MLB Offseason: Examining Five Potential Star Trade Candidates

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Red Sox at Orioles 8/10/18

Along with free agency, the trade market is always active during MLB’s offseason. Teams that are not willing to spend what it takes to land a big-ticket free agent look to get creative, and that often leads them to making trades. Here’s a look at five of the biggest names that could potentially be moved this winter.

 

  1. Mookie Betts, RF, Boston Red Sox

 

J.D. Martinez’s decision to opt-in to his contract and remain with the Red Sox will have a complicated ripple effect for Boston. On one hand, they are obviously happy to bring back a world-class hitter in Martinez. However, his $62.5 million salary over the next three years, along with the massive contracts of David Price ($217M), Chris Sale ($145M), and Xander Bogaerts ($120M), put the Red Sox into a financial bind. The looming payday that young superstar Rafael Devers will surely demand is a concern as well. Betts will be an unrestricted free agent after the 2020 season, which means Boston will have to weigh the possibility of trading the star right fielder in fear of losing him for no return value. The 2018 American League MVP seems to be the likeliest trade candidate on this list, because there figures to be no way that Boston will be able to pay what it will cost to retain him.

There is no doubt that Betts has established himself as one of the very best position players in all of baseball. He has accumulated 42.0 WAR over the course of his six year career in Boston, reaching at least 5.9 WAR in each of his five full seasons for the Red Sox. He posted a preposterous 10.9 WAR in just 136 games during his MVP 2018 season, which easily led the major leagues.

Every team should be interested in acquiring a player of Betts’ caliber, but with only one year of team control remaining on his contract, he is certainly a flight risk. If a club were to trade for him, they would probably look to extend him, but he has made clear that he has every intention of reaching free agency next offseason. The most plausible scenario that involves a Mookie Betts trade would be a team viewing him as the missing piece that would put them over the top, albeit most likely for only the 2020 season. 

The Cubs could make sense as a trade partner for Boston, as their championship window is closing fast. Betts would fit seamlessly into the middle of the Chicago lineup, and he would fill a dire need positionally in their outfield. The Cubs’ front office has made it clear that they do not intend to spend recklessly in free agency this offseason, so a trade to significantly improve the roster in the short term makes more sense.

Other teams that may pursue a Betts trade include the Mets, Braves, Padres, and Dodgers.

 

2. Francisco Lindor, SS, Cleveland Indians

 

The direction that Indians’ ownership seems to be steering this team toward remains unclear. Just three years removed from a heartbreaking World Series loss to the Cubs, Cleveland’s window of contention has likely already closed. In an attempt to shed payroll last offseason, the Indians allowed franchise staple Michael Brantley, former relief ace Andrew Miller, longtime closer Cody Allen, and Josh Donaldson walk. The teardown of the major-league roster left superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor with a mediocre supporting cast, and the Indians missed the playoffs for the first time since 2015.

The Indians infielder has proven to be one of the most talented and electric players in all of baseball since entering the league in 2015. Lindor has amassed 28.6 WAR during six seasons in Cleveland, earning all-star status each of the last four years. He also finished second in rookie of the year voting in ‘15. The perennial MVP candidate has recorded an OPS+ of at least 106 (100 is league average) in every season of his career. He has also upped his power, hitting at least 32 homers each of the last three years. Along with his excellent defense at a premium defensive position, Lindor is one of the most valuable talents in the big leagues.

Lindor will be a free agent after the 2021 season, leaving just two more seasons of team control on his contract. If the Indians were to commit to a full rebuild, the time is now to trade the switch-hitting shortstop in order to maximize value. The Dodgers are a possible destination, as their shortstop position is in question with the recent injury history of Corey Seager. The Yankees could go after Lindor as well, with a potential opening at shortstop with the status of free agent Didi Gregorius up in the air. 

The Cubs, Cardinals, Braves, and Reds may chase a Lindor trade as well.

 

3. Nolan Arenado, 3B, Colorado Rockies

 

While a trade involving perennial MVP candidate Nolan Arenado may seem far-fetched, it is more possible than most realize. Prior to the 2019 season, Arenado signed an eight-year, $260 million extension to theoretically remain in Colorado long term. However, an interesting detail about the agreement became public more recently. In a bizarre twist, Rockies GM Jeff Bridich claims to have insisted on the deal including an opt-out clause for Arenado. It is highly unusual for a team to purposely relinquish control or leverage on any player, but to do so for a franchise cornerstone is unheard of. It indicates that that the Rockies are not as committed to Arenado as he seems to be to them, which can certainly stir up trade rumors.

