Tatis Jr. and a developing culture of fun and personal expression and fan connection, the game could grow — or it could be devastated, by a lockout or strike.
The Players Association and MLB have every reason to explore every possible solution together.
But will they? — Buster Olney
The new CBA needs to address the root of MLB’s competitive balance issue
The complexion of baseball will change as a result of this next collective bargaining agreement. There’s the headline-grabbing, big-picture stuff Buster spells out above. Months of posturing on both sides, who wins the economic battle of revenue splits, the discussions around salary caps, luxury tax thresholds and associated penalties, along with the obvious potential of a work stoppage.
There’s also a cascading set of secondary issues that will greatly affect young players who are increasingly the most valued and important players in the game.
On the simple end of things, changing Super Two arbitration and ending service-time manipulation will change when you see young potential stars on the field (hopefully sooner) and how good your team will be. One step deeper than that, the expected addition of trading draft picks, the addition of an international draft and the trading of picks in that new draft could completely change team-building strategies for years to come while solving some of the competitive balance issues that have plagued the sport. If a new GM steps into a farm system with a big league club full of players that aren’t their type, or an existing GM wants to change strategies on a dime, this additional talent-based liquidity will make trades much easier to pull off, while also empowering scouts to have a real reason to scout every player on Earth. — Kiley McDaniel
MLB must find one set of rules — and stick with them
When Bud Selig “unified” baseball in the late 1990s by eliminating the National and American League presidencies and streamlining its umpires, it was an unsentimental business decision. The idea of two separate businesses under one roof by the turn of a new century was considered antiquated. The AL/NL nostalgia was dead, and the game was now one entity — Major League Baseball.
More than two decades later, baseball is less unified than ever. The game built a skyscraper without first leveling its foundation. Baseball has been played under two sets of rules — with the designated hitter in the AL — for nearly half a century. The differences represented a unique quirk during World Series and All-Star Games — but now that baseball plays interleague games every day, the rules of play are different in any given ballpark. In some games, the pitcher hits, in others, he does not. The game has added seven-inning doubleheaders (whose no-hitters do not count), and unearned runners in scoring position in extra innings — taking the unprecedented step of changing the rules of play in-game. This is no longer an interesting quirk, but an untenable situation that undermines the game’s credibility. Baseball being played under the same rules really shouldn’t be too much to ask. — Howard Bryant
The action (or inaction) on the field
Time of game vs. pace of play
Major League Baseball is on a mission to reduce the amount of time it takes to play games. Under Rob Manfred, it’s been close to an obsession. Seven-inning doubleheaders, a three-batter minimum for pitchers, a runner on second to start extra innings — welcome to the only industry intent on convincing its consumers to enjoy less of its product. After all, who among us doesn’t want a raucous extra-inning game settled as quickly as possible by a clumsy schoolyard contrivance? Setting aside the particulars, there’s an inherent conflict: MLB is confusing time of game with pace of play, and its efforts at acceleration run opposite to the skills teams are prioritizing and incentivizing.
You want to make big-league money as a hitter? Hit homers, draw walks and don’t sweat the strikeouts. As a pitcher? Strike out as many guys as possible. The metrics employed by every front office dictate a style of play that leads to longer games. There are more pitches, fewer balls put in play and defensive shifts that take longer to set up and alter our perception of the game’s positions. Are these fundamental problems that threaten to ruin the game, or will they be forgotten as soon as the next wave of analytics decides contact hitters are the new market inefficiency? Either way, MLB is addressing a pace-of-play disease with time-of-game treatments, which puts baseball, once again, in a distressingly familiar position: at war with itself. — Tim Keown
The pitchers are just too darn good
On April 29, the Red Sox beat the Mets, 1-0. The game featured six hits and 30 strikeouts. It was the fourth time in major league history that a game included six hits or less and at least 30 strikeouts — once in 2015, once in 2018 and now twice in the month of April. This is not healthy for the game.
The pitchers are too good, too overpowering these days. If a dominant pitcher such as Jacob deGrom doesn’t make a mistake, hitters have virtually no chance of getting a hit. The value of the hit has been lost. There were well over 1,000 more strikeouts than hits in April, a first in any month in MLB history. We’re headed for a league batting average (currently .234) lower than 1968, the year of the pitcher.
