Now that the All-Star game is over the next big date to circle on the baseball calendar is the July 31 trade deadline.
These next three weeks should be very interesting, particularly on the pitching side, because there’s no shortage of contending teams in search of front-line rotation help and no shortage of available high-end starters of all shapes, sizes, and contract lengths.
Here’s my view of big-name starters likely to generate big-time trade interest between now and July 31 …
LHP Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies
Cole Hamels is not a typical trade deadline target in that he’s still just 31 years old and under contract through 2019 at what is basically the going rate for a top-of-the-rotation starter, but the Phillies are so bad that rumors have swirled around him for a long time now.
Hamels’ win-loss records have suffered from terrible lineup and bullpen support, but don’t let that fool you into thinking he’s anything but a No. 1 starter. He has a 3.29 career ERA–including a 2.88 ERA since the beginning of last season–and he’s basically never been hurt while averaging 32 starts and 212 innings per season since 2008. He finished the first half with an awful start versus the Giants, but Hamels had a 3.02 ERA before that outing and is striking out a career-high 9.5 batters per nine innings this year.
The question with Hamels is how much value he has beyond the 3.5 years and $80 million remaining on his contract. As a free agent he’d get more than that on the open market, so what are teams willing to trade for the right to acquire Hamels at market-value annual salaries for a shorter commitment than they’d have to make via free agency? He’s not just a second-half pickup. Hamels would anchor a rotation for three-and-a-half seasons and that’s nearly impossible to acquire via free agency without making a $100 million-plus commitment.
RHP Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds
Johnny Cueto is an even better No. 1 starter than Hamels–posting a sub-3.00 ERA in five straight seasons and finishing runner-up in last year’s Cy Young voting–but he’s also a more typical trade deadline target in that he’s an impending free agent. If a team acquires Hamels they’re getting him for 100 or more starts from now until 2018 or 2019, but the Reds are basically just shopping Cueto’s next 15 starts. That has big value, of course, especially to a team with clear playoff aspirations that can get more starts out of him in October.
Cincinnati has the option of simply letting Cueto make those 15 starts for them and then walk as a free agent, at which point they’d receive a first-round draft pick as compensation. No one seems to think that scenario is likely, but it does mean any trade offer for Cueto must be superior to a first-round pick. And a team that trades for him would not be eligible for the same compensation. Cueto is better than Hamels, but is 15 starts of Cueto for $5 million more valuable than 100-plus starts of Hamels for $80 million? My guess is teams are split on the right answer, which should make for an interesting comparison of hauls if they’re both traded.
RHP James Shields, San Diego Padres
Here’s a clear case of buyer’s remorse. San Diego had huge plans for a headline-grabbing offseason and on-the-fly rebuild, with signing James Shields to a four-year, $75 million deal playing a major part in that. But now the Padres are 41-49 and Shields has a 4.01 ERA that’s his worst since 2010 despite calling pitcher-friendly Petco Park home.
There are some potential red flags within Shields’ performance at age 33. His velocity is down a bit, his walk rate is way up, he’s served up 19 homers in 19 starts, and his numbers away from Petco Park are ugly. On the other hand he’s also striking out a career-high 10.1 per nine innings. Shields is under contract for $21 million in each of the next three seasons, which is nearly the same as Hamels’ contract and that tells you why the Padres may have trouble moving him for any real value.
LHP David Price, Detroit Tigers
David Price is a potential trade deadline wild card. Detroit is 41-41 and won’t have Miguel Cabrera is the lineup for a while. Price is an impending free agent likely in line for a $150 million-plus deal on the open market. It would be a similar situation to Cueto in Cincinnati, except the Tigers seemingly have no plans for a rebuild and at the very least still have a reasonable shot to make the playoffs. Price is an elite starter and may even rank higher than Cueto to a lot of teams, but the Tigers value his remaining 15 starts much higher than the Reds value Cueto’s and may even have some hope of keeping him around beyond this season.
RHP Jeff Samardzija, Chicago White Sox
Jeff Samardzija is an impending free agent and the White Sox’s on-the-fly rebuild hasn’t gone much better than the Padres’ overhaul. Samardzija isn’t on the same level as Hamels, Cueto, or Price, but it wouldn’t be surprising if plenty of teams prefer him to Shields (and Shields’ remaining contract). After a poor start Samardzija headed into the All-Star break with a 2.40 ERA and 39/8 K/BB ratio in his last 45 innings and he’s gone at least seven innings in 11 of 13 starts since May 1.
LHP Scott Kazmir, Oakland A’s
Another impending free agent, Scott Kazmir has a 3.18 ERA in 49 starts for the A’s since signing a two-year, $22 million deal last offseason. Leaving his final start of the first half with triceps soreness is a worry, but Kazmir is expected to be fine and with the A’s at 41-50 the 31-year-old left-hander figures to be available.
RHP Mike Leake, Cincinnati Reds
Cincinnati’s other free agent-to-be starter, Mike Leake lacks the upside of Cueto and the other names on this list. However, he’s also younger than everyone else at 27 and has a 3.94 ERA in 1,006 career innings with similar numbers this season. Leake isn’t someone contending teams would want to headline their playoff rotation, but he’s a solid, innings-eating mid-rotation option.