Commentary

Trade market for starters shrinking

Josh Johnson and James Shields are the top attractions as the deadline nears

Updated: July 28, 2012, 1:29 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Editor's note: Jayson Stark will be writing a Daily Rumble each day leading up to the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

We'd like to thank Zack Greinke for his participation in this year's trade deadline festivities. But now that he's off to Anaheim and off the board, it's time to ask this momentous question:

Now what?

The starting pitching market -- with no Greinke, no Cole Hamels, no Anibal Sanchez and (for all intents and purposes) no Matt Garza -- hasn't left the remaining shoppers with a real attractive picture to stare at. This ain't the Louvre anymore, folks. It's more like a flea market.

True, Ryan Dempster is still out there. But face it. He's just a niche attraction at this point. We know he'll sign off on a deal to the Dodgers. It's still not clear whether he would give the thumbs-up to go anywhere else. So there's not much else to discuss on him.

And most of the other names out there -- Francisco Liriano, Jason Vargas, Paul Maholm, Carlos Zambrano et al. -- are "just a bunch of secondary guys," said an official of one team shopping for pitching, the lack of enthusiasm oozing out of every syllable.

In reality, then -- for teams such as the Rangers, Braves and White Sox, the ace-seeking clubs that lost out on Greinke -- there are only two real options:

Josh Johnson and James Shields.

We don't advise rushing to Las Vegas to plunk the family fortune down on the chances of either of them getting traded at all in the next three days.

But it isn't impossible, either. So let's take a look at both.

Josh Johnson

A couple of times this week, we've quoted baseball officials who pegged the odds of Johnson remaining a Marlin at "95 percent." But, by Saturday morning, the consensus was that that figure had dropped.

Oh, it's still more likely than unlikely that Johnson isn't going anywhere. But the aftermath of the Greinke deal has changed the equation, at least a little bit. The execs we conferred with now lessen those odds to the neighborhood of 75 percent. Here's why:

The Texas Rangers need an ace. Period.

They have the deepest team in baseball, so they're built just fine for the long haul. But when they get to October, what pitcher do they send out there to match up with Justin Verlander or Jered Weaver, or CC Sabathia?

Cliff Lee doesn't work there anymore. C.J. Wilson doesn't work there anymore. And Colby Lewis (4-1, with a 2.34 ERA, in eight postseason starts) is out for the year. So there's no pitcher on their roster who has started a Game 1 of any postseason series on this side of the Pacific. And only Derek Holland has started a Game 2.

So, the Rangers need a game-changer. And not only do they know now that that game-changer won't be Zack Greinke but they've just watched Greinke go to their biggest rival. Does that mean the pressure is rising in Texas at the same rate as the thermometer? Other clubs sure think so.

"I just have a feeling," said an executive of one club Saturday morning, "that the cowboy Hall of Famer might be ready to step up and say, 'Let's get something done.'"

The cowboy Hall of Famer -- an old cowhand named Nolan Ryan -- pitched for 27 seasons and never got to start a single World Series game. So, it's easy to guess which way he's driving this herd.

But so far, according to clubs that have talked to the Rangers, Texas has been balking at including its two most coveted prospects -- shortstop Jurickson Profar and third baseman Mike Olt -- in any deal. It cost the Rangers Greinke. Now they need to weigh whether it's worth costing them Johnson or Shields.

The Rangers have made it clear, those clubs say, that they're not trading Profar in any deal. But there are conflicting views on whether they would waver on Olt if they're not trading for a rental like Greinke.

Well, (A) Johnson is signed through next year. And (B) he's an Oklahoman who undoubtedly would be very open to staying in Texas long term. So, he's an excellent fit. And, as one exec said Saturday, "The only club with the pieces to get Johnson is Texas."

But we should point out that the Rangers aren't the only team still dabbling in the Josh Johnson market. Clubs we've spoken with identify the Dodgers, Orioles and Blue Jays as teams that have aggressively chased this fellow. And there are indications that the White Sox, Red Sox, Braves, Royals and others have at least checked in.

Oh, the price hasn't dropped. And the Marlins keep telling clubs it won't ever drop. They're asking for "the [Mark] Teixeira deal" -- i.e., the equivalent of the 2007 whopper that sent Matt Harrison, Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz and Jarrod Saltalamacchia to Texas. And if that sort of package isn't there, they're happy to hold on to their ace.

