MLB Waiver Trade Deadline: Spotlighting the 10 Best Available Hitters

Andrew GouldFeatured ColumnistAugust 19, 2014

MLB Waiver Trade Deadline: Spotlighting the 10 Best Available Hitters

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    Los Angeles Dodgers outfielders Matt Kemp and Carl Crawford both cleared revocable trade waivers.
    Los Angeles Dodgers outfielders Matt Kemp and Carl Crawford both cleared revocable trade waivers.Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    The calendar reads August, meaning the MLB trade deadline has passed. That does not, however, mean clubs have no method of bolstering their roster before the postseason.

    Trading can still occur, but it just must funnel through the waiver system. Teams can place a player on revocable trade waivers. If he’s claimed, the organization has 48 hours to strike a deal, relinquish his rights or pull him off waivers.

    Guys who clear waivers unclaimed can be shopped on the trade market. Of course, a truly desirable commodity won’t escape the process without any of the other 29 teams biting.

    No superstars frequent this list, and a majority of these position players are laboring through a tumultuous season. These high-priced veterans will likely stay put, but a couple names from uncompetitive squads may get bartered before August 31, the last day for any acquired players to become eligible for the new team’s postseason roster.

    Before getting down to business, remember that although the title is “Best Available Hitters,” these batters play defense as well. That factors into these rankings. Contracts were also considered, as an average hitter doesn’t provide his club any value if he’s earning $20 million.

    Hitting is hard to come by these days, so gambling on a besieged veteran could make a difference in September and October. Don’t expect a slew of action similar to July 31’s trade deadline, but one or two of these batters could change uniforms.

Honorable Mentions

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    Although Stephen Drew is not hitting, he at least plays incredible defense at shortstop.
    Although Stephen Drew is not hitting, he at least plays incredible defense at shortstop.Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    Stephen Drew, SS, New York Yankees

    A key component to the Boston Red Sox’s 2013 championship run, Stephen Drew could find himself playing for his third different team in as many months.

    According to CBS Sports' Jon Heyman, nobody bit on Drew’s desolate .170/.241/.302 slash line, allowing him to clear waivers with Brett Gardner and Martin Prado. Brian Cashman will attempt to salvage any value he can from the 31-year-old, who enters free agency this offseason.

    Despite his mighty offensive woes, Drew’s sensational glove could entice a contender in search of middle-infield depth. Considering his .443 slugging percentage last year, there’s enough pop in Drew’s bat to help someone out if he can break out of his funk.

     

    Kelly Johnson, UT, Boston Red Sox

    The other end of that rare Yankees-Red Sox trade, Kelly Johnson also finds himself available for another late swap after getting placed on waivers. Per The Boston Globe's Nick Cafardo, the utility hitter was tossed into revocable waivers.

    From 2010-13, Johnson smacked 79 combined homers, but his power has soured this year with just six long balls. He'd offer a team versatility on the bench, but no title contender will target a .215/.296/.360 hitter for a starting role.

     

    Will Middlebrooks, Boston Red Sox

    Cafardo recently revealed a more notable list of four Red Sox players placed on waivers. This includes Will Middlebrooks, a once promising third baseman whose stock has fizzled since a sensational rookie season.

    Since slugging .509 in 2012, he has looked lost at the plate. Those struggles have compounded this year, with the 25-year-old hitting a dreadful .188 in 125 plate appearances. There's no sense in Boston selling with his value crashed at an all-time low.

10. Andre Ethier, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Andre Ethier's tumble has continued in 2014.
    Andre Ethier's tumble has continued in 2014.Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Per Heyman, the Los Angeles Dodgers placed a trio of outfielders on waivers. Due to the hefty nature of their contracts, it’s unlikely they find a suitor for any of them, as only the Dodgers are bold enough to assume an array of plus-sized deals in August.

    Any past iteration of Andre Ethier could semi-justify earning $17 million per year, but the dude with four homers and a .677 OPS barely deserves $17,000.

