Commentary

Starting pitchers in high demand

Cole Hamels, Zack Greinke and Matt Garza highlight the arms who could get dealt

Updated: July 21, 2012, 10:29 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

The world is full of mysteries, and here's one of them:

It's supposed to be The Year of the Pitcher, right? So how come it seems every team in baseball is trying to trade for pitching?

"You want to know why?" an official of one contender said this week, chuckling. "Because you know you can't win without it. That's why. So no matter how much you have, you need more. You always need more."

Hey, excellent point. The Rangers clearly believe that, because they're wheeling their shopping cart down the starting pitching aisle these days. But they're finding that aisle is more crowded than Times Square, because the Braves, Tigers, Angels, Red Sox, Cardinals, Dodgers, White Sox, Orioles, Nationals, Blue Jays and even Royals are right there with them.

So if you happen to work for one of those teams or if you happen to root for one of those teams or even if you just have a walking trade rumor on your fantasy team, we're here to help. As always. How? With our handy dandy guide to the 10 Best (Potentially) Available Starting Pitchers. That's how.

The Big Five

1) Cole Hamels

The Phillies haven't wheeled him -- or anyone else -- into the showroom yet, because they're still clinging to the shaky hope that their team, now that it's healthy, has a run in it. They're also sounding increasingly upbeat that their next Cole Hamels news conference will be to announce that they've signed him, not traded him.

But if the Phillies can't sign him, the 28-year-old Hamels was a unanimous choice, among executives we polled, for the top spot on this list. ("He has to be," one exec said. "He's been there. He's done it. He's pitched in big games, in a big market, and he's done it in the postseason.") The price would come down, from the initial request for as many as five young studs, but the Phillies still would hold out for multiple young, centerpiece-type players. So this would be a monster deal -- if it happens.

Chances he gets traded: "The chances are dropping," one exec said. "But they're not zero." The chances if they can't sign him? Ninety percent.

2) Zack Greinke

Two weeks ago, Greinke almost would have ranked closer to a 1-A on this list than a clear-cut No. 2. But then came two shaky starts bookending the All-Star break. After which the Brewers shut him down abruptly this week -- in the midst of back-to-back series against the Cardinals and Reds. And when that happened, you sure didn't need to be lining up for a bratwurst in Brookfield to see the red flags flapping.

"I'm not sure the guy really wants to leave Milwaukee," one exec said. … "To be blunt about it, you have makeup issues with him that you don't have with Hamels," said another. … "You have to eliminate all the places he doesn't want to pitch," said a third exec. "They can't even send him to Toronto or Baltimore, because like half their games are in New York and Boston."

Still, that doesn't eliminate the entire sport. The Angels are interested. And the Braves have heard talk that Atlanta would be Greinke's first choice -- but money issues could make that a tough fit. So there still are skeptics out there that Greinke will get dealt at all. But if the Brewers can't sign him, don't they have to move him?

Chances he gets traded: 60 percent.

3) Matt Garza

Greinke isn't the only starter out there with issues. Garza can be a mystery himself. ("He's got top-of-the-rotation stuff," said an official of one team. "But he's not a real top-of-the-rotation pitcher.")

What Garza offers, though, is two very attractive qualities in this market: (A) controllability (can't be a free agent until after next year) and (B) the stuff to shut down anybody's lineup (23-15 lifetime, with a 3.39 ERA, against the American League East). So he figures to be a hot commodity, especially if Hamels comes off the board.

Chances he gets traded: 85 percent.

4) James Shields

The Rays are one game out of the second AL wild-card spot. So you wouldn't think you'd find them dangling their Opening Day starter. But executives of three teams told Rumblings this week that if the Rays decide in a week or so that they can't count on Evan Longoria and their postseason scenarios take a U-turn for the worst, they're open to moving Shields (or Jeremy Hellickson) if they can get a hefty enough return -- ideally, some combination of high-end young arms, a young catcher and/or a controllable hitter.

