Shopping For A Starting Pitcher? Good Luck.

As we sneak up on July, we’re at a point where the buyers are starting to contact the sellers. As White Sox GM Rick Hahn said to MLB.com:

“Given the way we’ve played thus far, it’s not a real surprise we’ve had some phone calls — more of the vulture-type phone calls, the type that traditionally we’re more accustomed to making,” Hahn said. “But that’s part of the hole that we’ve dug for ourselves, that teams are going to look at us as potential sellers when the deadline comes, and they’re starting to lay a little bit of that ground work now.”

While the addition of a second wild card incentivizes bubble teams to hang onto their players a bit longer to see if they can make a second half run, there are eight organizations that shouldn’t have any false aspirations about how the rest of their 2013 season is going to go: The Astros, Marlins, Mets, Cubs, White Sox, Mariners, Twins, and Brewers. Minnesota has the best record of the group at 32-36, but they know they’re in full scale rebuild mode, and they shouldn’t diverge from the path-to-the-future that they began by trading away veterans for prospects over the winter. The other seven teams all have winning percentages below .440, and even if they had some pre-season optimism about their own club, they need to admit that it’s not happening this year.

Our rest of season forecasts have each team finishing with 75 wins or less, and given the 90+ wins it will likely take to secure a wild card spot, it’s time to face the music and start prioritizing 2014 wins. While the other 22 teams retain some chance of playoff glory, these are the eight franchises that should be putting their players on the market as we head into July. However, that list of sellers presents a problem for the teams looking to buy, especially teams who are hunting for a rotation upgrade: these eight clubs don’t really have good pitching to trade.

In order to look at the potential starting pitchers who might be available, I built a custom leaderboard with the starting pitcher most likely to be traded from each of the eight teams above. Here’s that leaderboard in table form.

Name Team IP BB% K% GB% HR/FB BABIP LOB% ERA- FIP- xFIP- WAR RA9-Wins
Bud Norris Astros 89.0 7% 16% 42% 6% 0.324 73% 92 90 108 1.6 1.2
Ricky Nolasco Marlins 94.2 6% 20% 42% 9% 0.278 74% 95 92 100 1.4 1.5
Jake Peavy White Sox 67.0 6% 24% 37% 12% 0.293 71% 102 89 89 1.3 0.9
Shaun Marcum Mets 59.1 6% 21% 31% 6% 0.333 57% 157 89 105 1.3 -0.6
Yovani Gallardo Brewers 87.2 8% 19% 51% 15% 0.303 70% 116 102 92 0.8 0.4
Kevin Correia Twins 88.1 4% 13% 46% 15% 0.300 82% 97 118 102 0.4 1.5
Joe Saunders Mariners 92.1 7% 12% 50% 11% 0.293 72% 119 117 110 0.4 0.5
Matt Garza Cubs 34.1 8% 20% 39% 13% 0.258 68% 127 116 111 0.2 0.1

The best pitcher on the list is probably Jake Peavy, but he’s on the DL and might not be able to take the mound again until a week or two before the deadline. Then you have Gallardo, whose velocity and strikeout rate are both trending the wrong way, and is in consecutive year number three of giving up more home runs than you’d expect from a ground ball pitcher. Matt Garza is better than he’s pitched since coming off the DL, but taking two months off to tend to an arm issue and then struggling once back on the mound isn’t a great way to convince a contender that you’re a significant piece. These three should be the prizes of the deadline, but each comes with a pretty big red flag.

Then, you have the innings eaters. Bud Norris and Ricky Nolasco are actually outperforming their peripherals after years of doing the opposite, but neither one profiles as anything more than a back-end starter on a playoff team, and their track records suggest that their current ERAs are more deceptive than any sign of real improvement. Kevin Correia and Joe Saunders are both pitch-to-contact strike throwers, but if you’re starting either one in a playoff game, something has probably gone wrong. These four guys could stabilize the #4 or #5 spot for a team looking for competence to replace a disaster, but there is just not a lot of upside with any of them, and they’d be of limited value in October.

