July 19, 2017
Trade Deadline Guide to Starting Pitchers
If your favorite team is at or above .500, odds are you think they should add starting pitching help before the trade deadline. And they probably agree. As part of the Cubs’ surprisingly difficult fight to rise above .500 and properly defend their title, they kicked off the festivities by acquiring left-hander Jose Quintana (and his team-friendly contract) from the White Sox for a four-prospect package led by Single-A slugger Eloy Jimenez. Which other rotation-boosting arms may be on the move? Here’s my best guess at the top starters who could realistically be available before the trade deadline, and the pros and cons of each.
Gray had a breakout 2015 season, finishing third in the Cy Young balloting, but then struggled through an injury-filled 2016 campaign and spent the first month of this year on the disabled list. He had a few shaky outings upon returning and his ERA is still somewhat bloated at 3.72, but Gray has been fantastic of late and his season-long secondary numbers show that the 27-year-old right-hander is back to his pre-2016 form. Gray ranks 10th among AL starters with a 3.02 DRA, which matches his 3.00 mark from 2013-2015 and is a massive improvement from last year’s 4.11.
It would be silly to simply ignore 2016, as injury history is a huge factor in evaluating any pitcher, but Gray has reestablished himself as a top-of-the-rotation starter. He’s also making just $3.6 million this year and under team control for 2018 and 2019 via arbitration. That’s one fewer season of team control than the Cubs acquired in Quintana, but when healthy Gray has been the superior pitcher and two-and-a-half seasons of an under-30 frontline starter should fetch a huge prospect haul. Oakland is clearly open for business after trading Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle, so expect Gray to be on the move.
Verlander has pitched better than his 4.66 ERA suggests, but he still hasn’t pitched particularly well and he’s owed $28 million in both 2018 and 2019. It wouldn’t be surprising if several contending teams think they can get the 34-year-old former MVP back on track, especially given that his average fastball velocity is above 95 mph for the first time since 2012, but there’s little reason for any team to give up value for the right to take on that remaining contract. If the Tigers want to get value in return for Verlander they’ll have to eat a chunk of that money. The question is whether they’d prefer that or a straight up salary dump.
Think of it this way: How much would Verlander get if he hit the open market as a free agent this offseason? Obviously a lot depends on how he fares down the stretch, but a two-year, $56 million contract isn’t totally out of the realm of possibility. He’s not an average 34-year-old with a 4.66 ERA—or even a 3.95 DRA—and the going rate for a mid-rotation starter in free agency is around $15 million per season anyway. Plus, while he's trending in the wrong direction, Verlander has turned things around after rough stretches in the past and he’s just eight months removed from finishing runner-up for the Cy Young award.
Two offseasons ago the Giants signed Cueto and Samardzija for a combined $220 million over 11 years. Things went well in the first season, as the duo combined for 423 innings of a 3.28 ERA, but now they’re both sporting ERAs above 4.50 and the Giants would surely like to just get out from underneath the deals. Cueto is on the DL with blister issues, but before that his average fastball was a career-low 91.9 mph, his walk rate ballooned to 3.2 per nine innings after being below 2.0 in 2015 and 2016, and he allowed more fly balls than ever. Cueto has a 5.28 DRA after posting a DRA below 3.50 every year since 2011.
Samardzija’s raw numbers are even uglier, but if you can look past a 4.86 ERA and league-high 11 losses there’s reason for optimism. Similar to Phil Hughes’ out-of-nowhere “breakout” in 2014, he’s pounding the strike zone with just 14 walks in 124 innings. What makes it intriguing is that Samardzija has managed to become a strike-throwing machine while also upping his strikeouts to 26 percent from 20 percent last year and 21 percent for his career. It’s hard to get past all of the losses and runs, but a 135/14 K/BB ratio and 3.17 DRA is worth a deeper examination with $19.8 million per season owed from 2018-2020.
Cole hasn’t been the same since missing a month with a triceps injury last season. At the time, he had a 2.77 ERA on the year and a 3.04 ERA for his career. Since returning, he has a 4.69 ERA, including a 4.35 ERA with 20 homers in 114 innings this year. And yet it’s not hard to imagine a team paying a premium for him if the Pirates let them. Cole is a 26-year-old former no. 1 overall pick under team control for 2018 and 2019, and he’s shown the ability to be an ace-level arm when right. Whether that upside still exists is unclear, but the mid-90s velocity is intact and he’s got the same amount of team control remaining as Gray.
