Sunday wasn't a great day for Cole Hamels, who was chased after three innings by the Marlins. It didn't go much better for Johnny Cueto, who lasted just four innings against the Indians, or Justin Upton, who took himself out before the fifth inning of what soon turned into a washout against the Rockies. All three are strong candidates to be dealt before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline nonetheless, but with just 11 shopping days remaining, their every hiccup is being monitored for signals regarding their health and thus their trade value.
What follows here is a closer look at that trio as well as four other players who represent the top tier of the trade market—players whose recent track records suggest they'll make the most likely impact if they're dealt. None of their teams are among the 15 still within five games of either a division lead or a Wild Card berth or among the 17 with at least a 15% chance of reaching the postseason according to the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds. That doesn’t guarantee they’ll be dealt, either because they're under contract beyond this year or because their teams may harbor expectations of a comeback. But the signs still point toward their being moved.
NOTE: Players are listed alphabetically. All stats are as of Sunday, July 19.
The Reds haven't been above .500 since May 17, and as the Cincinnati Enquirer's John Fay put it on Sunday, "The fire sale is in full swing." Beyond pending free agent Cueto, the 27-year-old Chapman is their most attractive piece, a buzzsaw closer at the top of his game who has a year of club control remaining after this one. Routinely able to reach triple digits with his heater—he's done so on 214 pitches this year, more than 30% of his total offerings—Chapman is striking out "only" 41.7% of batters faced this year, down from last year's 52.5%. At the same time, he's cut his pitches per plate appearance to 4.20, his lowest since his 2010 cup of coffee. Batters are hitting just .182/.292/.224 against him despite a fluky .338 batting average on balls in play, 57 points above his career norm; even so, his 1.60 ERA and 1.58 FIP are almost perfectly aligned, and he's converted 18 out of 19 save opportunities. Making $8.05 million this year and arbitration eligible this winter, where he'll be headed for upwards of $10 million, he’s easily worth at least 2.0 WAR a year when healthy, and thus worth the salary.
Possible destinations: The Nationals are known to have inquired about Chapman last month despite the strong work of closer Drew Storen. Additionally, he could make sense for the Tigers, for whom the ninth inning has become a perennial problem, and the Blue Jays, who recently turned to 20-year-old rookie Robert Osuna to close.
Johnny Cueto, Reds
The Reds can't afford the pending free agent, who posted a Cy Young-caliber season in 2014 and has pitched to a 2.79 ERA and 3.16 FIP this year. The knock on the 29-year-old righty is his fragility, as he hasn't made 30 starts in back-to-back seasons since '09–'10 and has never thrown 200 innings in back-to-back years. He missed a couple of starts at the end of May due to elbow concerns, and Sunday's four-inning, six-walk mess against the Indians was a lousy advertisement for his services, particularly with the Yankees known to have been scouting him.
Possible destinations: Beyond the Yankees, the Royals are known to be in hot pursuit, the Astros have shown significant interest, and the Dodgers are an obvious destination given the loss of two members of their starting five. Meanwhile, the Blue Jays, Tigers and Red Sox have the AL's three worst rotations in terms of ERA, but none of them are completely out of the picture—though the latter spent the weekend burrowing deeper into the AL East cellar.
After emerging as a star in 2013–14 via highlight-reel defense and a combined .287/.347/.491 batting line (129 OPS+) with 47 homers, the 29-year-old Gomez has scuffled somewhat this year, batting .268/.329/.440 (109 OPS+) with eight homers. In part, that's because he's been banged up, serving time on the disabled list in the second half of April due to a right hamstring strain and more recently battling a right hip issue that limited him to five games over a two-week period in June. Demonstrative on the field and often controversial—check Sunday's takeout slide of Jordy Mercer, which could send the Pirates shortstop to the DL—he's not for every taste, but with a $9 million deal for next year on top of this year's $8 million, he's an affordable piece who could bring back a significant haul for the Brewers and provide an upgrade to a contender's outfield.
Possible destinations: The Orioles and Astros have both shown interest, the Mets (who signed him out of the Dominican Republic back in 2002 and brought him to the majors in '07) are desperate for outfield help, and the Twins (for whom he played in '08–'09 after being traded for Johan Santana) have mentioned him as well.
