As we enter the final stretch of the season, with just over a month's worth of games remaining, the contenders have been identified.
The Phillies, Yankees, Red Sox, Braves, Brewers and Tigers are all on cruise-control towards the playoffs, while the Rangers and Angels compete for the AL West, and the Diamondbacks and Giants fight for the NL West.
Teams like the Indians, White Sox, Rays and Cardinals have outside chances if they can forge a late-season rally, but odds are that they, along with the remaining 16 major league teams, will not play October baseball in 2011.
Fans of those teams, and maybe even fans of the contenders, will be looking ahead to the winter offseason. The Hot Stove will heat up once again, with yet another class of free agents set to hit the market.
This year's class is packed with brand names.
Jose Reyes, Jonathan Papelbon, Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Beltran, Heath Bell, Lance Berkman, Prince Fielder and, yes, Albert Pujols will be up for grabs among others.
Notice anything missing from that short list?
No, there are not many top-of-the-rotation-type starting pitchers set to become free agents this year.
C.J. Wilson, Hiroki Kuroda and Mark Buehrle will likely benefit from this, as will potential Japanese imports Hisashi Iwakuma and Yu Darvish. But it remains to be seen how highly teams think of them.
If teams are in desperate need of starting pitching, they may need to turn to the trade market to find themselves a decent option that they won't need to overpay for.
So, let's see which pitchers are likely to be dealt during the upcoming offseason.
Cincinnati Reds pitcher Edinson Volquez has had his fair share of struggles the past few years. This season, in 16 starts, he has gone 5-4 with a 5.93 ERA, leading to a demotion to Triple-A.
However, in 10 starts down in the Minors, Volquez is 3-1 with a 2.30 ERA.
If this success can even partially translate to the Majors once he joins the club in September, the Reds would likely try to use that small sample to pass him off on another team during the offseason.
Taking a chance on Volquez would be a bit of a risk, but since he is still arbitration-eligible, clubs may take that risk. Trading either one top-prospect or a mid-level prospect with a low-level prospect, would probably be enough to acquire him.
And with the potential upside (17-6 with a 3.21 ERA in 2008), it's definitely a risk worth taking.
Of all of the pitchers on this list, the Phillies' Joe Blanton probably has the best chance of being traded.
Even though he has fought elbow issues this whole season and may require surgery, it would only take around three months to rehab, meaning he would be ready for Spring Training 2012.
The only problem would be with how teams feel about trading for a surgically-repaired pitcher who barely pitched the previous season. If a trade was agreed upon, the team receiving Blanton would definitely require a thorough physical.
The Phillies will probably really want to dump Blanton's remaining $8.5 million salary, considering they already have five ace-caliber starters. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and the surprising rookie, Vance Worley, have pitched well all season long, while Roy Oswalt has rebounded nicely from his DL stint thus far.
There simply isn't a place for Blanton in the Phillies' rotation, so unless they plan on using him in the bullpen, the best option would be to trade him.
Wandy Rodriguez still has a chance to be traded this season; many have speculated that the Astros will desperately be trying to dump his salary during the waiver-wire period.
ESPN New York reported yesterday that the New York Yankees have no interest, and it's doubtful a deal would be made, as the Astros want the receiving team to take on the majority of Rodriguez's remaining contract—three years and $36 million. That's a lot to ask for a guy with a career 4.07 ERA.
However, I suspect the Astros' main goal this offseason will be trading Wandy.
They have cashed-in most of their stars for top prospects over the past few years, with the trades of Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman, Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn, and want to cut payroll as much as possible to gear towards the future.
Rodriguez is the Astros' last big contract, so passing it off on another team would be a huge lift for the Astros.
Scott Baker has had a fantastic year in the midst of a nightmare season for the Twins. Injuries and under-performance have doomed the Twins to a likely fourth-place finish just one season removed from winning the AL Central division.
Joe Mauer is already starting to break down at the age of 28, putting his long-term future as a catcher in serious doubt, and keystone players like Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer are set to hit the free-agent market at the conclusion of this season.
The Twins have an in-house replacement for one of Kubel and Cuddyer in Ben Revere, but with Delmon Young being traded, they will likely be looking to re-sign one of them and trade for an additional outfielder and some pitching.
Despite the Twins' lack of an ace since trading Johan Santana, I wouldn't be surprised to see them try to sell high on Baker. He's had some injury problems this year, but when healthy has shown he can be a sure-fire No. 2 starter who could bring in a package of prospects that would be beneficial to the future of the Twins.
James Shields has enjoyed a breakout season for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2011. He was named to his first All-Star team and has actually re-established himself as the ace of the Rays after previously being "de-throned" by David Price.
This season, Shields has posted an 11-10 record with a 3.05 ERA and 180 strikeouts in 192 innings. Don't let the number of losses fool you, the Rays are one of the AL's weakest-hitting teams, resulting in a lack of run support for the big righty.
Shields has pitched a major league-leading nine complete games this season, four of them being shutouts. Prior to this year, Shields had only pitched five other complete games, with only two shutouts.
Clearly something clicked for "Big Game James," as he has become one of the game's most dominant pitchers, seemingly out of nowhere.
The Rays, with their never-ending supply of young, quality arms, can afford to trade their ace this winter and should. With the weak market of free-agent pitchers, Shields would instantly become the prize of the offseason and the Rays would get a huge return for him.
Even without him, Tampa would still have a rotation of Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann and Alex Cobb. Add to that the talent down on the farm—Chris Archer, for example—and the Rays are set with pitching for the next decade. They need to bolster their weak offense and give their pitchers a fighting chance in the tough AL East.
Trading James Shields would go a long way towards making that happen.
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