Trade Targets: First Base and Designated Hitter

The month of June marks the unofficial beginning of the trade season, and so we thought it would be helpful to run down a list of which players might be for sale at some point this summer. But, rather than just run down a list of potential trade targets, we thought that we would spend the week discussing the most interesting players at each position and have compiled a list of the best players available at each spot, along with their expected production going forward and notes about which teams might be possible fits as buyers. We hope you enjoy the series.

Kicking off our week of looking at trade targets are the players who will be acquired primarily for their work with the bat: first basemen and designated hitters. Note that there might be some overlap across the posts as some players can handle multiple positions.

Here are five realistic trade candidates at the position(s), based on projected WAR over the rest of the season, contract status, the state of their current employers and the needs of various potential contenders.

PLAYER: Billy Butler
TEAM: Royals
CONTRACT STATUS: Four-year, $30 million deal through 2014

Butler is tricky when stacked up against the rest of the players on this list because he’s in the first of a four-year deal. Everyone else discussed below will reach free agency at the end of the season. For that reason, the Royals could hold onto him — since the team could contend in the next few seasons as its bevy of upper-echelon prospects reach the major leagues.

On the flip side, Butler could extract a significant return, given that 2-3 WAR at an average annual value of $7.5 million a year for the next several seasons represents a bargain.

He isn’t exactly a top flight first baseman, but the Rays are currently using Johnny Damon as their designated hitter, and the Angels have a declining Bobby Abreu in that role. Neither is a lock to be given guaranteed major-league deals next season. Neither is lighting the world on fire. And neither is projected to improve drastically down the stretch.

Mark Trumbo and Casey Kotchman probably aren’t long-term solutions for their respective teams and it’s unclear what the Angels will get from Kendrys Morales moving forward. If Butler had to play first base, he wouldn’t be the worst fielder in the world and would still provide plenty of value.

Butler would add another dimension to both lineups, and while he isn’t a difference-maker to the point that his acquisition guarantees a playoff berth for either team this season, he is a cost-effective building block. He won’t come cheap, and the teams would have to part ways with premium talent, but a three-win player signed to a team-friendly contract is worth that type of return.

PLAYER: Carlos Pena
TEAM: Cubs
CONTRACT STATUS: One-year, $10 million, FA in 2012

Pena is by no means having a season reminiscent of his 2007 to 2009 performances with the Rays, but he’s still fairly adept in the field and he has remained, at worst, league average with the bat. There’s also room for improvement given his peripherals — his line drive rate has risen to its 2007-08 level and his contact rate is its highest since 2004.

The Indians wouldn’t have much interest in him as a designated hitter since Travis Hafner is in the midst of a good year at the dish, but Pena could form a fairly potent platoon with Matt LaPorta. Given the injuries to both Hafner and Sizemore, LaPorta could find himself in the outfield quite a bit, opening up a spot at first base for Pena.

If Sizemore is healthy but Hafner continues to miss time, one can slot in at DH. By acquiring Pena the Indians would fortify two questionable positions — LaPorta’s ability to sustain this production and Hafner’s health — without committing anything for the future or surrendering much in return.

PLAYER: Jason Kubel
TEAM: Twins
CONTRACT STATUS: One-year, $5.25 million, FA in 2012
PROJECTED WAR: 1.5 (DH), 0.9 (1B)

Kubel is the classic example of a player whose perceived value is greater than his actual contributions. His higher batting averages and home run totals are intriguing, and he has primarily played in the corner outfield, where fielding inadequacies can be somewhat hidden. Even so, the fielding metrics frown on his efforts, and he’s a below-average baserunner. But Kubel has some power and could provide value to a contending team.

The Blue Jays have Adam Lind at first base, but Toronto is using Juan Rivera as its designated hitter. The team might be a year or two away from contending, but have played well so far, and could conceivably sneak its way into the wild card hunt. Kubel isn’t exponentially better than Rivera, but he certainly would be an offensive improvement.

He’s also the type of player who could be worth 1.5-2 wins above replacement per year as a full-time DH — at a nominal cost — should the Jays decide to re-sign him.

On the whole, designated hitters aren’t producing like they have in the past, and acquiring Kubel would allow Toronto to improve its offense this season without drastically hindering future payroll flexibility.

PLAYER: Josh Willingham
TEAM: Athletics
CONTRACT STATUS: One-year, $6 million, FA in 2012

Texas is still in first place though the Rangers are by no means running away with the division. Michael Young is having a solid season as a designated hitter, and Mitch Moreland has been a surprise at first base. But you have to wonder how the team will fare if it’s merely three games above .500 when both players are performing above expectations. To that end, Willingham makes a lot of sense. He could platoon with Moreland at first base, play a little outfield or fill in as designated hitter if injuries strike Young or Kinsler (in that case, Young would likely play the keystone).

At worst, Willingham would give the Rangers another potent bat on the bench and provide depth, an important component of roster management given the wear-and-tear over the course of the season.

The Braves offense has sputtered for most of the season, and while Freddie Freeman might be the first baseman of the future, it stands to reason that a platoon at first base wouldn’t be the worst thing for his development. Better prospects than Freeman have begun their major league initiations in a platoon, and Willingham essentially could become the right-handed version of Eric Hinske: big bat off the bench with some starts thrown in. And don’t discount the possibility that Willingham also could play the outfield in Atlanta, given that Joe Mather has started several games.

Willingham likely will get a multi-year deal after the season, but even as a one-year rental, he could improve a slumping offense.

PLAYER: Jim Thome
TEAM: Twins
CONTRACT STATUS: One-year, $3 million, FA in 2012

Thome cannot play the field anymore. He joked that he left his glove in Chicago when the Dodgers acquired him from the White Sox for the 2009 stretch-run. At 40 years old he also is close to the end of his career. Having said that, he still can be productive, and last year he gave the Twins 340 PAs of his peak offensive production. Thome returning to the Phillies wouldn’t only be a great story (his big contract back in 2003 helped usher in the Citizens Bank Park era of Phillies baseball), but he’d legitimately help the team.

Whether he pinch-hits or he serves as the designated hitter in interleague games, Thome would give the Phillies another huge weapon at minimal cost, which is a key consideration given the team’s proximity to the luxury tax threshold. Since Thome and Kubel are the Twins’ only assets capable of generating a decent return, GM Bill Smith can’t afford to get greedy and ask for the world.

From the Phillies standpoint, Ross Gload is battling a severe hip injury that will either force him to play with pain or will end his season. What makes more sense for a championship contending team: 60% of a mediocre left-handed pinch-hitter, or 100% of one of the best left-handed hitters in major league history who can still mash? That answer is pretty clear. The move might be a long-shot, especially if Gload isn’t put on the disabled list, but it makes sense on several levels.

We hoped you liked reading Trade Targets: First Base and Designated Hitter by Eric Seidman!

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Eric is an accountant and statistical analyst from Philadelphia. He also covers the Phillies at Phillies Nation and can be found here on Twitter.

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Matt M

Although not on the level as any of the above players I’m sure Juan Rivera will be trade as soon as anyone is willing to give up a marginal prospect for him. He is playing fairly well since he got moved to first and I imagine has gone up (from nothing) as the season has progressed.