Commentary

Call it simply a 'mediocre' starter market

Right-handers Roy Oswalt and Dan Haren top the list of available starting pitchers

Originally Published: July 22, 2010
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Here's one thing we've astutely noticed in our time covering baseball:

Nobody ever has enough starting pitching.

Ever. But especially in July.

This is one July, however, when if you think your team is about to trade for a starting pitcher who is going to save the whole season -- as Cliff Lee did last year and CC Sabathia did the year before -- you're clearly sitting in front of the fullest beer mug in America.

We asked one baseball man this week to pick the best word he could think of to describe this year's starting-pitching market, now that Lee has already made his big appearance in the transaction column. Here was the word that man hit us with -- after about a half-second to think about it:

"Mediocre."

Excellent choice of adjectives. Nevertheless, the law of supply (crummy) and demand (off the charts) is about to take over here. And that means teams are about to wade into that starting-pitching market, like it or not. So we now present our handy-dandy Rumblings guide to the The Five Best Available Starters Now That Cliff Lee Isn't One Of Them:

Roy Oswalt

If Oswalt is serious about demanding that his $16 million option for 2012 gets picked up before he approves any trade, you have to wonder whether he ever really wanted out of Houston in the first place. But it's also possible that those demands could change. And either way, he's still technically "available," so he moves right to the top of this list.

Oswalt is averaging nearly a whiff an inning. He has the same WHIP (1.07) as Ubaldo Jimenez. He's third in the league in quality starts. And his opponent OPS (.619) is lower than the OPS against Roy Halladay, Chris Carpenter or Tim Lincecum. So clearly, this guy still can pitch, even as he closes in on his 33rd birthday next month.

"The one thing I wonder about is how much he's been worn down by losing," one scout said. "He used to be an absolute bulldog out there. Now, it's almost like he's going through the motions some days. You just wonder how much all of this has taken its toll."

Nevertheless, compared with the rest of the field -- and dollar issues aside -- there's no starter out there who could make the impact Oswalt could if he ever leaves the 713 area code.

Dan Haren

Until the past 24 hours, there wasn't much that indicated the Diamondbacks were serious about trading this guy. But we're starting to get a different vibe.

"I never thought he was getting traded, but now I do," one team's personal pitching shopper told Rumblings. "They're starting to get more reasonable. Before, they were asking for two starting pitchers off your major league roster. Now they're talking prospects, so I think they've gotten realistic. I definitely think he's moving now."

What the D-backs clearly want to move most of all, at the moment, is money. And Haren, who has a partial no-trade clause, has about $33 million left on his deal in two more guaranteed seasons beyond this year. But the D-backs also have an interim GM in Jerry Dipoto who would need a huge return to make a trade this earth-rattling. And the other problem, one exec said, is "their timing is not great. They're trying to sell him like he's Cliff Lee. But he's not performing like Cliff Lee."

Haren's ERA (4.60) and home run rate (1.47 homers per nine innings) are up considerably over his Cy Young-caliber season last year. But so is his batting average on balls in play (.350), which suggests that, to some degree, he simply has been more unlucky than last year (when that average was just .280). So although he might not be your classic ace, he'd still be an upgrade over just about any pitcher he'd replace in any rotation.

Ted Lilly

Unlike the two guys above him on this list, there's one thing we can say for sure about Lilly: He will get traded, probably any day now.

At least a half-dozen teams are still in on him -- a group headed by the Tigers, Mets and Dodgers. And the Cubs are officially in nearly-everything-must-go mode. So not only are they confident they can trade this guy, but they Cubs are also telling teams they don't have to pay any of the approximately $5.5 million he has left on his deal this year.

"They said they're going to move him," said an official of one club. "And they've got enough action where they won't have to pay any of the money."

But Lilly -- who also has a limited no-trade clause -- isn't a fit for everybody. One scout said of him: "His velocity is down and he has to go to a club with a big park, a fly-ball park. He can't pitch in a small park anymore." But an executive of one team who loves him said: "He's never been a velocity guy. He's a pitcher. And he likes the action. He likes facing tough lineups. He likes facing those tough right-handed hitters. I really don't see that decrease in velocity as an issue."

