Pitching, pitching, pitching.
Much like the real estate agent’s exclamation of “Location, location, location,” it’s what truly defines success in major league baseball. Sure the game is now about thumpers capable of blasting 40 home runs per season despite striking out 180 times, but what happened this postseason? The Astros relied on a red-hot Justin Verlander, plus key outings by Lance McCullers Jr. and others, to fend off the Los Angeles Dodgers in a seven-game classic. In the end, pitching prevailed.
The Phillies, as you probably have noticed, have little quality pitching. There is one hope, the surgical Aaron Nola, whose two-seamer can make batters’ eyes roll and whose curveball can toss them right into the garbage heap. Nola is good. Very good. In fact, I have a totally subjective list of the best pitchers in baseball. Tier one is Clayton Kershaw (kind of his own tier, to be honest), Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, Dallas Kuechel, Corey Kluber, Madison Bumgarner, Stephen Strasburg (when healthy) and Noah Syndergaard (when healthy). Nola is now on the next tier, along with guys like Carlos Carrasco, Jacob deGrom and Yu Darvish. He can be an ace on some teams but is most comfortable as a No. 2 or even a No. 3.
Right now Nola is the unquestioned No. 1. That’s fine if the Phils acquire a pitcher with Nola’s ability to work deep into games and strike out close to (or at least) double-digit batters. But if the Phils fail to get anyone close to a Nola this offseason, they’ll likely suffer a similar fate as last year’s squad – one good pitcher, a whole lot of question marks, and plenty of worrying.
Team President of Baseball Operations Andy MacPhail mentioned in his regular season post-mortem that he thinks the free agent market is a fool’s paradise for talent. You overpay for risk, and typically that risk falls short of your goal. It seems he’s more inclined to use the trade market to acquire at least one starting pitcher, so we can comfortably say that the Phils are likely to shop in the higher end of the trade market this offseason for a mid-to-top-line starting arm.
That brings us to this question: What is out there?
Here are the top-30 starting pitchers by Fangraphs WAR from 2015-17:
No. 30 happens to be Nola, which if you take into account his injuries and mid-2016 struggles, is pretty impressive. So let’s use this list as a guide for focusing our search for a pseudo-Nola to target in a trade.
First, let’s eliminate those who are probably not leaving their current teams (or is likely not to opt out). They are Kershaw, Sale, Scherzer, Kluber, Jose Quintana, Zack Greinke, Strasburg, Carrasco, deGrom, Verlander, Bumgarner, Kuechel, Syndergaard, Johnny Cueto, Kyle Hendricks, Carlos Martinez, Gio Gonzalez, Masahiro Tanaka, Jeff Samardzija, Robbie Ray.
Now let’s eliminate the guys signed through 2017 with giant contracts the Phils don’t want: Jon Lester, David Price.
And let’s eliminate the big free agent here, Jake Arrieta. No, the Phils shouldn’t sign him to some multi-year, nine-figure deal.
That leaves this list: Chris Archer, Gerrit Cole, J.A. Happ, Rick Porcello, Cole Hamels, James Paxton.
You’ll notice that the Phillies could’ve had a pitching staff of Carrasco, Gonzalez, Happ, Hamels and Nola. Which would’ve been a great staff. But getting past that, you’ll notice it’s not a deep list of targets. Happ is on the other side of his career, as is Hamels. Though the Pirates are probably retooling a bit, they’d probably like to keep Cole. Same thing for the Mariners and Paxton. Heck, same thing for the Rays and Archer. But if the Phils come calling with some solid trade proposal, it’s possible the Pirates, Mariners or Rays could entertain a deal for a young stud pitcher.
Now, since Nola accumulated an 8.0 WAR since 2015, and the No. 29 pitcher (Ray) put up an 8.5, we should look at a few pitchers on the other side of Nola’s 8.0. Let’s look at the names of pitchers scoring a WAR of 7.0-7.9 since 2015:
Sure, using this metric is very arbitrary, but let’s do the same thing that we did with the above. Let’s automatically eliminate Collin McHugh, McCullers Jr., Jimmy Nelson, Danny Salazar, Jon Gray, Trevor Bauer, Michael Wacha, Ervin Santana, Marcus Stroman, Sonny Gray, Marco Estrada and Alex Wood.
Let’s, for now, take out free agents, which means John Lackey.
That leaves Mike Leake and maybe Kevin Gausman, though it’s likely both the M’s and O’s think they somehow have a chance in the American League and continue with these guys even though they may be better off rebuilding. Anyway.
One step below those guys, with a 6.6 three-year WAR, is Danny Duffy in Kansas City. He’s an interesting one.
Here’s the point: It’s not a large pool from which to choose. Expect the Phillies to inquire about guys like Archer, Cole and Paxton. Maybe Leake and Gausman, possibly Duffy. We’ll have more on the trade options later this week. For now, just know that the Phils need another Aaron Nola in 2018. These are your options.