It is not the hitter’s fault. This is what the game has urged them to do: get the ball up in the air — do damage. The players get paid a lot of money to hit that way. But it’s time for our young GMs and hitting coaches to acknowledge that this way isn’t working. The pitchers made an adjustment after getting their brains beat out 20 years ago. Now it’s the hitters’ turn to make a change, otherwise we’ll have more and more six-hit, 30-punchout games. — Tim Kurkjian
Tim Kurkjian voices his concern over the higher number of strikeouts this season in Major League Baseball.
Do we really need all those relievers?
The average starting pitcher threw 95 pitches per start from 2001 to 2015. From 2016 to 2020, that number dropped to 89. Leaving a starter in long enough to face the same lineup for a third time has now evolved into heresy for all but the very best. The pitchers themselves have gradually relented, a begrudging acceptance that numbers cannot be defeated. Rather than engage in an unwinnable fight, they have attempted to use the strategy to their benefit — by not being afraid to showcase all their pitches in early at-bats, by dismissing the idea of setting hitters up for the late stages of a game and, basically, by going as close to max effort as possible.
If they’re not being counted on to pitch deeper into games, then they won’t worry about preserving themselves for it. That’s the thought, at least. So they’re emptying the tank early, then paving the way for a string of one-inning power relievers who will do the same. The result: Hitters consistently facing devastating stuff, most of it from arms they’re seeing for the first time.
The solution to this — and, thus, the antidote to the game’s lack of action — might be as simple as limiting the amount of pitchers a team can carry on its roster. All of a sudden, starters will have to worry about pitching deeper into games, will have to turn a lineup over a third time and will have to think about a more efficient way to pitch. It could ultimately change the game. — Alden Gonzalez
It’s time to address the shift
For the longest time in baseball, being a left-handed hitter had its advantages. Fewer left-handed people in the world means less competition for jobs requiring them, and left-handed batters have more favorable matchups because they face right-handed pitching more than righties do left-handed pitching.
Then along came the shift, and left-handed hitters suddenly became vulnerable. Because batters run to first base — not third — lefties have been hurt more than right-handed hitters. At least a righty has a chance to beat out a ground ball to the hole in short, but lefties have almost no chance with three infielders on the right side of second base.
The result of the shift reducing groundball hits has led hitters to attempt to launch the ball into the air. They have succeeded to a certain point, as home run rates have exploded. But pitchers seem to have caught up. A launch-angle swing comes with more swing-and-miss potential, so strikeouts have risen and batting average has plummeted. Ban the shift, and you’ll bring back hits as well as swings that create action beyond an occasional long ball. — Jesse Rogers
The marketing dilemma
The next generation is here, now MLB must sell it
Major League Baseball has hit the jackpot with the current crop of young stars rising in the game. From Juan Soto, Ronald Acuña Jr. and Mookie Betts to Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr. and Shohei Ohtani, MLB currently sports its most exciting up-and-coming core since the ’90s. That’s when Ken Griffey Jr. became a cultural icon and an influx of shortstops including Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra modeled on magazines. In a sport that’s struggled to adapt to social media and attract young, casual fans, this generation seems tailor-made for MLB to market to a broad, crossover audience.
The question — as it often is with MLB — is whether the league will fumble the bag. National television ratings are up, but continued growth will depend on whether commissioner Rob Manfred can lean into what’s made the sport more nationally relevant in recent years, such as the rivalry between Tatis’ upstart Padres and Betts’ defending champion Dodgers.
Relying on nostalgia, as baseball has for decades, won’t resonate, particularly with so many other entertainment options competing for the attention of younger audiences. Marketing the game to people growing up on the internet will require the sport to push outside of its comfort zone, an area MLB rarely leaves, because of what makes baseball so exciting in 2021: the individuality, personality and diversity of its next generation. — Joon Lee
But highlight all the great things baseball is — not what it isn’t
Before the turn of the century, Major League Baseball could be classified with one catch phrase that Nike stuck the sport with: chicks dig the long ball. A clumsy and kind of oafish throw back to the power and awe of home runs, it pretty much embodied who and what the league was. If you hit homers, you were exalted. If you threw strikeouts, likewise.
