A year ago, the Red Sox traded for Chris Sale, and he was the single biggest determining factor in Boston repeating as the American League East champion.
Three months ago, the Astros traded for Justin Verlander, and he was the single biggest determining factor in Houston going from a clear division champion to a World Series champion.
So with another swapping season upon us and with the free-agent market fronted by Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, the intriguing Shohei Ohtani … and little in the way of reliability, will there be a signature starter who changes hands and dramatically alters the outlook for a contending club?
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Well, at the risk of providing a bummer amid the Hot Stove banter, the short answer is ... probably not. Guys at the level of Sale and Verlander don't come along often, and they get traded even less frequently.
But there are several decent dominoes that could fall in the coming weeks, so let's address 10 potential starting pitchers who could make for interesting trade chips if they become available.
1. Matt Harvey, Mets
The Dark Knight's story has taken some dark turns, and his trade value is limited. But we'll list Harvey here because: A. He can become a free agent next offseason; B. Harvey might be a classic "change of scenery" guy after all the drama he's been through in Queens; and C. There's always a pitching coach adamant that he can fix what's ailing a once-great arm. The Mets don't figure to spend much money to improve their offense this offseason, so there's an argument for punting Harvey in advance of his last arbitration round. But the likely scenario is that they'll take him into the season, hope new manager Mickey Callaway and pitching coach Dave Eiland straighten him out and, if the team fizzles, flip him at the non-waiver Trade Deadline.
Best fits: Rangers, Twins, Brewers, Indians -- lower-pressure contention environments with progressive front offices/coaching staffs
2. Jordan Zimmermann, Tigers
Zimmermann would be a no-brainer trade candidate if not for the tiny detail that he's due $74 million over the next three years. Oh, and there's that pesky 6.08 ERA from 2017, too. But the Tigers would love to shed some of his salary as they get younger, and you never know what can happen with a motivated seller. Teams can talk themselves into Zimmermann being a repertoire tweak and healthy neck away from becoming reliable again.
Best fit: Nationals, if only because they know Zimmermann best
3. Chris Archer, Rays
The Rays are likely to move a veteran or two to reduce some payroll this offseason. What's unclear is whether Tampa Bay is willing to totally change things up or if it's simply going to retool and continue to try to contend in 2018. Moving Archer, whose four remaining years of team control come at a grand total just north of $34 million, would certainly signal a major rebuild, and Archer -- because of his contract, durability, strikeout stuff and upside -- would fetch a major prospect price. The Rays have not indicated to other clubs a clear intent to move Archer, but the situation could evolve.
Best fits: Cubs, Dodgers, Yankees, Brewers -- contenders with particularly strong prospect depth
Video: At a crossroads, Rays could hold keys to offseason
4. Gerrit Cole, Pirates
This is similar to the Archer situation in that it's an arm with ace potential on a team that keeps its budget in check. It's dissimilar in that Cole is not attached to a team-friendly contract, which could further incentivize a swap. Cole is entering his last two years of arbitration eligibility, then he's a free agent. The past two seasons have been frustrating for him, but teams would be acquiring the 27-year-old Cole for what they think he can be more than what he's been. The Pirates can trade Andrew McCutchen and still conceivably compete in 2018. It's harder to say that about Cole, but this is a team that wants and needs to extract proper value from its assets, and Cole is very valuable in this market.
Best fits: See Archer, Chris
5. Julio Teheran, Braves
Here are Teheran's past four seasons:
2014: 123 ERA+, 1.08 WHIP
2015: 95 ERA+, 1.31 WHIP
2016: 129 ERA+, 1.05 WHIP
2017: 95 ERA+, 1.37 WHIP
My extremely astute, highly advanced analysis, based on the tried-and-true "back-and-forth theorem," tells me Teheran is on the verge of a really good 2018 season. Because the Braves control him for $19 million over the next two seasons (with a $12 million option for '20), they will probably keep him. But new GM Alex Anthopoulos has never been afraid to deal, and with Atlanta still uncertain as a contender in '18, the combination of contract and upside makes Teheran a valuable chip.
Best fits: See Cole, Gerrit
Video: PHI@ATL: Teheran tosses 5 K's in seven strong frames
6 and 7. Johnny Cueto or Jeff Samardzija, Giants
The Giants are trying to dig themselves out from a 98-loss season while running the risk of paying the luxury tax a third straight year. They're going to require an especially creative offseason, especially if their efforts to land Giancarlo Stanton gain real traction in the coming days or weeks. Samardzija and Cueto are coming off subpar seasons by their standards, and they're owed big money (Cueto is due north of $90 million over the next four years, and Samardzija is owed nearly $60 million over the next three). One of their contracts could be where the creativity comes into play.
Best fits: Marlins in a Stanton trade, or Twins or Brewers -- teams with a starting need and some financial wiggle room
8. Danny Salazar, Indians
Two things to understand about the Indians: 1. They are clearly within their window to end the game's longest World Series title drought; and 2. They're unlikely to bid on the biggest free-agent fish after the Edwin Encarnacion expenditure last offseason. Because of the latter point, they are likely to lose Carlos Santana and/or Jay Bruce in free agency, and that means finding a way to replace their production via trade as opposed to free agency. One way to do that would be to deal from their starting depth. Salazar looked to be on a top-of-the-rotation path until mid-2016, when non-structural elbow and shoulder issues and command woes knocked him off track. He would be a fascinating upside play for a contender, and he comes with three years of arbitration control.
Best fits: Cubs, Dodgers -- contenders with a lot of Major League position-player flexibility
Video: MIN@CLE: Salazar strikes out nine over 4 2/3 innings
9. Luke Weaver, Cardinals
I'm not listing prospects here, so I'm not listing Jack Flaherty, whose rookie status is still intact going into 2018. But Flaherty just as easily applies as Weaver. The point with both of these guys is that the Cards have the luxury of starting depth and are highly motivated to improve in 2018. That could ultimately motivate them to part with some of that depth, and Weaver and Flaherty are two young arms who could help move the needle in a big trade -- the biggest, of course, being a trade for a remarkably productive Marlins outfielder … like Marcell Ozuna! Oh, and Stanton, too. With its financial flexibility and prospect capital, St. Louis is probably better positioned than any other club to pull off a Stanton swap, which is why I'm listing Weaver. But it's not like the club is actively looking to dump him just anywhere.
Best fit: Marlins
10. Jake Odorizzi, Rays
Odorizzi is not the sexiest starter on this list, but he might be the one most likely to be moved. He is entering his second round of arbitration after making $4.1 million last year. This is not a guy who's going to remake a rotation like Archer would, but Odorizzi is entering his age-28 season, and prior to non-arm-related bouts with a lower back strain, a hamstring strain and food poisoning in 2017, he averaged 175 innings that rated slightly better than league average between 2014-16. That still has value, even in our increasingly bullpen-oriented age.
Best fits: Brewers, Rangers, Twins, Cubs, Mariners, Nationals
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.