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Death, taxes, people using the “death, taxes and [blank]” cliche, and the Major League Baseball season not going as expected.
This particular season, that should make for a wild trade market.
Try to think back to, say, January. It was then a wee bit early to make definitive calls about the 2017 MLB season, but the landscape ahead seemed clear enough. It looked like the season would consist of a few very good contenders, several not-as-good contenders and then a whole bunch of pretenders.
From there, you could anticipate what stars the pretenders could offer the contenders come trade season.
The Chicago White Sox would have Jose Quintana and David Robertson. The Minnesota Twins would have Brian Dozier and Ervin Santana. And then there were the maybes: the Milwaukee Brewers dealing Ryan Braun and the Arizona Diamondbacks moving Zack Greinke.
That was pretty much that. About as nice and simple as screwing in a light bulb.
Cue everything getting screwed up.
Quite a few supposed pretenders have been better than expected, including all four of the teams mentioned above. And while they could still choose to sell their stars ahead of the July 31 deadline, they may not have the star market cornered.
Because as unexpected contenders have risen, expected contenders have fallen. Thus exists the potential for the trade market to be flooded with many more name-brand players, as each of MLB’s six divisions now contains at least one team that could switch from “win now” to “SELL, SELL, SELL.”
AL East: Toronto Blue Jays
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The Toronto Blue Jays reached the American League Championship Series in 2015 and again in 2016. Now they’re bringing up the rear in the AL East at 17-21.
True, they’ve been playing better recently. But they’re still 6.5 games out of first place, and their long-term outlook remains clouded thanks to the bite the injury bug has taken out of them.
If the Blue Jays do sell, the easy targets will be their free-agents-to-be: starters Marco Estrada and Francisco Liriano and relievers Joe Smith, Jason Grilli and J.P. Howell. Veteran slugger Jose Bautista could also be shopped.
Then there’s the big prize: Josh Donaldson.
The 2015 American League MVP wouldn’t be a rental, as he’s under club control through 2018. Provided he makes a strong recovery from the calf injury that currently has him on the disabled list, that could drive his price up to a point where the Blue Jays might not be able to say no.
The catch is that the most obvious fit for Donaldson is the Boston Red Sox, who presumably wouldn’t be keen on shipping prospects to a division rival. But even if that can’t happen, something else certainly could.
AL Central: Kansas City Royals
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After going to the World Series in 2014 and winning it in 2015, the Kansas City Royals fell to 81-81 in 2016. You could practically see their window closing.
Now that they’re 16-21 and in last place, that window seems shut for good. And while the relative weakness of the AL Central is a solid excuse for them to keep fighting, Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe reports the club is already scouting other teams’ farm systems.
The Royals will have rentals galore if they do sell. Ol’ standbys Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar are free-agents-to-be. So is veteran left-hander Jason Vargas, who’s a surprise ace with a 1.01 ERA through seven starts.
Of course, the Royals might choose to hang on to those guys and collect draft picks via the qualifying offer system instead. But even if they do that, they could at least deal Kelvin Herrera.
Although they control the hard-throwing right-hander through 2018, the demand for him on the summer market figures to be too great to ignore. Teams always need relievers and are generally willing to pay a pretty penny for them.
That’s going to be especially true of the Washington Nationals. Lo and behold, Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports has reported they’re already eyeing Herrera.
AL West: Texas Rangers
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The Texas Rangers may not be doomed just yet. Although they’re only 19-20, they’ve won six in a row to climb into second place in the AL West.
However, they’re still 7.5 games behind the Houston Astros. And even if they’re so much as a mediocre team come July, Rosenthal reports the expectation among rival executives is that Rangers president of baseball operations Jon Daniels will “act aggressively” as a seller.
If he does, he’ll have one guy everybody will want: Yu Darvish.
Now two years removed from Tommy John surgery, the right-hander is having a strong season with a 2.96 ERA through eight starts. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs is right in thinking Darvish, a free-agent-to-be, will have clubs lining up for him.
