One Dark-Horse MLB Free Agency, Trade Suitor for the Top 25 Stars Available

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistSeptember 28, 2018

One Dark-Horse MLB Free Agency, Trade Suitor for the Top 25 Stars Available

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    Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

    The simplest answer is usually the right one.

    It's a principle that applies as much to MLB free agency and the trade market as anything else. At surface level, each top target set to hit the open market has one or two obvious potential landing spots.

    Many times, that's exactly where the player winds up signing.

    There's always that "mystery team" lurking on the periphery, though, and inevitably there will be at least a few surprises when the dust settles on another busy offseason.

    Gerrit Cole joining an already stacked Houston Astros rotation last winter was a trade that few saw coming, especially after the August deal for Justin Verlander.

    The same can be said for the Philadelphia Phillies decision to sign Carlos Santana after a breakout performance from first baseman Rhys Hoskins down the stretch.

    So which dark-horse teams will emerge to swing a blockbuster trade or land a big-ticket free agent this time around? We've taken a crack at predicting just that with one dark-horse suitor for each of the 2018-19 market's top 25 stars.

Catchers

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Yasmani Grandal (Free Agent)

    In four seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Grandal has posted a 112 OPS+ while averaging 22 home runs, 61 RBI and 2.3 WAR. He's raised his walk rate from 8.3 to 14.2 percent this season, and his on-base percentage has climbing from .308 to .349 as a result.

    He's also one of the game's elite pitch-framers, according to StatCorner.

    The Dodgers have a pair of top prospects closing in on the majors in Keibert Ruiz and Will Smith, so unless Grandal is willing to sign a one-year deal, there's a good chance he's headed elsewhere.

          

    Dark-Horse Suitor: Arizona Diamondbacks

    It might look like the D-backs have bigger fish to fry with Patrick Corbin and A.J. Pollock both reaching free agency and Paul Goldschmidt a year away. Defensive-minded Jeff Mathis is an organizational favorite, but the catcher position has produced an ugly .189/.270/.320 line.

           

    Wilson Ramos (Free Agent)

    After missing a good chunk of 2017 recovering from a torn ACL, Ramos is back to producing at his pre-injury level and earned a place on the AL All-Star team as a result.

    He's hitting .341/.394/.489 in 99 plate appearances since being traded by the Tampa Bay Rays to the Philadelphia Phillies at the deadline, and all told he has a 131 OPS+ with 15 home runs and 70 RBI.

    The 31-year-old is also back to catching full time and showing no ill effects of that gruesome knee injury.

          

    Dark-Horse Suitor: Tampa Bay Rays

    The Rays took a chance on Ramos with a two-year, $12.5 million deal and he rewarded them with a strong 2018 season that turned him into a valuable trade chip. He likely won't come that cheap this time around, which could take the Rays out of the running initially. Depending on how the offseason unfolds, though, a reunion could wind up making sense for both sides.

            

    J.T. Realmuto, Miami Marlins (Trade Candidate)

    With a .278/.342/.487 line that includes 30 doubles, 21 home runs and 73 RBI—along with a career-high 4.4 WAR—a case can be made that Realmuto is the best catcher in baseball right now.

    Clark Spencer of the Miami Herald recently wrote: "The Marlins are expected to offer Realmuto a contract extension after the season. If he accepts, Realmuto could be around for years to come, the cornerstone around which the organization rebuilds the franchise. If he doesn't, it's more likely than not he'll be traded while his value is greatest."

    It will take at least one elite-level prospect to get him, as Victor Robles was the target in offseason talks with the Washington Nationals, per Jim Bowden of CBS Sports HQ (h/t Fish Stripes).

           

    Dark-Horse Suitor: Atlanta Braves

    There's a question here whether the Marlins would be willing to trade Realmuto within the division, but there's little doubt the Braves have the prospect talent to put together the necessary trade package. With Kurt Suzuki headed for free agency and Tyler Flowers (91 OPS+, 0.6 WAR) taking a step backward, Realmuto could be a game-changing addition to a team on the rise.

