The summer trade market is weeks away from its final form, but the foundation has been poured already. Seven MLB teams are on track to win 100 or more games — seven teams that will presumably be buyers in search of one last championship-level player. On a parallel plane, about six or seven teams are on track to lose 100 or more games, and those clubs are likely already preparing for a sell-off in their internal discussions.
In this first season in which the playoff field will be expanded from 10 to 12 teams, the bulk of the deals will occur between July 17 — the first day of baseball’s amateur draft — and 4 p.m. ET on Aug. 2, this summer’s trade deadline.
The variables that drive the market will shift and sway in the weeks ahead, but here are some of the major X factors that executives around the sport are already watching.
At 23 years old, Soto is already a superstar, and there aren’t any comparable examples of hitters of his stature being dealt at such a young age. But rival execs say the Nationals might well be compelled — and motivated — to move Soto this summer.
They have already tried and failed to sign him to a whopper contract extension. He is represented by agent Scott Boras, who almost always takes his clients into free agency, which begins for Soto after the 2024 season. And the Nationals are going through significant transitions: the team is reportedly for sale, general manager Mike Rizzo is in the last year of his current contract and the franchise that won the 2019 World Series is terrible so far in 2022.
Soto is making $17.1 million this season, in his first year of arbitration eligibility, and he’s likely to earn a record salary through arbitration next season.
“If they’re not going to sign him [to a long-term deal], then they’ll need to trade him,” one evaluator said. “The question is: When?”
Rizzo has demonstrated a willingness to be an aggressive dealer in the past. In the summer before Bryce Harper reached free agency, Rizzo had a trade arranged with the Houston Astros that was eventually squelched by ownership. Given Soto’s rising salary, the sooner he is traded, the more the Nationals will get in return — and if the Lerner family is serious about selling the team, incoming ownership would likely prefer that any Soto trade occur before the transfer of power takes place.
But trading a player of Soto’s potential is not for the faint of heart, and not just because the decision-maker’s résumé might one day contain the ugly line of swapped a first-ballot Hall of Famer. It’s also difficult to glean equal value in a trade for someone as great as Soto. The Lerner family might not want that attached to their legacy; the same could be true for Mike Rizzo.
Front-office types point to two teams that might be really motivated to move on Soto: The hyper aggressive San Diego Padres, who could dangle infielder C.J. Abrams and pitcher MacKenzie Gore; and the Blue Jays, who can dream on a left-handed star to complement the right-handed hitting Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Given that Soto is still a couple of years from free agency, the Nationals could set a really high price and just wait for a bidder to step up with an offer of cornerstone prospects. Meanwhile, the Nats have plenty of other pieces to consider: Josh Bell, Nelson Cruz and others.
2. Will the Red Sox trade away their impending free agents, including Xander Bogaerts?
There are voices in the organization who really, really hope that the team’s ownership is willing to admit the spring offer to Bogaerts of a one-year extension was a serious mistake and pay the homegrown shortstop. But Boston’s history is that John Henry, Tom Werner, et al., will be ready to trade — as they did with Andrew Miller, Jon Lester and, most tellingly, Mookie Betts.
There is time for the Red Sox to rebound from their slow start; the 2019 Nationals evolved from a May disaster into World Series champions. But as of Monday morning, Boston was on pace to lose 100 games, and if the Red Sox don’t recover, they could be a rich source of veterans for contenders. Bogaerts, Kiké Hernandez, Nathan Eovaldi, Rich Hill and catchers Christian Vazquez and Kevin Plawecki are all free agents in the fall.
3. Will Steve Cohen and Hal Steinbrenner spend big?
It’s pretty evident that the Mets’ owner is on a mission to win a World Series and will do whatever it takes to win a championship. If Cohen’s team develops a roster problem, he’ll give the OK to fill it — even if that means taking on a bad contract in order to acquire a player. “They gave up prospects to get [Chris] Bassitt, to make that [Javier] Baez deal,” noted one evaluator. “I bet they’ll take on dead money to make a trade.” For example (and this is just speculation): The Mets could swap for a coveted Reds asset and agree to absorb some of the $50 million owed to Mike Moustakas. Or maybe they take on some of the money left on Jason Heyward‘s deal to land a player in a Cubs deal.
