Potential 2021 MLB Trade Deadline Busts to Avoid
Deciding whether to buy or sell at MLB's July 31 trade deadline is only half the battle.
The trade deadline is like a "Going Out of Business" sale at a used car lot. You might find the vehicle that carries you for years to come, or you might end up with a lemon that breaks down a few days later.
Which players on floundering teams are most likely to fall into that latter group?
Based on a combination of how a player's predictive stats compare to previous seasons of his career and to the 2021 norms of the league, we've identified eight key players who figure to get moved before the deadline even though a second-half slump looks likely.
Players are listed in no particular order, outside of oscillating between pitchers and position players.
Kyle Gibson, SP, Texas Rangers
In his ninth season in the majors, Kyle Gibson has finally emerged as an ace and made it to an All-Star Game.
Despite an atrocious dud on Opening Day (0.1 IP, 5 ER), Gibson entered the break with a 2.29 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP. That's because he went at least five innings and allowed three or fewer earned runs in each of his next 15 starts.
However, his "luck" rates stand out like a sore thumb compared to how he pitched prior to turning 33.
Gibson's BABIP (.254) is more than 50 points below what his career BABIP was at the start of the season. He's been keeping balls in play far more often than he used to, allowing only 0.71 home runs per nine innings pitched. That number was north of 1.0 in each of the previous five seasons, including a 1.60 rate last year.
Gibson had career marks of 4.57 ERA and 1.42 WHIP from 2013-20, but his xFIP hasn't much changed. After seven consecutive seasons in the 3.80-4.50 range, he's currently at 3.89 xFIP. That more or less suggests he should have a second half that looks more like the past few seasons as opposed to the past few months.
Gibson isn't an average deadline target in terms of contract status, either. His salary will go down in 2022, but he's still signed for $7.7 million next season before becoming a free agent the following winter. That's an absolute steal if he pitches like this for another season-and-a-half, but it would be a tough pill to swallow if he regresses to his normal state.
(Note: This was written prior to Monday night's poor start against Detroit. The regression may have already begun in earnest.)
Joey Gallo, OF/DH, Texas Rangers
With Joey Gallo, you know you'll be getting a ton of the three true outcomes. He has either homered (24), walked (72) or struck out (112) in 57.8 percent of his 360 plate appearances this season.
That's a preposterously high number for most players, but it's par for the course for Gallo. He had one of the three true outcomes in 57.5 percent of his plate appearances from 2017-20.
There's no point in expressing any BABIP-related concerns with Gallo, since he's liable to put only three or four balls in play in any given week. However, there's a major risk with hoping that Gallo might be the missing piece of a playoff push: His numbers in September and October are particularly unsightly.
In 319 career plate appearances in those two months, Gallo is batting .187/.292/.396 with a strikeout rate of 41.1 percent. By comparison, from April through August, he triple-slashes .217/.337/.521 with a strikeout rate of 35.8 percent.
The 125-point decline in slugging percentage is the biggest problem. You can live with an astronomical strikeout rate if someone is at least homering once in every 14.2 trips to the plate, like Gallo does for the first five months of the year. When that number balloons to once every 21.3 plate appearances in September and October, though, those strikeouts hurt far more.
Granted, 319 plate appearances is roughly a half-season's worth of data points, and more than 12 percent of those stats came in 2015 and 2016 when he was a September call-up who struggled mightily. But Gallo does seem to consistently struggle at the plate late in the year.
Alex Reyes, RP, St. Louis Cardinals
At a passing glance, Alex Reyes is having a fantastic season as the St. Louis Cardinals' closer. He has a 1.45 ERA, has 22 saves and has yet to blow a save. He's the only pitcher in MLB with more than five saves and nary a blown opportunity.
With the Cardinals sitting at 46-47 and nowhere near the postseason picture, they might be willing to trade their effective but inexpensive reliever ($900,000 this year; arbitration-eligible in each of the next two seasons).
Any interested suitor should beware the high potential for future blown saves, though, instead of focusing on the lack of blown saves to this point in the season.
Reyes has an xFIP of 4.65, which is 3.20 worse than his ERA. Among the 430 pitchers who have logged at least 20 innings this season, that 3.20 difference is the worst of all. That's a product of a low home run rate (two in 43.1 innings), a low BABIP (.223) and an outlandish walk rate (7.3 per nine innings).
That home run rate is nothing new for Reyes, but neither is the walk rate. It was 6.4 last year and it has been north of 4.3 at every stop of at least 10 innings in his minor/major league career since 2013. If and when his BABIP creeps up to a normal rate, all of those free passes in the ninth inning are bound to become a problem.
He could still be a fine acquisition for one of the many contenders in dire need of bullpen help, but he probably shouldn't be viewed as the second-best option for the losers of the Craig Kimbrel sweepstakes.
Max Stassi, C, Los Angeles Angels
Just about every team in the majors could use some help and/or insurance at catcher, and Max Stassi looks like a fantastic option on the surface.
The 30-year-old soon-to-be free agent is batting .301 for an Angels team that is 5.5 games back of the second wild-card spot. Unless they go on a tear in these next 10 days, he's a prime candidate to land on the trade block.