Infielders

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    Whit Merrifield
    Whit MerrifieldJamie Squire/Getty Images

    3B Adrian Beltre (Free Agent)

    Beltre has played just 210 games over the past two seasons, so the end of his storied career is in sight.

    His 98 OPS+ this season would represent his first season with an OPS+ below the league average of 100 since 2009, and he's no longer a 30-homer threat. However, he's still an elite defender (10 DRS, 3.2 UZR/150) and has been a 2.3 WAR player as a result.

    The 39-year-old has given no indication he intends to retire. He'll likely have to settle for a one-year deal, but that should only serve to widen the field of interested teams.

             

    Dark-Horse Suitor: Cleveland Indians

    It would be surprising to see Beltre sign anywhere other than Texas. That said, he's also still searching for his first World Series ring, and he's not going to get it by remaining with the Rangers. If he does decide to go ring-chasing, the Indians look like a potential fit, with Jose Ramirez sliding over to second base.

          

    3B Josh Donaldson (Free Agent)

    A nagging calf injury essentially turned 2018 into a lost season for Donaldson, and that makes him one of the more compelling free agents.

    After posting a 151 OPS+ and averaging 37 home runs and 100 RBI in his first three seasons in Toronto, the 2015 AL MVP enters the open market with an abundance of questions surrounding his future.

    The 32-year-year-old won't get the massive payday many were predicting, and that could make him the biggest bargain on the market if he can put his injury issues in the rearview.

           

    Dark-Horse Suitor: Toronto Blue Jays

    Everyone assumes the August trade to Cleveland was the end for Donaldson and Toronto. But if he winds up opting for a one-year, prove-it deal before re-entering the market next offseason, that familiarity could be appealing. He makes sense as a sign-and-eventually-trade target for the Blue Jays.

         

    2B DJ LeMahieu (Free Agent)

    LeMahieu does two things extremely well: hit for a high average and play defense.

    Over the past four seasons, he carries a .311/.371/.432 batting line and he won the NL batting title with a .348 average in 2016.

    The 30-year-old has also won a pair of Gold Glove Awards and could be on his way to a third with 18 DRS and a 12.3 UZR/150 in 2018.

           

    Dark-Horse Suitor: Chicago Cubs

    With the uncertain future of Addison Russell and Ben Zobrist a year away from free agency, might the Cubs consider signing LeMahieu? The Cubs place a premium on infield defense, and if the price is right, it's exactly the kind of outside-the-box move that would allow manager Joe Maddon to remain flexible. LeMahieu was originally drafted by the Cubs in 2009.

          

    2B Jed Lowrie (Free Agent)

    Lowrie has posted back-to-back excellent seasons for the Oakland Athletics:

    • 2017: 120 OPS+, .277/.360/.448, 66 XBH (14 HR), 69 RBI, 4.0 WAR
    • 2018: 120 OPS+, .267/.355/.447, 60 XBH (22 HR), 96 RBI, 4.9 WAR

    The 34-year-old was an All-Star for the first time this season, and he's been a key veteran presence in the clubhouse for a young Oakland squad that has made a surprise climb to contention.

    Second base has been his primary position with the A's, but he's also played shortstop and third base.

            

    Dark-Horse Suitor: Los Angeles Dodgers

    A run at trade candidate Whit Merrifield or free agents Brian Dozier and DJ LeMahieu seems more likely for the Dodgers as they look for a long-term solution at second base. Considering his age, Lowrie doesn't make as much sense, but he could land in L.A. depending on how the market unfolds.

          

    SS/3B Manny Machado (Free Agent)

    Machado is having a big walk year, hitting .295/.366/.539 with 35 doubles, 37 home runs and 104 RBI for 5.7 WAR, while splitting the season between the Orioles and Dodgers.

    Poor defensive metrics at shortstop (-12 DRS, -7.7 UZR/150) could be enough for him to welcome a full-time move back to the hot corner, though a team willing to let him play shortstop could have an upper hand in negotiations.

    Regardless of where he lines up defensively, the 26-year-old is one of the game's elite offensive players and he's just entering the prime of his career.

           

    Dark-Horse Suitor: Los Angeles Angels

    With two years of Mike Trout left, it's time for the Angels to get serious. Zack Cozart is recovering from surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder, and he could shift from third base to second base once he does return. Pitching should probably be the team's primary focus, but Machado would be a huge addition.

          

    2B Whit Merrifield, Kansas City Royals (Trade Candidate)

    The late-blooming Merrifield has become the most valuable trade chip on the Royals roster.

    After a breakout 2017 season, he's been even better this year, hitting .303/.367/.440 while leading the AL in hits (186) and stolen bases (41).

    He's already 29 years old, but he's still a year removed from arbitration eligibility and carries team control through the 2022 season.

    Selling high now makes too much sense for Kansas City.

             

    Dark-Horse Suitor: Pittsburgh Pirates

    The Pirates surprised more than a few people when they traded for Chris Archer and Keone Kela at the trade deadline, and swinging a deal for Merrifield would be another forward-thinking move. With Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer both headed for free agency, they could be looking for a proven middle infielder, despite having a number of rising prospects who could fill the void.

         

    1B Justin Smoak, Toronto Blue Jays (Trade Candidate)

    The two-year, $8.5 million extension Smoak signed midway through the 2016 season has proved to be a stroke of genius by the Blue Jays.

    After posting a 130 OPS+ with 38 home runs during a breakout 2017 season, he's been terrific once again, logging a 123 OPS+ with 34 doubles, 25 home runs and 77 RBI en route to 2.3 WAR.

    That extension included a team-friendly $6 million team option for 2019, and with the Blue Jays headed for a rebuild, Smoak could prove to be a valuable trade chip.

            

    Dark-Horse Suitor: New York Yankees

    How many more chances will Greg Bird get? The former top prospect has lost his starting job to Luke Voit, leaving his future in doubt. It's unlikely the Yankees will entrust Voit with the everyday job—even with his strong performance of late—so acquiring Smoak as a left-handed hitting complement makes sense.

Outfielders

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    Bryce Harper
    Bryce HarperMark Brown/Getty Images

    Michael Brantley (Free Agent)

    Brantley is finally healthy after playing in just 101 games in 2016 and 2017.

    The Indians rolled the dice by exercising his $11.5 million option last offseason, and he has rewarded them with a .309/.365/.472 line that includes 36 doubles, 17 home runs, 76 RBI and 11 steals for 3.3 WAR.

    At 31 years old, he should still have a few prime seasons left in the tank, assuming his shoulder issues don't return.

           

    Dark-Horse Suitor: Los Angeles Dodgers

    A new deal with Cleveland seems like the most likely outcome for Brantley, so it's safe to call any other suitor a dark horse. The Dodgers have a fluid outfield situation, especially with Matt Kemp falling off since the All-Star break, so don't be surprised if they kick the tires.

          

    Nicholas Castellanos, Detroit Tigers (Trade Candidate)

    A disappointing season from Michael Fulmer has arguably made Castellanos the most attractive trade chip on the Tigers roster.

    The 26-year-old is hitting .300/.356/.500 with 45 doubles, 22 home runs and 87 RBI for a 131 OPS+ that is tied for 12th among qualified AL hitters.

    Moving from third base to right field has not helped his defensive value (-19 DRS, -12.6 UZR/150) and he'll be a free agent after the 2019 season, but for a team looking to add some right-handed pop, he'll be an appealing option.

           

    Dark-Horse Suitor: Seattle Mariners

    The Mariners could be looking to replace Nelson Cruz in the designated hitter spot, and given his defensive shortcomings, Castellanos would benefit from a situation where his glove can collect dust in his locker. Never count Jerry Dipoto out on any potential trade target. Pitching will be the team's top priority, which is what makes this a dark-horse landing spot.

