The days of highway robbery early-season trades are a thing of the past, but it’s rarely too early to kick the tires on making trades. I’ve identified a five players who make for strong trade targets — depending on league type and settings, obviously. A pair of sluggers who could be had at a discount are joined by a white-hot hitting veteran and a couple of right-handed pitchers with varying degrees of success thus far.
Chris Carter 1B/OF, Houston Astros (CBS- 75%, Yahoo!- 73%, ESPN- 63.1%)
When you invest a draft pick in Carter, you need to be in it for the long haul. He’s a three-true-outcomes machine. Carter tallied 572 plate appearances in 2014, and a whopping 275 of them ended in a homer, walk or strikeout (48.1%). Like with Adam Dunn before him, the power comes at a cost of streakiness and a low batting average. His struggles have resulted in a drop to seventh in the order, and his ownership rates above his drop in the order coincided with some drops in fantasy leagues.
As you’ve probably guessed, one of the three-true-outcomes has been more prevalent than the others. Carter has struck out in 40.0% of his plate appearances while slugging only one homer. Pair his single dinger with a .122 batting average, and you’ve got the recipe for some disgruntled fantasy owners. Let’s put this in perspective, though. Last year, Carter tallied 100 plate appearances prior to May 1. He hit .153 with three homers and a 37.0% K. Furthermore, he hit an ugly .164 in the month of June. Is there risk with Carter? Absolutely. Look no further than Pedro Alvarez’s 2014 season for an example of what a down year for Carter could look like. If you’re a power starved gamer, though, see if Carter can be had at a slight discount from his draft day price.
Alex Rodriguez 3B, New York Yankees (CBS- 94%, Yahoo!- 85%, ESPN- 100%)
No one could truly know what Rodriguez would look like after his year-long layoff. So far, so good. He’s already ascended to third in the order for the Yankees thanks to his play. His 27.4% K is on the high side, but his plate discipline has been exquisite (21.0% BB). Also — and more importantly to gamers — he’s smacked four homers.
At 39-years old, A-Rod carries risk, but his power looks legitimate. His average home run and fly ball distance of 310.30 feet ranks 12th out of 170, according to Baseball Heat Maps. Rodriguez isn’t hitting cheapies, he’s muscling up and mashing. Owners who took a late-round flier on him might be willing to cash out and sell high. A-Rod looks like a strong buy high to me. He has starting third baseman upside in leagues of all sizes, and if he can be had at a slight discount from that ceiling, you should make a push to acquire his services.
Steve Pearce 1B/OF, Baltimore Orioles (CBS- 79%, Yahoo!- 50%, ESPN- 54.2%)
When you have a career year at 31-years old after previously struggling in the majors, as Pearce did, skepticism of the legitimacy of the breakout is understandable. Pearce is scuffling out of the gate and has been cast aside by many owners. In shallow leagues, cutting him is the right move. In deeper leagues, I’d advise giving him a bit more leash.
Pearce has been on the bench in four of the Orioles’ last five games, creating a prime buying opportunity. He carries more risk of completely face planting than the other two hitters highlighted, but the cost of acquisition will almost certainly be cheaper. When Pearce is in the lineup, he has slotted second or cleanup. Both lineup slots will provide him ample run-production upside.
His plate discipline numbers are what provide me the most optimism for a turnaround. He’s offering at fewer pitches out of the strike zone than last year, is making more zone contact and has a slightly depressed swinging strike rate from 2014. His biggest problem is a huge drop from a 60.6% O-Contact% to 46.2%. That rate is well below his mark last year and his career rate (57.1%). Pearce should be a source of cheap power, but don’t bank on a repeat of his .293 batting average. ZiPS has a rest-of-season projection of .249 and Steamer checks in at .264. Either batting average — or somewhere in between — would be palatable with above average thump.
Brandon McCarthy SP, Los Angeles Dodgers (CBS- 84%, Yahoo!- 78%, ESPN- 53.7%)
McCarthy’s stats this year are quite interesting. He’s had the good fortune of a 95.2% left-on-base rate that’s unsustainable. He’s also served up a homer on 35.3% of fly balls — also unsustainable. The end result is a 4.50 ERA that doesn’t line up with his 5.12 FIP or 2.08 xFIP.
McCarthy was a popular pitcher at draft time among stat savvy gamers. The reason I chose to highlight him as a top flight trade target isn’t because I think he can be had cheaply, it’s because his early season PITCHf/x data has quelled any concerns I had about him building on last year’s success. In 2014, McCarthy was throwing harder than at any other point in his big league career. His velocity has carried over to this season, and he’s using his cutter and curve at nearly the same rates he did last season, per Brooks Baseball.
One notable change he has made is reducing his sinker usage in favor of throwing more fourseam fastballs. That change can largely explain his nose dive in ground ball rate. There has been a tradeoff, though, as he’s missing more bats this season. McCarthy has tallied a 34.7% K. The right-hander has thrown his fourseam fastball 40.24% of the time in 2015, per Brooks Baseball, and it’s generating a whiff percentage of 20.45%. His curveball and cutter give him two other weapons that are garnering whiff rates north of 12% (12.99% for the curve and 14.89% for the cutter). Add it all up and he’s missing lumber in bunches and owns a 14.6% swinging strike rate. No qualified starter has a higher swinging strike rate than McCarthy.
Jason Hammel SP, Chicago Cubs (CBS- 63%, Yahoo!- 51%, ESPN- 11.6%)
Hammel isn’t as desirable a starting pitching asset as McCarthy is, but he’s a fine target in large mixed leagues and NL-only formats. Through three starts, his 5.19 ERA flies in stark contrast to his 3.82 FIP and 3.30 xFIP. A high BABIP, low left-on-base percentage and slightly high HR/FB rate have all conspired to hurt him in the early going. A messy relief appearance from Brian Schlitter in his second start also hurt.
Hammel’s 2014 season wasn’t so much a tale of two halves, but instead was a tale of triumph and success with the Cubs and mediocrity with the Oakland Athletics. With the Cubs, he totaled a 2.98 ERA, 3.19 FIP and 3.21 xFIP with a 24.2% K and 5.4% BB. His second tour of duty with the Cubs has seen him pare his walk rate down, but he hasn’t struck out as many batters (21.6% K). To expect a repeat of what would have been a career best strikeout rate if his season ended without playing in green and gold would have been ambitious. His current strikeout rate isn’t out of the realm of possibility, at least if he’s able to pick his swinging strike rate up a bit.
There are no red flags flying as a result of his velocity. His pitch mix isn’t a far cry off from what it was last year with the Cubs, though, his curveball usage is down a bit. Hammel’s whiff rate is down on his slider, though, and that appears to be the biggest culprit for his suppressed swinging strike percentage. The slider appears to be featuring less vertical and horizontal movement, according to the data at Brooks Baseball. If you’re the speculating type and believe he’s just struggling to find his feel for the slider early, like I am, he makes for a nice trade target.
You can follow Josh on Twitter @bchad50.