With a number of enticing but risky starters hitting free agency this offseason, many teams are exploring the cost of trading for an ace instead. And while one of the top trade targets (James Paxton) is already off the market, high-end hurlers such as Corey Kluber, Noah Syndergaard and Madison Bumgarner are still in play.
Here are the best fits and what it might require to land those three pitchers. (2019 seasonal ages listed in parentheses.)
Kluber, RHP, Indians (33)
Best fit: Braves
Trade package: OF Ender Inciarte, RHP Kyle Wright (Atlanta's No. 2 prospect, No. 29 overall), LHP Luiz Gohara (Atlanta's No. 7 prospect, No. 78 overall)
For the Indians to consider moving Kluber, they will likely need to receive Major League-ready (or near-ready) players who can keep their postseason window open while also allowing them to trim their payroll.
The Tribe may need to sacrifice some upside to pull that off, meaning a Kluber deal probably won't resemble the one the White Sox made for Chris Sale two years ago. In that trade, the Red Sox sent former No. 1 overall prospect Yoan Moncada, current No. 19 overall prospect Michael Kopech and two other Minor Leaguers to Chicago for Sale, who was just 27 at the time. The Braves are seemingly a perfect trade partner for the Indians, as Atlanta can offer outfield-needy Cleveland an affordable center fielder in Inciarte as well as two pitching prospects from its terrific farm system.
The trade would give the Braves the ace they seek without requiring a long-term commitment, which should greatly interest general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who has said he'd like to avoid handing out lengthy deals this offseason. Kluber has club options for 2020 and '21, so Atlanta would be able to get out of his deal as soon as next year for a $1 million buyout if something went wrong.
Syndergaard, RHP, Mets (26)
Best fit: Padres
Trade package: OF Manuel Margot, C Austin Hedges, LHP MacKenzie Gore (San Diego's No. 2 prospect, No. 13 overall)
Starting pitchers of Syndergaard's age, caliber and contract status (under control for three more years) are almost never available, but the Mets are having dialogue with multiple teams regarding the right-hander.
Although New York is reportedly looking to use a Syndergaard trade to address other needs on the big league roster, a one-for-one deal that brings back a comparable position player may not be out there. As a result, the Mets could look to shop Syndergaard for a combination of MLB players and high-end prospects.
The Padres are a perfect fit in many ways, as they have a strong farm system and a Major League roster that can spare a center fielder and a catcher, which are two of the Mets' biggest needs. San Diego has been eyeing Syndergaard since the summer, and the club continues to do so. Packaging Gore, the No. 3 overall Draft pick in 2017, with Margot and Hedges could be enough for the Padres to land Thor.
Bumgarner, LHP, Giants (29)
Best fit: Phillies
Trade package: RHP Adonis Medina (Philadelphia's No. 3 prospect, No. 64 overall), LHP JoJo Romero (Phils' No. 5 prospect, NR on MLB Pipeline's Top 100)
Farhan Zaidi, the Giants' new president of baseball operations, has his hands full trying to get San Francisco back to being a perennial contender, and his most pressing task might just be determining what to do with Bumgarner. The left-hander can become a free agent next offseason, and the Giants seem unlikely to seriously contend anytime soon with their current roster and farm system.
While Bumgarner has remained effective over the past two seasons (3.29 ERA), he's exhibited some troubling signs of regression, with his K/9 rate dropping to 7.6 (10.0 K/9 in 2016, 8.2 K/9 in 2017) and his barrels-per-batted-ball-event rate jumping to 8.4 percent (6.8 percent in '16, 8.0 percent in '17), per Statcast™. That said, the Giants are still positioned to get back some future assets for Bumgarner given his age, track record and affordable '19 salary ($12 million). But if Zaidi waits and those negative trends continue, the southpaw's trade value will be further impaired.
The Phillies can make the type of offer it will probably take to get the Giants to trade a franchise icon, sending a pair of pitching prospects to San Francisco. Philadelphia is in need of a left-hander to join its righty-heavy rotation, and adding Bumgarner to the free-agent signings that come from the club's expected spending spree could make the Phils one of the front-runners in the National League next season.