Fenced in: Several GMs near Deadline decision
Buy or sell? The time to choose coming close for clubs on fringe of contention
Dan Jennings might look at the standings of late and smile.
Ben Cherington might look at them and sigh.
Andrew Friedman might look at them and feel oddly encouraged.
And a week from now, those gentlemen might feel completely different about their competitive state.
Welcome to the fence, men. It's a place where a general manager must decide, at a time when "contention" status has never been more nebulous, what is real and what is a mirage. Do you sell off your best assets by the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline? Or do you stand pat and let it ride in hope of a run, or do you add on and really go for it?
For the sake of discussion, let's define this teasing terrain at this increasingly late juncture as follows: Five to nine games back in your division or the Wild Card race.
And we'll eliminate the Mariners (eight back in the American League West) from this discussion, simply because they are in current position of a Wild Card spot and, ergo, obvious contenders.
Seven teams fit that particular profile right now, and their stories illustrate the difficulty of these decisions.
Marlins (six games back in National League East, 5 1/2 GB in WC): Let's start with Jennings' Marlins. You probably didn't peg them as a contender going into the year, and you definitely ruled them out when Jose Fernandez went down, didn't you? But here they are, on the frisky fringes in a division in which the Nats and Braves have struggled to distinguish themselves.
The Fish would probably need back-end-of-the-rotation help and middle-infield depth if they're serious about staying in the hunt for a playoff spot. But you can safely cross them off the "sellers" list, as Jennings has shown an unwillingness not only to deal a centerpiece in Giancarlo Stanton but also a "sell-high" veteran candidate in Casey McGehee. Miami is encouraged enough by its rise from last year's 100-loss campaign to feel good about what the club is building for 2015, so why go backward?
Rays (nine GB in AL East, 8 1/2 GB in WC): All of baseball is wondering if Friedman will find a suitable swap for David Price, and the Rays had every reason to dangle him just a few weeks back.
And then a strange thing happened: Joe Maddon's club started winning (18-10 since June 11, the fourth-best record in baseball in that span), started playing more in line with what was prescribed for them this season.
Friedman, though, didn't earn his reputation as one of the game's shrewdest GMs by chasing illusions. Tampa Bay holds just a 4 percent chance of reaching the playoffs (per Baseball Prospectus), and Price's value is higher now than it would be this winter (and it seems doubtful the Rays can afford to keep him and his rising arbitration salary another year). So a trade still feels like the more likely result, but Tampa Bay isn't going to just give him away.
Indians (7 1/2 GB in AL Central, 4 1/2 GB in WC): Last year's season-ending, 10-game winning streak to steal the AL's top Wild Card spot is enough to encourage the idea that the Tribe has another run in it, but the wait has been difficult at times.
Right now, it's hard to imagine the Indians selling, because their assets in that area are dubious to begin with. They're not going to part with any core pieces, and the trade value of pending free agents Asdrubal Cabrera (having another shaky offensive season) and Justin Masterson (going backward on the mound and now on the DL) is dubious to begin with.
Buying would be nice, specifically to support the now Masterson-less rotation or an outfield in which Michael Bourn's hamstring issues are ongoing. But buying on a large scale would most assuredly involve parting with a prized piece like Francisco Lindor, and that's not going to happen, either.
Bet on Chris Antonetti to simply move forward with what he's got and hold out hope for another 10-game-type surge.
Mets (eight GB in NL East, 7 1/2 GB in WC): Sandy Alderson's talks of a 90-win season in Spring Training have given way to more realistic results, and while the four-game winning streak the Mets took into Thursday got them into this discussion, it's not going to be enough to sway them into the "buy" side.
The question is who they'll sell, if anyone.
Daniel Murphy would seem an obvious candidate, given that he's capable of helping a contender at second or third base and would eat up roughly 10 percent of the Mets' payroll next season. Two guys over 40 and having serviceable seasons -- Bartolo Colon and Bobby Abreu -- might bring back a Class A body or two. But the Mets, who obviously aren't going to part with any of their prized young pitchers, might just as soon stand pat.
White Sox (8 1/2 GB in AL Central, 5 1/2 GB in WC): The Sox's rebuild after a brutal 2013 has clearly come a long way, as evidenced by their still-lingering contention hopes, but the work isn't done, given the lack of depth in the rotation and questions about the long-term middle-infield makeup. That's why the most likely result for Rick Hahn and Co. in the coming weeks is a sell job, but likely not a large-scale one.
"There's certainly no urgency to do anything," Hahn said.
And he's right. Shortstop Alexei Ramirez is probably the Sox's best trading chip, but he's under contract through at least 2015. Dayan Viciedo, John Danks and Gordon Beckham could all be dangled, but it's hard to see an overwhelming return for any of them.
The most likely outcome is to trade pending free agent Adam Dunn, whose power bat would help contenders in this bat-starved market, and press on.
Twins (10 1/2 GB in AL Central, 7 1/2 GB in WC): The Twins are in a similar position to the Sox: Making strides in their recovery but still far enough away to avoid delusions of grandeur.
Minnesota has three pending free-agent bats in Kurt Suzuki, Josh Willingham and Kendrys Morales who could all be appealing, on some level, to other clubs -- again, in large measure due to the market conditions. Suzuki is having an All-Star season behind the plate, and Willingham and Morales both have shown enough thump in their bats in the past to inspire hope. The returns on the latter two, in particular, would not be overwhelming, but they could be encouraging for a Twins club still looking to beef up its prospect stash.
Red Sox (9 1/2 GB in AL East, nine GB in WC): Cherington is finding it difficult to give up on a team that won the World Series mere months ago, and you can't blame him. But rather than continue to target outfield help on the market, they went in-house with the promotion of Mookie Betts. And rather than ride it out with A.J. Pierzynski, they promoted prospect Christian Vazquez. This is clearly a club shifting away from thoughts of a repeat and toward an evaluation of its future assets.
That could lead to swaps involving guys like Jake Peavy or Stephen Drew or maybe even Koji Uehara or John Lackey. But while the Red Sox aren't likely to add on at this point, they're not going to stage a major fire sale, either.
"We're in an unusual spot," Cherington said Wednesday. "We're just going to have to see what the rest of the month brings us."