Sarris: The cheaper alternatives to expensive stars at baseball's trade deadline

Sarris: The cheaper alternatives to expensive stars at baseball’s trade deadline

Most of the mental energy spent online going into the trade deadline centers around the stars that might change teams. Where will Juan Soto go? Would the Angels trade Shohei Ohtani? Who will get Luis Castillo from the Reds?

It makes sense, of course. Stars aren’t usually attainable, especially in season, when a team has a better idea of their October chances. You gotta take the big swing if you can.

“Star players don’t come available very often,” said Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman on television Monday. “Whenever star-level players become available, we’ll always dig in.”

Then again, the expanded playoffs this year offer a double whammy to the economics of the deadline. Not only are there fewer sellers with more playoff berths available, but there are also more teams that are headed towards a wild-card situation where they may not want to spend what it takes to acquire a star. Those two realities of this year’s trade deadline probably mean that the available players will be more expensive and most of the buyers will be more tentative. That, in turn, suggests there will be more teams shopping in the budget aisle than taking home the more expensive options.

The star will always be better because he can do everything all at once. But if you focus on certain aspects of that production, there might actually be ways to reap most of those benefits without spending the prospect capital the star will require. And that’s super important if your really good team could still be out of the playoffs after two games — you don’t want to mortgage the future for that, necessarily.

So here are some alternatives to the stars who might give you a lot, for less.


Star: Juan Soto, Nationals OF
Alternative: Andrew Benintendi, Royals OF

There is no other Juan Soto. He’s got the best current OPS (.895) of any available player at the deadline, and he’s also got the best projected OPS (.937 by THE BAT X, good for fourth-best in the big leagues), and he’s no stick in the mud when it comes to the glove or the base paths. But let’s say you mostly just need a left-hander that can play at the top of your lineup and get on base? There’s actually a decent group of available bats just behind him. Check out the projected on-base percentage among lefty bats likely to be available at the deadline.

Best available lefties by projected OBP

Player Team Projected OBP Projected SLG

WSN

0.413

0.524

PIT

0.351

0.448

KCR

0.344

0.420

WSN

0.343

0.439

CHC

0.340

0.426

Three of the bats on this list have multiple years of team control, which makes them more expensive. That leaves you with rentals Josh Bell and Andrew Benintendi, two bats that can swing from the left side and have top-five plate discipline over the last month among the available options. But only one of those two has played the outfield this year.

Yes, others hitters will hit the ball harder, and Benintendi has made some changes this year to focus more on getting on base than slugging. But he could decide to pull the ball more in the air like he has in the past, and at the very least he offers you a useful lefty that can get on base and play the outfield. As long as you don’t play a lot of games in Toronto this year — and maybe even if you do — that’s a viable alternative.

Star: Luis Castillo, Reds SP
Alternative: Noah Syndergaard, Angels SP

If you want front-line stuff that will slot into one of your top two slots in the rotation, you’re probably going to need to go get Luis Castillo or Frankie Montas. Stuff is worth betting on because it’s easier to replicate pitch to pitch (pitchers miss their spots by 10+ inches on average), and because stuff is stickier year to year, meaning command is a little more finicky. It can come and go year to year.

But a funny thing happens about a quarter of the way into any single season: command stats start to stabilize, meaning you can mostly believe that pitcher will be able to place the ball this season if he has so far. And on any given pitch, the location matters more than the shape or velocity of the pitch. So if you need a pitcher just for this year, you can go get someone that uses command to get his results. And there’s one starter that’s clearly got the best command among the guys available on this market.

Best available starters by Location+

Player

  

Team

  

Stuff+

  

Location+

  

Pitching+

  

LAA

90.1

106.3

103.5

TEX

74.8

104.1

95.5

WSN

80.7

103.3

95.8

PIT

75.9

102.8

93.8

OAK

109.1

102.5

107.2

ARI

83.0

101.6

96.2

CIN

107.0

101.3

101.2

BAL

90.3

100.2

96.4

COL

96.9

94.8

93.6

Clearly, you have to decide between stuff or command if you aren’t getting Castillo or Montas. And clearly, baseball prefers stuff over command. But, for the home stretch, you could pick up a guy with five legitimate pitches and command, who has started to throw the curveball more recently. That pitch was once one of the most underthrown quality pitches in the big leagues this season, and it could improve his lot going forward despite a poor fastball. As a rental without a plus fastball anymore, Syndergaard should be pretty attainable, and he’s one of three starting pitchers who are above average by the locations and physical properties of their pitches.

