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Starting pitching is the most inefficient aspect of a free-agent system that is inherently inefficient. And this winter, in particular, the shallow market hammers home that point.
Somebody is going to drastically overpay for C.J. Wilson, no matter how much negative attention his postseason performance received. Somebody is going to invest more than $100 million, between posting fees and an actual contract, into the relatively unknown commodity that is Yu Darvish, assuming his rights are made available. Somebody is going to pay prime dollars for the post-prime years of Roy Oswalt and Mark Buehrle.
But already this offseason, as the ongoing collective bargaining talks might be slowing the speed of free-agent discussions, we're seeing teams in need of starting help meandering into that other, more tolerable arena -- the trade market.
The Indians needed a back-end starter to round out their rotation. Rather than waiting for the price tags for a Bruce Chen or Aaron Harang or Jason Marquis to develop, they pounced on the opportunity to trade for a single season out of Braves veteran Derek Lowe for the sum of $5 million and a low-level Minor Leaguer.
And the Royals, whose burgeoning young core is heavy on position-player talent but low on upper-level starting arms, filled the first of what could be multiple rotation spots addressed this winter by landing one year's worth of lefty Jonathan Sanchez from the Giants in exchange for one year of Melky Cabrera.
Say what you will about the level of talent acquired, as the aging Lowe and the walk-prone Sanchez are both coming off decidedly shaky seasons, but in each case, the price was about right, especially considering neither club is tied to the guy for more than a single season. And by and large, that's more than you can expect to say when pursuing starting pitching in a seller's market.
With all but a handful of teams (four October entrants -- the Cardinals, Rays, Brewers and D-backs -- all seem set) in clear need of some sort of upgrade, many will be actively and some will be aggressively pursuing starting pitching in a thin market. So look for plenty more swap discussions in the coming weeks and months.
Here are some names that could attract varying degrees of interest, with plenty more sure to be bandied about:
John Danks and Gavin Floyd, White Sox:
It's well-established that the Sox are looking to slash costs, so re-signing Buehrle and
extending Danks, who is eligible for free agency a year from now, would not appear likely. Dangling Danks could fetch the Sox an attractive haul. He's 26, left-handed and established. He ran into a lot of bad luck and poor run support last season, en route to an 8-12 record and 4.33 ERA. Floyd is under contract for a reasonable $7 million in 2012 with a club option for 2013, and he's logged at least 185 innings in each of the past four years.
James Shields and Wade Davis, Rays:
As difficult as it is to land a front-end starter in free agency, it's even harder to find one available in the trade market. Still, there are some exceptions, such as Zack Greinke, dealt by the Royals to the Brewers last winter. Will the Rays take a similar path with "Complete-Game James" Shields? At the moment, it appears doubtful, and no one would blame the Rays for holding onto him for the reasonable sum of $7.5 million (with two more team options in 2013 and '14). But with hot prospect Matt Moore set to join the rotation, no one would be shocked to see the Rays deal from a position of depth. Davis might be a consolation prize, in that regard. If the Rays make him available in their hunt for offensive help, the acquiring team would be getting an effective 26-year-old arm signed through at least 2014.
Francisco Liriano, Twins:
Terry Ryan's Twins have some rebuilding to do after a 99-loss season, and moving Liriano, who is eligible for free agency after 2012, might make sense for them if they want to reel in young talent. Liriano threw a no-hitter this year and has the stuff to be dominant on a given night. But he can be awfully erratic, too.
Gio Gonzalez, Brandon McCarthy and Trevor Cahill, A's:
With their location status in limbo, the A's might further strip down their roster, and that could involve dealing from their position of depth. Gonzalez is in his first year of arbitration-eligibility, so his cost is about to rise, but he was an All-Star this season and the contractual control he comes with would be appealing. McCarthy is coming off a comeback year, is a year away from free-agent eligibility and will be affordable for 2012. Cahill regressed from his Cy Young contention status of 2010, but the 23-year-old sinkerballer is signed through 2015 and has obvious upside.
Jair Jurrjens and Brandon Beachy, Braves:
The Braves already moved Lowe, but they might not be done dealing from their deep starting crew. Concerns about Jurrjens' knee and his second-half slide might affect his market, but he was in the upper echelon of starters in the first half of 2011, so he might fetch the Braves a hefty haul if they choose to move him. They're reportedly open to that possibility. Atlanta already showed a willingness to move Beachy last winter. His strong rookie season (7-3 record, 3.68 ERA) and long-term contractual control make him attractive.
Wandy Rodriguez, Astros:
Readily available at the Trade Deadline this year, Rodriguez didn't move because of the $23 million remaining on his contract over the next two years. That's a steep price, though Rodriguez has posted a sub-4.00 ERA in each of the past four seasons. Perhaps a big-market club willing to take on salary will bite this time around.
Ricky Nolasco, Marlins:
Nolasco is similar to Rodriguez, in that his contract -- he's owed $20.5 million over the next two years -- could be an impediment to a desirable deal. Any team showing interest in Nolasco would be banking on his performance improving with a stronger supporting cast on the defensive end.
Jeremy Guthrie, Orioles:
Under team control for one more year, Guthrie is viewed as a movable piece for the perpetually retooling O's. His 9-17 record and 4.33 ERA were obviously nothing special, but lack of defensive support no doubt hurt him. He's been a reliable innings-eater, notching at least 200 in each of the past three seasons.
Homer Bailey and Edinson Volquez, Reds:
With Aroldis Chapman a potential starter in 2012, the Reds have something of a surplus. That might lead them to make a move. And while both Volquez and Bailey have not lived up to expectations (Volquez was an All-Star before 2009 Tommy John and hasn't been the same since), the thin market might lead a club to be willing to take one of them on as a buy-low project.
Carlos Zambrano, Cubs:
Big Z is a big wild card. His emotional issues are well-documented, and he's owed $18 million next year. If the Cubs are willing to eat a huge chunk of that money in exchange for a prospect, somebody might be willing to give him a chance. Or maybe the Cubs and another club could agree to swap bad contracts. Or maybe new general manager Jed Hoyer pulls some Vernon Wells-style voodoo and is able to unload Z and the money all at once. Ultimately, the decision will be in Zambrano's hands, as he has a no-trade clause.