with the news that chris carpenter will not throw a pitch in a real game in 2012, the cardinals edged ever closer to the very tight starting pitching market.
i think we won't see the club make a sudden move. while i don't hold out a lot of hope that jaime garcia will return from his disabled list stint this year, the club cannot lightly decide to make this kind of trade. the costs of these kinds of in-season moves are enormous.
if there's any chance jaime will come back and pitch this season, the cardinals will likely put this decision off right up to the deadline. if jaime comes back from his rehab with a surgery date, there won't be a lot of reason to hold out of the trade market.
and that's not to malign joe kelly, who looks like a pretty solid starter. after 5 starts, he has an FIP of 4.42 and an xFIP of 4.33 and a SIERA of 4.50. i'm inclined to think that that kind of slightly above replacement value starter performance is what we can expect from him, rather than his rest-of-the-season ZiPS of a 5.17 FIP; that strikes me as very pessimistic.
the difference between kelly and a top-notch starter over half a season is probably about 3 wins above replacement, or about $15m in value.
of course, the big factor is not just the value of the wins in isolation, but the added playoff probabilities. BP's Independence Day forecasts see the cardinals winning 87 games, with a 32% chance of winning the division, and a 24% chance of taking a wild card slot. since each wild card slot now carries a roughly 50% chance of proceeding beyond the one-game playoff, that leaves the cardinals with a roughly 45% chance of appearing in the divisional round of the postseason.
adding a 3-win pitcher at the deadline to an 87-win team is right in the wheelhouse of the playoff win curve. you'd be talking about increasing our chances to win the division about 20%. our likellihood of winning a wild card slot would probably decrease slightly, leaving our chances of making the divisional round of the playoffs at around 60-65%. (due to the new CBA rules, the wild card calculus has changed significantly; however, since two teams with similar records will face each other, a 50/50 likelihood of winning that one-game playoff seems like a fair estimate). so, our chances of appearing in the divisional playoffs would increase about 15-20%.
that's certainly worth something.
i am ignoring here the benefit associated with putting joe kelly in the bullpen. any such benefit seems speculative in terms of the overall bullpen, partially because i don't have a great projection for him in the bullpen, and partially because it's not totally clear who he'd replace. i would assume he'd be taking cleto's current spot. in the end, you're probably talking about half a win over the remainder of the season.
if we decide to go another direction and get a fill-in pitcher as depth, the benefit would probably be much more marginal. like i said, kelly is probably a touch above replacement value, so even a league-average pitcher would be worth less than a win over kelly in the course of a half-season. again, you could then project kelly to join the bullpen and add his value as a reliever to the calculus, but you're talking about a little more than a win. still, that one win is nothing to sneeze at.
the other theory behind a fill-in pitcher would be not so much to replace kelly, but to insure against collapse or injury from one of the other four starters. some people have been looking askance at lance lynn's last three starts. i think that's garbage, but people will predict upcoming disaster based on three starts regardless of what i say. anyway, the risk of injury to a starting pitcher is not nil, and our immediately available depth - especially with shelby miller undergoing serious scrutiny at memphis - looks suddenly weaker than it did. dickson could probably come up and start and not embarrass us, but he is more a stopgap than a long-term solution.
well, the trick is - what do midseason star pitcher trades cost?
for a one-year rental - i.e., someone who is a free agent at the end of the year - the answer is a lot. for someone under club control for multiple years at a discount, the answer is lots and lots.
zach greinke is one name that has floated around recently. he'd certainly be an interesting pickup. his 2.37 FIP trails only stephen strasburg for the best among starting pitchers. i have no idea if the brewers are a) willing to count themselves out for the year or b) willing to trade within the division.
but, assuming the brewers are willing to do both things, what's an archetype for a midseason rental of one of the best pitchers in the division? well, milwaukee was previously on the other end of such a trade. the brewers traded for c.c. sabathia from the indians, giving up matt laporta, michael brantley, rob bryson, and zack jackson in exchange.
the trade ultimately did not yield the indians very much in terms of value. in fact, throw-in michael brantley has been the most valuable piece in the trade. nevertheless, matt laporta was a consensus top 50 in baseball prospect at the time of the trade. rob bryson was a raw but promising recently-drafted right-handed pitcher. jackson was a journeyman starter. brantley, a PTBNL, had some promise as a no-power centerfielder, but had endured a rough transition to AA in 2007.
