With one week remaining until the Major League Baseball trade deadline and many clubs strategizing on how to fortify themselves for a playoff push, one team has already satisfied its need for a rotation upgrade. The Houston Astros, who currently hold a first wild-card spot in the American League, traded Thursday for Scott Kazmir – who has a 2.38 ERA this season – and proceeded to slot Kazmir in for Friday’s game against the Kansas City Royals, who at 20 games over .500 have the best record in the American League.
The Astros are not the only team that has been seeking to add a starting pitcher. Other teams reported to be doing the same include the Royals, the Toronto Blue Jays, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Chicago Cubs. Among the pitchers believed to be available are Cole Hamels, Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija, Mike Leake and Dan Haren. David Price – who will be addressed later – could be another possibility.
Hamels stands out from the pack in that he would be a long-term investment rather than a rental because he is under contract through 2018. His numbers are not stellar this season, but he recorded a 2.46 ERA over the course of 204 2/3 innings last season and is a three-time All-Star, so plenty of teams will likely find him intriguing.
Cueto has a 2.79 ERA this season, but in his last two starts he lasted only four innings and five innings, respectively, and there has been some concern about whether he is healthy. Still, he has turned in an ERA under 3.00 in each of the last four seasons, and he has gone seven innings or more in 12 of his 18 starts this year.
Hamels and Cueto – along with Price, if the Tigers do decide to trade him – are the best pitchers expected to be available at the deadline. Samardzija has a 3.91 ERA and has been relatively solid throughout his career. Leake has a 3.78 ERA this year, which is slightly lower than his career average. Haren, who has not been as discussed as some others, is having one of his best seasons in years with a 3.46 ERA.
Kansas City has to be the team most desperate for an upgrade in the rotation. The collective ERA of its starters is 4.32, which ranks 23rd in the majors. One recent turn of events epitomized Kansas City’s starting pitching conundrum: starter Yordano Ventura, one of the team’s best pitchers in 2014 whose ERA this season is 5.19, was sent down to Triple-A due to recent struggles but ended up staying in Kansas City because starter Jason Vargas suffered a season-ending injury the next day. Given Kansas City’s history of having a tight payroll – the Royals have loosened the purse strings some in recent years – it seems unlikely the team would make the financial commitment to Hamels, whose contract goes through 2018. The Royals could be a player, however, for Cueto, Leake or other pitchers who will be free agents at the conclusion of the season.
The Royals have a 6.5-game division lead, so it seems all but certain they will win the AL Central, so the addition of a starting pitcher would not have as much bearing on the division race as it could on the playoffs. Kansas City made it to the World Series last year, and this season the Royals are better offensively and just as solid defensively and in the bullpen. Kansas City is cruising, but its starting pitching is a bit suspect, though it has gotten the team this far. Upgrading that rotation might get the Royals over the top and position them for a repeat of last season’s run.
Toronto’s starters have a collective ERA of 4.28, making the team’s need for a rotation upgrade nearly as serious as that of the Royals. The Blue Jays currently trail the New York Yankees by 5.5 games in the AL East, and they are three games out of the second wild-card spot. Toronto has one of the most powerful offenses in the game, having racked up 513 runs this season. (Even the second-place Yankees have only scored 434.) Just like the Royals want to take advantage of the stellar defense and bullpen they currently enjoy, the Blue Jays will certainly want a chance to use their offense in the playoffs rather than seeing it wasted for want of a better rotation. Winning the division is still a reasonable goal, but a major upgrade in the rotation could at least boost Toronto into a wild-card spot.
The Dodgers already have two of the premier starters in the game with Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, but Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports wrote recently that the Dodgers will definitely seek to make the rotation even better at the trade deadline. The Dodgers currently hold only a three-game lead in the NL West over the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants, but the rotation’s collective ERA is 3.08, which is second in the major leagues behind only the St. Louis Cardinals. For the Dodgers, Hamels could be particularly attractive because he will be around for more than a half-season. Snatching up Hamels now could give Los Angeles protection in case Greinke decides to use his opt-out clause and hit the road after this season.
Chicago, which currently has a wild-card spot, is a team ESPN reports to be particularly interested in Hamels. The team’s rotation currently has a collective ERA of 3.38, ranking fifth in the majors, but Hamels would only help. The team has not been to the playoffs since 2008 and has not won a playoff game since 2003, so even a wild-card berth with a chance to make a run would be a boon for the organization.
One more starting pitcher who could be up for grabs at the deadline is David Price. A month ago, Price would not have been on this list. Parting with Price would be painful for the Detroit Tigers because it implies the team does not believe it can do anything meaningful this season. However, with the team under .500 and missing Miguel Cabrera and not getting normal production from Justin Verlander and Victor Martinez, it only makes sense for Detroit to be a seller at the deadline.
As one of the best starters in the game – Price has a 2.31 ERA over 140 innings this season – Price would be a major upgrade over almost any pitcher. He could be a season-changing addition. Price struggled with his transition from the Tampa Bay Rays to Detroit last season but has settled into a groove now. The trade to the Tigers was a shock to him, as he had spent his entire career in Tampa, but a move now would not be unexpected, so another transition would likely be smoother.
Price is the best starter available, and getting him now would be a relative short-term bargain since the financial commitment to him would be limited to the remainder of this season. For the Royals, the team that might benefit most from such an addition, such a deal seems unlikely, however. Because the Tigers and the Royals are division rivals, Detroit would surely be reluctant to turn over such an asset to a team they will play 12 more times before the end of the season, and Kansas City would be loath to turn over prospects and watch them potentially flourish with the Tigers in the coming years.
Acquiring a starter at the trade deadline does not always result in postseason success – see the Tigers and the Oakland A’s in 2014 – but plenty of teams will be willing to give it a go, so it should be interesting to see how it all unfolds.
Originally from the Kansas City area, Ashley spent the last two years in Detroit covering the Lions, Tigers, Red Wings and Pistons – and some Michigan and Michigan State – as the sports writer for CBS Detroit. She previously spent three years as a correspondent for the Associated Press, covering football and basketball at Kansas State. She grew up watching the Chiefs and the Royals, but her soon-to-be husband is the true Royals devotee. The light-hearted argument over where to put the bobbleheads in the new apartment has already begun.