Whatever. The Mets are going to do something.
One interesting point: It remains to be seen whether Steinbrenner at least subconsciously reacts to what Cohen is doing. The Yankees, like the Mets, seemed destined for the postseason; will Steinbrenner match his crosstown counterpoint, even if it means going above and beyond to augment his team’s roster?
4. Could the Minnesota Twins part with their biggest offseason acquisition?
The Twins have started well and are leading the AL Central. But Carlos Correa has an opt-out after this season, and if he bounces back from his bruised finger — if — and finishes strongly, there is an industry assumption that he’ll opt out of his contract and become a free agent. There is a range of options for Derek Falvey, the team’s head of baseball operations, and these include:
Keep Correa throughout this season. If he walks away as a free agent in the fall, they could recoup draft compensation. Swap Correa while paying his salary, get players who will be part of the Twins’ future in return, and install Royce Lewis, the No. 1 pick in 2017, as the everyday shortstop. The good news: Lewis looks like he’s ready.
Falvey has demonstrated before that he’s willing to be flexible in his thinking. In late July 2017, the Twins were initially looking to add veteran talent, acquiring lefty Jaime Garcia. Six days later, they swapped him to the Yankees — and they wound up making the playoffs, anyway.
5. How aggressively will the Orioles pursue trades?
Baltimore has played better early this season — more specifically, it has pitched better — and for a lot of the team’s fans, success against the Yankees and Red Sox has been fun. But the Orioles won’t make the playoffs this year; they are still many, many players away from being a serious contender. And the Orioles’ roster isn’t exactly teeming with newbies; as of Friday, Tyler Nevin was the youngest, and he turns 25 this month. When the Orioles turn the corner, it stands to reason that Cedric Mullins, Trey Mancini, Austin Hays, et al., will not be on the roster.
This sets up a bit of a quandary for the Orioles’ front office: Do they rip out the roots of fans’ goodwill and aggressively trade their best big league assets for future assets? Or do they keep some of the more familiar names?
A rival exec cited the team’s attendance in explaining his view of what Baltimore should do this summer. “Sell,” he said. “Nobody’s really going to the games, anyway. They’re committed to the future, they’re tanking, and they should follow through with the plan.”
6. How will the Blue Jays fill their left-handed-hitter hole?
The lineup is very right-handed, with a clear need for left-handed hitting for balance. It seems a sure thing that the Jays’ aggressive front office will do something to address that. Could that be Josh Bell? Andrew Benintendi? Ian Happ?
7. Who will rule the AL West?
The Angels are on pace to reach the postseason for the second time in Mike Trout‘s career, and the scouting report on owner Arte Moreno is that when he sees opportunity, he’ll go all-in — maybe even recklessly. (See: signing Josh Hamilton in 2013.) Astros owner Jim Crane demonstrated again the other day, with his comments about Yankees GM Brian Cashman, that he has a big ol’ chip on his shoulder to vindicate the Astros’ past success. These are two big-money franchises run by big spenders, and it figures they’ll fight to win some trades and the division.
8. Will the Cubs be early dealers?
This is not the first rodeo for Jed Hoyer, the Cubs’ head of baseball operations. Last year, he moved quickly, trading Joc Pederson during the All-Star break. After that, he dealt Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javier Baez.
9. Can the Phillies keep pushing?
In poker parlance, this is a team that is pot-committed. It spent big to land Nick Castellanos and Kyle Schwarber, to complement Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto, and it is still playing like a .500 team.
Some teams might consider a strategic retreat. This is not the history or the modus operandi of David Dombrowski or owner John Middleton. Even with a lot of money spent, the Phillies will likely need to spend more to try to win.
10. Is a Dodgers coup inevitable?
Year after year, L.A. has landed some of the best available players at the deadline. Yu Darvish. Manny Machado. Max Scherzer and Trea Turner. Once again, it appears that the Dodgers will be pushed by the Padres and Giants, and L.A. will respond — maybe adding a starting pitcher, if Clayton Kershaw’s issues linger, or bullpen help, if Blake Treinen‘s health problems do.