It takes only one team that agrees with that assessment. And the Cubs, in this case, have a lot more than one to choose from.

Ben Sheets

Here's another fellow whose team (Oakland) would be delighted to move him. Heck, the A's pretty much signed him so they could move him in July. They'll even pick up much of the $4.5 million or so that's left on his contract this year.

"If you call on him, you'd better be ready to make a deal, because they're ready," said an exec of one team. "If you're just kicking tires, don't call. And if you do call, you'd better know you want him, and you'd better know definitively what you're going to give up because they've done their homework, and they know exactly what they want."

All that is conducive to deal-making. But here's what isn't: We're also talking about a fellow who is 4-9 with a 4.53 ERA and run-of-the-mill 1.39 WHIP while pitching in a pitcher's nirvana in Oakland. And the buyers out there sound incredibly wary.

"I don't know, man," one exec said. "Last time out, he looked like Livan Hernandez out there. He was throwing 85-87 [mph]. This was a guy who had premium stuff at one point. It was remarkable how different he was."

But we remind you again: There isn't much on the shelves. Everybody loves Sheets' makeup and fire. And you have a motivated seller. So it would be an upset if this guy doesn't call a moving van between now and August.

Fausto Carmona

Teams that have talked to the Indians say they're taking a much different approach this summer than they did when they were selling off Cy Sabathia and Cy Lee the previous two years. They've consistently told everyone who has called they don't have to move dollars and they don't have to move either Carmona or Jake Westbrook. So neither is going anywhere unless it's a deal the Indians consider "compelling."

Of the two of them, the Indians appear much more amenable to trading Westbrook, if only because he's about to become a free agent. But the 26-year-old Carmona has generated more buzz.

"He's been really good in my looks at him," one scout said. "The way he's pitching, I really think he's back, and he could be a good No. 3 starter on a good club."

Carmona is still no swing-and-miss machine. His strikeout rate (4.67 per nine innings) ranks 52nd among the 59 AL pitchers who qualify for the ERA title. But he makes up for that with the second-best ground-ball/fly-ball ratio (1.42) in the league. And his reconstructed delivery and controllability (club options through 2014) make him tough for his team to trade him.

"But what they have to think about is how hard it would have been to move him eight to 10 months ago, versus where he is now," one executive said. "At least now they'd be selling high. And there's always some merit to doing that."

It's conceivable the Indians could drop their poker face by sometime next week. But what's a lock is this: They won't move Carmona and Westbrook. They've made it clear it will be one or the other.

Near misses on this list: Westbrook, Jeremy Guthrie, Brett Myers, Shaun Marcum and Aaron Harang.

Ready to Rumble

lastname
Pettitte
New York shopping spree: The Yankees continue to insist they're not plunging into the starting-pitching market in the wake of Andy Pettitte's injury. But teams they've called report the Bombers are definitely kicking a lot more tires than they were a week ago.

We're hearing they've looked into both Haren and Westbrook, and they've done enough work on Lilly to conclude he probably isn't a fit for the park and the division in which they play.

We've also heard the Yankees connected with Jayson Werth, Kerry Wood, Jhonny Peralta and Adam Dunn, among others. So no matter how quiet it might seem in the Bronx, never assume the Yankees' roster on Aug. 1 will look the same as their roster today.

Cliff Lee
Lee
Cliff walking: If the Phillies do pull off a Roy Oswalt trade, they might find themselves at the news conference answering more questions about this past winter's Cliff Lee deal than the trade they just made.

But when other teams look back on that deal, they don't just ask: "Why'd the Phillies trade that guy?" They ask: "Why didn't they shop him around and get a better package back?"

"If they'd done that [and dangled him to multiple clubs], they'd have gotten a much better return," one AL executive said. "I still don't understand why they just dealt with one team [i.e., Seattle]. I know I've talked to a number of teams that have said, 'We would have loved the opportunity to get Cliff Lee, and we would have given them a much better package than Seattle did. But we were never given that opportunity.'"

We've surveyed quite a few baseball people since Lee was traded to Texas. And it's been unanimous that the package the Phillies got back for him didn't match what either Cleveland or Seattle got.

