Bold Predictions for the Top 2021 MLB Sleeper Trade Targets
Free agency certainly had its down periods throughout the 2020-21 MLB offseason. The trade market, on the other hand, was rampant.
Stars such as Francisco Lindor, Nolan Arenado, Yu Darvish and Blake Snell will all be donning different uniforms this year. More still—like Kris Bryant and Trevor Story—could be headed elsewhere before the season is out. But who might make up the group of more unheralded trade candidates?
The following is a list of bold predictions regarding some of the top sleeper trade targets for the 2021 season. Many of these players might not necessarily be "stars," but the purpose is to concoct outside-the-box ideas for players who might be highly sought-after at some point this season.
Prospect and player returns were determined based on factors such as player pedigree, need and club control, among others. These predictions are not meant to reflect immediacy, but rather deals that could develop over time.
Let's get right into it.
Credit to general manager Dayton Moore and the Kansas City Royals for actively trying to improve their roster even if they are a long shot to contend for a playoff spot. But while they deserve praise as a small-market team willing to buck the cost-cutting trend, they will also face decisions on some key players, including outfielder and designated hitter Jorge Soler.
The 29-year-old came to Kansas City as part of the Wade Davis trade prior to the 2017 season. After a couple of injury-riddled campaigns, he exploded in 2019, breaking a franchise record and leading the American League with 48 homers while also posting a .922 OPS.
While Soler strikes out a lot and had just a .769 OPS in 2020, he ranked in the 93rd percentile in both average exit velocity and hard-hit rate and the 99th percentile in barrel rate.
However, he will be a free agent at the end of the season. He and the Royals avoided arbitration as he got a sizable pay bump in a deal that included incentives. However, there has not been much in the way of extension talks.
Although Soler has the potential to be a crucial run-producer, the Royals could try to flip him for future value. He might not have a ton of appeal to Kansas City as a DH-only type considering some of the depth in the outfield. Plus, teams like Cleveland and the Oakland Athletics could look to upgrade their outfield with a power bat.
Cleveland, in particular, could show interest. Eddie Rosario should be a big addition in left field for a unit that ranked 29th in weighted runs created plus (wRC+) in 2020. Oscar Mercado is likely to remain in center. But right field could be a bit of a carousel considering Josh Naylor might also have to play some first base if Bobby Bradley and Jake Bauers struggle.
Soler could play the other corner and, given his impending free agency and inconsistent results, might not be overly costly.
Cleveland could send right-hander Carlos Vargas and shortstop Jose Tena to Kansas City. Vargas projects as a power pitcher with a live arm and hard slider. Tena hit .325 in rookie ball in 2019. His hit tool and athleticism make up for his lack of size (5'9", 159 lbs).
Cleveland would get an impact bat while the Royals would receive a pair of young prospects who might become solid major leaguers with some polish.
CLE gets: OF/DH Jorge Soler
KCR gets: RHP Carlos Vargas, SS Jose Tena
The Colorado Rockies could be on the precipice of a sell-off.
They shed Nolan Arenado's contract by trading him to the St. Louis Cardinals but also paid down $51 million of the deal and got little talent back. They are nowhere close to contention, and Bleacher Report's Joel Reuter ranked their farm system 29th out of 30 teams.
It might be time to start selling high on top assets, and right-hander German Marquez would certainly garner a large market.
Marquez had a 3.75 ERA in 2020, leading the National League with 81.2 innings and posting a career-best 3.28 fielding independent pitching (FIP) mark. He just turned 26 years old and is under contract through 2023 with a $16 million club option in 2024, per Spotrac.
Marquez's career numbers might not look all that flashy on the surface. He has a 4.24 ERA and 1.27 WHIP in five seasons. But zoom out a little.
For starters, he's averaging 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings with a 3.85 FIP for his career. Moreover, he could benefit from a change of scenery. Opponents have a .233 batting average and .688 OPS against Marquez on the road, compared to a .287 average and .802 OPS when he pitches at Coors Field.
