With the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline now less than a month away, on Monday, I focused on the top trade candidates among pending free agents, the players who constitute short-term rentals. They're the most likely to be moved this month, but hardly the only ones. It's also worth considering players on longer-term contracts who might get moved either in July or August, when general managers play high-stakes chicken using the waiver wire to see who's willing to take on significant amounts of remaining salary.
As with many of those pending free agents, not all of the players here are having great seasons. General managers' ability to take on salary in lieu of offering A-list prospects and their willingness to believe that these players can rebound to approximate their track records will both come into play, as will a bit of desperation. What follows is a look at some candidates who will at least generate discussion this month, though some may not be moved until after the dust settles on July 31.
1. Andre Ethier, Dodgers
Though he just signed a five-year, $85 million extension last June, it's increasingly clear that Ethier's number is up in LA. With the team's free-spending new owners making a big splash in the international market via Cuban defector Yasiel Puig's seven-year, $42 million deal and then taking on more than $100 million remaining on Carl Crawford's contract, the Dodgers now have four outfielders (including Matt Kemp) to whom they have big money committed though 2017. Crawford and Kemp have each missed significant time thus far due to hamstring injuries, so the crowd hasn't been a problem yet; at times last month, the team was stretched so thin that Ethier played centerfield while flanked by two rookies. Puig's bursting onto the major league scene sets up an inevitable collision course once Crawford is done with his rehab assignment, and it's difficult to imagine Ethier starting ahead of the other three once they're all healthy given his meager .252/.331/.372 showing with five home runs thus far, not to mention his ongoing problems with lefties (.237/.293/.350 in 1,208 career plate appearances, propped up by some fluky early success).
Los Angeles will have to eat a significant chunk of change to move the 31-year-old lefty, but he's only going to lose value as a fourth outfielder. On the other hand, with upcoming free agent markets looking increasingly abysmal, a significant discount on a player who has averaged 20 homers and a .287/.360/.469 line per 162 games doesn't look so bad.
Possible fits: Yankees, given the lack of production they're getting from the outfield corners; Pirates, given a .227/.292/.366 line from their rightfielders; Orioles, given their need for a DH.
2. Yovani Gallardo, Brewers
Milwaukee's staff ace isn't really a true ace, but his durability and ability to miss bats would make him a solid number two in many rotations if he was pitching up to his 2009-2012 form (3.68 ERA, 9.4 K/9 in 196 innings). Alas, the 27-year-old righty's fastball velocity has fallen off about 2 mph in two years (currently 91.4 mph), his strikeout rate has declined to 7.3 per nine, and despite a three-start stretch in June without allowing an earned run his ERA is up to 4.78 after Monday night's three-inning, eight-run pounding at the hands of the Nationals.
The money remaining on Gallardo's deal is reasonable; he's signed for $7.75 million this year and $11.25 million next year, with a $13 million option and $600,000 buyout for 2015. With the Brewers going nowhere fast, and with his popularity taking a hit because of a DUI arrest, it could be time to move him. A partial no-trade clause allows him to block deals to 10 teams including most AL contenders besides the Rangers and A's, but given that his bat (.210/.239/.370 with 12 career homers) is worth about one win a year, remaining in the NL makes more sense anyway.
Possible fits: Diamondbacks, who could put together the best trade package in terms of pitching prospects if they include Tyler Skaggs; Giants, Rockies
3. Cliff Lee, Phillies
If general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. does face reality and concede that it's time to rebuild, no player on his roster would have a bigger impact in terms of adding talent to the system than Lee, who would instantly become the top player available on the trade market, a genuine difference-maker who has already helped the Phillies and Rangers reach the World Series after midseason trades, and could do the same for the next suitor. The 34-year-old lefty is still doing ace-caliber work, with a 2.59 ERA, 8.3 strikeouts per nine and microscopic walk and homer rates; among NL pitchers, his 3.6 Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference.com version) ranks second.
Lee has got a sizable chunk of change remaining on his deal — about $12.5 million left this year, plus $25 million for 2015 and 2016, and then a $27.5 million club option with a $12.5 million buyout for 2017. The option has a vesting clause, and he's got limited no-trade protection that allows him to block deals to 21 teams; it's believed that the Yankees, Red Sox, Rangers and Orioles are among those teams, but getting him to consent may be as simple as guaranteeing that 2017 salary. It's a lot of money, but flags fly forever, and Lee offers the best chance to wave one.
