7 questions for the MLB trade deadline: Who is the biggest star who could move before Aug. 2?

It’s almost July, which means fireworks are approaching — MLB trade deadline fireworks. The deadline is Aug. 2 this year, giving us just over a month for baseball’s contenders to shuffle their cards and play their best hands.

There are also a couple twists that could make this deadline particularly unpredictable.

With a little over a month until the deadline, what we really have now are questions. Until the dust settles on Aug. 2, the answers to these seven quandaries will drive the conversation, and set the stage for the stretch run.

1. Top teams, top payrolls: How much more will Yankees, Mets and Dodgers add?

The New York Yankees, New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers have the three largest payrolls in baseball. Coming into Monday’s games, they also have … the three best records in baseball.

That correlation doesn’t always work out in MLB, and it isn’t guaranteed to hold true this season, but it’s safe to say the big spenders have a lot of incentive to go for it in 2022. All three are already over the baseline competitive balance tax threshold where they will pay extra for every dollar of payroll they add. The Dodgers and Mets are already threatening to eclipse the highest bar where they would pay their tax plus a 60% surcharge.

TL;DR: This trio has invested in going for it. There probably won’t be too many financial hold-ups to going after any necessary additions.

What will those necessary additions look like?

The Yankees, who could threaten the all-time wins record if they keep their current pace, predictably aren’t doing this with a ton of glaring holes. Their top priority should probably be adding an outfielder who can be counted on in center field defensively. Beyond that, another reliable bullpen arm would be helpful. It’s worth noting their rotation has been very healthy after entering the season with a lot of injury concerns. It wouldn’t be a surprise if GM Brian Cashman upgraded or added insurance preemptively.

The Mets are in more of a race with the charging Braves, and have more apparent reasons to worry. Max Scherzer is preparing to return soon, and Jacob deGrom is throwing, but neither will have time to completely assuage health concerns by August. Tylor Megill is on the shelf. Mets GM Billy Eppler will almost certainly be trawling the phone lines for a starting pitcher.

The Dodgers — who have made a habit of splashy, shocking deadline deals — may have reason to pull off another one. Their rotation has been buoyed by the tremendous performances of Tony Gonsolin and Tyler Anderson, but will Andrew Friedman trust those arms to keep it up? With Walker Buehler out for an extended time and Mookie Betts hurt right now, almost any form of big addition feels possible.

2. Will more playoff spots mean more or less trade deadline activity?

The third playoff spot in each league was designed to encourage more competition. It was also codified after spring training was supposed to start, which means it didn’t really influence this offseason’s strategy. Will it alter the trade deadline calculations?

It feels like we may need to wait for next year on that one, too.

Each league currently has eight teams either in a postseason spot or within five games of one. One of those teams — the Phillies — just lost its best player, and two of the AL’s bubble teams are the famously frugal Rays and Guardians. The other teams on the outside looking in, right now, are the San Francisco Giants and the snakebitten Chicago White Sox. The St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers are in at the moment, but could wind up in that mix.

There might be more heated competition for the top two seeds — which receive byes into the division series — but even that is already mostly limited to the NL.

When Sports Illustrated’s Stephanie Apstein asked Rays president of baseball operations Erik Neander about the incentives of the larger playoff field, he called the top seeds a “meaningful advantage” but identified just making the playoffs as the biggest hurdle to clear.

“Just getting in gives you a chance,” he said. “And I think the greatest separation between having a chance to win a World Series and not is simply getting into the playoffs or not.”

Cubs catcher Willson Contreras could be the best player moved at the MLB trade deadline. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Cubs catcher Willson Contreras could be the best player moved at the MLB trade deadline. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

3. Is there a star big enough to set off a true blockbuster?

There’s no apparent Max Scherzer or Trea Turner on the block right now, to put it lightly. The best player who is very likely to actually get traded is Willson Contreras, the Chicago Cubs stalwart who leads all catchers with 12 homers this year.

Contreras, though, is heading to free agency after this season. Rentals don’t spark blockbusters unless they are MVP-level talents. So you’re looking for a star with multiple years of control left.

The most enticing hitter with some chance at moving is probably Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Bryan Reynolds. (Hey, I warned you there were not going to be glitzy names.) His numbers are a bit down this year, but the 27-year-old combines on-base ability with some pop into a down-ballot MVP vote package that a pursuer could have under team control for three more seasons.

Reynolds is more of a stretch, though. A starting pitcher is probably going to fetch the biggest return of this deadline.

The top contenders are A’s starter Frankie Montas, Reds starter Luis Castillo and Marlins starter Pablo Lopez.

Montas and Castillo are obvious candidates given everything else their teams have done to rid their major-league teams of talent. They each have one full season left under contract after 2022.

