Ranking Top 25 Potential Trade Chips of the 2021-22 MLB Offseason
The MLB offseason is right around the corner, and it's never too early to start setting the landscape for another busy winter of wheeling and dealing on the trade market.
Last month, we counted down the top 25 upcoming free agents, and now it's time to turn our attention to the potential trade candidates that could be on the move.
Our top 25 list is a mix of speculative trade candidates and players who have previously seen their names pop up on the rumor mill. Likelihood that a player is traded helped us narrow our list to 25 players, while remaining years of control and salary commitment factored into where players fell in the rankings.
Off we go!
25. RHP Merrill Kelly, Arizona Diamondbacks
An underrated performer for the last-place D-backs, Kelly had a 4.44 ERA, 1.29 WHIP and 130 strikeouts in 158 innings while playing out the final guaranteed season of a three-year, $9.25 million deal.
The 33-year-old has a $5.25 million club option for 2022 that will likely be exercised, but that doesn't mean he won't be shopped this offseason. With a 4.11 FIP and 4.42 SIERA, he has solid enough peripherals to be viewed as a low-cost, back-of-the-rotation innings-eater.
24. RHP Cole Sulser, Baltimore Orioles
One of the few bright spots on a 110-loss Orioles team, Sulser posted a 2.70 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 10.4 K/9 with eight saves and six holds in 60 appearances.
The 31-year-old won't be arbitration-eligible for the first time until next offseason, and he's controllable through the 2025 season. With a low-to-mid 90s fastball and a terrific changeup, he doesn't have the typical late-inning stuff, but he's cost-controlled and the 2021 results speak for themselves.
23. SS Paul DeJong, St. Louis Cardinals
Just two years removed from a 5.3-WAR season, DeJong watched from the bench as Edmundo Sosa started at shortstop in the NL Wild Card Game. The rookie's emergence this season and a loaded free-agent class could mean the end of DeJong's time in St. Louis.
The 28-year-old has a $6.2 million salary in 2022, a $9.2 million salary in 2023 and a pair of club options to follow with a $2 million buyout in 2024. If the Cardinals are willing to eat some salary, he could be an appealing buy-low option given his All-Star-level performance just a few years ago.
22. RHP Joe Ross, Washington Nationals
With Max Scherzer gone, Stephen Strasburg recovering from thoracic outlet surgery and Patrick Corbin struggling through the worst season of his career in 2021, it's not out of the question to think that Ross could be the Nationals' de facto ace in 2021.
However, with free agency looming after the 2022 season, he is also an obvious trade candidate for the rebuilding club. The 28-year-old had a 4.17 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 109 strikeouts in 108 innings this year, and his projected $3 million salary won't break the bank.
21. OF Manuel Margot, Tampa Bay Rays
With a $5 million salary projection in what will be his final year of arbitration, Margot seems like an obvious trade candidate for the cost-conscious Tampa Bay Rays.
The 27-year-old was a 2.8-WAR player in 2021, posting a 98 OPS+ with 31 extra-base hits and 13 steals in 464 plate appearances. He also played more than 100 innings at all three outfield spots, and his 13 DRS made him one of just 15 outfielders in double digits. In a thin center field market, there should be interest.
20. LHP Caleb Smith, Arizona Diamondbacks
After working almost exclusively as a starter in the past, Smith filled a new role with the D-backs in 2021, bouncing between the starting rotation and working as a multi-inning reliever.
The 30-year-old was terrific as a reliever, posting a 2.70 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 59 strikeouts in 56.2 innings over 32 appearances. Utilizing him exclusively in that role going forward could be the best way to maximize his skills, while his ability to start also adds some versatility to staff.
19. LHP Kyle Freeland, Colorado Rockies
After finishing fourth in NL Cy Young voting in 2018, Freeland struggled to a 6.73 ERA in 104.1 innings the following year. He rebounded during the shortened 2020 campaign, though not to his previous ace-caliber level.
Over the last two years, he has a 4.33 ERA and 114 ERA+ in 191.1 innings, and he closed out the year with three straight quality starts. The 28-year-old has a $7 million projected salary in 2022. The Rockies could entertain offers a year before he hits free agency.
18. RHP Michael Fulmer, Detroit Tigers
The 2016 AL Rookie of the Year winner and an All-Star the following year, Fulmer was derailed by injury before returning to the mound with an ugly 8.78 ERA in 27.2 innings last year.
