Trade Candidate Rumors

Trade Candidates: Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers showed signs of life this week, going 4-3 after firing manager Ron Roenicke and replacing him with Craig Counsell. At 11-21, though, they’re already 11 1/2 games back in the NL Central, and unless they can sustain and perhaps even accelerate their turnaround, whispers of a full-scale rebuilding could become a reality. Of course, trading season won’t begin in earnest for another month or so, and it might benefit the Brewers to wait awhile anyway, given how poorly some of their key trading chips have played to this point. But if they do start trading, here’s who they might make available.

  • Carlos Gomez hasn’t played well so far this season and recently missed a few games with a strained hip, but he’s an extremely valuable trade candidate who ought to return at least one top-100 prospect type and possibly two if he can return and play well over the next couple months. He’s still in his prime, he’s signed to a bargain contract that pays him $8MM this year and $9MM in 2016. He’s so cheap, in fact, that his contract shouldn’t be a significant obstacle for any trading partner, even a team with a low payroll. He’s an excellent hitter, and his terrific defense and good speed insulate him against the possibility of rapid decline. The Brewers should be motivated to deal him if they can’t turn their season around — as Tim Dierkes pointed out last week in an article on the MLBTR Newsletter, it will be easier for them to get good value for Gomez if they deal him now, when he has a year and a half remaining on his contract, rather than waiting for his contract year. A return to the Twins doesn’t seem likely for Gomez, but it might make sense if Minnesota can continue to contend. The Giants or Blue Jays could also be possibilities, although it’s unclear whether San Francisco would have the prospects necessary to make a deal.
  • The Brewers are not likely to trade Jean Segura or Jonathan Lucroy, CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reported last week. That they wouldn’t have interest in dealing Segura makes sense, since he’s young and cost-controlled. Lucroy, who is signed through 2016 with a cheap club option for 2017, is another matter, and he and Gomez would represent the Brewers’ best chances of landing the sort of premium young talent they could build around. Given Lucroy’s age (29 in June) and position, the Brewers might not have a better chance to get good value for him than they will this summer, assuming his broken toe has healed by then. Nonetheless, the Brewers feel that the scarcity of good talent up the middle makes it tough for them to trade Lucroy.
  • First baseman Adam Lind has been easily the Brewers’ best hitter so far, and he’s signed for a reasonable $7.5MM, with an $8MM option or $500K buyout last year. Teams might be reluctant to part with top talent for him, given his defensive limitations and the fact that the Brewers acquired him relatively cheaply this offseason, giving up only swingman Marco Estrada. Looking ahead, Lind could make sense for a team like the Mariners, Marlins or Astros, all of whom have struggled at first base this year.
  • The trade candidacy of Aramis Ramirez (who’s missed time lately due to back issues) is complicated somewhat by his lackluster start and by his limited no-trade clause. Also, the Brewers would likely have to take on part of Ramirez’s remaining salary, including not only his $14MM this year but the $6MM they still owe him in deferred money. If they were to trade Ramirez, the Giants, who have struggled with Casey McGehee at third, would be an obvious fit.
  • Gerardo Parra has hit well in recent weeks and is still just two years removed from a 4.5 fWAR season with the Diamondbacks. He isn’t really a plus hitter (he doesn’t walk enough, and his .280/.300/.480 start in 2015 is partially BABIP-driven), and most teams would likely still view him as a reserve. But he’s a good one, particularly given his strong defense. He’ll be a free agent after the season.
  • Ryan Braun‘s contract will likely be difficult to move unless the Brewers want to package him with an asset like Lucroy or Gomez (although Braun would be much more intriguing as an upside play than the typical player who has an albatross contract). He has over $100MM remaining on his current extension (which technically hasn’t even kicked in yet, although the Brewers have paid his signing bonus). That’s a lot for a 31-year-old who hasn’t produced a 2 WAR season since 2012. Braun needs to hit very well to have much value, since he isn’t a good defender. That won’t be lost on most teams who would otherwise consider dealing for him.
  • It’s possible the Brewers could consider trading Khris Davis or Scooter Gennett, but it’s hard to see the urgency, given that they’re cost-controlled and relatively young starting position players. The Angels would be one possibility if the Brewers were to deal Gennett.
  • It will be difficult for the Brewers to find attractive trades involving their starting pitchers (unless they want to deal Jimmy Nelson, which isn’t likely, since Nelson could easily be part of the next contending Brewers team). Kyle Lohse will be a free agent after the season, but he’s in the midst of a miserable year and wouldn’t be a very inspiring addition for a contender, even though his peripherals suggest he’s been better this season than his ERA indicates. Perhaps the injury-wracked Dodgers could be a fit, as Heyman recently suggested. (Heyman also mentioned the Cardinals and Astros.) Matt Garza isn’t cheap and has just a 1.5 K/BB ratio this year.
  • Mike Fiers and Wily Peralta are somewhat more interesting as under-the-radar types. It’s unclear whether the Brewers would want to deal them, however, since they have plenty of years of control remaining. Which is a shame, since Fiers, in particular, would be a fascinating trade candidate if Milwaukee were to put him on the market. He’ll be 30 in June, but he’s controllable through 2019; he’s striking out a ridiculous 12.7 batters per nine innings this year, but he has a 5.46 ERA, due in part to a HR/FB rate of 18.8%. It would be interesting to see how other teams valued him.
  • The Brewers do have some interesting trade candidates in their bullpen. The problem, of course, is that it’s very hard to get potential building blocks when trading relievers. An excellent season from Francisco Rodriguez is mostly being wasted on a team that’s giving him few save opportunities. The Blue Jays or Marlins could be interesting trade fits, although the list of potential suitors for Rodriguez could change dramatically over the next couple months. Lefty Will Smith is in the midst of a third consecutive good season; he’s controllable through 2019, so there’s no pressing reason for the Brewers to deal him, although they might do fairly well if they did. Neal Cotts is a competent lefty signed to a one-year deal, but he wouldn’t fetch much. Jonathan Broxton‘s contract continues to outstrip his production, although his solid peripherals this season mark him as an interesting flyer for a team potentially willing to take on a few million dollars in salary.

