The swirl of news around the Aug. 2 MLB trade deadline gravitates around Juan Soto and the Washington Nationals, but there will be many other moves that impact the playoff race. And a good deal of them figure to involve pitchers. Some of the arms on the block represent obvious upgrades, like Cincinnati Reds ace Luis Castillo. Others fly under the radar, only to emerge as major contributors a la the Yankees’ Clay Holmes after a small deal brought him over from Pittsburgh last year.
And the thing with pitchers? Each team needs a lot of them. Virtually every contender can reasonably feel it should acquire more arms this time of year, to fill holes created by injury or gird against the gaps that could open up down the stretch. That means there are a lot of names that could pop up and take the pennant race — or the playoffs — by storm.
Who will actually wind up making an impact? Well, that’s a two-pronged question. There’s the matter of who ends up getting traded. And there’s the matter of whether they are good when they arrive in their new, more pressurized situation. What we will endeavor to do here is to meld those factors and rank the theoretically available pitchers by how likely they are to make a difference by the time someone lifts the trophy at the end of the 2022 World Series.
1. Luis Castillo, Cincinnati Reds starter
There’s only one ace who looks certain to move. That’s Castillo, a 29-year-old whose arsenal has long evoked a sort of Pedro Martinez Lite thanks to a dynamite changeup that works off of two types of electric fastballs. Since 2019 he’s among the top 25 starters (minimum 300 innings) in strikeout rate and ERA and 11th in innings despite pitching in a notoriously hitter-friendly park. Castillo is made even more attractive by the fact he will remain under team control for 2023, too. If Soto doesn’t move, there’s a good chance Castillo will headline the deadline’s biggest deal.
After a shoulder injury delayed the start of his 2022 season, he has clicked into high gear. He has gone seven innings in each of his past four starts, including a dominant eight-strikeout performance against the Yankees after which Matt Carpenter said, succinctly, “I hope he’s in pinstripes soon.”
2. Frankie Montas, Oakland A’s starter
3. Tyler Mahle, Cincinnati Reds starter
Down a peg or maybe less, you’ll find Montas. One of the few stars Oakland didn’t ship out of town this winter, the 29-year-old seems certain to move by the deadline after returning from a brief injury scare. You could squint and see a carbon copy of Castillo, wielding a splitter instead of a changeup. The main difference is a less consistent track record of success, but he has been tirelessly excellent since the start of 2021.
Mahle has shown similarly dynamic stuff, leaning on a rising fastball, but could come cheaper thanks to a bumpy (and unlucky) season so far.
4. David Robertson, Chicago Cubs reliever
5. Michael Fulmer, Detroit Tigers reliever
The most likely back-end relievers to move aren’t necessarily the best relievers who could be available, but they are each having intriguing second acts. Robertson, the former Yankees closer, has reemerged as a force at age 37. Fulmer, the 2017 AL Rookie of the Year as a starter, is slinging sliders out of the pen full time now. He throws the pitch more than 60% of the time, and it works. Hitters have managed only a .146 average against it this year, and no one has homered. These two figure to slot into prominent roles for better teams in short order.
6. Pablo Lopez, Miami Marlins starter
7. Jose Urquidy, Houston Astros starter
8. Merrill Kelly, Arizona Diamondbacks starter
9. Zach Plesac, Cleveland Guardians starter
Now things start to get murkier. Lopez might be the best pitcher we’ve covered so far, and he won’t reach free agency until after the 2024 season. The Marlins have repeatedly had success developing pitching and may dangle Lopez in another attempt to resuscitate their lineup — a tactic that produced All-Star Jazz Chisholm when they shipped Zac Gallen to Arizona.
The Astros are maybe the one winning team that can afford to trade away pitching as Cristian Javier deals and Lance McCullers Jr. approaches a return from injury. The surplus could put them in position to solidify their lineup by moving Urquidy or Jake Odorizzi.
Count Kelly and Plesac as slightly less glitzy names in the same group of starters who are definitely useful, but not guaranteed to move. In between phone calls about Juan Soto, expect the St. Louis Cardinals to inquire about these sorts of pitchers who they might be able to add by swapping excess young position players.
10. Noah Syndergaard, Los Angeles Angels starter
11. Jose Quintana, Pittsburgh Pirates starter
On short-term deals with bad teams, Syndergaard and Quintana are very likely to move. Both have smoke and mirrors involved in their relatively shiny ERAs and may not be more than Nos. 4 or 5 starters for good teams.
12. Blake Snell, San Diego Padres starter
Snell could find himself shipped out of San Diego due to his price tag if the Padres make big swings at Soto or other stars. The boom-or-bust lefty has a 4.75 ERA this year, but still harbors the potential to carry playoff teams on his left arm … for about five innings at a time.
13. David Bednar, Pittsburgh Pirates reliever
14. Gregory Soto, Detroit Tigers reliever
15. Jorge Lopez, Baltimore Orioles reliever
Bednar and Soto are the most promising relief arms on the list, and would also be the costliest. The Pirates and Tigers don’t need to trade them now, they have plenty of team control left, so they would have to be overwhelmed — particularly Pittsburgh given the embarrassing Clay Holmes renaissance in New York.
Lopez could have lined up a moving company a month ago, but now the spitfire Baltimore Orioles are within three games of a playoff spot. And really, he’s a stand-in here for any number of suddenly excellent Baltimore relievers including Cionel Perez and Felix Bautista. One or two may yet move given the still remote odds of a playoff run, but it’s far less certain than it was.
16. Scott Barlow, Kansas City Royals reliever
17. Drew Smyly, Chicago Cubs reliever
18. Matt Moore, Texas Rangers reliever
19. Zach Jackson, Oakland A’s reliever
20. Daniel Bard, Colorado Rockies reliever
A raft of rebuilding teams will be shipping out live arms, and these are a few of the most interesting. You could be forgiven if you don’t know that Barlow sports a 1.93 ERA this season for Kansas City (and a 2.23 ERA over the past two seasons) by wielding two breaking balls more often than his fastball. Or that Smyly and Moore, early 2010s prospect darlings, are full-on good in their own ways this season. Smyly is finding success as a groundballing starter with a new emphasis on his cutter and sinker, while Moore is thriving in a multi-inning relief role. And frankly, it would be surprising if you knew that Jackson — a 27-year-old rookie — has thrown 39 major-league innings so far without allowing a homer.
You probably do know Daniel Bard, the Rockies closer who overcame the yips, but nobody knows what that eternally out of step franchise will do. The latest tea leaves read it as a coin flip as to whether they trade him or sign him to an extension, for some reason, to close what few wins they manage to bang out.
21. Carlos Rodon, San Francisco Giants starter
22. Tarik Skubal, Detroit Tigers starter
On pure ability, these two belong up with Castillo and Montas. But on availability, they are long shots to change uniforms. The Giants have been sinking in the standings, but are reportedly not ready to sell. Rodon is coming off two rough starts, but generally has proven that his 2021 breakout is for real. He would be an extremely desirable catch if he were put on the market, but the Giants’ position and his opt-out after 2022 complicate the chances of that happening.
Skubal, a funky 25-year-old lefty having a coming out party this year, wouldn’t have been on anyone’s radar until the Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported that the moribund Tigers are open to selling anyone, including four-and-a-half seasons of Skubal, apparently. It seems difficult to believe they would pull that rip cord this week, but then again, there was no chance of Juan Soto being traded a few weeks ago.
23. Madison Bumgarner, Arizona Diamondbacks starter
24. Kyle Hendricks, Chicago Cubs starter
25. Patrick Corbin, Washington Nationals starter … for now
These are name brand pitchers approaching their expiration dates (or arguably past them) who may yet help someone who can absorb their contracts. Bumgarner can still eat innings, while Hendricks might make for an interesting reclamation project to suppress the homer problem that has chewed him up over the past two years.
Corbin has been a complete disaster since the Nationals’ 2019 World Series run, so much so that it is widely speculated he will be included in a potential Soto trade as a salary dump. But it’s undeniable that his greatest moments in Washington were as a shutdown October reliever. If the burden of throwing multiple pitches were removed, who’s to say he couldn’t reprise that role for a high rolling team willing to try and shoot the moon?