Hidden Gems Who Could Be the Steals of the 2019 MLB Trade Market

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJune 12, 2019

Hidden Gems Who Could Be the Steals of the 2019 MLB Trade Market

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    How about a trade for Howie Kendrick?
    How about a trade for Howie Kendrick?Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

    Enough about the Anthony Rendons and the Madison Bumgarners of the world. Let's talk about the lesser known attractions on the 2019 Major League Baseball trade market.

    We've rounded up 10 hidden gems that we think could prove to be major trade steals. Some are certainly more "hidden" than others, but they all have talent befitting of more hype.

    Statcast's xwOBA metric, which measures expected production based on the quality of contact produced by hitters and allowed by pitchers, was a useful tool for getting at players' true talent levels.

    We'll start with five pitchers and end with five hitters.

    Note: Some stats are current through Monday, June 10.

David Hernandez, RHP, Cincinnati Reds

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    David Hernandez
    David HernandezAndy Lyons/Getty Images

    The longer the Cincinnati Reds stay stuck in last place in the National League Central, the more likely it is they'll eventually make their pending free agents available.

    David Hernandez wouldn't seem to be among the Reds' more valuable wares. The 34-year-old right-hander posted a 2.53 ERA in 2018, but he owns just a 4.80 ERA through his first 31 appearances of 2019.

    If nothing else, Hernandez is still good for getting right-handed batters out. Whereas lefties have crushed him to the tune of a 1.081 OPS, righties have mustered only a .539 OPS.

    There's also evidence that Hernandez's ERA has been inflated by bad luck. He has a slightly better xwOBA (.262) than Boston Red Sox righty Brandon Workman (.263), who's held opposing batters to an .086 average.

    In related news, Hernandez is inducing strikeouts and infield pop-ups at well-above-average rates. These are fruits of an altered pitch mix that's heavy on four-seamers and cutters.

Liam Hendriks, RHP, Oakland Athletics

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    Liam Hendriks
    Liam HendriksJeff Chiu/Associated Press

    More than two months into 2019, it's looking like the Oakland Athletics don't have another 97-win campaign in them.

    As such, they may look to opportunistically cash in shorter-term assets. Star closer Blake Treinen is bound to draw some interest, but eagle-eyed teams might consider Liam Hendriks instead.

    The 30-year-old righty is probably best known as the guy who bombed as Oakland's opener in last year's American League Wild Card Game. But he's been a serviceable major league pitcher for nearly a decade, and he now finds himself rocking a 1.72 ERA through his first 30 appearances of 2019.

    Hendriks' fastball, slider and curveball have each picked up more velocity, and that's led to more strikeouts and better soft-hit and hard-hit rates than he had a year ago. He's thus tied with Gerrit Cole and teammate Lou Trivino for the 14th-best xwOBA among righties who've faced at least 100 batters.

    Hendriks can open, close and go more than one inning at a time if need be. He's also under club control through 2020.

Francisco Liriano, LHP, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Francisco Liriano
    Francisco LirianoDylan Buell/Getty Images

    The Pittsburgh Pirates are fading fast in the NL Central, so they'll soon have to cut their losses at the trade deadline.

    Francisco Liriano isn't their most prized trade chip, but the 35-year-old left-hander has quietly put up a 2.35 ERA over 30 relief appearances.

    When Liriano has dominated, it's tended to be because he's shut down lefty batters while merely skating by against righty batters. But he's flipped that script in 2019, as his OPS against righty batters is 372 points lower than his OPS against lefty batters.

    Not surprisingly, Liriano is throwing harder as a reliever than he did as a starter for the Detroit Tigers in 2018. He's also taken to pitching up in the zone with his four-seamer and sinker. That's been good for both his strikeout and pop-up rates. His .277 xwOBA is tied for 11th among lefties who've faced 100 batters.

    Liriano has been slipping recently, as he's already allowed five earned runs in June. But if he can recover, he'll be a low-risk, high-reward rental for the stretch run.

Jake Diekman, LHP, Kansas City Royals

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    Jake Diekman
    Jake DiekmanJoe Robbins/Getty Images

    Rather than Liriano, teams in need of a southpaw might call up the Kansas City Royals—who are ready to surrender, according to MLB.com's Mark Feinsand—about Jake Diekman.

    The 32-year-old is coming off a 4.73 ERA in 2018, and he's only improved to 4.10 through his first 30 appearances of 2019. Yet now more than ever, he looks fully recovered from the hell he went through with his ulcerative colitis in 2017.

    Diekman's average fastball velocity of 95.4 mph is his best since he sat at 96.5 mph back in 2015. He's also featuring a nasty slider with more horizontal and vertical action.

    His strikeoutsoft-hit and hard-hit rates have improved accordingly, and his .273 xwOBA is good for 10th among qualified lefties.

    At the least, teams can view Diekman—who's earning only $2.25 million this year, with a $5.75 million mutual option for 2020—as a shutdown lefty specialist. He's holding same-side hitters to just a .411 OPS this season.

Freddy Peralta, RHP, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Freddy Peralta
    Freddy PeraltaJoe Robbins/Getty Images

    Apropos of Freddy Peralta's prior involvement in Madison Bumgarner trade talks (per Jon Paul Morosi of MLB.com), the Milwaukee Brewers might move him if the right opportunity comes along.

