Where are the starting pitchers at this trade deadline?

ByJayson Stark ESPN logo
Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Call the cops. Call the FBI. Call the CIA. Tell them somebody kidnapped all the aces, because if you're trying to trade for one at this year's trade deadline, hey, good luck.

Over and over, we hear the same grumbling from one club official after another. If this isn't the worst deadline starting-pitching market ever, it's definitely in the argument.

"If you're a team that desperately needs a starter," one NL executive said this week, "it's a tough year to try to find one who can make a difference."

"Oh, there are names out there," another NL exec said. "I mean, you can call the White Sox about Chris Sale and they wouldn't hang up. You can call the Rays about Chris Archer. They wouldn't hang up. I just don't feel like they're really as available as the kind of pitchers who were available in the past. Those guys in the past, they were getting moved. I don't see that this year."

If Sale and Archer don't get traded this week, and with Drew Pomeranz already off the board, it's likely that, if you check the major-league ERA leaders, NOBODY in the top 40 (among qualifying starters) will get dealt between now and the deadline. And the only qualifying starters with ERAs under 4.00 who are showing up in any legitimate rumors at the moment are Jeremy Hellickson (3.65), Ervin Santana (3.93) and Matt Shoemaker (3.99).

Now compare that with the big-name starters who filled up the transactions column at previous deadlines:

2015 - David Price, Cole Hamels, Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Scott Kazmir

2014 - Price, Jon Lester, Jake Peavy, John Lackey, Jeff Samardzija

2013 - Peavy, Matt Garza, Ian Kennedy

2012 - Zack Greinke, Ryan Dempster, Francisco Liriano

2011 - Ubaldo Jimenez, Doug Fister

2010 - Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, Dan Haren

2009 - Lee, Peavy

2008 - CC Sabathia, Rich Harden

Heard of those guys? Great. Now let's put all those names in better perspective. Over the last eight deadlines, there were nine trades that involved former Cy Young Award winners. And the only year in that span that didn't include a deal involving at least one former Cy Young was 2011.

But even 2011 featured the trade of Jimenez, a top-three Cy Young finisher the year before who was "still a big-name guy at the time," one exec said. So to find the last deadline as bereft of impact starters as this one, you'd have to journey all the way back to 2007, when Kyle Lohse, Matt Morris and Joel Pineiro were the only veteran starters who changed zip codes.

At least this year there is more depth to the market, with Hellickson, Santana, Edinson Volquez, Rich Hill, Hector Santiago, Andrew Cashner, Ivan Nova and the Tampa Bay buffet line of Matt Moore, Jake Odorizzi and Drew Smyly all realistically available. But "that still doesn't compare with the guys last year," an AL exec said.

So how did it come to this? What forces have converged to produce this shaky a market? Let's take a look.

1. A lousy free-agent class

"The trade market," one of the execs quoted earlier said, "is a direct reflection of the free-agent market. And this free-agent market isn't good."

With Stephen Strasburgsigned through 2023 in Washington now, the best free-agent starters aged 32 or younger this winter are likely to be Hellickson, Nova, Cashner, Brett Anderson, Jon Niese and Clay Buchholz. All employable, but nobody you'd confuse with Price, Greinke or Cueto.

Hill, Volquez and possibly Kazmir (who has an opt-out) are attractive in the 33-and-up group. But the only current starters, at any age, who rank in the top 40 in ERA and are definitely heading for free agency are Fister and 43-year-old Bartolo Colon. So that's severely limiting the group of rent-a-pitchers you can trade for right now.

"If you look at past deadlines, how many guys were rentals?" another exec wondered. "I'm betting it's a lot."

That would be correct. Of the five biggest deals involving starters last July, the only trade for a pitcher under control for multiple years was Texas' deal for Hamels.

2. Not enough sellers

Get ready for that annual chorus of folks screaming that it's time to move back the deadline, because too many teams find themselves in limbo in the last week of July. It's a tradition right up there with Mark Rzepczynski getting traded about 12 minutes before every deadline.

"There are still so many teams who are still in it," an AL exec said. "With that second wild card, you have more teams than ever who think they're still in contention. And this is one of those years. There just aren't enough sellers."

Heading into Tuesday night, there were 18 teams within six games of a playoff spot, versus only 12 that were "clearly" out of any sort of race. Then again, even that wasn't so "clear."

A year ago on July 26, Texas and Toronto were both more than six games back in both their divisions and the wild card. And we know how their seasons turned out. So even teams like Kansas City (8 1/2 out in the division, seven in the wild card) aren't ready to "sell" the way clubs used to in the pre-wild card game era.

This might not be the best explanation for this particular market. But it's a factor.

3. Bad teams have bad pitchers

OK, we exaggerate. That isn't totally true. But if you peruse the list of teams at least 10 games under .500, they're not exactly overflowing with starters to move -- either because they're too young or too mediocre.

"A lot of these bad teams, you knew going in [to the season], they were going to be bad," an executive from one contender said. "They're rebuilding, so they'd already sold off a lot of their guys."

Hard to argue. The Phillies traded Hamels LAST July. The Braves moved Alex Wood at last year's deadline and Shelby Miller over the winter. The Reds did their unloading, of Cueto and Leake, last year this time. Etc., etc.

"Those teams have already moved pretty much everything they had," another exec said. "So they're basically tapped out."

4. R.I.P. the old-fashioned money dump

What used to drive the trades of legends and Cy Youngs at the deadline? Money, of course. What else? Life was so much simpler then -- for the rich teams. You had your haves. You had your have-nots. And they each knew their roles so well.

But we don't live on that planet now. In a $9 billion industry with massive revenue-sharing, every team can afford to sign at least a handful of its best young players. And almost no club arrives at July obsessed with just clearing dollar signs off its books.

"It's not the same," one exec said. "No team in the game has NO money. Some teams have less money than others. But no team has no money. It used to be that the teams with no money knew they had to move guys at the deadline. That basically doesn't exist anymore."

To find the last legitimate midseason money dump of an ace, you'd probably have to ride the time machine all the way back to 2008 and 2009, when the Indians sold off two Cy Youngs (CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee) at back-to-back deadlines. That's a long, long time ago.

The death of the good (or bad) old-fashioned money dump was a great thing for the game. It just wasn't a great thing for the late-July editions of Rumor Central. And the lack of top-of-the-rotation forces available here in July 2016 is pretty much all the proof you need.