It’s mid-January and spring training still seems like a lifetime away, although right now we have (or at least like to think we have) some idea of the teams that are likely to be in contention come mid-summer.
Teams like the Red Sox, Indians, Dodgers, Cubs, and Nationals (among others) will very likely be in the hunt for a playoff berth. There are a few more fringy teams such as the Yankees, Mariners, Mets, Giants and Cardinals who may be in the hunt and potentially looking for rotational upgrades, or who could end up being sellers if they struggle to post enough wins through the first portion of the season.
Going into 2017, there are only 27 starting pitchers projected to start ten or more games whose contracts expire at the end of the season. This includes two main components of the Cubs rotation (Jake Arrieta and John Lackey), both of whome will very likely finish the year in Chicago, as well as two pitchers recovering from surgery (Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn).
Looking at the entire list, beyond the non-Cubs players, the talent level of the remaining 25 pitchers is not all that inspiring.
|PLAYER||AGE||CURRENT TEAM||2016 fWAR|
|Lance Lynn||29||STL||HURT in 2016|
|Alex Cobb||29||TB||HURT in 2016|
Arranging these players by fWAR, we can identify a handful of players who potentially could be dealt at the deadline, but each player has his warts.
The inconsistent, but often effective Michael Pineda could certainly be on the trading block provided the Yankees are falling out of contention. GM Brian Cashman could trade away 2017 free agents, such as shadow-of-his-former-self CC Sabathia, for prospects. Cashman could then make the Yankees sellers in two consecutive years for the first time since they played at Hilltop Park.
Pineda threw 175 innings last season and by fielding independent numbers, pitched pretty well. With a 3.80 FIP (14 percent better than league average) and an inflated home-run-to-fly-ball rate, Pineda showed flashes of being a solid starter, striking out over 27 percent of batters he faced. In 2016 he managed to be a productive, albeit inconsistent pitcher. The chances Pineda gets dealt are directly related to where the Yankees are in the standings in the latter half of July, and the same goes for Sabathia.
The Phillies are in an interesting position, as both Jeremy Hellickson and Clay Buchholz will be free agents at the end of the year, and they likely will be looking up at most of the National League by mid-summer. Per FanGraphs’ Depth Chart projected standings, Philadelphia is projected to be in the 70-win range. They won’t be competing for a wild card spot until 2017 at the earliest. Although neither Hellickson nor Buchholz inspires confidence as a top-of-the-rotation addition, in a class of lower-tiered starters, they could be mid-season additions to fill in for an injury, or for a team to add some depth.
Similar to Philly, the White Sox look to be in full rebuild mode as well, and have little anticipation of contending. Miguel Gonzalez’ last few months in Chicago will likely have little positive value for a team that may not even be in a position to re-sign him. Gonzalez is already 32 years old and makes far more sense for a team that is ready to win now and needs an additional arm. It’s not likely he’s part of the long-term solution for the Southsiders’ next contention window.
Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn are the wild cards in this group. Last month, Jon Heyman reported the Rays were getting some interest in Cobb, who despite only throwing 22 innings in a recovery year, is still viewed as having solid upside. A nearly three-win player in 2014, Cobb would be an affordable addition from a salary standpoint and could be a good fit for a fringy team like the Pirates, Giants, or Cardinals.
Rays getting a lot of hits on Alex Cobb as well as archer and odorizzi. Same group lookin at sale, plus cubs, others.— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) December 6, 2016
Speaking of the Cardinals, if they find themselves looking up at the Cubs and potentially the Pirates, they may wish to offer up Lance Lynn to a contender. Lynn is coming off Tommy John surgery but in his last healthy season, posted a 3.1 fWAR across 175 innings.
Essentially, this is a pretty lousy year to be on the fringe of contention. With a weak free agent class following the 2016 season, and a less than stellar list of potential trade-bait going into the 2017 deadline, to a large extent, don’t expect contending rotations to change much in August and September. Depending on how the season shakes out, there could be more arms on the market if the Yankees, Orioles, and Blue Jays, among others, look like they cannot make a World Series run. The reality however, is that the players listed above are likely marginal upgrades at best.
It’s an enviable position for the frontrunners going into the season as teams with starting pitching depth and quality arms know what they have and barring injury, would hope to ride it to a deep playoff run.
Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano