These 3 trade candidates are better than you think

June 24th, 2022

Jorge Soler turned out to be one of the best acquisitions any team made last summer, but in the weeks leading up to the Trade Deadline, he was hardly anyone’s idea of a marquee trade target.

Soler had a .658 OPS when the Braves acquired him from the Royals on July 30, but he put up an .882 OPS after the trade and went on to win World Series MVP.

The three under-the-radar trade candidates below -- one hitter, one starting pitcher and one reliever -- could make a similar impact in 2022. None of the three has great surface stats, but each seems poised for a big finish. (All stats are through Wednesday.)

Hitter: Christian Walker, 1B, D-backs

After recording 10 homers and a .382 slugging percentage over 115 games last season, Walker is putting up much better power numbers in 2022, with 19 homers and a .490 SLG over 69 games, but he’s also hitting just .208.

His low batting average is obscuring the dramatic improvements he’s made in the plate-discipline arena. Walker's chase rate is down nearly six percentage points, and he's also been more selective on pitches over the plate, lowering his in-zone swing rate to 67% (77% from 2015-21). Swinging at better pitches has made a big difference for the veteran first baseman, leading to improved contact quality.

For instance, Walker has recorded a 16.3% barrel rate, the percentage of batted balls with the optimal combination of exit velocity and launch angle, typically resulting in homers and extra-base hits. It ranks in the 94th percentile across MLB and is nearly 10 percentage points higher than his barrel rate from 2021.

Largest increase in barrel rate, 2021 to 2022

  1. Christian Walker (ARI): +9.9 points
  2. Joc Pederson (SF): +8.4 points
  3. Aaron Judge (NYY): +8.2 points
  4. Jazz Chisholm Jr. (MIA): +7.9 points
  5. Giancarlo Stanton (NYY): +7.5 points

He also has notably improved his walk and strikeout rates. As a result, he ranks among MLB’s best in expected wOBA, which is based on quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle), K’s and BB’s. And while his real batting average is close to the Mendoza Line, his expected BA is .277. The 69-point “unlucky gap” between his BA and xBA is the third largest in the Majors.

As a bonus, Walker brings elite first-base defense to the table, too. He leads his position with +7 outs above average, +5 OAA more than any other first baseman.

He’s under team control through 2024, but the rebuilding D-backs might be willing to part with him this summer, considering he turned 31 in March.

Starting pitcher: Tyler Mahle, RHP, Reds

There will likely be more buzz around Luis Castillo as the Trade Deadline approaches, but Mahle is an attractive trade candidate, too, even though he has a 4.57 ERA and 1.31 WHIP this season.

Under control through 2023 like Castillo, Mahle struck out 210 batters a year ago in a breakout season, posting a 3.75 ERA in 180 innings. His surface numbers suggest he’s taken a step backward this year, but some of his underlying metrics tell a different story.

Check out his stats in each of these key departments:

  • K-rate: 27.7% in 2021, 25.9% in 2022
  • BB-rate: 8.4% in 2021, 8.9% in 2022
  • Whiff rate: 28.4% in 2021, 28.2% in 2022
  • Barrel rate: 6.5% in 2021, 6.2% in 2022
  • Expected BA: .229 in 2021, .225 in 2022
  • Expected SLG: .363 in 2021, .379 in 2022
  • Expected ERA: 3.73 in 2021, 3.33 in 2022

Mahle has struggled to get outs with his slider this season, but his four-seam fastball -- which he throws around half the time -- is an elite bat-missing pitch even though it doesn’t light up the radar gun.

Mahle's four-seam fastball whiff rate (misses / swings) of 28.9% this season is one of the highest marks among starting pitchers, and no pitcher has collected more K’s with his four-seamer since the beginning of 2020.

Most strikeouts on four-seam fastballs, since 2020

  1. Tyler Mahle (CIN): 224
  2. Gerrit Cole (NYY): 201
  3. Brandon Woodruff (MIL): 189
  4. Robbie Ray (SEA): 177
  5. Zack Wheeler (PHI): 172

Relief pitcher: Joe Jiménez, RHP, Tigers

Once considered the Tigers’ closer of the future, Jiménez made the 2018 AL All-Star team in his first full MLB season, but he hasn’t been able to reach those heights again. The right-hander owns a lifetime 5.52 ERA, and while he actually has a career-best ERA this season, his 3.71 mark doesn’t exactly evoke images of a shutdown reliever.

However, we’ve seen some encouraging signs from the 27-year-old, who is controllable through 2023.

For one, he’s pounding the strike zone like never before, posting a career-high 53.8% zone rate, up from 48.8% in 2021. He’s also getting more swings on out-of-zone pitches, increasing his chase rate from 24.4% to 31.9% -- thus reversing a two-year decline.

Consequently, his walk rate has dropped from 16.7% to 6.5%, the largest BB-rate decrease (10.2 points) in the Majors. He’s still missing a ton of bats, too, posting a 30.9% whiff rate and a 33.3% strikeout rate.

Teammate Michael Fulmer, an impending free agent, will surely receive more attention on the trade market, but Jiménez could be just as big of an addition for clubs that need a bullpen arm.