Possible fits: Red Sox and Rangers, both of whom have the prospects to make it worth Amaro's while.
4. Kyle Lohse, Brewers
The last man standing from among the winter's big free agents, Lohse didn't sign his three-year, $33 million deal until late March. At the time it looked like a headscratcher given the Brewers' outlook, and with the loss of a first-round pick it looks even more misguided. The best way for Milwaukee to recover from that mistake would be to move the 34-year-old righty, who has pitched reasonably well for a guy who didn't have the benefit of a spring training regimen; he's carrying a 3.63 ERA and a 56 percent quality start rate. He's got plenty of postseason experience with the Twins, Phillies and especially the Cardinals, and would be a boon to many a contender's rotation.
Possible fits: Rangers, who showed some interest in him as a free agent; Red Sox, Giants, Padres
5. Alexei Ramirez, White Sox
A frustrating hitter, Ramirez declined dramatically last year in both the power and plate discipline departments, hitting just .265/.287/.364 with nine homers and 14 unintentional walks in 621 plate appearances. He's not much better this year (.280/.308/.344 with one homer), though the 31-year-old shortstop has maintained some value via his defense, which has been 44 runs above average since the beginning of the 2010 season according to Defensive Runs Saved. With the White Sox willing to deal, and with Ramirez owed $20.5 million for 2014-2015 plus a 2016 buyout, he could be moved at the right price, particularly given the paucity of available shortstops on the market.
Possible fits: Reds, Cardinals
6. Aramis Ramirez, Brewers
In a market painfully short of legitimate middle-of-the-order bats, Ramirez could be an enticing option, even given that the 35-year-old third baseman is hitting just .278/.356/.432 with five homers and missed most of April with a left knee sprain. Ramirez hit a combined .301/.360/.525 with 53 homers in 2011-2012 while being worth 8.3 WAR, the kind of impact that could tempt a team to take on his remaining salary — about $5 million this year, $16 million next year (with $6 million of it deferred), and a $4 million buyout of a mutual option for 2015. After slugging just .346 in June, he'll need to show some power if he's going to be moved.
Possible fits: Yankees if Alex Rodriguez suffers a setback or is suspended; Red Sox
7. Alex Rios, White Sox
Once upon a time, Rios was a waiver-bait punchline, but after a strong 2012 and a so-so half of 2013 (.268/.327/.444 with 11 homers), the 32-year-old righty's $12.5 million annual salary through 2014 (with a $13.5 million club option and $1 million buyout for 2015) looks quite reasonable, particularly in a market short of impact bats. He'd be an upgrade for many teams who don't even consider themselves to have holes in the outfield, particularly given his history in centerfield.
Possible fits: Reds, who could move Shin-Soo Choo to leftfield; Rangers, Giants, Pirates
8. Alfonso Soriano, Cubs
With Carlos Marmol's departure, the last legacy of the Jim Hendry regime is the contract of Soriano, which has about $9 million remaining for this year plus $18 million for next year. Unfortunately for the Cubs, they may have missed their best chance to trade him back in the spring, at which point he was coming off his most productive season since 2008, a .262/.322/.499 showing with 32 homers, worth 2.4 WAR, about what he'd been worth in the three seasons prior combined. Alas, he's batting just .257/.284/.428 with nine homers this year while looking increasingly out of place in the rebuilding Cubs' lineup. He's got a no-trade clause, and is said to have turned down interest from the Giants last summer. An escape plan may not be so easy to come by now, but depending upon how much salary the Cubs are willing to eat, he could find a taker. Homering in back-to-back games to kick off a six-game interleague stint as a DH couldn't have hurt his cause.
Possible fits: Orioles, Yankees, Rangers if Lance Berkman's knee problems increase.
9. Josh Willingham, Twins
Willingham set a career high with 35 homers last year, the first of a three-year, $21 million deal he signed with the Twins, and not surprisingly, he drew a fair bit of trade interest, though at the time, the Twins weren't biting. Alas, he's batting just .224/.356/.398 with 10 homers at the moment, and in the midst of a two-month slump, but he still offers considerable power and plate discipline on an affordable contract ($7 million a year through 2014).
Orioles (as DH), Pirates, Reds, Giants