Trade Candidate: Juan Uribe

Much is still unknown about how (or if) the pending addition of Hector Olivera will impact the 2015 Dodgers.  The Cuban infielder could struggle in his first taste of American pro ball and require more time in the minors than expected, or Olivera’s slightly-torn UCL in his right elbow could become a major issue and put him on the disabled list.  As the Dodgers already have Juan Uribe and Howie Kendrick manning third and second base, they don’t even have any immediate need for Olivera’s services, and could be planning to only give Olivera significant playing time in 2016.

On the other hand, what if Olivera demolishes Triple-A pitching and forces the Dodgers’ hand for a promotion?  While Olivera is a versatile player, it’s hard to believe he’d see much time at first base given Adrian Gonzalez‘s presence or in left field given how the Dodgers already have an outfielder surplus.  Kendrick over four years younger than Uribe and has a longer track record of consistency and durability, so it would be a big surprise to see Kendrick lose his starting job for any reason other than an injury.MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers-Workout

If the Dodgers decide to find a place for Olivera, therefore, it will likely be at the hot corner.  Uribe is a free agent after the season, and many have speculated that with Olivera on board, the Dodgers are already planning for a future without the 14-year veteran.  As Kendrick and Jimmy Rollins are also both pending free agents, it’s possible the 2016 Dodgers infield could consist of Olivera, Corey Seager and Alex Guerrero, with Enrique Hernandez and Justin Turner in super-sub roles.

With all this in mind, could L.A. consider cutting ties with Uribe early and start shopping the 36-year-old on the trade market this summer?  If Uribe starts until Olivera is called up, then Uribe’s first month or two of the season could essentially be an audition for other teams.  Turner and Hernandez could become the top fill-in third base options if Olivera were to struggle; both men hit well in 2014, especially Turner and his .897 OPS over 322 plate appearances.  (Fangraphs’ Dave Cameron recently opined that the Dodgers didn’t need Olivera since they already had a cheaper comparable in Turner.)

Hamstring injuries limited Uribe to 103 games last season, though he still hit .311/.337/.440 with nine homers in 404 plate appearances.  While that slash line was undoubtedly aided by a .368 BABIP, it was Uribe’s second consecutive solid year at the plate (a .769 OPS and 116 OPS+ in 2013), continuing an unlikely career turn-around after his production fell off the table in 2011-12.  While his hitting has yo-yoed over the last four years, however, his defense has been uniformly tremendous.  Since the start of the 2010 season, Uribe’s 41 Defensive Runs Saved are the fifth-most of any third baseman in baseball and he has the best UZR/150 (25.4) of any player who has played at least 2500 innings at third.  Between that stellar glove and his improved bat, Uribe’s 8.6 fWAR over the last two seasons has been topped by only 28 players.

With all this in mind, you could argue that the Dodgers would need to see significant evidence from Olivera before they considered giving up on Uribe.  Even keeping Uribe in a bench role would be a fit for L.A. since they certainly have the payroll capacity to afford a $6.5MM backup, and he plays an “integral” leadership role in the clubhouse.

Still, as we’ve already seen from the Andrew Friedman/Farhan Zaidi regime, no move can be ruled out for the Dodgers’ roster.  If the team’s starting pitching depth becomes tested (i.e. Brandon McCarthy or Brett Anderson‘s significant injury histories, or Hyun-Jin Ryu’s bad shoulder), Uribe could be an intriguing trade chip for a starter.  Or, as the Dodgers are having trouble finding takers for Andre Ethier, they could sweeten the pot by adding Uribe to the mix, though contract size could still be an issue.

