When you look at the baseball calendar -- the regular-season one, that is -- there are really only two times when player values tend to shift rapidly:
• The first is the first few weeks of April, as roles become crystallized and we get our first "real" glimpses of players in the given year.
• The second, and upcoming one, is the annual midsummer trade deadline, which this year arrives on Wednesday, July 31.
It's an exciting time for fantasy owners, when a fresh set of new opportunities for players presents themselves in these next three-plus weeks. That's not to say that players can't change teams after that date -- they merely have to clear waivers first -- but the most intriguing moves annually tend to happen in late July.
This isn't to say that you should embrace wild speculation, panic because your players are in jeopardy of plummeting in value, or overrate every trade that does happen. History shows us that the trade deadline can also be one of the most overstated events of the fantasy baseball season, and often, it's the lesser names impacted by blockbuster trades or the lesser deals themselves that generate the headlines. Just using last year as an example, while everyone talked about Hanley Ramirez and Zack Greinke getting traded -- neither experiencing any noticeable change in value -- it was Greg Holland, Marco Scutaro and Chris Johnson who were three of the biggest winners as a result of deadline deals.
Consider today's column an effective "primer" for player value shifts at the 2013 trade deadline. Ranked below are 10 names rumored on the block, in the order in which such a deal might impact the player himself or those surrounding him. This doesn't mean you should race to radically adjust your team in anticipation of a possible deal; it's merely a warning to formulate your plans.
1. Matt Garza, SP, Chicago Cubs
A free agent at year's end, and one earning $10.25 million this season, Garza is highly likely to be traded in the next 22 days, no matter what the Cubs would have you believe. The reason is simple: He's injury-prone, having spent time on the disabled list in each of the past three seasons, and he continues to put strain on his elbow by throwing such a high rate of sliders (23.4 percent from 2011-13). It makes much more sense for the team to cash in his chip than lock him up, especially since they might not be competitive for another couple of years.
Oddly, a trade probably wouldn't impact Garza much in terms of ERA/WHIP -- with the possible exception of extreme hitters' environments like Texas, Boston or Baltimore -- considering his track record. Check out his home/road splits during his two-and-a-half years with the Cubs:
Home: 27 GS, 21 QS, 11 W, 2.70 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, .102 ISO, 9.7 HR/FB%
Road: 32 GS, 16 QS, 9 W, 4.24 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, .153 ISO, 10.9 HR/FB%
Now compare those to his previous two years (2009-10) with the Tampa Bay Rays:
Home: 32 GS, 22 QS, 13 W, 3.36 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, .141 ISO, 8.5 HR/FB%
Road: 32 GS, 15 QS, 10 W, 4.53 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, .182 ISO, 10.9 HR/FB%
It seems that run support might be the most significant change to Garza's value as a result of a trade. That doesn't necessarily mean a boost to his current 5.00 runs per nine of support; it just increases his chances of maintaining that number, as the Cubs have averaged 4.11 runs per game this season. But that matters, as slightly better win potential at no expense to ERA/WHIP/K's is a plus. It could result in a rise of as many as eight spots (five among starters) in the ranks below; but remember that no trade is going to diminish any of Garza's injury risk.
Should Garza -- and/or rotation-mates Travis Wood or Carlos Villanueva -- be moved, Jake Arrieta, recently acquired in the Scott Feldman deal, might benefit. A move to the National League improved Arrieta's chances of success, and deep NL-only owners might want to stash him as a future matchups candidate.
2. Francisco Rodriguez, RP, Milwaukee Brewers
Could this signing have worked out better for the Brewers? K-Rod signed a minor league deal with a big league salary between $2 and 2.5 million on April 17, was in the majors 29 days later, and was closing games eight days after that. In his 22 appearances, he has shown no reason for anyone to believe he can't still close, or at least pitch at a high level in a late-inning role, meaning the Brewers got a valuable trade chip for practically nothing.
That said, he's high on this list for one reason: If traded, he probably will not close for his new team … except in rare instances like that of the Detroit Tigers. Every summer has such examples of closers-turned-setup men via trade: Jonathan Broxton (2012), Octavio Dotel (2010), George Sherrill (2009), Jon Rauch (2008) and Rodriguez himself (2011). In fantasy, the loss of saves represents a precipitous drop in value, so the danger here is real. K-Rod might be a top-15 fantasy closer for up to the next 22 days, but he might then have no business being on a mixed-league roster for the season's final 50 days.
