MLB Trade Deadline: Predicting the Destinations for Top Starting Pitchers

Starting pitchers are usually all the rage at the trade deadline, and this year should be no exception. Here's where the available arms could be headed.

The interminable All-Star Break is finally over, which means the unofficial start to the second half of the 2015 season is upon us. It also means trade deadline season is here, as the buyers assess their needs and the sellers hope to use the desperation of the buyers to become buyers next year or the year after.

It's the MLB July 31st Swap Meet, and business is about to pick up.

Even with pitching dominating the game as much as it ever has, the need for quality starting pitching by contending teams is still very real. And it just so happens there are some very good starters pitching for some pretty bad teams right now, which means a lot of arms could be on the move over the next couple weeks.

Here are the starters who could be made available, and where they might be going.

Johnny Cueto - Cincinnati Reds

At 39-47, 15.5 games out of the NL Central and with a run differential of -48, the Reds aren't going to the playoffs this year. Which means, it's time for the selling to begin, and the top item that should be on the move is free agent-to-be Cueto. Johnny is having another outstanding season, with a 2.73 ERA, 3.06 fielding independent pitching (FIP) and fWAR of 2.7 in 17 starts (118 2/3 innings). His nERD of 2.13, which means that Cueto would give up 2.13 runs per nine innings less than a league average pitcher (21st in MLB).

There are a lot of teams that would love to get their hands on Cueto, particularly teams that can't afford a huge financial commitment. However, a team that wants Cueto would have to be one that has significant prospects to deal, as Johnny is one of the best pitchers in the National League and won't be given away for nothing.

The Astros, Blue Jays and Royals are said to have the most interest, according to USA Today's Bob Nightengale. If Cueto were to join Houston, his 2.13 nERD would rank second among starters after Dallas Keuchel, giving Houston a formidable 1-2 punch. However, outside of the Dodgers, the Blue Jays are probably the most desperate team in terms of wanting to make the playoffs (they haven't played in the postseason since Joe Carter was dancing around the bases), and adding a rental like Cueto would seem to be a perfect fit.

Prediction: Toronto Blue Jays

Cole Hamels - Philadelphia Phillies

Cole Hamels is the guy everyone is sick of reading about, which is why perhaps every national media writer is itching for him to be traded to a contender. No one wants to write about this anymore.

Yet, here we are, with the Phils clear sellers and possessing perhaps the top starting pitcher on the market. The advantage of Hamels over Cueto is team control. Any club that trades for Cole knows they have an ace starter locked in for at least the next three years at the reasonable "ace" cost of $23.5 million a year. That works out to $70.5 million over three years, with a team option of $20 million in 2019. Hamels will be 35 years old that season, but any team that acquires him right now has him for just over $90 million for four years. Rick Porcello is costing the Red Sox $82.5 million over that same time period. And Hamels' contract is about half of what it will cost to sign Cueto or David Price as a free agent this off-season.

Despite an ERA that is a bit above normal for Cole (3.63), his nERD of 2.26 is 11th among MLB pitchers and has struck out 9.49 batters per nine innings so far this year. He's still an elite ace pitcher.

Of course, any team that wants Hamels will have to be able to afford his salary and possess the prospects and the willingness to deal them. There are only a handful of teams that meet this criteria: the Red Sox, Yankees, Rangers, Cubs, and Dodgers. The Astros, Blue Jays, Angels, Giants and Orioles all lack at least one of those criteria.

The smart money is on the Dodgers, who could see Hamels as a replacement for Zack Greinke, who is expected to opt out of his contract after this season. They can easily afford Hamels' salary, would give them a Greinke replacement next year and provide L.A. with the depth they need to battle the St. Louis Cardinals and Washington Nationals in the NL playoffs.

Prediction: Los Angeles Dodgers

Jeff Samardzija - Chicago White Sox

It's still unclear if the White Sox are going to sell or hang on with what they have, as they're just four games under .500 at 41-45, 11 games out in the AL Central but just 5 1/2 out in the wild card.

At the moment, Samardzija probably isn't going anywhere, but if he does, he'll fetch a nice price tag. His ERA is high this year (4.01), with his strikeout rate down a bit and his walk rate a bit elevated as well. However, he's pitched better lately, with a 2.40 ERA in his last six starts, holding opponents to a .225 batting average during that time. And his 2.18 nERD overall this season is tied for 14th in baseball.

Like Cueto, Samardzija is a free agent at the end of the season, so he'd be a rental as well. But he wouldn't cost as much as Cueto, although the 30-year-old won't come cheap either. For one of the teams that miss out on Cueto or Hamels, Samardzija could be a nice consolation prize. He makes a lot of sense for a team like the Astros, Blue Jays, Angels, Giants, Cubs, Red Sox and Orioles.