Keep your Sox on: The Red Sox have looked into bats like Jayson Werth. But teams that have spoken to them say they're mostly focused on upgrading middle relief.

It's tough to imagine them overpaying for someone like a Scott Downs. So they're more likely to take a shot at a change-of-scenery project -- a good-arm/bad-year kind of guy. Chad Qualls? Kerry Wood? Pick a name. They'll no doubt be in on him. Victor Martinez will return any day now, so there haven't been signs the Red Sox have done much more than dabble in the catching market. They were never big on Chris Snyder. And someone like Chris Iannetta looks like more of an offseason target than a midseason target.

As the Boston Globe's Nick Cafardo reported, the Red Sox are bumping up against the luxury-tax threshold ($170 million). But clubs that have spoken with them report that won't stop them from making a move if they're convinced it will make a difference.

Brett Myers
Myers
My oh Myers: Only one pitcher in baseball has gone six innings or more in every start this season -- and it isn't Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay or Adam Wainwright. It's (surprise) Astros pitcher Brett Myers. So no wonder you've seen Myers' name pop up in a bunch of trade rumors lately. But even though Myers is working on an affordable one-year, $3.1 million deal, it appears unlikely the Astros will trade him, believe it or not.

"All I can tell you is what they told us," said an executive of one club that checked in. "They said they'd have to be overwhelmed to move him or Wandy Rodriguez."

The Astros' reasoning? Myers, who will turn 30 next month, is controllable beyond this year because the contract includes an $8 million mutual option (or $2 million buyout) for 2011.

Florida Marlins Gone fishing: A week and a half ago, the Marlin who seemed most likely to get traded by the deadline was Dan Uggla. Now it appears the Fish have decided that Uggla's bat is such an irreplaceable commodity that they're more focused on trying to extend his contract and commit to him as their second baseman as they move into their new ballpark in 2012.

So that explains why teams calling on Uggla are being redirected toward the very available Jorge Cantu. The three teams believed to be most interested in Cantu: the Rangers, Rockies and Angels.

Meanwhile, one baseball man estimates that Florida could have as many as a dozen teams trying to pry away Cody Ross -- including two clubs in its division, the Braves and Phillies. But teams inquiring about Ricky Nolasco and Leo Nunez are being told they would have to "wow" the Marlins to persuade them to move either pitcher.

Adam Dunn
Dunn
Dunn deal: Another guy whose potential contract extension seems to be affecting his Human Trade Rumor status is Adam Dunn. And we hate when that happens.

What's the actual reason the Nationals have been so reluctant to trade him? According to one baseball man familiar with those discussions, it has everything to do with the club trying to establish whether it can either get Dunn signed to an extension this month or at least come to a mutual agreement on what it would take to get him signed.

It's been reported that Dunn is looking for a contract in the neighborhood of $60 million for four years. But the Nationals clearly have fewer years and dollars in mind. The sticking point, in the end, could be the length of the deal. Dunn has never had a contract longer than two years, so he's looking for security as he approaches his 31st birthday in November.

From what we're hearing, if the sides can come to a meeting of the minds -- even if they don't formally announce an extension -- Dunn will stay in Washington. If not, Dunn figures to end up with the White Sox, Yankees, Angels or some other interested team before he flips the calendar to August.

Kerry Wood
Wood
Knock on Wood: It's safe to say Kerry Wood hasn't been everything he's supposed to be in Cleveland. But in a brutal bullpen market, the Indians are growing increasingly confident they can trade him, according to teams that have spoken with them.

Wood will come off the disabled list (because of a minor blister issue) right before the trade deadline. And when you stack up his arm against the rest of the motley bullpen items on the shelves, he looks better all the time, 6.30 ERA or no 6.30 ERA.

"The last two times I saw him, his stuff was back to where it was," one scout said. "He still doesn't give you that confident, shutdown look, like 'This inning is over,' when he walks out there. But his stuff is still good."

The other advantage the Indians have in marketing Wood is they don't seem pressured to move him by July 31, because he will get through waivers, thanks to his $10.5 million salary. So if they get the right offer, one executive said, they can do that "on July 31, or Aug. 2, or 3 or 4. It won't matter."

