At the beginning of each season, we have a rough idea of how each year will go. At the micro-level, we have player projections, our guesses at who will break out, who will rebound, and who will collapse. At the macro-level, we have a sense for which teams are most likely to be in the hunt throughout the summer, and which will manage to make it to October. And somewhere in between those two, we have a sense for the trade market: what competitive teams have gaping holes they’ll want to fill, which weak teams will be trading away players to fill those holes, and who is most likely to be playing for a different team come August.
But the reason baseball is fun is because all those expectations and ideas are thrown into chaos starting on the first day of the season, and continuing right through to the end. This season is no different; our predictions got some things right, so far, and have whiffed badly on lots of other things. Back in January, my colleague Steven Martano previewed this season’s deadline, looking at the pitchers, infielders, and outfielders who seemed likely to be on the move, but a lot has changed since then. Now, it’s not the deadline yet (still six weeks away), but we’re a lot closer than we were, and players could start to move soon. So how does our current view of the trade market differ from our preseason expectations?
Surprising contenders and losers
On a team-by-team basis, the collective wisdom wasn’t too far off this year. Still, there were some notable whiffs, concentrated primarily in the NL West. The various projection systems disagreed on the finer points, but FanGraphs’ playoff odds charts do a good job of summing up the threefold surprise:
The collapse of the Giants, and the surprising success of the Diamondbacks and Rockies, has had impacts on both the supply and demand side of the trade market. For the former, the Rockies and Diamondbacks both have some older players approaching the end of their current contracts who seemed likely to be traded if and when their teams fell out of the race in the early part of the season. Carlos Gonzalez, Mark Reynolds, and Tyler Chatwood are all players who will be free agents this upcoming offseason, and who likely would not have finished the season with the Rockies if not for their unexpected surge. The result is a midseason trade market for outfielders, first basemen/DHs, and starting pitchers that is a little tighter than expected. (The Diamondbacks have fewer candidates for departure; unless they had decided to really tear things down, they likely wouldn’t have made too many trades.)
But the impact on market supply from these three teams is fairly limited, because the Diamondbacks and Rockies probably expected to start winning soon (if not 2017), and the Giants probably expect to resume winning soon. Maybe Hunter Pence (signed through 2018) could be available, but beyond everyone’s favorite weirdo right fielder, the Giants have very few players who are hitting free agency in the shorter-term. As a result, the NL West’s turmoil is likely to cause a sharp increase in demand for available players at a number of positions.
The Giants didn’t have any gaping holes they were expecting to fill through deadline trades, so there’s little decrease in demand as a result of their badness to date.
The Diamondbacks, on the other hand, are suddenly in a position where every win counts but Jeff Mathis, with his 11 wRC+ (a hitting line 89 percent below average), is one of their primary catchers. And while the Rockies are pretty solid across the board, should any player on either team drop with a serious injury, their marginal playoff position means that a replacement will be critical due to their lack of depth.
The other NL team whose performance has been different than expected is the Mets, who began the season with an estimated playoff odds around 60 percent and are currently sitting around 15 percent. And unlike the Giants, they do have a number of players who could become available as a result. Lucas Duda (1B), Neil Walker (2B), Curtis Granderson (OF), Jay Bruce (OF), Addison Reed (RP), and Fernando Salas (RP) are all free agents in 2018. No one of those players would be a huge get, but collectively, that’s a massive addition to the trade market this deadline, thanks to the struggles of the Mets.
In the AL, there have been fewer macro shifts, but perhaps more upheaval in the trade market regardless. As I mentioned last month, the Yankees are basically the only AL team doing anything surprising, thanks to their shocking surge to the top of the East.
It was major news last deadline and this offseason that Brian Cashman managed to convince New York’s ownership to let him plan for the future, but the Yankees are now facing the happy surprise of buying rather than selling. Not only does that mean that Matt Holliday, Michael Pineda, and CC Sabathia (all 2018 free agents) won’t be available, but more importantly, it means that the Yankees become a possible landing spot for almost any player. Salary is almost certainly not an issue for them, which could expand the market even further; teams with high-priced veterans that don’t want to eat their salary could find a partner willing to pay in The Bronx. The Yankees have been stunningly competent across the board, but depth is definitely not a strong suit, so again, any injury could result in a sudden surge of demand.
Player breakouts and collapses
Of course, just as there have been surprising teams, individual players have been surprising as well, and changed both their likelihood of being traded and the kind of return they would bring. In Pittsburgh, the end of this cycle of competitiveness has come perhaps a bit earlier than expected, but not by much. The surprise is not that the Pirates are thinking about becoming sellers, but that one of their biggest chips, Andrew McCutchen, has not rebounded as hoped from his disappointing 2016. Cutch has a $14.5m team option for 2018 that will probably be picked up, even given his mediocrity over the last year and a half, but 1.5 years of McCutchen doesn’t have the value that it once did. He’s not the only outfielder who’s disappointed; I mentioned Hunter Pence above when talking about the Giants, but if San Francisco did want to explore trading him away, his 57 wRC+ through the first third of the season would make that less appealing than you might expect based only on Pence’s career numbers.
