On the baseball calendar, Memorial Day holds a special place. First, it’s a line of demarcation that historically separates good and bad — of the last 50 playoff teams in full regular seasons, 47 were .500 or better on Memorial Day. But there’s another element of import: It also signifies the transition to trade season.
Yes, that magical time of year is upon us. Over the next two months, rumors will percolate, names will be bandied about and the trade-happiest sport of all will do what it does best: titillate and tantalize and build anticipation before a mad rush that leads up to the 4 p.m. ET deadline Aug. 2.
By no means is this shaping up to be a deadline littered with big names moving to contenders. Almost all of the best pending free agents — Aaron Judge, Jacob deGrom, Trea Turner, Carlos Correa, Joe Musgrove, Justin Verlander, Brandon Nimmo, Chris Bassitt — play for contending teams and won’t be going anywhere. Still, there are plenty of players on the trade market worth getting excited about and plenty of others worth following — 148 to be exact.
Most likely to move
The Big Three
While Contreras and Montas are both set to hit free agency this winter and thus will be moved, Castillo has another year of club control beyond this season, leaving Cincinnati the option to wait until the winter to deal him.
At the same time, with a paucity of front-line-level starters on the market, Castillo will generate the biggest return of anyone who is clearly, obviously available right now. His history of excellence is too long for teams not to line up. And that extra year of control only broadens his market. Beyond the obvious destinations — the Mets and Twins could use front-of-the-rotation depth to paper over their injuries — there’s a long list of teams with an eye on not just this season but 2023 that could stand to give themselves some peace of mind. Among the contenders: the Yankees and Cardinals. Plus a quartet of teams with playoff aspirations that have scuffled to start this season: Atlanta, Boston, Seattle and Texas.
The market for Montas, who has looked like a legitimate No. 2 over his first 11 starts, should be plenty active as well. The Mets will be in play — this will be a theme — as will the Twins. The Rays are sneaky in on everyone. As are the Giants, whose rotation work has dipped precipitously beyond Logan Webb and Carlos Rodon. The Rays aren’t typically players in the rental market, and giving up Joe Ryan for Nelson Cruz before last year’s deadline illustrates the peril in joining it, but Shane McClanahan-Frankie Montas-Shane Baz–Drew Rasmussen is a hell of a postseason rollout. Don’t discount St. Louis, either, particularly if Jack Flaherty or Steven Matz struggles to regain form coming off rehab stints.
Contreras has snatched the title of best catcher in baseball, and were someone to make gonna-get-dealt power rankings, he’d be No. 1. No other catcher’s weighted on-base average is within 40 points of Contreras’ — and he hits the ball so hard consistently that his .900-plus OPS doesn’t look anomalous. Even with James McCann signed for two more years beyond this season, the Mets would be foolish not to inquire on Contreras. The Giants’ catching has been miserable. The Yankees, who have gone defense-first — hell, almost -exclusive — at the position would be thrilled to pencil Contreras in near the top of the lineup.
Here’s the right answer, though: the Astros. Their catchers are striking out an AL-worst 35.9%, behind only the Giants and alongside the Rays. Houston is being carried by its pitchers. The Astros rank 20th in MLB in runs scored, leaving room for a splash, and there might not be a bigger one to be made this summer than going out and getting Willson Contreras.
The best bats
So, yeah, not exactly the most inspiring group. But there are some clear fits. The Blue Jays need a left-handed bat and some relief help. Benintendi, Scott Barlow and Josh Staumont would be some kind of a coup. Bell would fortify a Brewers lineup in need of a bat — and makes sense for Houston, too, if Yuli Gurriel‘s struggles continue. Barring a surge from Luke Voit, Cruz going to San Diego makes sense as the Padres’ quest to roster every player left from the 2014 Rangers continues. The Orioles have been teasing Mancini and Santander trades for years, and the Diamondbacks have done the same with Peralta deals. And for teams looking for a slap hitter, well, Pham is that guy.
The other bats
These are the sorts of players whose names you could see in the coming weeks instead of when the calendar turns from July to August. Baseball’s new calendar, with the draft on the weekend before the mid-July All-Star Game instead of early June, forces front offices to devote enough manpower to the draft that it takes away from big-league roster construction. Last year, the first trade of any significance — Adam Cimber and Corey Dickerson to Toronto — happened June 29. The next, in which Rowdy Tellez went to Milwaukee, was July 6. Then came the draft July 11-13, followed by Atlanta kicking off the real trade season by getting Joc Pederson on July 15.
There’s a nice mix of infield and outfield available. There’s power (Aguilar, Drury, Walker), experience (Blackmon, Gamel, Gregorius, Grichuk), versatility (Camargo, Pinder, Villar, Wendle), on-base (Grossman, Hernandez), bat-to-ball (Iglesias), glove work (Robles, Simmons, Hedges, Marisnick), speed (Strange-Gordon), leadership (Vogt). Whatever a team needs, it can be had for a not-too-high return.