If this were a year ago, Shields might have ranked No. 2 in this group. But his ERA is up more than a run and a half (from 2.82 to 4.44). He's allowed more hits than any other pitcher in either league. The OPS of hitters he's faced has inflated from .623 to .800. And scouts say he's lost faith in his fastball, even though his velocity is actually up. ("He's throwing a ton of cutters, compared to what he did in the past, and a lot of changeups," one scout said. "His change is so good, but he's going to it too quick, and he's getting away from his other pitches.")

Nevertheless, other teams look at his "reliability in a big game," plus the two team options that tie him up through 2014, as major selling points. The question is whether the Rays are ready to subtract one of their veteran stabilizers in midseason if they have any shot at all. ("I'm convinced they could trade him. It just might not be now," one exec said. "All depends if they get what they want. They can wait 'til the winter and trade him then, too.")

Chances he gets traded: 50 percent.

5) Ryan Dempster

It isn't every trading deadline that you can deal for a starter who hasn't given up a run since May. But that's why Dempster is such a hot ticket these days, after five consecutive starts -- and 33 consecutive innings -- of doughnuts. Nobody on this list is pitching better than he is. So no wonder the Cubs are pushing to move him this week and asking for a high-ceiling pitching prospect if you want him.

"Here's the problem," said an executive of one team that has scouted Dempster heavily. "He's leading the league in ERA, so they want par value back. But in reality, he's a middle-to-end-of-the-rotation pitcher, and you've only got him for a couple of months. So is it worth what you're being asked to give up?" The Dodgers, Tigers, Braves and Nationals all appear to be debating that as we speak.

Chances he gets traded: 99 percent.

The Second Tier

6) Anibal Sanchez

Anibal Sanchez
Sanchez

If the Marlins decide to unload, Sanchez would become the clear favorite in their Most Likely to Get Traded pageant. He can be streaky and exasperating. But he's also a 28-year-old swing-and-miss right-hander who spun a 14-strikeout game earlier this year and ripped off eight straight quality starts at one point. ("He's got great stuff," one scout said. "Don't ask me why he doesn't win more. Every time I see him, he's really good.")

Chances he gets traded: 90 percent (if the Marlins are sellers).

7) Francisco Liriano

Francisco Liriano
Liriano

Since Liriano just spun off a 15-strikeout game (which he lost), here's a fun little trivia question: Who's the last pitcher to get traded in the same season in which he whipped up a 15-strikeout game? Answer: Randy Johnson, who went from Seattle to Houston after three games like that in 1998. Keep that note handy, because Liriano is almost a lock to follow that path, unless he self-destructs (which is always possible) in the next two weeks. We heard various execs call him a "mystery," a "tough guy to trust" and "no slam dunk." But he also might throw a no-hitter. So somebody will roll those dice.

Chances he gets traded: 90 percent.

8) Wandy Rodriguez

Wandy Rodriguez
Rodriguez

The big hang-up with Rodriguez is the $13 million he has coming next year and the $13 million club option for 2014 that would become a player option if he gets traded. But the Astros have told teams that checked in that they'd eat a big enough chunk of that tab to get what one exec termed "the best value" back. Their mindset in any deal, that exec reports, is "to get the best controllable talent they can inventory," even if they have to digest salaries to get it. But with about $30 million attached to this guy (plus his 5.65 ERA in his past 10 starts), they still might not be able to chomp on enough to make it worth their while.

Chances he gets traded: 35 percent.

9) Edinson Volquez

Edinson Volquez
Volquez

Volquez isn't quite as "available" as the other names on this list, because he makes only $2.4 million, and he's still a year and a half away from free agency. But the Padres haven't exactly made him an untouchable, either. So one National League exec calls him "the best name out there who there hasn't been much conversation about."

Like Liriano, Volquez is a potential dominator -- and a potential heartbreaker. He happens to be leading the league in walks and scaring away some teams with his messy 1.65 WHIP away from Petco Canyon. "He's got great stuff a lot of nights," the same exec said. "He's also one of those guys who's either really good or really not. But do they need him with where they're going? I don't think so."

Chances he gets traded: 40 percent.

10) Jason Vargas

Jason Vargas
Vargas

Vargas isn't the juiciest name we could have used to fill out this list. But he's definitely gettable. He's not a rental. And if teams can get past his 12-game gopher ball streak and his 5.04 ERA away from Home Sweet Safeco, there's a lot to like about a guy who always takes the ball and has had three nearly identical seasons in a row. "Compared to a guy like Volquez," one AL exec said, "at least you know he's going to throw strikes. And he's left-handed."