Looking at contenders with a possible hole at third base, the Indians, Tigers, Royals and White Sox are all going with young players who have yet to prove themselves as surefire contributors.  For these four teams, acquiring Uribe for a pennant race wouldn’t spell the end of, for example, Nick Castellanos or Mike Moustakas as a “third baseman of the future” since Uribe could leave in free agency next winter anyway.  Beyond the AL Central, the Giants are relying on Casey McGehee to repeat his solid 2014 season, though it’s near-impossible to see the Dodgers swing a trade with their arch-rivals.

For the moment, Uribe is staying put in Los Angeles.  If Olivera (or even Turner) starts swinging a hot bat, however, don’t be surprised if the Dodgers start exploring deals.  The Dodgers’ overflow of talent in both the infield and outfield gives them a number of options if they need to patch holes in their rotation or bullpen, and Uribe might be the most realistic trade chip of the bunch.

Photo courtesy of Rick Scuteri/USA Today Sports Images


Trade Candidate: Welington Castillo

The idea of the Cubs trading catcher Welington Castillo is not a new one: it began to make sense when the team endeavored to sign Russell Martin, became highly plausible when Chicago acquired Miguel Montero, and became an apparent fait accompli when the team added veteran backup David Ross. But over two months have passed since the new backstop tandem was installed, and Castillo remains on the Cubs roster.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Chicago Cubs

True, Castillo says that he hopes to remain with the only professional organization he’s known. And manager Joe Maddon says he could be on the roster, while president of baseball operations Theo Epstein recently insisted that three catchers on the 25-man is a realistic possibility. But the smart money remains on a deal.

After all, Castillo has yet to turn 28 and comes with two more seasons of control through arbitration. (He’ll cost $2.1MM for 2015.) Though he swung the bat at a slightly-below-average rate last year, Castillo is a league-average hitter over his career and slashed a combined .271/.345/.404 over 2012-13.

Castillo does come with some defensive questions. In particular, framing measures are not kind. Then again, he has been slightly above-average at eliminating would-be base-stealers and at handling balls in the dirt, resulting in fairly strong overall ratings in the non-framing departments.

A league-average hitting catcher who can at least hold his own defensively — and could theoretically improve in the receiving department — certainly has value, especially at arbitration rates. (Remember, players like Ross and Nick Hundley commanded two-year deals in free agency.) The primary question, really, is one of market demand. With Spring Training in full swing, most teams have obviously largely settled their budgets and their roster situations.

While an injury or significant performance could be necessary to drive interest, there are no shortage of clubs that appear even at present to be viable suitors, at least in theory. Some clubs might view Castillo as a legitimate starting option in the near future. For instance:

  • For the Phillies, an aging Carlos Ruiz does not have an established reserve mate — or, perhaps more to the point, mid-term replacement.
  • In spite of their insistence that they are pleased with their current group and believe that Peter O’Brien can stick behind the dish, the Diamondbacks remain an obvious possibility.
  • The Orioles have dabbled in the catching market frequently, and could see some merit to bringing in Castillo as a complement and heir apparent to free agent-to-be Matt Wieters.

And several teams might conceivably consider Castillo as a bench upgrade or frequent platoon mate:

  • The resurgent Marlins have received replacement-level work from Jeff Mathis over the past two seasons, and Castillo would create an all-bat, defensively-questionable backstop partnership with Jarrod Saltalamacchia (who struggles against lefties).
  • Similarly, the Angels may be comfortable with Drew Butera as a defensive player, but their offensive production would receive a boost with Castillo on board.
  • Though Castillo does not look like the prototypical Rays backstop, but Tampa could use another option behind the dish and might go against its own convention if it smells a deal.
  • Likewise, the Cardinals seem content with Tony Cruz backing up Yadier Molina but could stand to improve upon the .580 OPS production that he has delivered over the last four seasons.
  • The Royals have relied so heavily on Salvador Perez that a stronger second option than Erik Kratz and Francisco Pena might make sense.
  • Castillo would not only offer the Mariners protection if Mike Zunino does not continue to progress, but would provide a much stronger hitting backup than Jesus Sucre (career .634 OPS in the minors).
  • And it would probably be unwise to discount the Athletics, who could roll with a Stephen VogtJosh Phegley pairing but have proven a lack of inhibition in either introducing depth/competition or going with a three-catcher arrangement.

Of course, interest is heavily dependent upon how these teams view both Castillo and their internal options. But the list does demonstrate that it is still exceedingly difficult to find high-quality options to don the mask, making Castillo a valuable commodity (albeit one with potential trade market competition in Blue Jays catcher Dioner Navarro). How much value Castillo might return to Chicago will be a function of how the spring progresses, but it seems reasonably likely that more than one team could ultimately decide that pursuit is worthwhile.



Trade Candidate: Dioner Navarro

Catcher didn’t seem to be an obvious area of upgrade for the Blue Jays heading into the offseason, yet the team made a big splash by signing Russell Martin to a five-year, $82MM free agent deal.  This immediately turned incumbent Jays catcher Dioner Navarro into a possible trade candidate, and indeed, at least three teams asked about Navarro in the wake of Martin’s signing.  Navarro himself even inquired about being dealt somewhere where he could receive everyday playing time.

