Breaking down top candidates to be dealt by MLB's waiver deadline
Thursday provided the baseball world with one of the wildest trade deadlines in memory, with two blockbuster deals for aces, the dynamiting of the defending world champions and so much more. But even with that circus having left town, the swap meet is still in effect, though the rules change relative to other times of year.
The mechanics are worth reviewing. Between now and 11:59 PM ET on Aug. 31, teams can trade players only after passing them through waivers, a situation that allows for deals big and small. Throughout both leagues, teams place the overwhelming majority of their players on revocable waivers at some point as a means of gauging the market with regards to future deals. Suppose the Phillies actually wanted to explore dealing Cole Hamels — don't worry, I'm going to pick on Ruben Amaro Jr. plenty below, but take this example in earnest.
To do so, Amaro places Hamels on waivers, giving every team a chance to put in a claim. The priority of awarding that claim goes in reverse order of record, first within the same league (NL, for this example) and then the opposite league. In this case, the Rockies (44-64, .407) would have first crack and the Giants (58-50, .537) would be ahead of the Dodgers (62-47, .569) in the pecking order. If the Giants claim Hamels, the Phillies can do one of three things: Pull him back and not deal him anywhere for the remainder of the season; trade him to the Giants within 48 hours, with all other players in the deal who are on 40-man rosters similarly having to go through waivers (this is why players to be named later are sometimes used as placeholders until after the season); or simply give him to the Giants for a $20,000 transaction fee, with San Francisco assuming the entirety of his remaining contract. If a player goes unclaimed, he clears waivers and can be dealt to any team.
The system is subject to manipulations within the rules. Suppose instead of simply floating Hamels to check the interest level of various teams, Amaro works out a deal with the Dodgers ahead of time, agreeing to take Chone Figgins in return, because 36-year-old utility infielders don't grow on trees in the cooler northeast temperatures. Both sides would try to keep the deal on the hush-hush, but inevitably, the Spidey-Sense of Giants general manager Brian Sabean would begin tingling. Knowing that the worst case scenario is being handed a healthy Hamels with $100 million remaining on his deal, and that if the ace lefty gets to the Dodgers, the Giants' chances of winning the NL West take a hit, Sabean puts in a claim.
Amaro, rightly feeling that his asset shouldn't be given away for nothing, could pull him back and instead ask the Giants for Buster Posey, Brandon Belt and Madison Bumgarner in return, at which point Sabean would either begin a 48-hour process of haggling ("I really think Marco Scutaro is more your speed…") or hanging up the phone, with Hamels staying put. Amaro could also pull Hamels back, mutter "Nerts!" and call Dodgers GM Ned Colletti, apologizing for not being able to sneak Hamels through waivers and telling him they'll revisit the talks in the winter. Go through the same process with Ryan Howard instead of Hamels, and if another team puts in a claim, the Phillies might well just dump him and the $60 million remaining on his deal on that team instead.
As for who we could see traded this month, many of the top candidates are familiar names who turned up in similar forums in July. While their credentials may be familiar, the focus here is on the remaining money on their contracts; for purposes of this exercise, I'll assume that they're due exactly one-third of their full season salary. The players are listed alphabetically where I haven’t lumped together multiple teammates.
The White Sox were on the sidelines this week — at one point, they got into discussions with the Marlins over John Danks, but the 29-year-old lefty's 4.50 ERA with worse peripherals and $33 million remaining on his deal make him the pitching equivalent of Howard. However, the team does have other candidates to move. Given contenders that could still use an upgrade at second base — Baltimore, Toronto and San Francisco come to mind — somebody might be willing to spring for Beckham, whose career long ago stalled on the South Side. He's hitting just .226/.270/.358, but as a change-of-scenery candidate with one more year of arbitration eligibility, he makes some sense. Dunn is having the best season of a mostly-dismal four-year run with the White Sox (.230/.362/.450 with 17 homers); though limited primarily to a DH role, the $5 million he's still owed figures to be a number where Rick Hahn and a fellow GM could find some middle ground.
On Thursday, this little bit of my snark was retweeted over 300 times:
Ruben Amaro Jr. keeping all of his chips, because while it's not 2009 now, you never know what year it's going to be tomorrow — Jay Jaffe (@jay_jaffe) July 31, 2014
Amaro wound up sitting on his hands as the deadline passed. Not only did the GM of the league's oldest team, a squad 13 games under .500 and 11 1/2 out of first place, hold onto all of his trade chips, he complained, "Frankly, I don't think the clubs were aggressive enough for the kind of talent we have on our club." I can't fault him for asking for Joc Pederson, Corey Seager AND Julio Urias from the Dodgers in exchange for Hamels, whom he clearly didn't want to deal. But keeping several other players — Byrd, Papelbon and Jimmy Rollins, most notably — is a head-scratching move, because none of them are going to be part of the next winning Phillies team, and all had some appeal to other teams. It's clear that Amaro considers Rollins a franchise icon who shouldn't be moved, so cross him off the list. Likewise with the injured Cliff Lee and the essentially untradeable Howard.
