I don't think it's particularly controversial to say that, out of all of the pitchers mentioned in trade rumors over the past month, Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, and Chris Archer are the three with the highest trade value...but in what order?
99 times out of 100, our articles at Beyond the Box Score will include a stance by the author on the particular topic. However, in this particular case, I would like to open it up to public discussion. I will just include the pros and cons for each pitcher, and you folks can decide for yourselves. 'Trade value' can be slightly ambiguous, so the exact question is -- if they were traded before August 1, which of the three pitchers would return the most in a deal with a contending team?
Argument for: Out of the three, Chris Sale is probably the best pitcher, and teams are interested in trading for these players because they want help right now. Chris Sale has literally never been bad in any season of his career; his 2015 ERA of 3.41 was the highest of his career, and that was also accompanied by a 32.1 percent K rate and 4.9 percent walk rate.
After showing spotty control as a youngster, Sale has made a Kershaw-ian type of jump, sporting a cumulative BB/9 of under 2 over the last four seasons. His career 3.05 FIP / 3.00 xFIP / 2.90 SIERA paints him as an upper-tier ace, and unless you're a huge Corey Kluber fan, Sale is probably the best pitcher in the AL. Beginner's tip: the best pitcher of his respective league is rarely available in trade, and when he is, he's very valuable.
If you're more of a traditional baseball fan who prefers scouting over numbers, Sale matches up very well too. If you've ever watched him pitch, you tend to wonder how anyone ever gets a hit off him. He has a mid-90s fastball with plus run, an excellent changeup, and an even better slider, all of which come from a deceptive, low arm slot from the left side. He's on a very short list among starting pitchers that boast a plus fastball, a plus breaking ball, and a plus changeup. Oh, and as I've mentioned on this site before, he threw the best slider I've ever seen in my entire life to Carlos Gonzalez in the All-Star Game at Citi Field.
Argument against: There are both short-term and long-term arguments that make Sale a risky bet, especially compared to Quintana and Archer. In the short-term, Sale has shown a few worrying trends this season. His strikeouts have dropped precipitously, and although his 8.73 K/9 is still quite good, it's nowhere near the gaudy 11.82 mark that it was last season or the 10.76 K/9 in 2014.
His velocity is also down 1.5 mph from last season, although to be fair, Sale has publicly stated that he's making a conscious effort not to go all-out with his stuff in order to maximize durability and efficiency. This could help explain the drop in strikeouts and velocity. However, he has also been especially homer-prone this season, and his 3.69 FIP / 3.69 xFIP / 3.59 SIERA in 2016 isn't exactly ace-level. Finally, his BABIP is an unsustainably-low .257, so if he keeps pitching like he has been, it's likely that his 3.18 ERA will rise to a level closer to his ERA predictors.
There are long-term considerations, as well, that might steer you toward one of the other two. Sale is under control for three more seasons, which is significant, but it's less team control than either Quintana or Archer. Sale also has that funky delivery that led many scouts to project him as a reliever, and it still worries many prognosticators today that he might be at higher risk for an arm injury.
Argument for: In comparison to the other two, much of the arguments for Quintana will be non-performance-related, but it's easy to forget that Quintana is quite awesome at baseball in his own regard. The baseball blogging nerds have cried for years that Quintana is one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball, and the stats back that up. Over the last three seasons, Quintana's 3.11 FIP ranks in the top five among all AL starters, while his fWAR places him seventh in all of baseball over that same span. Chris Sale is sixth on that same list.
Does a one-spot ranking justify the fact that Quintana comes with an extra year of team control and without the same concerns over injury and declining velocity? In fact, Quintana's velocity is on the rise, and his 92.2 mph average fastball is much higher than his 90.4 mark as a rookie. However, Quintana's velocity isn't high enough where you might fear an elbow pop on any pitch. His mechanics are also incredibly clean, and he's on pace to top 200 innings for the fourth consecutive season. With Quintana, you're almost assuredly getting a safe bet in terms of performance, consistency, and durability.
Argument against: Quintana is almost definitely the worst pitcher out of the three, and that matters a lot when you're dealing with winning-hungry contenders at this time of year. He may be a safe bet, but he also comes with very little upside relative to Sale and Archer.
His career K rate is under 20 percent (Archer - 24.7 percent; Sale - 27.9 percent), while his career batting average against is an astoundingly-high .255 (Archer - .230; Sale - .221). His control is good (career 6.3 percent walk rate), but not elite, so he allows more baserunners than you'd typically like (career 1.24 WHIP).
In fact, besides durability and consistency, his only pitching skill that's well above average is home run prevention. But even that looks rather unsustainable, as he doesn't get an overwhelming number of ground balls. He thrives off a low HR/FB rate, and as we've seen with Matt Cain, that phenomenon can sustain itself for only so long, if it's even a verifiable skill.
In addition, Quintana's already-pedestrian ground-ball rate has dropped to below 40 percent. Because his home run prevention is due to a low HR/FB rate, rather than a lot of ground balls, that explains his remarkable FIP, while his more advanced ERA indicators paint a much gloomier picture. His career xFIP is 3.77, while his career SIERA is 3.85. Those numbers are more in line with pitchers like Mike Leake, Rick Porcello, and present-day Scott Kazmir. While those three are all fine pitchers, they aren't guys that you'd consider trading your farm to acquire.
