This found its way into by inbox yesterday:
"Last year Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt helped to carry teams into the postseason after being traded at midseason. Which potential aces could be on the market at this year's deadline?" - Jerry
Thanks, Jerry. It's an interesting question.
Yes, last year Roy Oswalt was traded from Houston to Philadelphia and his dominance during a stretch of a dozen starts (7-1, 1.74 ERA, 0.90 WHIP) was a significant factor in the Phillies late-season push.
Ruben Amaro made a very similar move for Cliff Lee in 2009 and Lee famously went 11-4 for his new franchise, including four wins in the postseason. Last year, however, Lee's story was slightly different. He actually struggled (by his standards) in his fifteen regular season starts for the Rangers (4-6, 3.98 ERA), but did manage to make Jon Daniels look pretty good in October.
In 2008, it was C. C. Sabathia who was the mercenary former Indian. He absolutely carried his new team, the Brewers, into the playoffs with a 17 start run in which he was 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA and 7(!) complete games.
In the very same year, Rich Harden moved from Oakland to Chicago and went 5-1 with a 1.77 ERA in 12 starts, helping to guide the Cubs to their best season since the Roosevelt administration.
The upshot of all this is that, like Jerry, we've come to treat the trading of a "mercenary Ace" as a necessary part of the baseball narrative, when, in fact, history shows that the examples cited above are very much outliers. Could it be that this is a new trend in the 21st-century game that will continue indefinitely? Perhaps. But it's also very possible that we see little or no movement of premier starters at the 2011 deadline.
One thing that leads me to this conclusion is that the class of free agent starting pitchers next offseason doesn't feature a marquis name like Cliff Lee or C. C. Sabathia. Mark Buehrle is probably the best pitcher scheduled to become a free agent to 2012.
Buehrle is certainly capable of having an Oswalt-esque stretch of dominance. However, the other factor that makes this question hard to answer is that the availability of a Buehrle or a Chris Carpenter is largely dependent on whether their current franchises are still in the playoff mix. Kenny Williams has certainly managed his offseason like a man who expects to be playing for the AL Central crown in August and September. If that's the case, the face of the franchise, Mark Buehrle, ain't goin' nowhere.
If there's going to be a "mercenary Ace" in 2011, Carpenter is probably the odds-on favorite. Carp's current contract features a $15 Million option for 2012. As good as Carpenter is when he's on the mound, that's a big number for what will be a 37-year-old pitcher with a long injury history. St. Louis, as you may have heard, has some other very expensive priorities, so it may be sensible for John Mozeliak to leave the tough decision about Carpenter's option to somebody else.
On the other hand, Carpenter is very, very popular in St. Louis. He's owes a great deal to Dave Duncan and Tony LaRussa. And he has "no-trade" protection. If he believes St. Louis has a chance of getting themselves back in the playoff picture in the next couple years, he may simple decline to move.
It's not always impending free agents who are involved in these deals. Lee (in '09) and Oswalt both had additional years when they were traded. There are certainly scenarios in which one could see Zack Greinke, Dan Haren, Matt Cain, or Tim Hudson being shopped, but all of their teams are entering the season with sincere playoff aspirations. Even if they were to go on the market, each would command a relatively massive package in return and could end up, like Roy Halladay in 2009, being beyond the reach of interested clubs.
The other possibility is that their is a "once and future Ace" who is on the verge of having a Renaissance season. Candidates for that mantle would include Jake Peavy, James Shields, and Scott Kazmir. If they were to return to their former levels of production AND their current franchise fell out of the playoff picture by midseason, you could definitely see them being traded at a price which wasn't wholly insurmountable.
Finally, this gives me opportunity to tout one of the favorite sleeper candidates for 2011. Wandy Rodriguez of the Houston Astros will be a free agent in 2012. Certainly, at this moment, nobody thinks of him as analogous to Cliff Lee or C. C. Sabathia, but just two years ago Wandy put up Ace numbers (14-12, 3.02 ERA, 206 IP, 193 K). His overall performance in 2010 was disappointing (11-12, 3.60 ERA), but don't make the mistake of overlooking his second half. From June 24th on, a stretch of 18 starts, Way-Rod went 8-2 with a 2.03 ERA and 126 K in 120 IP. One can imagine how much more press he would've gotten had he been pitching like that for a contender. The Astros are in rebuilding mode, and at 32, Wandy isn't exactly the kind of guy you build around. He'll be in motion by the deadline and if he begins 2011 in the fashion he ended 2012, there could be a bidding war.