    The 23-year-old righty isn't necessarily looking like a keeper right now. He finished 2018 with a 4.25 ERA in limited action, and he's largely fumbled what chances he's gotten this year. Notably, he has a 7.07 ERA in eight outings as a starter.

    There's plenty to like about Peralta's 2.19 ERA as a reliever, however, and his performance as a starter isn't what it seems. He deserves better based on his xwOBA and rate of 11.6 strikeouts per nine inning.

    It's also a positive that he's thrown his fastball nearly as hard as a starter as he has as a reliever: 

    An enterprising rebuilding team might buy low on Peralta and be rewarded with either an ace starter or an ace reliever through 2024.

Gordon Beckham, UTIL, Detroit Tigers

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    Gordon Beckham
    Gordon BeckhamJim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Josh Harrison was supposed to be the Detroit Tigers' utility-man trade chip, but he's on the 60-day injured list with a hamstring injury.

    Good thing the Tigers still have Gordon Beckham.

    Albeit through only 36 games and 109 plate appearances, the 32-year-old's 11th year in the majors is proving to be his best offensive season in a long time. His .768 OPS blows away the .669 career mark that he came into the year with.

    To boot, Beckham might even be underachieving. His hard-hit rate has skyrocketed to a career-best 48 percent, and he's been taking the easy avenue to power by pulling most of his batted balls. It's not just his OPS. His xwOBA has also significantly improved.

    The small sample size caveat is worth repeating, but Beckham would be a surprisingly fruitful addition to any team's infield mix if he can keep this up.

Pablo Sandoval, UTIL, San Francisco Giants

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    Pablo Sandoval
    Pablo SandovalPatrick Smith/Getty Images

    His efforts have thus far been wasted on a decrepit San Francisco Giants team, but Pablo Sandoval is indeed good again. 

    The 32-year-old arrived in San Francisco in 2017 after being cast out of Boston as a $95 million failure, and he initially continued to struggle with regaining the hitting form that made him an All-Star in 2011 and 2012.

    But through his first 59 games of 2019, Kung Fu Panda has hit .277 with an .876 OPS and eight home runs. He still swings a lot, but there's little point in complaining about that while his hard-hit rate is at a career-best 46 percent. Likewise, his xwOBA is easily the best it's been in the Statcast era.

    Sandoval has also been useful on defense, as he's held his own at both third base and first base.

    Sandoval is pulling in nearly $20 million this year, but interested parties need not worry about that. All but $555,000 of that is on the Red Sox.

Domingo Santana, OF, Seattle Mariners

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    Domingo Santana
    Domingo SantanaMark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The Seattle Mariners were rolling over everyone in early April, but they've since plummeted to last place in the AL West.

    According to ESPN's Jeff Passan, "almost every veteran" on the Mariners roster is available. Although he only recently arrived in Seattle by way of a December 2018 trade with the Milwaukee Brewers, 26-year-old outfielder Domingo Santana is presumably included in that group.

    The catch with Santana is that he's a notoriously poor defensive outfielder. The same is true of Detroit Tigers trade chip Nicholas Castellanos, yet he's still seen as being worth the trouble because of his bat.

    So far in 2019, here's how his offensive output compares to Santana's:

    • Santana: .832 OPS and .376 xwOBA
    • Castellanos: .764 OPS and .337 xwOBA

    Santana's offensive prowess is further backed by plentiful hard contact, much of which he's kept off the ground. Plus, he's under club control through 2021, whereas Castellanos is a rental.

Justin Smoak, 1B, Toronto Blue Jays

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    Justin Smoak
    Justin SmoakTom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    Teams in need of a first baseman can consider Jose Abreu and Edwin Encarnacion, who have many home runs and accolades between them.

    Or they could consider Justin Smoak.

    The Toronto Blue Jays want to move the 32-year-old slugger, according to Ken Rosenthal of MLB Network (via Mike Johnston of Sportsnet.ca). He is in his final season under contract, after all, and there's little point in keeping him around for the rest of Toronto's latest rebuilding season.

    Meanwhile, Smoak is still adhering to the All-Star form he discovered in 2017. He's only hitting .233 but with a .368 on-base percentage, 12 home runs and a .421 xwOBA that ranks 12th among hitters who've taken at least 150 plate appearances.

    Smoak's power has always been there, but the difference for 2019 is all in his approach. He's fine-tuned it to a point where he's barely striking out more often than he walks.

    Any team that trades for him stands to gain a formidable middle-of-the-order threat for the stretch run.

Howie Kendrick, UTIL, Washington Nationals

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    Howie Kendrick
    Howie KendrickTodd Kirkland/Getty Images

    The Washington Nationals have steadily been improving after their slow start, so perhaps it's not a given that they'll open for business on the summer trade market.

    If they do, however, teams might want to look as closely at Howie Kendrick as they surely will at Anthony Rendon.

    The 35-year-old was a consistently above-average hitter through his first 13 major league seasons, but "above average" doesn't even cut it for how he's hitting this year. He boasts a .961 OPS and 11 home runs through 56 games, as well as a .424 xwOBA that's tied for 10th among qualified hitters.

    Kendrick is putting plenty of balls in play and typically hitting them hard. He's also pulling more fly balls and line drives, which has already resulted in a career-high seven homers to left field.

    Kendrick is pulling in just a $4 million salary this season. Between that and what's not likely to be an exorbitant acquisition cost, he represents a tremendous trade opportunity.