Examining The Cost Of A Frontline Pitcher At The Trade Deadline
The pitching market, specifically starting pitching, is always extremely competitive at the trade deadline. Acquiring a frontline starter or lockdown reliever is a goal for every contending team, and acquiring one often requires significant high-level prospects to get a deal done.
This year, Marcus Stroman, Madison Bumgarner and Matthew Boyd and are among the top starters who could be dealt. In addition, high leverage relievers such as Will Smith, Ken Giles and Shane Greene may be traded to contenders.
But what will it cost to acquire a high-level pitcher in today’s trade market? We looked back at 10 key trades in recent years in which a frontline pitcher was dealt, and what it took to get the deal done.
Price was one of the elite pitchers in baseball when this trade went down. At the time, Price was sixth in WAR (Wins Above Replacement) among starters and owned an ace-caliber 2.53 ERA. The package accounted for the fact Price was a pending free agent. Even knowing he would be eligible to depart in a few months, the Blue Jays still sent the Tigers their No. 1 (Norris), No. 13 (Labourt) and No. 29 prospects (Boyd). Norris was a Top 100 Prospect but Boyd, as fate would have it, became the best of the three.
Phillies trade LHP Cole Hamels (signed through 2018 with a club option for 2019), LHP Jake Diekman and cash to Rangers for LHP Matt Harrison, C Jorge Alfaro, RHP Jerad Eickhoff, OF Nick Williams, RHP Alec Asher and RHP Jake Thompson.
The first Hamels trade represented an enormous haul unlike few seen to that point, largely because Hamels still had four years remaining on his contract. Along with his 3.64 ERA, championship pedigree, and ranking 16th in WAR among starting pitchers that year, the ability to control a front-of-the-rotation starter for almost a half decade made the Phillies charge the Rangers the farm. Their return included Alfaro, the Rangers' No. 3 prospect and No. 67 overall in the Top 100; Thompson, the Rangers' No. 2 prospect and 43rd overall; and Williams, who was the Rangers' No. 5 prospect but started the next season ranked No. 27 in the Top 100. In essence, the Rangers traded three Top 100 Prospects (and an accomplished veteran in Harrison) for a frontline starting pitcher with multiple years of control remaining.
Miller ranked third in WAR among relievers at the time of the deal and was on a reasonable contract with two and a half years remaining. The Yankees got two highly touted prospects in return. Frazier was the Indians' No. 2 prospect and No. 44 overall in the Top 100, and Sheffield was the Indians' No. 4 prospect and No. 81 overall. Just as we’d seen with the deal for Hamels a year earlier, the cost for an impact pitcher—starter or reliever— with multiple years of control remaining was at least two Top 100 Prospects.
Chapman was having a vintage Chapman year, so despite his contract being up at the end of the year, he warranted a hefty return. Torres was the Cubs’ top prospect and No. 41 on the Top 100, and by the start of the next season he ranked No. 5 overall. McKinney, meanwhile, was the Cubs' No. 7 prospect at the time, and Warren was an established swingman. As with the previous year’s Price deal, a premier pitcher—starter or reliever— who was a free agent at the end of the year cost one Top 100 Prospect and at least one other Top 30 Prospect in a team’s system.
Quintana had quietly been one of baseball’s better pitchers the previous four seasons and commanded a haul on par with other premium pitchers with multiple years of control left. The Cubs parted with two Top 100 Prospects—No. 5 Jimenez and No. 83 Cease—to make the deal happen, as well as two players unranked in their system in Flete and Rose.
Gray was only 27 years old and had two-plus years of control when the Yankees sent three of their top five prospects to the Athletics. Fowler ranked No. 89 on the Top 100, and Kaprielian was the Yankees' No. 5 prospect going into the season, but both were recovering from serious injuries. Mateo, meanwhile, was the Yankees' No. 4 prospect and No. 85 overall. Once again, the cost for a controllable starter among the best on the market was two Top 100 prospects and more added on top.
Darvish owned a top-15 WAR among starters in the summer of 2017 and was in the final year of his contract. That fetched the Rangers one Top 100 Prospect in Calhoun, who ranked No. 74 in the Top 100 and had a .931 OPS in Triple-A. Alexy and Davis were unranked in the Dodgers' system, although Alexy was in the midst of a breakout year. Once again, the cost of a premier starter with an expiring contract was one Top 100 Prospect and at least one other interesting young prospect.
Pressly was a very good reliever at the time of the trade, but the Astros unlocked the high-spin, high-velocity demon once he got to Houston. For a setup man who could also close with multiple years of control left, the Twins got the Astros' No. 8 (Alcala) and No. 20 (Celestino) prospects in return. As with the summer's Addison Reed Mets-Red Sox trade, multiple prospects in a Top 30—but none of whom are in the Top 100 range—got the job done for an accomplished, non-closing reliever.
Britton’s injury problems had dropped him from the ranks of baseball’s best closers, but he still had a respectable 3.45 ERA and cost two Top 30 Prospects at the deadline. The Yankees sent their No. 10 (Tate) and No. 30 (Carroll) prospects to the Orioles, and while Rogers was unranked, he was big league ready. The market once again was set at two to three Top 30 Prospects for a high-leverage reliever, even one who was a free agent at the end of the year as Britton was.
This trade marked a departure from the previous high-leverage reliever deals. Pitchers such as Hand previously commanded at least one Top 100 Prospect on their own and a notable second or third prospect as well, but the Padres aimed for one of the top 25 prospects in baseball had to add another controllable big league reliever to their side of the deal. The trade re-shaped expectations for what controllable closers or elite relievers could bring back, and marked a change in what teams are willing to pay for them compared to the Miller/Chapman deals of 2016.
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Overall, the price for a frontline starter with multiple years of control left has held steady at two Top 100 Prospects, plus more in recent years. An elite reliever with multiple years of control remaining generally brings back at least one Top 100 Prospect, although the price has been dropping in recent seasons.
As far as pitchers on expiring deals, frontline starters set to become free agents at the end of the season generally bring back one Top 100 Prospect and a top 30 player from the other team’s system. Relievers on expiring deals almost never fetch Top 100 Prospects at the deadline, but they can bring back two or more players from another team’s Top 30.
Given recent history, if the Giants can get one Top 100 Prospect for Madison Bumgarner, that would be a win. If the Blue Jays can get two Top 100 Prospects for Marcus Stroman, that would be a win. If the Tigers can get two Top 100 Prospects for Matthew Boyd, that would be a huge win. Shane Greene and Ken Giles have a chance to bring back one Top 100 Prospect, while Will Smith likely won’t because of his expiring deal but should still bring back a few Top 30 Prospects from a team’s system.
That’s all based on past precedent though. With teams holding on to prospects tighter than ever, we’ll see if the prospect prices of 2019 remain the same or continue to trend downward.