The 28-year-old moved to the bullpen in 2021 and developed into a dominant late-inning arm down the stretch. Over the final two months of the season, he had a 1.63 ERA with eight saves and five holds in 25 appearances. The Tigers are a team on the rise, but Fulmer is entering his final year of club control.
17. C Jacob Stallings, Pittsburgh Pirates
Despite a middling .246/.335/.369 line and just 29 extra-base hits in 427 plate appearances, Stallings ranked eighth among all catchers with 3.0 WAR in 2021 on the strength of his stellar defensive work behind the plate.
The 31-year-old was one of baseball's better pitch-framers, and his 21 DRS tied with Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa for the MLB lead. Despite having three years of arbitration remaining and a $2.6 million projected salary in 2022, his age makes it unlikely he'll be part of the next contending Pirates team, and a thin catching market could be the best time to maximize his value.
16. RHP Elieser Hernandez, Miami Marlins
The Marlins are loaded with young pitching talent, and with Sandy Alcantara, Pablo Lopez and Trevor Rogers locked into rotation spots and Jesus Luzardo, Sixto Sanchez, Edward Cabrera, Zach Thompson and Nick Neidert also in the mix, the team could look to trade from an area of strength this offseason.
Hernandez, 26, has a 3.84 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 87 strikeouts in 77.1 innings in 17 starts since the beginning of the 2020 season. He has club control through the 2024 season, and his $1.4 million projected salary next year fits onto any team's payroll.
15. RHP Craig Kimbrel, Chicago White Sox
According to Bob Nightengale of USA Today, the White Sox's plan is to exercise their $16 million club option on Kimbrel and then trade him during the offseason.
The 33-year-old converted 23 of 25 save chances with a 0.49 ERA and 15.7 K/9 in 39 appearances with the Chicago Cubs before he was traded, but he struggled to a 5.09 ERA with three blown saves in 24 games with the South Siders. There will be a market, but the White Sox will likely need to accept a negative return on investment.
14. OF Mitch Haniger, Seattle Mariners
It might seem counterproductive for a team on the rise to trade away one of its most productive players, but the Mariners are loaded with young outfield talent and Haniger is just a year away from free agency with an $8.5 million projected salary for 2022.
The 30-year-old had a 122 OPS+ with 39 home runs and 100 RBI, and he could be used to help acquire some much-needed starting pitching help. The Mariners could then go with an outfield of Jarred Kelenic, Kyle Lewis and either Jake Fraley or Taylor Trammell until top prospect Julio Rodriguez is ready.
13. LHP Taylor Rogers, Minnesota Twins
An All-Star for the first time in 2021, Rogers has long been one of baseball's best left-handed relievers. He had a 3.35 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and a career-high 13.2 K/9 with nine saves and eight holds in 40 appearances before his season ended prematurely in July with a sprained middle finger on his left hand.
The 30-year-old is projected for a $6.7 million salary in his final year of arbitration, and even if the Twins don't decide to go with a full-blown rebuild this offseason, he looks like an obvious candidate to be dealt. Every bullpen in baseball could use a proven late-inning southpaw.
12. IF Joey Wendle, Tampa Bay Rays
With Brandon Lowe and Wander Franco occupying two spots on the Tampa Bay infield for the foreseeable future and top prospects Xavier Edwards and Greg Jones potentially knocking on the MLB door by midseason next year, the Rays have a fast-approaching logjam.
The answer to unclogging things and to freeing up some money could be to shop Wendle, who is projected for a $4 million salary in 2022 with another year of arbitration remaining in 2023. The 31-year-old had a 110 OPS+ with 46 extra-base hits and 3.8 WAR, and he's capable of playing second base, shortstop and third base.
11. RHP David Bednar, Pittsburgh Pirates
It's going to be multiple years before the Pirates are ready to contend again, and that makes having a quality bullpen arm more of a luxury than a necessity.
Bednar, 27, was acquired last offseason as part of the return package in the Joe Musgrove trade. He had a 2.23 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and 11.4 K/9 with three saves and 13 holds in 61 appearances in his Pirates debut, and he is controllable all the way through the 2026 season. It would be easy to view him as a long-term piece, but given the volatility of relievers, selling high now might be in the team's best interest.
