MLB Trade Deadline 2021: Predicting the Big Names Who Will Be Up for Grabs

Martin FennFeatured Columnist I

MLB Trade Deadline 2021: Predicting the Big Names Who Will Be Up for Grabs

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    The 2021 MLB trade deadline might be over two months away, but it's never too soon to start projecting some of the names that could be on the block come July.

    From stars to guys on one-year deals and a number of veteran arms, numerous players have improved their trade stock with strong performances in the first month. Sustained excellence could see some of these players head to contenders, and simultaneously bring back assets for their current teams.

    There's a long way to go yet before clubs finalize their plans to buy and sell. Still, deadline season is one of the most exciting periods of the year.

    With that in mind, let's assess some of the guys who might be up for grabs in late-July. The following names were included based especially on factors like performance, contract and team outlook.

Trevor Story, Colorado Rockies

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    We begin with one of the most clear-cut trade candidates in baseball.

    Trevor Story is one of the best players at a premium position and will be a free agent this offseason. The Colorado Rockies are a franchise in transition and desperate for future assets. That's basically the perfect recipe for a deal to happen.

    Story is off to a pretty strong start. He is slashing .294/.368/.513 with four homers, 20 RBI and four stolen bases. He currently boasts a career-high 130 OPS+ and ranks in the 85th percentile in outs above average (OAA).

    It seems quite unlikely the Rockies would retain Story and risk losing him in the offseason, even if they'd gain a compensation pick in the process. Colorado already began its transition by trading Nolan Arenado this past winter. Then Jeff Bridich stepped down in April. The wheels are turning.

    Expect Story to be dealt, perhaps sooner than July.

Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs

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    Jeff Dean/Associated Press

    The Chicago Cubs could face a bit of a dilemma when it comes to Kris Bryant. On the one hand, the 29-year-old has been a legitimate cornerstone when healthy.

    Bryant ranked third among qualified hitters in fWAR between 2015 and 2019, trailing only Mike Trout and Mookie Betts. Injuries resulted in a poor 2020 (.644 OPS), but the 2016 National League MVP is feeling healthy this season and has a 1.030 OPS to show for it. He has also flexed his defensive versatility, playing all three outfield spots and even some first base. 

    That's the kind of guy you would think a big-market team like the Cubs would love to re-sign. But it's hard to project how president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer will proceed considering two of the team's other stars—Javier Baez and Anthony Rizzo—are also slated to hit the open market this winter. Plus, Bryant would more than likely net the Cubs the biggest return.

    Perhaps the Cubs are still fighting for the NL Central crown at the deadline and elect to retain Bryant. But Chicago was coming off a division title when it traded Yu Darvish. Nothing should be considered off the table on the North Side.

Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Max Scherzer had already won a Cy Young award by the time when he signed with the Washington Nationals ahead of the 2015 campaign. Since then, he has clearly cemented his Hall of Fame legacy in D.C.

    Scherzer easily paced all starting pitchers in fWAR between 2015 and 2020. He won back-to-back NL Cy Young Awards in 2016 and 2017 while also helping lead the Nats to their first World Series title in 2019. The 36-year-old has a 2.33 ERA and 0.78 WHIP in seven starts this season.

    Would Washington really trade a guy who has become a franchise staple? Well, it's possible.

    Firstly, the Nats have a real shortage of young talent. Bleacher Report's Joel Reuter ranked Washington's farm as the worst in baseball, which comes as little surprise particularly after the Nats shipped off two of their top prospects—Eddy Yean and Wil Crowe—in the Josh Bell trade.

    Secondly, it remains to be seen whether the Nationals have the firepower to compete in the NL East. Washington lacks depth particularly in the bullpen, and the lineup was averaging under four runs per game through the first 28 contests.

    Mark Feinsand of reported a source close to Scherzer said the veteran right-hander could be "open" to a trade if such a move gave him a better chance to win. The challenge could be in the $105 million in deferred money he’s owed between 2022 and 2028, per Spotrac.

    Washington would likely have to pay a decent chunk of that, though the Nats might do so for the right return.