The Chicago White Sox still have a strong group of young arms in their system and will rely on Michael Kopech and Dylan Cease to make strides in 2021, but they could show interest in adding a controllable arm such as Marquez, particularly with Lance Lynn only under contract through this season.
White Sox general manager Rick Hahn might also be able to exploit Colorado's need to build for the long haul. He could keep right-hander Jonathan Stiever, instead sending 20-year-old right-hander Matthew Thompson to the Rockies. Outfielder Blake Rutherford could be a nice piece for Colorado given the lack of outfield depth in the system, and Will Kincanon would make for a projectable, sinker-slider-type bullpen arm.
While Hahn might otherwise be hesitant to part with young pitching, his mindset could shift if there's an opportunity to acquire a 26-year-old with Marquez's upside.
CWS gets: RHP German Marquez
COL gets: RHP Matthew Thompson, OF Blake Rutherford, RHP Will Kincanon
Oakland Athletics right-hander Chris Bassitt has quietly been one of the better starting pitchers in baseball over the past couple of years.
He finished eighth in AL Cy Young voting in 2020, going 5-2 with a 2.29 ERA in 11 starts. His 3.35 ERA ranks 16th among all starters with at least 200 innings over the last two seasons.
The 32-year-old is not very flashy. His fastball hovers around 93 mph, and he keeps hitters guessing by taking a lot off his breaking stuff. He tends to induce soft contact as a result, ranking in the 84th percentile in barrel rate and the 86th percentile in hard-hit percentage in 2019.
Although hitters made slightly better contact this past season, Bassitt showed better command of the zone. He slashed his walk rate to just 2.4 free passes per nine innings and might be pitching himself into a trade.
The Athletics appear to need rotation depth. Frankie Montas struggled in 2020, and Mike Fiers is not much more than an innings-eater at this stage. But Jesus Luzardo is still coming into his own, and the A's should have a healthy A.J. Puk in the fold. Plus, youngsters like Daulton Jefferies and James Kaprielian are waiting in the wings, and Oakland will also hope for a better version of Montas.
Bassitt is under team control through 2022. He is a reliable hurler who can get outs and be effective, and he would aid plenty of clubs looking for starting pitching. Perhaps the A's could try to maximize his value sooner than later. What if he were to move just 20 miles west?
The San Francisco Giants would make for an intriguing landing spot. They have a ton of money coming off the books next winter, but four of their five projected rotation members will also be free agents. All five could be if they decline Johnny Cueto's club option.
Trading for Bassitt would give the Giants a foundational piece in the rotation as they prepare for a possible spending spree. They might also be ideal trade partners for the A's. Their acquisition of LaMonte Wade Jr. creates an even more crowded pipeline of outfield depth, which is what Oakland could use.
The Giants could build a package around Jaylin Davis. Despite hitting .167 in 59 career big league plate appearances, he hit 35 homers and had a .987 OPS across three locations in the minors during 2019. Shortstop Jimmy Glowenke, who the Giants selected in the supplemental second round in June, could also be interesting due to his hit tool.
SFG gets: RHP Chris Bassitt
OAK gets: OF Jaylin Davis, SS Jimmy Glowenke
The Cincinnati Reds mostly stood pat this offseason.
They non-tendered Archie Bradley and traded Raisel Iglesias to the Los Angeles Angels but ultimately retained Sonny Gray, Luis Castillo, Eugenio Suarez and Mike Moustakas. Still, it might not be a surprise to hear those names mentioned again come August, and another to watch is right-hander Michael Lorenzen.
The 29-year-old has mostly been a reliever, but he could break camp as one of the Reds' starters since Trevor Bauer and Anthony DeSclafani went elsewhere in free agency.
Lorenzen made two starts last season, giving up seven hits and three runs while striking out 14 in 9.2 innings. He has electric stuff, ranking in the 96th percentile or higher in both average exit velocity and hard-hit rate while also placing in the 90th percentile in whiff rate. That comes just one season after he finished in the 99th percentile in average exit velocity.
The Reds could be motivated to sell Lorenzen should he excel in a starting role. He will be a free agent in 2022 and could offer them a chance to get assets without giving up Gray or Castillo.
