The recent trades of Ricky Nolasco and Matt Garza have created a void in the market for starting pitchers available at the trade deadline. Like Mother Nature, the trade market abhors a vacuum, so as the clock ticks towards July 31, it appears that Jake Peavy and Ervin Santana have become the top targets for teams in search of mid-rotation fortification. Neither is guaranteed to be moved; the former is under contract though next year, while the latter is pitching for a team that spent the winter going "all in" in hopes of contending.
The 32-year-old Peavy has the greater pedigree of the two. He's a three-time All-Star who won the NL Cy Young award back in 2007, when he was the ace of the Padres. Up to that point, he ranked among the game's more durable pitchers, averaging 31 starts and 198 innings per year with a 3.19 ERA across a five-year span (2003-2007) covering his age 22 through 26 seasons. From 2004 through 2007, he ranked seventh in Wins Above Replacement among all pitchers. What's remarkable about that list is that he's the only one of the top eight who's still a usable major leaguer; Roy Oswalt and Carlos Zambrano, the only two above him still active, are on the brink of oblivion.
Since then, Peavy has been beset by so many injuries that he's managed more than 27 starts in a season just once (2012), and more than 18 in a season just twice (2008 being the other year). From 2008 through 2012, he averaged 22 starts per year while serving substantial time on the DL for elbow, ankle, shoulder and groin injuries, not to mention a fractured rib this year. He hasn't pitched badly in that span once you adjust for the whiplash induced by moving from pitcher-friendly Petco Park to hitter-friendly U.S. Cellular Field via a mid-2009 trade; his ERA+ since 2007 is a solid 111, compared to 124 in the 2003-2007 span, with the dip in his strikeout rate from 9.1 to 8.3 per nine partially attributable to his move to the DH league.
Last year, the only one during which Peavy avoided the DL, he threw 32 starts and 219 innings with a 3.37 ERA and 8.0 strikeouts per nine, a performance that inspired the White Sox to rework his 2013 contract, converting it from a $22 million option with a $4 million buyout to a two-year, $29 million extension covering 2014. Also included was a $15 million player option for 2015 based on reaching a total of 400 innings in 2013-2014 and avoiding a finish on the DL at the end of the contract. Though he just ended his month-and-a-half long absence due to a fractured rib with a July 20 return, he's torpedoed that option. He has just 73 innings so far this year, figures to max out around 150-160 and has never pitched more than the 223 1/3 he threw in 2007. When he's been available, he's been decent, with a 4.19 ERA (104 ERA+) and a career-best 4.60 strikeout-to-walk ratio offset by a career-worst 1.4 homers per nine. His FIP is still a quite reasonable 3.79. Oddly, since the trade his home run rate has been substantially higher away from the homer-conducive Cell (1.2 per nine) than in it (0.9 per nine) despite his extreme flyball tendency.
With the White Sox dead last in the AL Central at 39-59, they're in sell mode, though with popular targets like Peavy, Alexei Ramirez and Alex Rios under contract through next season, general manager Rick Hahn doesn't have to deal; even so, Peavy seems prepared for that eventuality. According to industry heavyweights such as CBS Sports' Jon Heyman, Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal and ESPN's Jayson Stark, the Red Sox, Cardinals, Diamondbacks (whose GM, Kevin Towers, oversaw Peavy in San Diego), A's (who may be concerned about Bartolo Colon vis-à-vis Biogenesis), Braves (who just lost Tim Hudson), Dodgers (who apparently have money to burn), Orioles and Reds are all suitors to varying degrees, with most of those teams sending scouts to Peavy's Wednesday afternoon start.
Like Peavy, Santana knows a thing or two about being homer-prone. Last year, he allowed an MLB high 39 in 178 innings, a rate so staggering (1.97 per nine) that it ranks fourth among ERA qualifiers since 1993. The 30-year-old righty, who spent 2005-2012 with the Angels before being traded to the Royals this past winter, has spent most of his career alternating strong seasons with lousy ones, with very little middle ground. In 2007, 2009 and 2012, he had ERAs above 5.00, while in the years in between he's been below 4.00. Overall, he's at 4.22 for his career, a 99 ERA+ after adjusting for his ballpark.
Desperate to contend, the Royals set about bolstering a weak rotation by trading for Santana and James Shields this past winter; while they surrendered Wil Myers and other prospects for the latter, all the former cost them was reliever Brandon Sisk (who hasn't pitched this year due to injury) and $12 million of his $13 million salary. The move has paid off in that the KC rotation has cut its collective ERA from 5.01 to 4.10, and Santana's been a significant part of that, delivering a 3.06 ERA, a 75 percent quality start rate (sixth in the league) and 7.0 strikeouts per nine. He's still allowing homers (1.1 per nine), but 11 of the 17 he's served up have come with the bases empty, and only one has come with more than one man on base. Aiding that is a walk rate (2.0 per nine) that's just a hair above a career-best mark set back in 2007.
Alas, with so many hitters from their young core underachieving, the Royals are nonetheless four games under .500 at 47-51, eight games out in both the AL Central and the wild-card chase, with just a 0.8 percent chance at making the postseason according to the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds. Perhaps inspired by the haul the Rangers received for Garza, general manager Dayton Moore has changed his tune from last week and is now willing to listen to offers for Santana. Given that the Royals were at the very least going to make him a qualifying offer at season's end, potential suitors will have to give up something worth at least the equivalent of a supplemental first-round pick in next year's draft.
As to who's interested, there's less specificity to the field than with Peavy. The teams figure to be more or less the same, with some more attracted to him because his salary will clear the books, and others due to his relatively clean bill of health; he was last on the disabled list in 2009, though he did have an elbow issue in spring 2010 as well. Peavy and Santana are by no means the only starting pitchers who could move by July 31, but they're almost certainly ahead of other options such as Bud Norris, Yovani Gallardo and Edinson Volquez. The short supply and wide pool of suitors makes it likely that each subsequent move from here onward ratchets up the price of the rest.