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What it takes to land a front-line starting pitcher

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It will probably take more than Clint Robinson.

Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

The Royals enter July in solid contention for not just a division title, but a return to the World Series. The team has gotten off to a great start, but there are cracks beneath the surface. The starting pitching has been inconsistent, putting up the third-worst ERA among any American League rotation. Accordingly, the Royals are likely going to be in the market for a starting pitcher. Names like Cole Hamels, Johnny Cueto, and Mike Leake are already floating around, and names like Scott Kazmir, Dan Haren, and Mat Latos could soon join them on the rumor mill.

Do the Royals have the prospects necessary to trade for a front line starting pitcher? Let's take a look at recent history and examine what has been required in the past to land a coveted arm. I looked at some of the top pitchers dealt at the July deadline the last few seasons with less than two years before free agency to see what was required to land these arms.

Jon Lester

July 31, 2014: Traded by the Boston Red Sox with Jonny Gomes and cash to the Oakland Athletics for Yoenis Cespedes and 2015 competitive balance round B pick.

Year Team W L ERA FIP IP SO9 BB9 fWAR
2012 Red Sox 9 14 4.82 4.11 205.1 7.3 3.0 2.6
2013 Red Sox 15 8 3.75 3.59 213.1 7.5 2.8 3.5
2014 Red Sox 10 7 2.52 2.62 143.0 9.4 2.0 4.0

This is a bit of an unusual trade in that Boston received no prospects in return for two months of Jon Lester and Jonny Gomes, instead receiving MLB regular Yoenis Cespedes in a controversial move that some A's fans blame for the collapse of the club down the stretch. Cespedes was later flipped for pitcher Rick Porcello this past off-season. The Royals are almost certainly not going to trade one of their solid regulars (I'm sure Alex Rios or Omar Infante is available though!) so this comp is not very useful.

Top Royals comp: Alex Gordon.

Likelihood this is offered: Haha, no.

David Price

July 31, 2014: Traded as part of a 3-team trade by the Tampa Bay Rays to the Detroit Tigers. The Detroit Tigers sent Austin Jackson to the Seattle Mariners. The Detroit Tigers sent Willy Adames and Drew Smyly to the Tampa Bay Rays. The Seattle Mariners sent Nick Franklin to the Tampa Bay Rays.

Year Team W L ERA FIP IP SO9 BB9 fWAR
2012 Rays 20 5 2.56 3.05 211.0 8.7 2.5 5.1
2013 Rays 10 8 3.33 3.03 186.2 7.3 1.3 4.5
2014 Rays 11 8 3.11 2.93 170.2 10 1.2 3.9

Again, this was an odd trade in that starter Austin Jackson went from the Tigers to the Mariners in this three-way trade. Price has been one of the best pitchers in baseball, and had a season and a half of control left, leaving many observers to call this an underwhelming return for the Rays.

Drew Smyly was a young, controllable pitcher who had just transitioned to being a starter after pitching out of the pen. The closest comp the Royals could offer would probably be Danny Duffy. Austin Jackson had averaged 3.5 fWAR in the full seasons prior to getting traded, so its tough to imagine the Royals trading away a player that valuable in a pennant run. Infielder Willie Adames was a high upside lottery ticket.

Top Royals comp: Danny Duffy, Lorenzo Cain, and Elier Hernandez

Likehood this is offfered: It seems extremely unlikely the Royals would part with two starters, and there really isn't anyone of Price's caliber out there that would make it worth it anyways.

Jeff Samardzija

July 5, 2014: Traded by the Chicago Cubs with Jason Hammel to the Oakland Athletics for Billy McKinney, Addison Russell, Dan Straily and cash.

Year
Teamm W L ERA FIP IP SO9 BB9 fWAR
2012 Cubs 9 13 3.81 3.55 174.2 9.3 2.9 2.9
2013 Cubs 8 13 4.34 3.77 213.2 9.0 3.3 2.9
2014 Cubs 2 7 2.83 3.09 108.0 8.6 2.6 2.2

The fact the Cubs threw in pitcher Jason Hammel complicates things a bit in assessing Samardzija's value. Samardzija had a season and a half of control left, and was later dealt to the White Sox (and could be dealt again before the year is done). Addison Russell was graded an "A" prospect by John Sickels, and was considered one of the top 20 prospects in baseball by virtually everyone. McKinney was graded a "B" prospect before the season, but performed well in High A ball, and after the year made many "Top 100" prospect lists. Dan Straily was a 25-year old who had put together a decent season in 2013 in the big leagues, but sputtered in 2014.

The Royals don't have anyone of the pedigree of Russell, who is already the starting second baseman for the Cubs. This would be a pretty steep price to pay, although the net return is two pitchers to fill out the rotation.

Top Royals comp: Raul Mondesi, Bubba Starling, and Danny Duffy.

Likelihood this is offered: Very poor. Its hard to see the Royals parting with Duffy or Mondesi, much less both of them, even if it nets the two starting pitchers.

Matt Garza

July 22, 2013: Traded by the Chicago Cubs to the Texas Rangers for C.J. Edwards, Neil Ramirez, Justin Grimm and Mike Olt.

Year Tm W L ERA FIP SO9 BB9 fWAR
2011 Cubs 10 10 3.32 2.95 9.0 2.9 5.0
2012 Cubs 5 7 3.91 4.17 8.3 2.8 1.1
2013 Cubs 6 1 3.17 3.78 7.9 2.5 0.9

The Rangers gave up a lot to get a declining pitcher in Matt Garza. Third baseman Mike Olt was the plum of the group of prospects, a power-hitter with 28 home runs in AA leading up to the trade. He was considered a top 25 prospect and ranked an "A-" prospect by John Sickels. C.J. Edwards was not on prospect lists before the year, but had a remarkable season in Low A ball as a 21-year old, with a 1.83 ERA and nearly 12 strikeouts per nine innings. He was ranked a "C+" prospect before the year, but his outstanding season put him on Top 100 lists for 2013.

