Certain commodities are in demand every year as the MLB trade deadline nears: starting pitchers, setup men, power bats. Each summer, contenders pursue starting pitchers — some seek aces, others pursue mid-rotation pieces who can help them to the postseason and be the fourth starter in a playoff series.
Last summer, David Price, Johnny Cueto and Cole Hamels were traded. So were Mike Leake, J.A. Happ, Scott Kazmir, Mike Fiers, Alex Wood and Dan Haren. Of that group, you could classify Price, Cueto and Hamels as aces, Happ and Leake as third starters and the rest as Nos. 4 or 5 starters.
So, essentially, whichever type of starting pitcher you wanted last season, you could have had. Not the case this summer. This summer, there are a few No. 2 starters available, but the market is mostly filled with back-end pieces.
"People know there's a limited starting pitching market," Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski told ESPN.com over the weekend. "There's a lot of clubs looking for starting pitching, and there's not a lot of starting pitchers out there."
If you're a buyer, it's a tough market to be in for sure. If you're a seller like the Phillies, with Jeremy Hellickson, it's a pretty good spot to be in.
You'll see why when you look at which starting pitchers are on the trading block.
The top tier
LHP Rich Hill (Athletics)
Any team seeking a top-of-the-rotation arm will be after Hill, who at age 36 is having the best season of his 12-year career.
Hill struggled with injuries and had a 4.72 ERA for six different teams from 2005 to 2014, pitching mostly as a reliever. But he figured things out late last season with the Red Sox and carried that success into 2016. Hill's best pitch has always been his curveball and over the last calendar year, he's begun to throw it more frequently. Nobody is hitting it. Hill is 9-3 with a 2.25 ERA in 13 starts with the A's, with 90 strikeouts and just 28 walks in 76 innings, along with sky-high rates of groundballs and infield flies.
The Red Sox could have re-signed him over the winter but must not have had full confidence he'd keep up his pace, instead letting the A's snatch him up with a one-year, $6 million contract. Great move by Billy Beane, who is now poised to move Hill for a meaningful return despite his rental status. Hill will be a free agent in a few months, but he's the biggest difference-maker on the starting pitching market, so teams will come after him.
Expect the Red Sox, who know this version of Hill better than anyone, to aggressively try to get him back. Boston desperately needs starting pitching depth with Eduardo Rodriguez, Clay Buchholz and Joe Kelly all failing. If the Red Sox were to make the playoffs, they'd have a 1-2-3 of David Price, knuckleballer Steven Wright and Rick Porcello, but nothing of note after that. They need at least one more starting pitcher.
Julio Teheran (Braves)
The Braves keep talking like they have little interest in trading Teheran, but it seems more like posturing. Atlanta is seeking a massive haul for Teheran — they reportedly want even more than they got for Shelby Miller. Considering they landed last year's No. 1 overall pick, infielder Dansby Swanson, for Miller, that's going to be tough for teams to match, let alone exceed.
There are two reasons the Braves believe they have so much leverage in a Teheran trade. One, he's having the best season of his career, posting a 2.96 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 8.1 K/9 and 1.9 BB/9 through 18 starts. And two, he's on an extremely team-friendly contract that pays him just $25.3 million the next three seasons with a $12 million team option in 2020. An acquiring team would be getting a 25-year-old, top-of-the-rotation arm for about $40 million over the next 4½ seasons. It's one of the best contracts in the game. If Teheran were a free agent this winter, he'd get a nine-figure contract.
The guess here is Teheran won't be traded ahead of the Aug. 1 deadline. Not because of a lack of interest, but because it's hard to envision a team ponying up and paying the price in prospects for him. Teheran is far from the pitcher Hamels is, from the standpoint of consistency and track record. But he's much younger and is owed so much less money than Hamels was at this point last year. So why would Atlanta accept a haul any less impressive than what the Phillies got? In today's game, that haul is the exception rather than the rule.
LHP Drew Pomeranz (Padres)
I've always been a Pomeranz fan. He has size (6-6), deception, pedigree (fifth overall pick in 2010) and good stuff, but several factors played into his inability to reach his potential early in his career. For one, Pomeranz spent his first three seasons at Coors Field, where pitchers go to die. He also dealt with injuries and moved back and forth from the rotation to the bullpen.
Pomeranz was traded by the A's to the Padres this past offseason for first baseman Yonder Alonso. So as well as Beane did by signing Hill, it's canceled out by the Pomeranz deal. Oakland's loss has been San Diego's gain.
