The 5 best starters you can trade for this offseason

November 29th, 2023

We know that this winter’s free agent market is much stronger in pitching than it is in position players, but at the same time, we also know that there’s not nearly enough supply to meet demand. It’s not that hard to find a contender who could use a starter, because that applies to pretty much all of them aside from Seattle. The thing is, it doesn't end there. Several teams, like the Dodgers, Padres and Mets, need three or possibly more. The Cardinals have already signed three starters, and it's not even December yet.

That being the case, if you happen to be a team that has a desirable starting pitcher you might listen to offers on for one reason or another, you might find yourself in a fortunate place. For those teams who can’t fill most or all of their pitching needs on the open market, there’s a handful of extremely interesting starters (likely) available via trade.

It seems, to us, there are five notable names in this category -- four similarly aged veterans nearing free agency and a surprising younger arm as well. That's not to say there aren't others; you might want to try to buy low on Alek Manoah, or eat some back-end innings with Paul Blackburn, for example. But for clear right-now impact on the trade market, these are the big five.

You’ve heard of all of these players, but you might not know where they are in their careers right now, or what they’re likely to produce in 2024. Here’s what you need to know about some of the hottest likely names on the pitching trade market.

RHP , Rays

2023: 120 IP, 33% K rate, 3.53 ERA, 3.63 xERA
2024: 30 years old, $25 million (final year before free agency)

It’s difficult to believe that Glasnow will turn 31 years old late next summer, but it’s also difficult to believe that last year’s 120 innings pitched were actually a career high, meaning that after parts of eight seasons in the Majors, he is, somehow, still a "breakout candidate." We’ve seen bits of the obvious high-end talent in spurts, primarily in a dozen 2019 outings around a long absence with a forearm strain, and 14 more in 2021 before Tommy John surgery. But he barely pitched in 2022, and his first month in 2023 after returning was a bit up and down.

Don't get us wrong: there were games like the Sept. 6 masterpiece where Glasnow struck out 14 Red Sox over six innings of one-run ball, but his health and consistency have rarely been working at the same time over the last eight years.

Yet the obvious physical gifts remain, so he remains appealing despite the bumpy road. By September, Glasnow's four-seam fastball was back up to 96.6 mph, yet he was using a more balanced attack with his slider and curveball. Over his final 16 starts, Glasnow struck out 129 in 94 2/3 innings, allowing a mere .255 on-base percentage, which was a top-5 mark among regular starters over the same timeframe.

Just to really make sure you noticed what that's saying, there were 107 starters to face at least 250 batters over the same timespan as Glasnow's final 16 starts. Only four of them gave hitters a more difficult time reaching base, and one of those just won the Cy Young unanimously.

Lowest OBP allowed, SP, June 25 and on

  • .238 // Gerrit Cole
  • .240 // Freddy Peralta
  • .242 // Tarik Skubal
  • .247 // Kyle Bradish
  • .255 // Glasnow

It’s not that there’s something to be "fixed" here, given that the Rays are generally the team doing the fixing and that Glasnow was just quite effective. It’s the ability for him to stay healthy enough to show it.

If there’s an issue here, it’s that $25 million salary for 2024, the end of a heavily backloaded two-year contract that allowed Glasnow to rehab his elbow for most of 2022. Glasnow may not want to leave Tampa Bay, and with Shane McClanahan out for the season, the Rays aren’t certain to deplete their rotation, anyway. But given the dollars, the likelihood is that there's a move coming -- or an extension to spread out the salary.

A good fit for: A team looking for high-risk, bat-missing upside to add to current depth (Cardinals, Rangers, Braves, Cubs, D-backs, Angels, Reds) or a team that’s perfectly happy to add quality without expecting quantity as well (Dodgers, Giants, Padres). Sorry, Baltimore. The Rays won’t help you win the East.

RHP , White Sox

2023: 177 IP, 27% K rate, 4.58 ERA, 4.07 xERA
2024: 28 years old, est. $8.8 million in arbitration (two years before FA)

The White Sox are open for business. (“I don’t like our team,” said new GM Chris Getz, surveying the aftermath of a 101-loss season.) Tim Anderson, Yasmani Grandal, Lucas Giolito and Liam Hendriks are all gone, and it’s not hard to imagine that the remainder of the core of what was supposed to be the next great Sox team could follow – like Eloy Jiménez or Cease, who finished second in the AL Cy Young balloting in 2022.

