It's a 30-team poker table this MLB offseason of ours, and every team has their trump card.
Without extending the metaphor too far—into "aces" and "kingmakers" and other forms of wordplay—take this slideshow as a comforting reminder that each organization has a player the other guys want.
No matter how downtrodden or accomplished the franchise, no matter how celebrated or lampooned the general manager, there's a golden trade waiting out there for every team.
Time to fire up the hot stove in pursuit of the perfect deal.
One could interpret "top trade asset" to mean every team's top player.
I don't, at least not in this slideshow.
I take "top trade asset" to mean the most valuable player in each organization that the club would consider trading in the near future.
Troy Tulowitzki? Doesn't qualify.
Matt Garza? Qualifies.
Felix Hernandez? That's where it gets tricky.
Yes, there are shades of gray within my definition, but it at least provides some logical foundation for whatever discussions may come.
Teams began calling about Gerardo Parra's availability as soon as the Diamondbacks inked fellow left fielder Jason Kubel to a two-year, $15 million deal.
Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers responded publicly to those inquires with the following:
"I'm not really motivated to move him."
Typical front-office equivocation.
Here's how I read it:
Towers isn't satisfied with his rotation depth—as evidenced by Arizona's failed pursuit of Bartolo Colon—and could part with Parra if it landed him a dependable fifth starter.
That said, the club has internal candidates like Tyler Skaggs, Trevor Bauer and Wade Miley in line to compete for the final rotation spot. If those odds don't suit them, they could bring back Joe Saunders* or otherwise scour what remains of the free agent market.
With those layers of recourse at their disposal, it seems unlikely Arizona would part with a cheap, defensive wunderkind coming off the best year of his young career. Possible? Yes. Likely? No.
*Last night the Diamondbacks re-signed Saunders to a one-year deal. That lessens the chances of Arizona moving Parra, or anybody, before the season.
I'll start by diffusing the shock. The San Francisco Giants will not trade Tim Lincecum this offseason.
That could change in the near future if there's truth to what Andrew Baggarly of the San Jose Mercury News reported from the Winter Meetings.
In reference to the impending free agency of rotation stalwarts Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum, Baggarly wrote:
Almost every rival club official or agent I spoke with this week told me that the Giants are eventually going to have to break up with one or the other. Maybe not this year, and possibly not next year. But soon. Not saying that’s what will happen, but that’s the feeling around the league.
Couple that logic with recent news that San Francisco has been aggressive in their pursuit of a Cain extension and Lincecum's future with the club grows all the murkier.
One of the five best pitchers of the past five years has one-eighth of a foot out the door. Even if it's just a pinky toe, Lincecum is so good that the possibility of his departure sounds an alarm in San Francisco.
Andre Ethier entered the offseason as a prime trade candidate, thought to be losing favor with the Dodgers front office because of his fading power numbers (which includes a declining OPS in each of the past four seasons).
The mega-extension given to fellow outfielder Matt Kemp early in the winter offered a stark contrast and further fueled speculation about Ethier's place in Los Angeles' long-term plans.
That rhetoric has cooled in recent weeks, with GM Ned Colletti saying he would "entertain" an Ethier extension so long as he bounces back from a sub-par 2011.
If he doesn't return to form and the Dodgers fall from contention early, L.A. figures to shop him in the final year of his contract.
The Rockies have been so active on the trade market this winter, there's little left for GM Dan O'Dowd to deal. Familiar faces like Ubaldo Jimenez, Seth Smith, Chris Iannetta and Ryan Spilborghs will all play their ball elsewhere in 2012.
Which leaves us with Jason Hammel, almost by default.
The 29-year-old lost his rotation spot last year due to poor performance and reeks of fungibility after the acquisitions of Kevin Slowey, Tyler Chatwood and the eventual return of Jorge de la Rosa.
With two years left on his contract Hammel could interest clubs looking for a back-end starter. After last season's disappointment, O'Dowd has made clear his intention to remake the complementary parts of this roster. Hammel could fall victim to those intentions.
With a flurry of activity already behind them, the San Diego Padres and new GM Josh Byrnes still haven't dealt the one player most observers expect the team to move this offseason: Chase Headley.
As recently as Dec. 15, mlbtraderumors.com described Headley as the Padre "most likely to be traded." That same report also said the team wasn't shopping Mat Latos and said nothing of Carlos Quentin.
So yeah, things change.
What remains is Headley's value to teams like the Yankees and Tigers, both of whom need help at third base.
Already an above-average contributor, Headley is entering his prime and could post bigger numbers if sprung from the power-sapping dungeon known as Petco Park.
If there's someone I'm missing here, Milwaukee fans please let me know.
The Brewers have outfield depth beyond most teams' means, but with Ryan Braun likely out the season's first 50 games they need the extra bodies.