In 17 starts this season, Pomeranz is 8-7 with a 2.47 ERA and 115 strikeouts in 102 innings. His opponents have hit hit .184 — righties have hit .173 and lefties .212. And it's not like spacious Petco Park has been the main reason for his success — Pomeranz's ERA is lower on the road than it is at home.
Pomeranz's trade value has never been higher. It might never be higher, so San Diego has some incentive to cash in immediately. But Pomeranz is another player I don't see changing teams this summer because of the value he could provide the Padres in the future and the likelihood that teams don't believe enough in his short track record of success to deal a top prospect for him.
Pomeranz is making $1.35 million this season, his first of arbitration eligibility. He'll receive raises the next two years, but it's going to be a manageable price tag that any team could fit into its payroll. As with Teheran, that contract adds to Pomeranz's appeal.
Jake Odorizzi (Rays)
I'd be surprised if Odorizzi remains with the Rays past Aug. 1. Tampa Bay, because of its budgetary constraints, almost always acts preemptively to trade its good players while their value is highest and right before they get too expensive.
Odorizzi, 26, is making $520,700 this season and then has three arbitration years from 2017-19. The Rays could afford to pay him next year, but it's going to get increasingly more difficult for them the following two years.
If Odorizzi was pitching a little better, a trade would be a near lock. But this hasn't been his best season. In 19 starts, he's 3-5 with a 4.47 ERA and 1.28 WHIP. His strikeout and walk numbers are decent, but he's allowed 17 home runs already in 104⅔ innings. Last season, when he had a 3.35 ERA, Odorizzi allowed 18 homers in 169⅓ innings.
Because Odorizzi is young and cost-controlled, it will take a nice offer to pry him away from Tampa. Starting pitchers just don't reach free agency at 26 or 27 anymore, so this is one of the few ways a contending team can add a young building block to its rotation.
The question is just how good Odorizzi is. Does it make more sense for a team to give up a lot of young talent for him, or to instead opt for a rental like Hellickson who might be just as effective in the second half of 2016?
Jeremy Hellickson (Phillies), LHP Matt Moore (Rays)
Hellickson and Moore belong together in this tier. Hellickson is 29; Moore is 27. Hellickson has a 3.94 career ERA; Moore is at 3.95. Both began their careers with the Rays. Both arrived in the majors with lofty expectations. Both had their best seasons early in their careers before struggling the last two. Both are pitching well at the moment.
Now, Hellickson and Moore are much different pitchers. Moore is a left-hander who throws harder and relies more on deception. Hellickson is much more consistent and reliable. And the major difference between the two is cost certainty. Hellickson will be a free agent at season's end. Moore's contract has club options for 2017, 2018 and 2019 that total $26 million. Whether you think Moore can finally reach his potential or be merely a No. 4 starter, $26 million over three seasons is team-friendly in this climate.
I outlined last week why keeping Hellickson might be more beneficial for the Phillies than trading him. But I still expect the Phillies' phones to ring often as Aug. 1 nears because Hellickson would be a better option for many contending teams than their current No. 3 or No. 4 starter.
If you put Hellickson on the Red Sox tomorrow, he'd be their fourth starter. He'd be the third-best starter for the Astros, behind Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers. He might start Game 1 of a playoff series for the Royals, if they make it. The injury-ravaged Pirates could use him. Hell, the injury-plagued Mets could use him.
There are 18 teams over .500 and in contention for a playoff spot right now. I count 12 that have a need for a pitcher like Hellickson: the Orioles, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Tigers, Royals, White Sox, Rangers, Astros, Mets, Marlins, Pirates and Dodgers.
It's a seller's market for starting pitchers, plain and simple.
The bottom tier
Ricky Nolasco, Ervin Santana (Twins)
Santana and Hellickson are similarly skilled pitchers. But Santana has significantly less trade value because he's four years older, is guaranteed $27 million the next two seasons and has a PED bust on his record.
An acquiring team would have to eat most or all of Santana's salary because the Twins are a notoriously frugal team that isn't positioned to offset the cost for a better prospect return. Same goes for Nolasco, who Minnesota would trade for a bag of balls. Nolasco is owed $12 million next season and has a $13 million club option in 2018 with a $1 million buyout. He has a 5.49 ERA in 305 innings since joining the Twins in 2014.
Andrew Cashner (Padres)
Teams have been intrigued for years by Cashner because of his blazing fastball, but at this point, he is who he is. Cashner is 9-23 with a 4.60 ERA the last two years, struggling even while pitching in one of the game's most pitcher-friendly environments in San Diego.
Long-term, Cashner's best chance of success is coming out of the bullpen. He's also a free agent at season's end, so the return in a Cashner trade would be negligible.