Lopez, like Reynolds, isn’t necessarily going to move, but there’s a chance. The 26-year-old changeup artist is running a 2.61 ERA for the Marlins, who have developed an assembly line of strong starting pitchers. If they were presented with a chance to really upgrade their offensive outlook, they might be tempted to give up Lopez even though he won’t be a free agent until after the 2024 season.

4. What about Juan Soto?

No, he has not signed a long-term extension with the Washington Nationals. And, yes, they are in the depths of a rebuild. But GM Mike Rizzo has said they are not trading the precocious superstar who regularly ranks among the game’s best hitters.

Add to that an uncertain ownership and management situation and you get a franchise that just isn’t going to pull the trigger on a deal of this magnitude.

They should find a way to re-sign him. They have more than a year left to do so. They won’t give up in July 2022.

5. Who are the best hitters on the trade block?

Contreras, Cubs catcher: The 30-year-old has long been one of baseball’s best-hitting backstops. A whole host of contenders could seriously use him in the lineup, but some may be reluctant to change any part of the equation at catcher, a position intricately tied to the success of a pitching staff. Count the Astros and Yankees as two teams that would consider Contreras as a huge offensive upgrade, but may adhere to organizational priorities toward their defense-first catchers.

Ian Happ, Cubs outfielder: Having seriously improved his strikeout rate, Happ is running a career-best .376 on-base percentage. He’s not a free agent until after 2023.

Josh Bell, Nationals first baseman: He’s not a modicum of consistency, but when Bell is good, he’s really good. We appear to be in a really good Bell year. He’s mashing to the tune of a .308 batting average with 11 homers and nearly as many walks as strikeouts.

Sean Murphy, A’s catcher: Murphy makes an almost comical amount of sense for the Rays or Guardians, or really any team looking for a boost without placing all its chips on 2022 specifically. One of the last stars standing in Oakland, Murphy hasn’t even hit arbitration yet. He hits for some power, if very little average, and ranks among the best defensive catchers.

Andrew Benintendi, Royals outfielder: The lefty swinging Benintendi has rediscovered some of his early Red Sox form in Kansas City. He will flirt with .300, play a solid left field and hit free agency after this season.

Strong A's starter Frankie Montas could help a contender's starting rotation. (AP Photo/John Hefti)
Strong A's starter Frankie Montas could help a contender's starting rotation. (AP Photo/John Hefti)

6. Who are the best pitchers on the trade block?

Montas, A’s starter: Consistently excellent since a rough 2020, Montas will join his former rotation-mates on a contender soon enough. The sturdy righty keeps ramping up usage of his splitter, and hitters keep missing it. He has a 3.21 ERA in 2022, and has averaged nearly six innings per start.

Castillo, Reds starter: The pitcher with the best track record of any trade bait coming into the season, Castillo missed April due to injury troubles. He hasn’t been missing bats the same way he usually does since returning, but expect someone to bet on the proven talent.

Martin Perez, Rangers starter: The 31-year-old lefty who has been perfectly mediocre for nearly a decade has popped off with a 1.96 ERA in 2022. He’s on a one-year, $4 million deal. The Rangers will have to decide whether he’s a revelation worth keeping around or a mirage to sell while the going is good.

Merrill Kelly, Diamondbacks starter: Kelly originally revitalized his career in Korea, then raised eyebrows again this spring by boosting his velocity. He has limited homers well and logged a 3.64 ERA.

Someone in the Orioles bullpen: Here’s a true fact that I swear I’m not making up. The Baltimore Orioles have an MLB-high FOUR pitchers with at least 20 innings and an ERA under 2.00 this season. The four are Jorge Lopez, Felix Bautista, Cionel Perez and Dean Kremer. At least one will probably move. The best bet is Lopez, who has served as a dynamite closer with a 0.75 ERA.

7. Is there a surprise seller lurking who could shake up the market?

A universal truth about things that are a month away: Things could change. In the spring, there was speculation the Twins could deal surprise offseason acquisition Carlos Correa. In May, we were talking about a Red Sox sale.

Now, both of those look unlikely, but other teams could sink into a selling posture.

The Phillies, in Harper’s absence, seem like one logical possibility, though they don’t have many players on short-term commitments likely to rock this deadline unless they decide to dangle Aaron Nola. The White Sox are similarly underwhelming and battered by injuries.

Maybe the most interesting addition to the seller’s bucket would be the Giants. They are basically an entire team of easily traded contracts — solid veterans on short-term commitments. There’s no indication they are headed toward a selling posture, but if the wind blew them that way, there would suddenly be quite a few more options on the market, including ace Carlos Rodon and perennial playoff terror Joc Pederson.