Nor does does Milwaukee have the caliber of prospects worthy of major interest, and without glaring needs at the big league level there appears little reason to swap youngsters for veterans.
All in all the Brewers had the feel of a non-player on the trade market as soon they dealt Casey McGehee to the Pirates, clearing the way for Aramis Ramirez at third base.
Again, I could be overlooking someone/thing here. Yell at me in the comments if you must.
The Cardinals have made it clear they want to upgrade their bullpen via free agency this offseason.
If they find the right pitcher for the right price, they would likely trade starter-reliever-tweener Kyle McClellan in a corresponding move.
McClellan's versatility gives him decent trade prospects and increases the pool of suitors.
Note that St. Louis expressed interest in moving Kyle Lohse, but decided not to challenge his full no-trade clause.
Once a top-50 prospect, third baseman Todd Frazier's stock cooled over the past two seasons and his place in the Reds organization now appears tenuous.
Scott Rolen blocks his path at third base and the notion that he might share left field duties with Chris Heisey is now moot in light of the Ryan Ludwick signing.
That leaves a player who will be 26 on Opening Day with no prospects for steady playing time in 2012.
Cincinnati's best reason to keep him is their apparent lack of holes to fill on the big-league roster. With lineup, rotation and bullpen set for April, the Reds could just as well keep Frazier around as insurance this year and prep him to take over for Rolen in 2013.
Let me start by saying I'm not sure how realistic it is to float Pedro Alvarez as trade bait.
As recently as 2010, Baseball America ranked Alvarez the eighth-best prospect in the minor leagues and he's been a presumptive franchise cornerstone for the Pirates ever since they drafted him out of Vanderbilt in 2008.
After an underwhelming rookie year and a disastrous sophomore campaign in 2011, it's possible Alvarez is playing his way out of those lofty expectations.
The offseason addition of former Brewer Casey McGehee puts the pressure on Alvarez to sustain success this year. If he doesn't, the Pirates would have a valuable talent on their hands and incentive to move him.
Cubs ace Matt Garza is available, and anyone with an internet connection knows it.
Theo Epstein has been open about his willingness to move Garza and the right-hander's stellar performance last season has drawn ample interest.
Garza posted career bests in ERA, SO:BB ratio, SO/9 rate last year and won't reach free agency until 2014. He's a top-two arm on almost any team in baseball and at 28 still has three-to-five peak years ahead of him.
Chicago would need a top prospect in return, someone along the lines of Detroit's Jacob Turner or Boston's Xander Bogaerts. ESPN's Jayson Stark reports that Epstein looks ready to wait until midseason on a Garza deal in order to bypass free agent competition and drive the price on his star trade chip even higher.
With all the top-tier talent to depart Houston in the last two years—Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman, Hunter Pence, Michael Bourn—it's a wonder Wandy Rodriguez hasn't followed suit.
The steady southpaw posted an ERA under 4.00 and a SO:BB ratio above 2.4 in each of the last four seasons and figures to remain serviceable through the remaining two years of his contract.
Any potential trade for Rodriguez hinges on how much of his deal Houston would comp in order to attract high-leverage prospects. Rodriguez is owed $23 million over the next two seasons and teams won't eat all of that cash for a third or fourth starter.
Rodriguez holds little value to the Astros as they start from scratch, so his eventual departure seems an inevitability. All that remains is the quest for a suitable match.
Whatever your opinion of Domonic Brown's potential—overrated, under-utilized, over-analyzed—it's clear that the Phillies front office no longer considers the outfield prospect untouchable.
Brown's torrid push through the minor leagues made him Baseball America's fourth-rated prospect heading into the 2011 season. With that distinction came a stubborn insistence from General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr. that Brown was not available to inquiring teams.
In limited big league action, however, Brown has struggled, forcing the win-now Phillies to consider what short-term assets he might attract.
This winter that turn in strategy led to discussions with Athletics about Gio Gonzalez and figures to keep Brown on the hot stove until the Phillies either hand him the starting job in left field or cut him loose.
Jair Jurrjens has: an All-Star selection to his name, a career ERA+ of 120, two remaining years of arbitration.
The Atlanta Braves have: too many good pitchers.
Thus goes the logic that puts Jair Jurrjens in a new uniform some time before the 2012 trade deadline.
The Orioles, Blue Jays, Rockies and Tigers (Jurrjens' original club) all have interest in the right-hander and the caliber of everyday players Atlanta covets.
The Braves showed strong interest in Baltimore's Adam Jones, though to this point the Orioles don't see Jurrjens as fair trade value for their emerging slugger.
It was once the Nationals' place to trade for players like Ian Desmond—underperformers with athletic upside that might yield lightning-in-a-bottle results.
Names like Lastings Milledge, Elijah Dukes and Wily Mo Pena have a familiar, discordant ring.
