Right now, every Major League front office is waist deep in the Draft waters, angling for the amateur talent that is going to shape squads in the future (here's how to watch and what to watch for once the 2017 MLB Draft begins on Monday). But as soon as we come out of that event -- which will go through Wednesday -- it'll be time to start talking about the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline and the search for the players that could help shape the outcome of the 2017 playoff races.
Here are the five storylines of biggest significance as we venture into the summer swapping season.
1. How will the cushy division leads of the Astros and Nationals affect their strategy?
These two division leaders are sitting pretty, but that doesn't mean Houston and Washington are finished products. The Nationals, as you know, have trouble in the late innings. And though that likely won't serve as a metaphor for an inability to close out the division, the Nats need look no further than the 2016 Giants as an example of how this in-season trend does not just up and vanish come October. An organization that has never advanced past the first round of the postseason and is a mere 17 months away from Bryce Harper's free agency is bound to try to patch up the 'pen someway, somehow.
The Astros don't have as glaring a need, but the devil's in the details. There is reason to wonder, for instance, whether Lance McCullers Jr., who has never pitched more than 157 2/3 innings in a full professional season and threw only 89 innings last year, will hold up in the second half. And even if he does, there's an obvious argument for adding an October-tested arm or even just more upside to the assembly. They'll also probably look for a left-handed relief option.
So the idea that the Nationals and Astros will add on is a given. The only question is when? On the one hand, their big leads afford them the opportunity to sit back and wait for the perfect deal. On the other hand, the knowledge that they're playing for more than just the regular season could compel them to jump the market. Last year, the Cubs were in a similar position to these two teams and made an early play for a very high-profile rental in Aroldis Chapman. What do the 'Stros and Nats have up their sleeves?
2. Which Wild Card contenders will go all-in?
For the clubs looking up at the Astros and Nationals but on the fringes of the playoff picture, this will be the key question.
It's a particularly interesting one in Texas, where the Rangers rode the fumes of their 10-game winning streak in early May for all they were worth. They have valuable pending free agents in Yu Darvish and Jonathan Lucroy who could be shopped, or they could try to patch up the bullpen and hope to get their shot in the American League Wild Card Game.
The Mariners, besieged by injuries this season, probably don't want to punt on any chance of ending the game's longest active postseason drought, but how much more heavy lifting can Jerry Dipoto realistically do after a major makeover in the offseason?
In the National League East, the Mets, Marlins and, to a lesser extent, the Braves will have to decide whether to let it ride or try to find a market for guys like Jay Bruce, Lucas Duda, Addison Reed, Brad Ziegler, Edinson Volquez and Jaime Garcia.
3. Do the Twins and Brewers trust their surprise contention status enough to rethink their rebuilds?
In recent years, both of these organizations have been infused with new, young, analytically-armed front offices. And now the men leading those efforts have an interesting quandary on their hands: Might these clubs be too good for their own good?
David Stearns took over the Brewers at the end of 2015 and continued the teardown that had been begun by Doug Melvin. The assumption going into '17 was that the Brew Crew would continue to search for a way to unload a decent chunk of Ryan Braun's contract and ship off the last real link to their 2011 NL Central winner. Instead, the Brewers have rode a high-power, high-strikeout offense to unlikely livelihood in the NL Central, but big questions remain about their pitching staff and, in particular, their ability to hold late leads, despite the excellent work of closer Corey Knebel.
The Twins are in their first year under the Derek Falvey/Thad Levine regime, and improved intelligence contributed to an unexpected surge in rotation reliability early on. Is what we saw from Ervin Santana last weekend, when he served up No. 600 to Albert Pujols in grand (slam) fashion, a sign that the regression monster has its eyes on the Twins, or can this club keep cobbling together just enough wins to remain relevant?
The obvious problem here is that the Twins and Brewers just aren't as deep as the two clubs that reached the World Series last year (and each, of course, shares a division with one of those two teams). So while you always want to do right by your clubhouse and look for upgrades should they stay in the hunt, Stearns and Falvey must take measured approaches, with assets controllable beyond 2017 sure to be the focus.
4. How deep will the Yankees dive into that newly improved farm system?
Last year's sellers will be this year's buyers, but in a situation not totally dissimilar to what we discussed in Minnesota and Milwaukee, the Yanks have to simultaneously react to their sped-up contention timetable while keeping an eye on the big picture that is their desire to build a sustainable juggernaut.
The difference in the Bronx is that the market fundamentally ratchets up the expectation level in a situation like this, and the Yankees' loaded farm system is something that gives them an edge over their AL East foes. Gleyber Torres looks to be untouchable, but can the same be said for other 2016 acquisitions like Clint Frazier and Justus Sheffield?
The Yankees will need at least one starting arm, possibly a bullpen piece and possibly first-base help, depending on Greg Bird's performance moving forward. Those are needs that won't be addressed cheaply, and Brian Cashman will have to have as strong a Deadline period this year as he did last, albeit from the opposite side of the buy-sell spectrum.
5. How will the controllable starting pitching market develop?
Bats are sort of a specialty market, and the needs have to align just right. Relievers are always in demand, but this year doesn't figure to have game-changers in the vein of Chapman or Andrew Miller. Nothing in the trade game is as reliably important as starting pitching, and the value teams like the Astros, Cubs and Yankees, for sure -- and possibly even the Indians, Rockies and Dodgers -- will undoubtedly place on years of control in this summer's environment will make for some fascinating -- and shape-shifting -- theater.
Right now, the two names of utmost importance are those of Sonny Gray and Jose Quintana, for the simple reason that their clubs are in clear sell situations and those guys' contractual status gives them trade value independent of performance. Ah, but performance still matters! And the inconsistency of these two arms so far this season means their movement (or lack thereof) will likely come down to real-time evaluations of what few remaining starts they have between now and July 31.
There are other names that could enter the mix as teams fall out of it or get creative. Johnny Cueto might be the most complicated trade candidate in the game, because while he still has four-plus years left on his deal with the Giants, only three more months of that deal are guaranteed because of his opt-out clause. The D-backs are in a position where they could potentially get the onerous Zack Greinke contract off their hands, but they're also in playoff position presently, so don't count on that. The Rays are far too frisky now to consider dealing Chris Archer, but how will things look in a month? Moving Gerrit Cole would be a nuclear option for the Pirates, but it's not inconceivable. The Twins might wind up with incentive to sell relatively high on Santana (under contract through 2018).
Controllable pitching is the most valuable trade commodity in the game, especially in a market in which some high-profile contenders will be looking for it.