Neil Ramirez had once been a Top 100 prospect due to his stuff, but had seen terrible results by the time of the trade. Justin Grimm was a young starting pitcher in the big league struggling with a 6.36 ERA for the Rangers.

Top Royals comp: Raul Mondesi, Scott Blewitt, Cheslor Cuthbert and Christian Binford.

Likelihood this is offered: None. The Rangers overpaid out of desperation, and even though this Royals package doesn't match what they offered, there is no way the Royals give up this much.

Zack Greinke

July 27, 2012: Traded by the Milwaukee Brewers to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for Ariel Pena, Johnny Hellweg and Jean Segura.

Year
W L ERA FIP IP SO9 BB9 fWAR
2010 Royals 10 14 4.17 3.34 220.0 7.4 2.3 4.7
2011 Brewers 16 6 3.83 2.98 171.2 10.5 2.4 3.8
2012 Brewers 9 3 3.44 2.53 123.0 8.9 2.0 3.6

Zack Greinke was a few months before hitting free agency when the Brewers shipped him to the Angels for their pennant push. Greinke had been putting up solid numbers, although he hadn't matched the numbers of his 2009 Cy Young season. Segura was rated as a "B" prospect by John Sickels before the year, and was considered in the 50-70 range among "Top 100 prospects". He had a solid, but not spectacular season at AA in 2012 before the trade, hitting .294/.346/.404.

John Hellweg was a 23-year old pitcher in AA with low upside, but rated a "B-" prospect by Sickels. Ariel Pena was a "C+" prospect at the same age, but had much higher upside with many more strikeouts in AA.

Top Royals comp: Raul Mondesi, Christian Binford, and Glenn Sparkman

Likelihood this is offered: Decent. The Royals would have to be pretty bowled over to deal Mondesi, but for a guy like Greinke it might be worth it. Unfortunately, there won't be anyone of Greinke's ability on the market this summer. Would they deal Mondesi for a pitcher signed beyond this season? Maybe.

Anibal Sanchez

July 23, 2012: Traded by the Miami Marlins with Omar Infante to the Detroit Tigers for Rob Brantly, Brian Flynn and Jacob Turner.

Year Team W L ERA FIP IP SO9 BB9 fWAR
2010 Marlins 13 12 3.55 3.32 195.0 7.2 3.2 3.9
2011 Marlins 8 9 3.67 3.35 196.1 9.3 2.9 3.5
2012 Marlins 5 7 3.94 3.43 121.0 8.2 2.5 2.1

Sanchez is probably a step below some of the other names mentioned, but still a very valuable pitcher that could anchor a rotation. The Tigers were also able to stabilize their second base position by acquiring Omar Infante in this deal. Jacob Turner was the big get for the Marlins. The former first-round pick was considered a Top 25 prospect by everyone at the time with Sickels ranking him an "A-" prospect. He had already made his Major League debut, but had struggled in a handful of games.

Brian Flynn (now in the Royals organization) was a low-upside 22 year old just moving up to AA, ranked a "C+ prospect by Sickels. Catcher Rob Brantly had put himself on the radar screen with a terrific season at AA that year, but was not considered much of a prospect.

Top Royals comp: Brandon Finnegan, Jake Junis, and Zane Evans

Likelihood this is offered: Decent. This probably all depends on what the Royals think Finnegan's chances of becoming a starting pitcher are for the future. If they think he's just a reliever, he could be dealt for a guy like Johnny Cueto, with Junis and Evans coming along for the ride. If the Royals still see a starting pitcher in Finnegan, then they're not going to deal young starting pitching for a short-term pitcher.

Ryan Dempster

July 31, 2012: Traded by the Chicago Cubs to the Texas Rangers for Christian Villanueva and Kyle Hendricks.

Year Team W L ERA FIP IP SO9 BB9 fWAR
2010 Cubs 15 12 3.85 3.99 215.1 8.7 3.6 2.8
2011 Cubs 10 14 4.80 3.90 202.1 8.5 3.6 2.7
2012 Cubs 5 5 2.25 3.43 104.0 7.2 2.3 1.9

Dempster was 35 years old when traded, which may have depressed his value somewhat. He was coming off a nice run of seasons however, and was an impending free agent. Villanueva was ranked the 100th best prospect in baseball by Baseball America before the season. As a 21-year old in 2012, he had a solid, but not a stand-out season in High A ball, hitting .285/.356/.421. Sickels ranked him a "B-" prospect with better stats than tools. Hendricks was considered a low-ceiling 22-year old pitcher in High A ball putting up fantastic numbers. He has since reached the big leagues with some success.

Tom Royals comp: Miguel Almonte and Erik Skoglund

Likelihood this is offered: Good. A trade like this would not require the Royals to give up any top-shelf talent nor their current Major League talent. However, they probably won't be able to land a Johnny Cueto or Clay Buchholz with this package, this would be more for the Mike Leake-type pitchers available.

The fact there isn't a Zack Greinke or Jon Lester-quality pitcher available this summer should depress the price for pitchers this summer. However with so much parity, and so many teams still in it, there could be a market flooded with buyers, with few sellers, driving prices for mediocre pitchers up. The going rate for a very good, but not elite pitcher with a few months to a year left of control seems to be one Top 100 prospect like Raul Mondesi, one high ceiling player who is far away from the big leagues, and one lower ceiling pitcher who has had some success in the minors. The Royals system has had mixed results this summer, particularly with injuries, but they should be able to absorb that kind of loss. The question will be whether there is anyone on the market worth giving that up for.