Chances he gets traded: 55 percent.

Also Appearing In The Showroom

Joe Blanton, Randy Wolf, Kevin Millwood, Bartolo Colon, Paul Maholm.

Ready to Rumble

• So why aren't pitchers such as Josh Johnson and Brandon McCarthy on that list of "available" starting pitchers? In Johnson's case, it's because we can't find a single team that believes the Marlins would trade him in the middle of Year 1 in their new ballpark. In McCarthy's case, it's because of his shoulder, which has landed him on the disabled list in four straight seasons, including twice this year. "When you've got a guy with an injury history like that, who's going to give up anything significant to get him?" one executive asked. "So he's not going anywhere."

• The Nationals remain on the prowl to add a starting pitcher, as Stephen Strasburg's unfortunate Operation Shutdown Day approaches. But what they're not shopping for, according to clubs they've spoken with, is a big name who would come at a big price. What they're looking for, said an executive of one team, is "a veteran guy with a track record" but not "a guy they'd have to give up a lot for -- more like a No. 4 or No. 5 starter." So you can wipe Greinke and basically the entire top tier of our starting pitcher list off their shopping list. But almost all of the rent-an-arms in the second and third tiers could be on their drawing board.

• Other teams also report the Nationals haven't been focused on trying to deal for a center fielder before the deadline. They seem satisfied that they can live with an outfield of Bryce Harper, Michael Morse and Jayson Werth down the stretch, then plow into a free-agent market with lots of attractive center field options this winter. There has been speculation for months that the Nationals are gearing up for a major push to sign Michael Bourn.

• The Phillies have downplayed their interest in trading Hunter Pence. But an executive of one team that asked about him reports: "He's attracting as much interest as anybody they have -- maybe even more than Hamels." The Phillies won't determine whether they're ready to unload until after their six-game homestand that begins Friday. But if they opt to sell, Pence might represent their most difficult call.

Hunter Pence
Pence

He can't be a free agent until after next season, so this is the optimal time to move him. But he and Carlos Ruiz are their only productive right-handed bats. And if they deal Pence and Shane Victorino, it would mean having to reconstruct their entire outfield by next Opening Day. So if the Phillies have a rough week, they'll almost certainly listen on Pence in the days before the deadline. But they'd need a major haul in return to pull the trigger. One club that could make a run at Pence: the Pirates.

• The five players the Phillies have told teams would definitely be available if they go into closeout mode: Victorino, Jimmy Rollins, Joe Blanton, Placido Polanco and Kyle Kendrick. But Rollins is a 10-and-5 guy (10 years of service time in the major leagues and at least the past five with the same team) who can veto any deal. He would approve a trade only to a West Coast contender. And he'll make $11 million a year through 2015 if you count his easily vested option. So the chances of Rollins getting dealt are extremely remote.

"They'd trade him in a heartbeat," said an official of one club. "They're in [luxury] tax land right now. And if they sign Hamels, they've got to move money. But they'd have to eat so much salary to move a guy like Rollins, it doesn't get them anywhere."

• Want to guess the Rays pitcher who is drawing as much interest as Shields -- and maybe more? That would be Wade Davis, who has turned into a strikeout-an-inning bullpen weapon, can start or relieve, and is signed through 2014, with club options through 2017. "You wouldn't believe the number of teams that love Wade Davis," said an executive of one club that checked in.

• The teams in the Chase Headley derby continue to look around for third-base alternatives to deal for, but they're not happy with what they're finding. Outside of Polanco and Chone Figgins, who have combined for a .307 slugging percentage, there isn't a decent Plan B anywhere. Aramis Ramirez's name had surfaced, but the Brewers are highly unlikely to move him.

• If there's a hitter who might have even a remote shot of getting traded, the Pirates have asked about him. One surprising name they took a run at: Kansas City's favorite All-Star folk hero, Billy Butler. But the Pirates are still in a buy-low frame of mind. And the Royals have told a few clubs that inquired that they'd have to be blown away to deal their All-Star.

