Bullpen needs will drive contenders’ moves as trade deadline approaches

The Nationals struck early and acquired Royals reliever Kelvin Herrera. Seattle traded for Rays reliever Alex Colome, adding to an already-strong bullpen.

Those acquisitions are likely just the beginning for contenders strengthening their bullpens, a necessary task for teams planning to be around in October.

In the last few years, big-name players who have been traded - Andrew Miller, Aroldys Chapman and Justin Verlander - have altered the postseason landscape.

This year, the Orioles’ Zach Britton, Brad Brach and Manny Machado could do the same. Each is a potential free agent.

Britton, who missed most of the first half with an Achilles injury, is healthy with a well-rested arm and a deadly sinker, looking much like the season when he was a American League Cy Young candidate.

So what’s the future for Brach and Britton?

Bullpen pitchers are always in demand this time of year. And, there are plenty of relievers available.

In addition to Britton and Brach, there are the Marlins’ Kyle Barraclough and Drew Steckenrider, the Padres’ Brad Hand, the Rockies’ Adam Ottavino and the Reds’ Rasial Iglesias.

The Yankees and Brewers have the strongest bullpens in baseball. The Nationals, as long as the slumping rotation doesn’t burn them out, should be fine.

Here is a look at contending teams and their bullpen needs:

CHICAGO: The Cubs might be looking for a closer, depending on what happens with Brandon Morrow’s back issues. If Morrow’s back continues to be a problem, the Cubs are going to be in a serious conversation with the Orioles about Britton. The Cubs setup crew is deeper than it was a year ago, so that likely rules out interest in Brad Brach. The right-handers are Carl Edwards Jr., Steve Cishek and Pedro Strop. The lefties are Brian Duensing, Randy Rosario and Justin Wilson. If Morrow can’t pitch, the Cubs would like make a trade because they aren’t comfortable with any in their setup core handling the duties.

HOUSTON: The Astros demoted closer Ken Giles, who had 34 saves in 2017 and a rough postseason, to Triple-A Fresno. He wasn’t pitching well (4.99 ERA), had lost his closer’s role a month ago and had a tense relationship with Astros manager A.J. Hinch. A year ago, the Astros and the Orioles had a deal worked out that would have sent Britton to Houston for the final two months. This time, the scenario in Houston is different. Do the Astros need a closer? Hector Rondon, who has 84 career saves, mostly with the Cubs, has 44 strikeouts and 10 walks in 33 1/3 innings this season. The setup crew includes lefty Tony Sipp and righties Chris Devenski, Will Harris and Collin McHugh. McHugh is a former starter who has adjusted well to the bullpen with 6-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. And like last season when they won the World Series, the Astros aren’t afraid to move a starter to the bullpen for October. This year, assuming the Astros make it to the postseason, starter Lance McCullers will join the bullpen.

CLEVELAND: The Indians are going to win their division, bad bullpen or not. But the bullpen they currently have doesn’t look as if he can dominate in October. Andrew Miller is out with a knee injury and will return after the All-Star break, so that’s going to help. But he can’t do it all alone. The Indians rotation is strong. Their offense is fine, but will their bullpen cost them a chance to go to the World Series?

PHILADELPHIA: The rebuilding Phillies are ahead of schedule as far as contention, but they are trying to win the National League East with a bullpen-by-committee approach and rookie manager Gabe Kapler is reluctant to establish traditional roles for his bullpen pitchers. Still, if the Phillies acquired Britton, they likely would make him a closer. The Phillies’ best reliever is Seranthony Domínguez, a power pitcher with a strong slider who has been used in various roles and multiple innings. But while is stuff is good, he’s still only 23. Former Oriole Tommy Hunter has been so-so. Pat Neshek is coming off the disabled list, so that could help. And, the Phillies have also used Edubray Ramos and Victor Arano. The Phillies need a bat, and that’s why Machado’s name keeps coming up in Philadelphia, but the Phillies are probably more likely to trade for Britton or Brach.

ATLANTA: The Braves are in a predicament: They are contending. Their rotation is young and they have only three reliable pitchers - Arodys Vizcaíno, A.J. Minter and Jesse Biddle - in the bullpen, not enough to bail out the troubles in the rotation. So if the Braves trade for Britton, do they do it at the risk of trading prospect starters and slowing rebuilding? The Braves might have to use one of their starter prospects as a reliever if they don’t fade in the NL East.

BOSTON: The Red Sox are on cruise control in the AL East, but they would like to add to their setup crew, so that’s why they are connected to Britton and Brach. Craig Kimbrel is the closer and he’s eligible for free agency after the season. Joe Kelly is the main setup guy. The Red Sox would prefer trading for a reliever that could keep long-term - either Barraclough or Steckenrider of the Marlins would fit that scenario - but the Marlins’ asking price for either of those guys will be enormous. Britton in a Red Sox uniform? Who knows?