Star: Josh Bell, Nationals 1B/OF
Alternative: Anthony Santander, Orioles OF

You want a switch hitter that can mash and get on base and make a bunch of contact? Josh Bell is your man. Do you want a switch hitter that can mash and make a bunch of contact? You could settle for Anthony Santander.

Barrel rate is a stat that tracks the ideal contact for power hitters, and as a stat it is more predictive of future power than any other readily available statistic. The best news is, it starts giving you signal after just fifty balls in play, which suggests it’s meaningful early in the season, and it can also track changes hitters are making during the year. Take a look at the available deadline bats by their barrel rate over the last thirty days, with a minimum of 45 balls in play, and Santander rises quickly.

Best Barrelers over the past month

This is Barrels divided by balls in play (and 10 percent is a good number for above-average power), so it’s interesting that Ramon Laureano has a 33 percent strikeout rate over this time frame, while Santander struck out 13.5 percent of the time. Only Sean Murphy combined a better strikeout rate with a better Barrel rate than Santander, so the Oriole is a legitimate power threat.

Then again, Santander is under contract for two more years after this one, so maybe he’s actually going to be the more expensive one … in which case the acquiring team could pivot to Arizona lefty David Peralta or Cincinnati righty Brandon Drury, losing only the flexibility of having a switch hitter in that spot.

Star: Willson Contreras, Cubs C
Alternative: Sean Murphy, Athletics C

This is bogus; it’s really just an excuse to point out that Oakland’s catcher equals Willson Contreras, one of the stars of the trade deadline, in strikeout rate and Barrel rate, while besting the Cub in framing stats this season. The reason this is bogus is because Murphy isn’t a free agent until 2026 and so he’d cost a lot more than Contreras. There is no cheaper equivalent if you want an offensive catcher.

But if you’re wondering why some team might want to put a bunch of prospects together to get Sean Murphy, now you know. He’s a top-10 power threat with an above-average strikeout rate among catchers while being a top-three framer, which is a combination of skills few other young catchers can offer right now.

But a rental offensive catcher that’s not terrible behind the plate like Contreras? He might be a unicorn in this market.


Daniel Bard. (Justin Edmonds / Getty Images)

Star: David Robertson, Cubs RP
Alternative: Daniel Bard, Rockies RP

The rumors are already pretty hot and heavy surrounding David Robertson, one of a flurry of one-year Cubs bullpen signings that have worked out. He’s mostly succeeding on the basis of his curveball, which ranks as a top-15 curveball in the game by Stuff+ and is clearly his best pitch. He’s staved off some of the issues that comes from velocity loss by going to a cutter as his primary fastball, and is going to be a solid acquisition for any bullpen.

The Rockies have a pitcher that profiles very similarly but has a little bit of upside beyond. Daniel Bard has a top-15 slider by Stuff+ that is easily his best pitch. He’s tried to push back against Father Time by moving from the four-seamer to a sinker. He’s struck out fewer guys than Robertson, but Coors Field is hiding some upside in Bard. The altitude changes the way a pitch moves, physically, through the air. Take a look at the vertical movement on his sinker by game, and you’ll see that it can have as much as a five-inch difference from game to game.

Bard’s sinker’s physical characteristics as judged by Stuff+ are better than league average away from home and below league average at home. The team getting Bard might actually be getting the better pitcher, and he’s already the best available reliever by Stuff+, besting Jorge Lopez by a nose.

Star: Trey Mancini, Orioles 1B/OF
Alternative: David Peralta, Diamondbacks OF

Both Trey Mancini and David Peralta are free agents at the end of the season. They both are hitting in parks that used to be hitter’s parks and are playing more like pitcher’s parks now. Neither is a standout defensively. It’s actually kind of hard to decide who is the star and who is the alternative here, because they are so close.

  • Walk rate: Peralta (8.6%) basically ties Mancini (8.3%)
  • Strikeout rate: Mancini (21.4%) but not by a ton over Peralta (24.3%)
  • Barrel Rate: Peralta (12%) by a bit over Mancini (10.2%)
  • Outs Above Average: Peralta (+4) by a fair amount over Mancini (+1)
  • Projected OPS: Mancini (.758) over Peralta (.743)

Given that Peralta is the lefty, you’d probably prefer him unless you had a specific need, like maybe the Brewers or Mets. Everyone else might take the better defender with more power who swings with the left hand, though.