Matt Belisle
Belisle

Rafael Betancourt
Betancourt

• The Rockies are one team that isn't on the fence about whether to buy or sell, but increasingly, it looks as if they won't be contributing to the overstuffed bullpen market. Clubs that have checked in about the likes of Rafael Betancourt, Matt Belisle and Matt Reynolds say the Rockies would have to be "bowled over" to deal just about any useful bullpen arm -- especially in a season in which their starters trail the hemisphere in innings pitched per start. Betancourt and Belisle are both signed for next year. So it now appears extremely unlikely either will get dealt.

• The Rockies are trying to move Marco Scutaro and Jason Giambi. But as the Mets found out when they called on Ramon Hernandez, Colorado isn't as motivated to trade Hernandez unless it gets a useful package in return. Hernandez is signed for next year. And the Rockies know they'll need a veteran mentor around Wilin Rosario, whose 12 passed balls and nine errors are an accurate indication of his defensive issues.

• What's wrong with this picture: Baseball establishes something called a "Competitive Balance Lottery" to award extra draft picks to the neediest teams. Then two clubs with $100 million payrolls -- the Tigers and Marlins -- wind up with an extra pick. But the most revenue-challenged team in baseball, the Rays, winds up with none. Huh? That's absurd. But it's what happens when owners whose teams have gotten whooped by the Rays for years won't support a more sensible plan.

The Rays have been told, according to sources, that things could change down the road, now that the precedent for the concept itself has been established. But it took only one of these lotteries to show the world that this system is so flawed, it's time to negotiate a whole new formula ASAP.

• We just computed our annual All-Star break to All-Star break leaders, from the 2011 break to the 2012 break. Not so shockingly, Joey Votto, Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw were pretty good. But we did uncover a few shockers. Here were the five biggest surprises:

Max Scherzer
Scherzer

1) Who led all big league starters in strikeout ratio? Not Verlander, Cliff Lee or Felix Hernandez. It was Max Scherzer (at 9.90 whiffs per 9 IP).

2) Who led all NL starters in strikeout ratio? Not Kershaw, Greinke or Strasburg (because he didn't pitch enough innings). It was Yovani Gallardo, at 9.53 K's per 9 IP.

3) Who led NL hitters in batting average? Carlos Ruiz (.336). Who else? (Melky Cabrera hit .339 but changed leagues in the middle.)

4) Who led NL pitchers in "wins"? How about Madison Bumgarner, who went 19-9 from break to break.

5) And who led all AL starters in ERA? No, not Verlander (2.58) or Jered Weaver (2.58). It was C.J. Wilson, at 2.49. You can look it up.

• As recently as 2010, Jonathan Sanchez allowed the fewest hits per nine innings of any pitcher in the National League and had the third-best strikeout ratio. So it's not surprising that somebody (i.e., the Rockies) took a flier on him after the Royals designated him for assignment. But one scout who went in for a look at him says this guy just might be a lost cause. "I think he's hurt," the scout said. "He's had biceps tendinitis twice in the last year. He's [almost] eight walks per nine innings, so his command is worse than ever. His top velocity is 89 miles per hour. And the ball just isn't coming out of his hand. So there's something going on."

• Ah, but we'll always remember Jonathan Sanchez for one thing: What happened on the day this month that Rumblings named him our first-half AL Cy Yuk and Delmon Young our first-half Least Valuable Player? The Cy Yuk allowed a home run to the LVP. Quite a moment.

Tweets of the Week

• Uh-oh. It's time for the annual July rumor-fest. But as @MLBFakeRumors reminds us all the time, sometimes all those rumblings just blend together until anything seems possible:


• From comedic "Late Show" genius @billscheft:


• And, finally, anyone who watched that Yankees-Red Sox "Sunday Night Baseball" game right before the All-Star break can relate to this sentiment, from the great SNL witticist @sethmeyers21:


Headliner of the Week

Finally, this just in from the comedians at The Heckler, after the Bears allowed Jay Cutler to show off his arm recently at a Cubs game:

Cutler To Miss 2012 Season
After Getting Sacked
Throwing Out First Pitch At Wrigley

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com