This trade speculation was certainly not what Navarro was expecting coming off his solid 2014 campaign.  After signing a two-year, $8MM deal with the Jays in December 2013, the switch-hitting Navarro hit .274/.317/.395 with 12 homers last season, reaching new career highs in plate appearances (520) and games played (139).  Defense, however, was another story, as Navarro ranked near the bottom of the league in terms of pitch-framing and throwing out baserunners.MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays

As he’s scheduled for free agency next winter, Navarro obviously wants a better platform than a backup catcher/part-time DH role to boost his value as he looks ahead to his next trip into the open market.  Keeping Navarro as a backup makes a lot of sense for Toronto despite the presence of another catcher (Josh Thole) on the roster.  If Martin can handle R. A. Dickey‘s knuckleball, then Thole’s role as Dickey’s personal catcher becomes redundant, and Navarro offers far more hitting value than Thole.

On the other hand, the Jays are looking to add relievers despite limited payroll space; moving Navarro and his $5MM 2015 salary seems like a logical way to free up some money for further transactions.  The Jays are reportedly asking for pitching in return in any Navarro trade, so they’re clearly exploring this strategy already.

The Diamondbacks and Tigers are two teams who have been linked to Navarro on the rumor mill this winter, though Detroit’s interest has been limited to internal discussions at this point.  Gerald Laird and Tuffy Gosewisch project as Arizona’s starting catching combo in the wake of Miguel Montero‘s departure, and while the team may think prospect Peter O’Brien is their future at the position, one year of Navarro would both give the D’Backs an upgrade now and still clear the path for O’Brien beyond 2015. The Tigers, meanwhile, look to have Alex Avila and one of Bryan Holaday or James McCann splitting time at catcher.  Avila is a question mark due to his concussion history while Navarro would certainly provide a more proven bat than Holaday or McCann.

Catching depth is thin enough around baseball that a number of teams could also be fits for Navarro’s services.  In my opinion, the White Sox and Pirates stand out as teams whose hopes of contending would be improved behind the plate by Navarro’s presence, though both clubs already have several catchers battling for those jobs.  (In Pittsburgh’s case, admittedly, their focus on catcher defense might keep Navarro off their radar.)  The Rangers could see Navarro as a more proven option than their current selection of Robinson Chirinos, Carlos Corporan, Tomas Telis and Chris Gimenez.  The Rays could platoon Navarro with the defensive specialist Rene Rivera, though the prospect of an inter-division trade and Tampa taking on a $5MM salary for a part-time player made this seem somewhat unlikely.

Photo courtesy of Kim Klement/USA Today Sports Images


Trade Candidate: Evan Gattis

Once just a fascinating story, Braves catcher Evan Gattis is now unquestionably a legitimate big league piece. He is only just 28, has just two years on his service clock, and is probably one of the ten or so best-hitting catchers in baseball (if not, arguably, somewhat better).

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Pittsburgh PiratesFor a Braves team looking to improve but seemingly lacking the present payroll capacity to do it, Gattis seems at first glance to be an obvious keeper. But a look below the surface reveals why recent rumors have labeled him a possible trade chip. Specifically, Atlanta has already groomed (and promoted) an even cheaper, probably more defensively-reliable replacement in 23-year-old Christian Bethancourt.

So, if the Braves choose to shop Gattis, what might he be worth, and what kinds of teams might be interested? The bat certainly has played. Gattis introduced himself to the league with a .243/.291/.480 slash and 21 home runs over 382 plate appearances in 2013, leading some to suggest that he would never make enough contact for his power to be valuable. But Gattis answered with a .263/.317/.493 line and 22 long balls while taking 19 more trips to the plate. His walk and strikeout numbers were similar (5.5% walk rate with a K% in the low-20’s), while his BABIP jumped from .255 to .298.

While there is certainly some risk that Gattis slides back to his rookie numbers, Atlanta would doubtless be loath to deal him were that the complete story. While he is a decent enough baserunner considering his size (he is listed at 6’4/260), Gattis does not enjoy the best defensive reputation and may perhaps not be far off from deteriorating further in the field.

Let’s take a closer look at his defensive work. Gattis threw out just 13 runners while allowing 53 swipes. Though that .197 caught-stealing rate actually rated just ahead of other bat-first catchers like Rosario, Derek Norris, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, it is not good. And Gattis fell well behind Bethancourt and backup Gerald Laird, so perhaps we cannot pin the blame on the Atlanta staff. And Baseball Prospectus figures indicate that Gattis is one of the very worst blockers in the game, costing the Braves about 18 additional wild pitches or passed balls over his 93 games of action behind the plate.