Nova is a Ray Searage success story, as the pitching coach essentially got him to stop issuing walks. He has a 3.27 ERA with just 19 walks in 191 innings since coming to Pittsburgh at last year’s deadline. To go from 2.9 to 0.9 walks per nine innings is a remarkable mid-career transformation and he’s owed just $9.2 million for both 2018 and 2019, making the contract he inked in December an asset. Of course, along with the dramatically improved control comes a measly 5.0 strikeouts per nine innings and there’s probably some skepticism about Nova’s ability to stay on this path once he’s away from Searage.
Darvish is an impending free agent and the Rangers are below .500, but opinions seems split on whether they’ll look to trade him. If they do shop Darvish, he’s clearly the best of the two-month rentals and likely the best pitcher available, period. He’s picked up where he left off before missing all of 2015, logging 226 innings with 263 strikeouts and a 3.43 ERA since returning in the middle of last year. During that time he’s eighth among MLB starters in strikeout rate, sandwiched between Corey Kluber and Chris Archer, and this year his 2.88 DRA is ninth-best in the AL, one spot in front of Gray. He’d be a helluva rental.
Santana is 34 years old with one guaranteed year left on his contract. He's playing a team that lost 103 games in 2016, coming off his first All-Star game in a decade, and has a career-best 2.99 ERA built with an MLB-low .220 batting average on balls in play. Everything about him screams trade candidate, except the part about the Twins being above .500 and within two games of both the AL Central lead and a Wild Card spot. One ugly stretch before July 31 may push Minnesota into sell mode, but short of that it would take some big, well, let’s say guts, for the first-year front office to trade Santana to further the rebuild.
Teheran has had an up-and-down career, alternating All-Stars seasons in 2014/2016 with four-plus ERAs in 2015/2017. Atlanta’s rebuild still needs plenty of pitching help and Teheran is only 26, but it won’t be surprising if the Braves look to cash him in. Any team that sees Teheran as a strong bounceback bet will like his contract, which will pay him $8 million in 2018, $11 million in 2019, and $12 million or a $1 million buyout in 2020. That’s fourth-starter money for someone who's been a frontline starter in three of his five full seasons, but the Braves have no motivation to move him without getting a big return.
Miami has two starters to shop for their annual sale. Straily is the biggest prize, because he’s working on a second straight sub-4.00 ERA season and he’s under team control through 2020. He’s bounced around a ton and will always give up lots of homers, but DRA finally buys into Straily as a solid mid-rotation option thanks to improved control. Volquez has been around the block as a known commodity doing his usual mediocre thing at age 34, but his $13 million salary for next year and an even higher walk rate than usual may scare some teams off completely.
Toronto might be hesitant to give up on plans to contend, but realistically it’s just about over for the Blue Jays in 2017. Happ is halfway through a three-year, $36 million deal that has seen him throw 256 innings with a 3.27 ERA. His secondary numbers don’t match, but at worst he’s a mid-rotation starter whose $13 million salary for 2018 is reasonable for that role. Estrada has out-performed poor secondary numbers for basically his entire career, but that train has come to a screeching halt as the magic disappears from his trusty changeup. Still, he’d be strictly a two-month rental and his strikeout rate is actually way up.
Cahill was available for peanuts this offseason, signing with the Padres for $1.75 million because they gave him a chance to start again after a move to the bullpen resurrected his career. It’s paid off for both sides, as Cahill once again looks like a capable mid-rotation starter and the Padres turned a minimal investment into an asset. Cahill missed six weeks with a shoulder injury, but has looked healthy in three post-DL starts to give him a 3.14 ERA with tons of ground balls and 71 strikeouts in 57 innings. Breaking the prospect bank for Cahill would be crazy, but he has more upside than most of the other fallback rentals.
The Bargain Bin, Parts Unknown
And who are those other fallback two-month rentals? Names to consider include Jaime Garcia (Braves), Jeremy Hellickson (Phillies), Scott Feldman (Reds), Miguel Gonzalez (White Sox), Francisco Liriano (Blue Jays), Derek Holland (White Sox), Wade Miley (Orioles), Matt Cain (Giants), Ricky Nolasco (Angels), and Jhoulys Chacin (Padres). That list shows why Cahill seems appealing, but the larger point is that teams afraid to part with more than marginal prospects for some of the bigger names discussed above still have some options for veteran reinforcements. It may just require holding their nose first.