While Juan Soto rightly commands the bulk of attention less than a week away from the MLB trade deadline, many more players are likely to change teams in the coming days. They’d better move anyway, because teams in the hunt for a playoff berth need the assistance.
Out of 30 MLB teams, 17 have at least a 25 percent chance to qualify for the expanded playoff field, according to FanGraphs—but some of those rosters are speckled with holes. Let’s bounce around the diamond to examine the most glaring team needs in advance of the deadline, and the trade targets who might be the best candidates to help.
Typically in MLB, the worst players play for the worst teams. Tigers first basemen have combined for a league-worst 67 wRC+, for instance—which makes sense because Detroit has the majors’ worst offense overall, and is thus nowhere near the playoff picture.
But at catcher, that dynamic is a little less intuitive. The four worst-hitting backstop units are all on teams contending for a playoff berth. Mets catchers have a combined 49 wRC+, meaning they’re hitting a collective 51 percent below average. Just ahead of them are the Cardinals catchers, with a 51 wRC+, and the Astros’ and Guardians’ groups, who both check in at 52.
That’s terrible! And while New York and St. Louis are missing ostensible starters James McCann and Yadier Molina, it’s not as if they’ve hit well either. (It’s hard to imagine the Cardinals adding another proven catcher to usurp Molina, though.) The most interesting team in this group is the Astros, who clearly love Martín Maldonado’s defense—which has helped stake Houston’s pitching staff to an AL-best 3.03 ERA—but could benefit from an upgrade to his .170/.237/.339 slash line. The Rays also deserve a mention with Mike Zunino out for the season.
Easily the best target available is the Cubs’ Willson Contreras, who ranks second among catchers this season with a 140 wRC+. He’s one of only a few backstops—along with Will Smith and Alejandro Kirk—with middle-of-the-order potential. Yet, he’d represent a real defensive gamble for a team like the Astros, who would have to hope Contreras jells with an entirely new pitching staff in short order. Multiple teams, ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported Tuesday, “worry about Contreras—who is not known for his game-calling acumen—meshing with a new pitching staff on the fly.”
First Base/Designated Hitter
These positions are grouped together because they’re where the big boppers reside. Some of the laggards here have already made upgrades: the Mariners with Carlos Santana, and the Mets (more recently) with Daniel Vogelbach.
But some clubs still need another middle-of-the-order thumper, defensive value be darned. The Red Sox are the first contender—if they still qualify as such, given the slump that’s pushed them out of the AL’s current playoff field—in need of a first baseman because Bobby Dalbec is still striking out a ton, but no longer hitting enough homers to compensate. The Astros also fit here, even if they might feel uncomfortable moving on from Yuli Gurriel, who’s played in every Houston playoff game since 2017.
The Padres need both a first base and DH upgrade, given lackluster performances from Eric Hosmer and Luke Voit this season. The Cardinals and Guardians could each use another bat. And Atlanta might be fine if it plays catchers Travis d’Arnaud and William Contreras every day, using one as DH—but it more often slots Marcell Ozuna there, and he’s hitting just .225/.280/.411.
Luckily for these teams, a plethora of power bats are available, led by the Nationals’ Josh Bell, who’s tied for 19th among all qualified hitters with a 144 wRC+. Backup options include Christian Walker, Trey Mancini (if the Orioles sell despite their exciting resurgence), and even Nelson Cruz, who’s suffering his worst season since 2007, but still has some homers left in his bat. Plus, if Boston continues its free fall—the team was outscored by a whopping 40-10 by the Blue Jays in a weekend sweep—and pivots to sell, J.D. Martinez would rise ahead of Bell as the best non-Soto bat around.
Rest of the Infield
We’re lumping second base, shortstop, and third base together because there aren’t too many teams in need of another infielder—and there aren’t many reasonable upgrades available here, either.
Even so, the White Sox’s second base situation, led by Josh Harrison and Leury García, is a disaster. And Adam Frazier hasn’t fulfilled expectations for the Mariners. Atlanta is so desperate for a second baseman with Ozzie Albies on the 60-day IL that Robinson Canó—now hitting .161/.188/.204 across three different teams this season—is getting playing time.
Moving across the diamond, the Phillies’ entire infield beyond first baseman Rhys Hoskins needs a facelift. Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford is hurt and wasn’t hitting even when healthy. And the Mets’ third-base situation is a bit rickety, though Eduardo Escobar is capable enough that it’s not a top priority.
However, it’s unlikely that any true difference can be made available at these spots. With 19 homers and a 132 wRC+, Brandon Drury is enjoying a career year in Cincinnati, but his newfound success looks a bit fluky. Whit Merrifield could fill one of those second-base holes—and in his own telling might even consent to getting a COVID-19 vaccination to play in Toronto if he’s traded to a contender! But his offensive production has also fallen to a career low.