If that 4.58 ERA looks like a huge step back from his 2.20 mark from 2022, it is, though it’s not quite as bad as that. The 2022 mark probably overstated how good he was (his Statcast expected ERA was a still-great 2.70), and the 2023 mark probably makes him look worse than he was (note the decent-but-not-elite 4.07 xERA).

So yes, Cease was worse in 2023, but not two full runs per nine worse; part of that was because not only did Chicago have a poor defense overall, but few pitchers were hindered individually by lousy fielding as much as Cease, who had to wear a minus-8 Outs Above Average from his defenders, a factor which helped lead to the .330 BABIP against, the highest mark of any qualified pitcher.

What happened, mostly, was that his fastball lost a tick of velocity (95.6 mph, down from 96.8 mph), and his deadly slider, which was 2022’s most valuable pitch, went from elite to merely good. He lost some movement on the pitch – it’s straightened out some – and saw the hard-hit rate against it double. Those are both serious concerns; then again, he did strike out 11 Red Sox without a single walk in his second-to-last start of the season, and he’s one of just five starters with 200 strikeouts in each of the last three seasons, along with Corbin Burnes, Kevin Gausman, Aaron Nola and Gerrit Cole. Strong company, that.

Cease is also strong at holding runners on, a newly valuable skill these days. It’s probably not likely he gives you that 2022 performance again, but in front of better defense, with some slider shape tweaks from a team good at doing just that, it’s easy to see something better than the uncertain 2023, too. Given the occasional command issues that go with high-end stuff, he’s something of a right-handed, less shiny Blake Snell.

Cease, unlike Glasnow, offers two years of team control, making him an appealing option for a team looking beyond just 2024, either to fill a 2025 rotation spot or to flip Cease again next winter if he has performed well but the team has not.

A good fit for: Every single team listed for Glasnow, but also include AL East competitors (Red Sox, Orioles, Yankees) and rotation-needy teams that may not be willing or able to take on most or all of Glasnow’s salary (Twins, Marlins).

RHP , Brewers

2023: 193 2/3 IP, 26% K rate, 3.39 ERA, 3.40 xERA
2024: 29 years old, est. $15.1 million in arbitration (final year before FA)

Without Craig Counsell and Brandon Woodruff, the Brewers – who just did, it’s easy to forget, win 92 games and the NL Central – are entering their most uncertain offseason in years. It’s far from certain that they’ll actually trade Burnes (or, for that matter, shortstop Willy Adames, who is also entering his final year before free agency), because keeping him will be their best path toward staying at the top of a decent-not-strong division in 2024. But given the choice between trading him for a haul now, or less at the Deadline, or getting nothing but a Draft pick back in a year, you can understand why clubs are at least making the phone call to general manager Matt Arnold.

Ever since the incredible turnaround from his disaster of a 2019 season, when he posted an 8.82 ERA, Burnes has been one of the best starters in the game. Only Cole has more strikeouts than Burnes over the last four seasons, and only Zack Wheeler has compiled more Wins Above Replacement. Burnes won’t turn 30 years old until next October, and he’s never had a serious arm injury. The resume, so far as these things go, is impeccable.

For the most part, anyway. In 2023, Burnes was more “quite good” and less “absolutely dominant,” even in a 200-strikeout season; his 26% strikeout rate was down from 36% in 2021 and 31% in 2022, which is partially because the incredible cutter was somewhat more prone to meet bats, and more because the slider that turned into a sweeper – even if he refused to call it that – traded in a little swing-and-miss for a different movement profile.

Then again, he was so good down the stretch (over the final three months of the year, the .177/.256/.279 line he allowed was the third best of any regular starter) that any interested team would still use the same word to describe him: ace. Of course, that all goes to the argument that the Brewers should just keep him and make another run, knowing they can probably still do well in a Deadline trade if it comes to that.