Before you say, "yeah, but Quintana is younger", would you believe that he's actually the same age as Porcello? He's also only a year younger than Leake. Quintana was somewhat of a late bloomer, so you may think he's young because he wasn't on your mind as a prospect, but he's actually the same age as Sale and Archer.
Would you be comfortable letting Quintana start game 1 or 2 of a playoff series for your contending team against a high-powered offense? I'm not so sure I would. He doesn't have the stuff to buzz-saw right through a top-tier lineup; his fastball isn't overpowering, and I wouldn't classify any of his pitches as more than a 55 on the 20-80. I'm sorry, Jose. Those not named Chris obviously have inferior stuff to those named Chris.
You could certainly make an argument that, out of the three pitchers, Quintana has the highest projected excess value over the life of their respective contracts, but teams pay for talent, and the question is which pitcher would fetch the most in a trade right now.
Argument for: With Archer, you're getting the best of both worlds from Sale and Quintana. He comes with the elite strikeout ability of Sale, but he also comes with the clean mechanics and durability of Quintana. Yes, I'm aware that Sale has been mostly healthy throughout his career, but Archer has been completely healthy. In fact, not only has Archer never been to the DL in his MLB career, from what I can tell he's never been injured in his lengthy minor league career either.
From a performance standpoint, he struck out over 250 batters last season, and he's followed that up by leading the league in strikeouts this year. He's just a few months removed from an elite season of 2.90 FIP / 3.01 xFIP / 3.08 SIERA, and the ability is clearly still there. His walks and home runs allowed have spiked, but for all of the belly-aching about how bad he's been this season, it would surprise many that Archer has the best xFIP this season out of the three pitchers. His gopherball problems can largely be explained away by a wonky HR/FB rate this season that should almost certainly come down to normal.
Also, it's important to keep something in mind when viewing Archer's career stats. Out of every single active pitcher in Major League Baseball, Archer probably has faced the toughest competition over his career pitching in the strongest offensive division in baseball. But the Rays are also the weakest offense in the AL East, and Archer doesn't get to pitch against them. All four of the other teams have been high-powered offenses for most or all of Archer's career, and all four play in extreme hitter-friendly ballparks as well. No matter which contender deals for Archer, they are bringing him to a more friendly pitching environment.
From a scouting perspective, he's got stuff that makes you say 'wow', and that backs up the strong strikeout rates. Since his debut, among pitchers with at least 600 innings, Archer's fastball velocity ranks third in the MLB behind just Nathan Eovaldi and Stephen Strasburg ... and that's not even Archer's best pitch. As strong as Sale's argument is for best lefty slider in baseball, Archer has an equally strong argument for best right-handed slider in baseball. It drops off the table with sharp lateral movement as well, and you exclaim, "wow, what a great 83 mph slider" until you look at the radar gun and see that it was 92 mph.
Oh, and I almost forgot to talk about that sweet, sweet contract...if his isn't the best contract in baseball, you can count the better ones on one hand. He makes $2.8 million this season, $4.8 million next season, $6.2 million in 2018, and $7.5 million in 2019. But wait...there's more! He then has two team options for 2020 and 2021 at $9 million and $11 million respectively. A team gets him through 2021 for a combined total of under $40 million; but if his arm goes ka-blooey, the team is on the hook for just $18.5 million total. It's the kind of contract that makes you feel for the guy, Salvador Perez-style.
Argument against: I just spent the longest time making an argument for Archer, compared to the other two, so you'd think that he's definitely the right choice. But there's one important factor running against him -- actual run prevention, which is literally a pitcher's one job. I don't care how much you believe in advanced stats; Archer has been plain bad this season. He's walking 3.52 batters and allowing 1.45 home runs per nine innings, and batters' slash lines on the season is a collective .247/.315/.425.
In other words, every batter is basically 2016 Andrew McCutchen or Adam Jones against him. Even if you trust your gut on advanced numbers, he's the type of guy that you could talk yourself into trading the whole farm to get in the offseason rather than right now. And as has been proven with Johnny Cueto and Ricky Nolasco, advanced ERA indicators are right only most of the time.
At some point, Archer needs to start preventing runs again, and maybe this is just who he is. His 2016 ERA is 4.42, and he's never had an ERA lower than 3.22 in any season of his entire career. His career 3.54 mark is fine, but it's worse than Quintana's and significantly worse than Sale's. His combination of walks and home runs leads to big innings -- like, innings that could completely bury you in a playoff game. And in terms of long-term concerns, he throws sliders almost 40 percent of the time, and his fastball is down an entire mph this season. Both of these are somewhat minor concerns as well, but they're concerns that a pitcher like Quintana doesn't have.
With all of that in mind, if you were the GM of a contending team, which player would you most like to acquire? I'm going to include a poll at the end of this article, but I would also like to hear in the comments who you'd prefer and why. Oh, and to make this more interesting, you're welcome to construct and include a package from any/some/all of the Red Sox, Dodgers, and Rangers that you think would be a fair return for the pitcher you choose.
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Austin Yamada is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score.