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Talking Starting Pitcher Trades

Will the Astros trade for a starting pitcher at the trade deadline?

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Houston Astros
In 2022 World Series, Justin Verlander talks with pitching coach Josh Miller.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The mid-season trade deadline is approaching—by the end of this month. We don’t really know what kinds of moves are targeted by the Astros. But we do know that this is the best opportunity to fortify the team for contending in the playoff race. The fact that the statement is also true for perhaps 15 or so other teams, who are all hoping to contend this season, means that the trade market will be crowded.

The teams which achieve the best playoff berths generally do so with a W/L record better than the projection system estimates. One reason for this tendency is the trade deadline. Teams can increase their strength with player acquisitions which were unknown when the projections were made in the first half of the season.

Astros GM Dana Brown has said he wants to trade for a batter but hasn’t ruled out trading for a pitcher if the right deal arises. Brown’s stated inclination made sense a month ago. But I would argue that currently, the acquisition of a starting pitcher is even more important than adding to the offense. (Ideally, adding both offense and pitching would be helpful—but the reality of limited trading resources could constrain such plans.)

What is the basis for this view? Well, let’s recap some recent events affecting the Astros' starting pitching.

  • Three-fifths of the starting rotation is on the Injured List, with two of those pitchers recovering from surgery which will keep them out well into next year.
  • The Astros’ No. 2 pitcher, Cristian Javier, has experienced recent performance issues and could well end up on the injured list himself. Even assuming that Javier can avoid the injured list, the limited pitching depth makes it difficult to give him off days that would enable him to rest and reset himself. In a worst-case scenario, if a Javier injury was discovered and he is placed on the IL for a significant period of time, I believe the Astros would have little choice but to enter the pitching trade market.
  • The Astros have utilized four pitchers (France, Bielak, Blanco, and Dubin) from AAA to hold the rotation together. All four pitchers have done a great job preventing the starting rotation from crashing and burning. Their results have been a godsend. But regression is inevitable. All four young pitchers have results (i.e., ERA) considerably below their Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP). Theory tells us that the results will likely regress in the direction of FIP. The average gap between these four pitchers’ ERA and their FIP is nearly two runs per 9 IP—which would be among the largest E-F gaps in the major leagues.
  • Setting aside potential regression in results, without fortifying the rotation, the number of young pitchers in the rotation will make it difficult to cap the pitchers’ innings in a way that reduces fatigue or injury and keeps the rotation fresh for the playoffs. The ability to reduce starting pitchers’ workload (partly due to the six-man rotation) was a key element of the Astros’ strong starting pitching in the 2022 playoffs.

Adding complication to the Astros’ task, the team is still rebuilding the farm system after the draft pick penalties arising from the sign-stealing scandal. Prospects are the “coin of the realm” when it comes to trading for starting pitchers. In my view, the Astros should avoid trading the very top tier of their prospects. For that reason, I assume that top-level trade targets like Shane Bieber and Dylan Cease would be too expensive for the Astros. Despite that assumption, I have included Cease on the trade target list.

What I’ve tried to do here is prepare a preliminary list of starting pitchers who could be trade targets.

Initial Screening of List

My initial screen is based on a positive E-F, meaning that the player’s ERA is above the player’s FIP. (E-F is a column on the Advanced Pitching Stats Leaderboard at Fangraphs.)

This is a good screening test because it means the pitcher’s results reflect underperformance, which should reduce the trading cost. Furthermore, it suggests that the likelihood of regression will be in the direction of better performance in the future. The hard part of trade evaluation is projecting whether players will perform better or worse during the remainder of the year. A FIP below the ERA increases the odds of better performance. In addition, the evaluation can be supplemented with advanced pitching statistics x-ERA and SIERA to examine whether the pitcher has been lucky or unlucky.

In addition, an ERA above the FIP may be partially due to poor fielding by the pitcher’s team. If the trading team is a below-average defensive ballclub, the pitcher’s performance may improve playing behind the Astros’ defense.

Beyond these criteria, I have subjectively selected starting pitcher trade targets based upon the desirability of the pitcher and the likelihood that the player’s team will be sellers and might engage in a trade with the Astros.

Starting Pitcher Trade List

Lance Lynn ERA 6.47 FIP 5.10 SIERA 3.88 x-ERA 4.77

I include Lynn with some trepidation because the headline numbers are kind of toasty. But there is some hope in his SIERA and x-ERA results. I would only consider a trade for him if the Astros' pitching coaches and analytics group felt there was a good chance that he would rebound in the second half of the season.

