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July 9, 2009

Prospectus Hit and Run

Call the Doctor

by Jay Jaffe

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Earlier this week, with the Blue Jays fading into fourth place in the AL East, general manager J.P. Ricciardi opened up the possibility that his club might be willing to trade Roy Halladay. At 10-2 with a 2.79 ERA, he's a legitimate Cy Young candidate and a contender for the title of the best pitcher in baseball. Our Support-Neutral pitching stats tell us he's been worth 3.9 wins above replacement level over a half-season of work, and it's no stretch to think he'd be worth three additional wins to nearly any team that bumps aside their fifth starter, a massive upgrade.

The Jays' ace won't come cheap with regards to blood or treasure, however. Not only will he take multiple top prospects to acquire, he's owed the balance of a $14.25 million contract this year and then $15.75 million next year, a price that will scare away some teams operating in a tight economy. That's also before considering that waiving his no-trade clause might require a Johan Santana-style extension, though Ricciardi says he won't open a negotiating window for a potential suitor.

Those obstacles suggest a trade isn't imminent, but from the standpoint of these five teams, it should be, as an extra three starts between now and the July 31 deadline would be worth three-quarters of a win beyond a replacement-level fifth starter. In compiling this list, we'll assume that despite the financial and/or talent riches of the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays, Ricciardi won't deal his ace within the division. Without concerning ourselves with the exact prospect package it might take to land Halladay, we'll be mindful of a team's organizational strength as well as their finances, but the focus is still on need (all stats through Tuesday).

1. Phillies: 5.02 rotation ERA (15th in NL), 6.0 SNLVAR (13th in NL)
No other team combines the resources and the motivation to deal for Doc than the defending champs, who lead the NL East mainly because their offense is pummeling opponents into submission, scoring one-third of a run more per game than any other NL team. With Cole Hamels battling a post-championship hangover and Brett Myers probably done for the year due to hip surgery, rookie J.A. Happ is the only Phils starter who's beating the park-adjusted league-average ERA. His arrival has coincided with an improved performance from the starting five (a 3.98 ERA since May 23), but they remain vulnerable to the long ball (1.3 HR/9 in that span, against 1.6 HR/9 overall), and the staff as a whole is the league's most fly ball-oriented, a bad match for Citizens Bank Park. Halladay's ability to generate ground balls (56.4 percent of balls in play, fifth in the majors) would be an ideal tonic. Pairing him with Hamels as one-two punch should give potential post-season opponents night sweats.

2. Rangers: 4.54 rotation ERA (8th in AL), 8.8 SNLVAR (7th in AL)
A 35-point jump in Defensive Efficiency spearheaded by rookie shortstop Elvis Andrus has done wonders for the Rangers' run prevention. Unlike last year's Rays, though, this rotation doesn't miss many bats, and the gap between their 4.54 ERA and their 5.00 FIP suggests regression ahead. They're last in the league in both strikeout rate (5.2 K/9) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (1.6), and just 11th in homer rate (1.2 HR/9). While Halladay's 7.6 K/9 isn't dazzling, he's all about economy; at 14.1 pitches per inning, he's tied for the honor of the league's most efficient starter. Furthermore, he's still seventh in whiffs, his 5.8 K/BB ratio is second, and his 0.8 HR/9 is 10th. More than any other team, the Rangers have prospects to deal, but owner Tom Hicks' financial woes may limit their appetite for a big-ticket salary.

3. Brewers: 5.01 rotation ERA (14th in NL), 5.5 SNLVAR (14th in NL)
Even with Ryan Braun pressing the case that the Brewers need better starting pitching to survive the NL Central race, general manager Doug Melvin has continually cautioned that he won't trade his top prospects in another CC Sabathia-sized deal. Braun has a point, however. Yovani Gallardo is the only Brewer starter with an ERA better than the park-adjusted league average, and with David Bush injured and Manny Parra banished to the minors, the team has been forced to call upon journeyman Mike Burns, who earned his first major league win just two weeks shy of his 31st birthday. Like Sabathia last year, Halladay could dominate in the Central, which features four offenses scoring at rates below the league average.

4. Angels: 4.57 rotation ERA (10thin AL), 8.3 SNLVAR (10th in AL)
Pitching has been the Halos' hallmark in recent years, but with injuries limiting John Lackey and Ervin Santana to a combined 5.98 ERA in 18 starts (just seven of them quality starts), they can't afford to rest on their laurels in order to fend off the Rangers. Nor can they expect rotation-fillers like Matt Palmer, Shane Loux, and Sean O'Sullivan to keep supplying league-average performances indefinitely. A big-market team that's perennially competitive, financially able, and ensconced in a pitcher-friendly environment may be just what the Doctor ordered, though the Angels' system ain't what it used to be, prospect-wise.

5. Cardinals: 3.75 rotation ERA (3rd in NL), 10.2 SNLVAR (6th in NL)
The Cardinals' rotation appears to be relatively sound, with a performance that's in line with their peripherals (3.88 FIP) despite a strikeout rate that's the league's third lowest; their staff generates the majors' highest ground-ball rate and the league's lowest walk rate. But with four other teams within 3 games in the NL Central, Kyle Lohse on the DL, and Todd Wellemeyer struggling (5.58 ERA), they can't afford complacency. Alas, a bat may be a bigger priority.

The Rest: The Mets are certainly willing to take on payroll, but with a 12-22 record since June began, a decimated lineup that won't be near whole anytime soon, and a version of Santana that's put up a 5.61 ERA with disturbingly uncharacteristic peripherals (4.4 K/9, 2.1 HR/9) over his last seven starts, it's a stretch to suggest that Halladay is enough. ... Given how vocal general manager Kenny Williams has been about the White Sox's payroll limitations, they're also likely out of the Halladay hunt. With a 4.06 rotation ERA (second in the AL), they'd do better to focus on upgrading their low-OBP sinkholes anyway. ... If the Twins didn't keep Santana, they won't deal for Halladay. ... The Giants, who may have lost Randy Johnson for six weeks, could certainly use a high-impact replacement to preserve their current wild-card lead, but they too are in far bigger need of a big bat. ... The Dodgers certainly have the resources to pull off a Halladay deal, but with a seven-game cushion in the NL West and the league's second-best ERA, they'd be killing flies with a sledgehammer.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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