The trade season has begun.
Once the draft concludes, which it did Saturday, clubs shift their scouts and focus to the July 31 non-waiver deadline. And you just might have more teams than ever looking to buy.
For going into the weekend, 25 of 30 clubs either were in playoff position or within four games of one. Obviously, this will clarify over the following weeks as pretenders become more evident.
But there is a paucity of both excellent and dreadful teams. The middle has swelled. Just about any club that runs off eight wins in 10 games is going to think it is in prime playoff position. Combine that with the second wild card, and not too many organizations are going to collapse out of contention.
Thus, the value of acting quickly — finding those extra few wins that could be the difference between reaching the postseason or falling short — should serve as an impetus to act boldly. The Marlins already have seen the potential to contend and responded by addressing their worrisome set-up situation by trading the 39th pick in the draft for Pittsburgh’s Bryan Morris and also signing Kevin Gregg.
Selling teams usually hold off until July — late July at that. No one wants to admit surrender to themselves or their fan bases. But sellers should consider this checklist: 1) Making a player available for more games should, in theory, deliver a larger return — for example, a pitcher obtained now could start approximately 20 more times this year, compared to the 12 or so if obtained in late July; 2) The longer you hold a property, the more risk there is of injury; 3) There will not be 24 or 25 teams that have playoff dreams in late July. More sellers equal larger inventories resulting, potentially, in smaller returns.
Still, history suggests not much will happen for a while. The names that will stir the most interest are high-end starters such as the Rays’ David Price and the Cubs’ Jeff Samardzija. But with pitching dominating, just about every contender will be hunting bats, so here are thoughts on five who could (should) be available:
Chase Utley, Phillies: No organization has to do more of a toe touch with reality than Philadelphia. The 2007-11 run is arguably the best five-year stretch in franchise history. But it is over, and trying to rekindle it by augmenting around the aging core has been doubling down on a terrible idea. The Phillies began the weekend with the NL’s worst record and the majors’ worst run differential.
The Phils fret a sell-off will disenchant their fans, but the locals are not going to come watch this. The other hindrance to a for-sale sign is whether the Phillies’ top brass will permit the architect of this problematic roster, general manager Ruben Amaro, to make the rebuild trades when his status is so tenuous. In 2012, the Phillies white-flagged it, dealing Hunter Pence, Shane Victorino and Joe Blanton and have pretty much nothing to show for it yet, so they must do better this time.
Ryan Howard — for physical and financial (owed $60 million between 2015-16) reasons — is all but untradeable. Cliff Lee is not close to returning from an elbow strain and is owed $37.5 million next year if his 2016 option does not vest or $52.5 million for 2015-16 if it does.
A.J. Burnett is expensive and old. Marlon Byrd is signed through next year. Jimmy Rollins has an $11 million option for 2015 that almost certainly will vest. Jonathan Papelbon is signed through next year with a vesting option for 2016. Carlos Ruiz still is an effective catcher but is 35 and signed through 2016, and Cole Hamels has pitched well for the last month, but he signed for huge money through 2018. All but Hamels should be traded for the best return possible, and Hamels should at least be in the market to gauge his value.
To me, Utley is the prize. The Phillies, in particular, don’t want to give him up because of his local popularity. But rebuilding clubs should trade 35-year-olds performing well who could get big returns. Utley has age on him and has cooled off after a torrid start. But he makes just $10 million next year, and the way his 2016-18 options are structured, they really protect the team should his knee issues recur.
His reputation is as a gamer, so he would be in demand. Know this: When the Yankees realized Robinson Cano was leaving last offseason, they called the Phils on Utley. Put him on either Bay Area team — the A’s or Giants — and I think that club is the World Series favorite. The same might be said if the Cardinals got him.
Matt Kemp, Dodgers: The problems are abundant. He has five years at $107 million left after this season. He has yet to show he is over knee and shoulder problems. And he just might be a malcontent. If you are obtaining him it is because: 1) He is just 29; 2) As recently as 2011-12, before the injuries, he was arguably the best player in the game; 3) The Dodgers have such dysfunction with their overcrowded outfield that they almost certainly will take a bad contract and/or eat big money to move Kemp.
Is it a gamble worth taking for Seattle to see if Kemp can protect Cano? How about the Mets or the outfield-desperate Red Sox?
The trade season has begun.