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The Market For Rental Starters Is On Shaky Ground

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The starting pitchers that have received, and surely will continue to receive, the most attention in trade rumors are Luis Castillo, Frankie Montas and Tyler Mahle. It’s not surprising, given that they’re all quality pitchers, have been in rumors for a long time and are currently playing for obvious sellers. They also each come with an extra year of control, making them doubly enticing. Why add an exciting new pitcher for just one postseason push when you can do it for two? MLBTR recently ranked the trade candidates and placed them #4, 5 and 6, respectively.

However, with upwards of a dozen teams looking to bolster their pitching staffs in the coming weeks, not all of them will succeed in grabbing one of that trio. In fact, with their extra control, there’s no guarantee any of them will be traded. Montas and Mahle are both dealing with minor injuries right now, and though both are expected to be well enough to pitch before the deadline, there’s always the possibility of the injury getting worse and scuttling trade hopes. Regardless, some teams are going to have to look farther down the list of trade candidates, which is where things get murky.

The top 50 list linked above featured six starters who are set to reach free agency at the end of the year: José Quintana at #7, Martín Pérez at #12, Chad Kuhl at #17, Jordan Lyles at #18, Noah Syndergaard at #21 and Mike Clevinger at #38. (Lyles isn’t a rental in the strictest sense, as he has an $11MM club option for next year with a $1MM buyout. But since the odds seem to be against that getting picked up, I’ve included him here.) That makes them a little less desired on the market, but also means the acquisition cost should be lower. Although that list was published less than two weeks ago, the sand has already started to shift a bit under this market, and could potentially do so again in the weeks to come.

Quintana was having an excellent start to his season but has slipped recently. When he landed that #7 spot on the list a couple of weeks ago, he had a 3.33 ERA. However, he’s had two miserable starts since then, allowing four earned runs in 4 1/3 innings on July 1o, followed by six earned runs in five innings on July 15. His ERA has jumped up to 3.99 just from those two outings. Teams aren’t likely to radically alter their evaluation of a pitcher based on just two starts, especially with the latter taking place in Coors Field. But then again, Quintana’s strong first half was also a small sample, coming after a few years of ineffective work. He had a 4.68 ERA in 2019, then was limited to just ten innings in 2020 due to injury. Last year, he worked mostly as a reliever and put up a 6.43 ERA. He’s made 18 starts this year and two bad ones won’t completely undo the rest, but how much will a team value those 16 decent ones after years of mediocrity? Were those last two starts flukes or regression to the mean?

Pérez is in a similar boat, as he was out-pitching his track record in the early going but has come back down to earth of late. At the end of his start on June 5th, he had a 1.56 ERA but has a 4.54 since. He still has an excellent 2.68 mark on the season overall based on that strong start, but the recent rough patch raises questions. After eight straight seasons with an ERA between 4.38 and 6.22, has he suddenly turned a corner at the age of 31? Or was it a mirage that’s now fading from view? Either way, there’s also the extra complication that the Rangers might just hang onto Pérez and extend him.

Kuhl’s situation has some parallels as well, as he had a 3.17 ERA through his June 3 start but a 5.45 over his last seven outings. Further complicating matters is the fact that the Rockies seem to be leaning towards doing their thing that they do, holding onto obvious trade candidates and hoping to work out extensions. Last year, they didn’t trade Trevor Story, Jon Gray or C.J. Cron, despite all three heading towards free agency. They recouped a draft pick when Story rejected the qualifying offer and signed with the Red Sox, extended Cron but came up short in trying to hang onto Gray. This year, it seems like Kuhl might be this year’s Cron, as he’s apparently comfortable in Colorado and willing to stay beyond this season. Any team that wanted to acquire him would probably have to blow away the Rockies with an overpay.

As for Lyles, his situation has changed not so much because of his performance, but the rest of the team. When that list was published, the Orioles were 41-44. They were on a six-game win streak, but that seemed to be a flash in the pan of what would surely go down as another miserable season in Baltimore. Well, that six-game win streak eventually turned in a ten-gamer, and the O’s are now 46-46, just 2 1/2 games out of a playoff spot. Does that make them change their deadline approach? Perhaps, perhaps not. The odds of a postseason berth are still low, with FanGraphs giving them a 1.4% chance. But with excited fans turning out to Camden Yards for the first time in years, would the club still pull the plug on deadline selling? Lyles was just signed this offseason and isn’t a fan favorite like Trey Mancini. But with his 4.76 ERA, he’s not likely to bring back much more than a lottery ticket prospect anyway. Perhaps the O’s would be better served to just hang onto those innings and hope that 1.4% number grows.

Unlike the Orioles, the Angels have only dug themselves into a deeper hole. At the time MLBTR’s rankings came out, they were seven games out of a playoff spot, theoretically one hot streak away from jumping right back into the mix. However, they’ve unfortunately gone the other way, slipping to 10 1/2 back. That should only solidify Syndergaard as a guaranteed trade chip. But like many of the other pitchers highlighted here, he hasn’t been at his best lately. He had a 3.53 ERA through mid-June but a 5.01 over his last four starts. That’s a small sample, but he hasn’t looked like himself this season. After only throwing two innings over 2020-2021 due to Tommy John surgery and with his velocity down from his pre-surgery form, it’s fair to wonder if there might be some fatigue setting in.

Clevinger is a unique case, compared to the other names on this list. The Padres aren’t looking to sell because they’re not competitive, quite the opposite. It’s because they are competitive that they are looking to use their rotation surplus to create payroll space in order to upgrade elsewhere without going over the luxury tax. Moving Clevinger would be one way to do it, though his $5.75MM CBT hit is much less than Blake Snell’s $10MM. From San Diego’s perspective, moving Snell is probably preferable for the extra breathing space. A team could certainly try to work out a Clevinger deal, but you’d be competing with whatever teams are offering for Snell, as well as any other Clevinger suitors.

All in all, there’s not a ton to bank on here. Any team that doesn’t pony up for Castillo, Montas or Mahle is going to be left with these options, all of whom come with question marks. There are other controllable starters who could be available, such as Oakland’s Paul Blackburn. But with three extra years of control, the A’s surely won’t just give him away. And he, too, has seen a downturn in performance over the last month (7.46 ERA over past five starts). We’re now less than two weeks until the August 2 trade deadline, so the remaining games for these pitchers will be magnified. With the expanded playoffs, there are still 17 teams that have at least a 29.7% chance to make the postseason, per FanGraphs. That has the potential for a situation with high demand and low supply in the days to come, bad news for those who need pitching but good news for those selling it.

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