Joey Gallo, Texas Rangers

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Jeff Passan of ESPN reported Joey Gallo was being discussed at last year's deadline. It's easy to see why he could be made available this summer.

    Gallo has one more year of arbitration eligibility in 2022 before hitting the open market in 2023. That extra year of club control is important for a guy who gets on base at a decent clip and has slugging upside to go with plus defense. 

    It's been a bit of an odd year for Gallo through the first month-plus. He is hitting .228 and leads the majors with 50 strikeouts. He's also slugging .412. However, the 27-year-old has a .385 OBP and leads the American League with 26 walks.

    Gallo's allegiance to the three true outcomes makes him a polarizing figure. He's also an exit velocity darling, though he currently has his lowest average exit velocity (90.5 mph) since 2015.

    Having said that, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported this past December that scouts "love his athleticism and tools." A team needing a corner outfielder might be willing to bank on upside.

    Maybe the Rangers again try to wait and ultimately keep Gallo through the deadline, hoping to sell high in the future. But his name will more than likely be mentioned.

Starling Marte, Miami Marlins

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    Marta Lavandier/Associated Press

    The Miami Marlins acquired Starling Marte at least year's deadline and exercised his club option in an effort to be more competitive in 2021.

    Still, it's hard to envision the Marlins passing on an opportunity to add value by flipping Marte this year.

    Miami has young arms that serve as the foundation for future success. However, while Jazz Chisolm has been quite impressive, the Marlins could use more positional assets. Trading Marte probably gives general manager Kim Ng the best chance to do just that.

    The 32-year-old is currently on the shelf with a fractured rib. He was doing it all for the Marlins prior to the injury, slashing .316/.420/.491 with a pair of homers, eight RBI and three stolen bases.

    Marte will be a free agent at the end of the 2021 season. The Marlins, if they're still competitive, could try to re-sign him in the offseason and pivot by trading the likes of Corey Dickerson. However, re-signing a plus hitter and defender like Marte could be quite costly, given the center fielder plays a position with a general shortage of elite-caliber talent.

Eduardo Escobar, Arizona Diamondbacks

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Arizona Diamondbacks infielder Eduardo Escobar's offseason trade value shrunk when he posted a mere .605 OPS in 2020. However, the 32-year-old is rebuilding said value.

    Escobar is only hitting .226 to start the season, but he's slugging .460 with 14 extra-base hits, including seven homers. Additionally, his highest average exit velocity (88.6 mph) is tied for the highest of his career. The hard-hit rate (33.3 percent) is a career-high mark.

    The 32-year-old's batted ball numbers might not jump off the page. However, his track record speaks to his productivity. He hit 48 doubles in 2018 and posted a career-high .511 slugging percentage in 2019, hitting 35 homers and leading MLB with 10 triples.

    Escobar's versatility should also appeal to potential suitors. He can play the hot corner or up the middle, though he might be best suited for second base at this stage of his career. 

    Escobar will be a free agent this offseason and seems like a prime candidate for a move ahead of the deadline. It might also be worth keeping an eye on outfielders Kole Calhoun and David Peralta.

Brandon Belt, San Francisco Giants

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Farhan Zaidi has exhibited some caution in moving pieces when his team is in contention since taking over as the San Francisco Giants' president of operations before the 2019 season.

    It's certainly not impossible to see the Giants try to add rather than subtract. Actually, the better term might be repositioning. This is more pertinent when it comes to first baseman Brandon Belt.

    The Giants have multiple positional veterans on expiring contracts. These include Belt, catcher Buster Posey and shortstop Brandon Crawford. It seems a bit unlikely Posey or Crawford will be moved. Posey is a franchise legend and, judging by his performance (1.231 OPS), clearly has more baseball in him. Crawford has also played well (.855 OPS) and has a full no-trade clause, per Spotrac.

    Belt, on the other hand, could bring back assets without drastically altering the complexion of the team. Dealing Belt could allow Posey to move to first and simultaneously make way for top prospect Joey Bart behind the dish. Or, if the universal DH is implemented, Posey could DH. That could possibly result in someone like Darin Ruf taking over at first.

