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Charlie Riedel/Associated Press
In a year when MLB teams across the league suffered massive financial losses, free-agency spending figures to be impacted in some capacity.
That could make the trade market more of a focal point, and there are a number of impact players who could be on the move, including Cleveland Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor, Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant and Texas Rangers right-hander Lance Lynn.
But it’s not always the blockbuster deal that makes the biggest impact.
The San Diego Padres acquired Trent Grisham and Zach Davies last offseason in a swap with the Milwaukee Brewers that wound up paying major dividends. The Tampa Bay Rays picked up Randy Arozarena as a secondary piece in a swap with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Ahead, we have highlighted 10 under-the-radar trade candidates who could wind up making a surprise impact for a contender.
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David J. Phillip/Associated Press
He needed just 51 games to get to 2.0 WAR in 2020.
The 32-year-old hit .309/.425/.591 for a career-high 178 OPS+ with 13 doubles, nine home runs and 30 RBI while tallying nearly as many walks (30) as strikeouts (36).
He is still owed a staggering $17.2 million in 2021 in the final season of a five-year, $72.8 million extension. Moving the entirety of his salary will be tough, but there could be a market if the Giants are willing to absorb some of that money.
Looking at the free-agent market, Mitch Moreland, Carlos Santana and C.J. Cron are the best of the bunch among available first basemen, so a trade for Belt could be an appealing alternative if the price is right.
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Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
Left-hander Steven Brault was one of the few bright spots in 2020 for a Pittsburgh Pirates team that finished with the worst record in baseball at 19-41.
The 28-year-old entered the season with a 4.88 ERA and 4.80 FIP in 273 innings at the MLB level over the past four seasons, including a 5.16 ERA in a career-high 113.1 innings in 2019.
Slotted in the No. 4 starter spot to begin the season, he posted a 3.38 ERA and 1.20 WHIP with 38 strikeouts in 42.2 innings, finishing third on the team and first among pitchers in WAR.
His 3.92 FIP is a promising indicator that he is capable of holding down a spot at the back of an MLB rotation, and he also graded out well in exit velocity allowed (89th percentile), hard-hit percentage allowed (76th percentile) and barrel rate (83rd percentile).
A jump in his ground-ball rate (+5.1%) and a drop in his hard-contact allowed rate (-6.0%) was at the root of his strong numbers, and those are gains that could lead to sustainable success.
Projected for an arbitration salary between $1.5 million and $2.5 million, and with team control through the 2023 season, Brault is an attractive low-cost option to help bolster the back of a contender’s rotation.
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Elise Amendola/Associated Press
In search of a stopgap option at shortstop, the Baltimore Orioles handed slick-fielding veteran Jose Iglesias a one-year, $2.5 million contract last offseason.
That deal included a $3.5 million club option for 2021 that was exercised over the weekend, but that does not necessarily mean he will be the team’s Opening Day shortstop.
Along with providing his usual solid defense last year, Iglesias put together a shockingly productive offensive season with a .373/.400/.556 line that included 20 extra-base hits in 150 plate appearances.
Is his .407 BABIP sustainable over a full season?
Absolutely not, but elite contact skills that put him among the MLB leaders in strikeout rate (98th percentile) and whiff rate (97th percentile) can still make him an asset offensively even with significant regression in that area.
For teams with a need at the shortstop position that miss out on Marcus Semien and Didi Gregorius, Iglesias could be a low-cost alternative to fill the void in 2021.
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Brad Keller is one of the most successful Rule 5 picks in recent memory, and he has developed into a valuable trade chip for the Kansas City Royals.
Plucked from the Arizona Diamondbacks’ system prior to the 2018 season, he logged a 3.08 ERA and 3.8 WAR in 140.1 innings spanning 20 starts and 21 relief appearances as a rookie.
He followed that up with a rock-solid 4.19 ERA and 122 strikeouts in 165.1 innings over 28 starts in 2019, succeeding despite a middling 6.6 strikeout rate.
A positive COVID test delayed his 2020 debut until Aug. 6, limiting him to nine starts during the shortened season, but the results were extremely impressive once he finally took the mound.
The 25-year-old had five quality starts, including a five-hit shutout against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sept. 13 en route to a 2.47 ERA and 1.02 WHIP in 54.2 innings.
An excellent 52.8 percent ground-ball rate and a terrific barrel rate (89th percentile) are the keys to his success. He doesn’t strike guys out, which makes him a bit of an enigma in today’s game, but he has a large enough sample of success at this point to believe in his results.
With club control through 2023, a case can be made that Keller should be a long-term piece of the rebuilding puzzle in Kansas City.
However, the Royals have a deep enough stable of young starting pitching talent in their farm system and are still far enough away from contending that it makes sense to at least gauge his value in a thin starter market.
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Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press
There was a time when Rafael Montero was a more highly regarded pitching prospect in the New York Mets farm system than two-time NL Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom.
- 2013: Montero (No. 5 NYM prospect), deGrom (No. 11 NYM prospect)
- 2014: Montero (No. 3 NYM prospect), deGrom (No. 10 NYM prospect)
While deGrom went on to develop into a star, Montero struggled to a 5.38 ERA in 192.1 innings with the Mets before missing the entire 2018 season recovering from Tommy John surgery.
The Texas Rangers signed him to a minor league deal prior to the 2019, season and he proved to be a pleasant surprise out of their bullpen, logging a 2.48 ERA and 0.97 WHIP with 10.6 K/9 in 22 appearances.
