Trade Deadline Talk: which of the four OTB aces will get traded?

Posted: 07/28/2014 by levcohen in Baseball

With less than three days until the Thursday, July 31st 4:00 trade deadline, talks are heating up. While for the first few months we were guessing, we now know for the most part which teams are buying and which are selling. Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard a lot of names thrown around. And some of these guys reportedly on the block aren’t just useful pieces like A.J. Burnett and Bartolo Colon, who are also available, but bonafide stars. Every year, though, most of the names on the block aren’t traded for a variety of reasons. The asking price is too high, or the team never actually intended on trading their ace, the teams that want him don’t have enough pieces to trade for him, or the ace’s salary is too high for the teams that want him. With that in mind, I’m going to rank the four aces supposedly available by likelihood that they’ll get traded.

Jon Lester, 65%: As things stand right now, Jon Lester is the ace most likely to be traded by the July 31st trade deadline. Lester’s a weird case, because he’s set to be a free agent after this season. That means that any team who wants the services of Lester, and there are definitely many teams who wouldn’t mind Jon Lester, has to come to terms with the likelihood that Lester will leave after the season, making him a two month rental. Another weird part about the Lester rumors is that the Red Sox hope to trade him, get a top prospect in return, and then re-sign their ace after the season. And if they really think they can re-sign their longtime ace, then they can’t lose by trading him. They don’t really need Lester for the rest of this season, because it becomes clearer by the day that the Sox won’t be in the playoff race. They’re 48-57, and lost five out of their last seven against division rivals Toronto and Tampa Bay. Instead of Lester throwing two months of meaningless innings, the Red Sox can get a high level prospect and also get the chance to promote one of their pitching prospects. It’s a win-win for Boston, assuming that they believe that their chances of retaining Lester won’t take a hit with a trade.

With all of that said, there are going to be a lot of contending teams who are willing to give a lot up for Lester, even as a two month rental. Why? Because he’s been one of the best pitchers in baseball this season. He’s second among pitches in Fangraphs WAR this year at 4.5, has pitched the ninth most innings in baseball, and has a 2.52 ERA. Lester, who’s now 30 years old, has long been an above-average starting pitcher in a hitter-friendly park and a scary-for-pitchers AL East, but this is his best season. He’s striking out more than a batter per inning, has a career-low walk rate, and has allowed just nine homers in 143 innings. The bottom line is that he’s been a stud this year, and would slot nicely into a contender’s rotation as a #1 or #2 starter (the exception, of course, being the Dodgers, where Lester would be the #3 starter behind Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke). The fact that he’s likely a two month rental will depress his value, but a return of one top level prospect or an established big league regular will likely be enough for the Red Sox to pull the trigger.

Possible trade fits: Baltimore Orioles, Los Angeles Dodgers, Toronto Blue Jays

David Price, 25%: A month and a half ago, when the Rays were 24-42, I probably would have put this percentage at more than three times where it is now. That’s how sure I was that the Rays were going to be big-time sellers at the trade deadline, with Price, Ben Zobrist, and others likely on the move. Since then, though, they have been one of the, if not the, hottest team in baseball. They are 27-12 in their last 39 games, which is an over-.690 winning percentage. They’re now 51-54, and are within 7.5 games of first place and 4.5 out of the second wildcard spot. And, contrary to popular belief, the Rays aren’t usually big sellers in July. They do most of their selling in the winter, so there isn’t much precedent to a huge July fire sale.

If the Rays do decide to trade Price, they’re going to get huge offers. Unlike Lester, Price is under team control for another year, so this isn’t a two month rental. Price also has to be considered a better pitcher than Lester, even though he has worse numbers this season. A former Cy Young award winner, Price has a career 3.18 ERA, while Lester’s is nearly half a run higher. Price’s peripheral numbers also spell future success. He’s second in baseball in K-BB% behind Clayton Kershaw at 24.6 (he has a 27.8 K% and a 3.2 BB%), and has also gotten unlucky in terms of home runs allowed. His homerun to flyball rate is 11.6%, much higher than his career 9.4%, so expect him to allow fewer homers going forward. Price is simply one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball, and still has another year of team control. I think that the Rays will likely wait until after the season to deal their ace, particularly after their red hot July. A one in four chance of a trade seems about right.

Possible trade fits: Seattle Mariners, St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Dodgers

Cole Hamels, 20%: The Phillies probably won’t trade Cole Hamels, but there are a bunch of reasons that they should. The first is simple: they need desperately to gain prospects and prepare for the future. They aren’t going to recoup top prospects in a trade of Ryan Howard, Jonathan Papelbon, Marlon Byrd, or even Cliff Lee, but they can for Hamels. The second is that Hamels is pitching really well right now, and I don’t know if his value will ever be higher than it is now. He has a 1.74 ERA since the beginning of June, and has put the arm injury that limited him to two April starts behind him. The third is that any trade of Hamels would open up a lot of cap space, because Hamels is rightfully making a lot of money.

Those are some of the reasons that the Phillies should trade Hamels, and they have reportedly made him available, but I doubt that a trade will happen. This front office has been delusional for three years now, holding onto an aging core even when it became clear that there wouldn’t be another playoff run. Even now, when the front office is finally open to trades, it’s asking for way too much. Apparently, they want a team’s top three or four prospects in a trade and are willing to eat only about $10 million of the $90+ million left on Hamels’ deal. Oh, and Hamels also has a no-trade clause that covers 20 teams. Of the nine teams he can’t block a trade to, only the Dodgers, Yankees, and possibly the Cardinals make any sense as fits. It doesn’t seem likely that Hamels will be traded, but it’s possible. Hamels is worse than Price but probably better than Lester, and he has the advantage of being under team control for years to come, albeit at a steep price. What are the chances that the Phillies’ front office surprises anyone with a trade of the 2008 World Series MVP? One in five.

Possible trade fits: Los Angeles Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals, New York Yankees

Cliff Lee, 5%: Hamels’ teammate, Cliff Lee, is almost definitely not going to be traded before the July 31st deadline. The main reason for that is he’s coming off an injury and has been largely ineffective in his first two post-injury starts. There’s also the issue of money, in that Lee is being paid a lot of it. The Phillies want a team to both take most of Lee’s contract and give quality prospects in return, and that’s just not going to happen. What could happen is an August trade, because players who clear waivers (Lee almost certainly would because of his huge contract) can be traded until August 31st. That makes the July 31st deadline meaningless in the case of a high-salary player like Lee, who also has a limited no-trade clause. The addition of Lee to this list was just a formality: he’s not going to be traded before the July “deadline” because he doesn’t look healthy, has a huge and long contract, and because the Phillies are asking for too much in return. It’s more likely that he’ll be traded before August 31st, though.

As a review, I think Lester is likely to get traded, and I wouldn’t be shocked if either Price or Hamels were traded before the Thursday deadline. Lee will likely have to wait a few more weeks until his future is determined, and it’s entirely possible that none of these four “aces” (Lee isn’t really an ace right now, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt) gets traded.

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