The trade deadline is supposed to be a time of possibility, a checkpoint when stars can flip teams’ fortunes in one fell swoop. But here’s a hard truth to hear as MLB approaches this season’s July 30 cutoff: The playoff race is mostly over, especially in the National League. The question of who’s making October? Not much of a question.
That means that desperation is relative this week as buyers lineup to bid for the best available players. As Rob Arthur explains at Baseball Prospectus, there is “much less uncertainty about the postseason field this year than in any recent season except 2018.” So instead of teams trying to sneak into the postseason, the most aggressive suitors for talent may be teams whose tickets are already punched who want to avoid the wild-card game … or boost their chances of winning it if they must.
Enter the NL West’s triumvirate of terror. The San Francisco Giants, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres are all virtual locks to make the playoffs. But because they are all in the same division, two of them will have to play each other in one wild-card game to even reach an actual series.
The biggest advantages up for grabs ahead of Friday’s trade deadline might just be the upper hand in the NL West and NL wild-card game. It’s these motivations, not merely making October, that could spur the biggest moves of the week — and now Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer is emerging as the top target.
A race within a race
Some of this was always expected. The Padres and Dodgers gobbled up talent over the winter precisely because they were racing for the advantage of winning the division and skipping that dreaded coin flip to begin the postseason. The surprise emergence of the Giants — who lead the division by two games entering Tuesday — has only thrown more fuel on the division’s hyper-competitive fire.
The preseason favorite Dodgers remain the top choice at BetMGM, where they are -200 to win the NL West and +375 to win the World Series, but every day they don’t gain on the Giants is a reminder of how quickly that upper hand could evaporate. Meanwhile, the Padres must feel as though the Giants stole their thunder as the up-and-coming challengers. In World Series odds at BetMGM, San Diego and San Francisco are now even at +900.
Projection systems fall in line with the division odds, also heavily favoring the Dodgers to eventually pull ahead. The PECOTA system at Baseball Prospectus pegs their division chances at 78.6%, while FanGraphs is at 69%.
The more intriguing number to look at, though, is PECOTA’s adjusted playoff odds, or the chances that a team makes it past the wild-card game and into an actual playoff series. San Diego has 60% odds there, despite 93.6% overall playoff odds, while the Giants’ differential is even more stark — just 39.3% adjusted odds compared to an 87% chance of making the playoffs.
Contrast that to the New York Mets, a shakier team that could still sink and lose its division. New York’s overall playoff odds are only 82.4%, but its adjusted playoff odds are 81.1%, a huge advantage by virtue of division alignment.
Here’s how important the tangle between this trio could be: There are no NL teams with better World Series odds than any of Dodgers, Padres or Giants. The Dodgers remain the favorites, while the Mets are merely tied with the Padres and Giants at +900.
The last NL West team standing, in other words, is likely have a huge talent edge on its competition.
How the NL West will be won
So how do the Dodgers, Giants and Padres stack up? And where might there be room to improve?
With the wild-card game looming so large, a lights out ace like Scherzer becomes impossibly important. As the Nationals scramble to find a deal that satisfies their franchise legend — and convinces him to waive his right to veto any trade — the West Coast is reportedly favored, potentially setting up a high-stakes bidding war.
Right now, the Giants might have the best performing starting pitcher by 2021 numbers. Kevin Gausman has the lowest ERA (2.21) of any of the three teams’ starters. But the breakout right-hander lacks the track record of the Dodgers’ top options. Even in 2021, he only barely bests the Dodgers’ Walker Buehler in ERA, and he trails Clayton Kershaw in FIP (a more predictive metric that estimates ERA based on what pitchers control), as well as strikeout rate.
The Dodgers’ starting pitchers have compiled an MLB-best 2.98 ERA, but there is reason for concern. Kershaw is on the IL at the moment, and offseason addition Trevor Bauer is unlikely to be back this year in the wake of sexual assault allegations. He is on administrative leave until at least August 2 and teammates reportedly do not want him to return.
Based on the projections, the more likely wild-card game matchup would be Giants vs. Padres. San Diego spent the offseason bulking up its rotation with Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove and Blake Snell, but could still be motivated to add a starter. Scherzer, still dominant as he turns 37, would likely get the ball in a one-game situation. The Twins’ José Berríos — another potential trade target — is less likely to leap into that role, but could add consistency and durability. Plus, he’s under team control through 2022 — in case this year’s derby doesn’t go their way. Aggressive GM A.J. Preller already added All-Star infielder Adam Frazier and may be working on more maneuvering to add as many stars as possible.
Meanwhile, San Diego boasts the majors’ best bullpen ERA, while the Giants instilled some doubt about Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen by handing him two brutal losses in their series last week. Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel is widely viewed as the best bullpen arm available.
For San Francisco, depth has been a strength across the board, but they may need some additional oomph to get over the hump in October. With inconsistent performances in the corner outfield spots and injuries striking corner infielders Brandon Belt and Evan Longoria, big-name hitters like Kris Bryant and Joey Gallo make a lot of sense if they do decide to push in their chips on a 2021 run.
Even a small edge, like home-field advantage in the wild-card game, could go a long way … and go down to the wire. The Giants and Padres will play each other 10 more times in the regular season, including a three-game set to finish the year.
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