Yikes. There isn’t even a No. 3 starter among the bunch. The Miley and Smyly show should move from Chicago, Minor and Pineda will as long as they’re healthy, Quintana can take his bounce-back beyond Pittsburgh, and Greinke, Kuhl, Lyles and Davies have, at various points in their careers, eaten innings and eaten them well. Cincinnati could hold Mahle, preferring not to trade him at a low point in his value and with a year of control remaining.
There’s another grouping of starters that’s more promising in a bit, but they come with a big caveat.
Carl Edwards Jr.
This group could look a lot better if some of the fringe teams fade from contention. (More on that soon.) Of the group above, Robertson is the prize, a revelation at 37 who should fetch the Cubs a nice return by himself or as part of a package. Martin and Givens have done good work for the Cubs as well, and beyond them, Fulmer — if he can stay healthy — and perhaps the Rockies’ right-handers will draw interest.
Calling the left-handed relief options a tire fire would be insulting to burning rubber. Chafin is really good, but he’s signed for a very reasonable $6.5 million next year, so Detroit will seek plenty in return. The only other lefty on the list is Wilson, who’s also on another list: the 60-day injured variety.
We have two months to find out
The wild card
Chaim Bloom and the Boston Red Sox
The truest bellwether for the wildness of this trade deadline might not arrive until the third week in July. By then, the fate of the Red Sox — the 2022 version of last year’s Chicago Cubs, in terms of tradeable talent — should be clearer. And if Boston finds itself in a hole from which it cannot reasonably escape, this deadline is primed to be exponentially more exciting and make Bloom, the Red Sox’s chief baseball officer, as important a figure as any.
If Boston finds itself, say, seven games back of the third wild-card spot in the AL — the current gap is just 2½ behind Los Angeles — can it reasonably hold on to shortstop Xander Bogaerts, knowing he plans on opting out of his deal this winter? No. Not when the Cardinals and Angels have such clear needs at the position and would have to make significant but not backbreaking deals for short-term solutions. Teams would line up for J.D. Martinez, also a free agent-to-be. Homer-prone as Nathan Eovaldi has been this year, he’d be an excellent alternative for teams that don’t want to get into the Castillo/Montas bidding wars.
It doesn’t end there. Christian Vazquez might be the best available non-Contreras option at catcher. Michael Wacha is way outperforming his peripherals. Rich Hill is ageless. In a trade class lacking left-handed relievers — something every team covets — Matt Strahm might be the best option. Kiké Hernandez plays a dynamite center field, and everybody in the game remembers the two weeks last October when he was the hottest hitter on the planet.
There’s Hansel Robles, Hirokazu Sawamura, even Jackie Bradley Jr. as a defensive replacement. That’s almost half the players on Boston’s roster, all of whom are primed to hit free agency this winter and all of whom could move if the returns of Chris Sale and James Paxton, plus the potential promotion of Triston Casas, don’t extract this Red Sox team from the malaise of its own creation.
The if-their-team-collapses-they-could-go-and-sorta-make-up-for-that-pretty-rancid-group-of-already-listed-non-Red-Sox guys
Look, it isn’t Acuña, Guerrero and Tatis. Had anyone suggested Perez would be the best non-Castillo/Montas starter out there even a month ago, it would’ve elicited scores of laughter, but here we are. The Phillies, with Eflin and Gibson, find themselves in a similar situation as Texas, Seattle and the White Sox — wanting desperately to avoid having to punt. But Haniger would jump into the middle of almost every lineup; Calhoun brings energy, presence and power; Frazier has flashed elite bat-to-ball skills; Harrison can do a little bit of everything; and Cueto is the man.
Cron and Yarbrough are in slightly different categories. The Rockies locked Cron up to a club-friendly deal for 2023, so they’ll have to be cajoled into shipping him out. Yarbrough isn’t on anyone’s radar at the moment, but consider the Rays’ situation: Baz is returning soon, Jeffrey Springs has established himself as a solid starter, Rasmussen is a fixture, Corey Kluber is the perfect veteran for the staff and McClanahan is one of the best pitchers in baseball. Yarbrough’s salary will jump to $6 million-plus next year. The Rays have a process, and it is a good one, and moving Yarbrough — especially to take advantage of the dearth of starters — would align with it.
The relievers 2.0
This is a little better. For being so mid, the Phillies have a decent group of relievers, led by Knebel. The real trophy would be Sewald, who wouldn’t seem to be the sort of player a team like Seattle wants to trade — he’s under club control through the end of 2024 — but he’s 32, they’d be dealing him near his apex in value and for teams seeking closer-caliber relief pitchers, the best are in the next group and will warrant plenty more in return.