Somewhere along the way baseball forgot what it was, marketing wise. Instead of teaching the game so kids could love the sport for what it is, hitting, fielding and, of course, baserunning, the league relied on so-called star power to draw casuals for intermittent oohs and aahs. When I was a kid, my favorite players were Gary Sheffield and Shawon Dunston. My grandma’s favorite player was Hal McRae.
The stars of today are more all-around than the stars of 20 years ago, but MLB needs to remember that while they are the biggest in the league, that doesn’t mean they are enough to carry the sport themselves. Let The Kids Play is one thing. But Market More Stars is another. There doesn’t need to be just one or two “faces” of the league to argue over, and just tuning in to watch the players with the enormous contracts isn’t what baseball is really about.
Seeing players get after it in the dirt and on the grass while competing at the highest level of what we love is the core of baseball. If more people like that part rather than just the fireworks, the league will be fine. Until then, it probably helps to cater to those who already like it, the fun way. — Clinton Yates
Enough with the unwritten rules already
Ahead of the season, Fernando Tatis Jr. apologized for bringing fun back into the game of baseball. Tatis was being tongue-in-cheek in a video game commercial, but the truth is that there are numerous players, many of them of Latin American heritage, who were never aware of baseball’s unwritten rules.
That has come at a price. Baseball in Latin America is a much different experience than in Major League Baseball. Many players grew up playing in an environment in which celebrations that violate baseball’s unwritten rules are widely accepted. Players who do not fit the mold of the “American Way” are vilified here, particularly because of the unquestionable racial undertone.
When one of these incidents of breaking baseball’s unwritten rules happens, you can expect to see a Latin player standing in front of a camera saying, “I did not mean to disrespect anybody.” Baseball, which aspires to be a multicultural and multiethnic sport, often falls short because of the demographics of its audience. Jose Bautista was infamously ripped for his postseason bat flip, a moment that the former Blue Jays outfielder described as an “out-of-body experience.” Bautista did not do it to “disrespect” anybody. He did it out of joy. Legislating joy is a pointless attempt to not celebrate the changing culture of baseball.
Attitudes need to shift, but that will never happen without comprehending the players’ backgrounds. The 2021 Opening Day rosters featured 256 internationally born players, the great majority of them of Latino heritage. The Dominican Republic leads the majors with 98 players, Venezuela ranks second with 64, Cuba places third with 19 players and Puerto Rico is fourth with 18. Yet it’s only a matter of time before the next Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Ronald Acuna Jr., Javy Baez or Francisco Lindor has to stand in front of that camera again. — Marly Rivera
Make the sport more inclusive
True power should reflect the talent on the field
In 1947, when baseball brought Jackie Robinson into the league, it was a commitment. Beyond valuing the best talent, irrespective of color, it was also a step toward full representation in society. Seventy-five years later, Major League Baseball is still grappling with being representative at the top of its power structure, falling short of Robinson’s dying wish for Black leadership.
Now, some of the league’s exciting top talent reflect many cultures and colors that lack true power at the boardroom table — players like Shohei Ohtani, Fernando Tatis Jr. and Tim Anderson. It is no longer modern to have homogenous leadership. Despite the Selig Rule and other genuine policy shifts that have chipped away in some areas of the game, there are enough private corporate workarounds to leave diversity lacking where there is true power. — Doug Glanville
MLB must let people, you know, actually watch the games
If you consider the National Association a major league, which many don’t, my home state of Iowa has had a big-league team — the 1875 Keokuk Westerns, which lasted for all of 13 games. Sadly, for Iowans, it may have been better to be a big league fan in 1875 than it is now. One-hundred and forty-six years later, Iowa has become an avatar for what worries me most about baseball’s future: A lack of accessibility for too many people, and an overreliance on the economically elite to generate revenue.
