If you think the Hot Stove Season has been prolonged this winter, you wouldn’t be wrong. (Just take a look at the 25 best free agents still remaining.)
Only the trade of Juan Soto to the New York Yankees eventually salvaged an otherwise quiet Winter Meetings on the final day of festivities in Nashville. The Los Angeles Dodgers signing of Shohei Ohtani kept us warm through the holiday season before Yoshinobu Yamamoto joined him shortly before the new year.
With Scott Boras representing four of the top free agents still remaining — Blake Snell, Cody Bellinger, Jordan Montgomery and Matt Chapman — we could end up waiting even longer for rosters to settle.
Clubs will need to become a little more aggressive on the trade front in order to avoid bidding against a mystery team and overpaying for a player whose contract will be an albatross in three-to-four years. For some, this means crafting an in-division trade.
Here are six division rivals that could collaborate on deals to improve the future of their franchise:
It get said every year and every year it’s true: The American League East is arguably the toughest division in baseball. The Baltimore Orioles are returning the same roster that won an AL-best 101 games to take the division last year.
Meanwhile, the New York Yankees are pushing to be the preseason favorite, assuming there are more additions following Soto acquisition. Both the Orioles and Yankees could use some starting pitching, but those trades are not likely to be filled in-division.
Instead we are going to focus on the two Wild Card teams from this division last year, the Tampa Bay Rays and the Toronto Blue Jays. These teams could make a swap that makes sense both for their payroll and for the improvement it would bring to their rosters.
Tampa Bay Rays trade: DH Harold Ramírez
Toronto Blue Jays trade: RHP Yosver Zulueta
As recently reported by Ken Rosenthal, Tampa Bay is shopping right-handed hitting outfielder Harold Ramírez. Projected to make north of $4 million in his second year of arbitration, Ramírez is one of the pricier talents on the penny-pinching Rays.
With the 29-year-old coming off his best season at the plate, batting .313/.353/.460 with 12 home runs and 68 RBI, President of Baseball Operations Erik Neander is looking to sell high.
Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins needs something positive this offseason. In the wake of being rejected by Shohei Ohtani, he told the media, “It was a very difficult phone call to receive, one of the more difficult ones in my career.”
Rumored interest in free agent Jorge Soler makes sense since Toronto had league-average run production in 2023. Ramírez, however, is a much more affordable option at designated hitter and would provide similar defense in the outfield on days when Daulton Varsho, Kevin Kiermaier and George Springer receive a day of rest.
Zulueta is a 25-year-old righty who represented the Jays in the previous two Futures Games.
After a series of injuries in 2020-21, the Cuban reliever impressed through four levels in 2022. He was added to the 40-man in November ‘22 before eventually posting a 4.50 ERA in Triple-A last season. With a fastball that sits 95-97 mph and graded as a 70 by some scouts, he’s a good shot to make an immediate impact with the Rays bullpen in 2024.
If the AL East is up in the air because of how talented and deep it is, the AL Central is just as highly contested despite the presence of a powerhouse. Other than a Chicago White Sox organization positioning itself for a rebuild, any team can truly win this division.
With that in mind, here is a trade that would shed some money for the White Sox, while giving the Detroit Tigers a player to help them win their first division title since 2014.
Chicago White Sox trade: 3B Yoán Moncada
Detroit Tigers trade: 2B Hao-Yu Lee
At $24.8 million, Yoán Moncado is the highest paid member on the White Sox roster. Considering Chicago has been shedding payroll and malcontents since the 2023 trade deadline, it’s safe to say new GM Chris Getz would love to leverage his expiring assets for more controllable pieces that will contribute to the club’s next contending squad.
Hao-Yu Lee was the Philadelphia Phillies no. 5 prospect when he was dealt to Detroit in the Michael Lorenzen trade last summer. Second base prospects such as Colt Keith, Jace Jung and Kevin McGonigle make Lee expendable for a Tigers club ready to become relevant in ‘24.
Should the White Sox include cash to pay down some of Moncada’s contract, Detroit could be on their way to their first winning season since 2016 after having already added Mark Canha, Kenta Maeda, Jack Flaherty and Shelby Miller this offseason.
Finding trade partners in this division is challenging with each team arguably at a different stage. The Houston Astros and Texas Rangers are most similar with their very complete rosters that project to be World Series contenders.
Then there’s the Los Angeles Angels who have shed their prospect capital in questionable trades and big league promotions the last few seasons.
This leaves us with the wheeling-and-dealing Seattle Mariners and an Oakland Athletics franchise coming off a 112-loss season with little hope of relevance and even less hope of sticking around the Bay Area.
Oakland Athletics trade: RHP Paul Blackburn
Seattle Mariners trade: INF Ryan Bliss and RHP Darren McCaughan
Any deal made by Jerry Dipoto and Seattle is prelude to another move and this trade is no exception. Even after recently acquiring Anthony DeSclafani from the San Francisco Giants, this Athletics-Mariners swap makes sense for both sides.
Paul Blackburn has combined to make 41 starts and toss 215.0 innings over the past two seasons.
Projected to make approximately $3 million in arbitration, good for the second-highest salary on the A’s, the 30-year-old former Mariners’ prospect would slot nicely as a back-end starter in a young rotation. (Could Dipoto then deal Bryan Woo or Bryce Miller in a package to acquire Dylan Cease from the White Sox?)
Ryan Bliss stole 55 bases in the minors in 2023. The athletic middle infielder originally from the Arizona Diamondbacks would pair nicely with fellow speedster Esteury Ruiz in Oakland.
Darren McCaughan represents a rotation workhorse that made 53 starts with a 5.15 ERA over the past two campaigns in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.
