Potential Trade Targets for MLB's Slow-Starting Teams to Right the Ship

Martin FennFeatured Columnist IMay 21, 2021

Potential Trade Targets for MLB's Slow-Starting Teams to Right the Ship

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    Denis Poroy/Associated Press

    The MLB season is rounding first and headed into the second quarter.

    Most clubs are getting a feel for the roster and how best to use bench options and pitchers. A number of teams have already been ravaged by injuries. Baseball can be fickle, especially until the dog days of summer arrive. 

    Yet injury issues and poor starts might very well force front offices to start thinking boldly. The trade deadline is still over two months away, but executives are becoming that much more aware of holes that need to be filled in hopes of remaining competitive. So, let's talk about some of those holes.

    We are going to examine some of the preseason contenders that have stumbled out of the gate and discuss possible trade targets. Because "slow-starting" can be a bit hard to define and might pertain more to some teams than others, we have developed the following criteria for our list:

    • FanGraphs postseason odds > 15 percent on March 31
    • No more than four games above .500 at the conclusion of play on May 19

    It's worth stating some teams on this list could and likely will be sellers by the deadline. For now, though, let's evaluate each team as if it is a buyer and assess from there.

    Another point of note: there hasn't been much in the way of teams already pursuing specific targets. There really is only veiled speculation, like Jon Morosi of MLB Network stating the New York Yankees will "prioritize left-handed bats." That's a potential need, but not a direct linkage to a player.

    As such, many of the trade targets included could suit multiple teams based on the fact that they are on expiring contracts and fill a glaring need.

    Clear enough, right? Let's dive in.

Atlanta Braves

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    This likely wasn't the kind of start most Atlanta Braves fans anticipated.

    An offense that ranked first in the National League in on-base percentage and second in batting average last season ranks ninth and 12th in those departments, respectively. It's not all doom and gloom, though. The Braves rank ninth in MLB in runs per game and are third in expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA). 

    Injuries to Mike Soroka and, more recently, Huascar Ynoa will prove challenging for the rotation. However, Max Fried has turned a corner since coming off the injured list, and Drew Smyly has looked good in his last two starts. Charlie Morton's expected numbers are better than the results. 

    The real issues are coming from the bullpen. Atlanta's relief unit ranks 24th in ERA and 26th in expected fielding independent pitching (xFIP). The Braves bullpen also ranks 21st in stranding runners.

    Atlanta is already fairly heavy on left-handers and could use more effective right-handers. It's possible a new closer makes sense, though Will Smith hasn't exactly been bad in that role.

    A reunion with Craig Kimbrel (1.08 ERA, 27 K in 16.2 IP) might appeal to Atlanta. Texas Rangers right-hander Ian Kennedy (2.12 ERA) is a possibility, and perhaps a more likely one given he is on a minor league deal and has a lower walk rate (an issue for Braves relievers) than Kimbrel. Seattle Mariners righty Kendall Graveman (0.00 ERA) is another option.

    Trade Targets: RHP Craig Kimbrel, RHP Ian Kennedy, RHP Kendall Graveman

Chicago Cubs

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    The Chicago Cubs offense has really righted the ship after a tough first couple of weeks.

    Chicago ranks second in the majors in runs scored since a 13-run outburst against the Braves on April 17. Kris Bryant (1.017 OPS) continues to swing a hot bat. Catcher Willson Contreras has an .810 OPS, while utility man Nico Hoerner has an .876 OPS. Joc Pederson is hitting .400 with a .929 OPS since coming off the injured list on May 4. 

    However, the Cubs need more starting pitching if they hope to make a playoff run. Chicago's rotation ranks last in the majors in fWAR and 28th in ERA. Adbert Alzolay is displaying good stuff, while Kyle Hendricks (5.27 ERA) figures to rebound from a slow start. Still, the North Siders need depth.

    There are a myriad of interesting options. Chicago might like a left-hander like Tyler Anderson, though it remains to be seen whether the Pittsburgh Pirates would trade him within the division. What about Colorado Rockies right-hander Jon Gray?

    The 29-year-old has a 3.48 ERA and will be a free agent in the offseason. He could be a guy the Cubs look to acquire and re-sign this winter, depending on how they proceed at the deadline. Detroit Tigers left-hander Matthew Boyd (2.45 ERA) profiles similarly to Gray in terms of age (30) and impending free-agent status. He would also give Chicago a different feel from the left side of the rubber.

    If the Cubs are looking for more of a short-term option, they could try to go after Texas Rangers righty Kyle Gibson.

    Trade Targets: RHP Jon Gray, RHP Kyle Gibson, LHP Matt Boyd

Cincinnati Reds

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    The Cincinnati Reds have an offense that ranks fourth in runs per game, but they rank 29th in fWAR at the shortstop position. 

    Might a trade for Colorado Rockies shortstop Trevor Story be in the cards?

    Jon Morosi of MLB Network reported Story was one of the shortstops the Reds were considering during the offseason. The 28-year-old is in the midst of a 6-for-40 slump since May 9 but is still a legitimate five-tool player who could thrive at the top of Cincinnati's lineup.

    That said, Jose Garcia is off to a torrid start at Double-A (1.082 OPS) and might be regarded as the shortstop of the future. It's unknown whether Cincinnati still feels the urge to address the shortstop spot. The more pressing issue is the bullpen, anyway.

    Cincy's bullpen ranks 25th in ERA and xFIP. On a positive note, left-hander Amir Garrett has looked much better in his last six appearances. Alternatively, right-hander Carson Fulmer (5.70 ERA) is still struggling. There just aren't a ton of reliable options, and the walk rate has been an issue.

    The Reds lack a bona fide closing presence in the ninth inning, making someone like Ian Kennedy quite appealing. The Royals right-hander fits the mold of a strikeout pitcher (11.1 per nine innings) who excels in high leverage (.486 OPS).

    The same can be said about Miami Marlins right-hander Yimi Garcia, who has a 1.53 ERA after posting a 0.60 ERA in 14 appearances last season.

    Trade Targets: SS Trevor Story, RHP Ian Kennedy, RHP Yimi Garcia

Los Angeles Angels

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    We've harped on it time and again: The Los Angeles Angels need pitching. Period.

    The Halos have the worst rotation ERA in the bigs and are 26th in bullpen ERA. Los Angeles simply can't win with that kind of ineffectiveness, particularly with Mike Trout now sidelined six-to-eight weeks with a mild calf strain.

    It would be senseless to suggest the Angels should trade for an ace like Max Scherzer at this stage. There's simply no way of knowing whether they will be in the playoff picture, especially as they try to survive without Trout. Plus, they might be more likely to try to sign Scherzer or any of the other available arms this winter.

    Still, rotation depth has to be a priority. Left-hander Tyler Anderson could make sense, though he'd give the Angels three left-handers in their rotation. 

    I'm looking at right-handers Kyle Gibson and Michael Pineda here. Gibson has a 2.32 ERA and career-best 1.01 WHIP. Perhaps even more importantly, he has another year of control in 2022. Pineda's expected metrics aren't terrific, but he was effective to the tune of a 2.79 ERA before being placed on the IL (thigh).

    The Angels might be more likely to sell come July. However, if they hope to contend, the need for pitching is imminent.

    Trade Targets: RHP Kyle Gibson, RHP Michael Pineda

Milwaukee Brewers

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Whereas the Angels' need for pitching rings loud and clear, the same can be said about the Milwaukee Brewers and the lack of production in their lineup.

    Milwaukee ranks 27th in runs per game and 26th in strikeouts. The strikeouts are especially concerning considering the Brewers rank 14th in the NL in OBP and 13th in slugging. That's not going to get the job done. 

    It'll be interesting to see if Milwaukee tries to pursue a corner infielder. Keston Hiura was optioned to Triple-A. His replacement, Daniel Vogelbach, has a .659 OPS. At the opposite corner, third baseman Travis Shaw has a .664 OPS.

    Fortunately for the Brewers, there are options at both positions. One of those is C.J. Cron, who is hitting .300 with an .897 OPS for the Colorado Rockies. San Francisco Giants staple Brandon Belt could be an intriguing trade candidate if the Giants look to reposition a little at the deadline.

    The Brewers could go after Eduardo Escobar at the hot corner. Escobar has a .710 OPS, but he is in the middle of a five-game hitting streak, with three homers during that stretch. Seattle Mariners veteran Kyle Seager might be another target, though Seager's $15 million club option becomes a player option if he is traded, per Spotrac.

    Regardless, the Brewers need offense. It's worth pointing out the bullpen has been quite underwhelming (20th in xFIP), but the lack of production at the plate is what's really holding Milwaukee back from asserting its contender status. 

    Trade Targets: 1B C.J. Cron, 1B Brandon Belt, 3B Eduardo Escobar, 3B Kyle Seager

Minnesota Twins

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    The Minnesota Twins looked ready to make a run at a third straight American League Central crown in 2021. Instead, the Twins have sputtered to a 14-27 start. Things are looking pretty glum in the Twin Cities. 

    It might be a tad early for selling talk. After all, the 2019 Washington Nationals got off to a 19-31 start before rolling to a World Series title. But the Twins are running out of time.

    The pitching needs are fairly evident. Minnesota ranks 27th in bullpen ERA and 25th in rotation ERA. There might at least be upside with the bullpen, as the relief corps ranks 13th in xFIP. Alex Colome has looked a whole lot better since being removed from the closer role. Taylor Rogers and Hansel Robles have been fairly strong options on the back end.

    Addressing the rotation might be the more immediate need, especially with Kenta Maeda getting hit hard and struggling to generate swing-and-miss action. J.A. Happ (5.35 ERA) and Matt Shoemaker (6.08 ERA) have both been quite poor.

    A reunion with Kyle Gibson could be in the cards. Minnesota could try to pry a veteran like Johnny Cueto away from the San Francisco Giants. However, a guy who could make a lot of sense for the Twins is Spencer Turnbull. 

