MLB trade deadline: Bad teams can't wait to deal these veterans

Few players know more about getting flipped at the trade deadline than Tommy Pham.

The veteran outfielder has been dealt within 48 hours of the deadline three different times. In 2018, the St. Louis Cardinals traded him to the Tampa Bay Rays. Four years later, the Cincinnati Reds sent him to the Boston Red Sox after he signed a one-year contract. Last season, the New York Mets traded him to the Arizona Diamondbacks after he signed a one-year deal.

Pham will likely be traded again by this year’s July 30 deadline. And he’s not alone — that has become the expectation when an accomplished veteran signs a short-term deal with a club built for last place.

Getting traded in the middle of the season is one of the toughest things in baseball — probably in any sport,” Pham said. “Because, you know, you got to pack up all your stuff and leave and get readjusted and reacclimated.”

This winter, coming off his best offensive season since 2019 and an unexpected World Series run with the Diamondbacks, Pham preferred to join a team with postseason expectations. But he said he didn’t receive an offer until the Pittsburgh Pirates extended one — without a trade bonus — on Feb. 25.

The San Diego Padres were next, on the last day of February, offering a one-year contract for a reunion (Pham spent the 2020 and 2021 seasons in San Diego). Pham didn’t find either offer satisfactory. So he waited. And waited. And waited, until signing with the White Sox on April 15. Pham made his season debut 11 days later, recording two hits out of the 2-hole to help the White Sox improve to 4-22.

Pham, 35, didn’t make his major league debut until his age-26 season in 2014 and didn’t reach free agency until after the 2021 season at age 33. He has since signed only one-year deals, in large part because front offices are more wary than ever before of giving veterans multiyear contracts to avoid overpaying for past production.

Meanwhile, clubs destined for mediocrity (or worse) have found access to lottery tickets through that class of free agent — or veterans looking to recoup their value with bounce-back campaigns — by signing them to one-year deals with an eye toward the trade deadline.

“A lot of the rationale is avoiding getting saddled with bad contracts,” one National League executive said. “Getting a potential return at the deadline is part of it as well. That certainly doesn’t hurt. Some guys are a better fit to do that. Others are just to be more competitive.”

Best-case scenario, the team exceeds expectations and doesn’t subtract at the deadline. Worst case, the player doesn’t perform well enough for a contender to acquire and the money is wiped off the books in November. Designating the player for assignment once his value is deemed not enough for a trade is another option. Examples over the past month include Tim Anderson (Miami Marlins) and Eddie Rosario and Nick Senzel (Washington Nationals). The risk is minimal. The possible reward could accelerate a rebuild.

Just ask the Kansas City Royals. Ahead of the 2023 season, the Royals, en route to a 106-loss season, signed veteran reliever Aroldis Chapman to a one-year deal. He posted a 2.45 ERA in 31 appearances before he was traded to the Texas Rangers for two players on July 30. One player was a minor league outfielder named Roni Cabrera. The other was Cole Ragans, a talented left-hander who couldn’t squeeze into the Rangers’ rotation.

The Rangers won the World Series with Chapman, while Ragans was recently named an American League All-Star, pitching for a Royals team competing for a wild-card spot this season.

That’s the dream for the front offices that traded for lottery tickets for the 2024 season. Here are the most valuable veterans whom clubs are expected to deal this month — along with a few others who thought they’d be playing for contenders.

Pham, OF, Chicago White Sox: Pham was by far Chicago’s best hitter in his first month on the South Side, batting .327 with an .851 OPS in his first 27 games. He has cooled off — he’s slashing .208/.306/.255 in 28 games since May 26 — but is a respected clubhouse presence who has proved he can impact a playoff race and beyond. In a year with so many teams thirsting for offense, the White Sox shouldn’t have a problem finding a suitor.

Paul DeJong, SS, Chicago White Sox: DeJong, 30, signed for $1.75 million looking to rebound from a dreadful 2023 season that featured a 66 wRC+ for the Cardinals, Blue Jays and Giants. So far he’s enjoying his most productive season at the plate since 2018, posting a .237/.282/.456 slash line with 16 home runs.

The metrics indicate he has been one of the worst defensive shortstops in the majors this season and has made only 20 of his 751 career starts at another position — all at second base. Still, a shortstop with some pop should have a market.

Erick Fedde, SP, Chicago White Sox: We’re bending the rules a bit here because Fedde signed a two-year contract over the winter after a dominant season in Korea. But Fedde, 31, otherwise fits the criteria, pitching for a franchise that was a lot longer than two years away from postseason contention when he joined the White Sox in December for $15 million.

