Unlikely Buyers: Reds or White Sox?

HOWARD MEGDAL: As unlikely as this may seem, the Cincinnati Reds are awfully close to being the class of the National League Central.

As of Monday, Cincinnati was just four games off the pace set by the Milwaukee Brewers. However, this isn’t due to overachieving by any major part of Cincinnati’s roster-in fact, they are likely to get better in the near future, due to players returning from injury.

Cincinnati’s biggest problem so far has been offense- the Reds are 12th in the National League in runs scored, 14th in OPS. But there is ample reason for optimism. Brandon Phillips is an elite hitter at second base, Jay Bruce’s .774 OPS is artificially depressed by a low batting average on balls in play, and Laynce Nix has been a pleasant surprise, but is hitting in line with his minor-league production for the past two seasons.

With the return of Joey Votto, their best hitter in 2009, Edwin Encarnacion, their best hitter in recent years, and Edinson Volquez, their best pitcher last season, the rotation becomes stronger, while a lineup that had been weak becomes considerably deeper.

The bullpen is deep, and with a healthy Volquez, so is the starting rotation. Only a few massive holes in the lineup remain, meaning that a trade to upgrade them would have an outsized effect on Cincinnati’s chances this season.

The leadoff hitter and center fielder, Willy Taveras, couldn’t be sabotaging the Reds more if he had been paid off by gamblers. He’s hitting .224/.274/.278, and doing it out of the leadoff spot! Alex Gonzalez is having a similar season at shortstop, hitting .214/.256/.302.  Fangraphs has both players’ UZR at slightly above average, but not nearly high enough to justify a lineup spot with their putrid production.

Upgrading either or both positions thus would not only help the Reds tremendously, but the production from both players is so poor that a trade-deadline pickup doesn’t need to be a star to dramatically upgrade the positions. Finding a .750 OPS center fielder or shortstop isn’t very difficult, but would represent a 150-200 point pickup for the Reds.

With a young team, the Reds shouldn’t be mortgaging the whole future for 2009. But as good as they already are, they owe it to themselves and their fans to see if they can grab a flag in this mediocre National League that will fly, I am told, forever.

CHRIS PUMMER: Despite being three games under .500, the White Sox wouldn’t really be an unlikely buyer before the July 31 trade deadline. GM Kenny Williams is always in win-now mode, and there’s no reason he shouldn’t be now in a winnable American League Central.

The Sox have struggled this season while trying to break in young players at third base (Josh Fields, Gordon Beckham), second base (Chris Getz) and center field (Brian Anderson). At the same time they lost their best hitter (Carlos Quentin), got rough starts from three pitchers that opened the season in their rotation (John Danks, Gavin Floyd and Jose Contreras) as well as patchy performances from others (Bartolo Colon, Alexei Ramirez).

But at least two of the young players might be establishing themselves. Getz has a full third of his extra-base hits in the last week and is past the lingering injuries that slowed him earlier this season. Beckham, a top-10 pick in last year’s draft, has been called upon to replace the free-swinging Fields. After a start that included more bad luck than bad play, he’s also posted better numbers the last two weeks.

Two weeks isn’t much use in predicting future performance, but both of those players have minor-league resumes that suggest it’s only a matter of time before they become big-leaguers. The Sox are hoping that they’ve both turned the corner.

As for the others, Ramirez has beaten back his slow start — like he did during his rookie campaign in 2008. A .214/.273/.286 April gave way to a May in which he made more contact (.281/.320/.375) This month Ramirez has also rediscovered his power stroke (.280/.330/.488), giving the Sox credible offense from their shortstop.

Floyd, Danks and Contreras have all rebounded as well with strong peripheral numbers to back up lower ERAs since the start of June. Floyd and Danks have already been league-average pitchers on the season, but now they’re giving the Sox pleny of reason to expect more for the balance. And it shouldn’t be too much to ask Contreras (2-1, 1.23 ERA, 13 K, 3 BB since returning from a AAA rehab assignment) to team up with Colon and Clayton Richard to fill out a very solid rotation fronted by Mark Buehrle.

With Jermaine Dye, Jim Thome, Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski still going strong, a solid bullpen and a resurgent Scott Podsednik (!) giving the lineup a lift, It’s not hard to argue that the Sox have the deepest and most balanced team in the AL Central. They even recently added Ramon Castro via trade with the Mets — the ideal complement to Pierzynski behind the plate that Williams has been trying to add for years.

But right now two things are holding Williams back from adding pieces.

The first is the health of Quentin.  The the mashing left fielder is able to return after the All-Star break, it will take pressure off the Sox GM to add another big bat. Quentin would return to his spot, Podsednik (.319/.378/.412) would move to center and Anderson would be used in the fourth-outfielder role he’s prehaps best suited for.

The second — and maybe more significant factor — is that Williams might be having trouble finding a trade big enough.

It’s not just that Kenny likes to make a splash, like he almost did with a Jake Peavy trade. It’s that if Williams really thinks everyone is now rounding into form, he’ll have to land a big talent to make the trade worth the price he’ll pay in talent.

Is there a trade out there like that? I don’t know, but Williams is probably on the phone trying to find out.

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