But it's a new dawn in D.C. and recent successes in development and at the big-league level have the Nationals on the other end of the stick. Now it is they who can shop their disappointing youth for more proven alternatives.
Desmond's .262/.304/.387 line over his first three big leagues seasons have pushed him into the "disappointing youth" category and prompted his name to surface in talks for Gio Gonzalez earlier this winter.
Though that trade went through without Desmond's inclusion, his flashes of potential should continue to draw interest as Washington looks to upgrade center field.
If the Mets are being honest, and they are in fact willing to field offers on every player besides David Wright, then Ike Davis is their most appealing target.
The 24-year-old first baseman shot through the minor leagues in under three years, proved his big league worth over 750 PAs in Queens and doesn't reach arbitration eligibility until 2013.
On a team loaded with bad contracts and middling talent, no one else offers Davis' combination of pedigree and affordability.
With Jose Reyes gone and contention slipping further from view, the Mets could leverage Davis to jump-start their rebuilding process.
A bad 2011 got even worse for Hanley Ramirez when his Miami Marlins signed Jose Reyes to play shortstop for the next six years.
So far that hasn't resulted in serious trade discussions, but the mere possibility for a player of Ramirez's caliber gets the rumor mill churning.
If Miami finds the Reyes-Ramirez conflict untenable or Ramirez decides to demand a trade, expect most of baseball's 29 other teams to contact Marlins brass.
28-year-old shortstops with four 5-plus WAR seasons on their resume make powerful impressions.
With so much still at stake this offseason, it's uncertain where the dead weight wil fall for the Texas Rangers.
If they secure a deal with Yu Darvish and slot him into the rotation, former 17-game winner Scott Feldman could move.
If they win the Prince Fielder sweepstakes, incumbent first baseman Mitch Moreland becomes expendable.
Texas is so resource-rich and well-positioned right now, they could very well hang on to all four.
As their winter goes to the wire, the Rangers will defer trade talk until their 2012 roster comes into finer focus.
The arrival of Albert Pujols threw the fate of former Angels first basemen Mark Trumbo and Kendrys Morales into question.
L.A. thinks Trumbo can handle third base so he's less likely to leave. But we're after a more elusive question in this slideshow, namely: Who's more valuable?
The comparison between the two is fairly simple. Trumbo is younger and healthier while Morales is more accomplished.
Morales posted a .306/.355/.569 line in 2009, but missed most of the last two seasons with a leg injury. Lingering doubts over whether he'll ever play at a high level again torpedo his trade value.
Trumbo has his red flags—chiefly an atrocious SO:BB ratio and OBP—but they are less likely to deter suitors than Morales' career-threatening downside.
If you're over 25 years old and you play for the Oakland A's, you might be a trade target.
Much as it sounds like a bad Jeff Foxworthy joke, the veteran exodus from Oakland this offseason has every A's player in the cross-hairs.
Of those remaining, Kurt Suzuki is the most valuable asset mentioned directly in talks. He posted a respectable 9.9 WAR over his first five big league seasons and won't hit free agency until 2014.
Teams needing help behind the dish will take note of Suzuki's value and his employer's quick trigger finger.
No number of reassurances can counter the powerful impression that King Felix will leave Seattle before his contract expires in 2014.
From now until then, barring a major reversal of fortune for the club, Hernandez will rank as one of the most valuable potential trade candidates in baseball.
And yes, I know Hernandez says he loves Seattle. And yes, I'm aware general manager Jack Zduriencik says he will not consider such a trade. And yes, it makes sense to think that the Michael Pineda deal suggests Hernandez's continued presence in Seattle.
But set against all of that is the graveyard of small-market teams who have been forced to trade their best players to richer clubs before they hit free agency.
History says Felix Hernandez finishes his career outside Seattle, just like Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson and Ken Griffey Jr. before him.
There is one question right now in the universe of Detroit Tiger fandom.
Should the hometown team trade top prospect Jacob Turner for Chicago Cubs starter Matt Garza?
Turner is the future—a 20-year-old live wire with two scintillating minor league seasons to his name and well-deserved reputation as one of the game's elite prospects.
Last year the Tigers refused to make him available in trade talks, but that stance has changed entering 2012.
Garza is the present—a 28-year-old fresh off his best major league season who could, with Justin Verlander, form one of the best rotations in the American League.
What'll be Tigers, all-in now or a future to dream on?
Not so long ago, Matt LaPorta was the centerpiece prospect in a trade that sent C.C. Sabathia to the Milwaukee Brewers.
These days he's the odd man out should the Tribe acquire a free agent first baseman like Carlos Peña, Derrek Lee or Casey Kotchman. With Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall all higher than LaPorta on the prospect chain, there's little left for the Indians to protect.
And though you'd think a former top prospect like LaPorta would draw interest, there seems to be little left for a player who slugged under .400 over his first 1,000 major league PAs.