But is it possible they would soften that stance if the Rangers, or someone else, sweetened their offer? We have a feeling we're about to find out.

James Shields

The aftermath of the Greinke deal didn't leave an imprint solely on the Rangers and Marlins. It left just as large a mark on those Tampa Bay Rays.

Why? Because, if the Angels hadn't traded for Greinke, say clubs that have spoken to them, they were lining up to make a major charge at Shields.

Jean Segura, the shortstop who went to Milwaukee in the Greinke trade, would have filled a big hole in Tampa Bay. And the Rays had done a lot of checking up on John Hellweg, one of the minor league pitchers who got swapped for Greinke.

So, the makings of a deal were there. The Rays just had to decide whether they wanted to trade Shields at all right now.

And that's a call they still haven't made.

They've slipped to 3½ games back in the wild-card race. But Evan Longoria could be back any day now. So, although they continue to talk to the Rangers, Dodgers and Braves (among others) -- about Shields, plus Jeremy Hellickson and Wade Davis -- the Rays are still hedging on whether they're ready to deal such a big part of their mix if they still have a chance, even in a year when Shields "hasn't been close to what he was last year," as one scout put it.

And other clubs remain skeptical that they'll trade any of those guys because every one is under control through at least 2014, with Shields and Davis both signed to very affordable contracts.

"My personal view of Tampa Bay," one exec said, "is that they like to throw a lot of names out there this time of year, not to trade them now but to get information they can use [to make trades in the offseason]. If you have a pitcher like this who's under control, why not listen when you can trade them to every team rather than just teams that are in contention at this point in time?"

An excellent point. But sometimes, desperation drives the market this time of year. So, the Rays will keep listening, keep talking and keep watching the standings. But will they make the Big Deal? They might not decide that until they flip the calendar to July 31.

Saturday's Rumblings

• One longtime executive made this prediction in the wake of the Greinke trade: "He will sign with the Angels. And I think they had to believe that to make this deal. I don't think any team, in today's game, would give up three top prospects for a guy like that and not sign him. I'm sure Arte [Moreno] will find a way to get him signed." One caveat: The Angels are now very close to the luxury tax threshold.
Wade Davis
Davis

• An official of one club that has spoken with the Rays is even more skeptical that they'll deal Wade Davis than that they'll deal Shields. Davis, he said, is "throwing great. His velocity is back. And look at his contract. If they trade Shields, he gives them a proven guy to put in the rotation. So why trade him? I don't see it." Davis signed through 2014, with affordable team options through 2017.

• Clubs that have spoken with the Pirates say they seem to be losing their enthusiasm for a run at Chase Headley -- at least in July. If they dealt for Headley, they would have to move either him or Pedro Alvarez to first base, in the middle of a race, and force them to play a position at which neither has started a professional game.

Pirates

• The Pirates also have portrayed themselves to other clubs as a team that's now more likely to just keep running Starling Marte out there than to deal for a bat. But one exec who spoke with them told us: "Watch out for the Pirates and Phillies." Pittsburgh has had interest in Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence. And the Phillies have scouted the Pirates and their system extensively. But teams in touch with the Phillies are still describing their buy-or-sell stance as a "holding pattern."

• One source's appraisal of the odds of Ryan Dempster and the Braves both reversing field and paving the way for a deal that would send Dempster to Atlanta: "There's always a chance, but I would doubt that seriously." Other teams believe Ben Sheets' three great starts have dramatically reduced the Braves' sense of urgency to trade for a starter.

Nationals

• The Nationals are still searching for a low-cost veteran starter -- possibly even someone as back-burner as a Kevin Millwood or Randy Wolf -- but have shifted their trade focus more to infield depth. You name the middle infielder or multiposition infielder who might be available, and they've checked in on him.

Francisco Liriano
Liriano

• The Twins still seem determined to get Francisco Liriano traded in the next 72 hours. So they're praying Liriano comes up bigger Sunday, at home against Cleveland, than he did in his previous start, when he coughed up seven runs in 2 2/3 innings against the White Sox. "There were 25 scouts there," said one of those 25. "And, after 2 2/3 innings, they were looking around for a hot dog stand." Asked whether those 2 2/3 innings might have destroyed Liriano's market, the scout replied: "Completely. To trade for that guy now, you'd have to say, 'I know this guy. He's better than this' because, if you went to that game, you can't like him."

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com