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Colorado is a small/medium market team, lacking the payroll of the Dodgers, Yankees, or Cubs. The Arenado deal is the largest contract in team history, and is sure to be a burden even if Arenado plays well enough to justify it. If the Rockies can escape a massive contract, while getting back quality assets in return, a trade of Arenado may truly make sense. This is especially reasonable following the disaster of a season that 2019 proved to be, following two consecutive wild card berths in 2017 and ‘18.

There is no question that Arenado has earned every penny of his huge payday to this point. His slugging and elite defense are the reasons he has achieved at least 5.6 WAR in every season since 2015. Arenado has also mashed at least 37 homers and topped 110 RBI throughout each of those five years.

Arenado would provide a major upgrade to most teams via trade, which should create a robust market for the seven-time gold glover and four time silver slugger. The Dodgers may have interest, but it seems less plausible that Colorado would trade their star to a division rival. The Yankees may be the most logical club to make a push for Arenado, given their financial capabilities.

The Braves, Cardinals, Rangers, and Phillies could also partake in the Arenado sweepstakes.

 

4. Whit Merrifield, 2B/OF, Kansas City Royals

 

While the Royals have indicated on several occasions that they will not move Merrifield, it would be reckless not to do so. They won the World Series in 2015, which is also the last year they reached the postseason. Kansas City has since moved into a full scale rebuild, having lost 100 or more games in two consecutive seasons. They are nowhere close to even sniffing contention, and are looking to acquire young talent to plant the seeds of their next winner. 

There is no chance that the talented Merrifield will be a member of the next Royals playoff team. The second basemen will turn 31 in January, so his value is as high as it will ever be right now. Kansas City needs to maximize his trade potential as soon as possible. If they neglect to move Merrifield, their decision will be a product of negligence and a lack of commitment to their long-term rebuild.

Merrifield was a late bloomer, not reaching the majors until age 27 in 2016. He started off slowly, but emerged with a .784 OPS in his second season. In the two years that followed, he continued to improve, with at least a .348 OBP and OPS higher than .800 in 2018 and ‘19. He has also stolen 20 or more bases for three consecutive seasons – an increasingly rare sight in today’s game.

Any team that is in search of a premium leadoff hitter would be lucky to add Merrifield. The Cubs are an ideal fit, as they have lacked a player of this skill set since the departure of Dexter Fowler after 2016. The Dodgers would also improve with Merrfield at the top of their lineup, and have had a well documented need at second base.

The Phillies, Red Sox, and Twins could also be involved in a pursuit of Merrfield.

 

5. Kris Bryant, 3B, Chicago Cubs

 

Bryant is the least realistic trade candidate on this list. While the Cubs have hinted that no one from their World Series winning core is untouchable, it seems highly unlikely that they would move Bryant.

The 2016 National League MVP has fallen off a bit since, but primarily due to a few nagging injuries. His often berated 2017 campaign was, in reality, spectacular; Bryant’s .946 OPS was eighth-best in the National League, and was actually an improvement over his MVP-winning OPS of .939 the year prior. The third baseman’s 6.1 WAR in ‘17 was also fifth best in the NL. After a lost 2018 season due to injury, Bryant came back strong in ‘19 with 31 homers and a .903 OPS.

Bryant will be an unrestricted free agent after the 2021 season, pending a grievance that he filed related to his service time dispute in 2015. Agent Scott Boras will certainly be looking to secure his client a contract similar to the $300 million-plus deals of 2018-19 free agents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. The Cubs would ideally wish to extend their best player, but an agreement coming to fruition appears extremely unlikely. Any team that were to trade for Bryant would be doing so with the understanding that he will reach free agency without a contract extension, meaning that he would only be under team control for two full seasons. One possible suitor for Bryant is the Padres; Bryant played college ball at the University of San Diego, and the Friars are looking to launch themselves into contention. 

The Dodgers, Braves, Phillies, and Rangers could also look at add Bryant’s services.

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