Potential MLB Trade Steals Who Can Swing 2019 Races

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterFebruary 28, 2019

Potential MLB Trade Steals Who Can Swing 2019 Races

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    Everybody loves a good superstar trade in Major League Baseball, but sometimes it's the lesser deals that pay the biggest dividends.

    Take, for example, how the 2018 World Series panned out. Steve Pearce, who was picked up by the Boston Red Sox in a quiet June deal, won the series MVP. Manny Machado, who was added to the Los Angeles Dodgers in a July blockbuster, made the last out on a less-than-pretty swing.

    With about a month to go until Opening Day, we're here to present eight under-the-radar trade candidates who might pull a Pearce in 2019. These are players on presumed non-contenders who generally aren't considered top trade targets but who have the upside to swing playoff and pennant races.

    We'll start with a couple of relief pitchers.

Jared Hughes, RHP, Cincinnati Reds

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    If their effort to contend doesn't work out, the Cincinnati Reds will have many rentals to cash in on the summer trade market. Chief among them are Scooter Gennett, Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, Alex Wood and Tanner Roark.

    There's also Jared Hughes, who was last seen reveling in low-key dominance in 2018.

    The 33-year-old went into last season with a solid 2.85 career ERA, but even the Reds probably didn't anticipate a 1.94 ERA over 78.2 innings. According to Baseball Reference wins above replacement, he was the third-most valuable reliever in MLB.

    As per usual, Hughes relied heavily on his sinker to get hitters out. The pitch itself was different, however. Hughes threw it with less velocity yet with more downward movement. It was a bowling ball of a pitch that earned him the fourth-highest ground-ball percentage among relievers.

    The Reds hold a $3 million option for 2020 on Hughes, so they won't need to move him if they fall out of the race. Yet there will be a market for him, and any team that nabs him would stand to gain an elite setup man.

Kirby Yates, RHP, San Diego Padres

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    The San Diego Padres didn't sign Manny Machado just so they could have a shiny $300 million toy. Their plan is to contend and sooner rather than later.

    Still, a contender may not materialize as soon as this season. If not, the Padres will have to consider moving Kirby Yates.

    Yates was an anonymous right-hander when the Padres claimed him off waivers from the Los Angeles Angels in 2017. But then he racked up 87 strikeouts in 55.2 innings for them that season, and he followed it up with a 2.14 ERA and 90 strikeouts over 63 innings in 2018.

    The strikeouts don't lie, as Yates' 67.3 contact percentage since 2017 is the 12th lowest among relievers. He works off a fastball that sits at 94.0 mph, but his primary weapon is a nasty splitter that generates ground balls in addition to whiffs.

    Yates will turn 32 on March 25, and he's only under club control through 2020. He's therefore an imperfect fit in San Diego's long-term plans. He'd fit better as a closer on an immediate World Series contender, and his acquisition cost shouldn't be as exorbitant as those of, say, Jose Leclerc or Will Smith.

Kendrys Morales, DH, Toronto Blue Jays

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    American League clubs in need of a slugging designated hitter will surely have an eye on Edwin Encarnacion, whose days with the Seattle Mariners are numbered.

    Alternatively, these clubs could consider Kendrys Morales instead.

    The 35-year-old hasn't exactly lit up the stat sheets in two seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays. He posted a .753 OPS and 28 home runs in 2017 and then a .769 OPS and 21 homers in 2018. Going into 2019, he would seem to be standing in the way of at-bats for Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and/or Rowdy Tellez.

    As far as prospective suitors should be concerned, however, what should matter is that Morales was quietly an elite hitter in 2018. 

    Morales posted an xwOBA—a Statcast metric that measures expected production based on contact quality—of .373, which tied for 18th among qualified hitters. One key ingredient was his average exit velocity of 92.3 mph. He further helped himself by greatly improving his walk rate.

    The Blue Jays would presumably like to shed as much of Morales' $12 million salary as possible. An enterprising AL contender might pick him up on a salary dump and be rewarded with a dangerous middle-of-the-order slugger.

Randal Grichuk, OF, Toronto Blue Jays

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    The Blue Jays also have a slugging outfielder for teams in the market for such a player: Randal Grichuk.

    There were times when Grichuk looked like a rising star when he was with the St. Louis Cardinals, but his star had faded by the time they flipped him to Toronto in January 2018. He then endured a brutal April before missing all of May with a knee sprain.

    After he returned on June 1, however, Grichuk came back to life with an .873 OPS and 23 homers over his final 99 games.

    This had much to do with the degree to which Grichuk cut down on his strikeouts. He also had a better rate of "barrels"—batted balls with an ideal combination of launch angle and exit velocity—per balls in play than American League MVP Mookie Betts.