Stars: Ramon Laureano, Athletics CF; Bryan Reynolds, Pirates CF
Alternatives: Michael A. Taylor, Royals CF; Ben Gamel, Pirates OF

Ramon Laureano made that adjustment that he said he would make, and is hitting for more power now, as you can see from that last-30-day barrel rate table from above. He offers speed, defense, and power from the right side, and is capable in center. Bryan Reynolds is making a little more contact recently and is definitely lifting the ball better, and is pretty much above-average in all facets of the game. The problem with both of these guys is twofold. For one, their defense in center is maybe not the best — Laureano is a -3 by Outs Above Average, and Reynolds a -5, making them both bottom quartile defenders despite their ability to handle center. And then there’s the years of team control they offer that will up the price tag for the acquiring team. Nothing a front office likes more than certainty, even if their ability to handle center is not so certain.

The alternatives in center are sparse, but if you can pick either defense or offense, you can probably get some help at the position.

Ben Gamel has only logged one inning in center this year but he played there more regularly last year and rates about as well as the other two options by OAA. If we relax the requirements for the last month on the top Barrelers table from above, he’d be top five. He generally has a good eye at the plate — only three available players have swung at fewer balls outside the zone this season — and is a positive on the base paths and at the plate overall. If you can handle the inconsistent defense in center, he can help, particularly if you need a left-hander out there. Milwaukee is 22nd against righties in center this year, so maybe a reunion is in the cards. Or perhaps Houston could maybe use short-term help there as Jake Meyers’ shoulder heals while he plays.

But let’s say you really need defense in center ¯ the Yankees, Blue Jays, and Mariners all qualify since they’ve had below-average defense there so far this year — there’s really only one guy for the job. Michael A. Taylor may not be displaying the same glove he showed in his peak, but he’s still around the 50th percentile by OAA and he’s the best center field defender available at the deadline. Offensively he’s about league average against lefties for his career, too, so it’s not like he comes without any stick at all.

Star: Martin Perez, Rangers LHP
Alternative: Matt Moore, Rangers LHP

If you need the bulk, you can take a shot on Martin Perez, but too many teams remember how it ended for him in 2021 and may only want him as a stop gap that may end up in the bullpen. After all, his velo isn’t up, and his vertical movement on all his pitches is virtually identical to where it’s been in the past. It’s hard to pinpoint why he’s doing so much better so far this year. And so, if bulk is a question, you might as well get a lefty who is doing something different these days.

 

Matt Moore hasn’t thrown a pitch that hard in over ten years, so he’s finally taking to the bullpen and is ready to add another chapter to his career. Oh and look, that was against Juan Soto in a punchout, that might be just what the team acquiring him is looking for.

In fact, Moore is second among all available lefty relievers in Stuff+ (and will be cheaper than Joe Jimenez, who has an additional year of team control). Moore does pretty well in the overall leaderboard among relievers you might see change teams this next week.

Available relievers by Stuff+

Player

  

Team

  

Stuff+

  

Location+

  

Pitching+

  

COL

117.0

98.0

104.1

DET

115.7

107.2

112.9

BAL

115.6

97.6

105.2

CHC

112.9

97.1

102.1

TEX

108.3

96.0

98.8

DET

105.6

95.0

99.0

DET

104.9

92.1

95.6

KCR

101.7

95.3

98.6

CHC

100.5

98.4

97.9

WSN

97.0

102.3

103.8

ARI

95.5

105.8

101.8

ARI

92.7

103.9

101.0

WSN

92.6

98.0

98.8

COL

92.0

94.3

94.0

DET

89.2

100.0

97.8

WSN

88.4

95.5

104.4

Pitching+ is most powerful with small sample relievers in particular, so it’s very likely teams are looking at this sort of information when they make their decision to trade for a pitcher. If you can stomach some possible poor command outings and just want good stuff with a small price tag, Moore and Michael Fulmer — two converted starters — might be the best pickups to look into.

Star: Brandon Drury, Reds IF
Alternative: Donovan Solano, Reds IF

Yes, Brandon Drury is going to hit for more power, and probably play better defense. But if the requirement is ‘be right-handed and be passable at multiple infield positions’ then you can probably get Drury’s teammate for less. Solano is projected to be league-average with the bat, makes a bunch of contact, and could maybe help a team like the Rays (who just lost two right-handers) or the Brewers (who are 25th in OPS against lefties) continue to profit from their mix-and-match ways.

You can see the full list of “available” players for this article here (toggle to ‘pitching’ at the top to see the pitchers), which was cribbed from different online rankings of potential movers at the deadline, including those by Jim Bowden and MLBTradeRumors.com. A few more late names may have jumped onto the list, but the number of players with multiple years of team control that actually get traded mid-season is much lower than the number of players that appear in rumors. 

(Top photo of Benintendi: Jay Biggerstaff / USA TODAY)


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