Projecting Top MLB Players Who Could Be Moved at the Winter Meetings
Major League Baseball's offseason doesn't always feature the pomp and circumstance of the NBA and NFL. Sure, blockbuster moves, like the recent Tigers-Rangers trade, happen across the winter, but rarely is baseball in the spotlight on a given date and time.
Unlike the other major sports, the baseball offseason can work at a glacial pace, rarely setting up the one-day sales and marathon signing periods of basketball and football. Plus, without an offseason draft, following the day-to-day rumors of potential trades and signings is the only fix for baseball fans.
Yet, for one week every winter, baseball takes center stage. This December, the 112th Winter Meetings will take place. When the general managers, agents, players and executives arrive in Walt Disney World on Dec. 9, business will pick up.
In addition to free-agent contract signings, the trade market could explode. Due to the prices on the open market, teams may be more willing to surrender prospects in order to acquire franchise-changing players on reasonable contracts.
Here are the top players who could be on the move at the upcoming Winter Meetings.
All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted.
David Price, LHP, Tampa Bay Rays
From the moment David Price arrived in Tampa as a 22-year-old reliever to his rise as a dominant starter, this was inevitable. Due to the economics in Tampa Bay, the franchise simply can't afford to pay Price what he will be worth on the open market after the 2015 season.
Despite controlling the 2012 AL Cy Young winner for two more full seasons, the time is right—at least according to Tampa's business model—to trade Price now. Over the past few years, Rays general manager Andrew Friedman has taken similar approaches with Matt Garza and James Shields.
Thus far, the hauls received in such trades (Chris Archer, Wil Myers) have proven this theory correct. With two years left before free agency, the star pitcher is at peak value. Thus, Tampa can maximize their return, as noted by Marc Topkin of The Tampa Bay Times.
This winter, expect the offers for Price to match or exceed the excellent deals Tampa made when trading away top-tier pitchers in recent years.
Why? Supply, demand and Price (no pun intended).
The top of the free-agent pitching market, excluding Japanese star Masahiro Tanaka, is a flawed group of good-but-not-great pitchers on the prowl for gigantic contracts. From Ubaldo Jimenez to Matt Garza to Ervin Santana, there's not one pitcher on the market who can match the accolades of David Price.
Yet, those three arms will all cost in excess of $50 million. In fact, there's a chance the final tally could land one or two of them near $100 million.
On the other hand, Price, with two years of expected arbitration before free agency, could cost less than $15 million in 2013. According to Matt Swartz of MLB Trade Rumors, Price is expected to land $13.1 million in arbitration this winter.
Due to Tampa's readiness to cash-in their biggest trade chip in franchise history along with the need for affordable high-end pitching throughout the league, a perfect match will emerge.
At the Winter Meetings, it's a matter of when, not if, a David Price mega-trade occurs.
Matt Kemp, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers
From the perspective of many inside and outside the game of baseball, it's easy to understand why the Dodgers would attempt to move Matt Kemp. With the emergence of Yasiel Puig, Los Angeles has four outfielders, along with Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford, for three spots.
Along with the logjam, Kemp's numbers have slipped and injuries have begun to take a toll on him since he signed an eight-year, $160 million contract after the 2011 season. The prospect of paying an oft-injured, part-time player $21 million in 2014 isn't appealing to the reigning NL West champions.
Of course, there's another side to the Matt Kemp conundrum.
When healthy, he profiled as one of the best young, all-around offensive performers in the history of the sport. The following list, per Baseball-Reference.com, features the only players in MLB history to post at least 90 home runs and 90 stolen bases between the ages of 24 and 26: Willie Mays, Darryl Strawberry, Eric Davis, Sammy Sosa...and Matt Kemp.
That's it, folks.
Now, at the age of 29, Kemp is two years removed from a second-place finish in the 2011 NL MVP voting that garnered his huge contract. He's not old, but he isn't looked at as the rare athletic talent that he was just a few years ago.
With Los Angeles motivated to clear their outfield logjam, one of the trio of Ethier, Kemp and Crawford is on the way out of Hollywood. When teams contact the Dodgers, the risk should be taken on a player that will enter 2014 just three years removed from one of the greatest runs in the history of emerging offensive talent.
