With the general managers’ meetings under way this week in Phoenix, we hear a lot of the following terms: laying the groundwork, doing preliminary work, feeling teams out, etc. Free agency, of course, is a focus of any offseason. But the reality is, beyond the frontline starting pitching, this is a somewhat thin free agent class.
There are, though, teams with immediate and glaring needs. They could, without much of a stretch, be paired with teams that are doing some soul-searching – or even full-fledged rebuilding. The result might be some very interesting names on the move via the good old-fashioned baseball trade. A list of 10 potential targets:
Starlin Castro, SS, Cubs – There are two factors at play here: the retirement of Derek Jeter, and the trade of Jeff Samardzija. Huh? Well, for the first time in two decades, the Yankees need a shortstop, and some would say desperately need a shortstop. When the Cubs dealt Samardzija to Oakland in July, they got coveted shortstop prospect Addison Russell in return – and added him to a group of middle infield prospects (even though Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara could end up in second and center, respectively) that is the deepest in the game. Castro, who will be only 25 next Opening Day, is already a three-time all-star who bounced back from a terrible 2013 to hit .292 with a career-best .438 slugging percentage last summer. If the Cubs – who clearly are aiming to compete in 2016 — believe in the kids, they could get top-flight return for an established and accomplished starter at one of the game’s premier positions.
Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Rockies – See Castro and the Yankees for some of this reasoning. But also look internally at the Rockies. Over the last five seasons, Tulowitzki has averaged just 106 games because of injuries (he played in 91 in 2014 and is coming off hip surgery), and still has the highest wins above replacement of any shortstop in the game, according to FanGraphs. Tulowitzki is owed $20 million in each of the next five seasons and $14 million more in 2020, when he will be 35, plus a $4 million buyout the following year. Is Colorado, which has averaged 93 losses in the past four seasons, in position as a franchise to fill in around Tulowitzki and win with him? On the flip side, would a team be willing to pay full freight – as if Tulowitzki is going to be healthy and play 150 games for the third time in his career – and come up with a package that would satisfy the Rockies and a fan base that is attached to their franchise player?
Carlos Gonzalez, OF, Rockies – The same principles, and organizational self-evaluation, are at work with Gonzalez as with Tulowitzki. The 29-year-old is owed $53 million over the next three seasons, and he has never played 150 games in a season. His career .892 on-base-plus-slugging percentage would be coveted by any team (though any negotiations would note that number was .988 at home and .750 on the road). But the essential question has more to do with the Rockies: Can they win before Gonzalez’s contract expires in 2017, or are they best off getting pieces that will help beyond that in what amounts to a total rebuild?
Evan Gattis, C-LF, Braves — Odd that the Braves, who were so offensively challenged for so much of 2014, would be in position to trade a player who hit 43 homers in just 783 plate appearances over the past two seasons. But Atlanta, with new general manager John Hart at the helm, has holes in the rotation, too, given the impending departure of Ervin Santana and his 195 innings. Gattis would be attractive to an American League team – Kansas City has been mentioned frequently – for which he could back up at catcher, play a little left field and serve as a regular designated hitter. The question, from Atlanta’s perspective: Why deal a player who is a contributor offensively and can’t become a free agent until 2019 when you have other players who seem certain to leave, such as …
Jason Heyward/Justin Upton, OFs, Braves — Uh, two-thirds of the outfield potentially on the market? Well, some of this depends on whether Hart – who replaced the fired Frank Wren – believes the Braves’ 79-83 2014 was a blip or a trend. Either way, Heyward, one of the best right fielders in the game, will be a free agent following the 2015 season, when he will be just 26. Upton, by now, has proven himself to be a known offensive commodity (career OPS of .830) would could be coveted in a market in which hitting is difficult to find. Would they help Atlanta in 2015? Almost certainly. But keep in mind the Braves open a new suburban stadium in 2017. Might there be a way to spin one or both of these players into pieces that could help build momentum to that season, which is important for the franchise.
Cole Hamels, LHP, Phillies — Talk about an attractive, known commodity. Hamels will be 31 on Opening Day, still in his prime, and he has never not delievered, starting more games than anyone in the National League since 2007, posting a career ERA of 3.27, including a career-best 2.46 this season in 30 starts for a lousy Philadelphia team. There, too, is a key, because if the Phillies actually realize they are lousy – and interim team president Pat Gillick, the former general manager, recently said fans shouldn’t expect the team to compete until 2017 – then trading Hamels only makes sense. For the right team, the $90 million he’s owed over the next four years would seem a perfect fit – and would be less of a cost in both dollars and years than what the premier free agents Max Scherzer and Jon Lester will receive. One potential hold-up: Hamels has the right to veto a trade to 20 different teams. The consensus: picking up his $20 million option for 2019 would do the trick. A Hamels trade could revitalize the moribund Phillies system, which also needs to unburden itself of …
Ryan Howard, 1B, Phillies — In a way, his time in Philadelphia has been on the decline since he ruptured his Achilles tendon making the final out of the 2011 NLDS against the Cardinals. That year, his OPS was .834; it cratered at .690 in 2014, when the Phillies gave him a full complement of 648 plate appearances. He is not as abysmal as you might guess against lefties (.770 OPS against lefties, .658 against right-handers), and the right American League team could decide that, even though he turns 35 this month, he could serve as a useful designated hitter. (Kansas City, which may part ways with Billy Butler, makes some sense.) But no team is going to pay all of Howard’s $50 million salary for the next two years, plus a $10 million buyout for 2017. So how much can the Phillies eat, and what sort of prospects would they get in return?
Andre Ethier/Carl Crawford, OF, Dodgers — Ethier was the odd man out in the playoffs, until Manager Don Mattingly benched young sensation Yasiel Puig for Game 4 of their division series against St. Louis. In any case, the Dodgers have four outfielders – Ethier, Crawford, Puig and Matt Kemp – for three spots, with prospect Joc Pederson knocking on the door. Ethier is owed $53.5 million over the next three years and has a $2.5 million buyout for 2018, and he’s coming off a season in which a career-low 380 plate appearances resulted in career lows in batting average (.249), on-base percentage (.322) and slugging percentage (.370). Crawford, 33, is owed $62.25 million over the next three seasons, but he hasn’t played more than 116 games in any of the last three years because of injuries. Money doesn’t seem to be an object for the Dodgers, but money can’t buy more positions on the field for players to play. Los Angeles needs to shore up its bullpen. Might it eat money and take a bullpen arm for one or the other – or even make a bigger move by trading the more attractive and accomplished Kemp?
Note: This article has been corrected from a previous version that erroneously stated Ryan Howard tore his Achilles tendon after the 2009 World Series. He tore it in the 2011 NLDS.
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