    This is not to say Belt has no place on this Giants team. He has an .858 OPS and typically plays plus defense. But the Giants have the depth to account for his absence and would likely prefer to get value rather than allowing him to simply walk this offseason.

Johnny Cueto, San Francisco Giants

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Ah, the Giants again!

    San Francisco's choice of "deal or no deal" is even more interesting in the rotation, with all of Kevin Gausman, Anthony DeSclafani, Aaron Sanchez, Alex Wood and Johnny Cueto set to become free agents in 2022.

    One might suggest the Giants could look to deal at least a couple of those guys. Then again, the rotation has been the clear strength of this San Francisco team, ranking second in the majors in ERA thus far. It makes things complicated.

    That said, Cueto might be a candidate to move even if the Giants are in playoff position at the deadline. Alex Wood has shown great stuff in Cueto's absence (lat strain), posting a 1.96 ERA and 0.78 WHIP in his first four starts. His emergence and possible regression to the mean (3.34 xERA) for Logan Webb could make the veteran Cueto more expendable. 

    Cueto had a 1.80 ERA in three starts before getting roughed up Sunday (3 IP, 5 ER) in his return from the IL. He'll have to settle back in after time on the shelf.

    The 35-year-old might be highly sought-after, with the Giants potentially paying some of his salary down to sweeten a hypothetical return.

Danny Duffy, Kansas City Royals

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    Duane Burleson/Associated Press

    The Kansas City Royals would love to remain a factor in the AL Central. The run differential suggests they will have a hard time being competitive.

    The Royals came into Saturday's game with a minus-17 run differential after losing six straight. It feels pretty safe to suggest they will be sellers come the deadline, and left-hander Danny Duffy is their best asset.

    Duffy has a 1.26 ERA in six starts. He is striking out 10.1 per nine innings thanks in part to a fairly substantial increase in velocity. Duffy's fastball is averaging closer to 94 mph, and he's experienced an uptick with every pitch in his arsenal.

    The 32-year-old is on an expiring contract and could well be one of the better left-handed starters available. Kansas City can sell him knowing Daniel Lynch is a future rotation staple, with fellow left-hander Asa Lacy waiting in the wings.

Matt Boyd, Detroit Tigers

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    Raj Mehta/Associated Press

    Will this finally be the season the Detroit Tigers move left-hander Matt Boyd? The stars certainly appear to be aligning.

    Boyd is having his best season as a pro so far, posting a 2.27 ERA and 0.93 WHIP through his first six starts. The most crucial aspect of his improvement is the substantial decline in homer rate. He has given up just one round-tripper after leading MLB with 15 homers allowed in 2020.

    Indeed, the 30-year-old has done a much better job of limiting hard contact. He ranks in the 79th percentile in average exit velocity and the 66th percentile in hard-hit rate. Boyd doesn't get a lot of swing-and-miss, but he can be deceptive and ranks in the 81st percentile in chase rate.

    Boyd is not going to be a frontline guy. But he is arbitration-eligible again in 2022 and can be a serviceable No. 3 or No. 4 for any number of contending teams.

Kyle Gibson, Texas Rangers

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Kyle Gibson has been revitalized. 

    The 33-year-old took multiple steps back in each of the past two seasons. He posted a 4.84 ERA in 2019 before struggling to a 5.35 ERA in his first season with the Texas Rangers in 2020.

    However, Gibson has put together a strong string of starts to open the 2021 campaign. In the process, he has become one of the team’s best trade chips.

    Gibson has a 2.40 ERA through his first seven outings. Like Boyd, he has limited the long ball after giving up 12 homers in 67.1 innings last summer.

    The advanced numbers are even more encouraging. Gibson has posted his lowest average exit velocity (87.8 mph) and hard-hit rate (33 percent) since the start of the Statcast era while also ranking above the 72nd percentile in chase rate and whiff rate.

    Gibson is getting more swing-and-miss from his sinker, making his slider all the more effective. His stuff plays really well when he's commanding the zone.

