The top of the free-agent starter market cleared out fast this year with the signings of Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, Zack Wheeler and Madison Bumgarner, and the reliever market became slimmer as soon as Will Smith signed with the Braves. While some options still remain, ESPN’s Buster Olney hinted last week that “desperation” might already be setting in for some clubs on the outside looking in.
But plenty of offseason remains for teams to get creative in the trade market -- and not even necessarily for high-cost options like Nathan Eovaldi, David Price or Robbie Ray. Here’s a rundown of five “buy-low” trade candidates whose 2020 returns have a chance to outweigh the cost.
Edwin Díaz, RHP, Mets
2019 stats: 5.59 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 58 IP
Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen insists that Díaz isn’t going anywhere, but Díaz’s general ineffectiveness (seven losses and seven blown saves, career-high 2.3 homers per nine innings, .834 OPS against) and his affordable 2020 salary ($7 million via arbitration, as projected by MLB Trade Rumors) means his name is going to come up in trade rumors no matter what.
Van Wagenen and new manager Carlos Beltrán appear committed to sticking it out with Díaz for another year, in large part because the stuff looks very much intact. Díaz’s 39% strikeout rate last season was still elite, and his 97.4 mph average fastball velocity still finished in the 98th percentile. A few tweaks to Díaz’s slider (.622 SLG against) could put him right back on track.
Still, Díaz’s stock has never been lower since he entered the big leagues. MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand reported that the Red Sox weren’t willing to part with either of their top two prospects (Triston Casas and Bobby Dalbec) to acquire Díaz, and that was back in July when his ERA still started with a 4. Even if the circumstances dictate a higher yield than usual for a reliever coming off a bad year (the Díaz-Robinson Canó trade could define Van Wagenen’s tenure), it doesn’t hurt to keep taking the Mets’ temperature on this.
Chris Archer, RHP, Pirates
2019 stats: 3-9, 5.19 ERA, 119.2 IP
As new ownership and a new front office take over in Pittsburgh, this winter is an opportunity for the Bucs to shop Archer and try to recoup a prospect or two for their next contending cycle. Of course, the Pirates are much more likely to hold on to Archer and hope he rebuilds some value leading up to July.
But perhaps a competitor looks at Archer’s remaining tools (above-average fastball velocity, a competitive 27.2% strikeout rate), believes they can optimize Archer in a way the Pirates haven’t and offers an attractive trade package now. Archer’s contract -- which made him such an attractive trade chip two summers ago -- remains very palatable: He’s owed $9 million in 2020 with an $11 million club option for ’21, or his team can buy out that last year for just $250,000.
Pittsburgh will want some kind of return to make up for the trade that sent Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows away. But with a 4.70 ERA next to Archer’s name since the beginning of 2018, it might not take that much to convince the Bucs to pull the trigger now. If Archer never reaches his ceiling again, he could still be a durable back-of-the-rotation arm, having averaged 180 innings over the last six seasons.
Matthew Boyd, LHP, Tigers
2019 stats: 9-12, 4.56 ERA, 185.1 IP
Only eight starters finished 2019 with a better strikeout rate than Boyd, and here’s betting you know about all of them:
But the problem is that Boyd began fading as soon as he emerged as a marquee trade chip for the Tigers. Boyd’s ERA ballooned to 5.15 over his last seven starts before the Trade Deadline, and it actually got worse (6.11 ERA over his final 10 starts) after that. That was a tough break for the Tigers, who needed Boyd to help them replenish their farm system with a blue-chip prospect.
Boyd won’t command that type of prospect now, which is why the Tigers -- like the Pirates with Archer -- are probably more inclined to wait until July for a trade. But maybe a team like the Angels, who could desperately use a durable starter like Boyd, can persuade Detroit with a Minor League outfielder not named Jo Adell. Brandon Marsh, the Angels’ No. 2 prospect who sits outside MLB Pipeline’s Top 100, could fit that bill.
Corbin Burnes, RHP, Brewers
2019 stats: 8.82 ERA, 1.84 WHIP, 49 IP
Few pitchers paired as many positive signs with as many negative results this year as Burnes. His tools are there in blinking lights:
• Burnes’ mid-to-high 90s four-seam fastball carries a 100th percentile spin rate, averaging 2,656 rpm. There were 517 pitchers who threw at least 100 four-seamers, and literally one, Angels reliever Luke Bard, finished at a higher clip. Burnes’ curveball also featured 92nd percentile spin.
• Batters whiffed on 58% of their swings against Burnes’ slider, MLB’s highest rate on that pitch by nearly four percentage points.
• All of that filth helped Burnes finish the year 12th in whiff-per-swing rate (min. 250 swings), right behind Gerrit Cole, and his strikeout rate was in the 84th percentile, right behind Stephen Strasburg.
Burnes missed bats as well as anyone, but things went completely south whenever someone did make contact (17 homers in 49 innings, .424 BABIP). The Brewers optioned Burnes to the Minors three times last year, and things didn’t go any better at Triple-A (8.46 ERA). His most quintessential outing was his very first one of the year, when he struck out 12 Cardinals over five innings (including nine of the first 12 batters he faced) but also surrendered three dingers and took the loss.
Milwaukee is so pitching-starved that Burnes could still compete for a 25-man roster spot in the spring. That is, unless someone else jumps in now. Burnes’ tools are beyond intriguing; they’re elite. So, it’s at least worth checking in to see if the Crew still believes in Burnes as much as it did last year at this time. Maybe Milwaukee would accept a cadre of lower-tier arms to start developing if it feels like Burnes’ ship has sailed.
Touki Toussaint, RHP, Braves
2019 stats: 5.62 ERA, 1.68 WHIP, 41.2 IP
Toussaint didn’t make the leap many expected in 2019, and his future in Atlanta looks like it’s narrowed down to a long-reliever role. The ascendance of Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Kyle Wright and Ian Anderson makes Toussaint’s future less clear than a year ago, when he was coming off two promising National League Division Series appearances against the Dodgers.
While Toussaint’s control (14.6% walk rate as a big leaguer) is a concern, he still has skills worth taking a chance on. Opponents haven’t exactly squared Toussaint up: His career 32.1% hard-hit rate and 86.3 mph average exit velocity against are both better than Major League average. And Toussaint’s curveball is still an out pitch that ranked alongside the hooks of Charlie Morton, Strasburg and Sonny Gray in putaway rate.
Toussaint’s mid-90s fastball and sneaky split-change give him three pitches to attack hitters with, and perhaps there’s still a Major League-caliber starter here, given the right change of scenery.
Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.