Marcum is kind of the wild card. He combines all the health questions of the first group with the limited upside of the second group, though if one just stares at his BB/K ratio long enough, a contender might talk themselves into him as a difference maker. As an extreme fly ball pitcher, he might make sense for a team in a big ballpark like the Giants or Pirates, but a lot of the teams shopping for pitchers play in HR friendly ballparks, so Marcum probably won’t be a fit for most of them.

Perhaps there has been a less impressive crop of available starting pitchers at some point in the last few years, but I can’t think of one. With the Blue Jays surge potentially taking Josh Johnson out of play and the Phillies talking like they’re going to keep Cliff Lee, there just isn’t anything resembling more than a mid-rotation starter or a total lottery ticket. For teams looking at a guy they can stick at the front of their rotation in October, there is basically nothing on the market.

The Mariners could potentially change that by making Hisashi Iwakuma available, but given that Jack Zduriencik is in the last year of his contract and it isn’t going particularly well, it’s possible that ownership won’t allow him to trade away assets under team control beyond 2013, especially if they’re leaning towards a front office change after the season. The Royals might also make things kind of interesting if they struggle over the next few weeks and decide that re-signing James Shields is going to be difficult, but it’s hard to see them parting with the guy they gave up Wil Myers for just a few months into their attempt to go for it. I think a team looking for a pitching upgrade should assume that neither Shields nor Iwakuma will become available.

The Phillies really hold all the cards here. Cliff Lee’s contract is expensive, but he’s probably never going to have more trade value than he will in the next month, simply because the non-Cliff-Lee pitchers kind of suck. Ruben Amaro‘s reticence to blow up his aging roster is understandable, but there is also such a thing as taking advantage of market conditions. As good as Lee is, the Phillies could repurpose $25 million per year on other players in the free agent market over the off-season, and if they were able to shed Jonathan Papelbon’s contract as well, they would be in a position to make some real improvements to a roster that needs some depth.

Lee is a difference maker in a market that offers none. If the Phillies put him in play, they’ll be the only team selling a real playoff quality starting pitcher, or at least one you can count on getting to October in one piece anyway. That’s a good position to be in as a seller, and it’s one they should take advantage of.





Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Hunter
Guest
Hunter

Great article, but the strangest thing in the penultimate paragraph…your possessive apostrophes are backwards. It’s kind of disconcerting.

But yeah, anyway, I think Amaro holds the cards here. He can continue on with a great pitcher still under team control, or he can wait until someone comes at him with a sick overpay.

Being a Phils fan, though, I know he’ll find some way to mess things up.

Well-Beered Englishman
Guest

My personal blog runs on WordPress, and I can attest to the backwards quote marks as a WordPress bug. It can be resolved with a lot of patience and re-typing quote marks, but the time investment to reward ratio is low.

I love working with WordPress, and overall it’s superb writing software, so the quotation mark bug is like a fun little party quirk.

ArbeeEye
Guest
ArbeeEye

The reason for the backwards apostrophes is that they are appearing right after a link. Notice that after Cliff Lee, the apostrophe is fine, but after the two names that link to their profile, the apostrophe is backwards. This always used to bug me when I wrote on WordPress, although not enough to spend any time figuring out how to fix it.

Nivra
Guest
Nivra

Seems like the easiest fix would be to rewrite the code that replaces player names with linked player names. Have the code search for “‘” first and replace it with “‘” then do the standard search and replace, ignoring all prior linked players.

channelclemente
Guest
channelclemente

Who cares. Find another hobby, fellas.

Scraps
Guest
Scraps

We care. And, you know, this is writing, and lots of people care about precision, even the weird little things like wrong-facing apostrophes. You could just skip the occasional little breakouts of these kinds of discussions. Or you could find another “hobby,” since you’re obviously annoyed with a very small incident.

mortimer
Guest
mortimer

Amaro denies looking to sell Lee, but he’s just setting himself up to get a good price. As you point out, in this kind of market in particular, his value is too high to overlook.