If Not David Price, What Starter Can The Dodgers Target?

I think we all know the Dodgers want a starting pitcher before the July 31 deadline, and for some obvious reasons. Josh Beckett, who starts tonight, has been fantastic, but he’s also 34, coming off the disabled list, and pitching in a way that seems pretty unsustainable. Dan Haren has been awful and has a vesting option in his future we all would like to see avoided. The top three of Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, and Hyun-jin Ryu have been incredible — arguably the best in baseball — but it’s not like none of them have ever been on the disabled list before. As we’ve been through previously, the rotation depth at Triple-A is pretty thin, especially now that Stephen Fife is sidelined with yet another arm injury, leaving only Red Patterson and Zach Lee, neither ideal for various reasons.

So, clearly, adding another pitcher would be a good fit all around. But who? The obvious thought is “David Price,” and why not? Few teams have the prospects to get him; the Dodgers do. Few teams can afford to pay him; the Dodgers can. Even if a team can fulfill those first two items, if they aren’t in an active pennant race, his immediate value is somewhat lessened. Last week at FanGraphs, Jeff Sullivan ran the numbers and identified that while the Blue Jays would get the biggest boost towards making the playoffs from adding Price, the Dodgers would add more World Series probability than anybody else.

Price is a perfect fit, except for all of the reasons that he isn’t. The Rays have won 20 of their last 30 games, and while it’s still a longshot, there’s some indication that they aren’t ready to give up on 2014 and may not sell at all. If they do, the fact that they’re kind of, sort of back in it means that the price would be even higher, and this is a team that already (reportedly) turned down the A’s offer of a package centered around Addison Russell before Oakland sent him to Chicago. Without question, any Dodgers deal for Price would require at least one of Corey Seager, Joc Pederson, or Julio Urias, probably two, and since we all know Ned Colletti would try to expand the deal to add Ben Zobrist or Jake McGee, it’s all but certainly taking at least two of them plus some other parts.

Is that too much to create one of the most absurd playoff rotations ever? (Seriously, Beckett has the sixth-best ERA in baseball, and he’d be the fifth-best starter on this team.) Maybe, maybe not. You can pretty easily make the case in either direction; there’s no right answer here. But if it’s not Price, it’s going to be someone, and with Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel, and Brandon McCarthy already gone, the second wild card keeping more teams in the race, and the obvious sellers being obvious sellers for a reason, the options are thin. So… who?

Few interesting options

I don’t think the Phillies are going to trade Cole Hamels. They should, but they won’t. The Royals, somewhat similarly, should trade impending free agent James Shields, but they won’t. The Red Sox might trade impending free agent Jon Lester, since they’ve been unable to agree on a contract extension, but it still feels unlikely. Those are all pitchers you want, and they’re probably not available. What’s left are pitchers you want much less, and the drop from Price to any of these guys is potentially massive.

For example: Ian Kennedy is having a great year in San Diego. You could easily make the argument that he’s Samardzija’s equal this year, though that quickly falls apart if you begin including previous years. The Padres just traded Huston Street to the Angels and are clearly in sell mode, and the simple fact that they’re division rivals probably wouldn’t prevent a deal. Whether or not he’d be welcomed in the clubhouse after the brawl he helped incite last year is another question entirely, but it may not matter, because he’s not a free agent until after 2015, and San Diego might want to hang on to someone who can actually form a vaguely respectable team.

So who else? A.J. Burnett? He’s long refused to leave the eastern seaboard. John Danks? He’s still owed approximately $30 million over the remainder of the year and the next two seasons, and it’s been years since he’s been any good. (My rule of thumb is if I can’t easily say a pitcher is an upgrade on Haren, then it’s not worth it.) If you can somehow make it into a “my problem for yours” deal that sends an extra outfielder to the White Sox, then fine, but this is about finding an actual rotation upgrade, and Danks isn’t it. Bartolo Colon? The Mets would probably move him, but do we care? It’s too bad Ricky Nolasco has been so awful and expensive; what he offered last season is exactly what this team needs. The Rangers don’t have any non-Yu Darvish parts of interest; the Astros probably aren’t going to give up Dallas Keuchel. Do you want Kyle Kendrick? Erik Bedard? Kevin Correia? Hector Noesi? A guy who vaguely looks like he used to be Jake Peavy? No thanks.

Which leaves you with…

Not a lot, clearly. If not Price, and if the Hamels / Lester / Shields trio aren’t really available, there seems to be really only two fits for this situation.

One, obviously, is Cliff Lee, who got lit up by the Giants last night (12 hits, six earned runs in 5.2 innings) in his return from two months on the shelf with an elbow injury. That he looked terrible in a single game after being out so long doesn’t bother me that much; obviously, he’s been so good for so long, including utterly dominating the Dodgers in April, that we should know better than to focus on one bad evening. When healthy, he’s still one of the best pitchers in the game. Of course, he’s going to need to prove he’s actually healthy to make a move for him worthwhile, and with time for only one start before the deadline, that might be tough. (Not that an August waiver deal is out of the question given his contract, I suppose.)

Lee is due the remainder of his $25m this year, $25m in 2015, and then either $27.5m in 2016 or a $12.5m buyout. Let’s spitball $8m left this year, so that’s at least $45m and potentially $60m. It’s enough to keep a lot of teams out of the running; it’s not enough to prevent the Dodgers from getting him if they think he’s still productive. But it’s also not enough to stop the Yankees, who desperately need pitching now and next season, or the Mariners, who would love to pair — again — Lee with Felix Hernandez, and so on. If eating all the money means that the prospect value is low, I’d love the Dodgers to take the chance, but the Phillies are a rich team who doesn’t need to dump money and badly need to infuse talent into a desolate organization. That’s especially the case given that Ruben Amaro whiffed so badly the first time he traded Lee, getting only Tyson Gillies, Phillippe Aumont, and J.C. Ramirez when Lee went from Philadelphia to Seattle in 2009. It won’t be Seager or Pederson, but it won’t be painless.

The other option? Well, maybe John Lackey. We talked about how the Dodgers and Red Sox might fit up for an outfield deal recently, but even if it’s not that, the teams could still match up. After a mediocre 2010 debut in Boston, a disastrous 2011, and a 2012 completely lost to injury, Lackey has shockingly been very valuable over the last two years — dig that 1.91 BB/9 mark — and  just look at the names on this WAR list (he’s No. 21) below him. He’s succeeded in Los Angeles before; he’s succeeded in the postseason before. I may not care about those things, but I imagine the team does.

Lackey turns 36 in October, but he’s got a fascinating contract situation. When he signed with Boston, he agreed to a clause in which the team would get him in 2015 for the minimum salary if he had elbow surgery between 2010-14. He did, of course, and so that clause is in effect. That makes him very, very valuable, and also means the Red Sox would only move him for a realistic return. Again, this isn’t a Pederson / Seager / Urias situation, but it’s not going to be enough to merely send Darnell Sweeney, either. And since, similarly to Tampa Bay, Colletti would almost certainly try to get Andrew Miller or Koji Uehara as well, that price just goes up.

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So, the upshot here: The Dodgers need a starter. If they don’t want to pay for Price, the options are very, very limited, especially because a dozen other teams are having this exact same conversation. I don’t know exactly how this turns out, but I also can’t imagine this rotation being comprised of the same quintet six weeks from now, either.


About Mike Petriello

Mike writes about lots of baseball in lots of places, and right now that place is MLB.com.