Cole Hamels, Phillies
Knocked around on Sunday for the second outing in a row—that's 14 runs and 20 hits over his past 6 1/3 innings at the hands of the Giants and Marlins—Hamels is now sporting a 3.91 ERA, higher than in any full season since 2009, but his 3.37 FIP is right in line with his work over the past four seasons, in part because his rate of 9.3 strikeouts per nine is a career high. As he's signed through '18 with an option for '19, the Phillies don't have to deal the 31-year-old southpaw if they don't get a package to their liking, and some believe they won’t. But with the hiring of club president-in-waiting Andy MacPhail, the word of lame-duck general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. no longer carries as much weight, and the need to rebuild is abundantly clear.
Beyond this season, Hamels is owed a minimum of $76.5 million including his 2019 buyout, and he has a partial no-trade clause that allows him to block deals to 20 teams, including the Red Sox, who pursued him this spring but would not part with catcher Blake Swihart even before the rookie was pressed into the starting job ahead of schedule. Whoever lands Hamels will get a pitcher who's well-seasoned in October, with 13 starts, a 3.09 ERA and NLCS and World Series MVP trophies on his resume; between that and the years of control at a slight discount relative to the coming crop of free agents, that certainly has its appeal.
Possible destinations: The Dodgers are a natural fit given Hamels’s California roots and the likelihood of Zack Greinke opting out. The Cubs, Rangers and Orioles are also known to have scouted him recently, while the Astros appear to be a no-go.
Jonathan Papelbon, Phillies
No potential trade piece wants to be dealt more than the 34-year-old closer; at last week’s All-Star Game, he declared that the Phillies need to “either you-know-what or get off the pot” with regards to moving him. With a 1.77 ERA, 9.1 strikeouts per nine and a perfect 15-for-15 mark in save opportunities this year, Papelbon is at the top of his game despite the surrounding drama, and he’s battle-tested in the postseason, with a 1.00 ERA in 27 innings and seven saves, including the 2007 World Series clincher for the Red Sox. The real complication is his contract, which pays him $13 million this year and becomes guaranteed for another $13 million next year if he finishes another 17 games, but Papelbon’s penchant for obnoxiousness almost guarantees the Phillies will include some cash to ship him out of town.
Possible destinations: The Blue Jays, Cubs and Rangers have been connected to Papelbon in recent weeks, and ESPN’s Jayson Stark cryptically connected Los Angeles as well via Twitter without clarifying whether it was the Dodgers (who have Kenley Jansen but also a seemingly limitless capacity to take on salary that would limit the quality of prospect Papelbon would cost) or the Angels. The Tigers make some sense as well, provided they can get their chins back above .500.
Justin Upton, Padres
The Padres' radical winter remake simply hasn't paid off, and as a pending free agent who's just 27 years old, Upton the Younger is likely to bring back the most in trade among the team's recently acquired pieces. That said, his numbers (.252/.331/.426 with 15 homers and a 114 OPS+) are depressed, though he's been a terror at Petco Park (.301/.357/.562 with 12 homers) and just terrible (.208/.308/.306 with three homers) away. Of more concern is a .175/.281/.263 slump in 161 PA since June and a departure from Sunday's game with tightness in an oblique muscle, something he's been dealing with for more than a week, though it’s worth wondering whether it’s been a factor for longer. Assuming that's a transient issue, his track record certainly says he'll hit.
Possible destinations: The Orioles and Mets have been most heavily connected to him, while the Royals now have a need with Alex Gordon out for eight weeks, and the Giants could use outfield help as well, if GM A.J. Preller is open to dealing within the division.
After a slow start and a four-week absence due to surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee, the 34-year-old jack-of-all-trades is hitting .258/.346/.423 with five homers; his 115 OPS+ matches that of last year and is within three points of the year before, though his glove work (-7 Defensive Runs Saved) hasn't been up to snuff if the small sample sizes are to be believed, which is probably unwise. A pending free agent making just $7.5 million this year, Zobrist's ability to play second base, either outfield corner or even shortstop—and probably third base, despite just four career games there—makes him a particularly valuable piece beyond his WAR.
Possible destinations: The Mets (who should really try to clone him) make obvious sense, and the Yankees, Giants, Nationals, Royals, Cubs and Pirates are apparently interested.