1 of 3 Oakland pitcher Sonny Gray has been on a roll of late, but the A’s will likely have a big asking price for him. (Ben Margot/AP)
CHICAGO — The competition officially began Thursday when Theo Epstein and the Chicago Cubs jumped the market while everyone was still weighing it.
The Cubs’ president of baseball operations made a brash move by acquiring left-handed starter Jose Quintana from the crosstown White Sox for four players, including outfielder Eloy Jimenez, the No. 5 overall prospect, and No. 84 prospect Dylan Cease, a hard-throwing right-hander.
That started what figures to be a contested two weeks when teams try to acquire the most coveted thing in all of baseball — viable starting pitching.
Sure, in the days leading up to the trade deadline, you’ll see some relievers and outfielders moved. But there is no more valued or coveted asset than a starting pitcher.
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Quintana’s numbers this year aren’t outstanding — 4-8 record, 4.49 ERA. But he’s a proven, durable starter with the ability to be solid No. 2 starter in any rotation.
Throw in his team-friendly contract — $29 million total over the next three seasons — and you can see why the pitching-starved Cubs acquired him before the Astros, Yankees, Brewers or Rockies tried to grab him.
“Everybody’s looking,” Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said. “Everybody’s always looking. So it makes it no harder than it was yesterday or last year or in 2010. Everybody’s always looking for starting pitching, particularly at this time of year. There are two 30- or 45-day windows. One is now, and one happens again in December and January, when you can actually access starting pitching, If you can’t access it now, you have that next window that opens, and there’s virtually no other time of the year when you can access starting pitching. These are those times.
“You don’t get ’em in April. You don’t get ’em in May. You don’t get ’em in October. You wait till a free agency, or you acquire them now.”
The Astros looked at acquiring Quintana in the offseason, but the price tag was deemed too high. Their need for another solid arm to join Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers is obvious. With right-hander Michael Pineda likely done for the season because of a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow, the Yankees — a team already in need of a starter — are even more desperate. The Nationals also might have a need with Joe Ross going on the disabled list with elbow pain.
With the Royals contending in the American League Central, there is a chance they won’t shop lefty Jason Vargas, who will be a free agent after the season, and try to make one last playoff run with a core group that is going to be broken up. That means there’s one less arm on the market.
Here’s a look at the starting pitchers who could be available:
Sonny Gray, A’s; Gerrit Cole, Pirates; Justin Verlander, Tigers; Julio Teheran, Braves
Of the group, Gray is the most likely to be dealt with the A’s in obvious sell mode. But what would be the cost? With Gray making only $3.75 million this season and two years of arbitration eligibility before free agency, the A’s aren’t trying to dump his salary. They want real prospects in return. There is a bit of a gamble in acquiring the right-hander.
After his All-Star season in 2015, when he finished third in AL Cy Young voting, Gray has battled injuries and subpar performances. He started the season on the disabled list with a strained lat and missed the first month. In 14 starts since his return, he’s 5-4 with a 3.72 ERA. But after tossing six shutout innings Friday night vs. the Indians, Gray is 3-1 with a 1.33 ERA in his last four starts.
Pirates GM Neal Huntington recently told Peter Gammons that he’s had no serious talks or offers about Cole. But that’s likely to change. After looking dominant in 2015 (19-8 record, 2.60 ERA), Cole has dealt with injuries and lackluster outings. He’s made an NL-high 19 starts this season, posting a 7-7 record with a 4.35 ERA. Like Gray, a big part of Cole’s attractiveness is his cheap contract and club control. Cole is also making $3.75 million this season and has two years of arbitration eligibility.
Verlander’s contract and subpar season make a deal seem unlikely, but teams have been scouting him as a possibility.
The Braves are sending out mixed signals regarding Teheran. Reports of not being wiling to trade him have followed reports of being willing to listen to deals. If they make him available, he’ll be highly coveted. He’s got two more years of club control on a relatively economical contract — $8 million in 2018, $11 million in 2018 and a $12 million club option in 2020.
Yu Darvish, Rangers; Andrew Cashner, Rangers; Jaime Garcia, Braves; Marco Estrada, Blue Jays; Jeremy Hellickson, Phillies; Chris Tillman, Orioles; Lance Lynn, Cardinals; Trevor Cahill, Padres; Derek Holland, White Sox
All are free agents after the 2017 season, so a team would get them for two months and the postseason. Darvish is clearly the best of the group, though the Rangers are still in the wild-card mix. They’ve also indicated that they want to keep Darvish in order to try to sign him to a contract extension. But if they fall out of the race and getting an extension done doesn’t seem realistic, he would command a solid return.
None of the remaining names are having outstanding years. Tillman has dealt with shoulder issues and decreased velocity while Estrada has a 5.17 ERA. The Cardinals have pushed back into the NL Central race and might keep Lynn.
Edinson Volquez, Marlins; Dan Straily, Marlins; Scott Feldman, Reds; Jeff Samardizja, Giants; Matt Moore, Giants; J.A. Happ, Blue Jays
From a contract standpoint, Straily is the cheapest, making the MLB minimum and three years of arbitration eligibility. He would be just a No. 5 starter in most rotations. The Blue Jays have Happ under contract for next season and have indicated they’d prefer to keep him. Samardizja’s massive contract (19.8 million a year through 2020) isn’t something teams would want to take on. Moore has club options the next two seasons, but he’s been abysmal this season with a 6.09 ERA.