Even if Lorenzen is more of a flex arm, he could have plenty of value to the Minnesota Twins. They signed J.A. Happ and Matt Shoemaker to fill out the rotation, and Randy Dobnak and Devin Smeltzer are also available as possible options. But Happ and Shoemaker are both somewhat high-risk, and they and Michael Pineda will be free agents in 2022.
Lorenzen's fastball-changeup combination could be quite enticing. Not only has he struck out at least 9.2 opponents per nine innings each of the last two years, but he also pounds hitters into the ground. That combination would play even better at the spacious Target Field.
The Twins have a number of arms to satisfy Cincinnati's need for young starting pitching. Cole Sands made it all the way to Double-A in his first professional season in 2019, posting a 2.68 ERA in 18 starts. He might not have the highest upside but looks fully capable of being a quality starting pitcher.
Travis Blankenhorn could be a sweetener. He can play up the middle or at the hot corner, and he has also spent time in the outfield. The 24-year-old has upside as a power bat and might appeal to the Reds with his positional versatility.
Lorenzen could be more of an upside play, but he might also just be entering his prime. The Twins could acquire him with the notion they will extend him as a possible rotation fixture.
MIN gets: RHP Michael Lorenzen
CIN gets: RHP Cole Sands, UT Travis Blankenhorn
San Diego Padres general manager A.J. Preller seized the moment this past winter, but Tommy Pham's place on the roster has suddenly become less clear.
The Padres avoided arbitration with Pham back in January. He figured to have the inside track on the starting job in left field. However, they brought back utility man Jurickson Profar on a three-year deal. With Ha-Seong Kim also in the picture, Pham could eventually be the odd man out.
San Diego is still likely to begin the year with Pham in left and Jake Cronenworth at second base, but Profar is capable of playing both spots while Kim waits in the wings at second. Still, the latter could impress in camp, and the former's ability to play the outfield means that unit could get crowded.
Profar could also start in place of Wil Myers if the Padres are keen on preserving his health. But Pham might be the more logical candidate to be replaced. He also has a bit of an injury history and has been a poor defender each of the last two years.
Pham will also be a free agent in 2022.
The Las Vegas native burst onto the scene with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2017, hitting 23 homers and stealing 25 bases while finishing 11th in National League MVP voting. He struggled to replicate his success in the first part of 2018 but was reborn following a trade to the Tampa Bay Rays.
Pham (along with Cronenworth) was traded to San Diego last offseason. Unfortunately for the Padres, he hit just .211 and suffered a hand injury. With his free agency on the horizon and ample depth on the roster, San Diego could look to make another move.
We have already posited that Cleveland could use a corner outfielder. Pham might also be an interesting target for the Oakland Athletics. But let's go with the Houston Astros.
Houston hasn't replaced George Springer in center field and is currently projected to start Myles Straw. Pham is not the best option there, but the Astros could plug him in left field while moving Kyle Tucker to center.
Pham might not have a ton of value given his 2020 performance and the fact he is a soon-to-be 33-year-old heading for free agency. Still, the Padres could probably flip him for a couple of lower-tier guys since he is the kind of tone-setter the Astros could use at the top of their lineup.
Right-hander Brett Conine could be interesting as a multi-inning reliever or back-end starter down the road, and outfielder Ronnie Dawson would give San Diego some more outfield depth in its pipeline.
HOU gets: OF Tommy Pham
SDP gets: RHP Brett Conine, OF Ronnie Dawson
Craig Kimbrel's 2020 numbers are a bit deceptive.
The right-hander struggled at the start of the year, giving up seven earned runs in his first 2.2 innings. After the shaky opening, however, he really settled in. He gave up just four hits and two runs while striking out 26 in his next 12.2 frames. He also held opponents scoreless over his final 7.1 innings.
Kimbrel was utterly dominant with the knuckle curveball. Opponents hit just .143 with a whiff rate of 48.4 percent. He had more success throwing it both in the zone and out and away from right-handed hitters, giving himself more of a chance with the fastball, which gained steam as the year went on. He added 0.7 mph from 2019, which bodes well for 2021.
