Lucas Harrell's name has been mentioned as a possible trading chip for the Astros at the mid-season deadline. His name doesn't come up as often as Bud Norris, but a Harrell trade is still a reasonable possibility. Jeff Luhnow has previously said that a substantial trade return would be necessary to induce the Astros to trade either Norris or Harrell. But the Astros have some pitching prospect depth in AAA which can re-supply the rotation if either starting pitcher was traded.
My guess is that a Harrell trade is unlikely to happen. At this point, the Astros may feel like they would be selling low on Harrell. Harrell's statistics have dropped significantly from the 2.5 WAR season in 2012 (he is currently on pace for a 0.6 WAR at season end). Harrell's ERA and FIP have hovered close to 5 for most of the season, and his BB/9 rate has spiked over 4 at the same time that his K/9 rate has fallen to 5.76. (After Sunday's game, Harrell's ERA is 4.59, and his FIP is 4.89.) Even SIERA, which gives more credit to groundball pitchers, puts his interactive ERA at 4.73. Harrell also hasn't been helped by a spike in his HR rate (14.3% HR/Fly), though I would expect the HRs to regress by season end.
At this point, most teams would target Harrell as a No. 4/ No. 5 rotation pitcher who may have the ability to eat innings. A bottom of the rotation/ innings eater pitcher typically doen't produce the "significant return" in trade that Luhnow has mentioned. Of course, we don't know if the Astros have reduced their expectations for Harrell or perhaps have become annoyed by his willingness to publicly criticize the team's strategy---which potentially could make a trade more likely.
In my view, the probability of a trade depends on whether any particular teams have taken a liking to Harrell, either due to his ground ball rate or his pitchability. Some teams have a predisposition to groundball pitchers. Also, commentators like Orel Hershisher have gushed about Harrell's knowledge of pitching, and there may be scouts who feel the same way. (Personally, I think Harrell can be an effective No. 3 pitcher over the next few years, but many teams will under sell his potential by tagging him as a bottom of the rotation pitcher.)
The biggest advantage of Harrell, from the perspective of potential trading partners, is that he is very cheap and he provides a lengthy period of team control. Harrell doesn't hit arbitration until 2015, and can be paid the minimum salary until that time. Harrell won't be a free agent until 2018. I doubt that there will be any pitchers on the market at mid season who offer a comparable amount of team control. Of course, the buying team has to believe that Harrell will be a useful starting pitcher for 4.5 more years in order for the team control period to be an important consideration (Harrell will be age 33 when he enters free agency) .
To get an idea of the value of this team control, I made some assumptions and rough calculations to predict a trade value surplus. (This is basically WAR value minus expected salary for each remaining year of control, discounted to provide a present value.) I assumed 0.3 WAR for the remainder of 2013 and 1.5 WAR for 2014, followed by high/low paths of 2 WAR or 1 WAR in the remaining three years of control. This produced a trade value surplus of $14 - $26 million, which is fairly substantial. But I think most teams would discount those values for decision making, because the potential for pitcher injuries and performance risk are substantial over a 4.5 year period. So, let's say that the realistic trade surplus value is $10 - $21 million.
In theory, Harrell's trade value should merit a return of a Top 100 prospect in the neighborhood of 50 - 100 for a hitter or 25 - 100 for a pitcher, plus another lower value player or two. (See this article for more discussion of current prospect trade value.) In practice, it isn't all that easy to pry away top 100 players, particularly for a perceived bottom of the rotation pitcher. Perhaps it's more likely that the return is a Top 100 prospect whose recent performance has caused his prospect luster to flicker. And, again, this depends on finding a team that really likes Harrell's potential over the next few years.
Also, the trade value surplus could work against the Astros deciding to trade Harrell. If Harrell provides that much team control and surplus value, why not keep him? He can contribute when the team is out of the rebuilding phase, and the term "trade surplus" is synonomous with cost-effective. The Astros should want cheap sources of WAR over the next 4 years; and furthermore, if Harrell has another season as good or better than 2012, the Astros could decide to sell Harrell when he is at peak value.
So, how do I go about identifying potential trade partners? Have you heard the term "Wild Ass Guess?" Oh, sorry, you wanted something more technical. Here it is.
I examined teams' "rest of season" starting pitcher WAR in the Fangraphs' standings section. I started with teams that have a "rest of season" (ROS) starting pitcher WAR less than 6. I then eliminated teams which do not appear to be legitimate buyers/contenders. I also eliminated some teams which appear to have "enough" starting pitchers whom are as good or better than Harrell. Furthermore, I examined teams' groundball ratios and Harrell's statistics versus other teams to identify additional teams which are possible trade partners. I use the former as an indicator of a team's preference for groundball pitchers. My reliance on the latter measure is based on the idea that teams will have a more favorable perception of pitchers who pitched particularly well (or badly) against them.
Note that ROS is a good framework because it is based on a team's expected future performance rather than the past performance. For instance, ROS will identify a team that has pitched well so far, but did so because its pitchers exceeded their projections. (Example: Pittsburgh Pirates.)