While these aspects of the catcher’s job description are perhaps the most visible, however, they are probably not the most impactful. Indeed, the gap between Gattis and Bethancourt/Laird in gunning down would-be basestealers pales in comparison to the separation observed among that trio in pitch framing. Only here, Gattis comes out ahead, profiling as an average or better strike-winner while Bethancourt (slightly below average) and Laird (well below average) do not. (Stat Corner and Baseball Prospectus concur on this general ordering, though the latter is more bullish on this group as a whole.) Pitch-calling and staff-handling are much more subjective, of course, but I am not aware of any reports painting him as a disaster in those areas.

In the aggregate, BP tabbed Gattis as the league’s 8th most-valuable backstop last year. Despite pinning him with one of the worst overall defensive WAR tabs among his peers (with statistics that do not account for pitch framing), Fangraphs still valued Gattis as the league’s 14th-most productive catcher.

While it is generally assumed that Gattis would hold most of his appeal to an American League club, then, it could be that talk of Gattis’s impending shift from intriguing, power hitting catcher to slightly above-average DH are premature. And that expands his market, because it is at least plausible for acquiring teams to believe that Gattis will provide serviceable-enough innings behind the plate for at least a portion of his control. (All while comfortable in the knowledge that a shift to DH or a non-tender can prevent the kind of long-term burden that a free agent contract could bring.)

It remains somewhat unlikely that another National League team would top the bidding, though it is at least possible to imagine a team like the Pirates having interest. More likely, Gattis would draw the most attention from American League teams that saw the Athletics extract plenty of value from a defensively-deficient group of backstops who were good enough on offense to DH or play elsewhere. The Astros, Orioles, Tigers, White Sox, Blue Jays, and perhaps even the Mariners and Rangers could at least be imagined as landing spots, depending upon how the rest of their offseasons shake out. None of these is a slam dunk, of course, and on the whole Gattis’s market is not terribly clear.

As always, it is hard to forecast a return on a trade. But there is one fairly recent, fairly solid comp: the pre-2013 John Jaso deal. Jaso, a (lefty) bat-first catcher then entering his age-29 season and coming off of a huge campaign, was shipped to the Athletics in a three-team swap that saw Michael Morse go from the Nationals to the Mariners and prospects move back to D.C. from Oakland. While the arms that moved in that trade — A.J. Cole, Blake Treinen, and Ian Krol — have seen their stock rise rather significantly since that deal, at the time it was considered a substantial-but-fair price for the A’s to pay to acquire Jaso. (The Morse element of the deal, of course, has been the subject of plenty of criticism.)

In some ways Gattis is less useful than Jaso, who kills righties and has a clear, if limited role. On the other, he has more potential as an everyday option, as he not only mashes lefties but puts up good numbers against same-handed pitchers and is perhaps a better all-around defender. And Gattis possesses a power-based skillset that many teams still desire, especially as it continues to diminish in availability.

So, can Atlanta improve on the Jaso return — a legitimate outlay of talent, to be sure, but one that had plenty of risk and did not contribute immediately to the MLB roster — or will it face the tough choice of taking a potentially significant hit to its likelihood of contention in the next year or two in exchange for speculative future value? That probably depends on how many teams have interest in Gattis as at least a semi-regular backstop.


Trade Candidate(s): The Reds’ Starting Pitchers

The Reds’ hopes of challenging in the NL Central were dimmed by several major injuries this year, and this visit from the injury bug was particularly damaging to a team who already faced some big decisions in the offseason.  With just over $71MM committed to 10 players on the 2015 payroll, the mid-market Reds may be forced to save some money by moving a starting pitcher.  Though Cincinnati’s durable and deep rotation has been a big part of the club’s success in recent years, pitching seems like a natural area for payroll reduction simply due to the fact that three starters will enter their third year of arbitration eligibility.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Baltimore OriolesTwo pitchers who won’t be dealt are Homer Bailey and Tony Cingrani.  The Reds have already committed to Bailey in the form of a six-year, $105MM extension, and wouldn’t have been likely to move him even if Bailey hadn’t recently undergone forearm surgery.  Cingrani has also had injury problems, spending most of 2014 on the DL with shoulder problems.  Had Cingrani been able to build off of his impressive 2013 rookie season, the Reds would’ve felt at least a bit better about trading one of their more established starters (Bronson Arroyo wasn’t re-signed last winter in part because the Reds were comfortable with Cingrani).

It’s possible Cincinnati could trade multiple starters, though I’d suspect that the team wouldn’t want to lose too much pitching depth until they know Bailey and Cingrani are fully healthy.  The Reds would probably rather not have David Holmberg or Dylan Axelrod as full-time rotation members next year, top prospect Robert Stephenson still needs some seasoning (a 4.74 ERA in 136 2/3 IP at Double-A in 2014) and the newly-signed Raisel Iglesias could still wind up in the bullpen.

