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Trade Targets: Starting Pitchers

Every season, there’s always one thing in demand at the trade deadline — starting pitching. Nearly every contender outside of Philadelphia is in the hunt for another rotation arm, and the demand always outstrips the supply. While there’s no Cliff Lee on the block this year, there are still some interesting arms who could make a difference down the stretch. Here are the best candidates:

PLAYER: Edwin Jackson
TEAM: White Sox
CONTRACT STATUS: $8.35 million, free agent at end of year

The White Sox might end up trading Jackson even if they get back in the race for the AL Central title, as they currently have six starting pitchers for just five slots. Jackson is no stranger to changing teams, as he’s been dealt by Los Angeles, Tampa Bay, Detroit, and Arizona since arriving in the Major Leagues. Given the White Sox surplus of arms and his impending free agency, he’s a good bet to be packing his bags once again.

Assessing his trade value is something of a challenge, however. His stuff has never been in question, but his performances have been erratic at best. Over the last few years, he’s never been able to get his peripherals and his results to match up. When his ERA has been low, his peripherals haven’t supported it. When his strikeout rate rose upon arrival in Chicago, so did his ERA — thanks to an inflated BABIP that is still giving him problems this year.

He’s long been viewed as something of an underachiever, and his current middling ERA despite good secondary numbers won’t help debunk the label. With Scott Boras as his representative and free agency looming at year’s end, he’s clearly going to be a rental, and it’s tough to imagine a team being willing to give up the farm for a guy who is a bit of a wild card.

The teams most likely to take a shot on Jackson are the ones who can afford to absorb some risk – the Yankees and Red Sox both have the depth to not need Jackson should he flop, but could use another high octane arm for the postseason. The Reds might not seem like they’re in need of a starter, but could cash in some of their excess talent in order to try and upgrade the front of their rotation. Teams that need stability will shop elsewhere, but someone will take a flyer on Jackson’s arm and hope that he finally puts it all together.

PLAYER: Jeremy Guthrie
TEAM: Orioles
POSSIBLE DESTINATION(S): Yankees, Indians, Diamondbacks, Tigers
CONTRACT STATUS: $5.75 million, arbitration eligible

The Orioles might say publicly that Guthrie’s not available, but there’s never been a better time to move him. At 32, Guthrie isn’t exactly part of the young core that Andy MacPhail has built up in Baltimore, and this is the last year where his salary won’t significantly weigh down his value. The Orioles could market him as more-than-a-rental, since he’s under team control through the end of the 2012 season, but the Orioles shouldn’t be overly interested in giving Guthrie the kind of raise in arbitration he’ll command after a strong showing this season.

While every team in the market for a starter will likely check in on Guthrie’s availability, perhaps no team makes more sense as a landing spot than Cleveland. Guthrie came up through the Indians system, and his status as a strike-throwing innings-eater is exactly what they need to stabilize their rotation for the stretch run. His salary isn’t prohibitive this year, and the Indians could always move him again this winter if they didn’t want to give him his arbitration raise either.

He’s not a front-line starter, but he’s durable and has proven he can get outs in the toughest division in baseball. Toss in an easy-to-swallow 2011 salary and Guthrie is a good fit for a lot of teams. The Orioles would be wise to deal him now because his value will never be higher and the prospects they will be able to acquire will be worth more than another year and a half of his services to their organization.

PLAYER: Jason Marquis
TEAM: Nationals
CONTRACT STATUS: $7.5 million, free agent at end of year.

The low-rent version of Jeremy Guthrie, Marquis seems likely to be the fallback plan for those who might not want to pay Baltimore’s asking price for this kind of pitcher. You know exactly what you’re getting with Marquis, who is a classic ground-balling innings-eater. He’ll give you a solid performance and pitch deep enough into games to take the pressure off of a bullpen, but he’s the kind of guy you only want to throw once in a playoff series.

With an expiring contract and a $7.5 million salary for 2011, Marquis is a rental player with a not-horrible price tag, but there’s not a ton of upside here, so teams likely won’t be willing to give up much in the way of high-end talent to get a few months worth of starts from him. If Cleveland or Detroit decide that they’d rather hang onto the prospects they have and make marginal upgrades rather than a big splash, Marquis could be a good target to focus on.

PLAYER: Erik Bedard
TEAM: Mariners
POSSIBLE DESTINATION(S): Yankees, Red Sox, Diamondbacks, Indians
CONTRACT STATUS: $1 million base + incentives, free agent at end of year

While the Mariners aren’t looking to move Bedard right now, they could shift gears if the team falls out of the race between now and the end of July. On a per-innings pitched basis, Bedard might just be the best starter on the market as a lefty who can miss bats and has a legitimate knockout curveball. However, Bedard’s health problems will seriously dampen enthusiasm for potential suitors, as he hasn’t thrown an inning in September since 2007. While he’s seemingly healthy now, his performance this year is similar to his 2009 season — one that ended with him walking off the field in July and not pitching for another 18 months.

He’s an interesting upside play for teams who might want a southpaw who could slide into the front of their rotation, but his lack of durability is a huge red flag. Can any team really project Bedard to be pitching well deep into October when his career high in innings pitched is 196, and that was several surgeries ago? And would the Mariners be willing to move a pitcher who is contributing when they’re on track to return some degree of respectability to the franchise? There are a lot of reasons to think that Bedard might not be traded this summer, but if he does hit the market, teams will have to have some very interesting conversations about his value down the stretch.

PLAYER: Kevin Slowey
TEAM: Twins
CONTRACT STATUS: $2.7 million, arbitration eligible

Like Bedard, Slowey’s health is going to be the main topic of discussion surrounding his availability. The Twins have made it known that Slowey could be had by anyone interested, and the asking price is likely to be quite low given his recurring health problems. When he’s on the mound, Slowey has been an effective pitcher, and, at 27, he seemingly has some future value beyond just 2011.

However, as an extreme fly-ball pitcher who survives by just pounding the strike zone with mediocre stuff, teams are going to see a low-upside #5 starter who can’t stay healthy. There are certainly cities in which Slowey could thrive if he could avoid the disabled list, but despite the Twins making him available, it’s tough to identify any contenders who would want to give him a shot in the midst of a pennant chase.