The baseball season is often broken down into months. How teams play in April is overblown, then in May we begin to get a better idea of how the campaign will pan out. It’s all with the great aim of playing meaningful baseball in September and October.
The middle months of the season are easily glossed over. Bizarrely, perhaps, seeing as a win in July is every bit as relevant – for most teams, at least – as a win in April or September. The grind as the All-Star break approaches is a pivotal period, especially as teams decide whether to sell or buy at the non-waiver trade deadline.
Several teams across MLB will know – with all likelihood – where they stand by the time August comes around. Franchise players may have been dispatched for prospects, and potential season-changing players will have arrived.
The majority of such teams are in the National League. All three divisions are competitive, with at least three teams holding a genuine hope of a playoff berth per division at the time of writing. The American League isn’t quite as interesting thanks to the dominance of the Yankees, Red Sox, Astros and Indians.
Finely Balanced West
The National League West is home to a couple of teams who could be on that challenging borderline of buy or sell. The San Francisco Giants and Colorado Rockies are within touching distance of a wildcard spot. The Giants are on the up at the moment – thanks to a lengthy homestand – while the Rockies risk slipping down towards the Padres.
The Rockies have series with the Diamondbacks, Giants and Dodgers before the All-Star break. The Giants face the challenge of the Cubs and Cardinals, along with Bay Bridge series against the exciting Athletics.
Colorado, for the time being at least, look far less likely to make the playoffs than San Francisco. Their overpriced bullpen has let them down, and trade assets are few and far between. Free-agent-to-be, Adam Ottavino, could return a haul, and DJ LeMahieu may attract some teams. Other than that, there’s not much value.
It’s a little different for the Giants. Their win now approach last winter makes it very unlikely they’ll trade veterans away at the deadline, but there is the ever-looming prospect of flipping Madison Bumgarner to restock the farm. Should it all go horribly wrong – and it would have be a disastrous July – relievers Tony Watson and Will Smith could attract interest, along with Andrew McCutchen, who is a free agent this offseason.
Make or Break for Cardinals
The National League Central is similarly poised. The Brewers and Cubs are both on course for the playoffs as things stand, but the inconsistent Cardinals are far from out of it.
Milwaukee packed their outfield in the offseason and lost top prospect Lewis Brinson in the process. Their lockdown bullpen is immense, and they’re definitely buyers rather than sellers. Infield is the issue, though, with Jonathan Villar and Orlando Arcia not producing enough at the plate.
The Cubs are one of the names linked most frequently to Manny Machado. Their farm is depleted after the costly Aroldis Chapman and Jose Quintana trades, but the 2016 World Series winners are intent on winning now. The only way they trade away players on the 25-man roster is if they get an All-Star in return.
On paper, Chicago have a favourable July, facing Minnesota, Detroit, Cincinnati (who might have cooled down by then) and San Diego before the break. Two series against the rival Cardinals will be crucial, particularly as the division-leading Brewers have a similarly kind run of games.
St. Louis are in a similar situation to Milwaukee. Their line-up has holes, and they’re even more glaring without Paul DeJong, who has been on the disabled list since June 1st. A wildcard spot is not out the question, but it will require a strong July after an indifferent June.
The month starts with the Braves this week, which is followed by a west coast trip to face the Giants and Diamondbacks. A string of series defeats out west and the Cardinals will need to win at least five of their eight against the Cubs after the All-Star break to remain in contention.
The Pirates briefly looked like a surprise package but have dropped off. We could see Pittsburgh deal Josh Harrison and other veterans in July, while the Reds could get interest for Billy Hamilton again.
Different Life Cycles in the East
Despite the Mets being on course to join the Marlins in the sub .400 abyss, the East is as competitive as the Central and West. Washington, Philadelphia and Atlanta are split by just a handful of games, and an all-East wildcard game remains plausible.
The Braves are ahead of schedule. While some tipped them to be good this year, few expected a division-leading performance like this. With a such long window ahead, trading prospects away seems reckless, but the temptation might be too great to bolster the bullpen ahead of a potential playoff run.
Series against the Yankees, Brewers, Dodgers and Nationals before the deadline could see Atlanta fall out of first. That would be a blessing in disguise if it made sure they kept all their prospects. There’s still so much to come from that farm system, betting on success in 2018 would be a mistake.
Philadelphia are in a similar situation, though their roster is probably a year ahead of the Braves. Their July is favourable in comparison, with a string of games against the Pirates, Orioles, Mets and Miami before the week off.
The Philles have had bullpen troubles of their own, however. A trade or two to add a couple of arms is a better idea than it would be for the Braves, but that will surely depend on how many wins they can take in July. An improvement from Jake Arrieta’s disastrous June would be handy, too.
The preseason favourites, the Washington Nationals, are going to be least impacted by July. If their plan was to trade for extra pieces at the deadline, there’s no reason not to, barring a string of defeats to the Mets, Marlins and Pirates. This is probably their last year of Bryce Harper; it’s as win now as it gets.
Picking a winner in the East is just as hard as the other two divisions. The main difference is where the teams are in their ‘life cycle’. The Braves and Phillies are just starting out, the Nationals are probably on the wane. Decisions at the deadline are easier for these three than the contenders in the other divisions.