Pablo López trade options: Three partners for the Marlins' suddenly overstocked rotation

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The Miami Marlins made a notable addition on Tuesday, signing veteran right-hander Johnny Cueto to a one-year contract worth $8.5 million with a club option. Cueto enjoyed a resurgent 2022, posting a 3.35 ERA and a 3.09 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 25 appearances, but his addition to Miami’s roster is most significant because it should precipitate a trade. 

Indeed, the Marlins have been trawling the free-agent and trade markets all winter looking for offensive upgrades. Kim Ng’s main bait in her quest for an improved lineup? Starting pitching. The Marlins have the good fortune of employing more starters than they have rotation spots. Rookie manager Skip Schumaker could trot out a starting five fronted by reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Sandy Alcantara and Cueto that includes some combination of Pablo López, Jesús Luzardo, Trevor Rogers, Edward Cabrera, and Braxton Garrett. And that’s without considering some of the injured and depth pieces the Marlins have coming, such as electric right-hander Eury Pérez, who CBS Sports recently ranked as the sport’s eighth best prospect

Presuming that Alcantara, Cueto, and Pérez are staying put, that makes one of Miami’s other arms expendable. López, by virtue of being the closest to his free-agent date (he’ll qualify after the 2024 season), would seem to be the likeliest to go. That he would also fetch the most in return doesn’t help his odds of sticking around. Originally acquired as part of the David Phelps trade of 2017 (remember that blockbuster?), López has established himself over parts of the last five seasons as an above-average big-league starter, amassing a 3.94 ERA and a 3.44 strikeout-to-walk ratio in more than 500 innings. 

So, that’s why someone like López might be on the move, but where might he be headed? Let’s break down three teams who would make sense as suitors. 

The Twins stole headlines from Cueto and the Marlins on Tuesday by acquiring A.J. Alexy from the Washington Nationals. (They also, um, signed Carlos Correa to a long-term deal.) Even before Minnesota linked back up with Correa, they were poised to make a trade to relieve a congested outfield and improve a lacking pitching staff. Max Kepler‘s name has surfaced in rumors for good reason, though the Marlins may prefer an outfielder with greater remaining team control; they might find Alex Kirilloff or Trevor Larnach more appealing in that respect. Batting champion Luis Arraez would certainly fit the Marlins’ contact-first acquisition strategy, but it’s unclear if the Twins would make such a move. Royce Lewis, the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft, has had two consecutive seasons end because of a torn ACL. In theory, he would represent an interesting gamble for the Marlins. Given how many possible combinations we’ve thrown out there in this paragraph, it seems only fair to write that the Twins are probably the Marlins’ most logical trade partner on this front. 

If not the Twins, then how about the Brewers? Matt Arnold, who took over the reins from David Stearns as Milwaukee’s lead decision maker earlier this winter, has gotten comfortable executing deals. He’s acquired William Contreras, Jesse Winker, Abraham Toro, Javy Guerra, and Bryse Wilson in swaps — and those are just the players he’s added who are projected to make the Opening Day roster. The Brewers have a glut of young outfielders who are either big league-ready or close to it and who would make sense as trade candidates, including Garrett Mitchell, Sal Frelick, and Joey Weimer. That doesn’t include brilliant youngster Jackson Chourio, the game’s No. 4 prospect, who could force his way into the mix before he turns 20. The catch is Milwaukee appears to have five competent starting pitchers in place following their recent deal with Wade Miley. It never hurts to add another good arm, however, especially not when two of the five (Miley and Freddy Peralta) missed significant time last season because of injury.

How’s this for a dark horse team? There’s little to no indication that the Royals under new top executive J. J. Picollo are ready to make the kind of win-now maneuver that obtaining López (or whomever) would qualify as, but let’s blue-sky it all the same. We noted prior to the offseason that the Royals already have the ingredients for a quality young lineup in place; all they needed to move into contention, in our past estimation, was some quality starting pitching. Picollo has since signed Jordan Lyles and Ryan Yarbrough this winter, meaning that all they need now to make the jump is, well, some quality starting pitching. The Royals would appear to have more worthwhile young hitters than they can possibly start, suggesting the time will come when Picollo has to make a move. For now, he’ll probably wait and see.