The Reds’ other four pitchers are all controlled only through 2015, so the team likely wouldn’t score a truly huge return in a trade but all carry value even as one-year pitchers.  The candidates…

Johnny Cueto: The Reds have a $10MM option on Cueto for 2015 that is sure to be exercised given how well Cueto has pitched.  After an injury-shorted 2013, Cueto bounced back in a major way by posting a 2.15 ERA, 8.9 K/9 and 3.73 K/BB rate over a league-leading 222 innings.

Cueto’s next contract will be in the nine-figure range, and it’s unclear if the Reds would be willing ink another major extension given how much money has been tied up in recent deals with Bailey, Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips.  Cueto would net the biggest return in a trade, though moving their ace would seem to hint that the Reds are punting on 2015, which I doubt they’re prepared to do.  On the other hand, the Reds could trade Cueto for Major League parts (such what the Rays and Red Sox received for David Price, John Lackey and Jon Lester before last July’s trade deadline) and use a Cueto deal to reload rather than rebuild.

Keeping Cueto would give the Reds stability at the top of their rotation, and they could still explore dealing Cueto at next year’s trade deadline if they fall out of the race.  If they’re contending and wanted to keep Cueto, Cincinnati could then get a compensatory draft pick via the qualifying offer if he leaves in free agency after the 2015 season.

In a recent Insider-only piece, ESPN’s Buster Olney recently explored Cueto’s trade market and raised the possibility that the Reds could clear some payroll space by attaching Phillips, for example, to Cueto in a trade package.  With several notable starters available as free agents this winter, Olney believes some teams might prefer trading for a year of Cueto rather than making an expensive multiyear commitment for an ace on the open market.  Also, a contending team that potentially loses their ace in free agency (such as if Max Scherzer leaves the Tigers or James Shields leaves the Royals) could look to Cueto as a short-term replacement to keep their rotation strong for another run in 2015.

Mat Latos: Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports recently cited Latos as perhaps the likeliest of the Reds’ starters to be dealt, as both Latos and Cueto can make a case for commanding an extension larger than Bailey’s deal.  While Cueto is two years older than Latos, presumably the Reds would be more inclined to extend their homegrown product than they would Latos, who missed part of 2014 with an elbow injury.  Latos has a 3.25 ERA in 102 1/3 IP this year, though ERA indicators show that he hasn’t pitched quite that well (3.64 FIP, 4.00 xFIP, 4.08 SIERA) and both his ground ball and strikeout rates dropped significantly below his career averages.  The right-hander’s average fastball velocity also dropped to 90.7 mph, down from 92.5 mph in 2013.

The Reds already tested the market for Latos at the trade deadline, so I tend to agree with Rosenthal that if a Cincy starter is moved, it’ll probably be Latos.  His declined numbers could be explained by his elbow issues, and if fully healthy, Latos could be a standout front-of-the-rotation starter for several teams.  He earned $7.25MM in 2014 in the last year of a two-year extension, and he’ll be eligible for arbitration for a third and final time this winter.

Mike Leake: Another pitcher with a third arb year remaining, Leake will get a raise from his $5.925MM salary in 2014.  The right-hander has been a reliable rotation piece over his five Major League seasons, not missing many bats (career 6.1 K/9) but inducing a lot of grounders (49.8% ground ball rate) and eating a lot of innings, averaging 191 IP over the last three years.

Leake comes with the fewest question marks of any Cincinnati starter, lacking the injury histories of Cueto and Latos but also never pitching nearly as well as those two have at their peaks.  While Leake’s ceiling in the bigs may never surpass the “solid” level (he has an even 100 ERA+ over his career), this also means that the Reds could extend him at a much lower price than Cueto or Latos.  A Leake extension could look something like the five-year, $65MM deal the White Sox gave John Danks a few years ago, as Leake and Danks are decent comparables in terms of age and career numbers to that point in their careers, plus both had one arb year left before free agency.

The Reds put Leake and Latos on revocable waivers in August, possibly in a move to gauge trade interest for the upcoming offseason.  I’d guess there’s a better chance Leake stays in Cincinnati than goes, though the Reds will certainly get interest in the durable 26-year-old.

Alfredo Simon: The big surprise of the group, the 33-year-old Simon moved from the bullpen to the rotation as an injury fill-in and wound up making his first All-Star team.  Though his performance has very much come back to earth in the second half, Simon still has a 3.48 ERA through 178 1/3 innings on the season despite a middling 5.9 K/9.

Simon is arb-eligible for the third time this winter and he’ll earn a healthy raise over his $1.5MM salary, though the raise will hardly break the bank.  Simon’s age and career track record give him a very modest amount of trade value, so it’s likely he stays with the Reds and competes for the fifth starter’s job (or returns to the pen) if and when a rotation spot opens up via trade.

With this variety of available starters and a wide variance in asking prices for each of the four pitchers, many teams could fit as potential trade partners for the Reds under the “you can never have too much pitching” argument.  If the Reds look to deal a starter and fill an everyday lineup hole at the same time, they’ll likely target a left fielder or a shortstop as upgrades on Ryan Ludwick and Zack Cozart, respectively.  Ludwick has a $9MM mutual option for 2015 but after two negative fWAR seasons, the Reds might instead buy him out (for a deferred $4.5MM) and look for other options.

