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November 10, 2012 / Nat Anacostia

Can the Nats trade for a starter?

Last winter, Mike Rizzo filled the Nats’ need for a number-two starter by trading several top prospects for Gio Gonzalez. With Edwin Jackson‘s departure as a free agent, can we expect Rizzo to fill his spot in the rotation with a similar trade? Let’s see if we can identify some potential trade targets.

I set up a few constraints for myself.

First, I limited my list to pitchers on teams that are rebuilding—specifically the 12 teams that had 76 or fewer wins last season. Teams that think they will be competitive almost never think they have enough starting pitching and are unlikely to trade away a good starter.

Second, I looked for pitchers who are still relatively young—pitchers 29 and younger who are still cost controlled. These guys fit the profile of last year’s trades for Gio Gonzalez (age 26 last season) and the Reds’ acquisition of Mat Latos (age 24). These are guys who can be held onto and are part of a long-term plan. In an upcoming post on free agent pitchers I’ll also talk about a few older pitchers who might be available via trade.

Third, I limited my search to pitchers who are pretty good. If the Nats are going to let Jackson go, they presumably think they can replace him with someone who’s at least as good (unless it’s just a pure salary dump). So I’m focusing on pitchers who are arguably as good or better than Jackson.

Finally, I only looked for pitchers who are established starters. I don’t know enough about the market for prospects to comment, and the Nats need someone who can move into a pennant-winning rotation.

Here’s what I came up – a list of guys who might be available via trade (but then again, might not be). The goal here is to figure out who’s out there, not to propose any specific trades. I’ll start at the top, giving statistics for the last three seasons (2010–12):

1. Felix Hernandez (age 27 next season, 2.92 ERA, 3.00 FIP, 8.5 K/9, 715 IP)

Contract: Two seasons remaining at $39.5 million – free agent in 2015

Health issues: None

He’s one of the five best pitchers in baseball. He would cost a fortune. The Mariners GM recently said, “Think I’ll carry around a recording: ‘I am not trading Felix Hernandez.” But unless the Mariners look like they’re going to start winning, the rumors aren’t going away.

2. Josh Johnson (age 29, 2.87 ERA, 2.88 FIP, 8.4 K/9, 435 IP)

Contract: One season remaining at $13.75 million – free agent in 2014

Health issues: Missed most of 2011 season due to shoulder inflamation

More of a short-term rental than a long-term solution

3. Wade Miley (age 26, 3.48 ERA, 3.34 FIP, 6.7 K/9, 225 IP)

Contract: Pre-arbitration – free agent in 2018

Health issues: None

I’ve just included him on this list because he meets my criteria – I don’t think there’s any chance that the Diamondbacks would consider trading their Rookie of the Year finalist.

4. Brandon Morrow (age 28, 4.16 ERA, 3.49 FIP, 9.8 K/9, 450 IP)

Contract: Two seasons at $16 million with a team option ($10 million) for 2015

Health issues: Type 1 diabetes; on 60-day disabled list in 2012 with oblique strain

In addition to the health issues, we also note that his strikeout rate dropped to 7.8 last season. Trading for him would be taking a gamble.

5. Jon Lester (age 29, 3.85 ERA, 3.69 FIP, 8.5 K/9, 605 IP)

Contract: One season at $11.6 million with a team option ($13 million) for 2014

Health issues: Lymphoma successfully treated in 2006–07

He struggled last season, with his strikeout rate down to 7.3 and a career-high 25 home runs allowed. His fastball velocity has been declining, which may be a reason to stay away from him. Trading for him would be gambling that he could return to his 2008–10 performance level.

6. Jon Niese (age 26, 3.94 ERA, 3.77 FIP, 7.6 K/9, 521 IP)

Contract: Four seasons at $24 million with 2 team option years ($10 million and $11 million)

Health issues: None

For what it’s worth, baseball-reference.com lists Gio Gonzalez as his fourth-most similar pitcher through age 25 – though, frankly, I don’t see that much similarity. Still, he’s a fine young pitcher who could get better.

7. Matt Garza (age 29, 3.68 ERA, 3.79 FIP, 7.9 K/9, 505 IP)

Contract: Third year of arbitration (paid $9.5 million in 2012); eligible for free agency in 2014

Health issues: Shutdown in the last half of 2012 due to a “stress reaction” in his right elbow

I recall that the Nats were once interested in pursuing Garza before he was traded to the Cubs. As he approaches free agency, his value has gone down.

8. Felipe Paulino (age 29, 3.91 ERA, 3.40 FIP, 8.5 K/9, 244 IP)

Contract: Arbitration eligible; $1.9 million in 2012; Free agent in 2015

Health issues: Missed more than half of 2012 season due to torn UCL

It’s a stretch to say that Paulino is arguably better than Jackson, but maybe if you give a lot of weight to strikeouts and FIP. He clearly has talent but still hasn’t established himself as a solid MLB starting pitcher.

That’s pretty much it for young pitchers on rebuilding teams that might be considered an improvement on Jackson. I didn’t find any hot trade targets similar to last season’s Gio Gonzalez and Mat Latos.  In fact, Jon Niese is the only pitcher on this list that’s remotely in the same ballpark. Josh Johnson or Matt Garza might be available, but they’d be one-year rentals.  Lester, Morrow, or Paulino would be gambles, and I don’t see that the Nats are in a position where they ought to be gambling. Or maybe Rizzo could stun all of us by trading for King Felix!

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