OK, it’s 2023, and much of baseball’s offseason business got done before the calendar flipped. While Carlos Correa’s situation remains up in the air — he’s theoretically in agreement with the New York Mets but again in limbo after questions about his physicality — the impact players in this free-agent class are otherwise spoken for. With a little more than a month left before pitchers and catchers report, the trade market has remained mostly quiet, save for a fascinating challenge trade between the Arizona Diamondbacks and Toronto Blue Jays.
There are three big reasons to think activity might soon explode to fill the trade void: The Los Angeles Dodgers need a center fielder. The New York Yankees need a left fielder. And the Atlanta Braves might need a shortstop.
Big spenders with big ambitions, these teams raise eyebrows when they leave room for lineup questions. Sometimes there are clear, if unproven, answers. For instance, the Yankees are leaving shortstop open for top prospects Anthony Volpe and/or Oswald Peraza to seize.
But these three holes aren’t necessarily going to be filled internally. Which means this winter might get a second wind.
Let’s take a deeper look at the calculus for each team.
Who’s playing center field for the Dodgers?
Los Angeles cut ties with Cody Bellinger earlier this winter after his offensive decline made his arbitration salary too rich for his current level of production. But one thing Bellinger still did was play defense — he was one of the best center-field defenders in baseball. And right now, it’s not clear the Dodgers have anyone on the roster who should play center field for a contender.
The most obvious answer is Mookie Betts, a superlative defender in right, but the Dodgers have shown little interest in moving the franchise player off his usual position to remedy the current situation. At the moment, the internal candidates are surprise 2022 success story Trayce Thompson (brother of Golden State Warriors star Klay) and the strapping 25-year-old rookie James Outman, who got a cup of coffee in 2022 after belting 31 homers across two levels of the minors. Outman, a left-handed hitter who runs well, played about a third of his minor-league innings in center field last season while mostly manning the corners.
If one of them is going to take the job and run with it, it seems Outman might be more likely to manage center field’s defensive demands. Still, as FanGraphs prospect evaluator Eric Longenhagen wrote in March, “Outman’s feel in center field is only fair, and while he’s a viable defender out there, he isn’t an impact one.” Either way, Thompson and Outman already have roles to play. They might wind up needing to take the lion’s share of the playing time in left field, depending on how well prospect Miguel Vargas adjusts to the big leagues and how projected third baseman Max Muncy adapts to MLB’s infield shift limitations.
For the Dodgers, there’s an obvious candidate on the board: Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Bryan Reynolds has requested a trade amid stalled extension negotiations. The 27-year-old is a reliably good hitter and will make less than $7 million in 2023 as the Dodgers make a fairly obvious effort at budgetary restraint. Reynolds will remain under team control through the 2025 season.
About Reynolds, though: He might be expensive via trade. Reports indicate that Pirates general manager Ben Cherington has maintained a high asking price and isn’t necessarily inclined to move the valuable outfielder. The Dodgers would likely have to part with a major prospect, such as fireballing, right-handed pitcher Bobby Miller, plus other pieces.
Who’s playing left field for the Yankees?
Another reason Reynolds could prove expensive? He’s also the best answer to the Yankees’ lineup hole. Right now, the bulk of the left-field at-bats in the Bronx are projected to go to Aaron Hicks. The one-time center fielder was displaced by deadline addition Harrison Bader in 2022 — and by his miserable second half at the plate (.185/.279/.252).
Oswaldo Cabrera, who popped up as a key contributor for the Yanks in 2022, is the other factor already on the roster, but GM Brian Cashman almost certainly would prefer Cabrera to work as a utility player filling in around the infield. DJ LeMahieu and Josh Donaldson are both injury risks who could benefit from time off.
Which leads us to Reynolds. The Yankees might have more incentive than the Dodgers to pay the Pirates’ price. Their offense collapsed around Aaron Judge late last season, and Reynolds would provide three cost-controlled seasons in the outfield as the Yankees try to keep Giancarlo Stanton healthy in the designated hitter role.
However, the Yankees also have more flexibility. They don’t necessarily need a player capable of playing center field, as Bader is a terrific defender. Across the league, there are, unsurprisingly, more useful corner outfielders who could be pried away.
The Twins are reportedly open to moving left-handed hitter Max Kepler, whose swing might benefit from a change of scenery after two relatively down seasons. The St. Louis Cardinals have a glut of corner outfielders, which appeared to make them suitors for Sean Murphy, the star catcher the A’s recently traded to Atlanta. It’s not clear which of those outfielders the Cardinals would be willing to move, but Tyler O’Neill — a barrel-chested slugger who blasted 34 homers in a terrific 2021 before struggling last year — fits the Yankees’ type. He’s under team control for two more seasons. Several other Cardinals options, including Dylan Carlson and Juan Yepez, would be controllable for longer.
Who’s playing shortstop for the Braves?
With Dansby Swanson joining the Chicago Cubs in free agency, the Braves are faced with replacing a franchise mainstay for the second straight season. And it does not appear that this year’s solution will be as elegant as last offseason’s Matt Olson trade and immediate extension.
In truth, this is the least likely of the major lineup gaps to be filled via trade. Swanson’s seven-year, $177 million deal with Chicago came relatively late in the free-agent cycle, leaving Braves president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos little chance of snagging a major free-agent replacement, but that never appeared to be the plan, anyway.
Internally, the team has Vaughn Grissom, a middle infielder who debuted in 2022, working on his defense with Ron Washington. That has become baseball code for “turning into a good defensive shortstop,” but it’s far from a given. Grissom, who turns 22 on Thursday, is large for a shortstop. Standing 6-foot-3, he could maximize his defensive potential and still struggle to stick at shortstop for a contender such as Atlanta.
Also, the market for trade candidates at shortstop is … less robust than in the outfield. The most proven option who could conceivably move is probably the Milwaukee Brewers’ Willy Adames. They have largely stood pat instead of adding this offseason, and they have prospects on the way. But the Braves already swung a deal involving the Brewers when they went out to get Murphy at catcher. If they were interested in Adames, wouldn’t they have discussed it then?
Maybe a more realistic option is to hedge on Grissom by targeting a less glamorous player whose game focuses on defense. The Tampa Bay Rays might have one in Taylor Walls, a 26-year-old whose bat was abysmal when he filled in for Wander Franco last season but whom scouts love at short. The Baltimore Orioles have several infield prospects rising up the ranks, potentially making impact defender Jorge Mateo expendable. Mateo struggles to hit for average, but he plays defense and stole 35 bags in his first crack at regular playing time in 2022.
Alas, the easiest option might be a player the Braves traded away all the way back in 2007. The 34-year-old Elvis Andrus, coming off his best offensive season since 2017, might be appealing as a one-year stopgap at short. By Statcast’s estimation, he was still solidly above average at shortstop last season.