NEW YORK — It’s nearing that time of year when the 30 major league teams are stratified into two distinct classes: buyers and sellers.
The bad teams with useful players become baseball Etsy shops, selling off bits of their roster for the right price. Teams on the cusp of the playoff race, or those looking to reinforce their vice grip on a first-place standing, comb through each of those shops in hopes of adding just the right piece that will get them over the hump.
In recent years, trade deadline acquisitions have become integral parts of their new team’s championship march. The 2017 Astros added Justin Verlander just months before winning the franchise’s first World Series title. Several other big names have gone from rudderless teams to World Series bound ones, including Manny Machado in 2018, Aroldis Chapman in 2016 and Yoenis Cespedes and Johnny Cueto in 2015.
But for every trade pickup written in boldface, there are several written in eight-point font that become postseason heroes as well. Journeyman first baseman Steve Pearce earned World Series MVP honors for the 2018 Red Sox after joining the team in exchange for a 23-year-old minor leaguer. The Nationals’ 2019 World Series stunner may not have happened if not for Daniel Hudson, the closer they snatched up midseason for a pitcher that’s still years away from the big leagues.
Now that the 2021 season is approaching the All-Star break and the standings are starting to congeal, let’s look at some players who could be fitted for a new jersey come July 31, beginning with the splashiest candidates.
Max Scherzer, starting pitcher, Washington Nationals
One of baseball’s fiercest competitors is playing out the final year of his contract on a middling Nationals team. Lounging around .500 for most of the season, the Nationals stand virtually zero chance of grabbing a wild-card spot from the mighty Giants, Dodgers or Padres.
Should the Nationals stumble in the early weeks of July, they’ll face a momentous decision regarding their longtime intimidator. Holding on to Scherzer in hopes of securing an unlikely NL East crown runs the risk of losing him for nothing this offseason. His 2021 numbers indicate that Scherzer has a lot left in the tank. He’s in his seventh straight season with a strikeout rate above 30% and has whittled his ERA down to 2.19, which would be a career best if it holds all season.
Ketel Marte, center fielder, Arizona Diamondbacks
A .366 hitter with positional versatility on a last place team is the platonic idea of a trade deadline target. That’s what the Diamondbacks have in Marte, a poor defensive outfielder whose glove plays better in the infield, but whose switch-hitting bat is a seamless fit at the top of any lineup.
Marte is a rare modern hitter who does not strike out often, and even though his home runs have disappeared, his maximum exit velocity still ranks in the 95th percentile of the league, per Statcast.
Nelson Cruz, designated hitter, Minnesota Twins
Since the start of the 2015 season, no player has more home runs than Nelson Cruz. While he has limitations as an exclusive designated hitter, the 40-year-old slugger and his .562 slugging percentage can instantly add some thump to any American League taker.
Minnesota has been the disappointment of the season, and with the Boomstick on a one-year deal, it serves them well to get something in return before his contract expires. The Oakland Athletics are in a vicious fight with the Astros for the American League West’s top spot. Replacing Mitch Moreland — the A’s primary DH this season who is slugging .365 and has been 28% worse than the league average hitter — is the exact type of move that could make Oakland’s postseason shortcomings a thing of the past.
Adam Frazier, second baseman, Pittsburgh Pirates
Perhaps the game’s most anonymous star, Frazier woke up on Friday morning with the most hits in Major League Baseball. The Athletic reported that Frazier is “the next one to go” from Pittsburgh’s sinking ship, and his value has never been higher.
Buyers need to be wary of this, as well as the fact that Frazier’s batting average is 100 points higher than it was in 2020, so this first-half breakout carries the scent of mirage. Still, any team looking for a high on-base guy should call about Frazier, and they should be able to get him for a lesser package than it would take to get Marte.
Richard Rodriguez, Ian Kennedy and Yimi Garcia, relief pitchers
Today’s brand of postseason baseball calls for a heavy dosage of relief pitchers. In Rodriguez (Pirates), Kennedy (Rangers) and Garcia (Marlins), who are all in contract years, teams have their choice of an assortment of right-handers to bolster their bullpens.
Among qualified relief pitchers, Rodriguez has the second lowest walk rate in the NL, music to any manager’s ears. The Pirates’ relief ace won’t overpower anyone with his fastball, but he’s shown a supreme ability to avoid barrels, and an elite reliever certainly doesn’t have much value on a non-competitive team like the Pirates.
Kennedy has been another diamond lying in the rough of a bad team’s bullpen. A starter for the first 12 years of his career, Kennedy excelled after becoming the Royals’ closer and notching 30 saves in 2019. He’s handling the ninth inning for Texas now — and doing so with a 2.59 ERA — though his bad habit of throwing gopher balls could scare teams away.
For the floundering Marlins, owners of one of baseball’s worst records in June, cutting ties with Garcia is a no-brainer. Unlike Rodriguez, he does possess a fastball with extra cheese, and like Kennedy, Garcia also has postseason experience. None of these relief options have the name recognition of Detroit’s Michael Fulmer, a former Rookie of the Year and another converted starter in a walk year. But Rodriguez, Kennedy, and Garcia could all be the difference between a team’s playoff run evaporating late in a game and locking down the critical outs that propel them closer to glory.