Buster Olney, ESPN Senior Writer
Small sample size carries weight in July in a way it does not the rest of the baseball season, as teams get inspired — or spooked — by a couple of really good or really bad games leading up to the trade deadline.
An evaluator told a story recently about how one of his players in the midst of a good season struggled one day, and the phone calls from other teams with expressions of trade interest stopped. As if someone had turned off a light switch.
Everybody is looking to land the right player at the exact right time, and there could be no better example of this than in the market for starting pitching, which is generally regarded by executives as thin, lacking in high-end options.
Six weeks ago, Toronto’s J.A. Happ might have been the ranked near the top of this crop, but he has a 9.75 ERA in his past three starts, allowing 19 hits, eight walks and four homers in 12 innings, and scouts’ enthusiasm for him has waned — particularly as they try to project how he might do against playoff teams down the stretch or in October. On the other hand, the power stuff of the Rays’ Nathan Eovaldi and his three great performances from June 26 to July 8 — in which he allowed two earned runs and punched out 23 hitters in 19 innings — probably guarantees a small army of scouts will follow him for the rest of this month, in case he turns out to be the best option available. Matt Harvey was awful in 2017 and at the outset of 2018, and in 12 starts with the Reds, he has thrown much better, with only 15 walks in 64⅓ innings and a 3.64 ERA.
The Red Sox, Brewers, Yankees, Cubs, Mariners, Braves and Phillies are among the contenders who could be sifting through the high volume of rotation trade options, and unless the Mets decide to earnestly dangle Jacob deGrom, there may not be an elite starting pitcher available. They are all sifting through the same alternatives.
J.A. Happ, Blue Jays: He’ll get two more opportunities against bad teams to boost his trade value — on Sunday against the Baltimore Orioles, and five days later against the White Sox.
Marco Estrada, Blue Jays: Because of hip trouble, he has pitched one-third of an inning this month, but he’ll return to the mound against the Twins on Monday and have a couple of starts before the trade deadline. Estrada, 35, has a 4.72 ERA. He’s making $13 million this season.
Nathan Eovaldi, Rays: His average fastball velocity is 97.3 mph this season, and he’s getting a ton of missed swings — 10.6 percent for the year is a career high for the right-hander. He has the kind of raw stuff that might enable him to beat a good lineup on a good day. But Eovaldi is in his first summer after Tommy John surgery, and rival evaluators know acquiring him might carry risk because of the health unknowns — how he’ll hold up through the summer. The Minnesota Twins whacked him around for nine hits and eight runs in 2⅔ innings in his last start July 13, and he is lined up to make two more starts before the deadline — Friday against the Marlins, and Wednesday versus the Yankees. Solid outings could really boost interest in him.
If he doesn’t pitch well and fuels the perception he might simply need more time to rebuild, the Rays could consider the option of extending a one-year qualifying offer this fall, for about $18 million, to set themselves up either for draft pick compensation or holding Eovaldi on a low-risk deal.
James Shields, White Sox: The right-hander is 4-10 with a 4.43 ERA, with unusual home/road splits — a 3.51 ERA in 13 home starts, and a 6.14 ERA on the road. In two starts against the Astros, he allowed 18 hits and 15 runs in 11 innings.
Lance Lynn, Twins: Minnesota opens the second half 7 ½ games behind the Indians in the AL Central, and with one bad week, they could become sellers. Lynn has had an inconsistent season, as his ERA month-to-month demonstrates:
The 31-year-old Lynn is owed $4 million over the last two months of the season, and he could be an option for some team looking for an experienced starter for depth.
Matt Harvey, Reds: He has pitched effectively against contenders since joining Cincinnati, beating the Cubs, Braves, Brewers and Cardinals, and in his past five starts, he has a 1.86 ERA, while generating more ground balls.
Kyle Gibson, Twins: He has a 3.42 ERA in 19 starts, and while other clubs say he’s not being pushed in the trade market by Minnesota, rival executives are watching him as a possible option if the Twins become sellers. Gibson will be eligible for free agency after 2019.
Jake Odorizzi, Twins: He’s making $6.3 million this season, and has a 4.54 ERA.
Francisco Liriano, Tigers: The 34-year-old lefty has a 4.67 ERA, and it may be that some teams will have more interest in him as bullpen depth, because he has held left-handed hitters to five hits in 57 at-bats (.088). Liriano is making $4 million this season.
Zack Wheeler, Mets: He’s eligible for free agency after the 2019 season, and this year has a 4.44 ERA in 107⅓ innings.
Mike Fiers, Tigers: Over his past nine starts, he has pitched well, with a 2.75 ERA, including 5⅔ good innings against the Yankees and decent outings against the Astros and Indians. With a salary of $6 million, and under team control in 2019, he is likely one of the most attractive trade alternatives right now.
Tyson Ross, Padres: The right-hander has a daunting injury history, and has had two rough starts this month, surrendering 15 runs in seven innings against the Pirates and Diamondbacks. However, he pitched well against the Dodgers on July 12, allowing two runs in 6⅓ innings, and there’s another reason he might be really attractive to contenders — he’s making a base salary of only $1.75 million.
Chris Archer, Rays: His velocity has been down, and his overall numbers have been down. But his contract is so team friendly — $6.4 million this year, $7.7 million for next year, with team options for 2020 ($9 million) and 2021 ($11 million) — a contender might be inspired to make a bid for the former All-Star. But it still seems unlikely another team would meet Tampa Bay’s high asking price.
Ivan Nova, Pirates: He has a 4.38 ERA in 18 starts and 102⅔ innings. He’s making $9.167 million this year, and will make $9.167 million next year, which might make him less attractive than some of the other names on this list.
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