         

    Nelson Cruz (Free Agent)

    Cruz has been as durable and productive as any hitter in baseball over the past five seasons.

    During that span, he's posted a 146 OPS+ while averaging 41 home runs, 104 RBI and 152 games played, spending the bulk of his time in the DH role.

    At 38 years old, he's not a candidate for another long-term deal, but his consistent run production should be enough to net him a nice payday. He signed a four-year, $57 million deal last time he hit the open market and could receive a higher annual value this time around on a shorter deal.

           

    Dark-Horse Suitor: Colorado Rockies (to play first base)

    The Rockies have gotten a disappointing .233/.314/.406 line from their first basemen this year, and they've thought outside the box before when they signed Ian Desmond to play the position. This one isn't likely, but stranger things have happened. And can you imagine Cruz hitting in Coors Field? 

         

    Bryce Harper (Free Agent)

    Even in a down year by his standards, Harper sports a 131 OPS+ with 34 home runs, 100 RBI and an NL-leading 129 walks that have helped him offset a .244 batting average with a .391 on-base percentage.

    Still just 25 years old, Harper has already played seven big league seasons and amassed 27.2 WAR, earning six All-Star appearances and winning NL MVP honors in 2015.

    Signing him brings more than just his on-field production. He's one of the faces of the sport and one of the most marketable players in the game, and a record deal could be waiting as a result.

            

    Dark-Horse Suitor: Chicago White Sox

    White Sox general manager Rick Hahn talked to reporters recently about the upcoming offseason and gave the indication that the team might start to use some of its significant payroll flexibility this summer. Harper going to the Cubs has been a popular rumor, but landing on the South Side instead would make for some interesting marketing opportunities and allow him to join a promising rebuild.

         

    Nick Markakis (Free Agent)

    A first-time All-Star this year, Markakis is hitting .301/.368/.447 with 43 doubles, 14 home runs and 93 RBI for the NL East champs.

    He's been good for 32.5 WAR over the course of his 13-year career, and as a player who does his damage with a high contract rate and gap power, he's a safer bet to keep producing than most players his age.

    Still, at 34 years old, another long-term deal is unlikely and he could opt to go ring-chasing on a one-year deal with a contender looking for some corner outfield help.

           

    Dark-Horse Suitor: Baltimore Orioles

    Baltimore is where it all started for Markakis, as the O's took him No. 7 overall in the 2003 draft and he spent the first nine seasons of his career with them. Part of the reason he stuck around in Atlanta while they were rebuilding was his clubhouse presence, and that would presumably appeal to an Orioles team that has embarked on their own rebuild.

          

    A.J. Pollock (Free Agent)

    Pollock might never duplicate his dynamic 2015 season when he hit .315/.367/.498 with 39 doubles, 20 home runs and 39 steals en route to a 7.2 WAR mark.

    He's the best center field option on the market, though, and he's been plenty productive when healthy this season. The 30-year-old has a 109 OPS+ with 21 home runs and 12 steals in 111 games.

    Health concerns could scare teams off from giving him more than a two-year deal, but his power/speed skills and ability to man a premium defensive position will lead to plenty of interest.

            

    Dark-Horse Suitor: Washington Nationals

    The Nationals are not going to rebuild post-Bryce Harper; there's too much talent left on the roster. If they don't think Victor Robles is ready to step into an everyday job and Pollock is willing to agree to a two-year deal, he could be an excellent addition to join Juan Soto and Adam Eaton in the outfield.

Starting Pitchers

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    Patrick Corbin
    Patrick CorbinNorm Hall/Getty Images

    Patrick Corbin (Free Agent)

    Corbin picked an excellent time for a breakout season.