“[If] the goal is to just get the best pitcher available for the rest of this season, Darvish is going to be your guy,” Cameron wrote.
In addition to Darvish, the Rangers could also dangle fellow rentals Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Gomez. And given their considerable financial resources, they could do so with the plan in mind to re-sign them over the winter.
NL East: New York Mets
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The New York Mets are in second place in the NL East. Most years, that would be a perfectly acceptable place to be.
Not this year. The Mets are only 16-20 and 7.5 games behind a loaded Nationals team. And with seemingly half their roster on the DL, they’re facing a hard climb out of the hole they’re in.
“They are currently looking for rotation depth. But one rival GM says he could even see them as sellers, the way things have gone,” Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports reported earlier in May.
The one name that sticks out is Matt Harvey. He’s having a second straight bad season and recently landed in the team’s dog house. But it’s for these same reasons that his trade value is kaput. If he’s going to be moved in a change-of-scenery deal, it’ll probably be this winter.
The Mets are more likely to deal from their pool of rentals: outfielders Jay Bruce and Curtis Granderson; infielders Jose Reyes, Neil Walker and Lucas Duda; and reliever Addison Reed.
Bruce is basically the anti-Harvey, as he’s raised his sunken trade value with a power surge that’s already taken him to 10 home runs. Duda is also having a good season, and Reed’s revival as a Met could make him a surprisingly valuable trade chip.
NL Central: Pittsburgh Pirates
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Coming off a forgettable 78-83 season in 2016, the Pittsburgh Pirates weren’t exactly heavy favorites to win the NL Central in 2017. But surely they could at least top the Brewers and Cincinnati Reds.
So far, not so much. The Pirates are in last place at 16-22. A run that yielded three straight postseason trips between 2013 and 2015 appears to be over.
The most attractive rental the Pirates have is left-handed closer Tony Watson. Unless, of course, you count Andrew McCutchen.
The former MVP was the subject of trade rumors throughout the winter. And while he hasn’t boosted his fallen value on the field in posting just a .689 OPS, his contract remains affordable. He’s owed $14 million this year with a $14.5 million option ($1 million buyout) for 2018.
The best overall trade chip the Pirates have, however, is Gerrit Cole.
After battling injuries in 2016, the right-hander is back to looking more like a Cy Young candidate with a 3.06 ERA through eight starts. He’s controlled through 2019, making him a pricey yet highly attractive trade option for a contender looking for more than just immediate success.
On that note, consider Heyman’s recent report: “The Yankees have always loved [Cole], so they’d make sense. New York drafted him out of high school as a late first-rounder, but Cole’s father told them then that there was no offer that could keep him away from UCLA.”
Just putting it out there.
San Francisco Giants
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The San Francisco Giants figured to contend for the NL West title this year. But at 15-24 and with a minus-61 run differential, they instead find themselves near the bottom of the entire league.
“They almost have to look forward,” one rival executive told Heyman.
With a good chunk of their stars signed to long-term contracts, the Giants neither can nor must go into a full-on rebuild. But they should indeed try to sell what they can.
At the least, that’ll mean Eduardo Nunez, who’ll be a good rental utility man. The Giants could also dangle veteran right fielder Hunter Pence, who’s due for free agency after 2018.
The wild cards are Johnny Cueto and Mark Melancon.
A rival executive who Heyman spoke to wondered whether they could be made available. If nothing else, they fit the profiles of players who tend to be in high demand on the summer trade market. Cueto is an experienced ace. Melancon is an experienced relief ace.
However, both are signed to long-term contracts. Both also have value to reclaim. Cueto only has a 4.15 ERA through eight starts, and Melancon wasn’t dominating before landing on the DL with a bad elbow.
But if they do so, the Giants just might be able to add two more stars to the summer market.
Data courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com. Contract details courtesy of Cot’s Baseball Contracts.