The 30-year-old pitched his way into the closer’s role for a beleaguered Texas bullpen in 2020, converting all eight of his save chances while posting a 4.08 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 9.7 K/9 in 17 games.
Despite his age, he still has two remaining years of club control, and now looks like the best opportunity for the Rangers front office to sell high on a player they plucked from the scrapheap and flip him for prospects.
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It’s hard to see where Colin Moran fits into the Pittsburgh Pirates’ long-term plans.
Top prospect Ke’Bryan Hayes burst onto the scene to seize control of the everyday third base job, and the front office is reportedly exploring an extension with first baseman Josh Bell, leaving Moran as a man without a position now that the universal DH has been removed.
A brutal defender at third base (-32 DRS career) and a middling defensive first baseman (0 DRS, -5.7 UZR/150 in 2020), he probably fits best in the DH role on an AL team going forward.
Luckily, he has the bat to be an attractive option there.
This past season, the 28-year-old posted a 115 OPS+ with 10 doubles, 10 home runs and 23 RBI in 200 plate appearances, and there was a lot to like below those surface-level numbers.
He ranked among the MLB leaders in exit velocity (89th percentile), hard-hit rate (86th percentile) and barrel rate (87th percentile), and he raised his walk rate from 6.0 to 9.5 percent in his third MLB season.
For an AL team looking to add low-cost power from the left side of the plate, Moran and his three remaining years of control will be an attractive trade target.
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Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
A Silver Slugger winner in 2018 and a Gold Glove winner in 2019, David Peralta hit .300/.339/.433 with 16 extra-base hits in 218 plate appearances this past season.
The 33-year-old avoided arbitration last January with a three-year, $22 million extension, and he is still owed another $15 million on that contract over the next two seasons.
It was a contract that made sense last winter for an Arizona Diamondbacks team gearing up for a playoff push with the signing of Madison Bumgarner and trade acquisition of Starling Marte.
However, after a disappointing last-place finish in the NL West, their approach could change this winter.
A $7.5 million salary in 2021 makes him the fifth-highest-paid player on the D-backs roster, and he’s arguably more moveable than any of the four players earning more than him.
The drop-off after George Springer, Marcell Ozuna and Michael Brantley among outfielders on the free-agent market is a steep one, and Peralta is a well-rounded veteran with a reasonable salary who could help a number of teams if made available.
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Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
Richard Rodriguez emerged as a standout member of the Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen during the 2018 and 2019 seasons after he was signed as a minor league free agent, posting a 3.07 ERA and 10.1 K/9 with 31 holds in 135 appearances.
The 30-year-old took things to another level entirely in 2020.
His 36.6 percent strikeout rate ranked 15th among qualified relievers as he punched out 34 of the 93 batters he faced for 13.1 K/9 to go along with a 2.70 ERA and 0.86 WHIP with four saves and two holds in 24 appearances.
He pitched off a mid-90s fastball and a lethal curveball that he threw 27.6 percent of the time and allowed just one hit—a single—while accounting for 13 of his 34 strikeouts.
Arbitration-eligible for the first time this offseason, he comes with three remaining years of club control and could be the most sought-after trade chip on the Pittsburgh roster this winter.
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Gregory Bull/Associated Press
Keibert Ruiz made his MLB debut on Aug. 16, and he homered off Julio Teheran in his first MLB plate appearance.
He played just two regular-season games, going 2-for-8 with three strikeouts, yet the Los Angeles Dodgers included him on their Wild Card Series roster as the third catcher
Despite his obvious upside, and the fact that he’s still only 22 years old, Ruiz could be used as the centerpiece of any major trade the Los Angeles Dodgers explore this winter.
The emergence of Will Smith has given the Dodgers their catcher of the present and future, and 19-year-old Diego Cartaya gives the farm system another top-tier catching prospect on the rise.
For teams unwilling or unable to meet J.T. Realmuto’s asking price and looking for more of a long-term solution than veterans James McCann or Yadier Molina, a trade for Ruiz represents an attractive alternative for both contenders and rebuilding clubs alike.
A switch-hitter with a .299/.351/.420 line in five minor league seasons, Ruiz also has the tools to be a strong defender, and he currently ranks as the No. 6 catching prospect in baseball, according to MLB.com.
The Dodgers aren’t going to trade him just for the sake of trading him, but if the right blockbuster opportunity comes along, he makes a lot of sense as a centerpiece.
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Charlie Riedel/Associated Press
For all that’s been made of Matthew Boyd as a potential trade chip for the Detroit Tigers, it’s Spencer Turnbull who is the more attractive target.
Turnbull had a quietly productive season in 2019 when he logged a 4.61 ERA in 148.1 innings, backing that with an encouraging 3.99 FIP and a solid 146-to-59 strikeout-to-walk rate in 30 starts.
The 6’3″ right-hander built off that strong performance this year with a 3.97 ERA and 3.49 FIP in 56.2 innings over 11 starts, lowering his opponents’ batting average from .267 to .226 in the shortened season.
So why would the rebuilding Tigers consider trading him?
While he has four years of club control remaining, he’s already 28 years old, and this offseason’s thin starting pitching market could make this the best time to maximize his value.
With the young trio of Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning representing the future of the rotation, it’s at least worth gauging the market for Turnbull to see if there’s any opportunity to improve the team’s long-term outlook.