The right-hander returned from Korea with an expanded arsenal that has flummoxed big league hitters. The former Nationals top prospect has registered a 3.13 ERA in 106⅓ innings over 18 starts after after claiming the KBO MVP Award for the NC Dinos last season.

Jack Flaherty, SP, Detroit Tigers: Flaherty, another former Cardinal, has recaptured his All-Star form on a one-year, $14 million contract after three wayward seasons. The 28-year-old right-hander has recorded a 3.24 ERA in 89 innings over 15 outings. He has nine quality starts (at least six innings with three or fewer runs allowed), and his 33% strikeout rate is second in the American League. His 3.05 FIP suggests the run prevention is very real.

His résumé is significantly better than it was a year ago, when the Cardinals sent Flaherty to the Baltimore Orioles at the deadline with a 4.43 ERA.

Kevin Pillar, OF, Los Angeles Angels: Pillar, 35, was another White Sox lottery ticket, signing a one-year deal worth $1 million in late March. But he was designated for assignment after a month of struggles. A week later, the Angels, scrambling for outfield help after Mike Trout landed on the injured list, signed Pillar. The move has paid dividends.

Pillar is slashing .295/.350/.500 with six home runs in 43 games with the Angels. Metrics indicate Pillar is not the elite center fielder he was early in his career, but he could help a number of teams hungry for outfield production. Wherever he ends up, it could be his final stop: Pillar suggested this could be his last season after reaching 10 years of service time Saturday.

Jesse Winker, OF, Washington Nationals: Another outfielder signed to a minor league deal, Winker has been a revelation for a Nationals club exceeding expectations but still seven games under .500. The 2021 All-Star, who posted a .567 OPS in 61 games for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2023, is batting .268 with 10 home runs and an .818 OPS in 88 games this season.

The Nationals recently promoted top prospect James Wood, a toolsy 6-foot-7 outfielder acquired from the Padres in the trade for Juan Soto two years ago. With Wood’s promotion, Winker has been pushed to designated hitter on most nights.

Winker wasn’t the only position-player lottery ticket the Nationals purchased for 2024: Washington also signed fellow veterans Rosario, Senzel and Joey Gallo to one-year deals. Rosario and Senzel were both recently designated for assignment, while Gallo was hitting .164 with a .606 OPS and 71 strikeouts in 165 plate appearances before landing on the injured list with a hamstring injury last month.

Dylan Floro, RP, Washington Nationals: Floro is the Nationals’ golden offseason find on the pitching side. The 33-year-old right-hander has rebounded from a lackluster 2023 season with a 2.06 ERA, limiting opponents to two barrels on 125 batted balls — a figure that ranks in the 99th percentile.

Floro was flipped at last year’s trade deadline, going from the Marlins to the Minnesota Twins for Jorge López, and he’s a strong candidate to move again.

Fringe teams with short-term veterans to deal

New York Mets: The Mets opted for flexibility during the offseason, with an eye on splurging this winter while still competing in 2024. They were a mess less than a month ago, on the path to a July offloading for the second straight summer, before surging into the wild-card race. They currently stand 2½ games out of the final playoff spot.

But another freefall over the next three weeks could prompt the front office to subtract. Veterans signed to one-year contracts over the offseason who could be moved include right-hander Luis Severino, outfielder Harrison Bader, designated hitter J.D. Martinez and reliever Adam Ottavino. Left-hander Sean Manaea signed a two-year deal that includes a player option after this season.

Pittsburgh Pirates: For a club on the fringes of the wild-card race, the list of attractive trade candidates on one-year contracts includes Chapman and left-hander Martín Pérez. Center fielder Michael A. Taylor and catcher Yasmani Grandal are on one-year contracts but have struggled this season.

Texas Rangers: The defending World Series champions signed players with the expectation that they’d be contending this year. But they have right-handers Kirby Yates, recently named an All-Star, and José Ureña who could bolster bullpens if Texas, six games below .500 and sitting in third place in the AL West, decides a repeat isn’t happening.

Toronto Blue Jays: Justin Turner signed a one-year, $13 million deal in January with the intention of joining a contending team. Six months later, the Blue Jays own the sixth-worst record in the majors, and Turner figures to draw some interest at the deadline.

Turner is batting .245 with five home runs and a .720 OPS as Toronto’s primary designated hitter. His bat has declined in his age-39 season, but he boasts loads of October experience after nine straight trips to the postseason with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

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