Early Predictions for Top MLB Free-Agent/Trade Targets, 2 Months out

Rick Weiner@RickWeinerNYFeatured ColumnistSeptember 1, 2016

Early Predictions for Top MLB Free-Agent/Trade Targets, 2 Months out

0 of 20

    White Sox pitcher Chris Sale
    White Sox pitcher Chris SaleCaylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

    Baseball fans who remember last winter's free-agent frenzy should hold on to those memories, for the upcoming crop of unsigned talent is shaping up to be one of the weakest in recent memory, especially when it comes to starting pitching.

    That's why many, including Bleacher Report's Jacob Shafer, believe that the trade market could be the driving force behind much of the coming offseason's most notable, game-changing moves.

    With that in mind, we've compiled a list of the top players, both free agents and potential trade candidates, who could be wearing a different uniform come Opening Day 2017—and predicted their fate. 

    Of course, with two months to go before the offseason begins, much can—and probably will—change. Not only could our list of players look drastically different the next time we revisit those who could be on the move, but their ultimate destinations could change as well.

    How drastically things will change is a question that can't be answered, at least not yet. But we've got answers to other queries, such as whether Wilson Ramos will re-sign with Washington before testing the open market and whether Chris Sale is a lock to be traded by the Chicago White Sox.

    Read on to get the answers.

Trade Target: SP Chris Archer, Tampa Bay Rays

1 of 20

    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Ever since Chris Archer stopped being stupid—and started keeping it simple—he's looked like the front-of-the-rotation arm we thought he was entering the season, pitching to a 2.94 ERA and 0.96 WHIP with 62 strikeouts over 52 second-half innings.

    Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash recently explained Archer's resurgence to Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times: 

    I think he simplified some things and realized ultimately he had to do a better job of throwing more strikes. Whether it's fastball, slider or changeup, it's getting it over the plate. A lot of that, once you show a lineup or the first couple hitters that you're willing to throw strikes, you open up a lot of avenues to get them out.

    A source with the Rays told Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal that some of the offers they got leading up to the non-waiver trade deadline "[had] some comedic value." It'll be the Rays laughing during the offseason as contenders and noncontenders alike line up to try to pry Archer loose.


    Prediction: Archer gets traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers

Free Agent: OF Jose Bautista

2 of 20

    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    Jose Bautista's market was likely going to be limited to the American League, as teams willing to invest in a 36-year-old outfielder would only do so with the ability to use him as a designated hitter to reduce the wear and tear on his body.

    After a season that's seen him make two trips to the disabled list and post an OPS that's more than 60 points below his career mark, that hasn't changed. What has changed is his earning power.

    The $150 million-plus that Jon Heyman of Today's Knuckleball reported the slugger was asking for before the season? Not a chance—not that he ever had much of a chance of landing such a deal in the first place.

    But it's going to take a strong finish for teams to even consider giving him a Yoenis Cespedes-type deal (three years, $75 million), something Heyman says the Blue Jays were considering back in July.

    Aside from his age, injury, alleged contract demands and down season, the biggest thing working against Joey Bats is that he's more valuable to Toronto than he is other clubs. He's the face of the franchise, an iconic figure thanks to moments like last year's playoff heroics and the Rougned Odor brawl earlier this year.


    Prediction: Bautista signs a three-year extension to stay in Toronto

Free Agent: DH/OF Carlos Beltran

3 of 20

    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Back in April, Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal speculated that Carlos Beltran could return to where his career began, Kansas City, in 2017. Three months later, George A. King III of the New York Post reported that the Royals had discussed a Beltran trade with his then-employers, the New York Yankees.

    Clearly, the Royals still have some level of interest in a reunion.

    While he'll be entering his age-40 season and isn't the MVP candidate he once was, Beltran's power and polished approach at the plate would have to be viewed as an upgrade over the team's current designated hitter, Kendrys Morales, who will also be a free agent.

    With the team's core (Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas) set to become free agents after next season, taking a flier on Beltran as Kansas City's window of contention potentially closes makes a lot of sense.


    Prediction: Beltran signs a one-year deal (with a team option) to return to the Kansas City Royals

Trade Target: OF Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers

4 of 20

    Benny Sieu/Associated Press

    On the heels of a strong (and relatively healthy) season, Jon Heyman reports for Today's Knuckleball that Milwaukee will look to trade Ryan Braun during the winter.