Potential trade partners for Harrell
The five teams with a ROS starting pitcher WAR less than six which should be interested in a pitcher like Harrell:
1.Pirates. The Pirates have the best record in baseball,as I write this, and are in contention mode. The Pirates have had surprisingly good starting pitching (ranked 2d best in ERA), but with both a low BABIP (.272) and a FIP and x-FIP higher than the ERA---suggesting the possibility of regression. In addition, some of the good pitching performances come from players like Jeff Locke and Jeanmar Gomez, who are pitching better than predicted. Add injuries to Wandy Rodriguez and A.J. Burnett on top of that, and it makes sense for the Pirates to add a low cost option like Harrell to the rotation. The Pirates have seen quite a bit of Harrell, and he has pitched decently against the Buccos (.701 OPS in three games against the Pirates).
2.Athletics. Would the Astros be inclined to trade Harrell to a division rival? Given the Lowrie trade, I assume that the Astros are willing to make intra-division trades. But it's still an open question, particularly because Harrell has 4+ years of team control. The A's have racked up a lot of wins, but the starting pitching has been less effective than expected. Harrell probably can't break in to the top 4 spots in the rotation, but the No. 5 slot probably could use improvement. Is Harrell is a better starting pitcher than Dan Straily (5.00 ERA, 3.73 FIP)? That's not clear, but the Athletics probably would like a sinker pitcher who can ptich deeply into games.
3.Orioles. The Orioles are strong contenders in the NL East. But it's no secret that the O's want to trade for pitching help. Undoubtedly, the Orioles would prefer to acquire a top of the rotation pitcher. But that's easier said than done, and the Orioles may not want to give up the prospect haul necessary to pick up a Cliff Lee or Matt Garza. The Orioles have been piecing together a rotation from the likes of Freddy Garcia, Chris Tillman, Zach Britton, and Jair Jurrijens. Gausman probably was rushed a bit when he was called up to the majors. If the Orioles can't acquire a bigger name pitcher (I include Bud Norris here), they may have to look toward a lower level rotation option like Harrell. Harrell had one of his better games (1.59 ERA) of the season against the Orioles.
4.Blue Jays. The Astros have some experience dealing with the Blue Jays at the deadline. And Toronto has recently looked like a more competitive team in the AL East. Harrell won't replace some of the big name pitchers in the 1 through 3 slots of the rotation, even if they have under-performed. But the Jays could use some reinforcement in the bottom of the rotation. Whether Harrell is a good option depends on how J.A. Happ peforms when he returns from the DL. Harrell pitched poorly (1.026 OPS, pitched 4 innings in relief) in his only career appearance against the Blue Jays. (But he hasn't pitched against the Blue Jays recently.)
5.Angels. Here, again, we have the question as to whether the Astros would be willing to trade Harrell to an intra-division rival. With surgery on Jason Vargas and arm injuries plaguing Tommy Hanson, the Angels' depth for the No. 5 rotation slot is questionable. But the Angels tend to focus their mid-season trading on pricier, premium pitchers. And I'm sure that they will try that path first. But Harrell has pitched three times against the Angels, and performed very well. After watching Harrell hold their offense down, the Angels might like the right hander if the bigger name additions are not available.
Ground Ball Pitcher Teams. The top five GB% teams are: Pirates, Rockies, Cardinals, Padres, and Red Sox. The Pirates are identified, above, as a potential trade partner. I eliminate the Cardinals because of that team's pitching depth. I eliminated the Padres from the list, above, because they are more likely to be sellers than buyers. That leaves the Rockies and Red Sox.
Rockies. The Rockies have a strong organizational commitment to ground ball pitchers (partly due to Coors Field), and the team's 50% GB rate for starting pitchers is evidence of that. For this reason, I would expect the Rockies to be attracted to Harrell's skill set. Although Fangraphs predicts a reasonable ROS WAR for the Rockies' rotation, there are reasons to see some iffy-ness here. For example, the Rockies are depending on the June addition of Roy Oswalt, but he has started the ML season in shaky fashion (7.36 ERA), and he is an injury risk. The performance of the lower end of the Rockies' rotation is anything but a certainty. On the down side, Harrell has pitched four times against the Rockies, and has been hit fairly hard (6.53 ERA, .820 OPS).
Red Sox. The Red Sox rotation began the season on fire. But the rotation's flaws have been exposed more recently. The Red Sox reportedly will be aggressive in acquiring a starting pitcher at the deadline. However, the Red Sox rotation has reasonable depth at the lower end, and it's not clear that Harrell is an improvement. Most likely the Red Sox's interest will be aimed at higher end pitchers. Unless Harrell catches fire and comes on very strongly before the deadline, I think it's unlikely that the Red Sox will be a trading partner.
Other teams: LA Dodgers. After the loss of Josh Beckett to injury, the Dodgers reportedly will be in the market for another starting pitcher. The Dodgers' rotation is relatively strong in slots 1 - 4, but the No. 5 slot is more of a question mark. Ted Lilly has not pitched to his normal standards so far, and considering his age and previous arm injury, he may be replaceable. One reason for mentioning the Dodgers is that Harrell pitched a memorable gem against the Dodgers in Los Angeles last year, out-pitching Kershaw with a one game ERA of 1.23.
My gut feeling is that the Pirates and Orioles are the best trading partner for Harrell. If the Astros don't care about intra-division trading in this case, the A's and Angels are good possibilities. I would view the Rockies and Dodgers as dark horse trade targets. Although I think it is unlikely that Harrell is traded, the Astros' trading pattern is anything but predictable. So, a Harrell trade is not out of the question.