The Starting Pitching Market Is in Shambles
Need to fortify your rotation for the stretch run and postseason? Good luck with that.
In a normal trade deadline year, good starters usually command premium prices, because of the impact they can make on a game (or a postseason series) and because of scarcity (there just aren’t that many good ones).
But this year? Oh my. There’s trouble in River City. Two trends are dominating:
Health: A ridiculous number of starters who would normally be available on selling teams are on the IL — some with major issues, some minor, some where it’s unclear.
The sticky stuff controversy: Per ESPN’s Jesse Rogers: “Cubs Pres Jed Hoyer on ESPN 1000 calls the upcoming crackdown on foreign substances a ‘huge variable’ which could impact the trade market. ‘It’s like a new 5-week season starting Monday.’” No one really knows if (or to what degree, if any) the crackdown will cause further injuries or performance issues.
Between those two issues, it will be challenging to trade for any rotation upgrade, because you don’t really know what you’re getting. And if GMs are trading significant prospect capital, they’re going to want a high degree of certainty that the pitcher(s) they’re getting are going to deliver for them down the stretch.
We also don’t know yet whether several teams on the bubble will be buyers or sellers. So let’s focus on the obvious sellers right now, and see what they have.
Baltimore: none (John Means is hurt and probably unavailable)
Detroit: Jose Urena (who is mediocre at best); Matthew Boyd is hurt
Kansas City: none at present (Danny Duffy is hurt, Mike Minor may not be available)
Minnesota: J.A. Happ (who’s been bad); Jose Berrios may not be available
Seattle: Chris Flexen (okay, if he’s available); Marco Gonzales is having a down year; Yusei Kikuchi is mediocre, and neither may be available
Texas: Kyle Gibson has been good; Jordan Lyles and Mike Foltynewicz are both having bad seasons
Arizona: Merrill Kelly is mediocre; Madison Bumgarner has been bad, hurt, and expensive; Caleb Smith is a mediocre swingman
Colorado: Jon Gray is hurt, and not having a great season; Kyle Freeland has been bad; German Marquez may not be available
Pittsburgh: Tyler Anderson and Chad Kuhl have been mediocre; J.T. Brubaker may not be available
Washington: Max Scherzer is hurt, expensive, and complicated; Joe Ross and Jon Lester have been mediocre
So where does that leave us?
Good (ish), healthy and available: Gibson
Kyle Gibson is currently the only starting pitcher who would appear to be reliably healthy, available, and having a good enough season to warrant trading for him. As of this writing, his ERA is in the low 2s, his FIP is in the low 3s, and his xwOBA is well under .300, which is excellent for a starter. He’s no ace, and he’s getting older (at 33), but he can slot in as a No. 3 in a playoff team’s playoff rotation. He also has one more year of control, at $7M (down from his current $10M salary), so there’s a possibility Texas could hold onto him if they want to try competing next year. Of course, that also gives them more leverage.
Meh, healthy and available: Urena, Kelly, Smith, Anderson, Kuhl, Ross, Lester
This group of mediocre back-end starters is available, and none figure to cost much in trade capital. You probably won’t use them much in a playoff scenario, but they could help you get there as depth to eat innings. (And yes, Lester used to be an ace in the playoffs, but those days are long gone for him.) And at least they’ve managed to stay healthy.
Good but hurt: Scherzer, Duffy, Gray, Boyd
Any of these four could all bolster a rotation for the stretch run and playoffs. Scherzer, obviously, is the ace here, but he’s out with a groin injury and has a very complicated contract. Duffy and Boyd were having great bounceback seasons until they hit the IL, and Boyd’s injury sounds ominous. Gray was not dominant, but good enough, but he too is on the IL. We’re taking a wait-and-see approach with these, as are most GMs.
Good but maybe unavailable: Berrios, Marquez
Both Berrios and Marquez are frontline starters with control beyond this year. The Twins may want to keep Berrios for next year, as they may view this year as a weird, unlucky outlier. The Rockies may want to keep Marquez because he’s under control on a team-friendly contract through 2024 — it wouldn’t be a surprise if they had designs on a quick rebuild that would see them competitive again by then.
Meh but maybe unavailable: Minor, Kikuchi, Flexen
Minor has had an up-and-down career. He was a deadline trade last year, but under-performed for Oakland and was relegated to the bullpen in the playoffs. This year he’s been his usual slightly-above-average self. But at least he’s healthy. The main issue is that the Royals may feel they’re one year away from competing, and will want to keep him as veteran leadership for all their young arms. He’s under contract through 2023.
The two Seattle starters here, Kikuchi and Flexen, are also both controllable beyond this year, and both have pitched just well enough to generate trade interest, though neither is an ace. The good news is that neither will cost much in trade (in Kikuchi’s case, though, you’d be inheriting a big contract, which many GMs will want to avoid). Seattle, however, may want to keep them around for next year, thinking their window might start to open then.
But not Marco
Since we’re talking about the Mariners, Marco Gonzales has had an incredibly disappointing season so far. His ERA and FIP are both well into the 5s, and he’s getting hit hard. As a result, all of the previous surplus value on Gonzales’ team-friendly contract has dissipated. It’s hard to see him having any trade appeal when he’s pitching badly and still owed almost $27M.
With that in mind, if you’re a GM who needs rotation help, good luck. And with the additional variable of how the crackdown on sticky stuff will affect all pitchers, it’s a minefield.
Given all that, with the high demand and low supply of reliable arms in the market, you’ll probably have to overpay for Gibson; overpay even more to pry away Berrios or Marquez; or grab a questionable arm (with either injury or performance issues) at a reasonably fair value and hope for the best.