    The 32-year-old hasn’t cleared the fence since June 29, and he continues to falter against southpaws with a .190 average against them. A 7.8 percent walk rate also represents the worst tally since his rookie season in 2006. Even on a team without a logjam in the outfield, he’s no more than a glorified platoon player at this juncture of his career.

    Although he can hold his own in a corner-outfield slot, the Dodgers are giving him practice reps at first base as a contingency plan behind Adrian Gonzalez. Perhaps it’s also a pitch to other clubs seeking versatility.

    Given the precipitous decline of this veteran under contract through 2017, no team will gamble on him.

9. Carl Crawford, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    The highly paid Carl Crawford is beginning to show signs of life.
    The highly paid Carl Crawford is beginning to show signs of life.Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    In the same boat as Ethier, Carl Crawford has disintegrated from overpaid to borderline startable with three additional years remaining on his contract. While his speed gives him a slight boost over his teammate, his larger salary makes him just as unlikely to get shipped out of L.A.

    No longer the superstar who snagged a $142 million contract with a 7.4 fWAR in 2010, Crawford now sports a sluggish .259/.293/.351 slash line. The 33-year-old won’t lead the league in steals anymore, but he has still taken an efficient 18 bases in 21 tries.

    Unfortunately, not many teams are willing to pay over $20 million for a pinch runner.

    Yet a silver lining exists in his disappointing season. Underneath his middling average lies a 28.0 line-drive percentage. Among qualified hitters—Crawford has not played enough to earn that distinction—only Freddie Freeman and Daniel Murphy have generated higher rates.

    If he continues to scorch that many liners, those hard-hit balls will find open space, and his average will rise. His career-low .293 BABIP supports the hypothesis that he has suffered from poor fortune this season on batted balls.

    That won’t be enough for the Dodgers to locate someone willing to pay him into his mid-30s, but they’d certainly welcome a hot streak from their expensive veteran down the closing stretch.

8. Daniel Nava, OF, Boston Red Sox

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    Daniel Nava is a potent player against right-handed pitchers.
    Daniel Nava is a potent player against right-handed pitchers.Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    Daniel Nava is what he is: a platoon player. Play him exclusively against righties, and you got yourself one heck of an outfielder.

    This season, the 31-year-old is batting .294 with a .373 on-base percentage versus right-handed pitchers. Against southpaws, those numbers plummet to .140 and .148, respectively. There's a simple solution to mask his faults.

    While his successful plate appearances typically haven't seen him trek further than first base, he has exhibited greater power in the past. Last season he accumulated 29 doubles and 12 homers, vaulting him to a .445 slugging percentage.

    He's also only on the payroll for an affordable $556,000 before approaching the opening of his arbitration window. Despite his solid 1.3 fWAR fueled by a .341 on-base percentage and respectable glove-work, an outfielder with a .266 average and two homers won't get paid much in arbitration.

    Most players are just placed on waivers as a formality, but Nava is actually a solid trade candidate. He's cheap, but expendable to Boston given his age, power outage and the club's last-place residency. Plenty of squads could use him in a limited role.

7. Alex Rios, OF, Texas Rangers

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    Alex Rios has suffered a power outage in a lost season for the Texas Rangers.
    Alex Rios has suffered a power outage in a lost season for the Texas Rangers.Rick Yeatts/Getty Images

    Alex Rios’ career is a case study of randomness. His numbers bounce all over the place, never sustaining consistent success in the same manner.

    For all the 20/20 seasons he’s posted, you never know what he’ll do any given year. A career .279/.323/.439 hitter who brings power and speed at his best, the outfielder is in danger of performing at or below replacement level for the third time in 11 seasons.

    His .284 average is just fine, but his 4.3 walk percentage discredits some of those good vibes. Then there’s the ghastly four homers and .400 slugging percentage, career lows on both fronts.

    A year after stealing 42 bases, he’s done more harm than good on the basepaths by swiping 16 bags in 25 attempts. At 33, he isn’t helping much in the field either.

    Stuck in last place, the Texas Rangers will look to cash out before Rios hits free agency this winter. According to ESPNDallas.com's Calvin Watkins, Rios has unsurprisingly cleared waivers. Given his current struggles, however, they’re not likely to net much of a return.

6. Martin Prado, 3B/LF, New York Yankees

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    Martin Prado can play all around the field, but he has taken a step back offensively this year.
    Martin Prado can play all around the field, but he has taken a step back offensively this year.Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    Another one of Cashman’s buy-low maneuvers from last month, Martin Prado has failed to respawn in the Bronx. Instead, he’s hitting a microscopic .200 in 50 at-bats with his new club.

    His numbers never pop off the page, but Prado is a career .289 batter who has exceeded a .300 clip during four seasons. This year, he’s hitting .263 with career worsts in strikeout (13.9) and walk (5.1) percentages.

    Unlike Drew, Prado remains under control for two years (at $10 million a season) following the 2014 campaign. The Yankees thought they snagged him at a bargain if he could return to 2012 and 2013 levels of production, but his current output doesn’t justify the investment.

    Still, Prado is a Swiss Army knife in the field. Over his career, he’s tried his hand at every position except catcher and center field. His most success, however, derives from his work at third base and left field.

    This is a man who hit .301/.359/.438 with a 5.5 fWAR two years ago, so it’s not crazy to think somebody may take a plunge on the 30-year-old. But his struggles in New York continue to eviscerate his market value, so expect him to wear pinstripes again in 2015.

5. Curtis Granderson, OF, New York Mets

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    Curtis Granderson's power numbers have deteriorated after moving from the Yankees to Mets.
    Curtis Granderson's power numbers have deteriorated after moving from the Yankees to Mets.Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Stuck in an uncomfortable predicament, the New York Mets did not have the resources or desire to spend premium dollar on top-shelf free agents. They also, however, felt pressure from a weary fanbase to make something happen in their quest back to relevancy.

    As a result, they took a half measure and signed Curtis Granderson, who touted star upside with two 40-homer campaigns to his credit but became affordable after hitting .229 in 2013.

    Granderson has delivered similar results in hitting .221/.324/.375, and that actually looks good considering he exited April with a .136 average. At first glance, it appears the same Granderson that struggled on the other New York squad has surfaced in Queens. Several trends in his plate tendencies suggest otherwise.

    He has slashed his strikeout percentage, which soared to 28.2 percent last season, down to 22.0 percent. He’s done that by increasing his contact rate from 69.6 percent to 75.9 percent and by chasing fewer pitches outside the strike zone.

    Yet he’s also slugging below .400 for the first time in his career. Not that 40 deep flies was a tenable goal outside of Yankee Stadium, but 25-30 would have been nice rather than his current 15, putting him on pace to perch near 20.

    Now that he has cleared waivers alongside starting pitcher Jonathon Niese, according to Heyman, will any team be the one who knocks on the slugger? Probably not, but don’t include him in any “worst contract” lists either.

4. Matt Kemp, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Matt Kemp has hit like the star slugger of old in recent weeks.
    Matt Kemp has hit like the star slugger of old in recent weeks.Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    In terms of name recognition, former almost-MVP Matt Kemp tops the chart. Only judging offensive prowess would have also vaulted him into No. 1 consideration.

    Yet despite Kemp’s resurgence at the plate, his lackluster defense and bloated contract will deter most suitors.

    The 29-year-old has found his stroke in the batter’s box, hitting .295/.372/.552 since the All-Star break. His seven homers following that arbitrary endpoint are just one fewer than he managed in 86 games prior to the Midsummer Classic.

    He’ll never contend for a 40/40 season again, but his expanding .276/.341/.461 slash line is plenty valuable. Unfortunately, there’s the matter of his minus-24 Defensive Runs Saved that deflate his fWAR all the way down to 0.3.

    He’s looked the most passable in right field, and an American League team could hide his defensive blemishes altogether by slotting him as a designated hitter. Then again, who will want to pay $107 million over the next five years (not including the remainder of 2014) for a DH?

3. Mike Napoli, 1B, Boston Red Sox

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    More patience and more line drives have led Mike Napoli to success in Boston.
    More patience and more line drives have led Mike Napoli to success in Boston.Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    Revered for his power, Mike Napoli no longer relies on the long ball to provide usefulness.

