It was about this time last year that a survey of club executives around the league first forecasted that the Nationals might choose to deal Juan Soto, and Washington general manager Mike Rizzo responded with ardent denials. “We are not trading Juan Soto,” Rizzo said in a radio interview. “We made it clear to his agent and to the player. … We have every intention of building this team around Juan Soto, and we’ve spoken to his agent many, many times.
“I guess the rest of the world doesn’t believe it, but that’s our position.”
Two months later, Soto was wearing a Padres uniform.
So what are some of those same execs seeing in this year’s early trade market conditions? We asked and they answered, offering some hard opinions on the X factors that loom.
1. Where will the biggest chips emerge?
In recent seasons, several real difference-makers have been swapped before the deadline, from Manny Machado in 2018 to Soto and Josh Hader in 2022. But some execs don’t see a lot of significant help shaking free this summer, partly because the likely sellers’ rosters are — to put it mildly — really, really bad. “You look at a team like [Oakland],” said one front-office type. “Who on that roster is going to be a difference-maker?”
The Athletics and Cincinnati Reds have already flipped their most expensive major league talent for prospects. The Royals have some young players attractive to rival execs, but are expected to keep the likes of Bobby Witt Jr. and Vinnie Pasquantino and Brady Singer. The Royals‘ Brad Keller is generally viewed as an intriguing talent, but given his continuing struggles, a lot of contenders would likely view him as more of a lottery ticket than a highly valued asset — especially since he’ll be a free agent in the fall. Tigers could take offers for Matthew Boyd, but the same injury history that led most teams to pass on him this offseason before he took a one-year deal to go back to Detroit likely diminishes how attractive he is to contenders this summer.
Eduardo Rodriguez is a name to watch, because he has been excellent early in a season after which he could opt out of the last three years of his contract; he is slated to make $49 million from 2024 to 2026. If Rodriguez continues to throw well and the Tigers become convinced he’ll walk away as a free agent this offseason, they could make him available in front of contenders.
2. Will Shohei Ohtani hit the market?
At the moment, industry sources are as close to unequivocal as you can get about the Angels’ plans for Ohtani. “They are not going to trade him,” said one executive. Said another: “If they were going to deal him, the best time would’ve been last summer. But unless they completely collapse, no shot.”
What some rival evaluators believe is that Angels owner Arte Moreno, who went on the record during spring training saying that Ohtani won’t be dealt as long as his team is in contention, does not want to be remembered as the guy who pushed this generation’s Babe Ruth out of his organization. (Especially since that is the legacy of late Red Sox owner Harry Frazee, who dealt Ruth to the Yankees.)
It’s hard to find anyone who believes that Ohtani will re-sign with the Angels after he hits the free agent market. But if he does leave Anaheim, Moreno will at least have an out: It would be Ohtani’s choice to depart, not because Moreno ushered him out of town.
3. Will the Milwaukee Brewers shed payroll again — and will it work this time?
The Brewers were in first place last summer when the team’s leadership decided to deal closer Josh Hader, trading the lefty to the Padres. Some of their players were angry at the time, and there’s no getting around this: The team collapsed down the stretch. On the day of the deadline, Milwaukee was 57-46; the Brewers went 29-32 over the last couple of months, losing 10 games in the standings to the St. Louis Cardinals in that time.
It was a painful time and it’s possible that the Brewers’ front office will be more conservative this summer, but rival evaluators say they would not be surprised to see Milwaukee — always cognizant of managing payroll — make similar choices this summer with pitchers Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff (if he’s healthy) and shortstop Willy Adames. All three will be eligible for free agency after the 2024 season, and their perceived value might never be greater than it will be this summer, because contenders would be paying for them for two pennant races — 2023 and 2024 — rather than one.
Milwaukee and the Pittsburgh Pirates have mostly hung around the top of the NL Central, one of the weakest divisions in baseball, so the Brewers could keep the three veterans and try to win. But they also could trade them into what is likely to be a relatively thin market, making Burnes, Woodruff and Adames even more attractive to teams. “I don’t know why they’d handle it any differently than they did last year,” one official said.
And the team seems to be headed toward a major crossroad. David Stearns ran the baseball operations for years for the Brewers, but he stepped down to an advisory role before his contract expires later this year. Manager Craig Counsell is in the last year of his contract, and one executive noted that the situation reminds him of the 2014 season in Tampa, when Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon left the Rays at the end of the year.
4. What will the Guardians do with Shane Bieber?
After winning the AL Central with the youngest team in the majors last season, Cleveland is off to a win-some, lose-some start, and the team’s history is that it will deal elite stars like CC Sabathia or Francisco Lindor for young players before they reach the open market. As a small-market team, it does not want to fully squander market value.
