The Trade Deadline usually fosters an active pitching market, and there could be even more demand than usual this year. After the pandemic-shortened season in 2020, virtually every contender needs additional arms.
There was some thought earlier this season that impending free agent Max Scherzer could be available, but with the Nationals getting back into the National League East race, the right-hander is likely off the table, which means the trade market lacks a true ace.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t some attractive options out there, of course, it’s just that every obvious trade candidate has some flaws that front offices will need to consider along with their strengths.
Let’s delve into the pros and cons of six starting pitchers who could be on the move before the Deadline.
José Berríos, RHP, Twins
Pros: Berríos isn’t an ace, but he has a long track record as an above-average arm who's durable and can strike people out. Since the beginning of 2017, the right-hander ranks 12th in the Majors in starts (117), 10th in innings (696) and 16th in strikeouts (700) while posting a 115 ERA+. This season, he’s recorded a 118 ERA+ with 96 K’s in 94 2/3 innings, and his 6.2% walk rate represents a significant improvement from his 9.6% figure a year ago. Berríos is in his prime at age 27, and he’s under control through 2022, which means you can pencil him into your rotation for next season as well as the rest of this one.
Cons: Berríos is in his sixth season, and at this point it’s pretty clear who he is. He doesn’t profile as elite in any area, and some of his key metrics -- including whiff rate and barrel rate -- are worse than average this year. But as far as his trade value is concerned, the Twins are going to treat him like an ace, given the extra year of control and the lack of a clear-cut No. 1 starter on the trade market.
Kyle Gibson, RHP, Rangers
Pros: Named an All-Star for the first time on Sunday, Gibson is having his best season at the age of 33, leading the American League in ERA (1.98) over 95 2/3 innings. His 4.1% barrel rate is the fourth-lowest mark among qualifying pitchers. Like Berríos, the right-hander is controllable for another season after this, as his three-year, $28 million contract with the Rangers runs through 2022. Considering their ages, the cost to acquire Gibson will likely be lower than the Twins’ asking price for Berríos.
Cons: If you’re trading for Gibson, you have to wonder how much longer he can keep this up. This is a pitcher who entered this season with a lifetime 4.57 ERA in 1,154 1/3 innings, and his 21.4% strikeout rate this year is in line with his 2018-20 figure (21.7%). While the sinkerballer has done well to limit quality contact, he’s benefited from the Rangers’ strong defense and their excellent pitch framing behind the plate, something he might not have on another team.
Danny Duffy, LHP, Royals
Pros: In the final season of a five-year, $65 million deal, Duffy has flashed increased velocity while registering the highest whiff rate (30.2%) and strikeout rate (26.3%) of his career. Duffy’s four-seam fastball “rise” and curveball drop are both elite, and he’s getting nearly two inches more horizontal break on his slider than he did last season.
Cons: After spending more than a month on the IL with a left forearm flexor strain, Duffy has thrown only 10 1/3 innings in four appearances since returning, striking out nine, walking six and allowing three homers. Duffy has an extensive injury history, spending time on the IL in 2012, '13, ‘15, ‘17, ‘18, ‘19 and ‘21, with arm issues sprinkled throughout. Even if he can stay healthy for the rest of this season, his 4.14 expected ERA -- 1.45 runs higher than his actual ERA (2.60) -- suggests he’s a middle-of-the-road starter.
Jon Gray, RHP, Rockies
Pros: Besides the fact that he isn’t a sinkerballer, Gray and Gibson have similar profiles. The Colorado righty has limited quality contact this season, ranking directly behind Gibson in barrel rate (4.2%) and tying for sixth in sweet-spot rate (28.2%). Gray’s changeup, which was roughed up to the tune of a .347 average and a .678 slugging percentage in 121 at-bats from 2015-20, has become a legitimate weapon as a third offering with his four-seamer and slider. He’s held hitters to a .120 average and a .360 slugging percentage in 25 at-bats ending on changeups in 2021. An impending free agent, he’ll surely cost less than Berríos and Gibson on the trade market.
Cons: Gray’s strikeout rate has rebounded some from his career nadir of 12.6% a year ago, but at 20.6%, it's still below average by about three percentage points. Meanwhile, the 29-year-old’s high-end velocity doesn’t seem to be coming back. From 2015-19, 41% of Gray’s four-seamers were thrown 96 mph or faster. The past two years, it’s 6.3%. Gray hasn’t exactly been the picture of health, either, missing time with right shoulder inflammation last year and a flexor strain in his right forearm last month.
Sonny Gray, RHP, Reds
Pros: Possessing some of the nastiest breaking pitches in the game, Gray has been outstanding in three seasons since joining the Reds in a trade, registering a 153 ERA+ with a strikeout rate close to 30%. The only other pitchers to throw at least 250 innings in that span and post a higher ERA+? Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole, Shane Bieber and Hyun Jin Ryu. Gray potentially has two years of control remaining after 2021: his four-year, $38 million deal runs through ’22 and he has a $12 million club option for ‘23.
Cons: Of the six pitchers on this list, Gray is the least likely to be traded, as the Reds are still in the NL Central race. Entering Monday, they were seven games behind the first-place Brewers. The Reds also have most of their core under control through next season or longer, so they are unlikely to blow it all up, even if they go into a tailspin in the coming weeks. That means it will likely take a substantial package to pry the 31-year-old Gray away from Cincinnati.
Michael Pineda, RHP, Twins
Pros: Another free agent to be, Pineda has recorded a 114 ERA+ in 42 starts over the past three seasons, including a 113 ERA+ this year. He’s one of the best at getting batters to expand the zone, particularly with his slider.
Cons: When Pineda makes his return from right elbow inflammation later this month, it will be interesting to see where he’s at with his four-seam fastball velocity, which is a career-low 90.9 mph this season (92.1 mph in 2020). Opposing hitters have jumped on the pitch, recording a .544 slugging percentage, the 12th-highest mark in MLB (min. 100 plate appearances ending on four-seamers).