There are six big league clubs in the states that share a border with Iowa. Any fan there who buys one of MLB’s national broadcast packages to follow the sport can’t watch any of them because of baseball’s archaic blackout rules. Las Vegas is also blacked out from watching six teams, and that’s a potential MLB expansion city. In Chicago, if you rely on streaming TV and use the wrong service, you can’t watch the Cubs. In L.A., numerous fans still don’t get Dodgers games.
All of this comes at a time when economic disparity is at historic levels and ticket prices at MLB ballparks grow increasingly expensive. To keep the foundation of the sport strong, baseball needs to get as many butts in seats and eyeballs on games as possible, even if it means loosening the grip on every short-term marginal dollar. This can’t just be a sport played by and watched by the well-off. And the term “premium experience” needs to be stricken from every piece of MLB-related marketing material. — Bradford Doolittle
MLB must invest in getting more kids from all backgrounds playing baseball
The good news: Youth participation in baseball and softball increased by nearly 3 million kids from 2013 to 2018, according to annual surveys from the Sports Fitness & Industry Association. More than 25 million kids played baseball or softball in 2018, with nearly 15 million of those considered “core” players, who played regularly. Kids who play hopefully become adults who watch.
MLB must continue to invest in youth infrastructure, however, including current programs like the Breakthrough Series for baseball and softball or the MLB Youth Academies that operate in eight cities with a couple more on the way. The first Youth Academy opened in 2006. Fifteen years later, there should be one in every major league city.
Another issue is the cost of playing baseball, from Little League travel teams to hiring personal hitting or pitching coaches. Andrew McCutchen once wrote that he wouldn’t have been able to keep playing baseball if not for a coach who helped his family with expenses. Even then, he thought he would play football in college — a sport where scholarships are more plentiful — until he tore his ACL when he was 15. MLB is losing out not just on future fans, but future stars for those fans to watch. Think of the tens of millions the sport spends annually just on its analytics and player development staffs. Imagine if those groups had more players with Andrew McCutchen’s ability to work with. — David Schoenfield
Where all 30 teams stand as clock ticks on trade deadline
Will the additions be enough to turn bubble teams into contenders and contenders into favorites? Is your team good enough to go for it, or better off making deadline deals aimed at 2022 and beyond?
In other words: How does each team rank against the field as the hours tick away toward 4 p.m. ET Friday?
Here is what our eight-voter expert panel decided based on what they have learned in the first four months of the 2021 season. We also asked ESPN baseball experts David Schoenfield, Bradford Doolittle, Joon Lee, Jesse Rogers and Alden Gonzalez to weigh in with one Week 16 observation based on what they have seen recently for all 30 teams.
Previous ranking: 1
The Giants are expected to be aggressive before the trade deadline, looking for impact talent for their rotation, the back end of their bullpen and their lineup, with Max Scherzer, Craig Kimbrel and Kris Bryant all linked to them in recent days. But their greatest improvements might come from within. Over the next week or so, if everything goes according to plan, the Giants could get back all of the following players: first baseman Brandon Belt, shortstop Brandon Crawford, second baseman Tommy La Stella, third baseman Evan Longoria and starting pitcher Aaron Sanchez. Their depth is as good as anyone’s heading into the final stretch. — Gonzalez
Previous ranking: 3
The addition of relievers Kendall Graveman and Yimi Garcia should give manager Dusty Baker a whole new avenue for running his October bullpen. The beauty of it is that Graveman combines with Ryan Pressly to give Baker a pretty straight-forward veteran duo to nail down late leads. But by freeing righty Cristian Javier to be used more flexibly, Baker can really maximize his staff. Javier is a manager’s dream for an October scenario. He can start, though that would probably be needed only should someone get injured. He can piggyback a starter who has a short outing by going two or three innings to keep the Astros in a game. He can be spotted in a leverage situation. Graveman, the 2021 version of him, is a nice addition in a vacuum, as is Garcia. But the ripples those additions might make for Baker’s overall staff might be just as important. — Doolittle
