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Yankees, Cubs and Starting Pitchers: Three Questions as the Trade Deadline Looms

As the July 30 deadline approaches, teams must grapple with the age-old question: who to trade and who not to trade?

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The second week of July marks a turning point in the baseball calendar. The All-Star break is just days away, and with it comes an increase in trade-deadline news and rumors.

Soon, names of veterans and prospects alike will be talk-radio fodder, and anonymous quotes from front office personnel will permeate the sports pages. Pool-chair general managers will concoct deals of varying levels of practicality and call for rich people to spend the money of other, even wealthier people. What is the virtue of a proportional response for fervent fans when there are trades to make and games to win?

‘Tis the season for bold predictions and hugs goodbye, irrational hope and overreactions. To kick things off, let’s take a look at three questions that will define the 2021 trade deadline.

Which starting pitchers will be available?

Contending teams almost always look to acquire pitchers for the rotation and/or bullpen before the trade deadline. This year, with pitchers shouldering the normal workload of a full schedule following the shortened 2020 season, there’s an even greater demand for contending clubs to add starters.

Entering play Wednesday, 12 of the 16 teams above .500 had at least one starting pitcher on the injured list. And that doesn’t include the Nationals, Braves and Cardinals—three contending teams with at least two of their starters on the IL—because they are just below .500. Add the two groups together and you get half of all MLB teams in contention and without at least one piece of their rotation, making it especially tough to predict the trade market for starting pitchers.

Not long ago, Max Scherzer was expected to headline this summer’s list of available pitchers. That was before Washington went 19–9 in June and pulled within two games of first place by the end of the month. The Nationals then lost five of their first six July games. If they slide again, maybe Scherzer could be available by the deadline. Then again, the NL East has only one club above .500 and not one of the teams appears capable of pulling away from the rest, so maybe even a few weeks of losing won’t spell the end for Scherzer with the Nats.

This jumbled, talking-in-circles conundrum is not limited to just the Nationals and their potential trade partners. On top of the 16 teams currently above .500, there are 21 teams within eight games of either a division or a wild-card berth. At least a few of those teams are likely to fall out of contention before the deadline, while others that remain within a reasonable distance of a playoff spot will decide it’s not worth it to go all in.

Still, there are a number of desirable starters who’ll be on the block regardless of how things play out these next few weeks. Among them are Kyle Gibson of the Rangers, Danny Duffy of the Royals, Jon Gray of the Rockies, Tyler Anderson of the Pirates and José Berríos of the Twins. Not one of their teams is in contention, and with the exception of Berríos, they are all set to hit free agency before their teams are competitive again.

Rangers righthander Kyle Gibson

Rangers righthander Kyle Gibson

Gibson, who was named an All-Star for the first time Sunday, is having by far the best year of the group (6–0, 1.98 ERA). He is signed through the end of next season, and the three-year, $28 million contract he signed with Texas in December 2019 is front-loaded—he’s owed $7 million next year. It’s hard to gauge how well Gibson would pitch for another team, though. He is a sinkerballer whose success comes more from avoiding barrels than getting swings and misses. The Rangers, for all their woes, are one of baseball’s best defensive teams, which has certainly benefited Gibson. Opponents are batting just .243 on balls in play this year against Gibson, well below his career BABIP of .304. The questions about Gibson’s value are best illustrated by the differences in his WAR according to Baseball Reference (bWAR) and FanGraphs (fWAR). His 4.3 bWAR is the best among American League starters, while his 1.9 fWAR ranks 10th. Both indicate he’s one of the better pitchers in the junior circuit, but a 2.4-win gap is pretty substantial. The main reason for this discrepancy is how the two sites calculate WAR—bWAR uses runs allowed while fWAR is based on FIP, which measures what a pitcher’s ERA would be with league-average defense behind them.

Duffy was excellent to begin the season, but a left forearm flexor strain in mid-May put him on the injured list for a month. He hasn’t yet assumed his previous workload since returning June 22, so his trade value will likely depend on what he does these next few weeks. Berríos has been the one good starter in an otherwise disappointing Twins rotation. An above-average starter in his prime, he won’t reach free agency until after the 2022 season. Minnesota reportedly is asking for a lot in return for trading Berríos, due to the lack of top-tier arms on the trade market at the moment. That price tag could go down if other teams decide to sell their solid starters.

What should we make of the NL Central?

No division has been as volatile as the NL Central over the first half of the season. The Cardinals entered the last day of May in first place, but then went 10–17 in June and now sit in third—8.5 games behind the Brewers and 7.5 out of the wild card. Milwaukee, meanwhile, posted a 198 June record and has won 13 of its last 16 games. The Reds won their first five games in July to pull into second place.

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And then there are the Cubs, a team stuck in the middle of contending and retooling. They were tied for first place and threw a combined no-hitter against the Dodgers on June 24 before losing 11 straight games to fall below .500. This season was expected to be one of transition for the Cubs—they traded Yu Darvish to the Padres and nontendered Kyle Schwarber—with Kris Bryant, Javier Báez and Anthony Rizzo in the final years of their contracts. But, when they started strong, it looked like they’d keep the members from their World Series core together for one final push.