as stated above, brantley has been a below average centerfielder for cleveland. laporta has been nothing but a disappointment to cleveland. zack jackson made nine starts in 2008 for cleveland, had a brief callup in 2009, and was then traded; he has not appeared in the majors since 2009. bryson has never made a major league appearance, and until he gets his walk rate down, probably never will.
if you swapped the names for people in the cardinals' system, you might end up with kolten wong, john gast, brandon dickson, and c.j. mcelroy (not totally happy with the gast pick; there's not a great comp for bryson in the cardinals' system - at least in terms of how he was seen in 2008). i don't see the cardinals trading wong at all, so let's put carlos martinez in for him.
martinez, gast, dickson, and mcelroy. the brewers need pitching (since their budget is tight). assuming they see themselves out of the race and are willing to trade with us, they wouldn't hang up the phone on that.
the one thing that's different this year is that the brewers would certainly get a first-round pick for greinke if he stayed (all they have to do is offer him a 1-year $12m deal, which he'd surely reject). yet, this year, the cardinals would NOT get a first-round pick for greinke if he signed elsewhere for 2013. that change in the draft pick calculus is a very big deal.
looking at victor wang's analysis of the sabathia deal (note that wang assumes, incorrectly, that taylor greene will be the PTBNL in the deal), in fact, the picks were worth almost HALF of what milwaukee should have gotten out of the deal ($16.6M out of a projected $35M value). that makes these midseason deals far less attractive to the team trading prospects for a current talent.
it is worth taking a moment to note that there is substantial uncertainty in these trades. none of the draftees that milwaukee ended up with were any good. most of the prospects cleveland got were busts. in the end, the brewers spent some more money and reached the postseason on the wild card, but didn't get far, eliminated 3-1 in the NLDS by the phillies. that's not to say this is a typical outcome, but the unexpected does happen.
we are sometimes accused of overvaluing our prospects, and it is important to note, for instance, that carlos martinez is not a sure thing. pitching prospects go bust; they get injured. i like him, but it's not crazy to think of trading him.
what's a little unclear at this point is whether and how the market will adjust to the changed circumstance with draft picks. it may be that the market comes down a little bit; maybe that pretty substantial package changes some. i somewhat doubt it; as i said at the outset, the trade market is extremely tight. the new CBA gives an affirmative incentive to keep players in place, even on teams out of contention. however, if the market adjusts to a lower return for midseason trades, a trade centered around a top 100, but not top 50 prospect (matt adams, tyrell jenkins) would be extremely palatable.
that kind of package barely made sense for the brewers in 2008, when the brewers were very similarly situated to the 2012 cardinals, and almost half the value depended on getting the draft picks when sabathia left. it is very unlikely that such a midseason trade makes sense in the abstract for the cardinals, now that NO draft picks are available.
i'll add two caveats, which may be significant ones. i pulled the greinke example mostly as an example of a really good rental pitcher, partially because his name was mentioned in the rumor mill. although other top-notch pitchers are not quite greinke level, you'd see an only slightly more modest trade proposal, i think, for cole hamels, say.
however, in greinke's particular case, he may yield some kind of market inefficiency in our favor. first, he's underrated. he really is among the greatest pitchers in the game now, and he continually gets overlooked, partially because he's played for low-profile teams. more importantly, there's a lot of muttering about big market teams not wanting to put greinke's mental condition to the test - if you haven't heard, greinke had a history with depression in kansas city.
if some of the traditional big, high-pressure programs are avoiding greinke, it could reduce milwaukee's leverage in trade. again, milwaukee can always say, "we'll keep zach and the picks," but they may have a smaller group of suitors for such a trade.
the second unknown is whether the club has longer term ambitions for greinke (or another top-notch pitcher). the club has shown a preference for trade-and-signs (holliday, furcal), and there's some belief that letting a player test the waters in st. louis helps convince the tradee to sign an extension. greinke has indicated some willingness to be traded and to sign an extension with st. louis; to the extent the cardinals care, the potential for extension beyond 2012 could very well be relevant. and, for the reasons stated above, st. louis could be a preferred landing spot for greinke, over other clubs willing to pay top dollar but in an environment with a more glaring spotlight.