With the calendar turning to July, the countdown for the non-waiver trade deadline has begun. Over the next 30 days, the rumor mill will kick into high gear, largely driven by the decisions of teams on the fringes of contention, since their inclusion among the pool of sellers can change the market considerably.
The following is an early attempt to go around the diamond identifying the top trade candidate at each position given the general tendencies that come into play at this time of year. Most of the key players dealt will be pending free agents who aren't all that likely to re-sign with their current teams, who are generally below .500 at this juncture. The exceptions to those rules of thumb — players signed beyond this year, and/or those on teams solidly above .500 — will constitute some of the more outside-the-box trade candidates who will be worth a closer look at a later date.
At 39-44 and tied for the league's fourth-worst run differential (-46), the Phillies aren't going to contend, but it may take a while before general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. concedes what the rest of the baseball world knows: the Phillies aren't going back to October. His reluctance to start dealing may be in part because last year's unloading preceded a mad late-season dash to .500 that probably left Amaro wondering what might have been had he kept Shane Victorino, Hunter Pence and Joe Blanton.
If and when Amaro opens his team business, the Phillies will have more key components to deal that any other team, even limiting the scope to pending free agents. Ruiz was an All-Star who set career highs in batting average (.325), home runs (16) and slugging percentage (.540) last year despite missing a month due to plantar fasciitis, but this year has been a disappointment. The 34-year-old backstop missed the first 25 games due to a suspension for a banned stimulant, then lost another month to a hamstring strain and is hitting a meager .261/.316/.295 in 98 plate appearances. Still, he's a career .275/.361/.413 hitter with extensive postseason experience from the team's run of five straight division titles from 2007-2011, and likely to be the first choice of any team looking for catching help.
Best fit: Yankees, though a lower priority given their multitude of needs, so any team with a significant injury could easily supersede them
First base: Justin Morneau, Twins ($14 million)
Since a 2010 concussion knocked him out for half a season and wiped out a bid for a second AL MVP award, Morneau has been searching for his old form, but a litany of other injuries have gotten in the way. Overall, he's hitting just .291/.341/.411 with four homers, though he showed more pop in June (.298/.344/.476 in 90 PA) than in the first two months. His left-handedness and career .458/.536/1.000 with seven homers in 56 PA in new Yankee Stadium makes him an obvious candidate to fill the lineup opening left by the injured Mark Teixiera, particularly given the Yankees' ability to absorb salary, though he could also fit the bill for the Pirates, whose Gaby Sanchez/Garrett Jones/Travis Snider first base/rightfield platoon hasn't been all that effective.
Best fit: Yankees
Second base: Chase Utley, Phillies ($15 million)
If Amaro is going to hold back from dealing any of his pending free agents, it's their five-time All-Star second baseman, whom he views as "a Phillie for life". Given that, it will be up to Utley to ask for a trade if he really wants one; with a partial no-trade clause that gives him the ability to block deals to 21 teams, he'll have plenty of control over the matter if he does decide to go. The 34-year-old been on fire since returning from a month-long absence due to an oblique strain (.326/.383/.674 in 47 PA), lifting his overall line to .284/.348/.517. If he's available and can stay healthy — no small matter for a player who averaged 100 games from 2010-2012 and has already seen the DL this year — he's the top impact bat on the market.
Ryan is no kind of hitter. His .199/.256/.259 line this year is down about 20 points of on-base and slugging percentage from last year's terrible marks. But in a shortstop market that's otherwise barren unless the Rangers change course and decide to deal Jurickson Profar, the White Sox offer up Alexei Ramirez (who has more than $23 million remaining on his deal through 2015) or the Indians seize the day and make Asdrubal Cabrera available — all longshots — Ryan is still noteworthy because he's an elite defender. Via Baseball-Reference.com's version of Wins Above Replacement, he was worth an average of 3.5 wins per year from 2009-2012, and around 22 runs above average per year via Defensive Runs Saved. Fielding Runs Above Average puts him closer to +14 per year, Ultimate Zone Rating around +11 — which still isn't nothing. With Seattle having just recalled 2011 second-round pick Brad Miller, Ryan is likely to return to a utility role, which won't do anything to hurt his value on the market.
Best fit: Cardinals, who already have a no-hit, good-field shortstop in Pete Kozma but could use an elite one, or a player to provide help at multiple positions — particularly one who spent 2007-2010 with St. Louis.
Third base: Michael Young, Phillies ($6 million share paid by Philadelphia)
The easiest players for Amaro to send out of Philadelphia will be ones without a connection to the team's run of success. The 36-year-old Young fits that bill, though he does have a no-trade clause, albeit one he's already waived once that got him to the Phillies last offseason in the first place. His bat has rebounded somewhat after collapsing last year; he's hitting .287/.344/.409, which isn't all that different from the .290/.329/.396 he hit away from Arlington in his final three years with Texas. Young's defense at third is pretty lousy, with estimates running in the −6 to −9 runs range thus far this year and the mental image of a matador waving at a ball going by difficult to erase. Even so, his experience playing for contenders and his nominal versatility — which includes recent work at all four infield positions — will garner him some attention.
