You can get better at the trade deadline, but you can also get worse. It’s a truth that is laid bare with a quick glance back at two of the most prominent moves of last July. Like the Phillies this season, the Braves of a year ago were a team in search of another capable arm to add to its rotation. Rather than spending the rest of the season playing fifth starter roulette, the Braves paid a modest price to add a modest upgrade, landing Kevin Gausman from the Orioles for a package of mid-to-low-level prospects that weren’t on anyone’s list of blue-chippers.
It wasn’t the sort of move that wins championships, but it served its purpose. Gausman posted a 2.87 ERA after the trade and the Braves won seven of his 10 starts while coasting to the NL East title. He also remained under club control for the following two seasons.
On the other side of the spectrum, we have the Pirates, who traded three prospects with significant upside to the Rays for righthanded starter Chris Archer in a deal that already looks like a disaster. The Pirates missed the playoffs, Archer has a 5.06 ERA in 21 starts for his new ballclub, and 24-year-old outfielder Austin Meadows is in the midst of a breakout season for the Rays, hitting .326 with a .404 on base percentage, .591 slugging percentage and 12 home runs in 218 plate appearances. Meanwhile, 25-year-old pitcher Tyler Glasnow has outperformed Archer since the trade, with a 3.12 ERA and sparkling strikeout and walk numbers in 19 starts before landing on the DL with a forearm strain.
Oh, and 20-year-old pitching prospect Shane Baz entered the season as a top-100 prospect and has been excellent thus far in five low-minors starts.
There are a lot of different variables that determine success and failure at the trade deadline. As always, the most prominent — and the most difficult for us outsiders to handicap — is scouting, on both the professional and amateur side (it should be noted that I was an Archer fan). But nearly as important is a general manager’s understanding of his own organization, from the evaluation and projection of his own minor-league system to his appraisal of the potential trajectories of his big-league roster in both the short and long-term.
It’s no secret that the Phillies need a starting pitcher. In all likelihood, you’ll spend the next seven weeks listening to Matt Klentak downplay that need. But it would be awfully difficult to consider them a legitimate pennant contender if the rotation continues as it has to date. And given the aggressiveness the Phillies showed this offseason, you have to think that they will be in serious pursuit of an arm that they would feel comfortable putting out on the mound for a playoff start.
At the same time, they signed Bryce Harper to a contract that was a lot longer than one season. As the days tick closer to the July 31 deadline, the ability to contend in 2020 and beyond should be just as big of a consideration as the ability to do so this season.
With that in mind, here are five potential targets: three who might cost more than is sensible for the Phillies, and two potential values.
Elbow problems cost him the 2015 and 2016 season, but he’s had three straight healthy seasons and has been dominant this year, with a 2.52 ERA and sparkling peripherals in 89⅓ innings over 14 starts (also, a career-best 0.83 groundball-to-flyball ratio). Minor checks off a lot of boxes. He’s left-handed, he has swing-and-miss stuff, and he’s under contract at a reasonable number ($9.3 million) through next season. But the Rangers entered yesterday as a surprise playoff contender, five games over .500 and occupying one of the two AL wild-card spots. If they sell, they’ll be in a position to demand a significant price.
At $13 million he isn’t cheap, and he’ll have one final arbitration payday before reaching free agency after the 2020 season. He’s also notoriously polarizing. And the Indians could easily play their way back into contention, given the talent on that roster. But there’s no questioning his talent, which makes him worthy of consideration.
A free agent after this season, he isn’t dominating hitters the way he did between 2011-2016, but he has a 3.83 ERA and solid peripherals in 87 innings over 14 starts. Question is, will San Francisco demand a name-brand price?
A free agent after this season, Roark has quietly spent the last six years as one of the NL’s more consistent pitchers with at least 30 starts, 180 innings pitched and a 4.27 or lower FIP in four of five seasons between 2014-18. The lone exception was a year he spent in the bullpen in Washington. In 2016 he finished 10th in Cy Young voting after a campaign in which he posted a 2.83 ERA in 210 innings. This year, he is striking out batters at a career high rate of 23.6 percent of plate appearances with a career low home run rate, despite a career low groundball-to-flyball average. He’s averaged just under six innings per start in 13 outings with a 3.74 ERA and solid peripherals. At $10 million he could offer the Reds a chance to save a few million bucks in return for a flier of a prospect.
Similar to Gausman, he is under club control through next season, he isn’t overpowering, and he would mostly serve to stabilize the back end of the rotation. That being said, he’s looked very much like the pitcher who logged back-to-back 200 inning campaigns with a 3.73 ERA in 2016-17.