With less than a week to go until the July 31 MLB trade deadline, many teams have already asserted their positions as buyers or sellers.
For those clubs that have already thrown in the towel, the upcoming week offers a unique opportunity to build for the future.
Every year, teams address their weaknesses at the deadline through trades made out of necessity. As a result, “sellers” are able to control the market and command a greater return for their players. At this point in the season, that basically means a favorable return of prospects, as teams looking to add before the deadline are more inclined to part with young, unproven talent rather than established big leaguers.
So, here’s a look at five near-major-league-ready prospects who could be on the move over the next week.
Kolten Wong, 2B, St. Louis Cardinals
2013 Stats (Triple-A): .297/.357/.458, 33 XBH (7 HR), 14 SB, 50/30 K/BB (88 G)
Kolten Wong is simply a solid ballplayer.
Selected in the first round of the 2011 draft, Wong moved at a level-per-year pace through the Cardinals’ system and impressed at each stop with his all-around consistency. Even though all of his tools will translate at the major league level, the 22-year-old’s left-handed bat is the only one with true plus-potential. Wong’s swing is short and direct, and he demonstrates excellent barrel control that plays up, thanks to his advanced approach and pitch recognition.
Originally expected to take over at second base at some point during the 2013 season, the emergence and ongoing success of All-Star Matt Carpenter has made Wong enticing trade bait for a team with up-the-middle needs.
Because Wong lacks a path to consistent playing time at the major league level, the organization may be better off exploring his trade market—possibly in exchange for a shortstop or starting pitcher—before the deadline.
Sonny Gray, RHP, Oakland Athletics
2013 Stats (Triple-A): 107.1 IP, 2.85 ERA, .248 BAA, 110/34 K/BB
2013 Stats (MLB): 4 IP, 2 H, 6/1 K/BB
When the A’s promoted 2011 first-rounder Sonny Gray to the major leagues earlier this month, they said it was to provide bullpen depth. However, given the timing of the promotion, it also served as an opportunity for the organization to showcase the 23-year-old to other teams.
Coming off a disappointing 2012 season at Double-A Midland, Gray has bounced back in a big way this year by excelling in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League and averaging more than a strikeout per inning. Just as he’s done this year in the minor leagues, the right-hander has shown legitimate swing-and-miss stuff during two appearances out of the Oakland bullpen, striking out six batters over four scoreless innings.
If the organization believes Brett Anderson will return later this season and that Dan Straily is capable of replacing Bartolo Colon in the rotation in the event of a season-ending PED suspension, then Gray could be made available before the deadline.
Christian Bethancourt, C, Atlanta Braves
2013 Stats (Double-A): .270/.299/.433, 22 XBH (8 HR), 7 SB, 44/11 K/BB (60 G)
With the Braves having lost significant depth on the mound over the last year due to trades and promotions, catcher Christian Bethancourt may be the only prospect in the Atlanta organization's system with the potential to command a favorable return. Even though he’s arguably the least major league-ready prospect on this list, his overall improvement this season at Double-A Mississippi suggests he’s roughly a year away from a call-up.
Regarded as one of the better defensive catchers in the minor leagues, Bethancourt is only 21—though it feels like he’s been in their system for an eternity—and finally is making significant strides in his development. In his second tour of the Southern League this season, the right-handed hitter has raised his OPS nearly .200 points and is on pace to post career-best numbers in numerous offensive categories.
Basically, it all comes down to whether the Braves intend to re-sign Brian McCann during the offseason and use Evan Gattis as a backup. If that’s the case, Bethancourt is easily their most attractive trade chip.
Nick Castellanos, OF, Detroit Tigers
2013 Stats (Triple-A): .279/.348/.449, 43 XBH (13 HR), 74/45 K/BB (105 G)
Nick Castellanos’ prospect stock took off in 2012 when he spent his season as a 20-year-old between high-A Lakeland and Double-A Erie. After taking the Florida State League by storm with a .405 batting average and 87 hits in 55 games, the right-handed hitter struggled mightily at the more advanced level with a .678 OPS and 76/14 K/BB in 79 games.
A lanky right-hander, Castellanos has always stood out for his preternatural bat-to-ball ability and excellent barrel control. But his overaggressive approach and tendency to expand the strike zone was exposed last season upon reaching Double-A, as he was moved from third base to left field.
Despite the massive drop-off in production, the Tigers challenged Castellanos with an aggressive assignment to Triple-A Toledo to begin 2013 season. That being said, the adjustments he’s made to his approach this year are remarkable, especially considering he’s one of the younger position players at that level. As a result, the 21-year-old has begun to tap into his above-average raw power more consistently.
Castellanos is one of a select few prospects with the potential for a plus-hit tool in the major leagues, and he could realistically open the 2014 season as the Tigers’ left fielder. At the same time, dealing him before the deadline may also represent the organization’s best chance at addressing its deficiencies at the major league level.
Carlos Martinez, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals
2013 Stats (Double-A/Triple-A): 52.2 IP, 2.05 ERA, .229 BAA, 44/17 K/BB (11 GS)
2013 Stats (MLB): 11.1 IP, 5.56 ERA, .279 BAA, 11/4 K/BB (10 G)
After three impressive starts at Double-A Springfield to begin the 2013 season, Martinez was promoted by the Cardinals to the majors to strengthen their struggling bullpen. But after appearing in seven games, the 21-year-old was optioned to Triple-A Memphis, where he registered a 1.98 ERA with 35 strikeouts in 41 innings as a member of the starting rotation.
The Cardinals recalled the right-hander shortly before the All-Star break after a six-week stay in the Pacific Coast League.
With an arsenal that’s highlighted by a plus-plus fastball—nearly elite in shorter stints—and a devastating changeup, Martinez has the potential to make a Trevor Rosenthal-like impact out of the bullpen.
At the same time, there’s no question he has a higher ceiling as a starter than reliever. His success this season as a starter in the high minors and as a reliever in the major leagues makes him an attractive trade candidate.
The fact that the Cardinals offered him to the White Sox on Wednesday for Alexei Ramirez only reflects their willingness to move him before the deadline.