The short list of Indians Starting Pitching Targets

The Indians starting rotation has tripped and stumbled its way to a 4.36 ERA. An entirely disappointing opening act while still sporting the sixth best FIP in baseball at 3.81. A FIP-ERA gap of nearly a half a run is about as sustainable as a fish on land. Yet, despite the various pockets of data which would anchor optimism, there is a compelling argument that starting pitching is a high priority need for the Indians at this year’s deadline.

Danny Salazar is lost in the wilderness, Trevor Bauer is struggling to strand runners, Mike Clevinger is wielding the command that would disappoint Danny Salazar, and Josh Tomlin is the serviceable five but no better. No doubt the Indians are thin after the Kluber-Carrasco duo.1 Now, Bauer and Clevinger are perfectly competent 4-5 starters with Bauer’s outcomes likely to improve but having a legitimate third starting pitcher remains a hole on this Indians roster. With an elite pen and production at every position, outside a bench tweak the Indians only need is for that third starter in a seven-game series.

Accepting the above premise means the Indians need to acquire a substantive upgrade over Bauer-Clevinger to significantly improve their playoff positioning, but acquiring a Bauer-Clevinger level starter at the deadline could be an inefficient use of resources at inflated trade deadline prices. The Indians will be a playoff team in all probability without this addition, therefore, the Indians have the capacity to sit on the current rotation unless they discover a legit No. 3 at an affordable price.

The following is a list of potentially available starters at this year’s trade deadline: Jose Quintana, Jason Vargas, Ian Kennedy, Alex Cobb, Jeremy Hellickson, Sonny Gray, Trevor Cahill, Gerrit Cole, and Yu Darvish. There is J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada, Johnny Cueto, Matt Moore, Patrick Corbin, Jamie Garcia, Matt Harvey, Ervin Santana and Ivan Nova.

For the Indians, this is a pretty flush market of 18 pitchers which may cut into the usually high deadline prices.

In order to key in on a few guys, time to trim the list.

First, the pitchers who do not meet the premise above, are they a substantive improvement over Bauer-Clevinger?

The answer to that question is no for: Ian Kennedy, Hellickson, Nova, Garcia, Santana, Estrada, Moore, Corbin and Cobb.2

Second, does appreciably high injury risk cross the pitcher off the list?

Remove Harvey.

Third, is the pitcher a candidate for significant regression or collapse?

Remove Cahill and Vargas.

Fourth, is the pitcher affordable without the team eating significant money?

Remove Cueto.

Fifth, is the pitcher actually on the market?

Remove, Cole. I do not buy the Pirates moving him for less than a king’s ransom, which the Indians have no interest in paying.

Sixth, are they an expiring contract?

Remove Darvish. I do not expect the Indians expending a significant asset for a rental.

The three qualifiers from the above questions:  Quintana, Gray, and Happ.

Jose Quintana-Chicago White Sox

While there is the concept that the teams do not trade inside their division, the Indians and White Sox are constructed on different timelines which likely eliminates any conflict in that regard. Quintana is appealing in one sense, he was signed to a team-friendly deal that would provide the Indians control through 2020. However, Quintana is in the midst of his worst big league season. Quintana is a command and contact management style pitcher, whose success is partially tied to an ability to limit home runs.  Yet, in 2017, this ability to limit home runs has disappeared, striking at the core of his productivity and making him appear to be more of a middle of the rotation arm than elite #2. I expect rebound over the remainder of 2017 as his other contact management has been outstanding including a higher ground ball rate and more soft contact. Quintana in terms of cost and control is a bargain, with early foibles compared to his career production, perhaps the Indians can target Quintana at a rate much more affordable than six months ago.

Sonny Gray- Oakland Athletics

Gray has been a rumored trade asset for nearly two years which is a reality if you have the pleasure of playing for Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics. Gray will likely be the most sought after commodity near this year’s trade deadline with teams including the Houston Astros needing another front line starter. Gray is a ground ball master with two and a half arbitration eligible years of control remaining. Only, in 2017, Gray has improved his middling strikeout rate, seemingly making a major step towards improving on an already solid profile. In front of Ramirez-Lindor-Kipnis-Santana, the ground ball first Gray could be a boon but pitching at Progressive instead of Oakland’s Coliseum would injure him in terms of fly ball outcomes.

Gray is not a top two starter but he is a rock solid three and would be a significant upgrade over a Bauer-Clevinger Game 3 appearance. The issue is, based on age, contract, and production in 2017, the cost may be that of a #1 or #2 starter for the Indians.

J.A. Happ-Toronto Blue Jays

Happ is my favorite target on this list based on trade cost, skill, and contract value for the Indians. Happ has a year and a half left, his 2018 season being $13 million a very affordable rate for a pitcher of his caliber. Happ has been quietly outstanding for two and a half years. With exemplary command, solid stuff and quality contact management Happ has been one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball the past few years. Happ is 11th in the American League in ERA since 2015 at 3.67 and has been a paragon of stability.

Happ is not flashy, he does not care the name value of Gray or Quintana nor the lengthy team control but he does promise stability and a significant upgrade to the role of third starter for the next year and a half.

The untouchable:

Francisco Mejia is a deal breaker. He cannot be dealt for anyone listed above, there simply would not be enough value. Refer to WFNY’s trade value column for his comparative value as well as the Indians rising pitching and hitting prospect pieces to learn more about a few of the Indians potential trade assets. However, while Triston McKenzie is the Indians top pitching prospect in the system, and Top 35 in baseball, I expect the Indians to be more willing to move a young pitching prospect whose upside is partially based on physical projection. I love McKenzie as a prospect, he is the Indians best pitching prospect since Salazar- probably longer- but young pitcher’s who have not reached AA simply have much higher bust rates which means the Indians are likely more open to him headlining a deal.

In the end, I doubt either is moved and the Indians acquire only ancillary pieces for the playoff run but the Indians top two prospects each have completely different levels of movability. The question is if Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff will demonstrate the same sense of urgency they did in 2016 when they acquired reliever Andrew Miller and agreed to a high-priced trade of Jonathan Lucroy.

  1. I remain the stick in the mud on Clevinger, I like his outcomes and his role at the back end but his 13% walk rate will come back to haunt him, once his BABIP against and strand rate regress he will look a lot more like a No. 5 starter than a No. 3 []
  2. Cobb has never reached over 166 IP at the big league level and has seen a significant dropoff in K%, he would be a fringy interesting acquisition but not a priority target. []