If Wood doesn't go this month, it's likely the Indians would try to push him through waivers almost immediately in August. Because the money left on his deal would shrink to less than $2 million by the end of the month, Wood would be more likely to clear waivers sooner than later -- which would give the Indians the most possible flexibility to move him where they find the best deal.

Arizona Diamondbacks Attention shoppers: Dan Haren, Chad Qualls and Aaron Heilman might not be the only available pitchers in Arizona. An official of one AL team says not to drop Edwin Jackson onto your "untouchables" list quite yet.

"I don't think they're that motivated to move him but I do think they're getting hits on him," the official said. "What they do depends on what they think their competitive window is. I don't think he'll be there past 2011. So if they see the next year and a half as a rebuilding phase, I could see it. If they think they have a chance to win next year, it wouldn't make much sense."

What the Diamondbacks have been telling teams is that they're "open-minded" to any and all proposals for just about anyone on the roster. So if a bunch of Edwin Jackson rumors erupt in the next week, it wouldn't shock us.

Angel eyes: If you're looking for reasons the Angels haven't made a deal this month, our advice is: Just check the schedule. Between now and the trade deadline, they'll play the team they're chasing -- Texas -- five times.

Clubs that have spoken with the Angels say they're in a self-induced holding pattern to see whether they can close some ground on the Rangers. If they can, they'll pursue a bat. If not, they might make no moves at all this month. For a team that's already six games out in the loss column in its division and nine in the wild-card race, that's probably the only sensible way to play it.

Dodge-ball: The most popular misconception about the Dodgers these days is that they can't take on any money if they make a trade or trades. But clubs that have spoken with them say that isn't 100 percent true. The Dodgers have told those clubs they'll have $2 million to $3 million to play with. And they've been shopping for starters and relievers. But if they don't pull out of their postbreak cliff dive, that deadline budget could be quite the moot point.

On the Rocks: Even though the Rockies could get Troy Tulowitzki back as soon as next week, they're still shopping for a right-handed-hitting infield bat who can play second base. Ty Wigginton would be a perfect fit. But it's believed they've also looked into Jhonny Peralta.

No ifs, ands or Butlers: The Royals have bats to sell in David DeJesus and Jose Guillen. But one hitter they haven't marketed is Billy Butler, possibly because, in the words of one NL executive, he isn't that marketable.

"One problem is, he has almost no value in the National League because he can't play first base," the exec said. "So what's the value for a DH whose power is very limited? He's a .300 hitter who will hit some doubles. But he'd better be going to a team that's got power around him. He'd look better in the lineup of a team like the Red Sox than he does for a team like Kansas City."

Catch some Z's: Nobody expects the Cubs to try to trade Carlos Zambrano until the winter, when he'll have two guaranteed seasons and $35.875 million left on his contract. But as erratic as Big Z has been on and off the field, it's fascinating how many people think the Cubs will have little trouble dealing him as long as they're willing to pay down a hefty chunk of the contract.

"I honestly think that if you get him out of Chicago and get him with a team like the Red Sox or Yankees or Phillies, he'd be OK," said an official of one AL team. "You put him in that Yankees clubhouse with Mariano Rivera, he might be different. The question is how much money the Cubs will be willing to pay. Even if they pay half, that's still $9 million a year. I think there are teams that would gladly take their chances on him. I just don't know if they see him as a $9 million pitcher."

Washington Nationals Feel a draft? Once we get that pesky trade-deadline distraction out of the way, we can turn our attention to a story that America really cares about -- that is: How many seconds before midnight on Aug. 16 will Bryce Harper sign with the Nationals?

It's amazing how little buzz the Harper negotiations have generated compared with Stephen Strasburg-mania last summer. But we're starting to hear a few price-tag rumblings floated by Scott Boras' people. And just as Strasburg couldn't realistically tie his asking price to Daisuke Matsuzaka, the Harper comparisons so far seem just as out of whack.

What, for example, is the basis for comparing Harper to Aroldis Chapman, a Cuban-born, nearly big league-ready free-agent pitcher who got $30 million from the Reds this past January?