    Back in June, sources told Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal that Brewers owner Mark Attanasio was more interested in adding premium young talent than getting Braun's salary off the books. But he might have to lower his expectations when it comes to a return.

    Even if the Brewers picked up a chunk of the $76 million left on his deal (which includes a $4 million buyout of the mutual option on his deal for 2021), teams are still going to be concerned about his past transgressions and his long-term health. When you factor in that Braun can block trades to all but six teams, striking a deal becomes even harder.

    Still, Braun has proved that he can still be a big-time run-producer when healthy. A move to an American League club, where he can spend some time as a designated hitter, would seem to make the most sense.


    Prediction: Braun gets traded to the Los Angeles Angels 

Free Agent: OF Yoenis Cespedes

5 of 20

    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    "Nope" was Yoenis Cespedes' answer, through a translator, when the New York Post's Mike Puma recently asked the slugger whether his desire to stay with the New York Mets for the duration of his three-year contract meant he wouldn't opt out of the deal after the season.

    “My focus is just to play baseball and help the team win, hopefully make it to the playoffs," Cespedes said. "I let my agents worry about all that.” His agents know their client would be the top bat on the free-agent market this winter, and if it's their decision to make, Cespedes is as good as gone.

    A potential landing spot: Toronto, which in re-signing Jose Bautista (as previously predicted), will be saying goodbye to Edwin Encarnacion.

    While letting Cespedes walk wouldn't be good for the Mets offense, the team does hold a $13 million option on Jay Bruce for 2017—and an outfield consisting of Bruce, Curtis Granderson and some combination of Michael Conforto, Juan Lagares and Brandon Nimmo isn't awful.

    Besides, the team could put some of the money it saves toward an extension for Jacob deGrom, who is going to get a massive raise over his $607,000 salary in his first year of arbitration.


    Prediction: Cespedes signs a four-year deal with the Toronto Blue Jays

Free Agent: CL Aroldis Chapman

6 of 20

    Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

    Washington has wanted to get its hands on Aroldis Chapman ever since he defected from Cuba and signed with Cincinnati back in 2010, and according to the Washington Post's Jorge Castillo, the team still wanted to acquire him before he was ultimately traded to the Chicago Cubs this season.

    With no closer under contract for 2017, the time is right for the Nationals to finally land the flamethrower.


    Prediction: Chapman signs a four-year deal with the Washington Nationals

Free Agent: OF/SS Ian Desmond

7 of 20

    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    “We’d be crazy not to want to continue the relationship,” was Texas general manager Jon Daniels' response when asked by the Star-Telegram's Jeff Wilson about a potential extension for All-Star outfielder Ian Desmond in mid-July.

    Even with Desmond's second-half struggles, odds are that Daniels' answer would be the same if asked again. 

    With former prospect Lewis Brinson now raking in Triple-A for Milwaukee, the Rangers' internal options to replace Desmond would be Delino DeShields Jr. and unproven youngsters Ryan Cordell and Jared Hoying. Keeping Desmond around is a much more desirable option.

    As for Desmond, who told Wilson he was "having a great time [in Texas]," he's landed in about as good a spot as he could have hoped for. He's playing for a contender in a great market, a team that isn't afraid to make a bold move if it believes it'll get the team closer to its ultimate goal of winning the World Series.


    Prediction: Desmond tests the free-agent market but stays with Texas on a five-year deal

Free Agent: 1B/DH Edwin Encarnacion

8 of 20

    Matt York/Associated Press

    As far as David Ortiz is concerned, Edwin Encarnacion should be his replacement in Boston's lineup next season.

    “The Red Sox know that they need to bring force in the middle of the lineup,” Ortiz told reporters after the All-Star Game, per the Boston Globe's Alex Speier. “Sorry Blue Jays, but who better than Encarnacion to do that?”

    It's a valid question. Is there a better option on the open market for the Red Sox to choose from? Not really. And it's hard to argue that there's a better destination for Encarnacion, who has hit .296 with 17 extra-base hits (14 home runs), 41 RBI and a .920 OPS over 47 games at Fenway Park.


