10 Under-the-Radar MLB Trade Deadline Targets Who Could Help Contenders

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistJuly 23, 2021

10 Under-the-Radar MLB Trade Deadline Targets Who Could Help Contenders

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    The MLB trade deadline is not just about superstar players changing teams in blockbuster trades.

    High-profile trade chips like Kris Bryant, Trevor Story and Max Scherzer will dominate the rumor mill and the headlines in the days leading up to the 2021 MLB trade deadline, but plenty of complementary players could also bolster a contender for the stretch run.

    Here, we've highlighted 10 under-the-radar trade targets who could help contenders. It's a mix of quietly effective relief pitchers, underrated starting pitchers, versatile bench pieces and even a few former MLB contributors currently shining at the Triple-A level.

RP Andrew Chafin, Chicago Cubs

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    Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    With Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Craig Kimbrel all expected to hit the trade block, it's no surprise that under-the-radar lefty reliever Andrew Chafin hasn't received much attention.

    However, he could be an extremely valuable addition to a contender's bullpen.

    The 31-year-old has a 1.37 ERA, 0.74 WHIP and 8.5 K/9 with 17 holds in 42 appearances as one of the primary setup relievers in the Cubs bullpen.

    He also has a $5.25 million mutual option for the 2022 season, so he could be more than just a two-month rental if he lands somewhere he feels comfortable.

    The Cubs could consider packaging him alongside one of their stars, but he also stands on his own as a viable trade target for teams looking to add a quality southpaw to their relief corps. 

RP Jharel Cotton, Texas Rangers

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    Once upon a time, Jharel Cotton was a promising young starter in the Oakland Athletics rotation.

    Acquired from the 2016 deadline deal that sent Rich Hill and Josh Reddick to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2016, he made his MLB debut that September and posted a 2.15 ERA and 0.82 WHIP in 29.1 innings spanning five starts.

    He failed to duplicate that level of success the following year with a 5.58 ERA and 1.44 WHIP in 129 innings as a regular member of the Oakland rotation, but he was only 25 years old.

    Unfortunately, injuries have since derailed his career. He missed all of 2018 recovering from Tommy John surgery and the bulk of 2019 recovering from hamstring surgery before spending the 2020 season at the Chicago Cubs alternate site.

    The Texas Rangers signed him to a minor league deal during the offseason, and he has been lights out pitching primarily out of the bullpen at Triple-A Round Rock. The 29-year-old has a 3.08 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and a terrific 53-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 38 innings, and he has recorded more than three outs in 14 of his 22 appearances.

    For a contender looking to add a low-cost, multi-inning bullpen arm, Cotton would be worth a flier as he looks to return to the majors.

RP John Curtiss, Miami Marlins

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    Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

    Miami Marlins closer Yimi Garcia is a prime candidate to be moved at the trade deadline, but he isn't the only member of their bullpen who can help a contender.

    John Curtiss has been rock solid all season, posting a 2.72 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 8.9 K/9 in 32 appearances, and he comes with the added appeal of recent postseason experience.

    The 28-year-old was a member of the Tampa Bay Rays postseason roster last year, and he made seven combined appearances in the ALCS and World Series, posting a 2.35 ERA with one win and two holds. He even started Game 5 of the ALCS and worked 1.1 innings as an opener.

    Despite his age and the fact that he has seen MLB action in each of the last five seasons, his time in the big leagues has been sporadic enough that he is still arbitration-eligible through the 2025 season.

    He fits best as a middle reliever on a contender as opposed to pitching in a high-leverage role, but he could be a useful piece of the puzzle for a team looking to bolster its relief corps.

IF/OF Wilmer Difo, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Wilmer Difo should be on the radar of every NL contender.

    The 29-year-old is hitting .281/.336/.438 for a 110 OPS+ in 131 plate appearances this season, and he's shown some decent pop with 11 extra-base hits.

    However, his value to a contender comes from his versatility and pinch-hitting ability.

    His 10 pinch-hits this year are tied for the MLB lead, and he's batting .323/.364/.613 with a double, a triple and two home runs in 33 total pinch-hit appearances.

    When he isn't coming off the bench to hit, he is also capable of lining up at second base, shortstop, third base and all three outfield spots.

    He would be an improvement to any team's bench.

RP Paul Fry, Baltimore Orioles

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    Paul Fry
    Paul FryChris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Bullpen help is always in demand at the trade deadline. That's especially true of reliable left-handed relievers, who are few and far between in today's game.

    Enter Paul Fry.

    The 28-year-old has a 3.72 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 48 strikeouts in 36.1 innings out of the Baltimore Orioles bullpen, and he has tallied two saves and nine holds in 37 appearances.

    Armed with a fastball that averages 92.9 mph and a terrific slider that has limited opposing hitters to a .140 average with a 35.1 percent whiff rate, he has the swing-and-miss stuff to pitch in a high-leverage role for a contender.

    He is also far more than a lefty specialist. He's limiting right-handed hitters to a .205 average and .533 OPS with 31 strikeouts in 92 plate appearances on the year.

    Fry is under club control through the 2024 season, so it should take a decent prospect to acquire him, but he could be a long-term bullpen piece for a contender in need.