10. RHP Sonny Gray, Cincinnati Reds
The Cincinnati Reds missed their chance to sell high on Sonny Gray each of the last two offseasons, but there will still be a competitive market for the two-time All-Star if he is made available this winter.
The 31-year-old had a 4.19 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 155 strikeouts in 135.1 innings this year, and while that's not on par with his 2019 performance when he finished seventh in NL Cy Young voting, it still represents a potential middle-of-the-rotation option on a contender.
With a reasonable $10.4 million salary in 2022 and a $12 million club option for 2023 that does not have a buyout, his salary comes with multiyear upside and short-term protection.
Even if the Reds view themselves as contenders next year, flipping Gray and building the rotation around Luis Castillo, Tyler Mahle and Wade Miley would still give them a quality staff.
9. LHP Sean Manaea, Oakland Athletics
Something has to give for an Oakland Athletics team that is already facing a projected 2022 payroll of $81.7 million, thanks in part to 10 notable arbitration-eligible players who are projected for more than $25 million worth of raises.
The team's payroll in 2021 was only $89.7 million, so that doesn't leave much wiggle room to plug the holes created by a free-agent class that includes Starling Marte, Mark Canha, Josh Harrison, Yan Gomes, Yusmeiro Petit and Sergio Romo.
One way to free up some salary would be to flip left-hander Sean Manaea, who is projected for a $10.2 million salary in his final year of arbitration, a figure that would make him the second-highest-paid player on the team.
The 29-year-old had a 3.19 ERA with 108 strikeouts in 104.1 innings and a pair of shutouts during the first half last season, and even after falling off a bit after the All-Star break he still finished 11-10 with a 3.91 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and 194 strikeouts in a career-high 179.1 innings.
As a one-year rental, he would be a welcome addition to any contender's rotation.
8. 3B Josh Donaldson, Minnesota Twins
After an injury-shortened debut with the Minnesota Twins in 2020, third baseman Josh Donaldson returned to form this year with a 127 OPS+ and 26 home runs in 135 games.
The 35-year-old is two seasons into a four-year, $92 million contract, and with the Twins at a crossroads following a disappointing last-place finish in the AL Central standings, dumping his salary could be on the to-do list this offseason.
The 2015 AL MVP still plays a decent third base, so a trade to the National League is not out of the question, despite the fact that he started at DH in 34 games in 2021. There is also the looming possibility of a universal DH coming with the new collective bargaining agreement.
The Milwaukee Brewers showed interest in Donaldson at the trade deadline, and if the Twins are willing to eat some of the $50 million left on his contract—that includes an $8 million buyout on a $16 million option in 2024—they could find a taker this winter.
7. 1B Josh Bell, Washington Nationals
Josh Bell survived the Washington Nationals trade deadline fire sale, but it's far from a guarantee that he'll be starting at first base on Opening Day in 2022.
The 29-year-old had a strong first season with the Nationals after coming over in a trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates last offseason, posting a 124 OPS+ with 24 doubles, 27 home runs and 88 RBI in 144 games.
He hit .277/.381/.506 with 15 home runs and 46 RBI in 71 games after the All-Star break, playing his best baseball of the season during the second half, and that could help boost his trade stock even higher this offseason.
With a projected $10 million salary in his final year of arbitration, he is a logical trade chip for a rebuilding team, and he is not a cost-prohibitive pickup for a contender looking to add some left-handed power to the middle of the lineup.
6. 2B/OF Whit Merrifield, Kansas City Royals
Will this be the offseason the Kansas City Royals finally trade Whit Merrifield?
A focal point in trade speculation for years while emerging as a standout on non-contending Royals teams, Merrifield is three years into a team-friendly four-year, $16.25 million deal that also includes a $10.5 million club option for 2023.
According to Jayson Stark of The Athletic, the Royals were "more open than in the past" to trading Merrifield at this year's deadline, though he ultimately stayed put.
The AL leader in doubles (42) and steals (40) in 2021 while hitting .277 with 184 hits, 10 home runs, 74 RBI and 97 runs scored, Merrifield has the versatility to fit on any roster with the ability to play second base and all three outfield spots.
The Royals' ask will be high to move the de facto face of the franchise, but now might be the best time to still bring back significant value while he has two remaining years of club control.
5. C Willson Contreras, Chicago Cubs
A year after J.T. Realmuto and James McCann both signed lucrative multiyear deals, the 2021-22 free-agent class is devoid of viable starting catching options.