    Slugging isn't the only service the 27-year-old provides. He's also an above-average outfielder with 24 career defensive runs saved.

    The Blue Jays are likely a couple of years away from contending, so it makes sense for them to move Grichuk before he reaches free agency after 2020. If they do so this summer, a lucky contender will get a power-hitting, slick-fielding outfielder for the next year-and-a-half.

Nick Ahmed, SS, Arizona Diamondbacks

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    If the losses of Paul Goldschmidt, Patrick Corbin and A.J. Pollock end up sinking the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2019, they'll have to listen on pretty much all their players.

    That includes Nick Ahmed, whose club control is due to expire after 2020.

    If nothing else, Ahmed has the defensive part down. He's fresh off winning his first Gold Glove, and his 56 defensive runs saved since 2015 rank third among all shortstops.

    All Ahmed, who turns 29 on March 15, needs to become a true All-Star-caliber shortstop is a breakout offensive season. The closest he's come was last year, when he mustered a relatively modest .700 OPS and 16 homers.

    Still, there are positive signs abound. Ahmed typically doesn't strike out more than the average hitter, and he's coming off a career-best hard-hit rate in 2018. Indeed, only three shortstops made hard contact more frequently.

    Ahmed won't ever be a Francisco Lindor-level superstar. But he's trending toward becoming a defensive-wizard shortstop with 25-homer power. A player like that would be a huge upgrade for any contender (looking at you, Milwaukee Brewers) that might be weak at the position.

Francisco Cervelli, C, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    The Pittsburgh Pirates aren't a bad team. They're just not a great team, which is what they must be to have any chance in a crowded National League Central division.

    If 2019 humbles the Pirates as expected, they're bound to try to cash in their rentals. Included in the group is Francisco Cervelli, who might be one of the best catchers in baseball.

    The "might be" is necessary because of Cervelli's age (33 on March 6) and injury history. He's notably had problems with concussions since 2011, including last season.

    Cervelli nonetheless enjoyed a career year in 2018, setting new personal bests with an .809 OPS and 12 homers. And he might have had an even better season if he hadn't taken a fateful foul tip off his facemask on June 9.

    To that point, he was working on a .916 OPS and nine homers, plus the best xwOBA of any catcher in MLB. Such were the results of a new offseason diet and training regimen, as well as an increased emphasis on hitting fly balls.

    Health permitting, Cervelli might begin 2019 on an All-Star track and finish it as a key component on a World Series contender.

Mike Minor, SP, Texas Rangers

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    The Texas Rangers raised a few eyebrows when they spent $28 million to sign Mike Minor, who was then coming off a season as a full-time reliever, as a starting pitcher last winter.

    Yet it paid off, as Minor managed a solid 4.18 ERA over 157 innings. By Baseball Reference WAR, he had a better year than Charlie Morton, J.A. Happ, Rick Porcello, James Paxton and Dallas Keuchel.

    Where Minor really excelled, however, was in the second half. He put up a 2.97 ERA over 57.2 innings in 10 starts, and backed it all up with a lower xwOBA than even Clayton Kershaw and Corey Kluber.

    The driving force was in Minor's pitch mix. He really played up his changeup, which suddenly had more lateral movement. It was an especially useful weapon against right-handed batters, who went from slugging .494 against him in the first half to just .299 in the second.

    Because they have him under contract for two more years, the Rangers don't need to rush to move Minor. But if they find themselves heading in the direction of a second straight 95-loss season, the 31-year-old could become available to contenders in the hunt for a top-of-the-rotation starter.

Alex Cobb, SP, Baltimore Orioles

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    Maybe it's not at the top of the list, but shedding the remainder of Alex Cobb's four-year, $57 million contract must be a priority for new Baltimore Orioles general manager Mike Elias.

    It was Baltimore's previous regime that signed Cobb last March, and he bombed with a 4.90 ERA in his first season with the Orioles, which ended with them losing 115 games. Now he's 31 and owed another $43 million through 2021.

    And yet it's possible to look at Cobb and see a pitcher who's actually...good?

    He did post a 3.66 ERA over 179.1 innings for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2017, after all, and his 2018 wasn't as disastrous as his surface numbers suggest. He finished with a 3.32 ERA over 89.1 innings in his final 15 starts.

    The biggest development amid Cobb's strong finish was the right-hander finally finding his split-change after the pitch had gone missing following Tommy John surgery in 2015. That allowed him to show hitters more than just a fastball and curveball, and his contact rate dropped accordingly.

    Despite this, any trade involving Cobb will almost certainly have to have a salary-dump element to it. For prospective suitors, that could be a window to a low-risk maneuver for a top-of-the-rotation starter.


    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball.