What trades will happen this winter? No one knows—but these four should. Fans of these teams can thank us next October
For Cardinals fans, it's time to stock up on commemorative gear and pray for the return of Prince Albert. For fans of the other 29 teams, it's time to pressure G.M.'s to lay the groundwork for a championship celebration next year. The free-agent market is top-heavy and—after Pujols, Prince Fielder and Jose Reyes—light on impact position players, so it will take more than a checkbook to fix a roster this winter. Here are four trades that would benefit all the teams involved—modest proposals to reshape the 2012 pennant races.
Braves trade P's Julio Teheran and Mike Minor to the Dodgers for OF Andre Ethier
Much like the Rays, Atlanta's pitching-heavy approach has failed the team late in the last two seasons. The Braves have an abundance of young starting pitching, more than they can fit on the roster, and can afford to use some of that depth to get a player who can switch corners from rightfield and upgrade them in left. After a long hitting streak to start the year, Ethier cooled off, putting up the lowest slugging percentage (.421) of his six-year career. The Braves can take advantage of the Dodgers' money problems to add a number 3 hitter (Ethier will be a free agent after next season) and the best leftfielder they've had since Chipper Jones.
Rays trade P James Shields to Reds for 1B Yonder Alonso and P Edinson Volquez
A deal that made sense during the summer still does, as Tampa Bay has too many starting pitchers for one rotation, and the Reds have too many first basemen for one lineup. Trying to play Alonso, a middle-of-the-order hitter, in leftfield is bad for the team's defense and the player's development. The Rays, for all their comebacky goodness, were exposed in the playoffs—again—as a team that can't score enough to get over the hump. Volquez needs a change of scenery and could be part of a once-again-rebuilt Rays pen in 2012. Shields is coming off his best season and would slot well as the Reds' No. 1 starter as Cincinnati tries to bounce back from a disappointing season.
Marlins trade LF Logan Morrison to Rockies for CF Dexter Fowler
Colorado has never fully committed to Fowler, whose high strikeout rate and problems staying healthy have hindered his development. The Marlins, who have a sneaky-good core that will be better if Josh Johnson can pitch a full season, a new ballpark and a new manager in Ozzie Guillen, can afford to take on some risk to upgrade their biggest hole, centerfield. Fowler is an excellent athlete who lacks power but has speed and on-base skills. Morrison's gap power is a great fit in Denver, where he could spend a year playing left and serving as an understudy to Todd Helton before taking over at first base, a better fit for his skills, in the near future. It's a challenge trade with upside for both teams.
Cubs trade P Carlos Marmol to Mets for OF Fernando Martinez
New president of baseball operations Theo Epstein won't be able to clean house in Chicago, not with so much dead money still on the payroll, but he should be able to get out from under Marmol's three-year contract. The erratic closer still misses enough bats, and the industry overvalues closers enough, for him to have trade value. The Mets, despite their nonbaseball financial issues, have a lot of money coming off the payroll this winter, and their bullpen is a particular weak spot. Martinez is a former top prospect who has never been able to stay healthy but, at 23, retains some upside as a doubles-hitting corner outfielder and is a good change-of-scenery play for Epstein. These are the kinds of moves—rather than big splashy free-agent signings—on which he built his reputation in Boston.
THEO BEGAT JOSH WHO BEGAT JED ...
Theo Epstein's departure from the Red Sox to become the Cubs' president of baseball operations was the genesis of a front-office exodus throughout the country: It created G.M. openings in Boston and San Diego and caused a migration to Chicago of lieutenants who helped Epstein build the Red Sox' 2004 and '07 championship teams. A network of Epstein protégés has now spread throughout the game.
Under Epstein: Red Sox assistant G.M., 2005--09
Now: Cubs G.M.
Under Epstein: Red Sox director of amateur scouting, 2005--09
Now: Cubs senior VP, scouting and player development
Under Epstein: most recently Red Sox assistant G.M., 2009--11
Now: Red Sox G.M.
Under Epstein: Red Sox director of baseball ops, 2003--05
Now: MLB senior VP for baseball ops
Under Epstein: Red Sox scouting director, 2002--04
Now: Tigers VP of amateur scouting
Under Epstein: Red Sox assistant G.M., 2002--05
Now: Padres G.M.
Every free-agent class features overlooked players who turn out to be significant bargains. Melky Cabrera, for example: Last winter he occupied the final spot on the Reiter 50—SI.com's annual ranking of baseball's top 50 free agents, online now—but after signing a one-year, $1.25 million deal with the Royals, Cabrera became one of five players in the majors this season with 200 hits. Here are five free agents who will appeal to bargain-hunting teams this off-season.
Josh Willingham (Reiter 50 rank: 15th)
Willingham has had an .800+ OPS in six straight seasons despite being marooned in pitchers' parks, this year in Oakland. A move to a hitters' haven—like Colorado, where the Rockies could play him in left and at first base—would unleash his true potential.
Edwin Jackson (20th)
He has been traded six times, but Jackson is still only 28, throws a fastball that averages nearly 95 mph and probably hasn't yet peaked. The righthander's career apex could come with the Mariners and their pitcher-friendly home ballpark.
Erik Bedard (29th)
Bedard was better than his 5--9 record—he struck out nearly a batter per inning this season and had a WHIP of 1.284. The 32-year-old lefty retains enormous upside and could be this year's Cabrera for the Royals, in need of more proven arms to complement a young, dangerous lineup.
Wilson Betemit (30th)
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly wants a hitter, and while the Dodgers are in no position to pay for a star, they can afford Betemit—a perfectly productive, versatile player who stands out in an extremely thin third baseman market.
Bruce Chen (45th)
After having his best season at age 34—he went 12--8 with a 3.77 ERA for the Royals—the crafty lefty would look very good at the bottom of a deep Tigers rotation, at least until prospect Jacob Turner is ready.
HARRY HOW/GETTY IMAGES (ETHIER)
ANDRE THE ... BRAVE? Ethier would slide quite nicely into Atlanta's offense-challenged outfield, while parting with Shields (below) could help the pitching-rich Rays boost their weak lineup.
TONY GUTIERREZ/AP (SHIELDS)
[See caption above]
JED JACOBSOHN (WILLINGHAM)
JOHN BIEVER (JACKSON)
DARREN MCCOLLESTER/GETTY IMAGES (BEDARD)
LEON HALIP/GETTY IMAGES (BETEMIT)
BRIAN D. KERSEY/GETTY IMAGES (CHEN)
KIRBY LEE/WIREIMAGE.COM (BYRNES)
DETROIT TIGERS (CHADD)
BRITA MENG OUTZEN/AP (WOODFORK)
CHARLES REX ARBOGAST/AP (EPSTEIN)
JESSICA RINALDI/REUTERS (CHERINGTON)
JESSICA RINALDI/REUTERS (HOYER)
ANDY HAYT/SAN DIEGO PADRES /GETTY IMAGES (MCLEOD)