Previous ranking: 2
The Dodgers are aggressive in their pursuit of starting pitching and will pounce on a high-leverage reliever if a deal makes sense, but what they also need to do is get Cody Bellinger going. Bellinger, who made the errant throw that allowed the winning run to score in Tuesday’s loss to the Giants, was batting only .163/.274/.281 through his first 179 plate appearances, with twice as many strikeouts as walks. With Mookie Betts and Corey Seager on the injured list, the Dodgers desperately need a productive Bellinger to hold off the Giants and Padres in the tightly contested National League West. — Gonzalez
Previous ranking: 5
Chris Sale continued his road back from Tommy John surgery, making his second rehab start for Double-A Portland on Sunday; he struck out nine batters in 3.2 innings and allowed two runs, a walk and six hits. Sale will make another start for Triple-A Worcester on Saturday and could completely change the dynamics of the American League pennant race if he looks like his old self after taking a year off to recover from injury. — Lee
Previous ranking: 6
The Rays continue to find the balance between being the short and long term by adding slugger Nelson Cruz and then trading Rich HIll to the Mets. The addition of Cruz will bolster the lineup with a consistent, strong power-hitting threat. According to Jeff Passan, the team also had preliminary discussions about both Max Scherzer and Kris Bryant, which gives a glimpse into the mindset of Tampa Bay’s front office — they’re going for gold. — Lee
Previous ranking: 4
While we wait to see how the White Sox bolster their roster for October, an interesting dilemma looms a few weeks into Chicago’s future: Who will be in its playoff rotation? It’s a question more about surplus than necessity. Chicago’s primary quintet of Lance Lynn, Dallas Keuchel, Lucas Giolito, Dylan Cease and Carlos Rodon has been one of baseball’s most productive, durable and consistent units in baseball. Of those five, Keuchel has probably been the least good this season, but he’s the highest-paid member of the rotation and has the most postseason experience. Because of those factors, it seems like Cease needs to end the season with a flurry in order to stake a claim. — Doolittle
Previous ranking: 7
The Padres addressed their greatest midseason need early, swinging a deal to acquire Adam Frazier, the major league leader in hits, from the Pirates. Frazier will play second base and the corner-outfield spots, which allows him to easily fit into the same lineup as Jake Cronenworth and gives the Padres the flexibility to not rely too much on Wil Myers, Eric Hosmer and Jurickson Profar, all of whom have struggled to varying degrees. The question now is whether they’ll get into a bidding war with the Dodgers and Giants for a high-end starting pitcher, namely Max Scherzer. Also: Will they be forced to trade Hosmer in order to save money? — Gonzalez
Previous ranking: 8
The All-Star break didn’t slow Milwaukee down as its All-Star trio of starters did a number on the White Sox over the weekend. If not for a Lance Lynn two-run single off Brandon Woodruff, the Brewers might have swept the White Sox. In total, Freddy Peralta, Corbin Burnes and Woodruff pitched 17 innings, giving up just four runs to Chicago. Milwaukee added Eduardo Escobar tin a deal before Friday’s trade deadline, and is clearly the best in the division. The Brewers’ sights are on October. — Rogers
Previous ranking: 9
The gap between the Athletics and the Mariners continues to shrink, but the team added outfielder Starling Marte and lefty reliever Andrew Chafin. Marte was hitting .306 with seven homers for the Marlins and will be a big boost for the A’s lineup. The 31-year-old Chafin is having a strong season, allowing just nine runs with a 2.06 ERA and 0.839 WHIP in 43 appearances, and should bolster the bullpen. — Lee
Previous ranking: 11
Yes, the Mets need rotation help, even after acquiring Rich Hill. Taijuan Walker is suddenly a concern after lasting one out two starts ago and then allowing six runs and three home runs in his next outing. But … the Mets are last in the NL in doubles, 11th in home runs, next-to-last in runs and stolen bases, last in the majors in overall baserunning runs (14 below average). At least the offense has been better of late, averaging 4.87 runs per game in July as they’ve gotten a little healthier. Given the state of the team’s pitching, however, the offense might need to do even better. — Schoenfield
Previous ranking: 10
