A three-way swap for Red Sox, Mariners, Nationals
The Red Sox had too many hitters before they signed both Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez to lucrative contracts, and now they have perhaps the deepest lineup in all of baseball. But they still don’t have any pitching, and they simply don’t have enough spots in the lineup for all of their talented hitters. Rarely has a team’s need to make a trade (or two) been so obvious.
However, finding a natural trade partner for Boston’s needs is a little tricky. The Red Sox’s most obvious trade chip, Yoenis Cespedes, has the right-handed power that a number of teams seek, but because he’s only under contract for one more season, the teams that will be most interested in acquiring his services are teams that are trying to win in 2015. And teams that are trying to win next year are unlikely to part with the kind of pitching that the Red Sox covet; after all, if you’re trying to win next year, you probably want to hang on to your frontline pitching, since you’ll need it yourself.
There is one contender that has signaled a willingness to move a frontline starting pitcher: the Washington Nationals. With both Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister set for free agency after next season — as well as shortstop Ian Desmond, center fielder Denard Span, and relief ace Tyler Clippard — the Nationals are in a position where it might make sense for them to degrade their 2015 team slightly in order to make sure they don’t experience too steep of a drop-off after next season. Zimmermann, in particular, would likely return a significant trade package, given his recent excellence and reasonable price tag.
But the Nationals simply don’t have any need for Cespedes, or really many of the other pieces Boston might use to try to land an ace. Their outfield is stacked as it is, and their only real glaring hole is in the middle infield, where they need a second baseman for 2015 and likely a shortstop for 2016, after Desmond hits free agency. The Red Sox aren’t trading Xander Bogaerts or Mookie Betts for a rent-a-pitcher, however, so the Nationals don’t really seem to match up with the Red Sox that well.
Perhaps there’s a way to make a deal work between the two teams, however, if we can identify a third team that covets the right-handed power the Red Sox have for sale and has an extra talented middle infielder to send to the nation’s capital. Enter the Seattle Mariners.
They Mariners have made no secret of their desire for right-handed power, making an offer to Victor Martinez and reportedly pursuing Ramirez before he chose to go to Boston. The problem is that free-agent hitters, especially right-handed hitters who have seen the ball regularly die in left-center field at Safeco Field, are not rushing to join the Mariners. Landing right-handed power is likely easier for the team through the trade market, where the player doesn’t have the right to say no to Safeco Field. Cespedes would check a lot of boxes for the Mariners, and that is why people have linked the Mariners and Red Sox in a potential swap that would send Hisashi Iwakuma to Boston.
The problem is that the Mariners can’t really afford to lose Iwakuma; moving their No. 2 starter for an outfielder would just make them different, not better, and the team doesn’t have enough depth of high-level pitching talent to fill the void they’d create in such a trade. What the team can move, though, is a quality young shortstop; both Brad Miller (+3.3 WAR in 746 career plate appearances) and Chris Taylor (+1.4 WAR in 151 PAs) have played well in both the big leagues and throughout their minor-league careers, and with Robinson Cano entrenched at second base, there isn’t room for both in Seattle.
The Mariners need what Boston has, and have what Washington needs. On the surface, at least, there seems to be a match here. Let’s see if we can put together a package that might work for all three teams.
First, the Red Sox would have to get the Mariners interested, and while Cespedes’ power would be attractive, it seems unlikely that the team would part with five years of a young middle infielder like Miller for just one year of Cespedes, especially knowing that he might not be inclined to re-sign with the team after the 2015 season, and he can’t receive a qualifying offer at season’s end. Realistically, Cespedes by himself wouldn’t be enough to get Zimmermann from Washington, so the Red Sox would need to add more value to the deal, perhaps shipping some talent to both the Mariners and Nationals in order to make the deal work for all sides.
But the Red Sox can afford to move more than just one right-handed hitter, because even with Sandoval in the fold, the team’s lineup still features seven righties and just two lefties. Mike Napoli, also in the last year of his contract, could be expendable as well, as the Red Sox wouldn’t be that much worse off with a platoon of Daniel Nava and Allen Craig at first base; Nava would give them the ability to get another left-handed bat into the lineup, and Craig projects to hit nearly as well in 2015 (forecast for a 115 wRC+) as Napoli (123 wRC+ projection) does.
The Mariners have pursued Napoli before, and have a glaring need for a 1B/DH type, so a package of two slugging righties might just be the right bait to pull them into a three-way trade. Let’s say the Red Sox agree to send Cespedes and Napoli to Seattle if the Mariners can ship enough talent to Washington that the Nationals would agree to give Zimmermann to the Red Sox. How does that part of the deal work?
Most likely, the Nationals would prefer Miller to Taylor for his left-handed bat, given that they already have Danny Espinosa as a right-handed middle infielder. However, GM Mike Rizzo knows that Zimmermann is a coveted piece, and would likely want to extract more than just one player in return, especially since Zimmermann will be eligible to receive a qualifying offer at year’s end. The goal of the Nationals degrading their 2015 team would be to receive enough future talent to make the trade-off worth it, and while I’m of the opinion that five years of Miller is a more than fair return, it’s likely that I’m a bit higher on Miller than most everyone else.
So, how do the Mariners sweeten the pot enough to get the Nationals on board without downgrading their own future so much that the deal no longer helps them enough to justify the cost? The secondary piece would have to have enough upside to intrigue Washington, without being such an obviously valuable asset that the Mariners would refuse to part with him. Say, for instance, a former No. 2 overall pick in the draft who missed nearly all of the last two years after having shoulder surgery.
The Nationals were reportedly eyeing Danny Hultzen in the 2011 draft — at the time, they employed his brother in their baseball operations department — but ultimately they were forced to "settle" for Anthony Rendon with the sixth overall selection, after the Mariners took Hultzen second. This worked out quite nicely for Washington, but its evaluators were rumored to be quite interested in Hultzen three years ago. The shoulder surgery has certainly clouded Hultzen’s future, but he’s the kind of intriguing talent that could make the deal pay off in a big way for the Nationals, and he looked close to big-league ready before the surgery.
So, we have Cespedes and Napoli going to Seattle, with the Mariners sending Miller and Hultzen to Washington. What do the Red Sox receive from the Nationals to make the trade work for everyone? Zimmermann is the key piece, obviously, but the Sox are dealing two sluggers and watching the Nationals acquire a potential 11 years of young talent in exchange, so they might not settle for just the one year of Zimmermann’s services and the draft pick they’d get if he left next winter. To even things out, the Nationals probably need to add one more piece to the Red Sox side of things, and it should probably be an arm.
Specifically, the Sox could use a high quality reliever to help pitch the innings in front of closer Koji Uehara, and the Nationals happen to have a strong depth of bullpen arms. Clippard would seem to fit well in Boston, especially given that he’s under contract for only one more season; the Red Sox like short-term commitments to pitchers. And, coincidentally, Zimmermann and Clippard are likely to make about $25 million between them next season, almost exactly the same amount that the Red Sox are currently due to pay Napoli and Cespedes. This would be a payroll neutral deal for Boston, with Seattle absorbing the costs that Washington is cutting.
The Red Sox would take only marginal hits in replacing Cespedes and Napoli with in-house options like Shane Victorino, Nava and Craig, each of whom could play far more often if this trade was made. And the additions of Zimmermann and Clippard would be a substantial improvement for Boston’s pitching staff. The ability to negotiate with Zimmermann before he hit free agency is also a value to the team, and even if it didn’t sign him, it would get a draft pick as compensation if he left, as he’s an easier target for a qualifying offer. This move would likely make the Red Sox better in both 2015 and beyond.
The Mariners would see a slight downgrade at shortstop by shipping out Miller, and the loss of Hultzen could come back to haunt them if he is recovered from surgery. But it’s unlikely that the team could convince two free-agent hitters as good as Cespedes and Napoli to come to the northwest of their own free will. While the future cost could be quite high if Miller turns into the player the projections think he is, the team’s window to win with a core of Cano, Hernandez and Iwakuma is only going to be open for so long; moving future wins into the present might be worth the long-term cost, especially with Taylor around to replace Miller.
The Nationals get worse in 2015, but perhaps not dramatically so, given the upgrade at second base could offset a large part of the downgrade in the rotation, and the team would be saving $25 million in salary in the deal as well; if the Nationals were to reinvest even part of that savings in the free-agent market, it might not actually be any worse off next year, and it would turn a pair of one-year assets into players it can control for years to come.
All three teams come away with the kinds of pieces they’re looking to acquire, though perhaps one might feel the suggested return is a bit light for what it is surrendering. Personally, I think this suggestion might lean a little too heavily in Boston’s favor, and perhaps it would need to add a sweetener to get either (or both) Seattle or Washington on board, but it’s at least a base to start from. A few tweaks here or there, and perhaps this could be the fun blockbuster trade that solves three problems at one time.
It’s not often that three contenders all trying to win can match up on a deal of significant major-league players, but the Red Sox’s hoarding of right-handed bats has made such a deal at least possible. Now we’ll just have to see if Rizzo, Jack Zduriencik and Ben Cherington have any interest in turning this hypothetical into an actual conversation.