Veterans Yan Gomes, Manny Pina and Wilson Ramos can be useful options in part-time roles, and former top prospect Chance Sisco might be worth a flier for a rebuilding team, but for teams in search of a viable everyday option, the trade market will be the necessary route.
With team president Jed Hoyer indicating that the Cubs plan to be "really active" this offseason, there is no guarantee that Contreras or anyone else on the North Siders roster will be available this winter.
However, the fact that he is just a year away from free agency with no extension in sight at least makes him a speculative candidate to be moved.
4. CF Byron Buxton, Minnesota Twins
Byron Buxton was a 4.5-WAR player in 2021 and he only played in 61 games.
That's an eye-popping 12.0 WAR extrapolated out over a full 162 games, but to this point in his career, the dynamic center field has not shown the ability to stay on the field for that long.
Since the start of the 2018 season, he has played in just 215 games in the big leagues, which works out to a little less than 40 percent of the Minnesota Twins games during that time.
When he was on the field this year, he was one of the best players in baseball, hitting .306/.358/.647 for a 171 OPS+ with 23 doubles and 19 home runs in 254 plate appearances while also playing his usual Gold Glove-caliber defense in center field.
The Twins offered Buxton a seven-year, $73 million extension in July that was ultimately increased to an $80 million offer after Buxton's side countered, according to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic. The two sides were unable to come to terms and extension talks have since halted.
Entering his final year of arbitration control, a trade makes sense if the front office doesn't think an extension is going to come together.
3. LHP Josh Hader, Milwaukee Brewers
After they were shut out in Game 2 and Game 3 of their NLDS matchup with the Atlanta Braves, it's clear the Milwaukee Brewers need to add some offensive firepower if they are going to take the next step and be legitimate World Series contenders.
With the trio of Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta all under control for multiple years, the rotation will continue to be a strength, and the bullpen also has some good young pieces in Devin Williams, Jake Cousins and Aaron Ashby.
Could they look to flip All-Star closer Josh Hader for a big bat?
The 27-year-old is projected for a $10 million salary in 2022, which would make him the third-highest-paid player on the team behind Christian Yelich ($26M) and Lorenzo Cain ($18M). He would potentially slide to fourth on that list if Avisail Garcia ($12M) returns on a mutual option.
He would be worth at least twice that on the open market, but for a small-market Brewers team with needs on the offensive side, flipping him might be the best way to build a more well-rounded roster.
2. 2B/CF Ketel Marte, Arizona Diamondbacks
With three years and $30 million left on his contract if club options in 2023 and 2024 are exercised, Ketel Marte is one of the best values in baseball.
The 28-year-old dealt with multiple hamstring injuries in 2021, but he still hit .318/.377/.532 for a 143 OPS+ with an impressive 44 extra-base hits in 90 games.
In his last full season in 2019, he was one of the sport's breakout stars, hitting .329/.389/.592 with 36 doubles, 32 home runs and 6.9 WAR to finish fourth in NL MVP voting.
He can play second base and center field, and he started his career as a shortstop, so he also offers attractive defensive versatility on top of his middle-of-the-order offensive production.
The D-backs "told multiple teams not to bother asking because Marte isn't going anywhere" at the trade deadline, according to Jeff Passan of ESPN, but after finishing with 110 losses and with a full offseason to weigh offers, that could change.
1. 3B Jose Ramirez, Cleveland Guardians
A perennial AL MVP candidate, Jose Ramirez is headed for another top-10 finish in the balloting after posting a 141 OPS+ with 32 doubles, 36 home runs, 103 RBI and 111 runs scored in a 6.7-WAR season.
The 29-year-old just wrapped up a five-year, $26 million contract, but Cleveland still has club options for 2022 ($12 million) and 2023 ($14 million) that are a no-brainer to be exercised.
That means he has two years of club control left for Cleveland to either hammer out another long-term deal or send him packing like it did Francisco Lindor last offseason.
The word at the trade deadline was that Cleveland would need to be "overwhelmed" to deal its star third baseman. However, Jeff Passan of ESPN also reported prior to the start of the 2021 season that Ramirez has "resisted" potential talks on a new deal, despite the team's interest in an extension.
If a new contract is not in the cards, expect Cleveland to get what it can for him on the trade market, whether it's this winter, next summer or in the offseason prior to his final year of control.