But the real changes in the market come from the players who have broken out, giving their teams a potential windfall should they choose to trade them. It’s not impossible to imagine the Tigers making the playoffs, but if they haven’t hit a major win streak in the next few weeks, Alex Avila could get shopped around (by his own dad, too, Detroit GM Al Avila). The younger Avila is not great defensively by Baseball Prospectus’s measure, but his 186 wRC+ more than makes up for any shortcomings. As a 2018 free agent, he’d make an appealing free agent for any team looking for reinforcement at catcher (such as the Diamondbacks, mentioned above). And while he’s not exactly breaking out, J.D. Martinez is also on the verge of free agency, and also having a better-than-expected season with a 180 wRC+ (though in just 108 PAs, thanks to some time missed with injury).
Two other frequently discussed breakouts have come on teams that will almost certainly be selling this July. Not only is Zack Cozart of the Reds a shortstop hitting for a 165 wRC+, he’s a free agent this winter. He was always a trade target; the main difference after the first chunk of the season is that he’s now a front-runner to be the best player traded at the deadline.
One of his main challengers, surprisingly, will probably be Yonder Alonso of the A’s. As Oakland continues to spin their wheels, neither rebuilding fully nor competing, Alonso has been a happy surprise, hitting for a 183 wRC+ that’s more than double his 2016 figure, and some team will find a spot for him at first base or designated hitter.
On the pitching side, there are all kinds of surprising relievers who could bring back a decent return for a half-season of excellence. Pat Neshek’s contract with the Phillies ends this year, and he’s currently sitting on a 0.82 ERA and 2.26 FIP (as opposed to the 4.05/4.11 he was projected for). Joakim Soria has another year left on his contract, but with his 1.78 FIP and strikeout rate above 30 percent, the Royals might want to sell while his stock is high. Tommy Kahnle is in a different situation, as he’s not even in arbitration yet, and won’t be a free agent until before the 2021 season. But with the White Sox at the beginning of their rebuild, any kind of reliever isn’t that attractive, even one with some time remaining on his contract. To a competing team, however, Kahnle’s massively improved 1.52 ERA/1.48 FIP would be a welcome addition, both for the rest of 2017 and the next few years, meaning that the White Sox could profit handsomely from his breakout.
There are also plenty of starter surprises who will likely be on the move in July. Trevor Cahill pitching on a one-year contract with the Padres for less than $2m, but was running a 3.27 ERA and 2.94 FIP (before going on the DL a few weeks ago). Marco Estrada is coming to the end of his run with the Blue Jays, and while they’ve undergone a remarkable recovery after their early swoon, he’ll bring back a substantial return if Toronto decides to sell, thanks both to his track record of solidity and his better-than-expected 3.42 FIP.
But there are also lots of pitchers who teams were perhaps planning on, or hoping to, make a pretty penny on but whose value has instead vanished. Sam Dyson was traded from the Rangers to the Giants last week for just a player to be named later, with cash going to San Francisco as well; his depressed value is the expected consequence of his 10.80 ERA/9.09 FIP (not a typo), and a massive departure from his preseason projected 3.63 ERA/3.66 FIP. Detroit’s Francisco Rodriguez is a free agent at the end of 2018, and while his projected ERA of 4.07 and FIP of 4.07 wasn’t stellar, it still would’ve been enough for the Tigers to probably get some kind of fringy prospect in return. K-Rod is instead sitting on a 6.86 ERA/6.60 FIP, which makes him worth nearly nothing in trade.
The Orioles probably aren’t selling, but Chris Tillman being in his last year before free agency means they could have thought about sending him elsewhere. That’s almost certainly not an option anymore, thanks to his 8.01 ERA/6.65 FIP. And the Braves’ flyer on R.A. Dickey has not worked out at all; if he had hit or beat his projections of a 4.25 ERA/4.33 FIP, he could’ve had some value to a contender, but at a 4.73 ERA/5.76 FIP, and barely striking out more batters than he walks, a trade seems unlikely.
Some portions of this will certainly look dumb once July 31st is closer, but that’s sort of the point. (I am thus insulated from any criticism; if you call me dumb for failing to anticipate Pat Neshek’s rapid collapse, or the Mets’ surge to the top of the NL East, you only prove me right!!) The assumptions we make about the trade market have to be constantly updated, as players enter and leave the pool of possible movers, and as teams move from seller to buyer and vice versa. Check back in six weeks, and we’ll do all this again.
All stats current through June 11.
Henry Druschel is a Managing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. You can find him on Twitter @henrydruschel.