Using these needs to speculate about trade partners, the Cubs, Diamondbacks and possibly the Indians stand out as teams with a shortstop surplus.  The Red Sox have a glut of outfielders and are known to be looking for starting pitching.  The Dodgers could finally solve their long-standing logjam in the outfield and, if it meant getting back Cueto or Latos, would be willing to eat a lot of salary on one of their high-priced outfield bats.

As Ken Rosenthal noted (video link), the Reds could employ some gamesmanship with their starters and perhaps leverage them against each other in figuring out which (if any) pitchers they want to sign over the long term.  Between these negotiations and waiting for the free agent pitching market to play out, Cincinnati might wait until January or even February to move a starter.  At this point, the only thing that seems certain about the Reds’ 2015 rotation is that at least one of Cueto, Latos, Leake or Simon won’t be on the roster come Opening Day.

Photo courtesy of Joy R. Absalon/USA Today Sports Images


Quick Hits: Volquez, Tanaka, D’Backs

The Major League Baseball Players Association announced that Kevin McGuiness, a lawyer who has spent a decade heading a lobbying firm in Washington, D.C., has been hired as COO under new union head Tony Clark.  The 61-year-old will fill a post that had been vacant since Gene Orza retired in March 2011. McGuiness will start work with the union next month.  Tonight’s look around baseball..

  • The Pirates signed starting pitcher Edinson Volquez as a free agent this offseason, but that wasn’t the first time they had pursued him, Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review writes. “When San Diego put me on waivers (last year), the Pirates called right away,” says Volquez. “This winter, they called again. I thought, ‘They must really want me, so let’s do it.'” Volquez posted a 5.71 ERA with 7.5 K/9 and 4.1 BB/9 with the Padres and Dodgers last year, but the Pirates have had success with down-on-their-luck pitchers like Francisco Liriano in the recent past. “What I hear about the Pirates pitching coaches and the pitching staff is pretty good,” Volquez says. “So, why not take a chance to come here and maybe get better?
  • Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers has made no secret of his desire to make a play for Masahiro Tanaka and he has a strategy in place to make it happen, writes MLB.com’s Steve GIlbert.
  • Tanaka flew to the U.S. today and is expected to start meeting with MLB clubs in the coming days, according to a report from Nikkan Sports
  • While some see the Blue Jays’ starting rotation as a weakness, others view it as an opportunity, writes Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet.  Pitching prospects Sean Nolin and Marcus Stroman both say they aim to make the rotation out of spring training.  Of course, there will be less seats at the table if Toronto goes out and finds more arms via trade or free agency.

Charlie Wilmoth and Aaron Steen contributed to this post.


Trade Candidate: Nate Schierholtz

Outfielder Nate Schierholtz is in the midst of a career season in Chicago, and as with every Cubs veteran playing well, he easily could be dealt before the end of the month. The Cubs have already traded his platoon-mate, Scott Hairston, to the Nationals, and the Cubs figure to at least explore the possibility of trading Schierholtz as well.

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As Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports recently noted, the Cubs control Schierholtz's rights through 2014 — the Phillies non-tendered him following the 2012 season with two years of arbitration eligibility remaining, so he still has a year of team control left after this year. Schierholtz is also only making $2.25MM in 2012, so his price in arbitration won't be exorbitant. That means the Cubs don't need to trade him. But it also makes Schierholtz a very attractive trade target right now, particularly in a season in which he's hitting .275/.330/.510.

Also, David DeJesus is currently on the disabled list, and the Cubs control DeJesus' services for 2014 as well. That means DeJesus isn't likely to be traded, and knowing he's likely to stick around may make the Cubs more inclined to deal their other lefty-hitting veteran outfielder.

Schierholtz doesn't really play center field, but he provides reasonably strong defense in a corner. He isn't a typical 30-homer masher, but he does have some power. He doesn't steal many bases, but he's an average, or maybe slightly-above-average baserunner. Dave Cameron at FanGraphs correctly labels Schierholtz a tweener. Schierholtz doesn't have enough of any one skill to be a slugger, or an archetypal leadoff man. The flipside, though, is that there isn't much he does badly, and as a result, he can help both defensively and offensively, particularly when he's platooned. (He has just 31 plate appearances against lefties this year.)