The Atlanta Braves are clear favorites to win the NL East again with a roster even more impressive following another solid offseason for POBO/GM Alex Anthopoulus.
It’s strange to lump the Washington Nationals and New York Mets in the same category, but both clubs line up to be also-rans this season as they gear up for a much larger window of contention in coming seasons.
Just below Atlanta are pair of postseason clubs from 2023.
Miami Marlins trade: RHP Tanner Scott
Philadelphia Phillies trade: SS Bryan Rincon
The path is not entirely clear for a Marlins organization in the hands of new President of Baseball Operations Peter Bendix. As the GM of the Rays over the past two seasons, Bendix continued a tradition of winning on a shoestring budget in St. Petersberg.
It’s believed he may need to do the same in South Beach.
Tanner Scott has been rather effective since coming from the Baltimore Orioles ahead of the 2022 season. An ERA+ of 135 while in teal to go along with 32 saves makes him a hot commodity. Considering he’s a free agent at the end of the year, it’s easy to see why offloading him and his projected $5.8 million contract is such an attractive option.
Miami should be able to have their pick of teenaged shortstops in the Phillies farm system. Bryan Rincon was a 14th round pick in 2022 who impressed during his first full-season of pro ball. Philly has much less invested in the 19-year-old as 17-year-old Starlyn Caba and 19-year-old William Bergollo combined to receive over $5 million in signing bonuses.
The other central division is nearly as wide open, excluding the Pittsburgh Pirates, of course. Both the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds have made their own aggressive moves in free agency.
As for the Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs, the pair have been stagnant in determining their goals for 2024. Each club appears destined to go in the opposite direction from 2023 and this deal would certify that prediction.
Milwaukee Brewers trade: RHP Corbin Burnes
Chicago Cubs trade: RHP Javier Assad, OF Kevin Alcántara and INF David Bote
This may seem like the least likely deal of the bunch, until you consider how desperate the Cubs are for making a move and how wise the Brewers can be when it comes to maximizing their assets on the trade market. Yes, Milwaukee has already lost Craig Counsell to Chicago earlier in the offseason, but this move would actually come with some compensation.
Even with Bob Nightengale reporting that most teams around MLB expect the Brewers to hold onto their ace before re-evaluating the market at the trade deadline, it’s possible the right offer simply becomes too good to reject.
Brewers would gain a replacement for Corbin Burnes in Javier Assad, who was worth 2.3 bWAR during his first full season in 2023 thanks to a 3.05 ERA over 109.1 innings. So long as the Cubs cover the remaining $5.5 million on the money owed to David Bote, a once promising infielder signed to a guarantee contract of $15 million after only two years, Milwaukee would have a utility infielder to compete with their current options.
The biggest chip for the Brewers in this deal is Kevin Alcántara. Since being acquired from the Yankees in the Anthony Rizzo trade, the 21-year-old has slowly moved up top prospect rankings to become one of the top 100 in the game. The 6’6” outfielder has the potential to stick in center as he moves through the minors. He hit 12 home runs at High-A in 2023 before slugging one at Double-A over five games at the end of the season.
Since the Brewers could retain Burnes and still receive draft compensation in 2025, any trade involving the 2021 NL Cy Young Award winner will require a significant return. If the Cubs want the best one-two punch in the National League Central for the pursuit of their first postseason appearance in a 162-game campaign since 2018, GM Jed Hoyer will have his work cut out for him.
Even in the wake of the Cubs reaching an agreement with Shōta Imanaga, it’s all the more imperative the denizens of Wrigleyville push some chips toward the center of the table and take a big step towards contention in 2024.
In a division of extremes, three clubs are battling for the three Wild Card spots. The Los Angeles Dodgers have assembled the baseball equivalency of The Avengers and while the Colorado Rockies are headed for another 100-loss season.
The middle ground is led by the Arizona Diamondbacks, who spun 84 wins in the regular season into a World Series appearance. Though the San Diego Padres have several stars remaining on big money deals, the payroll is projected to come down following the passing of controlling owner Peter Seidler.
San Francisco is eager to improve a roster still reeling following the retirement of Buster Posey and rejections from star free agents Aaron Judge and Carlos Correa just a season ago.
San Diego Padres trade: Jake Cronenworth
San Francisco Giants trade: SS Aeverson Arteaga
Even before Brandon Belt left for Toronto last year, the Giants have had a revolving door at first base over the last few seasons.
By acquiring Jake Cronenworth, a two-time All-Star who underperformed in 2023, San Francisco would relieve the Padres of a substantial payroll commitment. Finally, the Giants can take advantage of a situation after suffering multiple offseasons of disappointment on the free agent front.
After acquiring Robbie Ray from the Mariners for Anthony DeSclafani and Mitch Haniger, President of Baseball Operation Farhan Zaidi hinted that more moves are on the way. “Some of the flexibility it creates for opportunities internally and a little bit more maneuverability in terms of other free agent moves or trade acquisitions we’re looking at is certainly part of (the motivation),” said Zaidi.
Cronenworth would reunite with his manager in San Diego, Bob Melvin, and allow the Giants to utilize LaMonte Wade Jr. as a primary outfielder once again. Filling in at second base is also an option for the 29-year-old, whose seven-year, $80 million deal begins in 2024.
The inclusion of Aeverson Arteaga is an easy one for the Giants who selected high school shortstop Walker Martin with their second pick in the 2023 MLB Draft and have Marco Luciano, one of several favorites for the 2024 NL Rookie of the Year Award, poised to star at the position for years to come. One of the best defenders in the system, Arteaga has surprising power from the right side, hitting 31 since the start of 2022.