When a team wants to subtract some salary from its ledger, it can sometimes arrange a trade that packages a well-paid veteran player with some prospects. The team on the receiving end effectively “buys” the prospects by taking on the unwanted salary of that veteran. The most recent example of this was the trade that sent Hunter Renfroe to the Brewers, with the Red Sox receiving Jackie Bradley Jr., along with infield prospects David Hamilton and Alex Binelas.
Renfroe was projected by MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz for a salary of $7.6MM in 2022, while Bradley will earn $9.5MM in 2022 and then there is a mutual option for 2023 that comes with a $12MM salary and $8MM buyout. Given Bradley’s horrible season at the plate in 2021, the Brewers wanted to get rid of that contract, and were willing to part with a couple of prospects to do it while still getting back a useful piece. The Red Sox, for their part, will take on that salary, hoping for a bounceback from Bradley. But even if that doesn’t happen, they will have bolstered their farm at least.
For other teams that want to follow the Brewers and shuffle a contract around, they might want to start by contacting the Nationals. After a massive trade deadline selloff in 2021, their current payroll is the lowest it’s been in years. Jason Martinez of Roster Resource estimates that they’re currently lined up for an opening day number of $118MM. The last time they were below that was 2012, the year 19-year-old Bryce Harper made his debut. In the past four years, they’ve been between $180MM and $200MM, prorating 2020’s number. (Past figures from Cot’s Baseball Contracts.)
The club is looking to “reboot” for a year or two, but seems to want to return to competing before superstar Juan Soto reaches free agency after the 2024 season. That means they are in position for this type of deal, as long as it’s a contract of the short-term variety. They could add to the young talent they acquired in their 2021 fire sale, while not limiting their ability to make a big move or two for the 2024 campaign and beyond.
The White Sox ran a franchise-high payroll in 2021 and are currently lined up to blow past that in 2022. Trading Craig Kimbrel, who has one year and $16MM remaining on his contract, appears to be in their plans. Another option would be Dallas Keuchel, who will make $18MM in 2022. He also has a $20MM club option for 2023 with a $1.5MM buyout, although that option would also vest if Keuchel throws 160 innings in 2022. The White Sox finished dead last on Baseball America’s most recent Organization Talent Rankings, meaning that sending some prospects out the door might not be the top of their to-do list. (The Nats, despite their big deadline haul, came in 23rd.) However, Chicago’s window of contention is wide open, standing out as the current favourite in the AL Central, meaning their priority should be the present and not the future. For the Nationals, they have lots of question marks on their pitching staff after trading away so many arms. Their staff is mostly composed of unproven youngsters, to go along with veterans like Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Will Harris, who come with question marks of their own.
The Rays have never been shy about moving their more expensive veteran players, trading away Blake Snell, Tommy Pham and many others in recent years. Kevin Kiermaier’s name has been floated as someone else who could follow them out of The Trop, seemingly ever since they signed him to an extension in 2017. That extension is now entering its final guaranteed year, with Kiermaier set to make just over $12MM in 2022, though there’s also a $2.5MM buyout on a $13MM club option for 2023. The Nats don’t really have anyone who should be guaranteed an outfield job, other than Soto. Lane Thomas had a strong showing after coming over from the Cardinals, but that was a small sample of just 45 games.
The Reds are trying to thread the needle of dropping payroll yet staying competitive. Mike Moustakas is owed $38MM over the final two years of his contract, including the buyout of a 2024 club option, and he’s been somewhat crowded out by the breakout campaign of Jonathan India. By moving Moustakas, they could hold onto their highly-coveted starting pitcher trio of Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray and Tyler Mahle. The Nats probably want Carter Kieboom to get a long run of playing time at third, but Moustakas could split time at second with Cesar Hernandez and act as a fallback plan in the event Kieboom struggles to secure the job. The implementation of the DH for the NL would also help spread the at-bats around. Shogo Akiyama is another option, as he had a rough campaign in 2021 and still has one year and $8MM remaining on his contract.
There are dozens of other options, as most teams have a contract that they wouldn’t mind getting off the books a year or two early. Some other rapidfire examples: Jake Odorizzi, Carlos Santana, Justin Upton, Randal Grichuk, David Price, Wil Myers, Jurickson Profar, Paul DeJong.
With the Nats about $60MM to $80MM below their recent spending levels, they have a lot of room to work with. Though they’d surely like to keep payroll a bit lower during this rebooting phase, they’d also be wise to at least consider “buying” a few prospects to help them quickly build back up. After all, Soto won’t be interested in signing an extension until the club proves they’re trying to win. Spending some money now to improve the future could be one way of trying to convince him.