To open up another avenue, neutral fans should root for further Boston collapse, because if the Red Sox decide to tank and take calls on Martinez (among others), Xander Bogaerts—who could opt out of his contract and become a free agent this winter—would generate tremendous interest as an up-the-middle defender with a middle-of-the-order bat.
With just a few exceptions, the bulk of the majors’ contenders are set in the outfield corners. Atlanta is one of the teams in need: Ronald Acuña Jr. and Michael Harris II are free to roam two outfield spots, but the final corner is vacant with Adam Duvall out for the season. The Padres also require a better right fielder if they’re going to remain competitive. And the team with the majors’ best record, the Yankees, is in the outfield market with Joey Gallo underperforming and Giancarlo Stanton injured.
But, for the most part, contenders’ biggest holes are in center field. The Phillies, Brewers, and Astros need upgrades. The Rays are in dire straits with Kevin Kiermaier out for the season. And could the Dodgers try to improve on Cody Bellinger, who hasn’t hit consistently since he won the NL MVP award in 2019?
Unfortunately for those clubs, however, there aren’t a ton of options. Unless the Red Sox decide to deal Kiké Hernández—who’s currently on the IL—or the Pirates swing a Bryan Reynolds blockbuster, the best center-field candidates aren’t very compelling. Will Michael A. Taylor change a playoff race? What about Ramón Laureano, who’s still an average player but took steps backward on both offense and defense since first bursting onto the scene?
In the corners, Ian Happ is the biggest name, as he earned an All-Star spot for the Cubs this season. Andrew Benintendi isn’t vaccinated or eligible to play in Toronto, but draws interest due to his .322/.390/.401 line. David Peralta and Tommy Pham won’t provide quite as much oomph, but can still boost an offense, too.
A maxim of modern baseball is that every team needs more pitching, all the time—but some contenders are more desperate for it than others. A few teams stand out in that regard now. The Twins have two good starters followed by a heap of question marks; the Cardinals have the same math, plus Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, and Steven Matz injured. The Blue Jays and Brewers both boast reliable aces, but could use better rotation depth due to injuries (Freddy Peralta), underperformance (José Berríos), or both (Yusei Kikuchi).
Moreover, trading for a pitcher offers unique advantages over trading for a position player. Because, say, the Dodgers already have Will Smith, they’re not going to bother trading for Contreras, as the catcher spot is full already—but if the Dodgers trade for Reds ace Luis Castillo, they can move an incumbent starter to the bullpen, where he’ll still contribute in the playoffs. Plus, elite pitchers can increase their October workload in a way that elite position players can’t, so it would behoove even clubs with solid rotations to peruse this market over the next week.
Castillo tops the list: Unless Soto or the Boston bats move, the Reds right-hander could be the best bet of any player traded at the deadline to swing the championship race. Frankie Montas is next on that list. Nathan Eovaldi would be an appealing option if the Red Sox fold. Leading under-the-radar candidates include Pittsburgh’s José Quintana, Texas’s Martín Pérez, and Colorado’s Chad Kuhl.
The Yankees always boast one of the majors’ top bullpens, and that’s true again this season. But the forward-looking situation looks a lot less rosy, as besides All-Star closer Clay Holmes, their theoretical top four relievers are:
- Michael King, who’s out for the season after fracturing his elbow
- Chad Green, who’s out for the season after tearing his UCL
- Jonathan Loáisiga, who has a 7.52 ERA this season
- Aroldis Chapman, who has a 9.95 ERA since returning from the injured list this month
Maybe Loáisiga and Chapman will regain their form; maybe someone like Ron Marinaccio (15 1/3 scoreless innings since being recalled from Triple-A in late May) can burst in to take King’s setup role; maybe one of the five starters will excel in a bullpen role once the team condenses the rotation to four for the playoffs. But as the Yankees prepare for October, they need at least one new reliable reliever, preferably more. The Cubs could be a perfect fit as a trade partner; perhaps a deal coupling old friend David Robertson (1.83 ERA) and Happ—and maybe adding Chris Martin or Mychal Givens, too—would fill both of the Bronx’s holes?
But the Yankees will face competition to acquire back-of-the-bullpen arms. The Twins, Giants, and Phillies all definitely need another reliever apiece. The Blue Jays and Mets each have an elite closer, but less impressive depth. And the Dodgers and Rays might poke around for a deal as well; because while both clubs can churn out their own capable relievers, they’re lacking in true shutdown arms at the moment.
With so much supply and demand, a bevy of capable late-inning relievers will change teams in the frenzy of the deadline. Robertson is probably the top arm available, and behind him (in some order) are Andrew Chafin, Michael Fulmer, Matt Moore, Daniel Bard, Lou Trivino, Anthony Bass, Steve Cishek, Ian Kennedy, and Mark Melancon. Scott Barlow, Joe Mantiply, and David Bednar would fetch a higher price, given their greater years of team control.
Stats through Monday’s games.