The Cubs should be able to get a solid prospect return for Schierholtz, both because he's playing very well and because his salary won't be an obstacle. The Pirates (whose fans Schierholtz might remind of Nate McLouth, and not just because of his first name) would be an obvious fit. Travis Snider has played horribly in an extended audition in right, and while Jose Tabata has played well recently in Snider's place, Tabata and Schierholtz would fit together nicely in a platoon. The Rangers might also be a possibility, although they would likely prefer a right-handed hitter. Contenders with more stable outfields also might show interest in Schierholtz, since he would be very useful as a fourth outfielder.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Trade Candidate: Jose Veras

Since the beginning of the 2011 season, there are only 14 relievers who have posted a K/9 greater than 10.0 with a ground-ball rate of 40 percent or better. It's not surprising to see established relief aces like Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Sergio Romo on that list, but some might be surprised to see Jose Veras' name in the mix.  Veras

Not only is Veras in the mix, he's second in the group in terms of innings pitched with 169 (John Axford ranks first with 172). Veras has generated little fanfare in recent years, but he's shown the capability to maintain an elite strikeout rate over an extended period of time.

Though his ERA is an uninspiring 4.06, Veras' other numbers look strong. He's punched out 36 hitters in 31 innings (10.5 K/9) while showing the best ground-ball and walk rates of his career. FIP feels that his ERA should be 3.96, xFIP suggests a 3.74 ERA going forward and SIERA is even more bullish at 3.02.

The biggest red flag with Veras has typically been his control, but he's posted a respectable 3.8 BB/9 thus far in 2013, and his 60.3 percent first-pitch strike rate is the highest of his career. It's probably no coincidence that by getting ahead in the count more often, he's been able to up his swinging-strike rate to 10.2 percent.

The 32-year-old Veras signed a one-year deal with the Astros this winter that calls for an affordable $1.85MM base salary and also contains a club option for $3.25MM. His contract also carries incentives based on games finished that could raise this year's salary by $500K and push the option's value north of $4MM.

Veras' control problems have kept him from reaching the elite status among relievers, but his mix of strikeouts and ground-balls is a desirable skill set nonetheless. Add to the mix a contract that is significantly more affordable than that of marquee trade candidates like Jonathan Papelbon and an extra year of team control, and it's logical to expect that Veras will be wearing a new uniform come August 1.

The Astros have made no effort to hide the fact that they're willing to move just about any player on their roster as they completely re-tool the franchise, and Veras should be no exception. He won't fetch an elite prospect in return, but a contending team looking to shore up the eighth or even ninth inning could view Veras as an upgrade, particularly if he has a strong few weeks leading up to the non-waiver trade deadline. The Royals were able to nab Cincinnati's No. 12 and No. 27 prospects (per Baseball America) in exchange for a few months of Jonathan Broxton last season. Broxton had better superficial stats at the time, but a prospect in the middle of a team's Top 30 doesn't seem out of the question for Veras.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Trade Candidate: Jesse Crain

The White Sox have fallen 9.5 games back in the AL Central after losing their last four games, and unless they can pull off the unlikely feat of battling their way into the playoff picture in the next few weeks, their veterans will likely be part of trade rumors as late July approaches. USATSI_6512624

Jeff Todd recently discussed the possible fate of one of those veterans, Alex Rios. Another is righty reliever Jesse Crain, who the Boston Globe's Nick Cafardo discussed in his latest rumor roundup. "As bullpens become depleted teams are looking for solid, dependable guys who can be used from the seventh inning on. [Crain] is becoming a top name on wish lists around baseball," Cafardo says.

Crain has never been a closer, and thus doesn't have the "proven closer" label that occasionally causes teams to overpay for relievers at the trade deadline. The White Sox's closer, Addison Reed, has also pitched well this year, though he's unlikely to be traded due to his youth and the fact that he isn't even arbitration-eligible yet.

But Crain, 31, should be a valuable piece nonetheless. His strikeout rate has improved in every season since 2005, and this year he's taken a step forward with his control as well. He's posted an 0.60 ERA this season, with 11.7 K/9 and 2.7 BB/9, and he hasn't allowed a run in 26 straight appearances. The 0.60 ERA isn't sustainable, clearly, but Crain's strikeout rate and walk rate are both very strong. He's capable of getting outs with either his mid-90s fastball or his plus slider. He's also effective against both righties and lefties, which makes him an excellent fit in his current role as a setup man. A creative team in need of a closer could also do worse than to trade for Crain and use him in that position.

Assuming they can't fight their way back into the playoff race, the White Sox would be well-served to deal Crain. He'll be a free agent after the season, and the White Sox's farm system is poor — before the season, Keith Law and John Sickels both ranked it the third-worst farm system in baseball. Trading a non-closing reliever in his 30s, even an excellent one with a cheap $4.5MM salary, isn't the easiest way to build a farm system. But given their place in the standings and Crain's impending free agency, the White Sox have little to lose, and there are occasional trades where a contender will pay premium prices for a very good setup man. (The Padres' 2011 trade of Mike Adams to the Rangers for Robbie Erlin and Joe Wieland comes to mind, although, unlike Crain, Adams had a year and a half left before he was eligible for free agency.)

There are few contenders that couldn't use Crain, although a team with question marks at the back of its bullpen would be an ideal fit. The Reds and Red Sox could well be on the hunt for bullpen help at the trade deadline. The Tigers would also make sense if Detroit and Chicago are willing to make a trade within the AL Central.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.