While the result isn’t always a poor one, the decision to wait for an exact perfect trade is a dangerous game for a rebuilding/retooling team. Greed can sometimes be good, yes, but a player’s trade value can also dissipate with a simple twinge in the forearm.
For every Rich Hill who lands at a new home in exchange for an impressive haul, there’s a Zach Britton or Zack Cozart or Todd Frazier or Tyson Ross whose value declines dramatically — sometimes so dramatically that they become effectively untradable. Even when waiting doesn’t lead to disaster, such as with Sonny Gray and Jose Quintana, teams frequently don’t do that much better by waiting for the most beautiful opportunity for baseball-related extortion. Regression to the mean is real. For a player at the top of his game, there’s a lot more room for bad news than good; chaos may be a ladder, but it’s not a bell curve.
With that in mind, I’ve identified five players who might be most valuable to their clubs right now as a trade piece. None of them are likely to be dealt before the deadline. Nevertheless, their respective clubs might also never have a better opportunity to secure a return on these particular assets.
Kevin Gausman, RHP, Baltimore Orioles (Profile)
There seems to be a sense almost that, if the Orioles are able to trade Manny Machado for a great package, get an interesting deal for Zach Britton, and procure some token return for Adam Jones, then it’ll be time to fly the ol’ Mission Accomplished banner. In reality, though, that would simply mark the beginning of the Orioles’ chance to build a consistent winner. After D-Day, the allies didn’t call it wrap, shake some hands, and head home to work on the hot rod. (Confession: I don’t actually know what 18-year-olds did for fun in 1944.)
With Gausman, it’s understandable why a team would want to wait. He’s never had that real breakout season, just years of assorted highlights interspersed with periods during which it feels like Jason Tyner could hit a homer off of him while holding the wrong end of the bat. As with Nate Eovaldi, you see the framework for a pitcher who ought to be more successful than he is: throws in the mid-90s consistently, features obvious control (if not necessarily command), and has a splitter that could be a consistent weapon rather than an occasional one.
Gausman may seem like he just lost his prospect status, but he’s also already a free agent after 2020. I’d be surprised if the Orioles can cobble together a successful post-Manny team anywhere near quick enough to really take advantage of having Gausman. After three years of this same pattern, I don’t think we should have the expectation that the Orioles can fix his issues. Other teams might be able to, however. Such teams will have to provide some kind of payoff, though, by getting to keep him for a year or two.
Jose Abreu, 1B, Chicago White Sox (Profile)
While you see writers talk about Jose Abreu as a trade target, I’m of the belief that these discussions are driven more by teams that wish to trade for Abreu rather than any burning desire for the White Sox to peddle their first baseman. The White Sox have valid reasons for liking what Abreu brings to the team. He’s one of their most successful signings, a leader to young players, and a mentor to Yoan Moncada.
As important as these virtues are, though, the White Sox remain in a position where they need to acquire as much talent as possible. There’s no “enough” in rebuilding, never a time at which a club has acquired the requisite number of pitching prospects or upside hitters. The varying struggles of Dylan Covey, Carson Fulmer, and Lucas Giolito ought to serve as a stark reminder of this.
Already, I don’t think Abreu would fetch as much as he would have a year ago, but there are places where he could really thrive this season. It just so happens that, currently, there are several contenders who would really benefit from an Abreu acquisition: the Mariners need an upgrade, the Angels are still trying to contend, the Yankees are actively looking at first basemen, and Abreu might have enough prestige for the Rockies to bench their walking disaster at the cold corner.
Michael Fulmer, RHP, Detroit Tigers (Profile)
Fulmer’s seasonal stats aren’t quite at the level of last year and well short of his rookie campaign, but teams always need pitching and Fulmer has generally been stronger in the last month, with a 3.10 ERA and 36 strikeouts over 40.2 innings before his seven-run appearance on Friday. Fulmer’s not an ace, really, but he is a solid No. 2 who is cost-controlled for a long time, which is something that would have considerable value to the right team. I know the Tigers want a lot — and they should end up with an impressive haul for Fulmer — but it’s dangerous to price him as if here were Jacob deGrom or Noah Syndergaard. A Fulmer trade would go a long way to helping Detroit restock the farm system.
OK, I’m a big liar: this article actually features six players, not five. But Craig Edwards has already discussed the reasons for trading Merrifield in a terrific article that you should go read now. So Merrifield doesn’t really count here.
Who does count, however, is Salvador Perez, one of the few remaining core players from the Royals’ 2015 World Series championship club. Nostalgia can have a lot of value, as anyone who sells products to aging Generation Xers can tell you, but the Royals are not like the Cubs, who could roster a team of 25 retired actuaries and still sell out Wrigley. The Kansas City crowds were mad with joy in 2015-16 and the team had a great deal of cachet, but the goodwill earned from their successes has mostly faded, the team having lost a third of their attendance since 2015.
Yes, Perez is having a notably weak season, and we’ve all giggled a little about an All-Star with a .257 on-base percentage, but this in a way highlights just how many teams have significant weaknesses at catcher right now. Both ZiPS (0.9) and Steamer (1.1) have Perez finishing up with a one-WAR season, but with a team-friendly contract, Perez can likely fetch some interesting prospects, given that he’s young enough to be an excellent bounceback candidate. ZiPS thinks Perez will get back over league average in 2019.
Raisel Iglesias, RHP, Cincinnati (Profile)
Before 2018, The Magic of Jim Riggleman would sound a bit like a variety show you’d find on local access at 3 AM. But the Reds, after a 3-15 start, have a winning record since Riggleman replaced the humorously foul-mouthed Bryan Price as manager. There’s a danger, however, in supposing that Cincinnati is farther ahead in the rebuilding process than they actually are. The team’s still sorting out a playoff-ready rotation and there are still significant long-term needs.
Cincinnati has been burned by waiting before. They waited too long to trade Todd Frazier and Aroldis Chapman, never got to trade Zack Cozart at all, and now have probably waited too long to cash in Adam Duvall. You could very easily put Scooter Gennett (sans long-term contract) or Scott Schebler here, as well.
But where Cincinnati has been consistently most stubborn is in hanging onto Raisel Iglesias. Very few closers are bulletproof over the long term, and closer is more the final piece of a contending team rather than the player around whom you build. Teams expecting deep playoff runs have a long history of giving top dollar for talented relievers, even forward-thinking teams like the Chicago Cubs. The NL Central is a tough division at the moment, and I personally feel that the return for Raisel Iglesias is more likely to put the Reds in the position of actually needing to have a top closer than Iglesias himself actually would.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.