    The Detroit Tigers right-hander, fresh off his no-hitter against the Seattle Mariners, has a 2.88 ERA and 0.96 WHIP. He has a 3.64 career FIP and is under club control through 2024. An interdivisional trade could be a bit tough, and maybe the Tigers envision Turnbull as a future rotation fixture. However, the Twins have the farm assets to appeal to Detroit.

    Should Minnesota opt for bullpen help, it could pursue the likes of Kennedy and Graveman, or possibly veteran arms such as Richard Rodriguez (0.53 ERA) or Cesar Valdez (2.81 ERA).

    Trade Targets: RHP Spencer Turnbull, RHP Ian Kennedy, RHP Richard Rodriguez, RHP Cesar Valdez

New York Mets

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    It might be time for the New York Mets to start thinking big again.

    The Mets had a big offseason, but it feels like another splash could really put them over the top in the NL East. New York's rotation has been excellent and will eventually welcome back Noah Syndergaard and Carlos Carrasco. The bullpen has been every bit as good, ranking second in fWAR

    New York could choose to add bullpen arms and hope an anemic offense (29th in runs per game) starts to live up to its potential once everyone heals up. Then again, maybe it's time to consider making a move to jump-start the offense.

    Kris Bryant makes too much sense here. New York reportedly had on-again, off-again discussions about the Chicago Cubs star in the offseason, per Andy Martino of SNY.tv. Could the two clubs renew talks if the Cubs begin to look like sellers?

    Bryant would offer the Mets a legitimate slugger who can play the hot corner and every outfield position. New York would be taking a fairly big swing on a guy who will be a free agent and likely command a ton of money this winter, but the payoff could make a deal worth it. Maybe Kyle Seager would be a less costly target?

    Otherwise, the Mets could settle for the aforementioned bullpen route. An intriguing figure would be Angels right-hander Raisel Iglesias, whom New York could try to re-sign this offseason if it lets Jeurys Familia walk. Cubs left-hander Andrew Chafin (2.70 ERA) is also worth keeping tabs on.

    Trade Targets: 3B Kris Bryant, 3B Kyle Seager, RHP Raisel Iglesias, LHP Andrew Chafin

Philadelphia Phillies

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    The Philadelphia Phillies rank eighth in the NL in OPS, but they don't seem to have many urgent positional needs. 

    Philly might desire an upgrade in center field. In that case, Miami Marlins veteran Starling Marte would be quite enticing, if the Phillies were able to pull off an interdivisional trade. However, Odubel Herrera has at least been serviceable in that spot. 

    Realistically, the Phillies need to find more bullpen depth. Sam Coonrod (0.95 ERA) has been fantastic, and Hector Neris (2.33 ERA) is having a good year. Connor Brogdon's 4.96 ERA is mostly the result of one horrific outing. Most everyone else has struggled. 

    Jose Alvarado has brilliant strikeout stuff but also has 12 walks in 13.1 innings. Brandon Kintzler has a 6.92 ERA. David Hale is sharp at times and pretty woeful on other occasions. 

    Philadelphia could use any of the relievers we've already mentioned, whether it be an elite closer like Craig Kimbrel or a veteran arm such as Cesar Valdez.

    The Phils could also opt for another rotation arm in light of Chase Anderson's struggles (6.96 ERA). A rotation filler such as Tyler Anderson could add a lefty in the midst of a breakout to the mix. Jon Gray could fit here, too. 

    Trade Targets: RHP Craig Kimbrel, RHP Ian Kennedy, RHP Kendall Graveman, RHP Cesar Valdez, RHP Jon Gray, LHP Tyler Anderson

Washington Nationals

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    The Washington Nationals might be at the cellar of the National League East, but there's reason for optimism. 

    Washington leads the NL in batting average and ranks fourth in OBP in spite of the fact that Juan Soto has yet to find his power stroke. Kyle Schwarber has an .841 OPS in May, while Trea Turner continues to prove his worth as one of the best players in baseball. 

    The Nats could opt to go after a slugging infielder, but Josh Harrison (117 OPS+) has been a nice addition thus far, and Starlin Castro is serviceable. They're probably more likely to pursue pitching upgrades. 

    The question is, where? Washington's bullpen actually has a respectable 3.78 ERA, but the relievers rank just 21st in xFIP. The rotation is looking a bit better behind Max Scherzer, with Jon Lester (3.80 ERA) faring decently and Patrick Corbin starting to get back on track as of late. Not to mention, the Nats are still waiting for Stephen Strasburg to return to the rotation. But there's a question of depth.

    A mid- to back-end rotation arm feels like the proper move. Washington needs to account for Strasburg's health issues. Even if he's right, adding another starter would allow the Nats to move either Erick Fedde or Joe Ross to the bullpen, giving them some more flexibility there.

    Washington has very few farm assets, so it's likely to try for a buy-low candidate. That could mean a Tyler Anderson or veteran such as Johnny Cueto if the Giants are looking to shed some of his salary.

    Trade Targets: LHP Tyler Anderson, RHP Johnny Cueto


    All stats obtained via Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant or FanGraphs unless otherwise noted. Stats are accurate prior to the start of play on May 20.