And sorry, but it's a farce to compare a 17-year-old kid who's about to switch positions to Strasburg, a polished 21-year-old college pitcher who has clearly established he was the most unique pitching talent ever to come out of the draft.

For that matter, what's the basis for Harper to ask for the $9.5 million that Mark Teixeira raked in back in 2001, when he set the June draft position-player record that still stands, other than the fact that neither pitches for a living? Teixeira was a 21-year-old college hitter who was on a much faster track to the big leagues than Harper.

One of these days, even if it's the morning of Aug. 16, Harper and Boras are going to have to get real and accept the reality that, even though Harper was technically a junior college kid, his true comparables are high school players.

And the last two high school position players who were taken with the No. 1 overall pick were Justin Upton, who got $6.1 million from Arizona in 2005, and Tim Beckham, who signed for $6.15 million with Tampa Bay in 2008 -- still the record for drafted high school players.

By the way, we're also not so sure that Harper will win the leverage battle in this duel -- not with the prospect of a slotting system looming large in the 2011 labor talks.

So there. We've already laid out the plotlines at work in the highest-profile draft negotiations of the summer of 2010 for you. Feel free to save this item and keep it handy for future reference. You'll be hearing all this talk again real soon.

Further Review Dept.

We got a chance to ask MLB commissioner Bud Selig last week whether it's true that he's more open to expanding the use of replay than he'd been before the Armando Galarraga Game. It sure didn't sound like it.

"I've said I'll always be open [to more replay]," the commish said. "But I find it very interesting that among managers, general managers, owners and players, there is little if any appetite for more instant replay."

Well then, here are two other groups he ought to ask: fans and umpires. We bet there'd be a heck of a lot more appetite among those two groups for replay than there is for, say, Ballpark Franks.

The Rumblings Scouting Bureau

Once again this week, we check in with some of America's greatest scouting minds:

• On Alex Gonzalez: "People talk about his home runs, but the thing I've loved this year is the defense. He made every play imaginable when I saw him. He's a highly motivated player in his walk year. I think he's one of those players, you've got to keep the carrot dangling out in front of him, because if you do, he will play."

• On Prince Fielder: "If you don't make your pitch to him, he can still hit it out. But I don't see the same adjustable swing I saw a few years ago. He used to scare me to death when he came up there. But now, you can get him out down and away or if you pound him up and in. That wasn't always the case."

• On Pedro Alvarez: "He'll hit some home runs. But with any other team, he wouldn't be up here, and he certainly wouldn't be batting where he's batting in the order. He has holes that he's going to have to close, and it's harder to close them in the big leagues than it would be in other places because he's not going to get a lot of protection. It's too early to say what he's going to be. But the other young players I've seen come up don't have as many holes as this guy. And he's certainly going to get exposed as people get more of a book on him."

Quotes of the Week

From Padres closer Heath Bell, who entered the All-Star Game by sprinting in from the bullpen with steam pouring out of his exhaust, looking like a furious combination of Todd Coffey and Usain Bolt, on how he then turned around and got local hero Torii Hunter to fly out to escape a fifth-inning jam:

"I think I tired Torii out with that sprint."

From Home Run Derby expert Ryan Howard on why he'd favor Goofy over Mickey Mouse in a Home Run Derby among Disney characters:

"Goofy is just so tall and so long. He gets extended, man, it's awesome. I don't know if Mickey can get that extension around his ears."

Tweet of the Week

From the always-demented @UmpJoeWest Twitter handle, authored by someone who identifies himself merely as "Not Ump Joe West:"

"Watching Homerun Derby. I would say less than half of these hits that are being called HRs are actually HRs. Disgraceful"

Late-nighter of the Week

From David Letterman on the legacy of the late, great George Steinbrenner:

"George Steinbrenner, an amazing man in the world of sports -- he took the Yankees, he transformed them from a $10 million franchise … to a $1 billion franchise. And do you know what his secret was? The $9 hot dog."

Headliner of the Week

Finally, this just in from the witticists at Sportspickle.com:

ORIOLES FANS PLACED ON BEREAVEMENT LEAVE

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com