Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Picking your Poison: Three Starting Pitchers edition

It's July, which means it's officially Trade Month, and for the first time in a while we as fans are interested in the major league pieces that might actually be acquired this month, rather than which minor-league pieces might be coming in to help some distant Astros team that might contend. 

Johnny Cueto

The 29-year old Cueto is the youngest of the three starting pitchers we'll examine today. Depending on when the Astros trade for him, they would owe him in the $4-5m range for 2015, but he is a rental. Due to the rental status, the prospects required by the Reds wouldn't wouldn’t be as high as, say, Cole Hamels (hold on for him). 

Cueto led the National League in innings pitched (243.2), strikeouts (242), and hits/9 (6.2) in 2014.
In 2015, Cueto has thrown 96.2IP, 72H/32ER, 92K:19BB, cutting his walk rate by 0.6 BB/9 from 2014 to 2015. He’s a flyball pitcher, getting only a 41.4% groundball rate – quite a departure from what the Astros have seemingly valued in the past couple of seasons. That said, his 2.98 ERA isn’t terribly out of line from his 3.37 FIP or 3.28 xFIP. His .238 BABIP is spot-on with his 2014 (also .238) and 2013 (.236).

Jeff Samardzija

Like Cueto, the 30-year old Samardzija would be a rental player, having signed a 1-year, $9.8m deal in the offseason, meaning the Astros would owe him somewhere in the $4m range if they acquire him at the deadline. 

Samardzija has been somewhat disappointing this season, his 4.56 ERA the highest of his career in any season in which he threw over 35IP. His 123 hits allowed lead the league, but he’s the victim of some bad luck, as the ERA belies his 3.65 FIP and 3.83 xFIP, and because the White Sox are a poor defensive team, posting a -37.6 rating on FanGraphs (the Astros are rated at -8.8, but I still am not sure how FanGraphs’ accounts for extreme shifting).

Samardzija is also getting fewer groundballs than in recent years. His groundball rate is 39.6%, down from the 50.2% he got with the Cubs and A’s in 2014, and the 48.2% he posted in 2013.

Cole Hamels

Considered the jewel of possible trade bait, whichever team trades for Hamels is definitely not getting a rental: he is owed what is left of his $22.5m salary in 2015, and then $22.5m in each of the 2016-18 seasons, with a $19m vesting option ($6m buyout) for 2019. Or if Hamels meets 400IP in 2017-18 combined, 200IP in 2018, and is not on the DL at the end of 2018 with a shoulder or elbow injury, a $24m option automatically vests for 2019. He’s expensive, in terms of cash money and prospects.

The Phillies are in 2015 where the Astros were in 2009. Their roster is old and hurt and expensive, and their minor-league system isn’t in the best shape of its life. This can be attributed to trades and extensions made in order to stay in contention over the previous ten years. Sound familiar?

Hamels is 31 years old, so he’s under contract through his Age 34 season. But he also just may fit the Astros’ preferred profile the best of the three listed possibilities. He has a 48.6% groundball rate, and his 3.22 ERA is in line with his 3.43 FIP and 3.21 xFIP. Hamels has been a 4-5 WAR player since 2011, and is already at 2.0 WAR this season. And he’s another lefty for a rotation that only features Ace Keuchel 

But going back to the Phillies and possible trade demands, Hamels is perhaps Ruben Amaro’s only shot to restock the farm system with one trade. You thought the Astros’ haul for Hunter Pence was nice? That’s not going to get it done for Hamels, unless Jeff Luhnow turns out to be some sort of Actual Sorcerer, and Ruben Amaro is actually as dumb as we’re all led to believe. Do you like Lance McCullers? Vince Velasquez? At least one, if not both, are gone. The conversation likely starts there. Correa isn’t going anywhere, but he’s likely the only untouchable on the list. Appel, Brett Phillips, Tony Kemp, Preston Tucker Colin Moran would also be on the list. The Phillies are going to want to get better quickly by dealing the ace of their rotation. They’re not going to respond positively to your dumb fantasy trades where you offer Jed Lowrie, Chris Carter and six scrubs for Mike Trout. They don't need Chris Carter, because they have a more expensive version in Ryan Howard. 

Of course, these are just three starting pitchers to which the Astros have been linked. You can bet that the Astros have inquired on pitchers that haven’t been mentioned and, honestly, any of these would serve as a necessary upgrade to a potential playoff rotation. Pick your poison. Who do you want and, more importantly, how much are you willing to give up?