Prediction: Houston Astros

James Shields - San Diego Padres

If general manager A.J. Preller puts Shields on the trading block, it would be a shock. Yes, San Diego has disappointed by getting out to a 41-49 record with a roster that clearly doesn't work. And while trading pending free agents like Justin Upton and Ian Kennedy (more on him in a moment) and volatile bullpen guys like Craig Kimbrel makes a lot of sense, unloading Shields does not.

The Padres want to contend in 2016 as well, and the only way they can do that is by keeping Shields. However, if they do make him available, he will be serious competition for the Hamels market. Like Cole, Shields is under team control for the next three years at a very reasonable cost, $63 million starting in 2016, with a team option of $16 million in 2017. However, Shields is two years older than Hamels and isn't quite as good.

In 19 starts he has a 4.01 ERA and a 4.16 WHIP with a nERD of 2.18 that is tied with Samardzija for 14th. His strikeout rate has exploded this year, but his walk rate has as well. Should the Padres make him available, which I don't think they will, a reunion with his former skipper Joe Maddon makes a lot of sense.

Prediction: Chicago Cubs

Scott Kazmir - Oakland Athletics

Like Chicago, it's unclear if the A's are ready to sell yet either. While they have the worst record in the American League at 41-50, their run differential of +44 is fourth-best in the AL, indicating they've been a very unlucky team so far. They are eight games out in the wild card, however, and 8 1/2 back in the division. And with Kazmir being a free agent at the end of the season, it's hard to imagine general manager Billy Beane not entertaining offers for the veteran left-hander.

Kazmir has had another nice season for Oakland with a 2.49 ERA, a 3.18 FIP and a nERD of 1.89. Of all the less expensive rentals on the market, Kazmir is the best and is owed less than half of the $13 million he was due this year. One division leader that needs an upgrade to their starting rotation is the group that currently leads the American League East.

Prediction: New York Yankees

Ian Kennedy - San Diego Padres

And our raid of the Padres pitching staff begins. Obviously, the Padres aren't going to trade all their starters, so this is just a best guess of where these guys would go if they do get moved.

Kennedy had a nice season last year with a 3.63 ERA and an fWAR of 3.5, but this year he's been a sub-replacement level player with an fWAR of -0.6 and an ERA of 4.91. I'm not sure exactly what San Diego could get for him, although he is relatively cheap, owed less than half of the $9.85 million left on his contract. Perhaps he'd be good back-end fodder for a contender.

Prediction: Baltimore Orioles

Andrew Cashner - San Diego Padres

Cashner has not been as good as in years past, with a 4.10 ERA this season, up from 2.55 last year and 3.09 the year before. His strikeout and walk rates remain about the same, but he's been getting hurt by the long ball, and his hits per nine innings are up as well. But he's just 28 years old, has another year of arbitration before he becomes a free agent, and is owed less than half of his $4 million salary this year.

He's a cheap alternative for a team looking for a back-of-the-rotation guy.

Prediction: Boston Red Sox

Mike Leake - Cincinnati Reds

Aside from Cueto, Leake could be a pitcher that nets Cincinnati a prospect or two, although nothing high-end. He is an innings eater with a 4.08 ERA, 4.15 FIP and nERD of 1.81, which isn't too shabby, but not what you want starting for you in Game 3 of the NLCS.

Still, Leake could be a nice piece for the Dodgers to put in the back of the rotation, even if they do get a top-of-the-rotation starter as expected.

Prediction: Los Angeles Dodgers

Kyle Lohse - Milwaukee Brewers

Lohse is in the midst of a dreadful season, with a 5-10 record and a 6.17 ERA thanks mainly to a home run-per-fly ball rate that is far higher than his career norms. But his FIP of 4.84 and nERD of 1.73 suggests he hasn't been as bad as advertised, and Lohse does have pennant race and playoff experience. Kansas City could use another arm, so let's send him there.

Prediction: Kansas City Royals

Matt Garza - Milwaukee Brewers

Garza has been on the disabled list since the beginning of the month with shoulder tendinitis, but should be able to come back and make a start or two before the trade deadline. Like Lohse, Garza has been hammered by the long ball this year, but his 5.55 ERA is closer to his FIP of 4.97. He has a respectable nERD of 1.68, but injuries worries make him a risky add for a contender looking for certainty.

Prediction: Baltimore Orioles

There are other pitchers who could conceivably be dealt, like pending free agents Jordan Zimmermann and David Price, but I highly doubt it, as both teams are still in contention and committed to trying to win this year.

The trade market has been quiet thus far, but that likely won't continue over the last half of this month.