If Kimbrel can exude the same kind of confidence he seems to be showing early in spring training, he could be a valuable trade asset for a Chicago Cubs team growing ever closer to a transition.
The Cubs might partner with the San Diego Padres again (after the Yu Darvish trade) should the Friars need a back-end bullpen arm. The Padres signed Mark Melancon and Keone Kela, and Emilio Pagan could bounce back. But Kimbrel could bring wipeout stuff in the later innings.
Another one of Kimbrel's former teams, the Atlanta Braves, poses as a more intriguing candidate. The Braves failed to re-sign Melancon, Darren O'Day is gone, and Shane Greene remains a free agent. Left-hander Will Smith is the closer for now, but it would not be surprising to see general manager Alex Anthopoulos add bullpen assets sometime before the deadline.
Besides, Atlanta is where Kimbrel first made his name as one of the best relievers in baseball.
One complication is the 32-year-old has a $16 million vested option for 2022, per Spotrac. But there is no guarantee that option will vest (Kimbrel needs 55 games finished in 2021), and the Cubs could kick in some cash to sweeten the return.
Braves outfielder Michael Harris could be of interest to Chicago. President of baseball operations Jed Hoyer made it clear he was after young talent in the Darvish deal, and Harris, almost 20, is the kind of toolsy guy he could be after, especially since he projects well in center field.
Left-hander Philip Pfeifer could complete the deal. The Braves have ample arm talent in their system, and the 28-year-old might be better served in Chicago's bullpen or even stretching out as a No. 4 or No. 5 starter.
ATL gets: RHP Craig Kimbrel, cash
CHC gets: OF Michael Harris, LHP Philip Pfeifer
A Lorenzo Cain trade would be quite interesting for a Milwaukee Brewers team PECOTA projected to win the NL Central.
Yet it doesn't seem entirely out of the question. Robert Murray of FanSided reported the Brewers were "in the mix" for free-agent center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. If they acquire him, they could move Cain to right field or reposition a bit by trading him.
Cain hit .308 with 10 homers, 30 steals and an .813 OPS in his first season with the Brewers in 2018, finishing seventh in NL MVP voting and ranking 12th in fWAR. He was far less productive at the plate in 2019 (.697 OPS) but still won a Gold Glove.
The 34-year-old had six hits in his first five games of 2020 before opting out. Should he thrive back in full-time duty, the Brewers—especially if they manage to sign JBJ—could cash in.
Cain is owed $17 million in 2021 and $18 million in 2022, per Spotrac. Milwaukee could lessen some of the payroll burden while also getting assets, and Cain might be willing to waive his five-team no-trade clause if he heads to a possible contender.
The Philadelphia Phillies might be a perfect fit, especially given their current options in center field. Scott Kingery, Adam Haseley and Roman Quinn are hardly a noteworthy triumvirate, and Cain would be a big upgrade over Odubel Herrera in the event the latter makes it back to the bigs.
The Brewers could kick in a bit of cash and get three players in return. Right-handed prospect Enyel De Los Santos has an electric fastball, and his secondary stuff has gradually improved. He is the kind of right-handed power arm Milwaukee lacks in its pipeline. Infielder C.J. Chatham and right-handed reliever Connor Brogdon are more MLB-ready types who could possibly help Milwaukee in the short term.
The Phillies acquired Chatham from the Boston Red Sox in January. The 26-year-old is hitting .298 in his pro career, including .302 in 20 games at Triple-A in 2019. He also has strong defensive tools and could be Orlando Arcia's replacement.
Brogdon had a 3.06 ERA at Triple-A in 2019, and then he posted a 3.97 ERA in nine games with the Phillies in 2020, logging 17 strikeouts and a .128 opponents batting average in 11.1 innings.
This return might seem lofty, but the Phillies are hungry to get back to the playoffs. If Cain is playing at an All-Star level, it would not be a surprise for them to buy high.
PHI gets: OF Lorenzo Cain, cash
MIL gets: RHP Enyel De Los Santos, IF C.J. Chatham, RHP Connor Brogdon