The New York Mets are stuck in a tough sort of limbo. After the Philadelphia Phillies signed free agent Cliff Lee earlier this month, the Mets seem unlikely to be able to contend this season in the crowded NL East. Yet, they are a team of talented veterans, hardly an organization ripe for rebuilding. In order to make sure they move forward, they must choose their path quickly, but they need to choose carefully.
If the Mets choose to reload and make a more serious run down the line, it could really open up the trade market in the National League. All-Stars Carlos Beltran, David Wright, Jose Reyes and Francisco Rodriguez would likely become available, as incoming general manager Sandy Alderson tries to find the right balance between unloading unwieldy contracts and retaining a sturdy core of talent.
The Mets are not alone in this regard: The Chicago Cubs, Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals are all in slightly varied versions of the same state. Read on for five players who, unlikely though it may seem, could be trade candidates at some point this winter or spring.
The odds of a Pujols trade are slim and none. No one but (perhaps) Kansas City could possibly meet the talent demands the Cardinals are sure to make in return for Pujols, and that leaves, unasked, the question of financing Pujols himself for the long term. Furthermore, the Cardinals organization knows its fan base so adores Pujols that to trade him, or even seriously entertain the notion, would be heresy.
The only reason this even warrants discussion is that Pujols' contract expires after 2011, and if the Cardinals are unable to extend him for several more years before spring training starts, the spectre of losing him could drive the team to seek out suitors. The team cannot afford Pujols, absent a so-called hometown discount, and Pujols has said he will be less likely to grant one if the team actually allows him to reach open waters. The potential drama should be fun to watch, though it seems extraordinarily unlikely that the result will be a trade.
Fielder is another 2011 free agent-to-be, and the addition of Zack Greinke's $27-million commitment over the next two seasons could make it more difficult for the Brewers to retain him. It may also make Fielder more inclined to explore an extension with the team, but if one cannot be agreed upon, Fielder could be out of town before the season starts.
As unlikely as that sounds, given Milwaukee's obvious intention to win now and their relatively healthy chance of winning the NL Central in 2011, it would not necessarily derail their hopes to trade Fielder. They could trade him for a package of prospects and flip one or more in a separate deal for a first baseman of only slightly lesser quality. Alternatively, they could try to pull in a team like the Cincinnati Reds (who do not need Fielder but have first baseman Yonder Alonso in waiting behind Joey Votto and ready to become a starting first baseman) for a three-team deal that replaces Fielder even as it disposes of him.
The Mets owe Wright $29 million over the final two years of his current contract, so it could be hard to engineer a deal. Then again, the AL West has at least two (and possibly three) teams looking for an impact player at third base, and the only freely available player who fits that description is Adrian Beltre. New York Mets and Oakland Athletics, let's make a deal!
Wright should command at least one solid pitcher and a prospect or two, depending on how much (if any) of Wright's salary Alderson is willing to pay Oakland. Billy Beane is not usually in the business of acquiring high-priced talent by trading chips he likes, but the A's need to move past their rebuilding stage sooner or later.
Carl Crawford is a good outfielder, a steady hitter with game-chaning speed and excellent defensive range. That netted him a seven-year, $142-million contract this winter, despite the fact that he has really only had two seasons that justify that kind of compensation. As soon as Crawford and the Boston Red Sox signed that deal, Jose Reyes got big old dollar signs in his eyes.
Reyes is a strikingly similar player, albeit a less polished one, and he is younger at only 27 years old. He already has three seasons of production in the same range as Crawford's, though the last was 2008. Reyes also plays shortstop, a premium position at which nearly every team could improve by adding him. The Mets would need a king's ransom to trade him, even with just one year left on his deal, but the risk on each side of the ledger would be about even and the rewards for both sides could be great.
Though Reyes battled injuries last season and Fielder fell somewhat sort of his exceptionally high standards, the closest thing to a true buy-low candidate on this list is Matt Kemp. Kemp struggled in the first year of a two-year contract extension in 2010, striking out too often and finishing with a rather unimpressive .760 OPS. He also became one of the worst defensive center fielders in the game, which led some to the conclusion that his attitude and effort were somewhat lacking.
It's hard to say what Kemp would fetch on the open market. He'll make nearly $7 million next season, after which he figures to get a raise via arbitration. Still, the potential is there for the 2009 Gold Glove and Silver Slugger winner, and he probably fits in at least a corner spot for more teams than not.