These past few weeks, Matt Garza has been doing the best pitching of his Chicago Cubs career. Good timing!
During this period of the 2013 MLB season, when potential contenders explore all trade possibilities, recent player production is weighted heavily. Players who raise their value he highest before the July 31 deadline improve their chances of escaping losing environments.
When it comes to impending free agents like Matt Garza and Jesse Crain, the logic makes sense. The teams hoping to acquire them from the Windy City will only be making a half-season commitment. Doubts about durability, consistency and the influence of luck can be put on the back burner.
Pursuing players with longer contracts, on the other hand, is much more risky.
Though Andre Ethier and Cliff Lee have been riding hot streaks, who knows what they'll contribute later this decade as they exit their physical primes?
The common thread connecting the following players is that they're gradually becoming more desirable around the league.
For all our sakes, Yovani Gallardo should stay in the National League. It's so rare to find any pitcher with a .211/.239/.371 career batting line and 12 home runs (.250/.250/.469, 2 HR in 2013).
Thanks to a solid June the veteran right-hander is only slightly behind his usual 200-inning pace. His streak of 22 consecutive scoreless frames ended on Wednesday, but immediately prior to that, Gallardo completed a month of great command.
With 44 K in 46.2 IP since May 20, he has reverted to 2009-2012 form, when he was revered for stabilizing the Milwaukee Brewer rotation.
Gallardo is still owed about half of his $7.75 million salary for 2013, plus $11.25 million next summer. A 2015 club option can be exercised for $13 million or declined for only $600,000.
The Los Angeles Dodgers don't have the payroll, roster or mindset of a seller, but if Carl Crawford returns to full strength soon, Andre Ethier could be gone. Between Crawford, Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig, there simply won't be many opportunities to use the 31-year-old.
Ethier has bounced back from a pitiful early season start, reaching base in 14 of his past 15 starts. He's rocking a .887 OPS since June 15 with only four strikeouts in 46 plate appearances.
Any team craving versatility in the outfield may give him a serious thought.
The longtime right fielder shifted to center in Kemp's absence, and Steve Dilbeck of the Los Angeles Times reports that Ethier is now getting re-acquainted with left.
Of course, the five-year, $85 million contract complicates things, even if the Dodgers eat most of it. The back-loaded deal just took effect this season and includes a $17.5 million vesting option for 2018.
Ever since Opening Day, there have been rumblings about Bud Norris' inevitable departure from the rebuilding Houston Astros.
Discussions with general manager Jeff Luhnow ought to be heating up now.
Norris has improved his earned run average by a full run in 2013 while averaging about six innings per start. Entering a Friday night date with the Los Angeles Angels, he's enjoying a consistent month (3.38 ERA, 28/8 K/BB in 32.0 IP with 4 QS).
According to both Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, his WAR halfway through the season is the highest of his major league career. Even better, Norris can be controlled via arbitration through 2015.
Jesse Crain hasn't been in the news this much since he moved from the Minnesota Twins to their AL Central rivals.
A handful of playoff hopefuls will plead to be his third MLB team.
Rumor has it that every Chicago White Sox player not named Chris Sale or Paul Konerko can be obtained for the right price, per Jon Heyman of CBS Sports.
The right-handed setup man allowed earned runs in back-to-back appearances on April 11 and 12, but none since. Among qualifying MLB relievers, only Rex Brothers possesses a lower earned run average in 2013. Crain's 11.94 K/9 trumps those of more prominent strikeout artists, like Joaquin Benoit, David Robertson and Sergio Romo.
His contract calls for about $750,000 per month, which makes him a great bargain if the good times continue to roll.
Steve Chisek's age—he turned 27 on June 18—and remaining years under team control are huge selling points.
The lanky closer is also proving that he's ready to influence a pennant race right now.
Length-wise, his current scoreless streak pales in comparison to Jesse Crain's, but consider the quality of it. The opposition has an anemic .194 OPS against Chisek over his past 10 games, including zero walks or extra-base hits.
More than half of all Miami Marlins victories in 2013 have been saved by Chisek. Excluding intentional walks, he boasts a 4.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
While it's true that Nate Schierholtz has been a liability against southpaws, there should be plenty of suitors eager to fit him into a platoon role.
This month is shaping up to be the best of his seven-year career. Schierholtz has slashed .303/.390/.667 with 12 extra-base hits in only 77 plate appearances. For the season, he's a .289/.339/.555 hitter with 11 home runs.
Moreover, his throwing arm is ideal for right field due to its strength and accuracy.
Though Schierholtz only signed a one-year deal with the Chicago Cubs as a free agent this winter, he'll be eligible for arbitration in 2014.
Just when it seemed that Matt Garza would be a buy-low target, he pitches three straight gems.
Fine, don't acknowledge his starts against the Houston Astros and New York Mets, but aren't the Milwaukee Brewers a respectable offensive team? Garza went into Miller Park and whiffed 10 batters for the first time this summer, surrendering one run through seven innings.
With these latest performances, his ERA and WHIP dropped from 6.26 to 3.83 and 1.35 to 1.16 to better reflect the pitcher he has been in a Chicago Cubs uniform.
Coming off an injury-shortened campaign, the former first-round draft pick settled for $10.25 million prior to this season. A trade would rule out the possibility of a qualifying offer and likely lead to a huge free-agent contract.
There were many jokes made at Cliff Lee's expense when he finished 2012 with only six wins. Pitching like a genuine rotation leader, he was suffering as a result of limited run support and poor bullpen assistance.
Not much has changed this season, but he's been staying on the mound longer to ensure that teammates don't ruin his masterpieces. The 34-year-old is averaging seven and two-thirds innings over his past 10 starts, each time limiting his prey to three earned runs or less.
Impressively, seven of those were road matchups.
In terms of WAR, WHIP and every other meaningful acronym that evaluates pitching, Lee's 2013 season ranks among baseball's best. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that he's banking $25 million in salary, as he will in 2014 and 2015.
GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has shot down all rumors about making his ace available, but perhaps a craving for salary relief and a strong prospect package will lead to a change of heart.