    Prediction: Encarnacion signs a four-year deal with the Boston Red Sox

Free Agent: OF Dexter Fowler

9 of 20

    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Most of us have seen the video of Dexter Fowler surprising his Chicago Cubs teammates as he walked onto the field in spring training, fresh off signing a one-year deal (with a mutual option) after multiple reports indicated he had signed a three-year deal with Baltimore.

    "I didn't give them a verbal agreement at all," Fowler told reporters of his negotiations with the Orioles, per ESPN.com's Jesse Rogers, adding "[Chicago] is where my heart is." But Fowler figures to be thinking with his head, and not his heart, on his latest trip through free agency.

    While a return to the Cubs isn't an outrageous idea, Chicago has younger, cheaper internal options, such as Albert Almora Jr., who could take over in center for the 30-year-old. As a result, the Cubs might not be willing to offer the veteran outfielder as much as other clubs with needs in the outfield.


    Prediction: Fowler signs a four-year deal with the San Francisco Giants

Trade Candidate: SP Sonny Gray, Oakland Athletics

10 of 20

    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Sonny Gray is unlikely to pitch again in 2016, according to the Bay Area News Group's John Hickey, further diminishing the chances that Oakland would trade its 26-year-old ace this winter.

    Gray, who has three years of team control remaining, is coming off the worst season of his four-year career (21 GS, 5-11, 5.74 ERA, 1.50 WHIP). Even in a weak free-agent market, other teams aren't going to offer fair value in trade negotiations given his health concerns and poor performance.

    And the A's have absolutely no reason to sell low on a pitcher who just a year ago was considered one of the game's elite starters and a perennial Cy Young Award contender.


    Prediction: Gray doesn't get traded

Trade Candidate: OF Carlos Gonzalez, Colorado Rockies

11 of 20

    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Despite a history of injuries and the common knowledge that his overall numbers have been boosted by calling Coors Field home, Colorado wasn't interested in giving Carlos Gonzalez away heading into the season.

    "They asked for my top two minor league players, a major league player and to absorb most of the contract," a general manager who was interested in Gonzalez told CBS Chicago's Bruce Levine back in spring training. "We will wait for something more realistic."

    CarGo's contract, which has one year remaining at roughly $21.5 million (including a $1 million assignment bonus if he is traded), isn't quite as big a burden as it's been in the past. And while the Rockies have been hesitant to trade the face of their franchise, the fact is that Colorado hasn't won anything with CarGo on the roster. The time to deal him away has arrived.


    Prediction: Gets traded to the St. Louis Cardinals 

Free Agent: SP Rich Hill

12 of 20

    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Rich Hill continues to put up big numbers (10-3, 2.09 ERA, 1.08 WHIP), but the 36-year-old has had serious trouble staying healthy enough to pitch, logging only 82 innings over 15 combined starts for Oakland and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

    Yet he'll be the biggest prize in an incredibly weak free-agent crop of starters, sought after by clubs in need of rotation help but without the prospects necessary to swing a deal for any of the starters who may become available in a trade.

    While he'll have no shortage of suitors, the 36-year-old will take his talents back to a place he's previously called home—and it's not Boston.


    Prediction: Signs a three-year deal with the Baltimore Orioles 

Free Agent: CL Kenley Jansen

13 of 20

    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    According to the Los Angeles Times' Andy McCullough, expectations around baseball back in July were that Kenley Jansen would exceed Jonathan Papelbon's record-setting four-year, $50 million deal for a closer this coming offseason.

    The 28-year-old has done nothing to change that train of thought, pitching to a 1.88 ERA and 0.68 WHIP with 84 strikeouts over 57.1 innings of relief, successfully converting 40 of 46 save opportunities in the process for the Dodgers.

    While the likes of Aroldis Chapman and Mark Melancon are sure to pique Los Angeles' interest, the team's best move is to pay the closer it knows what he's worth.


    Prediction: Agrees to a four-year deal to stay in Los Angeles

Free Agent: CL Mark Melancon

14 of 20

    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Mark Melancon doesn't post gaudy strikeout numbers like his fellow free-agent closers Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen, but the 31-year-old is every bit as effective in the ninth inning, pitching to a 1.74 ERA and 0.92 WHIP with 174 saves since the start of the 2013 season.


    Prediction: Signs a four-year deal with the San Francisco Giants

Trade Candidate: OF Yasiel Puig, Los Angeles Dodgers

15 of 20

    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    While at least three teams submitted waiver claims for him, according to Jon Heyman of Today's Knuckleball, Yasiel Puig remains a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers organization. For now.

    The talented 25-year-old's issues, both on-field and off, are well-known at this point, and it's far beyond time that he and the Dodgers part ways. For all the baggage he brings with him, visions of what Puig could be if he gets his act together are enough to create a healthy market for his services.

    His trade value is at an all-time low, but his upside is still enough—and his contract is team-friendly enough ($14 million through 2018) that packaging him with other pieces will bring the Dodgers a nice return.


    Prediction: Puig gets traded to the Tampa Bay Rays in a deal for Chris Archer

Trade Candidate: SP Jose Quintana, Chicago White Sox

16 of 20

    Kamil Krzaczynski/Associated Press

    Jose Quintana has gone from being baseball's most underrated starting pitchers to someone whose name surely appears at or near the top of every other team's wish list heading into the offseason.

    His value is only amplified thanks to a team-friendly deal that pays him a total of $36.5 million through 2020, making him one of the few established front-of-the-rotation arms who would fit into nearly any team's budget.

    With significant changes needed in Chicago and a weak crop of free-agent starters on the market, the White Sox are in a position to bring back a massive haul of young, controllable talent for the 27-year-old southpaw.


    Prediction: Quintana gets traded to the Boston Red Sox

Free Agent: C Wilson Ramos

17 of 20

    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Outfielder Bryce Harper might be the reigning National League MVP, but Washington's most valuable player in 2016—and a legitimate candidate to take home the team's second NL MVP Award—is catcher Wilson Ramos.

    The 29-year-old has not only been baseball's most productive catcher at the plate, putting up the kind of numbers we've come to expect from the likes of Jonathan Lucroy and Buster Posey, but done a terrific job of controlling the opposition's running game while aptly handling (arguably) baseball's best pitching staff.

    He's simply far too valuable for the Nationals to let him get away.


    Prediction: Signs a five-year deal to stay in Washington before free agency opens

Trade Candidate: SP Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox

18 of 20

    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    All the reasons that applied to Jose Quintana being one of the winter's most sought-after pitchers (game stuff, track record, contract) apply to his teammate Chris Sale, Chicago's 27-year-old ace.

    While trading both Quintana and Sale would infuse the White Sox organization with an obscene amount of young talent, it'd be shocking if the team moved both of its front-of-the-rotation arms this winter. So with Quintana already predicted to be on the move...


    Prediction: Sale stays in Chicago

Free Agent: OF/DH Mark Trumbo

19 of 20

    Gail Burton/Associated Press

    It didn't appear so at the time, but one of last offseason's best trades was Baltimore's move to acquire Mark Trumbo for backup catcher Steve Clevenger.

    The 30-year-old has been extraordinary for the Orioles, leading baseball with 40 home runs and among the league leaders in RBI (96). While he's struggled to hit for average since the All-Star break (.176), he's remained productive at the plate with 12 home runs and 28 RBI over the season's second half.

    The Orioles learned how difficult it is to replace a consistent source of power two years ago when Nelson Cruz left for Seattle as a free agent. They won't make the same mistake twice.


    Prediction: Signs a four-year extension to stay in Baltimore

Free Agent: C Matt Wieters

20 of 20

    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    It hasn't been a great walk year for Matt Wieters, who has struggled when it comes to pitch framing, per StatCorner, and at the plate, as he's on pace to post the lowest OPS (.687) of his career.

    Yet the 30-year-old remains an above-average controller of the opposition's running game and, even in a down offensive year, would be a significant upgrade behind the plate for a number of teams.

    One of those teams would be the Atlanta Braves, which could use a steady hand behind the plate to help bring along its impressive stable of young arms. That Wieters is not only a known name, but played his college ball in Atlanta at the Georgia Institute of Technology, only adds to his appeal for the Braves.


    Prediction: Signs a five-year deal with the Atlanta Braves


    Unless otherwise linked/noted, all statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs and are current through Wednesday's games. All contract information courtesy of Cot's Contracts (via Baseball Prospectus).


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.