Matt Kemp is on the way out of Los Angeles. With a return to health, he'll be on the way back to an MVP ballot, too.
Chase Headley, 3B, San Diego Padres
That's the mantra that dictates decisions in front offices around Major League Baseball. Unfortunately for the San Diego Padres, their best chance to sell-high on Chase Headley has come and gone.
Now, with their efforts to re-sign the 29-year-old third baseman failing to generate significant progress, per Jon Heyman of CBS Sports, Josh Byrnes and the San Diego front office may be forced to trade one of their marquee players after a poor season.
In 2012, Headley emerged as one of the best hitters in the sport. Despite playing in pitching-friendly Petco Park, the switch-hitting third baseman posted an .875 OPS. When adjusting for the difficulty of playing 81 home games at Petco Park, Headley's 144 OPS+ was good enough for ninth in all of baseball.
In 2013, Headley, due to nagging injuries, failed to find that form. After setting career highs in HR, RBI, OPS, BB, total bases, hits and runs scored, the 2012 star became a 2013 afterthought. Despite the regression, San Diego believes Headley is a top-tier third baseman and an anchor in any lineup in the sport.
Although San Diego can't use the sell-high recipe for their end of the trade, an offensive-needy team will attempt to buy-low on a hitter that is one year removed from a dominant season.
Nick Markakis, OF, Baltimore Orioles
Over the next few months, the free-agent market will change the landscape of the 2014 Major League Baseball season. For teams in need of leadoff hitters, two stars will emerge: Shin-Soo Choo and Jacoby Ellsbury.
If one or both of those outfielders garners over $100 million free agency, few around the game of baseball will be surprised. Both excel at the most fundamental offensive skill in baseball: reaching base.
They also both benefit from excellent timing. In 2013, each posted high OBPs and helped lead their team to the postseason. Now, offensively-challenged teams will look to them to ignite an offense in 2014 and beyond.
Yet, there's an outfielder, adept at hitting at the top of a lineup, who is available via trade for the grand sum of $32.5 million through 2015. No, Baltimore's Nick Markakis isn't as good as Ellsbury or Choo, but when removing 2013 from the equation, the edge isn't as big as you might imagine.
From 2008-2012, Markakis, Choo and Ellsbury were among just 15 outfielders in baseball to post an on-base percentage of at least .347 and a WAR of at least 14.7. As the numbers illustrate, Choo has been the most consistently valuable player of the three, but the gap between Choo, Markakis and Ellsbury isn't big.
According to WFAN's Mike Francesa (h/t SNY's Mets Blog), the Mets and Orioles discussed a deal that would have sent the Orioles right fielder to New York early in the offseason.
As the prices for free agents like Ellsbury and Choo soar, don't be surprised if a smart team ignores Markakis' difficult 2013, compares his numbers with Choo and Ellsbury over the five previous years and pulls the trigger on a deal to land an underrated asset.
Brandon Phillips, 2B, Cincinnati Reds
Finally, the Cincinnati Reds have opened their eyes. Less than two years after handing second baseman Brandon Phillips a six-year, $72.5 million contract extension in 2012, the team is looking to move him this offseason, per Bob Nightengale of USA Today.
Due to his leadership qualities, RBI numbers and the lack of offensive punch at the second base position throughout the league, suitors will emerge for the 32-year-old veteran. When they do, likely at the Winter Meetings, Cincinnati will pounce on the chance to expunge a mistake from their payroll.
To be fair, Phillips has been an excellent member of the organization since 2006. His 24.7 WAR and .766 OPS during that span places him among the best second baseman in the sport over the last eight seasons. Of course, Phillips' contributions, while good, are much closer to Aaron Hill's career accomplishments than Dustin Pedroia's, Robinson Cano's or Chase Utley's.
Yet, the Reds owe Phillips $50 million over the next four seasons. With first baseman Joey Votto garnering over $20 million per season beginning in 2016 and contract extensions upcoming for Jay Bruce, Homer Bailey and Mat Latos, every dollar counts in Cincinnati.
Despite the reality of Phillips' game, contract and age, 13 teams received a worse OPS from the second base position than what the longtime Reds second baseman provided (.706) in 2013, per ESPN.
When Major League Baseball ascends on Walt Disney World, a suitor for Brandon Phillips will emerge to take him off Cincinnati's hands.