Welcome back to The Rotation! Here's a starting five of topics worth bantering about in Major League Baseball this week.
1. Need machine
The MLB Trade Deadline went from snoozy to a doozy quickly in recent days. It started Thursday with the Cubs and White Sox making an unusual crosstown deal in the Jose Quintana trade and continued Sunday, when the Nationals addressed a little-known, rarely discussed* need by acquiring some bullpen help in the form of Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson.
*Fun fact: The Nats' need for bullpen help was a topic of conversation at the Last Supper.
The Cubs first made some Reddit user named "wetbutt23" look sage and then looked pretty smart themselves, as Quintana threw a gem in his club debut Sunday in Baltimore (his game score of 88, per Baseball Reference, was the highest of his career and the highest of any Cubs starter this season). The jury will be out on the Nats' relief acquisitions until October, because they already have the division in hand.
There are remaining needs aplenty right now, and it will be especially interesting to see what the Dodgers and Astros, two clubs that will coast into October, will do to increase their World Series odds.
Not sure how wettbutt23 would feel about the following, but these are my picks for the most pressing needs among clear contenders as the Deadline draws closer:
Yankees -- starting pitching: They need production from first base, too, but the news over the weekend that Michael Pineda needs Tommy John surgery amplifies what was already a glaring need.
Brewers -- starting pitching: Injuries have thinned this group, and the Brew Crew has run into stretches this year in which its bullpen gets taxed and bends. The Brewers could really use some stability if they're going to fend off the Cubs.
Rockies -- catcher or outfielder (or both): They're in Wild Card position, but that race could get tight in a hurry. Colorado's lineup has been far too dependent on Charlie Blackmon, Nolan Arenado and Mark Reynolds and has gotten nothing out of the catching spot or right field. How about an Alex Avila-J.D. Martinez two-fer?
D-backs -- relief help: Probably the most pointed relief need now that the Nats added a couple of A's, given Fernando Rodney's unreliability. Doesn't necessarily need to be a closer, as Archie Bradley seems capable of handling the ninth. But the bullpen is definitely an area of need.
Red Sox -- third baseman: They could acquire Todd Frazier by the time I'm done writing this sentence, though some evaluators believe in-house prospect Rafael Devers, newly promoted to Triple-A, is capable of helping down the stretch.
2. Going Gray?
All signs point to Sonny Gray getting dealt very soon, possibly this week. As evidenced by Sunday's activity, the A's aren't prone to waiting around, and Gray is probably at peak value right now after his six shutout innings against the Indians on Friday night. Gray was in total command of that ballgame in large part because he was in total command of his hybrid 90-91 mph two-seamer/changeup. Basically, it's a hard changeup with wicked movement, a pitch as difficult to classify as it is to hit.
The 27-year-old Gray, under arbitration control through 2019, doesn't come with the same financial appeal as Quintana, who is under wraps at a predetermined (and cheap) rate through 2020, but he's still pretty appealing. He's also healthy, after dealing with a mild lat injury earlier in the year. Controllable starting help is the spot in the highest demand among the Astros, Yankees, Indians, Brewers and others right now, and Gray is certainly the most attractive option among those known to be on the block. Quintana commanded a four-player package featuring two of MLBPipeline.com's Top 100 Prospects (No. 8 Eloy Jimenez and No. 63 Dylan Cease). The Gray package won't be quite as steep, but it likely won't be far off, either.
It seems like we've been hearing Gray rumors almost as long as we've known about him, but because he's a hot hand and every start is precious, this could be the week that something actually happens.
If Gray does make another start for Oakland, it will be Wednesday afternoon vs. the Rays.
3. A Buc's back
The Pirates' possibly last chance at proving they can legitimately get back in the NL postseason picture seemingly arrives this week, both in scheduling and circumstances. For one, the Buccos, who open the week facing a seven-game deficit in the NL Central and an eight-game hole in the Wild Card race, will play host to the division-leading Brewers for four games at PNC Park before traveling to Colorado for a three-game series with the Rockies next weekend. Also, left fielder Starling Marte, having served the extent of his 80-game suspension for performance-enhancing drug use, is scheduled to return on Tuesday.
There is no telling what the Pirates are getting in a hopefully clean Marte (not so shockingly, he recently told reporters his numbers before the suspension "were all legitimate, put in through effort, a lot of effort, a lot of work, to get that completed and get that done"), but, for what it's worth, the Pirates have gotten a minus-0.6 bWAR mark from left field this season and Marte was a 5-win player each of the past four years. So there is reason to believe he could be a difference-maker in the second half.
But Marte is going to have to make a difference in a hurry. The Pirates are right on that buy/sell line right now, and there's no denying that these market circumstances are ripe for them to be overwhelmed with offers for Gerrit Cole -- even in a year in which Cole himself has not been overwhelming (his ERA+ is exactly league average). Andrew McCutchen has certainly elevated his value after a down 2016, though it remains to be seen if a position-player market replete with options and possible salary dumps and not with buyers will even be an environment in which it's worth the Buccos' while.
Their best bet might be to ride it out, to hope Marte, after providing apologies, can provide impact.
4. Surging Seattle?
It's a pretty low bar to be considered an AL Wild Card contender, and the Mariners, despite entering the week a game below .500, are currently clear of that bar thanks to a four-game win streak.
Hey, four straight wins might be a modest streak, but it still qualifies as noteworthy for a club that played terribly in the last couple weeks leading into the All-Star break and is trying to end baseball's longest October drought.
Now comes an interesting test for the M's as they face the Astros, Yankees and Red Sox in succession the next 10 days. The Mariners can no longer use health as an excuse. After losing James Paxton, Nelson Cruz, Jean Segura, Mitch Haniger, Robinson Cano, Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma to injury at various points in the first half, all but Iwakuma have returned. Because of the age of their core and their organization's October desperation, this could/should be a club more motivated than most to get to the one-and-done Wild Card round. General manager Jerry Dipoto has been investigating the market for pitching help, but this stretch that begins Monday against the Astros will be vital in determining how aggressive he gets.
5. Judging Judge
Aaron Judge's first-half batting average on balls in play (.427) would be the third-highest in history if it lasted an entire season. His first-half home run/fly-ball percentage (41.7) would be the highest FanGraphs has on record. These are the reasons I chose to bet the under on Judge winning the AL MVP Award when I wrote some second-half predictions in this space last week. It's no knock on the player to say statistical regression feels inevitable in this case, and perhaps Judge's 1-for-18 showing in his first four games after the break are a sign of the arrival of that inevitability.
But I did enjoy hearing Joey Votto's breakdown of Judge's swing at the All-Star festivities last week. No current player has a greater appreciation for the art of hitting than Votto, and he explained why he feels Judge, no matter what this second-half holds, will be a star performer in this sport for many, many years and not some first-half flash in the pan.
"It seems like his swing has the combination of quickness but also a directness to it," Votto said. "Oftentimes, power is generated with a little bit more length. It doesn't seem to me he has that. He has a real 'point A to point B' swing. I think he's getting better at deciding what is a quality pitch for him and what is a proper one to take, and I think that's something he'll get better at as he gets older. But to me he's got a real quick swing, almost like he should be playing in a ballpark that's 10 or 20 percent bigger just because he's so big and so strong."
Of course, all the strength in the world couldn't help Judge against a play like this.
Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor, MLB.com columnist and MLB Network contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.