What Jeff Passan is hearing one week from the MLB trade deadline

What Jeff Passan is hearing one week from the MLB trade deadline post thumbnail image

For all of the deadline oxygen that Juan Soto is hogging since the news of his trade availability broke last week, lest we not forget there are 1,199 other players on teams’ big league rosters and thousands more in the minor leagues whose names will be bandied about the next week. Here are the players, teams and classes you need to know — offensive edition — and the latest news on who could be going where.

Juan Soto

Nothing illustrates the difficulty in pulling off a potential Soto deal more than split opinions of front-office executives about whether the Washington Nationals star will actually be moved before the deadline. For every official who believes Soto goes, there’s another who is convinced he stays.

The chatter is certain to ratchet up in the coming days, as perhaps the foremost question comes into focus as the deadline nears: Will GM Mike Rizzo hold firm on the exceptionally high asks that sources told ESPN have been put out to teams, or will he relent slightly, if moving Soto is not something the Nationals are just considering, but actively planning?

Multiple executives involved in Soto trade discussions said they are unsure. One believes Soto is moving regardless because of the team’s ownership status. The Nationals currently are up for sale, and the notion that new ownership’s first move would be to trade a future Hall of Famer in his early prime, the executive said, is problematic. Dealing Soto now, he said, would offer the new owner a clean slate.

On the other hand, another executive said, the impediments to a Soto deal are so significant, he sees the next week more as a feeling-out period — a precursor to an offseason move. If the Nationals don’t move Soto now, they have two more months of scouting and data analysis of minor leaguers to consider. They can present Soto as a monetarily cheap alternative to Aaron Judge, Trea Turner and Xander Bogaerts, all of whom will seek $200 million-plus free agent contracts this winter. Soto will make somewhere in the range of $25 million next year and perhaps $35 million in 2024 through arbitration — hefty numbers, yes, but still depressed compared to his free-market value and production.

While this isn’t purely a two-team race — the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers both have the talent, money and motivation to make a worthwhile offer — the San Diego Padres and St. Louis Cardinals are considered the favorites for a right-now trade because of a litany of factors, sources said.

Foremost among them is how well the available talent in their systems aligns with the Nationals’ desires. Washington, sources said, is focusing on the highest-ceiling prospects and controllable major leaguers in its asks, and the Padres and Cardinals are teeming with both. Though San Diego has a number of famous names, from left-hander MacKenzie Gore to shortstop C.J. Abrams to outfielder Robert Hassell III, the most interesting players, sources said, might be at the organization’s lower levels. Shortstop Jackson Merrill and outfielder James Wood, the Padres’ first- and second-round picks in 2021, have played themselves into top-25 prospects, according to multiple evaluators. And the Padres’ excellence internationally has continued with the breakout of Jarlin Susana, a 6-foot-6, 235-pound right-hander who at 18 years old regularly hits 100 mph and has dominated the Arizona Complex League.

As good as San Diego’s 2021 draft was, it doesn’t compare to St. Louis’ haul from 2020. The Cardinals stole third baseman Jordan Walker, who just turned 20 and is crushing at AA already, with the 21st pick. Their three second-round picks were all home runs, too: Masyn Winn, the dynamic, toolsy shortstop; Tink Hence, the right-hander with a 0.99 ERA and 48-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in Low-A; and Alec Burleson, an outfielder already at AAA and slashing .339/.379/.554. Any of the four could be in play for Soto, alongside right-hander Gordon Graceffo and a myriad of big league or big league-ready players: second baseman Nolan Gorman, outfielder Dylan Carlson or left-hander Matthew Liberatore.

Teams currently looking at Soto are being realistic about what acquiring him would mean: getting control of a truly elite player for his ages 23, 24 and 25 seasons and gaining an advantage before he reaches free agency. At least some teams are entertaining the idea of entering the trade fray just in case Rizzo will move him for, say, 90% of his value rather than the 125% or so his initial offers sought.

But this is no sign-and-trade situation. Soto turning down $440 million spooked the entire industry. Executives understood his logic: He is not a $29 million-a-year player, and that’s what the Nationals were proposing to make him. At the same time, they said, $440 million guaranteed is $440 million guaranteed. And with Soto presenting more bat-only than bat-first this season, the risk on the team side, executives suggested, is not insignificant, either.

Interested teams believe if they acquire Soto, the mediocre baserunning and poor defense he has shown this season will abate — that the pervasiveness of Washington’s awfulness makes it difficult for even the most talented and hardworking player to remain engaged and motivated. They see the best in Soto, and Soto’s best is something to behold.

Which leaves the skeptics with the final word: For the very correct assessment on how new ownership might want to wash its hands of any decision that could leave it in a bad light, the reality is that a deal for Soto this winter looks an awful lot like a deal now, sources said. And with that truth evident, nobody would fault Rizzo for sticking to 125% instead of pivoting to 90%.

Since the Fourth of July, when the Red Sox were 45-35 and occupied second place in the American League East, they have been the worst team in baseball, and it’s not particularly close. They’re 3-13, which is really bad, and have been outscored 137-62, which is somehow worse. Amid the injury-pocked collapse and Boston’s descent toward the bottom of the AL East, the possibility of the Red Sox becoming sellers has become increasingly realistic, sources said.

None of this should be surprising. Even though they’re the Boston Red Sox, their chief baseball officer, Chaim Bloom, runs the team with a value-oriented approach. Combine the Red Sox’s place in the standings with their chances in the postseason against better and more talented teams with an injured list longer than a CVS receipt, and the impetus to sell is clear and strong.

