Welcome back to The Rotation! Here's a starting five of topics worth bantering about in Major League Baseball this week.
1. Al-arm bells
On July 24, the trade market features July 24 prices, which are not especially different from July 1 prices but often differ drastically from July 31 prices. Such is the standard operating procedure in the lead-up to baseball's non-waiver Trade Deadline. Sellers will hold high prices on their talent for as long as they possibly can, knowing that all it takes is an unexpected setback or injury among a contender or two to totally reshape the marketplace and possibly compel clubs to pony up the price.
Some years, this strategy backfires. The demand never really develops and a team winds up selling off its assets for pennies on the dollar.
But this year, in the market for starting pitching, the trade ante might have been upped by what transpired Sunday, when, within minutes of each other, Clayton Kershaw and Stephen Strasburg both left their starts abnormally early.
Kershaw came out in the second inning with what the Dodgers deemed "lower back tightness." That's a phrase that sets off alarm bells, given Kershaw's bout with a herniated disk that cost him 70 days of the 2016 season. The Dodgers say the injury is more muscular in nature and does not involve the shooting pain down the leg that Kershaw experienced last year, but the modern-day Koufax is headed to the DL, as is Brandon McCarthy (blister).
Strasburg left after two innings of a start in which his command was askew, after he had trouble getting loose. The Nats will evaluate him further Monday. As if that weren't bad enough, lefty reliever Enny Romero also departed that game with a back spasm.
It's obviously way too soon to speculate on the seriousness of all these injuries, but they do create question as to whether the Nats and/or Dodgers might step up their pursuit of starting pitching depth. Their division leads are clearly not in doubt, but October's no time to come up short. With the Nationals trying to capitalize on what's left of the Bryce Harper era and advance within October for the first time in franchise history and the Dodgers trying to both end a title drought dating back to '88 and do right by a team on a 111-win pace, aggression might be in order.
The Nats brought Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson into their bullpen without giving up top prospects Victor Robles or Erick Fedde (or any of the dudes who just combined on dual-no-hitters in a rookie ball doubleheader Sunday). The Dodgers have enough prospect capital to do pretty much whatever they want, up to and including Sonny Gray or Yu Darvish, the starting market's prized pigs.
This is what makes late July such a fascinating time of year. Needs can intensify at a moment's notice, throwing multiple months of strategizing -- and caution -- to the wind. That's why teams try to maintain their price points on their trade chips as long as possible. There's a deadline on acquisitions but not on desperation.
2. Can Devers deliver?
It was always the option looming in the background.
The third base market without Mike Moustakas (the Royals aren't selling) and without Todd Frazier (the White Sox already sold him) isn't exactly inspiring -- even for a Red Sox club that has gotten by far the worst third-base production in the American League this season. But down below, 20-year-old Rafael Devers was raking at Double-A and continued to do so after a promotion to Triple-A this month. Scouts are split as to whether he can actually stick at third (he made four errors in just eight games at Pawtucket), but he's got power to all fields.
Boston won't totally call off the dogs in the third-base hunt, and it will be impossible to glean a meaningful conclusion from less than one week of play from Devers, who is expected to make his first start Tuesday in Seattle. But there is something to be said for letting the kid possibly take his lumps now so that he's acclimated in time for the final playoff push. Sometimes green kids come up and benefit from not knowing any better. Witness what Xander Bogaerts did for this club in 2013, when he was instrumental in Boston's advancement to the World Series.
The Red Sox can certainly still go out and acquire a veteran body for the hot corner (perhaps even on the August waiver wire), but there's no doubt where their greatest source of upside lies.
3. This guy's worth a (Brit)ton
You could argue that Zach Britton, whose stats aren't in line with his historic '16 but whose raw stuff appears very much intact after missing two months with a forearm injury, is the most important player of this Trade Deadline, given the way relievers are utilized in October these days. You could envision Britton paired with Kenley Jansen for a deadly Dodger duo. You could see an Astros team that is definitely going to add left-handed relief bringing Britton aboard. You could see the Cubs temporarily matching him with Wade Davis before Britton takes over for Davis, a pending free agent, in '18. You could imagine the Indians, who just lost Boone Logan to a lat injury, following their own 2016 formula and adding another uber-lefty a year after the Andrew Miller trade, making for an absolutely devastating back end that further shortens games.
Here's the problem with all of these images: The Orioles aren't giving up!
Baltimore swept the Rangers in a four-game set last week (spurring a lot of Darvish discussion) and continued to stay relevant in the Wild Card race with Sunday's win over the Astros, in which Britton set an AL record with his 55th straight converted save. They're just 3 1/2 back in the Wild Card race and, though owner Peter Angelos has reportedly given Dan Duquette the OK to deal from the bullpen, Angelos is generally not prone to punting prematurely.
It's pretty obvious that this is a team in serious need of some quality, controllable starting pitching, and a Britton deal can definitely bring that back. But who knows what will happen if the O's have a good showing against the Rays and Rangers this week? Britton's finished an awful lot of games for the O's. Will he finish this month with them?
4. Overplaying their Hand?
Good relief help is valuable right now. Good left-handed relief help is very valuable right now. And good, left-handed relief help that comes with multiple years of team control is very, very valuable right now, which is why Brad Hand joins Britton as an interesting name in this market.
But Padres general manager A.J. Preller's asking price on Hand, who entered the week with a 2.16 ERA and 1.02 WHIP and is under team control through 2019, has been a particular point of discussion in the industry. The price has not come down at all as July unfolds and is not expected to come down before July 31, leading one anonymous exec to joke to Yahoo Sports' Jeff Passan, "I don't think the Dodgers would ask more for [Clayton] Kershaw than A.J. is for Brad Hand."
"I hear that [quote], and obviously that's a good thing," Hand told MLB.com's A.J. Cassavell. "It means they want me here in the future. They value me."
One evaluator from a club that has inquired about Hand said he doesn't expect the Padres' high price to come down. But he noted that the two seasons of control beyond this one are quite possibly not what they appear. Hand, after all, has pitched 139 1/3 innings dating back to the beginning of 2016, second only to the Astros' high-leverage long man, Chris Devenski, in that span.
"It's 2 1/2 years," the evaluator said, "but you might only be getting 1 1/2."
5. Royal rumblings
You cannot keep the Royals down.
Their win 5-4 win over the reeling White Sox on Sunday was their Major League-high 30th come-from-behind victory and their third in that three-game weekend set. Mike Moustakas went deep twice Saturday and is well on pace to break the best/worst record in professional sports (Steve Balboni's single-season Royals high mark of 36 homers in 1985). The bullpen, long after the Davis trade, has been a genuine strength of late, with a Major League-best 2.02 ERA going back to June 27.
All that talk of expiring assets and launching a rebuild has gone by the wayside, because the Royals, winners of five straight, are legitimately pushing the Indians in the AL Central race.
But the Royals acknowledge they have a serious need for starting pitching (the experiment of stretching Travis Wood out as a starter has yielded 12 earned runs in 13 innings, which is, you know, not a terrific ratio), and their farm system is not especially well-equipped to win any bidding wars right now. They had eyes on the Blue Jays' Marco Estrada in Cleveland over the weekend and are casting a wide net. The Royals believe in the special chemistry of their club, in the value of letting their championship core have one last bite at the October apple. But this week is huge for them.
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Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor, MLB.com columnist and MLB Network contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.