So what now? As is the case with the Nationals and Scherzer, these next few weeks are going to determine what happens with the Cubs and their tradeable players on expiring deals. Despite his June struggles, Bryant is an All-Star once again and is in the middle of a resurgent season. His trade value is even higher because of the super-utility role he’s taken on this season. Teams in need of a middle-of-the-order corner infielder or corner outfielder would all be interested in acquiring the former Rookie of the Year, MVP and World Series winner.

Cubs shortstop Javier Báez

Cubs shortstop Javier Báez

Báez remains one of the most befuddling talents because his value is so difficult to quantify. He has otherworldly baseball instincts, plays great defense and runs the bases well, and he also leads the Cubs with 21 home runs. But he does not walk, and he strikes out a lot, two things that can lead to drastic and prolonged slumps when he’s not swinging well. He’s one of baseball’s most exciting players, and he has a flair for the dramatic, but teams might not be willing to meet Chicago's asking price to acquire such a streaky player who becomes a free agent this offseason.

Rizzo could provide a steady lefty bat and sure-handed first-base defense to a contender (imagine his bat in Yankee Stadium). But, he is a franchise icon destined for a statue outside Wrigley Field. It seems likely that the Cubs will keep Rizzo and then either extend or re-sign him after the year.

Another Cubs player who could be on the block if things continue to spiral is Craig Kimbrel. The 33-year-old closer has returned to elite form after struggling in his first two seasons in Chicago. Some of his rebound could be due to how unusual these previous two years were for him. A free agent after winning the World Series with the Red Sox in 2018, Kimbrel remained unsigned until June 7, and didn't make his '19 debut until June 27. Another abnormal season followed in '20.

This year, Kimbrel has a 0.59 ERA over 30 2/3 innings, with 53 strikeouts. His 46.9% strikeout rate and 8.8% walk rate are both his best since 2017, when he finished sixth in the AL Cy Young voting. He's using his fastball less frequently than ever before (58.5%) and his curveball more often (41.5%)—he's allowed just two hits against his curve all season.

Kimbrel's contract shouldn't be too difficult to move because he's essentially signed through the end of this season, with a $16 million club option for 2022 that includes a $1 million buyout if they do not pick it up. Things would've been a lot trickier had there been a regular '20 season because he has a vesting option for '22 that kicks in automatically if he finishes 110 games across '20–21, finishes 55 games in '21 and passes a physical. That option is unlikely to vest because Kimbrel finished just 11 games in '20. Even if the games-finished clause in the vesting option is prorated for the shortened 2020 season, he would still need to finish a combined 75 games across the two years. He's finished 28 so far this season.

Either way, the Cubs are falling fast, and if they continue to do so, they have plenty of players who would definitely spice up the trade market if they become available.

What about the Yankees?

This season has clearly not gone as planned for the Yankees, with everything seemingly going wrong at the same time. Their offense is one-dimensional, and their rotation lacks the depth of a true World Series contender. They enter play Wednesday with a 43–41 record and in fourth place in the AL East. They are 0–6 against the division-leading Red Sox. In the words of former Yankees manager Joe Girardi, “it’s not what you want.”

So how can they fix this? First off, they have to be willing to spend money and trade away prospects if they want to upgrade their roster before the deadline. Joey Gallo is a perfect fit for a team that lacks a powerful lefty bat and has a gaping hole in the outfield. He has a lot of the same feast-or-famine tendencies as the other New York sluggers but does three things the Yankees sorely need: He bats left-handed, runs the bases well and plays excellent defense. He’s played right field for Texas this year, but he is capable of manning center and left as well. Gallo is under contract through the end of next season and should be due for a pretty hefty raise in arbitration. And because he’s not just a rental, New York likely will have to part with at least one or two of its better prospects. Still, it’s going on 12 years since the Yankees last won the World Series, far too long in the Bronx. Trading for Gallo, even if they need to overpay a bit, makes sense.

The Yankees still need pitching help. Corey Kluber is out until September with a shoulder injury, and Luis Severino, who hasn’t carried a starter’s workload since 2018 because of a slew of injuries, is still at least a few weeks away from returning. So long as he remains healthy, Danny Duffy of the Royals would be a nice addition to the pitching staff. Because Duffy is a free agent at the end of the year, the Yankees wouldn’t have to give up as much to get him. Kimbrel might also be an appealing option for the Yankees, especially in light of Aroldis Chapman's recent implosions in save situations and the injury woes of both Zack Britton and Darren O'Day. They'd have to take on Kimbrel's salary and probably have to trade a high-end prospect to get him. But, if the starting pitching market doesn't have what they're looking for, they could take some of the pressure off their rotation by adding to their bullpen.

Trading for Gallo, Duffy or Kimbrel would put the Yankees over the $210 million luxury tax threshold; they have $2.92 million in tax space, per Spotrac. But these are the Yankees. They can afford to spend, especially if it means making the playoffs and contending for a World Series title. General manager Brian Cashman has said they have the players they need to win, but adding another outfield bat and pitcher certainly couldn’t hurt.

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