The Marlins and Twins have discussed trade scenarios involving Miami starter Pablo López, writes Jon Heyman of the New York Post. Heyman reports that Minnesota outfielder Max Kepler and infielder Luis Arraez were among the names who’d come up in those discussions but adds the Twins aren’t interested in parting with Arraez.
Minnesota’s interest in López isn’t a new development. Ted Schwerzler of Twins Daily first reported in mid-December the Twins were in touch with the Fish about López. Obviously, nothing has yet come together and Heyman’s report doesn’t suggest there’s anything particularly close between the two clubs.
López, 27 in March, has been a frequent target in trade rumors for well over a year. The right-hander has posted a sub-4.00 ERA in each of the last three seasons. He hasn’t walked more than 7.5% of batters faced in any of those campaigns and has posted at least a 23.6% strikeout rate in all three seasons. López sits in the 93-94 MPH range with his fastball and owns one of the game’s better changeups. He misses bats and keeps the ball on the ground at an above-average clip and generally manages solid results against right and left-handed hitters alike.
That kind of consistent mid-rotation production has piqued the interest of a number of contenders but Miami has held onto López so far. That’s in spite of a reported willingness to deal from their stable of quality starting pitchers to address a lackluster lineup. While the Venezuelan-born righty has been the most frequently mentioned trade candidate in the Miami rotation, the Fish are reportedly open to offers on any of Trevor Rogers, Edward Cabrera and Jesús Luzardo as well.
That latter trio of pitchers all come with longer windows of club control and high-octane stuff. None has the consistent multi-year track record López has established, though, making him an ideal fit for a team firmly in win-now mode and looking to upgrade its starting five. López is in his second season of arbitration eligibility. MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz projects him for a $5.6MM salary next season; he’ll earn a raise on that during his final trip through the process before reaching free agency for the first time after 2024.
The Twins don’t strictly need a starter, though there’s enough uncertainty in their group they could accommodate another acquisition. That’s particularly true for a pitcher of López’s caliber, as he’d arguably step in as their best arm on staff. Minnesota is set to open the 2023 season with a top five of Joe Ryan, Tyler Mahle, Sonny Gray, Bailey Ober and Kenta Maeda. That group was hit hard by injuries last year, with Ryan leading the way at 147 innings. Mahle, Gray and Ober each had multiple injured list stints, including a two and a half month absence for Ober thanks to a groin strain. Maeda missed the whole season recovering from September 2021 Tommy John surgery.
There’s a decent amount of upside. Young arms like Simeon Woods Richardson, Louie Varland and Josh Winder have potential as depth options and Chris Paddack could return in the season’s second half from last May’s Tommy John procedure. Yet it’s equally easy to see the risk associated with the group considering their collective injury histories. Bringing in another quality starter would be a nice boost to a Minnesota club looking to build off their surprising new agreement with Carlos Correa and could push one or two of the touted young arms into a bullpen that seems the roster’s biggest question mark.
Minnesota has plenty of high-level outfield depth from which they could deal to bolster the pitching. They’re particularly deep in left-handed hitters, with Kepler, Nick Gordon, Alex Kirilloff, Trevor Larnach and Matt Wallner all factoring into the mix around star center fielder Byron Buxton. Kepler is the only member of the group who isn’t still in his pre-arbitration seasons. That has made him the most frequently speculated upon trade candidate but also arguably the least desirable target of the group for other clubs.
Like López, Kepler comes with two remaining seasons of club control. He’ll make $8.5MM this year and is guaranteed at least a $1MM buyout on a $10MM club option for 2024. He turns 30 in February and is headed into his ninth big league season.
Kepler looked to have broken out in 2019, when he connected on 36 home runs and posted a .252/.336/.519 line through 596 trips to the plate. He’s always had quality contact skills and plate discipline, and the seeming power spike elevated his offensive profile enough he secured some down-ballot MVP votes that year. In retrospect, that season seems an anomaly at least partially attributable to the extremely lively ball the league used. Kepler has been fine but unspectacular in the three years since then, hitting .220/.314/.392 in over 1100 plate appearances.
That includes a .227/.318/.348 line with just nine homers last season. His walk and strikeout rates remained excellent but he posted the worst power numbers of his career. Kepler also consistently runs very low batting averages on balls in play. That’s in part thanks to a pull-happy, grounder-heavy offensive profile that has made him susceptible to overshifts. The forthcoming limitations on defensive positioning could lead to a few more base knocks but isn’t likely to help him rediscover his power stroke.
Even with middling offense, Kepler is a valuable player. He’s an elite defensive right fielder who has also held his own in more than 1100 career innings in center field. Buxton, arguably the sport’s best defensive outfielder when healthy, relegates Kepler to the corner in Minnesota. Yet he’d be a viable candidate for everyday center field work on another club. That’s the case for Miami, where younger players like JJ Bleday, Bryan De La Cruz and Jesús Sánchez rotated through center field work in 2022. Each of them is better suited for a corner and has a limited offensive track record at the MLB level. Miami hasn’t addressed center field this winter, currently leaving that trio as an imperfect solution to take up-the-middle reps alongside Avisaíl García and perhaps Jorge Soler in the corners.
Kepler is a sensible trade target for the Marlins, particularly given their reported preference for higher-contact bats. It’s clear, however, that he alone wouldn’t convince general manager Kim Ng and her staff to part with López. An upper mid-rotation starter is going to hold more appeal than an outfielder coming off three roughly average offensive seasons, even one as defensively gifted as Kepler. That’s true even before considering López is a few years younger and will make a bit less over the next two seasons than Kepler will. Including Kepler in a deal involving López could make sense for both sides, but the Twins would have to offer additional young talent to convince Miami to pull the trigger.
Arraez, however, is apparently a bridge too far for Minnesota’s liking. The reigning AL batting champion would certainly fit Miami’s desire for a high-contact hitter and he’s coming off a .316/.375/.420 line over 603 trips to the plate. He’s controllable for three more seasons and projected for a $5MM arbitration salary. The Athletic’s Dan Hayes reported last month the Twins had given some consideration to making Arraez available in a deal that brought back a “top-tier starting pitcher” who was controllable beyond next season.
One could argue whether López fits that description, but it doesn’t seem the Twins feel he’s at the level that’d inspire them to part with one of their best hitters. Arraez is presently penciled in as Minnesota’s primary first baseman, though he’ll also work as a designated hitter and spell Jorge Polanco and José Miranda at second and third base, respectively.