It’s only a month into the season, and sample sizes are still too small to make definitive conclusions about how the league will look come October. It’s never too early for some harmless prognosticating though, so let’s take a look at one player from each division who could change teams at the deadline.
NL East: Matt Kemp, OF - Atlanta Braves
Kemp’s trade value was so low at the 2016 deadline that the San Diego Padres took a player who was on an active domestic violence suspension just to get Kemp off their books. Since arriving in Atlanta, Kemp has thoroughly repaid the Braves’ faith in his abilities. In 72 games for Atlanta, the former MVP runner-up has hit 18 HRs while hitting .293. Along the way he’s also dropped 30 pounds and once again resembles his old Gold Glove self, at least in appearance. He’s been an impact bat for the Braves and has provided some much needed lineup protection for sudden MVP candidate Freddie Freeman. For Atlanta, who aren’t expecting to seriously compete in the division until after Kemp’s $21 million salary comes off their books anyway, he could be a valuable piece to flip to a contender at the deadline. Assuming that the Braves are willing to eat some of Kemp’s salary, they could potentially get a nice return of prospects to add to their top ranked farm system while providing a legitimate championship contender with a middle-of-the-lineup power bat.
Predicted Destinations: Washington Nationals, Los Angeles Dodgers, Cleveland Indians
NL Central: Zack Cozart, SS - Cincinnati Reds
Cozart picked a great time to suddenly have a career year. As a free agent in the 2018 offseason, Cozart would be a short term rental for a team needing help in the middle of their infield. The Reds certainly see Cozart as expendable, as they have shortstop-of-the-future Jose Peraza ready to take his place immediately. The 31-year old Cozart has shown a surprising amount of patience at the plate so far in 2017 and is on pace to set career highs in nearly every offensive category this year. On top of that, he plays relatively good defense at a premium position, so even if his bat regresses back to his less than impressive career averages, he could garner interest as a backup defensive shortstop for a contender. If he continues to hit the cover off the ball until the deadline he could garner much more interest however, and could find himself in a situation where he is the everyday shortstop for a contending team.
Predicted Destinations: Colorado Rockies, Washington Nationals
NL West: Johnny Cueto, SP - San Francisco Giants
The Giants have not had an ideal start to 2017. Their undisputed ace Madison Bumgarner is on the DL for the foreseeable future after a dirt bike accident, Matt Moore looks to have regressed heavily from his breakout 2016 campaign, and the San Francisco lineup as a whole just isn’t hitting the ball well. Entering May they sit in the basement of the NL West and things don’t look much better going forward. Cueto can opt out of his contract at the end of 2017, and while his struggles in April are a contributor to the Giants’ woes so far, he still has a reputation as one of the most consistently above average starters in baseball. Although it seems like Cueto has been in the league forever, he’s only 31 and still in the prime of his career. If the Giants do see this as a lost season, they could get a substantial haul for the veteran righty from a team looking to add a solid piece to their rotation for a championship push.
Predicted Destinations: Houston Astros, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs
AL East: Chris Archer, SP - Tampa Bay Rays
Chris Archer might be the most sought after asset in baseball right now. Despite a rocky 2016 season, Archer has been one of the most consistently good young pitchers in the game since his rookie year in 2013. He catapulted himself into near-elite status with his 2015 campaign that saw him strikeout 252 batters en route to a 3.23 ERA and a 5th place finish in AL Cy Young voting. And if Archer’s talent didn’t provide enough value, his ridiculously valuable contract (he’ll earn less than 10 million annually until 2021) vaults him into prize asset status for the Rays. For a team that already has a history of trading prime starters, Archer could be the most valuable one yet. Trade rumors have been swirling around the 28-year old righty since his breakout 2015, and they only intensified this past offseason once Chris Sale came off the market. He’s on pace to eclipse 200 strikeouts for the third consecutive season and currently has an ERA just under 3.5 with no signs of regression. If the Rays are not in the mix in the AL East, Archer will be the prime target at the deadline for a number of teams.
Predicted Destinations: Houston Astros, Atlanta Braves, Chicago Cubs
AL Central: Justin Upton, OF - Detroit Tigers
Any number of players from Detroit could have represented the AL Central on this list. The Tigers window for competing seems to be slamming shut as expected, leaving the team full of scavengable assets. Upton, a 3 time All Star who never quite reached the lofty expectations many had of him, could be the first name out the door in the case of a fire sale. Although he’s owed a hair over $22 million per season through 2022, Upton still provides valuable power for the heart of a lineup. 2016 saw him match his career high home run total with 31, and while he may never be an All Star caliber player again, the Tigers could recoup a few valuable assets for him should they be willing to eat some of his contract while sending him on his way. His bat is the most valuable thing about him at this point in his career, so don’t be surprised to see him end up at another AL team in need of an upgrade at their DH spot.
Predicted Destinations: Washington Nationals, Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox
AL West: James Paxton, SP - Seattle Mariners
Paxton has been the breakout star in Seattle this season. After years of teasing the Mariners with superstar talent mixed with inconsistency and injuries, the lefty sensation seems to have finally put it all together. He’s 3-0 with a sparkling 1.43 ERA and 45 Ks through just 37.7 innings to start the year, and his advanced metrics show no signs of regression as he’s also sporting a ridiculous 1.52 FIP. He’s just been flat out amazing for a Seattle team that came into 2017 with hopes of competing for an AL West crown. Already 6 games back of the heavily favored Houston Astros, and hampered by injuries to their once-ace Felix Hernandez and rookie outfield phenom Mitch Haniger, the Mariners could already be fading fast and looking at all their options. Should Paxton continue his dominance through May and June, Seattle could demand a king’s ransom for him at the deadline and would probably get it. As disappointing as it would be for the Mariners to spend the formative years of Paxton’s career supporting him through inconsistency and injury just to see him excel for a rival once he’s finally reach his potential, the haul they would receive in return for the early AL Cy Young contender would certainly ease the pain a bit.
Predicted Destinations: Houston Astros, New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers