Sources: Rangers are gauging Yu Darvish packages prior to trade deadline

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist

The Texas Rangers have started reaching out to teams potentially interested in acquiring star pitcher Yu Darvish, gathering information on what sort of return they could receive if they decide to trade him before the July 31 deadline, major league sources told Yahoo Sports on Thursday.

In the midst of a wicked slump that dropped them to 45-50 and behind five other teams for the second American League wild card, the Rangers are not committed to dealing Darvish, the 30-year-old right-hander who immediately would become the market’s most coveted asset.

At the same time, rival executives believe the Rangers are nearing the point where their struggles could force them to strongly consider doing so. Even if Darvish’s impending free agency would prevent the Rangers from receiving a blockbuster return, rental players of his ilk carry enormous value, and Texas is taking the proper step gauging just how valuable he is.

In 20 starts this season, Yu Darvish has struck out 131 in 125 1/3 innings and carries an ERA of 3.45. (AP)

Unlike other rental pitchers available – the best of whom include Lance Lynn, Marco Estrada, Francisco Liriano, Andrew Cashner and Jeremy Hellickson – Darvish’s ability to slot near the top of any rotation makes him desirable to almost every contending team. In 20 starts this season, Darvish has struck out 131 in 125 1/3 innings and carries an ERA of 3.45.

By feeling out Darvish’s market a dozen days before the deadline, Texas gives itself a week or so to climb back into the playoff race while simultaneously allowing for a white flag to be raised without being caught flat-footed.

Narrowing down contenders this early in the process is folly. Though Darvish’s market would overlap with that for Oakland pitcher Sonny Gray, their differing contract situations – Darvish’s expiring in October and Gray with two more years of team control after 2017 – position them differently. Teams committed to winning this year in particular almost all find Darvish the preferable option, according to sources. Among those that have sought starting pitching and have the prospect capital to acquire Darvish: the Houston Astros, Milwaukee Brewers, New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians, Colorado Rockies and Los Angeles Dodgers.

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No, the Astros and A’s never were close to a deal for Gray on Thursday. They are in the same holding pattern they’ve been in for weeks, one motivated even more by the Astros stumbling upon the sort of third starter they’ve sought with Gray.

Brad Peacock is 29 years old. He came to Houston, funny enough, in a deal with Oakland in 2013, and he threw nearly as many innings at Triple-A over those four years as he did in the major leagues. So to see this from him – 71 strikeouts in 52 1/3 innings over 10 starts, with batters slashing .203/.308/.276 – isn’t just the surprise of the year. It is, quite literally, stumbling upon millions of dollars in value.

Because consider this: If the Astros believe Peacock’s slider-fueled breakout is real – he’s throwing the pitch more than 35 percent of the time – the idea of having to give up a Kyle Tucker or Forrest Whitley or Francis Martes to secure Gray isn’t nearly as appealing.

Darvish is a different story – someone whose pedigree and stuff clearly play alongside Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers Jr. The other rental pitchers are similar enough to the remainder of the Astros’ starting options – Charlie Morton, Collin McHugh, Mike Fiers and rookies Martes and Joe Musgrove – that their market is almost assuredly Darvish, Gray or bust.

The counterargument to that is simple, and it’s a compelling one: When a team as good as the Astros doesn’t improve itself at the trade deadline, it runs the risk of sending a message to the players in the clubhouse that the front office is not supportive enough of its stellar work on the field. This is not a fair position in which executives find themselves – a team as good as the Astros simply doesn’t need a whole lot of improvement – but it’s reality, as Astros players understand the rarity with which a season like 2017 comes along: In a wide-open league, they are head and shoulders better than everyone else.

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And, it should be noted, the Astros would be even better if during their bullpen shopping they focus on Zach Britton. Even with the Baltimore Orioles back to within three games of .500 following a four-game sweep of the Rangers, they remain almost certain to deal at least one relief pitcher.

The fight for Britton could be one between the two favorites to reach the World Series. (AP)

While Britton is unquestionably the best of the bunch, teams looking for bullpen arms are asking a pair of rightful questions: Do they really want to trade the elite prospects it would take for a player who just missed two months with a forearm injury, and do they really want to take on the $14 million Britton is expected to command in arbitration for next season?

For a team like the Los Angeles Dodgers, the latter is a no-brainer and the former almost certainly worth the risk when considering the possibility of pairing Britton and Kenley Jansen at the back end of the bullpen on a squad almost playing .700 ball. (Similarly, a Clayton Kershaw-Darvish-Alex Wood-Rich Hill rotation would look awfully nice.) The Astros’ answers aren’t quite as clear, but no doubt he fits the profile of what they’ve sought.

Ultimately, the fight for Britton could be one between the two favorites to reach the World Series.

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At 32-61, the Philadelphia Phillies are the worst team in baseball by 3½ games. They still have poked around on controllable starting pitchers, according to sources, even as they look to deal pending free agents Hellickson, relievers Pat Neshek and Joaquin Benoit, and second baseman Howie Kendrick.

Teams around baseball see Philadelphia as a leviathan-in-training. While there has been significant regression in their farm system – top prospect J.P. Crawford is in the midst of his second consecutive disappointing season and last year’s No. 1 overall pick, Mickey Moniak, hasn’t excelled – the leaps forward have more than salvaged the season. Between second baseman Scott Kingery and first baseman Rhys Hoskins, the Phillies have the right side of their infield of the future. And their four best pitching prospects – 18-year-old Sixto Sanchez, 20-year-old Adonis Medina, 20-year-old Jojo Romero and 22-year-old Franklyn Kilome – are extremely well-regarded by other teams.

The best part for Philadelphia: its only player under contract beyond 2017 is center fielder Odubel Herrera. So whether they want to make a splash in free agency this offseason or save that money for the mondo class after the 2018 season, the Phillies are in an excellent position, even if they are the worst team in the game.

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Favorite quote of the trade deadline season, when asking an executive whether San Diego general manager A.J. Preller had dropped what other teams considered an exorbitant ask for left-handed reliver Brad Hand: “I don’t think the Dodgers would ask more for Kershaw than A.J. is for Brad Hand.”

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