Cole, Gray emerging as top starters available

June 21st, 2017

vs. is everyone's favorite baseball discussion.

Well, not quite everyone. Trade Deadline aficionados are fixated on a different comparison.

vs. .

Both debuted in 2013. Both earned their first -- and so far only -- All-Star selections in 2015. Both will be eligible for free agency after the 2019 season. Both pitch for teams that: A) have losing records; and B) aren't shy about becoming sellers when the standings suggest they should.

Executives from other Major League teams said this week they expect the Pirates will listen to offers for Cole ahead of the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, and that the A's will do the same with Gray.

Notably, the Astros had a scout in attendance for Cole's start against the Brewers on Monday night. The Astros also have interest in Gray, according to multiple reports, and they faced him Tuesday night in Oakland. (Perhaps Houston's five-run first inning against Gray will influence how seriously the Astros pursue him.)

One MLB general manager said Tuesday that Cole will have greater value than Gray this summer, based in large part on durability: Gray has missed more time than Cole due to injuries since the start of the 2016 season.

Still, Cole hasn't had a dominant year. In fact, he's on pace for his worst season in the Majors in terms of ERA, FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and strikeout rate. He has surrendered 16 home runs, already a career high. But after a baffling four-start stretch, during which he had a 10.71 ERA, consecutive outings of one earned run over seven innings have begun rebuilding Cole's value.

For both the Pirates and A's, a crucial part of the Trade Deadline calculus must be the opportunity to capitalize on an apparent shortage of No. 1 -- and even No. 2 -- starters available on this year's trade market.

Tampa Bay ace Chris Archer is increasingly likely to stay put, now that the Rays have thrust themselves into the American League Wild Card race. 's availability remains in doubt, thanks to the Rangers' intermittently encouraging play. 's contract will be prohibitive for most teams, unless the Tigers eat a large portion of the $56 million he's due over the 2018 and 2019 seasons.

White Sox left-hander , a perpetual trade target in recent months, has the best chance of being moved among all big-name pitchers. But he must improve his consistency in order for White Sox GM Rick Hahn to extract peak value; Quintana has a 5.07 ERA this season and has not posted consecutive quality starts since early May.

The Pirates are more likely to trade former NL MVP than Cole, in part because McCutchen is in the final guaranteed year of his contract. (McCutchen's deal includes a club option for 2018.) To trade Cole would be a bold step -- but Pirates general manager Neal Huntington was rewarded for his decisiveness last July.

Pittsburgh was 52-49 when Huntington traded his most popular asset, closer , to the Nationals. , the promising left-hander obtained in the deal, has been even better than Melancon -- and virtually every reliever in the Majors -- since the trade.

Trade ticker

• The Dodgers are more focused on adding a starting pitcher than a major bat, thanks in part to the continued development of young sluggers Bellinger and . But if the Dodgers decide to pursue a right-handed-hitting outfielder, they'll have plenty of options: McCutchen, Kansas City's and Detroit's J.D. Martinez, most prominently. If the Tigers decide to sell -- and they haven't made that decision yet -- they'd like to come away from the Trade Deadline with their center fielder for 2018. Dodgers prospect Alex Verdugo is among the names on their wish list.

• Speaking of the Tigers: 's postseason pedigree should make him an ideal Deadline acquisition, but his market is limited for the simple reason that very few contenders are looking for a second baseman.

• The Reds are hopeful that shortstop Zack Cozart will need only 10 days on the disabled list after suffering a strained right quadriceps. He'll be watched closely by other clubs upon his return, as a free agent-to-be who has posted All-Star numbers in the first half. While relatively few teams will look for a shortstop at the Trade Deadline -- barring an injury -- Cozart could fit the Red Sox and other clubs at third base.