There are 42 days between now and the 2022 MLB Trade Deadline. And while the majority of the final deals are made in the last 5-7 days (and especially those last 24 hours), injuries can accelerate that process for contenders. Especially when you stack injuries at the same position.
For example? Last year, when the Atlanta Braves suffered multiple outfield injuries and issues all at once, they jumped the market to acquire Joc Pederson from the Chicago Cubs, more than two weeks before the Trade Deadline.
All of which is to say, the latest out of Tampa Bay at least caught my attention.
Outfielder Manuel Margot (135 wRC+) was carted off the field after a collision with the right field wall on Monday, and there’s already concern that he may have torn his ACL. And Kevin Kiermaier is going on the IL with right hip inflammation. Margot’s injury is thought to be much more serious than Kiermaier, but given the Rays’ position in the standings, losing two outfielders at once really hurts.
No, the Tampa Bay Rays aren’t quite the clear divisional contenders we thought they’d be before the season, but they’re 5.0 games over .500 and just a half-game out of a playoff spot as of today. Unfortunately, they’re playing in the highly competitive AL East, with this year’s top team (Yankees) plus two other very strong contenders (Blue Jays and Red Sox). Oh, and they’ll play those three teams a combined 14 times over the next 3(ish) weeks.
Needless to say, this could all be adding up to some urgency in the outfield trade market, which brings us to the Chicago Cubs.
The Cubs currently have two affordable and cost-controlled (important for TB) outfielders hitting the ball very well and capable of playing all three outfield spots.
Ian Happ, 27, is having a career year as the Cubs switch-hitting left fielder, slashing .290/.389/.466 (138 wRC+, 26th in MLB) with a 19.8% strikeout rate. He’s making just $6.85M total this year and is under control next season via arbitration. He’s a clear everyday (borderline All-Star) caliber target right now and not someone I think the Cubs would be itching to deal. Though I do think they’d be very open to listening if the Rays decided to be very aggressive (which I also doubt).
Rafael Ortega, 31, has been just slightly above average for the season as a whole (107 wRC+), but is slashing a much more impressive .287/.373/.418 (124 wRC+) since April 24. He handles righties very well and can play all over the outfield. Perhaps even more importantly, Ortega is making less than $800K this season, isn’t arbitration eligible until 2024 and isn’t a free agent until 2027.
Notably, because of the way the Cubs have decided to play their outfielders, it is also true that Ortega is arguably expendable at the moment, and also heading into 2023 and beyond.
In other words, the Cubs could provide the Rays with somewhat comparable replacements for either/both Margot and Kiermaier.
(Brett note: No, in my opinion Jason Heyward is not a realistic consideration here. Even if the Cubs were to cover every penny of Heyward’s salary, I doubt the Rays would see this as even a good placeholder option. Moreover, Heyward has full no-trade rights, and he seems to really love Chicago and the Cubs.)
To be sure, turning to the Cubs – or the trade market at all – isn’t the Rays’ only option. Aside from the assortment of potential trade targets on the market (CBS lists six alternatives right here, not including the Cubs’ duo), the Rays could turn to internal options like Brett Philips (good defender, bad hitter) or Harold Ramirez (good hitter, bad defender), the latter of whom was actually sent to TB from the Cubs before the season.
I would argue neither makes quite as much immediate sense/impact as the Cubs’ two outfielders. And I do think the Cubs are very much likely among the most willing trade partners in MLB right now. There haven’t been any rumors connecting these two teams on such a deal just yet (and we are still very early in the season for a trade of Happ-level magnitude, something the Cubs may ultimately not want to do at all), but with the Rays’ playoff-bubble standings and division-heavy upcoming schedule, I don’t think a deal is out of the question. So consider this your head’s up.