The possibility has been percolating recently, and one person with the Red Sox, when asked during the All-Star break about whether dumping is an option, said, “Let’s see how we do against Toronto, Cleveland and Milwaukee.” Well, the Blue Jays swept the Red Sox in the first series, outscoring them 40-10. If the Guardians do a similar woodshed job, opposing executives expect Bloom to be open for business.

What that looks like is the question. Designated hitter J.D. Martinez might be the best hitter available — and someone who makes all sorts of sense for the New York Mets. Teams could raid Boston’s IL, with Kiké Hernandez on the mend from a hip injury.

(On the pitching side, adding right-hander Nathan Eovaldi would be a no-brainer for a starting pitcher market starving for options — he’d have no shortage of suitors. There likely also would be options for Michael Wacha, back soon from a shoulder injury, Matt Strahm even after a banged-up wrist from a comebacker, and Rich Hill, who is throwing again after a knee ailment.)

There’s one name that hasn’t been mentioned: shortstop Xander Bogaerts. Rival executives anticipate that even if Boston unloads a half-dozen players, Bogaerts, the star 29-year-old shortstop, won’t be among them, even though he’s set to hit free agency this winter. Should Boston make Bogaerts available, however, he would be the best player out there, non-Soto division, and potentially upend the market days before the deadline.

The question about the Chicago Cubs catcher isn’t whether he’s going to be traded — that’s an inevitability. It’s whether his new team keeps him at the position where he has played more than 90% of his games.

Multiple teams, sources said, worry about Contreras — who is not known for his game-calling acumen — meshing with a new pitching staff on the fly. The number of teams with World Series aspirations that could use a catching upgrade isn’t huge, but the New York Mets and Houston Astros have been in contact with the Cubs about the 30-year-old free agent-to-be, sources said, and the San Francisco Giants are poking around on catching options, too. Other teams could seek Contreras more as a bat with the ability to play catcher rather than acquiring him as a primary backstop.

Unless the Red Sox sell, the Cubs are the biggest non-Soto team to watch at the deadline. They’ve got the best bat in Contreras, the best relief pitcher in David Robertson and the best all-around, cost-controlled player in …

Two things have become clear in the past week as trade talks picked up: Almost everyone wants Happ, and the Cubs are likely to trade him, according to sources. It makes sense. Happ, who turns 28 next month, is in the midst of an All-Star season. He’s a switch-hitter who after years of swinging far better from the left side is crushing left-handed pitchers this season, he’s a well-above-average defender in left field, and he won’t reach free agency until after the 2023 season.

The Cubs’ well-executed sell-off last year — Pete Crow-Armstrong and Kevin Alcantara might be their two best prospects — could look a lot different this season. Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Craig Kimbrel all were dealt on deadline day in single-player deals. While the Cubs are likely to wind down the clock again and move Contreras, Happ and Robertson closer to Aug. 1 or 2 (barring a team being willing to overpay before that), the possibility of a package trade is far likelier. Interested teams, sources said, have been presenting the Cubs with offers for one of the hitters, plus Robertson or reliever Mychal Givens — or, conceivably, both right-handers.

In the public eye, Benintendi’s trade value might have taken a shot when he missed the trip to Toronto because he has not received the COVID-19 vaccine. But that hasn’t stopped teams from pursuing him, alongside Kansas City’s other top trade chip: reliever Scott Barlow. Benintendi is hitting .317/.387/.398, with his batting average sixth among all qualified hitters in baseball and his on-base percentage 11th. He’s an excellent left fielder. And the calculus of teams — even AL East teams with games left in Toronto — is that for whatever they might lose from Benintendi in that short period, he brings far more in the games he can play.

Another unvaccinated Royal who’s very available: utilityman Whit Merrifield, who is expected to be moved before Aug. 2 after Kansas City avoided doing so for several seasons. Among Benintendi, Merrifield, Barlow and right-hander Josh Staumont, the Royals could be very busy.

Welcome to the bat-first portion of the proceedings. Bell, the Washington first baseman whose line looks an awful lot like Benintendi’s but with an extra hundred points of slug, will be traded — and could be among the first to move. He makes a lot of sense for Houston, which doesn’t exactly suffer from a lack of offense but has gotten a black-hole performance from Yuli Gurriel at first base this season and whose lineup already features hitters of Bell’s ilk: low-strikeout mashers. Whether it’s Bell, Contreras or someone else, selling teams say the Astros have been extremely aggressive and that they will be a better team by Aug. 2.

Best of the rest

Other bats worth keeping an eye on: Cincinnati utilityman Brandon Drury, who’s set to cash in this winter in free agency after a career year; Washington’s Nelson Cruz, the perpetual trade-deadline darling; Arizona’s David Peralta, a lower-cost alternative to the bigger names; Cincinnati outfielder Tommy Pham, whose fantasy scenario is joining a contender; and Baltimore’s Trey Mancini, a free agent-to-be who could potentially stay but who might be part of a buy-and-sell strategy.

Which, it should be noted, has gained significant popularity in discussions among executives this year. Perhaps that’s a consequence of playoffs that are expanding to 12 and giving teams enough hope to entertain the possibility of backdooring a playoff spot without wanting to miss a value opportunity. Or maybe it’s more of a modern concept, a blurring of lines, in which teams aren’t buyers or sellers, per se, but rather gatherers of value, which can be achieved by doing both simultaneously.



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