The long-term plays
This is where the deadline could get fun. Most of the players listed before this group are obvious candidates to move because of the confluence of their team’s poor performance and the state of their contracts. Those in this category aren’t due to reach free agency for at least a year — and, in some cases, five years — and will command much more in return accordingly.
Among the best here: Akin (left-handed, great, lots of team control — exactly why the Orioles could demand a monster premium), the Barlow boys (though Joe has 11 siblings, Scott is not one of them), Bednar (a three-pitch force at closer), Blackburn (he hits arbitration this winter, and Oakland’s gonna Oakland), Garver (Jonah Heim and Sam Huff would make for a perfectly good catching duo in Texas, so there’s room to move him), Keller (steady back-of-the-rotation types are always in demand), Laureano (a steady two-to-three-win player), Lopez (his great raw stuff is playing way up in the bullpen), Mantiply (lefty!), Murphy (with Shea Langeliers crushing at AAA, it’s not out of the question), Rainey and Soto (two big-armed closers with only two-plus years of service).
The contenders’ leftovers
Certainly it’s possible none of these players move. Each has a reason to. Chapman might have lost his job to Clay Holmes. Davis doesn’t play enough, and Smith is at AAA for the same reason. Ditto DeJong. Gallo has struggled in New York and is a great change-of-scenery candidate, particularly with free agency upcoming. Kiermaier is always available. Lamet is in the minors but so full of potential a team could overpay. San Diego might move Voit, too. And Price could be a target for teams seeking starters after spending this season with the Dodgers as a reliever.
Don’t bet on it
The really Big One
Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo told The Sports Junkies on Wednesday: “We are not trading Juan Soto.” Soto has been told the same. So unless Rizzo is inclined to go back on his word — or, perhaps better put, another team so overwhelms him with an offer that he can’t in good conscience turn it down — the one deal that would qualify as industry-shaking will not happen over the next two months. That Soto is even a topic of trade conversation speaks to the perfect storm — Washington’s struggles, owners selling the team, a relatively grim prognosis for the immediate future in a big-spending division and the record-breaking contract Soto seeks — that would prompt the Nationals to even consider moving a player of this caliber.
That’s what this comes down to. The Nationals don’t want to trade Juan Soto. They don’t have to trade Juan Soto. But if they don’t, they’d better pay Juan Soto.
The potential deadline rockers
There are a dozen players whose names and/or production would make them among the more substantive deadline acquisitions. Moving them also would take significant work, whether it’s getting the go-ahead from ownership for financial reasons or simply ensuring the return now is better than what it might be this winter.
Let’s start with the best: Devers is the sort of player who rarely gets dealt, especially from a market as big as Boston, but then the Red Sox do have experience with that sort of trade — and Mookie Betts might be the MVP favorite in the NL right now, so pulling off two of those deals? Nah.
Reynolds might be the most realistic get on this list, but with three years until free agency and Pittsburgh’s rebuild accelerating unhurriedly, what he brings back could make a deal worth the Pirates’ while.
Even after a poor first third of the season, Abreu is the biggest potential get from the White Sox. Bieber probably isn’t going anywhere, but he might be out of Cleveland’s price range soon, and the Guardians do have pitching depth (Cal Quantrill?) from which to trade.
The Cubs’ willingness to deal Happ could depend upon the speed of their refresh/rebuild. Getting Lopez from Miami would constitute a triumph for any team but would come at an enormous cost: a big, young bat. Merrifield is a better possibility to go than Perez, who has 10-and-5 rights and the ability to block any trade. (So no matter how legit M.J. Melendez is — very — freeing up at-bats for him is not entirely up to the Royals.) But Kansas City, which hoped to contend, needs to do something, because trying to win and having the worst record in baseball is suboptimal.
In Baltimore, the Mullins of last year hasn’t shown up yet, so it wouldn’t make sense for the Orioles to trade when his value is lower. Shipping out Nola isn’t entirely out of the question, but with Philadelphia built to try to win, doing so a year before he hits free agency is dubious. Winker’s struggles have exacerbated Seattle’s, though the notion that the Mariners will cut bait this quickly is spurious.
What’s important to understand with players of this caliber is the reticence of teams to trade big-time prospects at the deadline. Last year, the most well-regarded minor leaguers to move were Keibert Ruiz, Josiah Gray and Austin Martin. In 2019 and 2020, it was the same guy: Taylor Trammell. The year before: Francisco Mejia, whose prospect status had taken a hit. The last capital-D Dude to be dealt in a deadline deal: Eloy Jimenez from the Cubs to the White Sox, along with Dylan Cease, for … Jose Quintana. The year may change, but the deadline — and the names bandied about before it — rarely do.