Best fit: Red Sox or Yankees. Boston needs a third baseman given that it has sent the disappointing Will Middlebrooks (.192/.228/.389) back to Triple-A and is currently using Jose Iglesias (an insane .409/.455 /.530 in 145 PA) at the hot corner. New York could use him as insurance in case Alex Rodriguez doesn't come back, is suspended or can't play the field often; at the very least, he'd fill the corner infield backup role that Kevin Youkilis was supposed to man before undergoing surgery to repair a herniated disc.
Leftfield: Michael Morse, Mariners ($6.75 million)
Capable of manning first base or either outfield corner — not necessarily well, mind you — and just two seasons removed from a 31-homer campaign, the 31-year-old Morse is hitting .251/.313/.454 with 11 homers, though just .225/.287/.384 in 150 PA against righties. After playing through a right quad strain that sapped his numbers somewhat, he went on the disabled list on June 22 with a strained quad, but he should be back in time to show he's healthy enough to be dealt.
Best fit: Reds, who have gotten just a .238/.311/.350 showing from their leftfielders in the wake of Ryan Ludwick's injury, or Orioles, who could use him primarily as a DH spot given their cumulative .207/.274/.407 line there.
Centerfield: Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox ($9 million)
Atop the AL East with a 50-34 record, the Red Sox will be buyers, not sellers, at the deadline, but they do have an enticing piece to deal in the 29-year-old Ellsbury, who is unlikely to re-sign and who is currently blocking top prospect Jackie Bradley Jr. Though he's nowhere near matching his MVP-caliber 2011 form, Ellsbury's now hitting .296/.361/.405 thanks to a torrid June, and leading the league with 32 steals in 35 attempts. Dealing him to another contender could help the Sox fill their rotation needs without gutting their own farm system, particularly if Amaro makes Cliff Lee available.
With a 50-game PED suspension and a .210/.243/.245 line in 153 PA last year, Byrd's career appeared to be on the ropes, but regular playing time in Queens has given the 35-year-old a new lease on his spot in the majors. Though his strikeout rate is at a career-high 29.2 percent, he's currently hitting .257/.310/.486 with 12 homers, including .297/.341/.595 with eight homers in 123 PA away from Citi Field. His low price tag will boost the return the Mets could otherwise expect.
Best fit: Reds (leftfield), Giants (leftfield) or Orioles (DH)
Designated hitter: Kendrys Morales, Mariners ($5.25 million)
The 30-year-old switch-hitter isn't exactly lighting up Seattle (.275/.333/.433), but with Jesus Montero learning first base at Triple-A and Justin Smoak at least managing a .352 on-base percentage, Morales is part of a logjam at the left end of the defensive spectrum, and the piece in which the Mariners have the least invested. He's been raking against southpaws this year (.317/.383/.490 in 115 PA), though he has traditionally been stronger against righties by about 100 points of OPS.
Best fit: Pirates (first base) or Orioles (DH)
Perhaps more than any position players, the trade deadline spotlight will shine most brightly on the starters available for trade, and in the absence of Lee or other pitchers signed beyond this year (the Brewers' Yovani Gallardo and Kyle Lohse come to mind), this is where the heat will be. The 29-year-old Garza has been limited to 26 starts over the past two seasons due to a stress fracture in his elbow and a lat strain, but since coming off the disabled list, he has put up a 3.83 ERA with 8.6 strikeouts per nine in 49 1/3 innings, reasonably representative of his recent body of work. With three quality starts out of five and a 3.48 ERA, he's got a decent postseason resume to his name as well. The Cubs have discussed a long-term extension with him, but if they're serious about retaining him, it serves their rebuilding purposes better to trade him for a decent prospect haul and then woo him back in the winter.
Best fit: Orioles or Padres, with the latter possibly having the edge given general manager Jed Hoyer's knowledge of their farm system from his days at the helm in San Diego
The 30-year-old righty is once again underperforming relative to his peripherals, with a 3.93 ERA — his best since 2008 — still hovering above his 3.51 FIP. Even so, he's he's already garnering plenty of attention, particularly since there's no way he'll re-sign with the Marlins.
Best fit: Giants or Dodgers, the latter of whom have been in heavy discussions recently
Relief pitcher: Jesse Crain, White Sox ($4.5 million)
With a strikeout rate that's jumped 70 percent since he left Minnesota for the South Side in December 2010, Crain has put himself on the map as a frontline setup man, and he's currently ninth in WAR among AL pitchers (Baseball-Reference.com version) because he's carrying a 0.74 ERA through 36 2/3 innings. A closer look shows that half of the runs he's allowed are unearned, and that he's allowed seven out of 20 inherited runners (35 percent) to score, a rate slightly worse than the league-average 31 percent. Even so, he's striking out 11.3 per nine, with a 4.2 strikeout-to-walk ratio, roughly double his career mark. Though he has just four career saves to his name, he could even get a shot at closing, depending upon where he lands.Best fit: Padres or Tigers (as closer), Reds (as setup)