A K-Rod trade makes perfect sense considering the Brewers have two viable replacements behind him, Jim Henderson and John Axford, though Axford might also be on the trade block. Here's a not-so-crazy thought: K-Rod gets traded coming out of the All-Star break, affording Axford 13 days to boost his trade stock in the closer role, only to be traded on July 31 to clear the gig for Henderson. Look at Axford's recent performance, and you'll see why he's an especially intriguing NL-only stash:
Past 26 games: 8 holds, 0.40 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 22 K's in 22 2/3 innings
3. Josh Johnson, SP, Toronto Blue Jays
This one assumes that the Blue Jays decide to be sellers rather than buyers in the next three weeks, but as things stand, the team resides 9½ games out of the American League East lead and six in the wild-card hunt, so any sort of upcoming slump might push them into the former group. Johnson is signed only through this season, earning $13.75 in 2013, so he'd be an obvious trade candidate.
Who wouldn't like to see Johnson out of both the AL East -- which, despite absorbing criticism for not being as loaded offensively, still has seen the Blue Jays' four rivals combining to average 4.64 runs per game -- and Toronto's Rogers Centre, the third-most hitter-friendly venue in terms of home runs and fourth-most in terms of runs scored, per our 2013 MLB Park Factors page? Sure, Johnson has three of his four quality starts and a 3.67 ERA at home this season, but his 1.46 WHIP, .174 isolated power and 14.9 home run/fly ball percentage there say the venue has hardly been kind to him. A return to the National League, as he has a 3.13 ERA and 1.22 WHIP in his career against NL foes, would probably be for the best.
Any Johnson -- or R.A. Dickey or Mark Buehrle -- trade might have an additional fantasy benefit: It could result in the arrival of one of their top pitching prospects, Marcus Stroman, the No. 22 overall pick in the 2012 draft and a pitcher who has a 3.26 ERA and 1.11 WHIP in 10 starts for Double-A New Hampshire.
4. Kevin Gregg, RP, Chicago Cubs
Like Rodriguez, Gregg faces the danger of being more attractive to his acquiring team in a setup capacity than as a closer, and his lifetime 1.37 WHIP tells you a bit about his fantasy potential in the former. And like Rodriguez, Gregg signed a minor league deal with his team, only to parlay it into a big league closing gig in which he has excelled: 15-for-17 in save chances with a 1.78 ERA and 1.02 WHIP in 31 appearances. A mechanical change made much of the difference; his fastball has new life and if we knew he'd remain the Cubs' closer all year, he'd probably warrant top-20 closer consideration. Still, we not only don't know that he will, we know that he's highly likely to be dealt, partly because the Cubs, noncontenders, don't need a closer and partly because he has a cheap, attractive contract.
That's why Blake Parker, who has two holds, a 2.25 ERA and 26.2 percent strikeout rate in his first 14 appearances of 2013, has become a sleeper in NL-only and deep mixed leagues in recent days. Parker saved the Cubs' June 29 extra-inning win, only hours after manager Dale Sveum tabbed him a candidate to replace Gregg. Considering his competition is James Russell, a left-hander whom Sveum prefers in a setup capacity, Parker has a good chance at a sneaky second half.
5. Yovani Gallardo, SP, Milwaukee Brewers
Ah, the age-old question: Can a trade cure a multiyear trend of declining velocity and strikeout rates? Logically, no, and that's the obstacle for Gallardo, whose 18.6 percent K rate this season represents easily his worst at any single-season stop during his professional career, and whose 90.7 mph average fastball velocity represents nearly a 2 mph decline from his 2011 average (92.6).
A change in coaching could help, a mere change of scenery might help, but a big plus for Gallardo might be getting out of hitter-friendly Miller Park, where he has a 5.14 ERA this season. The problem, however, is that he has a limited no-trade clause of 10 teams, most of which are the contenders who would be interested in him. The Arizona Diamondbacks are one rumored suitor who isn't on that list, but Chase Field wouldn't represent much of an improvement in his surroundings. But hey, at least it'd be a change for Gallardo … and at least change would offer some glimmer of hope of turning around his otherwise lost season.
6. Bud Norris, SP, Houston Astros
Go ahead and point out his absurd career home/road splits, especially since 2011:
Home: 39 GS, 24 QS, 12 W, 2.71 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, .129 ISO, 8.2 HR/FB%
Road: 39 GS, 21 QS, 7 W, 5.42 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, .181 ISO, 11.2 HR/FB%
Norris' owners might prefer he remain right where he is, where he'd be a reliable matchups choice in his home games. That said, what if he's merely a pitcher who needs a more spacious home environment, and whose value could spike if he lands in a division light on offense? Norris is extraordinarily reliant upon his slider, his primary source of strikeouts, as his fastball is more hittable (he tends to serve up a high rate of fly balls with it), so his skills hint that'd be a smart destination. A place like San Francisco's AT&T Park might be a dream fit, especially if you consider that left-handed hitters have always hit him better than righties.