    He's gone 11-7 with a 3.23 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 242 strikeouts in 195 innings, earning his second trip to the All-Star Game in the process, and his strikeout rate climbing from 8.4 to 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings should add a few zeroes to his next contract.

    He won't turn 30 until July, so he's younger than the other top arms on the market, which is another chip in his favor.

           

    Dark-Horse Suitor: Boston Red Sox

    The Yankees have to be considered the overwhelming favorites to sign Corbin at this point, and that could be enough to get the rival Red Sox involved. The team has been lacking a consistent No. 3 starter all season, and with Hanley Ramirez coming off the books and both Chris Sale and Rick Porcello headed for free agency after next season, now might be the time to strike.

         

    J.A. Happ (Free Agent)

    Happ has been a godsend for the Yankees, going 6-0 with a 2.34 ERA in 10 starts since the team acquired him from the Blue Jays at the deadline.

    The 35-year-old has been quietly excellent the past three seasons, going 46-21 with a 3.41 ERA and 1.20 WHIP while averaging 171 innings.

    He signed a three-year, $36 million deal last time he hit the open market, and while his age might limit him to two years this time around, a higher annual salary seems likely.

           

    Dark-Horse Suitor: Seattle Mariners

    The Mariners traded Happ to the Pirates for peanuts at the 2015 deadline, and that has proved to be a turning point in his career as he blossomed under the tutelage of Pittsburgh pitching coach Ray Searage. With a clear need for pitching and a level of familiarity, the Mariners could bid against the big spenders for a chance to bring him back.

             

    Clayton Kershaw (Opt-Out Clause)

    Kershaw can opt out of the final two years and $70 million of his contract this offseason, and while that's a lot of money to leave on the table, he's almost certainly going to do it.

    Whether it's just a formality to sign a longer deal with the Dodgers or if he's actually going to test the open market in earnest—now that's another story.

    At 30 and after throwing more than 2,000 career innings, Kershaw does not have the same power stuff he did in his prime. He's still every bit as effective, though, working with his fastball in the low 90s and pitching off his slider.

    Will he stay effective long enough to be worth a $200 million megadeal, though?

           

    Dark-Horse Suitor: Houston Astros

    With Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton both headed for free agency and the window to contend still wide-open, the Astros could really shake things up by pushing to add Kershaw to a rotation that would still include Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Lance McCullers Jr. As a Dallas native, Kershaw might also welcome a chance to play close to home.

          

    Dallas Keuchel (Free Agent)

    Keuchel has gone from Cy Young winner to something of an afterthought with Verlander, Cole and Morton fronting the staff this season.

    The left-hander has still been plenty effective, though, going 12-11 with a 3.75 ERA, 1.30 WHIP and 151 strikeouts in 201.2 innings.

    The 30-year-old relies heavily on his plus command and ability to induce ground balls, and that skill set tends to age better than a pitcher who relies on mid-90s fastballs and tries to pile up strikeouts.

           

    Dark-Horse Suitor: New York Yankees

    Signing Corbin should be Plan A for the Yankees and bringing back Happ on a short deal should be Plan B. If both of those options fall through, they could do a lot worse than targeting Keuchel. His 2.45 ERA in five career starts at Yankee Stadium should be of particular interest.

         

    Charlie Morton (Free Agent)

    Solid at times during his tenure in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, Morton has taken his game to another level since joining the Astros two years ago:

    • 2008-16: 161 GS, 46-71, 4.54 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 3.4 BB/9, 6.3 K/9
    • 2017-18: 54 GS, 29-10, 3.39 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 3.3 BB/9, 10.4 K/9

    He appears to be the most likely candidate to accept a qualifying offer this season, provided he doesn't decide to call it quits at the end of the season.

    If the 34-year-old does return, the three-year, $48 million deal that Rich Hill signed prior to his age-37 season following a late-career emergence seems like a reasonable comparison, at least in terms of annual value.