C Eric Haase, Detroit Tigers

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    Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

    Let's take a quick look at the 2021 home run leaders among catchers:

    • 1. Salvador Perez: 21
    • 2. Mike Zunino: 19
    • 3. Gary Sanchez: 17
    • 4. Eric Haase: 15
    • 5t. Willson Contreras: 14
    • 5t. Yasmani Grandal: 14

    Eric Haase?

    The 28-year-old quietly boasts a 123 OPS+ with 15 home runs and 32 RBI in 190 plate appearances for the Detroit Tigers. He has also shown some useful versatility by lining up in left field for 14 games.

    He's a below-average defender, but only slightly, grading out as a middle-of-the-pack pitch-framer while throwing out 27 percent of base stealers.

    His .289 on-base percentage leaves something to be desired, but as a backup catcher, power bat off the bench and occasional corner outfielder, he'd be a useful complementary piece.

IF Josh Harrison, Washington Nationals

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    After a successful eight-year run with the Pittsburgh Pirates, it looked like Josh Harrison's big league career might be winding to a close when he hit .175/.218/.263 in 147 plate appearances with the Detroit Tigers in 2019.

    Harrison failed to earn a spot on the Philadelphia Phillies' roster last season as a minor league free agent, but he caught on with the Washington Nationals and hit .278/.352/.418 for a 110 OPS+ in 91 plate appearances filling a utility role.

    That was enough to earn him a big league deal this past offseason, and he returned to the Nationals on a one-year, $1 million contract to help ease the losses of versatile veterans Howie Kendrick and Asdrubal Cabrera.

    The 34-year-old has emerged as the team's primary second baseman while also seeing some time in left field. He's hitting .282/.356/.401 for a 112 OPS+ with 24 extra-base hits in 330 plate appearances and 1.8 WAR.

    He's also hitting .315/.370/.548 in 81 plate appearances with runners in scoring position.

    Aside from being a potential target for someone seeking help at second base like the Chicago White Sox, Harrison would fit on virtually any contender as a utility player and pinch hitter.

SP Merrill Kelly, Arizona Diamondbacks

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    With a 5.29 ERA, the Arizona Diamondbacks pitching staff has largely been a dumpster fire this season, from an injured Zac Gallen and a struggling Madison Bumgarner atop the rotation to a bullpen that has blown 19 saves in 31 opportunities.

    Merrill Kelly has been one of the few bright spots.

    The 32-year-old signed a two-year, $5.5 million deal with the D-backs prior to the 2019 season following a successful four-year stint with the SK Wyverns in the KBO. After posting a 4.42 ERA in 183.1 innings in his return stateside in 2019, he logged a 2.59 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in five starts last season before having a $4.25 million club option for 2021 exercised.

    He has been far and away the best pitcher on the Arizona staff this year with a 4.46 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 99 strikeouts in 117 innings, and his 3.88 FIP paints a promising picture of future success.

    A reasonable $5.25 million club option for 2022 makes him a bit more valuable than the standard two-month rental, and he could provide some useful innings at the back of a contender's rotation.

1B/3B Renato Nunez, Detroit Tigers

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    Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

    Renato Nunez slugged 31 home runs for the Baltimore Orioles in 2019, but he did so with a lackluster .244/.311/.460 batting line and provided no defensive value on his way to a 0.5 WAR season.

    He boosted his numbers slightly last year to a .256/.324/.492 line that was good for a 120 OPS+ while socking 10 doubles and 12 home runs in 52 games, but that didn't save him from being a non-tender casualty during the offseason.

    The Detroit Tigers signed him to a minor league deal, and he broke camp with a spot on the Opening Day roster. But after going 4-for-27 to start the year, he was designated for assignment and ultimately outrighted to the team's alternate site.

    Since we last saw him, he has been quietly raking at Triple-A Toledo with a .276/.383/.561 line that includes 10 doubles, 14 home runs and 45 RBI in 57 games. The number that stands out there is his .383 on-base percentage, propped up by an 11.5 percent walk rate that is well above his 7.2 percent career mark in the big leagues.

    For a team looking for a cheap source of power and some corner infield depth, it shouldn't take more than a low-level flier to add him at the deadline.

RP Spencer Patton, Texas Rangers

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    Ray Carlin/Associated Press

    Spencer Patton posted a 6.26 ERA in 52 appearances with the Texas Rangers and Chicago Cubs over parts of three seasons before heading overseas and pitching for the Yokohama Bay Stars in the Japanese League.

    An effective setup reliever during his time in Japan, he posted a 3.68 ERA with 243 strikeouts 205.2 innings over four seasons before returning stateside this year on a minor league deal with the Rangers.

    The 33-year-old began the season with 12 scoreless innings at Triple-A Round Rock before he was promoted to the big leagues, and he has been an effective setup option ahead of closer Ian Kennedy since joining the relief corps.

    In 16 appearances, he has a 2.70 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and a 19-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 13.1 innings. Those numbers are inflated by one ugly outing on July 10 when he allowed two hits, one walk and three earned runs while recording only two outs.

    He responded by striking out the side in his next appearance, so that one rocky game is not a reason for concern. When it's removed from the equation, he has a 0.71 ERA in his other 15 appearances with four holds.

    He is controllable in arbitration through 2025, so that should only add to his appeal.


    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.


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