    The veteran right-hander will be all the more appealing if he continues to pitch well given he is under contract through next season.

Jon Gray, Colorado Rockies

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    German Marquez might be another Colorado Rockies starter on the market come July, though he's under club control through at least 2023 (club option in '24) and had a 6.21 ERA to start the new season. The Rockies might hope he rebuilds value after a strong start Sunday.

    Alternatively, Jon Gray will be a free agent at the end of the season and has really upped his value so far this campaign.

    Gray has a 3.12 ERA through seven starts, with career-best marks in both WHIP (1.19) and ERA+ (148). He has gone at least six innings in each of his past four starts and struck out a season-high eight batters Wednesday against the San Francisco Giants. 

    The right-hander has always boasted pretty strong strikeout stuff, posting 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings for his career. He might also be slightly more desirable given he will not turn 30 until November. Interested teams might look to acquire him with the idea of re-signing him in the offseason.

    Starting pitching is always in high demand at the deadline. The Rockies could move their best starter in exchange for future pieces.

Tyler Anderson, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    The Pittsburgh Pirates signed left-hander Tyler Anderson to a one-year deal this past offseason mostly as a simple rotation filler. He is making himself into a possible trade asset.

    Anderson had a 3.24 ERA through his first six starts before giving up just two runs in eight innings Sunday against the Cubs. He is striking out 8.1 per nine innings and has the best WHIP (1.05) of his career.

    The 31-year-old doesn't throw very hard, but despite the lack of velocity he has a history of inducing pretty soft contact and good success with his changeup.

    Anderson is not going to fetch anything significant. But, again, starting pitching is at a premium in July, including back-end starters. It makes little sense for the rebuilding Pirates to keep Anderson when they can get future value.

Craig Kimbrel, Chicago Cubs

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    David Banks/Associated Press

    Early indications are Craig Kimbrel could be the best reliever on the market come deadline season.

    The seven-time All-Star did not get his Chicago Cubs debut off to a great start. He did not sign with the Cubs until June 2019, with the late start and ramp-up resulting in injuries and a 6.53 ERA (including nine homers) in 20.2 innings. Last season evoked a similar trend early, as Kimbrel gave up seven runs (all earned) in his first 2.2 innings.

    But something clicked for Kimbrel. He gave up just four hits and two runs in his final 12.2 innings of work, striking out 26 and reasserting himself as a dominant reliever.

    The 32-year-old has remained in form in 2021. Kimbrel has given up just five hits and one run in 14.0 innings while striking out 21 opponents. He ranks in the 95th percentile in hard-hit rate and 97th percentile in whiff rate, showing good life with the fastball and better command of his knuckle curveball.

    Kimbrel is a vital part of the Cubs bullpen. But Chicago if it is out of the NL Central race, it might not hesitate to move him given he projects as possibly the best reliever available.

A Slew of Veteran Relievers

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    Stacy Bengs/Associated Press

    Kimbrel's power stuff makes him the marquee attraction among relievers. However, a number of other veteran arms will be interesting trade candidates. 

    Kendall Graveman has been the headliner of a Seattle Mariners bullpen that has been among the most effective in baseball. He has yet to allow a run in 12 appearances, giving up just four hits and striking out 16 in 14.1 innings.

    Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander Richard Rodriguez was another without a blemish on his ERA heading into play Sunday, giving up just a single hit in his first 12.1 innings before conceding his first run Sunday against the Cubs. Unlike Graveman, he is under club control through 2023.

    Then there are the elder statesmen. Texas Rangers closer Ian Kennedy has a 2.40 ERA and leads the AL in saves (10). The 36-year-old has displayed excellent strikeout stuff, punching out 20 in 15.0 innings.

    Baltimore Orioles right-hander Cesar Valdez has been in and out of the big leagues for years. But he's been one of the best closers in baseball in 2021, posting a 1.32 ERA and seven saves in 13.2 innings. He could be one of the more unheralded trade targets out there, and a necessary one for a rebuilding O's club.


    All stats obtained via Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant or FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted. Stats are accurate prior to the start of play on May 9.