Four Attainable Starting Pitching Candidates the Guardians Should Explore

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With a series victory in what certainly felt like a playoff preview in Baltimore, the Guardians continue to look like one of the most formidable forces in the American League. Sporting the best record in the AL, as well as the best record against opponents above .500 in all of baseball, this Guardians team isn’t the same as teams from a few years ago that only beat up on a lowly AL Central Division. No. We may not have hit Independence Day yet, but this year feels different.

They’re hitting: the top 10 among teams in all of On Base %, Slugging and wRC+. Jose Ramirez and Josh Naylor have become one of the best middle-of-the-order tandems in the game this year. They’re also home to the best bullpen in all of baseball- leading the sport in bullpen ERA, FIP and xFIP. No bullpen in baseball avoids allowing home runs at a better rate. Emmanuel Clase might be making a legitimate Cy Young case before all is said and done.

Still, this team has faced adversity. The greatest roadblock has been the ace-sized hole that was left at the front of the starting rotation when it was discovered that Shane Bieber would need Tommy John Surgery. Not having Gavin Williams (who may have just made his last rehab start) has also complicated matters, but the Guardians rotation has soldiered on. Coming in at 19th in the starter’s ERA, they are pitching just well enough to keep the team in ballgames, but more advanced metrics (27th in FIP, last in HR/9) suggest possible regression. Major League Baseball teams are more reliant than ever on their bullpens, but starting pitching still needs to be adequate enough to keep teams afloat. When October comes and every at-bat comes with heightened leverage, this fact only intensifies.

In short, Cleveland could really afford to add some talent to their starting rotation. Interestingly, they just signed Matthew Boyd off the street. Boyd could very well start for the Guardians in the near future, but having not pitched this season and trying to make a comeback from Tommy John surgery himself, the nature of his impact is far from certain. Adding Boyd seems like a low-risk but unpredictable gamble to fill the starter’s innings. Getting Williams back, however, has the potential to be a huge upgrade in itself and is way closer to being a sure thing for a positive impact.

Even so, the team could still really use one additional starter that they could lean on to go with Williams and Tanner Bibee. On the positive side of things, if the Guards can find such a pitcher, their flaws really do significantly diminish. Adding significant starting pitching talent at the deadline that helps carry a team to post-season supremacy has happened before. Don’t forget, just last year Jordan Montgomery pitched 31 post-season innings with a 2.90 ERA in five starts for the eventual World Champion Texas Rangers- a team he was traded to at last year’s trade deadline.

As I said in a previous post with a similar theme recently, the biggest detriment to the Guardians being able to bring in the starting pitching talent they need is the current league schedule and format. Most notably, thirteen out of fifteen teams in the National League are within 4.5 games of a Wildcard spot or better. Many of these teams are squinting their eyes and talking themselves into how this could still be their year. These are not the type of teams that will be looking to off-load starting pitching talent- not at least without doing some soul-searching first.

Some teams will certainly take more convincing and reflection than others, but there are certainly pitching candidates out there. I previously mentioned in that post the Angels’ Tyler Anderson and the Mets’ Luis Severino. Those two names still apply, but I have compiled four additional candidates below with commentary.

RHP Javier Assad, Chicago Cubs

Assad is probably the furthest thing from a household name in this list, but interestingly would probably be the hardest pitcher to pry away in the group. For one, the Cubs are among the teams that could still talk themselves into being in the hunt in the NL. Additionally, a big part of why Assad isn’t well known is because he is fairly new to the Majors. At 26 years old, Assad is in his first season as a full-time Major League starting pitcher this year, but early results have been excellent.

He has pitched to a 3.04 ERA in 16 starts, operating as the number three in the Cubs current rotation. Some of his underlying advanced stats aren’t quite as good (4.15 FIP, 4.46 expected ERA), but as a young talent, he is someone the Guardians could invest in for the long haul and add to the core of Bibee, Williams and Logan Allen. If anything, perhaps the team’s pitcher development apparatus could even help bring him more success while also being an immediate contributor.

All this being said, given where the Cubs are in the standings and the fact that Assad is only in his second year of service and is therefore cost-controlled, it will not be an easy feat to get him. Chase DeLauter would likely need to be involved in the trade. All told, such a deal may not be worth it, but they’re may be another, simpler avenue to pull a different pitcher off the team from the Northside.

RHP Jameson Taillon, Chicago Cubs

While Assad may be too valuable of an asset for the Cubs to part with, Taillon may be a bit of the opposite. As a 32-year-old veteran pitcher who has peaked as a middle-of-the-rotation starter and is owed more than $50 million in total through 2026, in some circles Taillon is perceived as a negative asset. While he does have drawbacks, he is a more likely trade candidate for a team that is middling in the National League standings to part with.