    In his second season with the Red Sox, the catcher-turned-first baseman is in jeopardy of recording his lowest home run output in at least five years. Despite his 15 dingers, he remains Boston's best batter due to a career-high 16.0 percent walk rate, which ranks second to Carlos Santana among qualified hitters.

    He's adjusted well to Fenway Park, posting the two highest line-drive rates of his career in Beantown. His transition to not always swinging for the fences has led to a sturdy .270 average in 2014.

    The few onlookers paying attention to the Red Sox these days will appreciate his 2.8 fWAR, which trumps marks set by Albert Pujols and Adrian Gonzalez. Despite the significantly lower RBI total, Napoli has also outclassed David Ortiz in terms of on-base percentage and weighted runs created.

    Whereas most downtrodden teams ship out their veterans for prospects at the deadline, Boston reloaded for 2015 by swapping out big league talent for big league talent. With its eyes on once again accomplishing a rapid turnaround, it's highly improbable for Napoli to get dealt this month.

2. Brett Gardner, OF, New York Yankees

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    Brett Gardner has registered a career-high 15 home runs this season.
    Brett Gardner has registered a career-high 15 home runs this season.Greg Fiume/Getty Images

    Most others on this list has taken a step back this season, prompting their organizations to test the waters through the waiver process. One major exception, Brett Gardner, is enjoying the best offensive results of his career.

    Fresh off signing a four-year, $52 million deal, the speedy outfielder has assuaged any buyer’s remorse by rounding into an all-around threat at the plate. He’s not running as much, holding 18 steals, but the Yankees will take it given his career-high 15 homers.

    Once a burner who accumulated value on the bases and in the outfield, Gardner is now making his mark in the batter’s box with a stout .448 slugging percentage. His formerly impeccable defense has waned over time, and speed naturally fades, but his plate discipline and power will hold more sway in the future.

    Of course, that’s if he sustains this new-found strength. The easy thing to do is credit Yankee Stadium’s short porch for gifting the lefty a few cheap homers. That’s harder to do, however, when he has notched eight of his round-trippers on the road.

    It shouldn’t come as much of a shock that his 13.5 home run/fly ball percentage towers over his 6.7 percent career clip. He’s not hitting more fly balls—more are just clearing the fence, which might not keep happening with a 388.7 foot average distance, per ESPN.com.

    The Yankees are testing the waters to see if they can successfully sell high, but they’ll need to get blown away to move their most productive position player.

1. Ian Desmond, SS, Washington Nationals

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    He's not perfect, but Ian Desmond is still one of baseball's top shortstops.
    He's not perfect, but Ian Desmond is still one of baseball's top shortstops.Al Bello/Getty Images

    By far the most perplexing position player to get placed on—and subsequently clear—waivers, as reported by USA Today's Bob Nightengale, Ian Desmond shouldn’t go anywhere as the Washington Nationals prepare for a World Series push.

    The 28-year-old shortstop is certainly flawed, owning an uneasy 28.1 strikeout percentage that has sunk his average to .246. Never the most patient batter, he depends on contact to maintain a steady on-base percentage that has now depreciated to .303.

    It’d be easy to point to his .269 career average, wait for a return to the mean and call it a day, but that contact he needs has steadily dipped over the years. Take a look at the negative trend brewing in his contact rate percentages since 2011.

    2011: 81.5

    2012: 78.3

    2013: 75.3

    2014: 72.1

    On the other hand, he’s a shortstop that has belted 20 homers for the third straight season. Unless Hanley Ramirez returns from the disabled list with a power surge or J.J. Hardy crushes 13 long balls to close out the season, the list of shortstops who have accomplished that feat includes Desmond and nobody else.

    The streaking Nationals boast a six-game lead atop the National League East, and above-average shortstops don’t grow on trees or in most farm systems for that matter. He’s not going anywhere, but Desmond would certainly warrant a lucrative return if Washington wanted to move him.

     

    Note: Advanced statistics courtesy of FanGraphs. Contract info obtained via Cot's Baseball Contracts