Here's the latest buzz on top starting pitcher trade candidates

December 18th, 2023

As most of the baseball world waits for Yoshinobu Yamamoto to sign with a Major League club, there have been recent signs of life on both the free-agent and trade markets for starting pitchers.

The Rays dealt Tyler Glasnow to the Dodgers this week as part of a four-player trade, a deal that was contingent upon Glasnow signing an extension with Los Angeles – which he did.

Since the conclusion of the Winter Meetings, the Royals inked Seth Lugo and Michael Wacha to free-agent contracts, giving out a total of $77 million to the two starters. Jack Flaherty agreed to a one-year, $14 million deal to join the Tigers, while Tyler Mahle – who is recovering from Tommy John surgery – signed a two-year, $22 million deal with the World Series-champion Rangers.

Oh, and some guy named Ohtani who pitched for the Angels last season has officially joined the Dodgers – though he won’t be pitching for them in 2024. You might have heard something about it.

Still, Yamamoto’s impending decision should start a wave of movement on the starting pitching market, specifically with three notable trade candidates. Let’s take a look at where that market stands:

, Brewers

Burnes is one year away from free agency, and given how much he figures to command on the open market next winter, most believe the Brewers will trade him this year, either before or during the season.

Unless, of course, Milwaukee opts for the latter, then finds itself in the playoff race in July, making it far more difficult to deal its ace at that point in the season. The Brewers have designs on contending this season, presenting the front office with an interesting dilemma. Do they move Burnes now, when teams might be willing to pay more for a full year of his services (not to mention the opportunity to make him a qualifying offer), or play out the first half of the season and reassess the situation in July?

Should Milwaukee try to move him now, an acquiring team would have to pay a steep price – namely controllable, young arms – since the Brewers aren’t in a position where they need to make a deal. Teams that miss out on Yamamoto might turn to the trade market, where Burnes is the top option available.

The Dodgers have already been ultra-aggressive this winter with their signing of Ohtani and trade for Glasnow, but they also have a need at shortstop. A deal for both Burnes and Willy Adames – who is also headed for free agency at the end of the season – could be in play, though Los Angeles is said to be hot after Yamamoto. The Yankees, Braves, Blue Jays and Rangers are among the other teams that might try to deal for Burnes depending on what happens with Yamamoto.

GM Matt Arnold has said he expects Burnes to be the Brewers’ Opening Day starter, but Opening Day isn’t for another three-plus months. A lot can happen between now and then.

, White Sox

The most likely of this group to be moved, Cease has already drawn interest from several teams, and sources say they expect the White Sox to move their ace this offseason.

Unlike Burnes (and Shane Bieber, who we’ll get to shortly), Cease is under club control for two more seasons, making him a more attractive – and costly – trade option. Chicago surely noted that the Dodgers gave up a former Top 100 prospect in righty Ryan Pepiot and young slugging outfielder Jonny DeLuca in exchange for Glasnow and veteran outfielder Manuel Margot, though that deal was contingent upon Glasnow agreeing to an extension.

Two years of Cease should bring back a nice return for the White Sox. Cease is coming off of a subpar year by his standards, as he went 7-9 with a 4.58 ERA in 33 starts (177 innings). But he’s been healthy and averaged 176 innings per season since 2021, something appealing to teams around the league.

Of course, the Yamamoto suitors aren’t the only ones trying to trade for rotation help. Smaller-market teams such as the Reds and Orioles are looking to add starting pitching and have the prospect capital to make such a deal, but the White Sox aren’t likely to move Cease until Yamamoto (and possibly Blake Snell) are off the market.

, Guardians

The third of the frontline-type starters available on the trade market, Bieber joins Burnes and Snell as former Cy Young Award winners who could change teams this offseason. Bieber battled elbow inflammation in 2023, throwing only 128 innings in 21 starts while missing more than two months before returning to the mound in late September.

The right-hander appeared to be healthy in his final two starts of the season, and while he finished the year with a 3.80 ERA, Bieber saw his strikeout rate drop and his walk rate rise, also ranking near the bottom of the league in hard-hit rate and average exit velocity allowed. Bieber’s fastball velocity has also dropped in recent years, from 94.1 mph during his 2020 Cy Young season to 91.3 mph in each of the past two years.

Bieber earned just above $10 million in 2023, and Cot's Baseball Contracts projects he will receive a raise to roughly $12-13 million in his final year of arbitration. The Guardians might choose to hold on to Bieber to start the season, hoping the 28-year-old can show the rest of the league that his elbow is sound and boost his potential trade value entering the summer. But if the offers are appealing to Cleveland, moving Bieber prior to the season could be a viable – likely? – option for the club.