Beware the regression monster, though.
Heading into this season, Stassi was a career .216 hitter, and he has a .405 BABIP in 2021 that ranks seventh-highest among the 375 players with at least 100 plate appearances. Each of those data points suggests a second-half slump at the dish is likely.
And Stassi isn't anything special behind the plate. Since the start of last season, he has allowed 49 stolen bases on 58 attempts for a caught-stealing rate of 15.5 percent that is well below the league average.
If (when) Stassi's batting average fades, he'll revert to being a marginally above-replacement-level player.
Zach Davies, SP, Chicago Cubs
On the one hand, Zach Davies looks like a great buy-low candidate. The 28-year-old entered this season with a career ERA of 3.79 and was fresh off his best year with a 2.73 mark in 2020. Thus far, however, he has a disappointing 4.35 ERA through 20 starts.
Unfortunately, things figure to get worse for Davies before they get better, because his control is out of...well...control.
His strikeout rate (5.7 K/9) is the lowest of his career, and his walk rate is the highest by a country mile. After five consecutive seasons below 2.9 BB/9, his current rate is 4.8. In each of his 20 starts, he has allowed multiple free baserunners either via walk or hit by pitch.
Davies has been luck in the home run department, though. He has allowed a home run on only 9.4 percent of his fly balls, which is the lowest mark of his career and the lowest by far among Chicago Cubs starters. (No one else with at least three starts is below 15 percent.)
Once that regresses to the norm, his unusually high ERA could balloon further. His xFIP is 5.40, the highest such mark among the 90 pitchers who have logged at least 80 innings this season.
A new home stadium and a new pitching coach might help him right the ship, but any team looking to upgrade its starting rotation for the home stretch should be able to find a more promising option.
Adam Frazier, 2B, Pittsburgh Pirates
Of the 234 players who have made at least 200 plate appearances this season, Adam Frazier ranks fifth in batting average (.326) and 10th in on-base percentage (.391). And he has done so with remarkable consistency, batting somewhere in the .315-.340 range for more than two full months. He leads the majors with 118 hits and received his first All-Star nod earlier this month.
Frazier is also one of the best in the bigs at avoiding strikeouts. He's whiffing in only 10.7 percent of his plate appearances, nearly all of which have come as Pittsburgh's leadoff hitter.
If he can keep that up, he would be an ideal trade deadline target for the Chicago White Sox, who have been struggling to figure out their second base situation since losing Nick Madrigal for the year to a hamstring injury. He could also make a night-and-day difference for the Seattle Mariners, who have been starting Dylan Moore despite his sub-.200 batting average at second base for most of the season.
But Frazier is a contact hitter with minimal power, and he batted below .280 in each of the previous four seasons, bottoming out at .230 last year. He currently has a .361 BABIP, which is 55 points higher than what he had in any of the past four years and one of the highest in the majors.
In most years, only a handful of players end the year with a BABIP north of .360. And Frazier's line-drive rate (30.5 percent) is substantially better than his norm of closer to 25 percent. In other words, it's not like he's bloop-singling his way through an unsustainable season. However, a decline in production over the next two months is far more likely than an increase.
Matthew Boyd, SP, Detroit Tigers
Matthew Boyd has been out for more than a month with muscle tendinitis in his pitching arm, and it's unclear if or when he'll be able to get back on the mound this season.
Even before that health-related concern, though, Boyd was one of the primary candidates for negative regression.
After six consecutive seasons with an ERA of 4.39 or worse and an overall ERA of 5.08, Boyd was sitting at 3.44 after 13 starts. That's because he suddenly started keeping the ball in the yard.
Boyd led the majors with 15 home runs allowed last season and gave up an American League-worst 39 dingers in 2019. He entered 2021 with a career HR/9 rate of 1.70, but he was all the way down at 0.76 prior to landing on the IL.
But allowing a home run on only 6.8 percent of fly balls was never going to be sustainable. It was just a question of whether the Tigers could sell high on his hot start before his 4.86 xFIP came home to roost.
Factor in the forearm injury, and there's a huge "buyer beware" sign on the 30-year-old left-hander.
Eduardo Escobar, 3B/2B, Arizona Diamondbacks
Eduardo Escobar could be the steal of the trade deadline as opposed to one of its biggest busts. But he's a streaky slugger who is striking out a career-high 21.5 percent of the time and who has a sub-.300 on-base percentage for the second consecutive season.
Escobar did hit 20 home runs prior to the All-Star break, and he was selected to represent Arizona at the Midsummer Classic for the first time in his career. He also had 35 home runs and 74 extra-base hits in 2019. The impending free agent is a more than reasonable option for any team seeking a power-hitting infielder.
However, Escobar had only four home runs in 222 plate appearances in 2020 and six home runs in 377 plate appearances in 2016. He also sputtered through a 17-game homer-less streak earlier this season, during which he hit .145/.172/.210.
When he's hot, he is a considerably above-average contributor, easily worth whatever prorated amount is left on his $7.5 million 2021 salary. When he's cold, though, he isn't even a replacement-level option, as he posted a negative WAR in 2016 and 2020, per FanGraphs and Baseball Reference.