It sure seemed like Matt Harvey’s years as a serviceable big league pitcher were behind him. He came to Baltimore this past offseason as a fringy rotation candidate whose two most recent seasons were disastrous. Had it not been for the O’s and their pitching desperation, it’s possible the 32-year-old Harvey wouldn’t have received a spring invite at all. Instead, he is now the number two starter on a team that is outplaying expectations.
Let’s be clear, the Orioles aren’t taking the league by storm or anything, and Harvey isn’t in the Cy Young discussion. But just because a team or player isn’t the absolute best doesn’t mean they aren’t worth further discussion.
Harvey has made six starts to this point, and owns a 4.06 ERA, 102 ERA+, and 1.290 WHIP over 31.0 innings of work. As of this writing, the righty is in the midst of a three-start winning streak and owns a 3.24 ERA in that time. When he pitches, it feels like the Orioles have a chance to win, and that’s all you can really ask for.
It has not been much smoke and mirrors either. His 4.51 xERA, 4.54 xFIP, and .277 xBA don’t deviate too much from his actual numbers. The veteran hurler has benefitted from limiting walks and keeping the ball in the park. His 6.1% home run-per-fly ball rate is the best of his career.
Perhaps the biggest critiques of Harvey are are that he does not miss many bats, and he doesn’t go deep enough into games. His 6.39 strikeouts per nine innings rate is below average, and he has gone six innings just once this year. The former would seem to be a bigger problem than the latter as pitching to contact has become problematic in the era of big exit velocities, but “crafty” pitchers can still be effective.
By providing quality innings in the O’s rotation, Harvey may also be giving the club something that they sorely lacked coming into the season: an easily-moveable trade candidate.
The Orioles have plenty of players that other teams would very much like to have on their roster. John Means is pitching like an ace, Anthony Santander was on fire at the plate last summer, and Trey Mancini has a track record of hitting at the major league level. But each of those players is under team control beyond the 2021 season. In the case of Means, he can’t be a free agent until 2025.
Dealing away players with multiple years of control remaining is tough. The selling club has to walk a fine line between maintaining a somewhat competent major league roster and acquiring the kind of talent they deem acceptable in exchange for a proven player. Discussions can be lengthy and often don’t pan out. Trading a veteran with less than a year on their contract, on the other hand, is much simpler.
Now, the reality of the “easily moveable” trade candidate is that the return is often minuscule. Look back at some recent examples that could be considered comparable to a deal involving Harvey.
At last year’s trade deadline, the Rangers traded Mike Minor for two players to be named later, the O’s dealt Tommy Milone for two players to be named later, and the Mariners landed a player to be named later plus cash for Taijuan Walker. That seems to be a pretty consistent going rate for half of a season from a veteran pitcher with limited upside.
If Harvey does continue to pitch to a low-4 ERA, there may be a chance for the O’s to get one decent prospect in return. An example of this was at the 2019 deadline when the Reds sent Tanner Roark to the A’s for 21-year-old outfielder Jameson Hannah, who was a top-10 prospect in the A’s system prior to the deal. Hannah is now with the Rockies following another trade, and is ranked 13th there, according to MLB Pipeline. Two years is a long time in baseball, but considering the 2020 season was so far from the norm, 2019 could still serve as a decent enough comparison.
The Orioles don’t need to be in a rush to trade Harvey. There are plenty of innings to be pitched in-between now and the July 31st deadline. Maybe Harvey impresses and improves the club’s possible return in the process. Maybe he struggles and falls off the trade radar all together. And maybe the Orioles make a run at the division title and become buyers instead.
The most important development over the next couple of months will be how the Orioles prospects pitching in Norfolk and Bowie grow as professionals. Zac Lowther and Keegan Akin will be starting big league games before the end of the season. They might be joined by Alexander Wells or Mike Baumann. But their time has not come just yet, and until then the Orioles need Harvey to keep twirling the pearl in Baltimore.