Most Likely to be Traded: Starting Pitchers
With the Aug. 31 trade deadline approaching, we’re taking a look at which MLB-level players might be shopped on the market. In part two of this three-part series, we focus on starting pitchers (see our Position Player list; relievers will be the third edition). Here’s our list:
High Probability: Rentals on teams likely to be sellers:
- Kevin Gausman 
- Ivan Nova 
- Jeff Samardzija  *
- Drew Smyly 
- Taijuan Walker [0.9] [UPDATE: Traded 8/27]
Medium Probability: Starters with 1+ years left of control, on teams likely to be sellers:
- Matthew Boyd 
- Alex Cobb [-11.2] *
- Johnny Cueto [-19.7] *
- Danny Duffy [-9.7] *
- Michael Fulmer 
- Kendall Graveman [-0.2]
- Andrew Heaney [11.9]
- Chad Kuhl [1.6]
- Mike Montgomery 
- Joe Musgrove [24.5]
- Daniel Norris [1.5]
- Tanner Roark [-12.0] *
- Carlos Rodon [0.3]
- Caleb Smith [21.2]
- Jose Urena [1.0]
- Trevor Williams 
Low probability: Rentals on likely contending teams who could be moved in the right deals, and/or if their teams fall out of contention:
- Jake Arrieta  *
- Mike Fiers  *
- Mike Minor 
- Rick Porcello 
- Jose Quintana 
- Robbie Ray 
- Garrett Richards 
- Julio Teheran  *
- Michael Wacha 
Low probability: Strong performers, mostly on contending teams, with more control years, but whose clocks are ticking:
- Mike Clevinger [19.7]
- Kyle Freeland [16.8]
- Jon Gray [1.0]
- Jon Lester [-10.0] *
- Jordan Lyles [-1.6]
- Lance Lynn [20.6]
- Sean Manaea [13.4]
- Steven Matz 
- Ross Stripling 
- Vince Velasquez [0.8]
*Cash or equivalent player value would need to be included to offset negative value.
A few observations about this list:
With the news that the playoff format will be expanded to 16 teams this year, it shifts the dynamic from what appeared at first to be a rather neutral market (given the uncertainty that there would even be a post-season) to one of a seller’s market. We count a good 23 teams that could potentially act as buyers, against only seven obvious sellers.
And because of the expanded format, where contending teams figure to play more games in October than ever before, it means the demand for quality starting pitching should be even higher than usual. That proved even more true after the news of Justin Verlander’s season-ending injury, and concerns about Corey Kluber.
That said, there are few impact starters on the market, unlike, say, in 2017, when Yu Darvish went to the Dodgers. The high-probability list of rentals is pretty unexciting this year: The best available starters in this group are a few old reliables — innings-eaters such as Ivan Nova, Kevin Gausman, or Jeff Samardzija, each of whom is past their prime but at least knows how to pitch at this level and keep their team in games. And that reliability and experience is usually preferable over guys with question marks, such as Taijuan Walker or Drew Smyly.
There are, however, some interesting names on the medium-probability list: The Tigers should seriously consider trading Matthew Boyd if the right offer comes around, as he is now on the downside of his value curve — his value will only decline from here as time goes on. GM Al Avila waited too long to trade Michael Fulmer, and paid the price, as his value has cratered after the effects of injury and time.
Joe Musgrove would be in high demand if the Pirates were to shop him (as they should, as he doesn’t fit their future window). While not quite an ace, he has improved each year, delivering 3.3 fWAR in 2019. Now 27, he’s in his prime, and comes with two years of affordable control after this one. That combination, though, makes him one of the most expensive in trade value terms. Pittsburgh will require a significant prospect return to move him.
Caleb Smith’s name was in the trade rumor mill a lot in 2019, thanks to a hot first half. He cooled down quite a bit in the second half, however, mean-reverting closer to his previous 1-WAR 2018 season. Teams will likely want to see a bit more from him, and the Marlins would like to see more consistency from him as well, to increase his trade value. And there’s still time — he has three more years of control after this one — so it’s less likely he’d be moved at this year’s deadline.
This would be a good time for the Rockies to move Jon Gray as well — if they fall out of contention. But they rarely seem to act like sellers, so they’d likely ask a price that’s even higher than anticipated.
Of the rest, teams looking for rotation help might kick the tires on middling veterans such as Danny Duffy or Alex Cobb, whose contracts are underwater and so would only move if the Royals or Orioles, respectively, sweetened the deal with cash or another player; Andrew Heaney, if the Angels are out of contention by late August; or Tanner Roark, if the Blue Jays are out of it by the deadline.
Smaller deals might be more likely among this group — Jose Urena or Mike Montgomery are each back-end starters who could be moved for a minor prospect, which wouldn’t surprise anyone.
But the most attractive trade pieces among starters would likely come from rentals on bubble teams that fall out of playoff contention in late August. Assuming they perform to expectations, names like Robbie Ray, Mike Minor, or Garrett Richards would be meaningful additions to a contending team in this scenario — if their current teams are out of it, they’d likely move them for the best offer to get something of value before they hit free agency.
There’s also a small possibility that Cleveland could cash in on Mike Clevinger if they fall out of contention, as his clock is ticking and he would bring a handsome return; ditto for the Rangers with Lance Lynn.
But it’s more likely that those teams will hold onto those guys — because they’ll likely make the playoffs this year, and hope to contend next year as well.
So we think there will be deals — but they’re more likely to be of the smaller variety.