That still leaves Byrd, a 36-year-old rightfielder batting a respectable .271/.319/.476 with 20 homers, owed $2.7 million for the remainder of this year plus $8 million for next year, with an $8 million club option for 2016 that can vest. Byrd has been through this before — enjoying a similarly productive season last year, he was traded from the Mets to the Pirates on Aug. 27 and helped Pittsburgh make the playoffs. Despite his ability to block deals to the Royals, Mariners, Rays and Blue Jays, Byrd should generate enough interest to be moved.
Tougher to deal is Papelbon, a 33-year-old closer striking out just 7.9 per nine but still carrying a slick 1.79 ERA. He's guaranteed $17.3 million through next year, but his $13 million vesting option for 2016 may be all too attainable (55 games finished in 2015 or 100 games finished in 2014-15) for some tastes. Amaro has finally shown a willingness to eat some of that remaining salary, and Papelbon would sail through waivers unclaimed, so if the GM can increase that number — and find a team willing to make him its full-time closer (no sharesies) — he could finally leave town.
Bartolo Colon, Mets SP
The expected market for Colon never materialized, but the rotund 41-year-old righty has been on a roll lately. Over his last 13 starts, he’s pitched to a 2.83 ERA with just six homers allowed in 92 1/3 innings, lowering his season ERA and FIP to 3.88 and 3.41, respectively. Even owed roughly $14 million through next season, his ability to pound the strike zone and keep his team in games — consider his 72-percent quality start rate in 2013-14 — gives him plenty of value. His remaining money looks like a better investment than the $10 million the Dodgers would owe Dan Haren for next year given another 57 2/3 innings, though one can imagine the Matt Cain-less Giants taking a flyer, both out of self-interest and as a means of preventing him from reaching Los Angeles.
Andre Ethier, Dodgers OF
As with the weather, if you don't like the way the Dodgers' overcrowded outfield situation is playing out, just wait a minute. With the team having pulled off consecutive three-game sweeps of the Giants and Braves since Don Mattingly dared to flank Yasiel Puig with the previously-exiled Carl Crawford and previously-disgruntled Matt Kemp, Ethier has become the man on the outside looking in; he's made just two plate appearances in the past six games. The 32-year-old lefty has the least money of the non-Puig trio remaining on his deal ($61 million through 2017) but is hitting just .247/.313/.373 with four homers.
The Dodgers could bite the bullet and eat a substantial portion of that — still less than what they'd take on to move Crawford or the suddenly hot Kemp — to clear up their logjam. Given their lefty-friendly ballpark and meager production from rightfield, Ethier makes some sense for the Yankees, though perhaps not enough to justify a long-term commitment.
Aaron Hill, Diamondbacks 2B
Embattled GM Kevin Towers was busy on Thursday, trading both Gerardo Parra and Martin Prado and freeing up considerable salary in the process. Given the aforementioned market remaining for second base fixes, he could still save more money if he's willing to eat some of the $27.7 million remaining on Hill's deal through 2016. The 32-year-old’s season numbers are underwhelming (.253/.290/.389), but he’s batting a sizzling .341/.400/.591 in 50 PA since the All-Star break. Back in 2011, Hill overcame a similarly sluggish three-quarters of the season to help Arizona win the NL West, so there's hope for him if his bat gets hot.
It rated as a surprise that Rios went unmoved by Thursday's deadline, given interest from the Giants, Mariners, Reds, Royals and Yankees, as well as the willingness of the Rangers to eat some of his remaining $5.2 million salary, a figure that includes a $1 million buyout of next year's $13.5 million club option. Rios is hitting well (.304/.335/.430 for a 111 OPS+, nine points above his career mark) even if his defense (-5 Defensive Runs Saved) has fallen off a bit.
The subject of one of the more famous waiver-period gaffes in recent memory back in 2009, Rios fared better upon being traded to Texas during last August’s waiver period, and almost certainly will be on the go this month despite limited no-trade protection; he can't be dealt to Arizona, Colorado, Houston, Kansas City, Oakland or the Yankees without permission.
Flags fly forever, so it's not likely that the Red Sox will concede any regret for signing Victorino to a three-year, $39 million deal in December of 2012. He was a key player in helping them win the 2013 World Series, but right hamstring and lower back injuries have limited him to 30 games this year. If he can demonstrate some semblance of health, the acquisition of Yoenis Cespedes and the continued presence of Mookie Betts, Daniel Nava and Brock Holt make the 33-year-old switch-hitter expendable, though the Sox would surely have to pay down the $17.3 million remaining on his deal.
A six-week slump in which he went 13-for-100 with a .544 OPS damaged the market for Willingham, but the 35-year-old slugger has heated up lately, homering three times in his last nine games to restore his line to .219/.362/.427. With just $2.3 million remaining on his deal, he would be an inexpensive DH/corner outfield/bench option for many contenders, so long as he can avoid another nosedive.