Toronto possesses the second-best run differential in the division behind the Rays, ahead of both the Red Sox and the Yankees. In order to compete with the rest of the division, the Jays will likely need to add another strong starter to their rotation. Toronto could make a run at the playoffs this year, but this will surely be a team that can contend into the future with a strong, young core. — Lee
Previous ranking: 12
The Yankees dropped three of four against the Red Sox over the weekend, with the highlight loss coming after blowing a 4-0 lead in a game in which Domingo German didn’t give up a hit in the first seven innings. Still, GM Brian Cashman clearly believes the team can make a charge at the wild card or even the division, pulling off a blockbuster deal for Joey Gallo on Wednesday night. — Lee
Previous ranking: 14
Hot off the Mariners’ biggest win of the season Monday, rallying from a 7-0 deficit to beat the Astros, the Kendall Graveman trade — to the Astros, no less — did not go over well in the Seattle clubhouse. Jerry Dipoto then followed that up by acquiring a much-needed starter in Tyler Anderson, from the Pirates. The Mariners are not going to trade away any of their major prospects, but let’s see if Trader Jerry has more deals in the works to help the club in 2021 as it pursues a wild card. — Schoenfield
Previous ranking: 16
Cincinnati would be foolish to add to its team this week unless it can switch out bullpens with another club. The Reds just can’t get over the hump due to MLB’s worst set of relievers. A 5.68 ERA over the past week is further proof nothing has changed post All-Star break. The injury to Nick Castellanos isn’t helping matters. Outslugging their bad bullpen is that much harder without him. — Rogers
Previous ranking: 13
How desperate are the Phillies to add rotation help? Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola and Zach Eflin have started 58 of the team’s 100 games (heading into Wednesday) and combined for a 3.56 ERA. The other starters have combined for a 5.98 ERA. Here’s the odd thing, however: The Phillies are 29-29 in games that Wheeler, Nola and Eflin started and 21-21 in games the other pitchers start. — Schoenfield
Previous ranking: 15
Austin Riley quietly continues to have an outstanding season, ranking 23rd in the majors in OPS. He’s hitting .316/.411/.646 in July with season-best monthly rates in walk rate (13.7%) and strikeout rate (17.9%). If he keeps that strikeout rate around 20% like he has the past month, he’s going to keep these numbers going. The defense metrics are also positive (plus-5 defensive runs saved at third base). He’s looking like a future All-Star. — Schoenfield
Previous ranking: 17
The soon-to-be-Guardians maintain a daily sparring against the .500 barrier and a membership in the group of six AL teams that have at least some shot at landing a wild-card spot as a road team. Alas, the emphasis is on “some” shot, as Cleveland owns by far the lowest probability among those teams. Thus, the approach at the deadline and for the rest of the season figures to be about positioning for the future. That puts the focus on shortstop Amed Rosario, who in his first year in Cleveland has roughly approximated the offensive production of traded star Francisco Lindor. Lindor, though, has put up career-worst numbers — and yet still has a better OPS than Rosario. Also, Rosario has again put up shaky defensive metrics. The good news for Cleveland is that it has a number of options for replacing Lindor in the long term already in house if Rosario doesn’t stake claim to the position. — Doolittle
Previous ranking: 18
The recoveries for both Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon have slowed in recent days, and the Angels don’t necessarily have the time to wait for them. The trade deadline is a day away, the gap between them and the top teams in their division has only widened, and general manager Perry Minasian might have no choice but to part with productive pending free agents to acquire more long-term players in return. At the top of that list is dynamic closer Raisel Iglesias. And the Angels don’t have the bullpen depth to overcome that loss if they trade him away. — Gonzalez
Previous ranking: 20
St. Louis might regret not retooling this month, but perhaps the Cardinals really can go on a run when Jack Flaherty returns. Like the Reds, the Cardinals can’t get past a bad bullpen. A recent ninth-inning collapse — the Cubs scored six runs on them — was the latest sign this just might not be their year. There are those 13 games left against the Brewers, but St. Louis might need to win 10 of them to be considered a contender in the division. — Rogers
Previous ranking: 21
The Cubs will get a long look at some young players in the second half including in starts from pitchers Keegan Thompson and Justin Steele. Outfielder Greg Deichmann — just acquired from Oakland in the Andrew Chafin deal — could make his debut this September, while the team will quietly talk with its remaining free agents — whomever they might be — in hopes of locking them up. First up is the trade deadline and some veterans moving on. — Rogers
Previous ranking: 22
There has been a lot of good stuff in AJ Hinch’s debut season as Detroit’s manager. A surprise midseason run at the .500 mark. The ascension and continued improvement of the Tigers’ top young starting pitchers. And then there’s the offseason find of Rule 5 outfielder Akil Baddoo. Baddoo garnered a lot of attention over the first couple of weeks of the season by following a strong spring with an electric start. He inevitably tailed off and settled into the day-to-day of a long campaign. While we haven’t heard as much about Baddoo since April, he has arguably been Detroit’s top hitter this season, sporting a team-best 134 OPS+ at the age of 22. Baddoo has his rough spots, to be sure, such as virtually no production against lefties. Nevertheless, his has been one of the season’s more underrated good stories. — Doolittle
Previous ranking: 19
A 6-16 record in July through Tuesday and the news of Stephen Strasburg‘s season-ending neck surgery and Trea Turner‘s positive COVID-19 test have pretty much sealed the fate on the end of Max Scherzer‘s career with the Nationals, especially because he’s now willing to approve a deal if he gets traded to the right team (apparently, one of the West Coast teams). There are even rumors the Nationals would consider trading Turner, a free agent after 2022. Keep in mind they still owe a ton of deferred money to Scherzer, plus $35 million a year to Strasburg through 2026 and $82 million to Corbin through 2024. The future might be bleak in D.C. — Schoenfield
Previous ranking: 23
The Marlins traded Starling Marte to the A’s for Jesus Luzardo, who struggled mightily for Oakland this year (6.87 ERA, 11 home runs in 38 IP), but is a former top prospect, is still just 23 years old and has just 15 career starts in the majors. Given how reluctant teams are to part with top prospects or young players for rentals such as Marte, this is an outstanding roll of the dice by Kim Ng for a pitcher who still has plenty of upside. — Schoenfield
Previous ranking: 26
Royals GM Dayton Moore told reporters this week that Kansas City’s approach around the trade deadline will be about setting up the roster for next season. If the Royals were to trade a veteran, such as Danny Duffy, Jorge Soler or Whit Merrifield, the ask would be for near-ready prospects as opposed to younger ones. One increasing factor in that is the persistent rise of elite shortstop prospect Bobby Witt Jr. Witt entered the season with just 37 games of rookie ball on his professional dossier. This season, he has already conquered Double-A and appears to be on his way to breezing through Triple-A as well. Not only does an appearance with the big league club in September seem likely, but you have to figure as Moore shapes a 2022 roster he hopes will return Kansas City to contention, he’ll do so with Witt penciled in as an infield regular. — Doolittle
Previous ranking: 24
Disappointed baseball fans in the Twin Cities saw at least a couple of rays of sunshine this week. First, owner Jim Pohlad told The Athletic that the Twins were “absolutely not” considering a full rebuild. And while a decision this week to trade young veterans Jose Berrios and/or Byron Buxton might undercut that message, it’s nevertheless refreshing for a franchise once put on the contraction block to have an owner emphasizing the need to win. As for Buxton, while he has yet to come to an agreement on an extension, he at least made it clear to reporters that his preference is to remain in Minnesota. It has been a deflating season for the Twins, but there is no reason the franchise needs to go into a tailspin in response. — Doolittle
Previous ranking: 25
It seems unfathomable, but there has been chatter in recent days that the Rockies ultimately might not trade Trevor Story, even though he is a pending free agent who doesn’t seem to have any plans of returning to Colorado in the offseason. The only reason for keeping Story would stem from the Rockies’ belief that the compensation pick they would attain for extending him a qualifying offer might be more valuable than the return on a trade. Story was batting only .240/.311/.422 through his first 87 games and is under control for only the next two-plus months, but conventional wisdom still states that he will be traded somewhere. — Gonzalez