Norris is another pitcher for whom the story is as much about his potential replacement as it is himself. Jarred Cosart, who has a 3.29 ERA and 93 K's in 93 innings over 18 games (17 starts) for Triple-A Oklahoma City, might be worth tucking away in AL-only formats.
7. Jake Peavy, SP, Chicago White Sox
He'll be somewhat difficult to trade, due to his $14.5 million salary this season, $15 million in 2014 and a vesting player option for 2015 that requires another 333 innings by the end of next year, but the White Sox will sure try. Frankly, fantasy owners should be thrilled if they succeed; he'd almost assuredly receive more run support elsewhere and he'd be freed of a poor venue for his skill set. To the former point, the White Sox this season have averaged 3.65 runs per game, second-worst in the majors. To the latter, Peavy has a 43.6 percent fly-ball rate since 2010, serving up 37 home runs in 43 starts between this and last season. This one's much more about the potential gain in Peavy's fantasy value, which could be as much as 15-20 spots among starting pitchers in the right landing spot, than it is the likelihood that he's actually traded.
8. Jose Veras, RP, Houston Astros
Veras is the third closer on this list, and like the previous two, he's an attractive trade candidate due to his affordable salary ($1.85 million plus a $3.25 million option for 2014 with a $150,000 buyout) and solid performance to date, but also one whose value is threatened by a possible demotion to setup work with his acquiring team. He's actually the least appealing fantasy option in a setup role; he has four losses and three blown saves this year, and flashing back to his 2011 in that role, he blew seven saves and had a so-so 3.80 ERA and 1.24 WHIP. That's just not enough to impact our game. Veras is precisely the type of pitcher who finds himself dropped in every mixed league the instant he's traded.
But who might close for the Astros should Veras go? A committee appears the most likely scenario, with Jose Cisnero, Josh Fields and Wesley Wright top candidates, but Cisnero is the one who warrants the most attention. His command might be sketchy -- he has walked 11.5 percent of hitters he has faced in his professional career -- but he also has a mid-90s fastball that serves a legitimate strikeout pitch. Cisnero is AL-only sleeper material, though, as you can't save a game your team doesn't win.
He's the one closer on the list who is highly likely to serve in the same role for his new team, and it's all because of his contract: He's owed $13 million this year and in each of the next two, then has a $13 million option for 2016 that vests with 55 games finished in 2015 or 100 in 2014-15 combined. Papelbon is paid like a closer, so his acquiring team will surely do so with the intent to have him close. That's if any team is willing to take on his contract, which is no guarantee.
But this is as much about who might replace Papelbon in Philadelphia: Even if it's initially a committee, Justin De Fratus warrants an NL-only look. A closer in the lower levels, De Fratus managed a 3.05 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 8.99 K's per nine innings ratio during his minor league career.
10. Kyle Lohse, SP, Milwaukee Brewers
Could the Brewers really move Lohse, who is in the first year of a three-year, $33 million contract? Believe it, as he makes every bit as much sense a trade target as his rotation-mate, Gallardo, who will earn $500,000 more than Lohse in 2014. Most of Lohse's gains of 2012 have remained evident: His walk rate of 4.4 percent in 2012 has dropped to 4.1 percent this year; he has a WHIP of 1.18, up from 1.09; and his FIP is a respectable 3.47, after standing at 2.86 last year. Most of the cause of his lower fantasy value comes down to two things: the difference in ballpark factors between St. Louis' Busch Stadium and Milwaukee's Miller Park, and what has been less run support than he received with the St. Louis Cardinals. In the right situation, Lohse might have a legitimate shot at top-40-starter value.
Other candidates to be traded
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins: The No. 1 pitcher on our Player Rater the past 30 days, Cishek has erased any memory of his poor start to the season. He's another closer in jeopardy of ending up a setup man if traded.
Phil Hughes, New York Yankees: He's an extreme fly-baller susceptible to the long ball at bandbox Yankee Stadium. Elsewhere, his stock might soar.
Joe Saunders, Seattle Mariners: He has a 3.56 ERA and 1.19 WHIP in eight starts at Safeco Field. Almost anywhere else, you shouldn't touch him.
Oliver Perez, Seattle Mariners: He has thrived in a setup/occasional closer role in Seattle, but there's little doubt he'd be slotted in a firm setup role most anywhere else he lands.
Shaun Marcum, New York Mets: He has one win in 12 starts, and any gain in that department would be offset by his no longer pitching in one of the game's best pitching venues, Citi Field (1.19 WHIP there).
Jason Vargas, Los Angeles Angels: He has pitched better than anyone has given him credit for for multiple years now, and perhaps a move to the NL, or a pitching-friendly AL park, would help lower his ERA/WHIP.
TOP 150 PITCHERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 150 pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued. For position-specific rankings, see the "Pos Rnk" column; these rankings can also be seen split up by position.