A good fit for: Every single team listed for Glasnow and Cease, minus the Cubs, Cardinals and Reds. Imagine the Brewers allowing Burnes to join Counsell in Chicago? We can’t either. The Dodgers, Braves, Rangers and Orioles stand out among all others here.

RHP , Mariners

2023: 190 2/3 IP, 25% K rate, 3.73 ERA, 3.69 xERA
2024: 27 years old, est. $4.9 million in arbitration (four years before FA)

A quality, affordable starter, one who has taken every single start since his 2021 promotion (88 in under three full seasons), who can’t be a free agent until after 2027? If you’re wondering what Gilbert is doing on this list, it’s not that it’s terribly likely the Mariners trade him, or even that there’s a real reason they would want to be rid of him. It’s entirely that A) they're maybe the only team with enough or excess starting pitching, and B) they still, as always, desperately need to fill out a lineup that has Julio Rodríguez, Cal Raleigh, J.P. Crawford and not a lot else to rely on.

Though he throws hard (95.7 mph), Gilbert isn’t so much dominating as he is efficient, posting the fifth-lowest walk rate of any qualified starter in 2023, and he made some clear and unusual changes to his slider last year, trading in movement for something more akin to a gyro cutter. Whatever you want to call it, it was easily his best pitch, and one of the most effective sliders in the game.

Because of that, it feels like there might be one more level in there, as his fastball was excellent from 2021-22 (worth 31 runs by itself, fourth best in the Majors) before being just average in 2023 -- but the slider, which had been a net negative from 2021-22 (costing nine runs) jumped to being +15. Right now, he’s an above-average starter on a good team. If he can get all that working at the same time, then he’s an ace.

Which, of course, is exactly why the cost here would be massive. Seattle can point to Luis Castillo and George Kirby atop their rotation, and Bryce Miller, Bryan Woo and Emerson Hancock at various stages of progression behind them. They have veteran lefties Robbie Ray and Marco Gonzales each recovering from arm surgery, both with return dates at some point in 2024. There’s never, ever such a thing as too much young pitching, but if the Mariners can cash in Gilbert for the lineup pop that they absolutely, desperately need, this might be the time to do it.

A good fit for: Literally every contender, or those who hope to be contenders. Even teams that might really be more like a year or two away – think the Tigers or Pirates – might want to get in on this, along with all the teams already mentioned, and there are timeline fits with the Orioles and Reds if you’re interested in a young starter who can grow and succeed with your young position-player core. Call it 20 of the other 29 teams making a phone call on this one.

RHP , Guardians

2023: 128 IP, 20% K rate, 3.80 ERA, 4.77 xERA
2024: 29 years old, est. $12.2 million in arbitration (final year before FA)

Bieber was good in his 2018 debut season and then absolutely dominant for the next four, collecting three top-7 Cy Young finishes (and the 2020 award) from 2019-22. Among pitchers who threw 400 innings over that span, only four had a better ERA, and he was essentially tied for fourth in Wins Above Replacement. If you want to say “for four seasons, Bieber was a Top-5 starting pitcher,” you wouldn’t have a hard time making that case.

But despite the success, there were some red flags entering 2023 – the strikeout rate declined from an elite 41% in 2020 to 33% in 2021 to 25% in 2022, as he’d lost about a mph of velocity each year. Once the season got going, the 2023 version of Bieber was more of a solid mid-rotation starter (3.77 ERA, 19% strikeout rate) for four months, until it became clear he’d been pitching through elbow inflammation. Placed on the injured list before the All-Star break, Bieber missed more than two months before returning for a pair of late-September starts.

What that means is that interested teams need to figure out if the elbow issue was the cause for his underwhelming 2023 season, meaning better health might make for better production, or if the issues that had popped up prior to the season are one red flag too many. It’s worth noting that he was quite good in his final start of the year, striking out seven Reds over six one-run innings, an important moment for both him and interested viewers as opposed to the uncertainty if he’d never made it back.

A good fit for: A team not counting on him being an ace, or a second or third option for a team with multiple rotation needs, like the Rangers, Giants, Dodgers or Mets.