With so many of the league’s top free agents signed to big contracts, MLB teams still looking to make an offseason splash will likely have to do so via trade.

The Los Angeles Dodgers set the bar fairly high with a frenzy of deals that netted them a sweet-looking double-play combo in Howie Kendrick and Jimmy Rollins, among other players. One might think that by mid-December, most teams are secure with their rosters and don’t see the need for much tinkering, but the rumor mill suggests otherwise.

Several notable names have found their way into the latest chatter from around the league. Here is a look at the buzz surrounding four players who just might be sporting new colors and crests in 2015.

Ryan Howard

The Philadelphia Phillies enjoyed a great deal of success over the past 11 seasons relying on the terrific trio of Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard.

However, the Phillies are breaking up the band after finishing last in the NL East in 2014 with a 73-89 record. As previously mentioned, they traded J-Roll to the Dodgers, and it appears the team wants to offload Howard as well, per Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe:

The Phillies are trying to get teams interested in Howard, and a team source indicated they are willing to pay a great majority of his contract to move him. Howard, who hit 23 home runs and knocked in 95 runs last season, is owed $60 million between 2015 and ’17, which includes a buyout. The Phillies are trying to sell him as a DH. The Rays and Orioles could have needs in that area.

Howard was once one of the most feared power hitters in the game, but a sharp decline in productivity, injuries and poor defensive play have seen the 35-year-old become more of a liability than an asset.

Indeed, there is no way the Phillies move Howard without eating a large chunk of his contract. A mid-30s slugger whose one remaining tool is a blunt instrument is a big risk for another team to assume, a risk Philadelphia is apparently aware it has to mitigate.

Neither the Baltimore Orioles nor Tampa Bay Rays have a predilection for large payrolls, so it’s possible they would still pass on Howard if Philadelphia can’t or won’t eat much of his contract.

If no team bites on Howard, it’s possible the Phillies could make Howard a ludicrously expensive platoon member at first base. 

“General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. indicated Tuesday that it was possible that Howard could be a platoon player if still with the team,” writes CSNPhilly.com’s Jim Salisbury.

Manager Ryne Sandberg was essentially mum on that possibility and said he hadn’t discussed it with Howard.

“No, just kind of waiting to see what plays out and what happens,” he said, according to Salisbury. “It’s hard to have some conversations when you don’t know what the roster is going to be.”

Barring a miraculous return to all-star form, platooning Howard doesn’t help this team move on into the next era, especially when prospects like Cody Asche and 21-year-old Maikel Franco could be future first baseman for the club.


Justin Upton

It appears the San Diego Padres aren’t done bringing some much needed brawn to their reedy lineup. Having already agreed to a deal for the Dodgers’ Matt Kemp, the Padres are reportedly looking to bring Justin Upton into the fold, according to Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal.

“It’s true — the Padres want Justin Upton in addition to Matt Kemp,” Rosenthal notes. “They’re also looking at other hitters, but one rival executive says the Pads are ‘all over’ Upton, confirming a report by Mark Bowman of MLB.com.”

Bringing in both Kemp and Upton would be a welcome infusion of runs for a team that finished dead last in scoring in 2014.

The 30-year-old Kemp—who finished in second in MVP voting in 2011 but has struggled with injuries and ineffective play over much of the last three seasons—came on strong in the latter half of the 2014 season, but the Dodgers had to do something to relieve the logjam in the outfield, and it’s likely his massive contract made him expendable.

Pairing Kemp and Upton in the outfield should sell tickets from behind the backstop out to the bleachers, but the fans in the latter seats might have a bone to pick with the defensive play from this potential duo.

Kemp finished last among innings-qualified outfielders in Ultimate Zone Rating in 2014, while Upton ranked 47th out of 55 outfielders over a three-year span from 2012 to 2014, per FanGraphs.com. The defensive play means the Padres would also need to hold onto their strong corps of starting pitchers.

According to Rosenthal, the Padres are reluctant to trade the likes of Ian Kennedy, Andrew Cashner or Tyson Ross.

While defense is a concern, Rosenthal also notes that bringing in Upton would likely clean the coffers, assuming the Padres aren’t able to dispense with some salary in a trade with the Atlanta Braves:

The additions of both outfielders would increase the Padres’ commitments next season to $71.525 million for 10 players, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. Add the nine Pads eligible for arbitration, and the number would zoom past $100 million, according to projections by Matt Swarz of MLBTradeRumors.com.

Something would have to give – the Pads’ Opening Day payroll last season was a club record at $90.6 million. Perhaps the team could trade Kennedy, who projects to earn $10.3 million or closer Joaquin Benoit, who is under contract for $8 million.

The Padres aren’t deep enough at other positions to trade any bona fide major leaguers and remain competitive. If the reported interest in Upton does indeed mean San Diego is looking to contend rather soon, then it’s likely some of the organization’s top prospects would have to be involved in any trade.

Upton and Kemp would bring plenty of lumber to a run-starved team, but it likely won’t be enough for the Padres to scaffold all the way to the NL West penthouse. 

For the Braves, this could be a good bit of business if they do intend to rebuild. They already traded away Jason Heyward to the St. Louis Cardinals this offseason. If the team can land a mix of prospects and/or picks from the Padres, it could push the perennial NL East contender to a full-on rebuild, albeit with a solid foundation thanks to the swaps.


Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmerman

The Washington Nationals are set up to be perennial contenders if they want to be. They finished with the best record in the National League in 2014 and have a solid corps of both young and proven talent that includes the likes of Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg and Jayson Werth.

However, two members of the team that played so well last season could be set to leave the nation’s capital, per Rosenthal:

The Nats indeed are open to moving Zimmermann and Desmond, perhaps even in the same deal. They recently engaged in multiple conversations about both players with the Mariners, according to major-league sources. One of the many ideas the Nats proposed was Zimmermann and Desmond for right-hander Taijuan Walker and shortstop Brad Miller, sources said.

Rosenthal also reported in his column that the Nationals had talks with the Boston Red Sox about Zimmerman.

Desmond and Zimmerman are in the last years of their contracts and set to make $11 million and $16.5 million in 2015, respectively, per Spotrac.

It appears the Nationals are willing to part with two players who have been solid contributors for much of their careers. Desmond’s average and on-base percentage took a notable dip last season, but he still hit 24 homers and notched 91 RBI while playing 151 games at shortstop, clearly no easy feat.

Zimmerman, who was an All-Star in both 2013 and 2014, had the best year of his career last season, going 14-8 with a 2.66 ERA. At 28 years old, he’s in his athletic prime and has pitched in 32 games in each of the last three seasons.

Considering the team won 96 games last season, it would likely be a frustrating development for Nationals fans if these players were traded for prospects. A bounce-back year from third baseman Ryan Zimmerman could put the Nats over the top, especially considering other NL contenders might be taking a step back. The Dodgers lost offensive firepower by trading Kemp, and the San Francisco Giants are without Pablo Sandoval now.

Of course, the Nationals could end up with nothing if one (or both) of those players decides to leave as a free agent at the end of next season.

This is a team the front office really should try to keep together. With a championship in reach and players like Ryan Zimmerman, Harper and (hopefully) Strasburg to carry them through lean years, the Nats would likely be better off holding onto both Zimmerman and Desmond in 2015 and taking their chances.

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