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3 pitchers who could be 'buy-low' trade targets

Roster situations could make these starters available and affordable
December 17, 2018

Roughly two months remain before pitchers and catchers report to Major League camps for Spring Training, and that gives teams plenty of time to get creative on the Hot Stove. We've already seen it in the starting-pitcher market, where the Yankees went and got a potential ace in James Paxton

Roughly two months remain before pitchers and catchers report to Major League camps for Spring Training, and that gives teams plenty of time to get creative on the Hot Stove. We've already seen it in the starting-pitcher market, where the Yankees went and got a potential ace in James Paxton and the Reds traded for Nationals workhorse Tanner Roark.
The Roark deal highlights how quickly the landscape can change for a player from one year to the next. Roark has been a dependable pitcher in Washington for years, but with his salary figuring to be roughly $10 million through the upcoming arbitration hearings, per MLB Trade Rumors, the Nationals made the hard decision to field offers. A pitcher can be a stalwart of his rotation until, suddenly, the financial landscape means he's not.
We could see more examples of pitchers like Roark changing teams in the coming weeks, and so here are three "buy-low" trade candidates that come to mind:
Marcus Stroman, RHP, Blue Jays
Stroman was a Team USA hero in the 2017 World Baseball Classic and parlayed that into a career season for Toronto (13-9, 3.09 ERA over 201 innings). But things changed in a hurry, and he never really could get back on track. Stroman lost his arbitration case in February and voiced his displeasure through his Twitter account, and then battled through shoulder inflammation that eventually forced an extended disabled-list stint. The Blue Jays' presumptive Opening Day starter saw his ERA rise to 6.80 after his first start back from the DL in late June, and from there it was easy to write him off in a lost season.

But while Stroman's 4.65 ERA over his final 11 starts doesn't impress either, there were signs of his former self below the surface. With Stroman, you start with his elite ability to keep the ball on the ground, and no other qualified starter came close to Stroman's 64.2 percent ground-ball rate from his June 29 start through the end of the season. More importantly, Stroman sliced his rate of hard-hit balls allowed (or those hit with exit velocities of at least 95 mph) from a league-high 51.8 percent through his first eight starts to 32.1 percent over his final 11. Softer contact led to Stroman's excellent .280 expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA, Statcast™'s all-purpose metric that measures how hitters and pitchers should fare based on strikeouts, walks and quality of contact) in the second half, the same as Patrick Corbin's in that span and much better than the .320 xwOBA he compiled in 2017. What's more, Stroman showed these improvements while battling a blister issue that ended his season in early September.
MLB Trade Rumors pegs Stroman earning roughly $7 million through arbitration next year, and he's still under team control through 2020. That makes him a desirable asset, and with the Blue Jays in a time of transition following the departures of former stars Josh Donaldson, J.A. Happ and Troy Tulowitzki, this would seem to be the time for Toronto to try to acquire some elite prospects in the trade market. The Brewers and Reds both need a quality starter, but they might not have the name-brand pitching prospects the Blue Jays would likely want in return. The Yankees, meanwhile, seem to have a surplus of pitchers like Albert Abreu, Domingo Acevedo and Jonathan Loaisiga in their pipeline. New York already traded away one big name in Justus Sheffield to get Paxton. Could the Yankees do the same thing again to get a starter they know extremely well?
Alex Wood, LHP, Dodgers
The 3.68 ERA and 3.53 FIP that Wood recorded last season would have made him an upper-rotation starter for many teams, but the lefty happens to play for one of the only clubs with a "surplus" of starting pitching. The Dodgers wound up moving Wood to the bullpen for September and the postseason, and he struggled to a 5.22 ERA in a role he didn't appear to be all that comfortable performing.

The ascendance of phenoms Walker Buehler and Julio Urias to go alongside Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill and Hyun-Jin Ryu (not to mention Kenta Maeda and Thomas Stripling) means Wood could be the odd man out again in 2019. His name already came up in a rumored trade that would have sent he and Matt Kemp to the Reds in a salary-dump trade involving Homer Bailey, and that's surely not the last time Wood will appear in rumors this offseason. Wood is projected to make roughly $9 million in arbitration, per MLB Trade Rumors, but his impending free agency next offseason likely drives down the Dodgers' asking price. Los Angeles has to empty some of its depth before Opening Day, and so a pitcher of Wood's caliber (his .286 xwOBA in '18 was a top-25 mark among qualified starters) could switch uniforms for a cheaper cost than one might think.
Wade LeBlanc, LHP, Mariners
A year ago at this time, LeBlanc had wrapped up a full season of relief work for the Pirates -- his seventh Major League club -- and his release by the Yankees in Spring Training was still to come. What followed next was one of the more surprising performances of 2018: A 3.72 ERA over 32 outings (including 27 starts) that saw LeBlanc earn a rare one-year, midseason contract extension from the Mariners. Again, this was a 33-year-old journeyman -- with an emphasis on journey after stints with a couple now-defunct Triple-A teams and a year in Japan -- who threw a mid-80s fastball and yet carried a sub-3.00 ERA through mid-June.

It's hard to imagine a pitcher with LeBlanc's track record duplicating that kind of success again, and his 4.23 ERA and 4.61 FIP immediately after signing the extension already points to imminent regression. Still, LeBlanc's $2.75 million base salary for 2019 means he could still be plenty valuable if he's anything close to a league-average starter. The Mariners figure to keep trading veterans as they turn over their roster, and LeBlanc would be a fit in a lot of rotations -- certainly for the Angels, Reds or Nationals, to name a few -- for perhaps the cost of a mid-tier prospect or two.

Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.