           

    Dark-Horse Suitor: Any West Coast team

    Morton listed proximity to his wife's family in Delaware among the factors he'll consider when deciding what the future holds. He has also come right out and said he prefers to stay in Houston. So any team on the West Coast making a serious run at him would be a surprise.

             

    Zack Wheeler, New York Mets (Trade Candidate)

    If "Second-Half Cy Young" were a thing, Wheeler would be one of the leading candidates.

    In 11 starts since the All-Star break, he's gone 9-1 with a 1.68 ERA, 0.81 WHIP and a .179 opponents' batting average.

    Equally important is his 182.1 innings pitched this season, considering he missed the entirety of the 2015 and 2016 seasons recovering from Tommy John surgery and then worked just 86.1 innings last year (with a 5.21 ERA).

    Now looks like the time to sell high, as he'll be a free agent following the 2019 season.

           

    Dark-Horse Suitor: Tampa Bay Rays

    The Rays are not generally interested in trading cheap, controllable talent for short-term assets, but their strong finish to the season could compel them to be a bit more aggressive this winter. Keeping Wheeler healthy will be the key going forward, and their unique approach to handling the pitching staff could be the perfect way to do just that.

Relief Pitchers

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    Craig Kimbrel
    Craig KimbrelBillie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

    Craig Kimbrel (Free Agent)

    Since taking over as the Atlanta Braves closer in 2011, Kimbrel has racked up 332 saves—an average of 42 per season—while posting a 1.97 ERA, 0.91 WHIP and 14.5 K/9.

    He's been a bit more hittable this season with a 2.79 ERA and five blown saves in 47 chances, but he's still one of the game's elite ninth-inning options.

    At 30 years old, he'll no doubt be looking for the richest deal in MLB history for a reliever.

          

    Dark-Horse Suitor: Los Angeles Dodgers

    Having a top-tier closer has not precluded a team from targeting another elite reliever in free agency. The Dodgers almost acquired Aroldis Chapman before he was traded to the Yankees, so they've gone down this road before. Now, with Jansen once again dealing with heart problems, it's something they might revisit.

        

    Andrew Miller (Free Agent)

    A shoulder issue has limited Miller this season and he hasn't been the same dominant force he's been in recent seasons. His ERA (1.44 to 3.38), WHIP (0.83 to 1.25), BB/9 (3.0 to 4.2), K/9 (13.6 to 12.4) and BAA (.144 to .207) have all moved in the wrong direction.

    Still, the left-hander has been so good in recent seasons, more than a few teams will be willing to roll the dice.

    From 2014 to 2017, he posted a 1.72 ERA, 0.79 WHIP and 14.5 K/9 with 51 saves and 74 holds, and he's been an invaluable weapon in October.

    At 33, he can be that good again.

           

    Dark-Horse Suitor: New York Yankees

    Most expect the Yankees to pursue starting pitching as their No. 1 priority. After giving Aroldis Chapman a massive contract, spending big on another reliever would be a surprising allocation of funds. The Yankees have seen firsthand just how good Miller is, though, and they gave him a landscape-altering $36 million deal last time he hit the open market.

          

    Kirby Yates, San Diego Padres (Trade Candidate)

    At 31 years old, Yates is enjoying a breakout season for the San Diego Padres, posting a 2.07 ERA, 0.92 WHIP and 12.7 K/9 with 12 saves and 16 holds.

    Despite his age, he still is under team control through the 2020 season. Even if he gets a decent raise in arbitration, he'll still be a major bargain as he's earning just $1.063 million this year.

    Armed with a lethal fastball/splitter combination, he has the stuff to close.

           

    Dark-Horse Suitor: Chicago Cubs

    With Brandon Morrow and Pedro Strop both injured, the Cubs bullpen has been a mess down the stretch. While it's unlikely they'll break the bank to sign Kimbrel or Miller, they could make a run at Yates with the prospects left in a thinned-out farm system. Still, after giving Morrow so much money last winter, this would qualify as a surprise.

           

    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and accurate through Sept. 26.