It took nearly 30 years of listening to Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo’s loud, obnoxious voice, but for the first time I found myself nodding in agreement with the radio host. Earlier this week on his XM radio show he suggested that any American League team other than the Red Sox, Yankees, Astros or Indians should be rebuilding as the rest are all tripping over themselves for the second wild card spot. He’s right. Those four teams are stacked and positioned to cruise into the playoffs for the next three years at least (Russo said five, but that may be a stretch). The A’s and Rays can work their magic and slip in for the second wild card but is it really worth it for teams like Seattle, Toronto, L.A.and Texas to bloat their payrolls just for the hope of getting knocked out by the Yankees or Red Sox in a one game playoff? I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Russo is right on this one. The GMs of every other American League team besides the four juggernauts should be rebuilding. On that note, some of these teams could make great trade partners for the Mets. Here’s a look at the possibilities by division.
American League East
Fresh off their World Series win, the Red Sox are well positioned to make the playoffs for the next five years. Their roster is teeming with young and prime talent. Their only off-season concern is that their top relievers are all free agents, since this is the Mets weakest area, we can cross out the Red Sox as a likely trade partner. The cross town Yankees have always been a tricky trade partner, primarily due to the media pressure making the rival GMs leery of being seen as on the losing end of any deal. Maybe that could change with Brodie Van Waganen in the fold because the teams do line up in many ways. The Yankees have young talent to spare and a desperate need for proven starting pitching. Mets fans, including this one, are clamoring for Jacob deGrom to be locked up to a long term contract, but if Van Waganen explores the possibility with his former agency and decides selling high is the smart play, he could work out a blockbuster with the Yankees that revolves around slugging rookie third baseman Miguel Andujar and the young lefty starter Justus Sheffield. The cupboard is bare in Baltimore where a soon-to-be-named new general manager will have the unenviable task of trying to shed dead weight contracts from a terrible team. The Rays, through smoke, mirrors and one Cy Young Award winner, managed to win 90 games in 2018. Their one interesting trade chip, center fielder Malex Smith, just got scooped up by the Mariners. A lack of stars and payroll flexibility makes the Rays an unlikely trade partner. That leaves the Toronto Blue Jays who find themselves in purgatory. They still have some talent, but have lost too many bats to free agency the last few years and are saddled with too many bad contracts to try to plug the holes in free agency. For a rival GM to pry away any of the Blue Jays remaining chips, they’d likely have to be willing to take on a bad contract, like that of Russell Martin. Entering the last year of his contract ($20 million), Martin has been banged up and ineffective the past two years to the point where the Blue Jays would have to really make it worthwhile by taking back very little in return, eating a portion of that salary and including some quality young players. Maybe Van Waganen can figure something out here because the Blue Jays still have a few pieces that could help the Mets, but this wouldn’t be simple.
American League Central
The Mets and Indians have been constantly linked in trade rumors ever since we made their pitching coach our manager. While the Indians aren’t quite in the same class as the Red Sox, Astros and Yankees, they are so clearly the best team in a baseball’s weakest division that it’s hard to imagine them not making the playoffs in the near future. Word on the street is that they need to slash payroll and might be willing to trade one of their top starting pitchers. An interesting idea for Van Waganen to consider is that Corey Kluber and Carlos Carasco both have relatively team-friendly contracts in place and acquiring either would allow the Mets to use one of their arbitration eligible pitchers as a trade chip. Over in the bullpen, the Indians two best relievers are both free agents that the Mets will certainly look at. On the offensive side of the ball, young studs Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez are unquestionably off the table, and the next most potent weapon is a 35-yer-old DH. That leaves a mediocre first baseman and catcher, a free agent left fielder, and Jason Kipnis who many thought would have become a Met last year. The 31-year-old bounced back from an injury-marred 2017 and a bad first half of 2018 with a terrific second half. Primarily a second baseman, he can also play outfield. Kipnis is owed $14.5 million this coming year with an option/buyout for 2020. He might make sense only he bats lefty and the Mets have enough of those.
The other four AL Central teams are either rebuilding or still tearing down. The White Sox have traded off every valuable piece except for their first baseman, Jose Abreu. The right-handed slugger could make a nice addition for a team that can’t meet Arizona’s asking price for Paul Goldschmidt. The Mets aren’t likely to go that route as we wait to see what we have in Peter Alonso. The Detroit Tigers are a hot buttered mess. Future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera is a shell of his former self but has a gargantuan contract that will pay him handsomely for another six years. Starting pitcher Jordan Zimmerman (remember him?) will make $25 million each of the next two seasons as well. Detroit’s hope is to flip any remaining tradeable assets for prospects. This short list includes a weak fielding third baseman and an injury prone starting pitcher. And you think we have it bad as Met fans? The Twins, who just experienced the retirement of their franchise face, are in an interesting spot. They played just under .500 ball and clearly have more talent than the rebuilding teams but are still far away from the elite four. They have some interesting pieces and would certainly be worth talking to. The Royals are a shell of the team that bested us in the World Series in 2015. Most of their key cogs from that group have either left via free agency or have aged out of their prime years. Emerging second baseman Whit Merrifield is likely off the table, but catcher Salvador Perez may be a player worth targeting.
American League West
The Houston Astros have an embarrassment of riches and seem like they’ll be a playoff stable for years to come with both young and prime talent on the Major League roster, but still some good prospects in their pipeline. Of note, they will be on the hunt for starting pitching this off-season as two of their starters are free agents and one just underwent Tommy John surgery. They may still bring back one of Dallas Keuchel or Charlie Morton, but Lance McCullers, Jr. will not pitch in 2019 so they’ll need to fill out the rotation behind aces Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole. Their free agent Marwin Gonzalez has been a much talked about target for the Mets, but the Astros may make a worthy trade partner as well. The Texas Rangers mirror the Twins in many ways. Their franchise face is likely to retire and they have some, but not enough young talent. They’d love for someone to take on the bloated contract of former Mets’ free agent target Shin Soo Choo and are desperate for starting pitching, but they don’t offer much in the way of relief help and their only power hitter is the strikeout machine, Joey Gallo. The Oakland A’s, led by a monster bullpen, Khris Davis‘ power and strong defense, fought their way into the playoffs. Their lineup included five players with 20+ home runs and their bullpen is loaded with quality arms. What they need and how much they’re willing to spend is the question. The always active Mariners made the first significant trade of the off-season and General Manager Jerry DiPoto is always itching for a trade. DH Nelson Cruz is a free agent and ace James Paxton is reportedly on the trade block. Payroll is complicated by the big, long-term deals of Robinson Cano and the no longer effective Felix Hernandez. The speedy Dee Gordon had a down year, but this could be due to the failed experiment of moving him to center field. The Mets need speed and the Mariners need to trim pay roll.
Last on the list is baseball’s biggest enigma – the Los Angeles Angels. Home to baseball’s brightest star, but also its most inflated contract, this team never seems to have the pitching to push it past .500 to a playoff berth. They have a strong lineup and if they can somehow add two front end starters without breaking the bank, they could be back in the thick of it. Problem is, they have one of the worst farm systems. It might be a public relations disaster, but the smart play for this team is to trade Mike Trout for a massive haul that will help them rebuild. Every team in baseball would be interested and the price would be unprecedented. A gold glove center fielder and perennial MVP candidate just entering his prime. He’s likable and squeaky clean to boot. He’s every owner’s dream as a team center piece. The Mets would have to offer up two of their big four pitchers, plus two top prospects, Mr. Met, the bullpen cart, the home run apple and Gary Cohen’s library and it still might not be enough, but we can dream.