Bieber turns 28 later this month and he is not signed to a long-term contract; he’ll be eligible for free agency after the 2024 season. And given the dearth of good starting pitching in this market, Bieber would likely be coveted by contenders, and the Guardians would likely get more in return for him this summer than they would in waiting to make a deal next winter.
But while the Guardians have historically swapped unsigned stars, they have also consistently tried to win. Minnesota is in first place in the Central now, but as one evaluator noted, “That team is just filled with so many injury questions.” So it might well be that the Guardians will continue to plug along, stay in the race — and punt on the question about Bieber’s future into the upcoming offseason.
“They don’t really shop their guys, but they’ll always listen,” one NL exec said. “But they also have good young players and they usually improve over the season; they’ve got a great chance to win that division. I think they’ll keep him.”
Another option for the Guardians at the deadline is shortstop Amed Rosario: He is a free agent at season’s end, and even if the Guardians aim to win in 2023, they have the roster flexibility to move Andres Gimenez to shortstop if they trade Rosario.
5. Will the depleted AL Central stave off a White Sox rebuild?
To date, Jerry Reinsdorf’s team is one of the most disappointing teams in baseball, and if that doesn’t change over the next two months, it could be that he gets fed up and orders the team to trade away its stars. If closer Liam Hendriks continues to regain his dominance as he recovers from cancer treatment, evaluators say he could be a coveted player thanks to his experience working in different roles, and a contract that bears only a short-term obligation. If he’s traded, his club option for 2024 automatically vests for $15 million next season. Lucas Giolito, a free agent this fall, could get a decent return in a trade. Shortstop Tim Anderson is an impact player making $12.5 million this year, and would be even more attractive to other clubs because he has a $14 million club option for 2024.
But given the mediocrity of the Central, the White Sox would be justified in waiting and hoping for changes in performance — and rival execs doubt that the organization and the 87-year-old Reinsdorf would have the stomach for a total rebuild, especially after going through that just a few years ago.
6. Do the Twins care more about winning now or later?
The idea that Minnesota might shed any of its roster seems silly at first glance: The Twins are in first place, and right in the middle of a prime window for their highest-paid position players, Carlos Correa and Byron Buxton. But Minnesota has a handful of pitchers headed to free agency and the Twins’ front office — viewed by rival executives as being proactive and progressive — could weigh the value of some of their players while also trying to win — just like Milwaukee did (less successfully) last season. Some potential options: Sonny Gray will be eligible for free agency this offseason, as well as Tyler Mahle and Kenta Maeda, who are both currently on the injured list.
7. Would the Yankees — or Red Sox — consider trading away players instead of for them?
Yankees GM Brian Cashman reiterated last week that he believes that his team is one of the best in baseball when healthy, and there is a lot of pressure on the Red Sox to contend this year after their 2023 debacle — so the reflex of both teams is likely to be to try to add rather than subtract. Said one source in the Yankees’ organization about the possibility of a strategic retreat this summer: “There’s no chance of that happening.”
But as Yogi Berra is once purported to have said, “It’s getting late early out there.” He could’ve been referring to this year’s AL East race. With Tampa Bay looking like a serious World Series contender, the Yankees’ deficit in the division is already almost in the double-digits, with the Red Sox just barely ahead of them.
Flipping from contenders to rebuilding is something rarely entertained by Cashman in his 26 years running the team, but he is viewed by his peers as a realist, and he’s always been decisive — they remember in the summer of 2016 how he traded both Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman for prospects. “If they fall far behind, he’ll take a hard look about whether that’s something he should do,” one GM said. The Yankees have bullpen pieces to offer, but another name mentioned by rival execs is that of Luis Severino, who is currently recovering from a right lat strain. He would have to pitch in big-league games and demonstrate he is healthy, but if that happens and the Yankees decide to trade him, Severino could have value.
8. Will the parade of relievers continue?
At no time of the year do relief pitchers have more value than at midseason, when contenders can fully envision how bullpen acquisitions might work in October. This is why the Brewers traded Hader last summer, and why the Padres were aggressive.
There are plenty of potential free agents who could be swapped: Joe Kelly (whose deal contains a club option), Carl Edwards Jr. (a 1.84 ERA for the Nationals) and Aroldis Chapman are among them. Some rival exes believe that given Chapman’s recent history of finding some velocity, the Royals should deal him as soon as possible to ensure some kind of return. The Tigers‘ Alex Lange is a classic case of someone whose value might never be higher than it will be in July: He’s 27 years old and off to a strong start for the Tigers, with 21 strikeouts (and seven walks) in 16 innings while serving as Detroit’s closer.