All of which is to say that the Indians don't have many high-value players on their roster that they're looking to shop.
The Chicago White Sox are rebuilding.
Or, maybe they aren't.
Or maybe GM Kenny Williams starts every day with a spin of his "what-do-I-do-next" wheel and leaves the master planning to baseball's other 29 general managers.
Because hard as I try, I can't make sense of the White Sox approach this offseason. They parted ways with Carlos Quentin, Sergio Santos and Jason Frasor only to reverse course by offering a contract extension to John Danks.
That leaves Gavin Floyd caught somewhere between everyone else's definition of rebuilding and whatever definition Kenny Williams abides by.
Should Williams choose to trade the right-hander, Grant Brisbee offers us a nice appraisal of his value. A solid innings eater who didn't fulfill his amateur potential, Floyd could nevertheless net Chicago somewhere between one and three useful prospects.
It's impossible to sift through Kansas City's goldmine of prospects and determine who's available and who isn't. At this point in GM Dayton Moore's "process," it appears the more advanced minor leaguers are off limits.
That leaves longtime closer Joakim Soria as the most likely and most attractive trade chip on a rising Royals team.
Kansas City hasn't appeared super motivated to trade Soria so far this offseason, but with the right-hander's contract moving to options in 2013 there's a feeling among insiders that he could move before 2012 ends.
Considering the Royals' position—trending up but not yet contending—they're better served starting the year with Soria, seeing if he bounces back from a down 2011 and retesting the market around the trade deadline to maximize prospect return.
So long as the Washington Nationals remain without a long-term option in center field, Denard Span will have a suitor.
The Nationals nearly landed Span at last year's trade deadline and the leadoff man continues to interest Washington's front office.
New-old Twins GM Terry Ryan says he won't trade Span this offseason, but that makes no promises for the future. If the right deal comes along later in 2012 and fellow center fielder Ben Revere continues to progress behind him, Span could be outward bound.
Take your pick here between righty Dellin Betances and lefty Manny Banuelos, both can claim top-pitching-prospect status on the suddenly pitching-rich Yankees and both will feature heavily in trade talks over the next few years.
Such is life as a top Yankee minor league player, where new threads are always just a Brian Cashman phone call away.
Just ask Jesus Montero.
As usual, the Tampa Bay Rays have most of their roster on the trade block.
B.J. Upton, Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann all fit the profile of Rays players jettisoned in past years—young but not baby-faced, cheap but approaching bigger pay days.
Among that group none is more accomplished or coveted than James Shields.
Shields led Tampa's staff in wins, ERA and SO:BB ratio last year and would fit near the top of most big league rotations. His contract gives way to a $9 million team option in 2013 and a $12 million option in 2014.
The Rays haven't spent those kinds of dollars in the past, prompting speculation that they might trade Shields now in order to refill their infinity pool of prospects.
Though it's pure speculation at this point and Red Sox brass hasn't made a peep along these lines, there's reason to think Kevin Youkilis isn't in Boston's long-term plans,
The 33-year-old corner infielder's contract expires after 2013 and if Boston wanted they could deny his option and end things a year earlier.
No longer an asset at first base because of Adrian Gonzalez's presence, Youkilis' position in the organization grows even more uncertain when you consider the youth movement behind him at third.
Fangraphs classifies the Red Sox top three prospects as third basemen. Should any of them prove big league-ready before 2013, Boston could save big money by moving Youkilis to a needier team.
Though it never came to pass, the rumored trade that would have sent Jose Bautista to the Cincinnati Reds for Joey Votto shone a light on GM Alex Anthopoulos' plans for this Blue Jay team.
Anthopoulos isn't done building in Toronto and nothing is off the table.
That includes testing the market for his rags-to-riches slugger and seeing what kind of trade gold he could unearth with Bautista's affordable contract as his centerpiece.
Bautista was one of the five best players in baseball last year—if not the best—and one of the game's most under-compensated. That combination gives Anthopoulos enviable options should he choose to deal.
How do you see Adam Jones?
Do you see 26-years-old, 25 home runs, eye-catching minor league resume, centerpiece center fielder?
Or do you see low OBP, bad SO:BB ratio, parts of six seasons in the major leagues and the kind of defense that sends guys to the corners of the outfield?
Those are polar stances taken on Jones, who has been the source of constant trade speculation this offseason but hasn't generated an offer to match the Orioles' lofty demands.
Baltimore wants a player like the Braves Tommy Hanson in exchange for Jones, the sort of young, overpowering arm few teams can offer. Atlanta seems to think he's worth something more along the lines of Jair Jurrjens—proven just the same, but a bit longer on experience and less dominating.
The gulf between the two reveals just how difficult it's been to reach a consensus on Jones' value.
Maybe he's a superstar. Maybe he's a disappointment. The only certain thing is that he's worth talking about.