Previous ranking: 28
First it was Adam Frazier on the move. Then Tyler Anderson. Could Richard Rodriguez be far behind? Pittsburgh is retooling under GM Ben Cherington, but the question with the Pirates is will they ever spend again? It’s a yearly topic for the Bucs, who seem miles behind the other four teams in their division. — Rogers
Previous ranking: 27
There’s not much to say about the Rangers that they haven’t said on the field since the All-Star break: They snapped a 12-game losing streak on Tuesday, just reinforcing the fact that the roster will look very different come Friday night. Joey Gallo is expected to be dealt to the Yankees as the two sides were reportedly finalizing an agreement Wednesday, and Kyle Gibson will likely be gone, too. Texas is in the hunt for the first pick in next summer’s draft, placing an exclamation point on a horrendous season. — Rogers
Previous ranking: 29
After a strong start to the season before hitting the injured list, John Means has struggled since returning to the Baltimore rotation, allowing five runs in five innings against Tampa Bay on July 20 and giving up four runs in 6.2 innings against the Washington Nationals on Sunday. Meanwhile, Matt Harvey has pitched extremely well during his past two starts, going six innings and allowing no runs against both the Nationals and the Royals. — Lee
Previous ranking: 30
Caleb Smith, under control through the 2023 season, looked like an attractive trade candidate heading into the deadline. But the 30-year-old left-hander has struggled in July, allowing 21 runs and eight homers in 19 2/3 innings. Still, the D-backs have a plethora of trade options at their disposal. The extent to which they deal will hinge on the front office’s calculations for how quickly the organization can become competitive again in such a difficult division. — Gonzalez
Milwaukee Brewers acquire Eduardo Escobar from Arizona Diamondbacks for two prospects
Escobar, 32, has 22 home runs for the last-place Diamondbacks. He can play any infield position, and is likely to see time at third and first base. The Brewers have Willy Adames and Kolten Wong playing shortstop and second base, respectively.
The switch-hitting Escobar has a career .778 OPS in 11 seasons, the past four with Arizona. It’s the third in-season trade to net the Brewers an infielder, as they previously acquired Adames from the Tampa Bay Rays and first baseman Rowdy Tellez from the Toronto Blue Jays.
Milwaukee is sending back prospects Cooper Hummel and Alberto Ciprian to complete the deal.
Hummel, 26, was an 18th-round pick for Milwaukee in 2016 and is currently at Triple-A, where he’s slashing .254/.435/.508. He has played first base, catcher and the outfield for Nashville.
Ciprian, 18, signed as an undrafted free agent with Milwaukee in 2019 and is playing in the Dominican Summer League, averaging .378 while adding eight RBIs in his first 12 professional games.
Escobar was highly sought-after, with the Chicago White Sox also interested in his services, but Milwaukee has just as big a need for him. The Brewers rank last in batting in the National League, hitting 21 points lower as a team than Escobar’s .246 batting average.
New York Yankees set to acquire Joey Gallo from Texas Rangers, sources say
The deal is pending a medical review.
It wasn’t immediately known who New York was sending to Texas to complete the deal.
Gallo was a late scratch from the Rangers’ lineup ahead of Wednesday night’s game against the Diamondbacks, with speculation that a trade was in the works.
Gallo has spent all seven of his major league seasons in Texas, but the Rangers — an AL West-worst 36-65 entering Wednesday — have been in sell mode, with Gallo their prized piece.
A two-time All-Star, the 27-year-old slugger ranks sixth in the AL this season with 25 home runs, to go with 55 RBIs and a .223 average. He had struggled mightily at the plate since the All-Star break, with zero home runs and a .067 average in the 10 games following, before breaking out Tuesday with a three-run shot against the Diamondbacks.
Gallo is among just eight rostered major leaguers with multiple career 40-HR seasons (2017, ’18).
But he’s also excelled in the outfield, winning a Gold Glove in right in 2020. He’s tied for second in the majors with 12 defensive runs saved this season (tied for most among outfielders) and joins Toronto’s Marcus Semien as the only players with 20 home runs and 10 defensive runs saved.
Gallo is also under team control through 2022.
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