Matt Strahm ERA 4.18 FIP 3.07 SIERA 3.33 x-ERA 3.24

I don’t expect the Phillies to be sellers, but I’m not sure how dependent they are on Strahm to be part of their rotation. He has been used as a swing pitcher by the Phillies. His contract runs through next year. Statistically, he has a pretty strong case for better performance in the future.

Paul Blackburn ERA 4.50 FIP 3.40 SIERA 3.98 x-ERA 3.59

Blackburn is a realistic target. He is the type of veteran starting pitcher that the Oakland A’s are likely to trade. He becomes arb eligible next year and will have two more years of team control. Blackburn fits the profile of a reliable 3 or 4 pitcher in the rotation.

Yu Darvish ERA 4.84 FIP 3.88 SIERA 3.86 x-ERA 3.64

Probably not a realistic target, but he has been mentioned in the TCB comments as a possible acquisition. In my opinion, the Padres are unlikely to become sellers—-but a decent argument can be made that they should be sellers. This trade only has a chance if the Padres get in a “clear the decks and start over next year” mood. Darvish has an excessive 6-year contract that will extend past age 40, which makes him tough to trade to any team, much less the Astros. In my view, the Padres would need to pay down part of Darvish’s contract cost to make a trade practicable.

Rich Hill ERA 4.50 FIP 4.28 SIERA 4.53 x-ERA 4.53

At age 43, Hill is the oldest soft-tossing lefty who is starting on a regular basis. It’s unclear if the Pirates will make him available at the deadline. His pitching metrics are mediocre, but on the other hand, he is likely to be cheap. Obviously, he has a lot of experience and could be a good mentor for younger pitchers.

Mason Miller ERA 3.38 FIP 3.10 SIERA 4.31 x-ERA 3.51

Probably not a realistic target because the A’s are unlikely to trade a young starting pitcher with years of team control in front of him. But I include him because he looks like the type of young pitcher the Astros should want to acquire. At age 24, Miller rushes it up there with 98 mph velocity.

Justin Verlander ERA 3.66 FIP 3.99 SIERA 4.29 x-ERA 3.61

Verlander does not fit the E-F screening criteria. When I started looking at the E-F list a few days ago, he met the criteria—but one good start this week, and his ERA dropped, and he no longer has a FIP higher than his ERA. But I’m going to discuss him anyway—because he is on a few Astros fans’ minds. If you want to imagine an ideal location for Verlander’s performance to rebound this year, I would put the Astros at the top of the list. He knows the Astros personnel and pitching coaches, and he is used to success here. We do not know if the Mets will become sellers yet—it probably depends on the team’s W/L record over the next two weeks. If the Mets decide to reset this year, they could decide that the age of their team is a risk, which in turn could lead them to consider a Verlander or Scherzer trade. The Mets have already paid $20 million or so of Verlander’s salary this year, but he is owed $43 million next year. Verlander has an option in 2025 if he achieves 140 innings in 2024. If this is too high a financial cost for the Astros, perhaps the Mets would pay down part of the future salary cost. The Mets have indicated they will consider paying down salaries if it increases the prospect trade return.

Dylan Cease ERA 4.10 FIP 3.85 SIERA 4.01 x-ERA 4.22

Cease is not a free agent until 2026, and he is the ace of the White Sox rotation. As a result, he probably is not a realistic option for the Astros. Some commenters have turned to his rotation mate, Lucas Giolito because his team control ends after this season, and he presumably will have a lower trading cost. But unlike Cease, Giolito doesn’t meet the E-F screening criteria and probably has greater performance risk. The ZIPS rest-of-season projection for Cease is a 3.53 ERA, and the projection for 2024 is a 3.43 ERA. At this point, we can only speculate as to whether the White Sox will become sellers at the deadline. If they do, Cease would become a top trade target for a number of teams. Do the Astros have enough prospect capital to acquire Cease? Probably, if the team is willing to reach into the highest ranks of its prospect talent. Is it prudent to do so? I don’t know. It probably depends on which specific prospects are discussed.

[Note: Zach Greinke of the Royals met the criteria for this list and would have been included—except Kansas City placed him on the Injured List this week with shoulder tendonitis.]