Despite the negativity around his age and price tag, Taillon is having a career year. In 12 starts, he’s pitched to a superb 2.90 ERA. While a 2.90 ERA is a new stratosphere for him (3.93 career ERA), Taillon has made a career of being a middle-of-the-rotation starter for the Pirates, Yankees and Cubs. He has a reputation as an innings eater, which is something Cleveland could absolutely use given the sudden lack of depth they find at the top of their system having traded Cal Quantrill and Cody Morris this off-season and being without Bieber (perhaps forever).

If things go south for the Cubs or they just don’t feel committed to trying to sneak their 38-44 team into the post-season, then I don’t think it is outrageous for Chicago to change course and try to relieve themselves of some of Taillon’s salary. I say “some of Taillon’s salary” because I think in order to make a deal happen, the Guards would absolutely ask the Cubs to eat some of Taillon’s contract. Depending on how many other suitors there are for Taillon’s services, this could be feasible. At a minimum, it should not require a DeLauter-like package to bring Taillon to Cleveland, but adding him would provide some much-needed depth to Cleveland’s rotation.

LHP Framber Valdez, Houston Astros

Assad and Taillon aren’t certifiable aces, but this guy definitely is. The 30-year-old lefty has been the picture of consistency for Houston since cementing himself in the Majors back in 2020. Currently posting a solid 3.68 ERA this season, Valdez has pitched around this caliber or better dating back to that COVID season. He also has been a workhorse in the last couple of years, leading the AL in innings pitched in 2022 and making more than 30 starts last year. Though Valdez did miss three weeks earlier this season with elbow tenderness, he has appeared effective since his return.

Having been a member of the Astros for his entire MLB career, Valdez also has significant post-season experience, making 15 post-season starts already in his career including two starts where he allowed a total of just two runs against the Phillies in the 2022 World Series. So, Valdez has clearly earned his October stripes.

He is also still cost-controlled. Valdez is making a very manageable $12 million this year and 2025 will be his final season of arbitration, so the Guards would get him for a year and a half at a decent price. Of course, other needy teams will be aware of this too. The trick won’t be just convincing Houston to trade with them as opposed to another suitor, but also convincing Houston that they are out of the hunt. They were 33-40 and 10 games out of first in the AL West a little over a week ago. They’ve won seven straight since, are at the .500 mark and have cut that division deficit more than in half. They play a similarly surging New York Mets team over the weekend where only one team’s momentum will probably survive (the losing team has to trade Severino/Valdez to the Guards???). In the event that Houston looks at their 1.1% probability of winning the World Series and decides it is time to reload, Valdez will garner a strong return but I don’t think he would be out of the price range of the Guardians from a prospect standpoint.

RHP Nathan Eovaldi, Texas Rangers

Texas won the World Series last year in part because of a major trade for starting pitching. Could they aid another team in getting a front-of-the-rotation pitcher this season? At 34 years old, Eovaldi is a little bit further into the back end of his career than our other candidates but has done the best pitching of his career over the course of the last five years with Boston and Texas. Having been a fireballer earlier in his career, Eovaldi still averages 95 mph on his fastball but has become more of a pitcher and less of a thrower. Like Valdez, Eovaldi is a two-time All-Star. He’s pitched to a 3.45 ERA in 13 starts this season, pitching as Texas’s number one. He doesn’t appear to be slowing down.

Also like Valdez, Eovaldi has a significant post-season career. He’s made 12 post-season starts in his career and he pitched to a 3.05 post-season ERA over 79 2/3 innings. He’s a two-time World Series winner who contributed heavily to Boston’s 2018 title as well as the Rangers last year. His biggest October moment is an argument between the six innings he pitched in innings 12 through 18 in Game Three of the 2018 World Series to save Boston’s bullpen or the six scoreless innings he pitched in the clinching Game Five last year.

Eovaldi would be a rental. He is making $17 million this season. That is a partial-year commitment that the Guardians could likely make. Since he isn’t committed to a contract longer than this year, he also holds less trade value. Again assuming the Guards are able to compete with other teams on the market, I actually think Eovaldi could be very get-able. Texas is seven games below .500 and eight games out of the division in June. Their outlook isn’t good and they gain nothing by playing out Eovaldi’s contract.

Conclusion

Zack Meisel recently reported that he perceives that the Guardians are looking to be aggressive in adding talent this summer. If this is true, then any of these four candidates would be a significant improvement to a starting rotation that needs longer and more consistent appearances. If Guardians are looking to cash in on their minor league system by trading for proven talent then these four, along with Severino and Anderson would be a great place to look.

Of the candidates listed here, I really like Eovaldi. He ticks every box the Guardians could want. He’s a veteran pitching at an ace level on a team that is less likely to convince themselves they still have a chance this season. His contract is far from an albatross yet he would only be a rental so he would be low commitment and likely not garnering massive prospect packages from other teams. Slotting Eovaldi in with a healthy Williams and Bibee would give Cleveland a very formidable three starters that would help secure ballgames for the best bullpen in the sport.

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