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Six years of blockbuster deadline trades

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They don’t matter far more often than they do

World Series - Chicago Cubs v Cleveland Indians - Game Seven
sometimes these things just don’t work out
Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

It’s the trade deadline! That means Team Needs will soon be either met or unmet; Impact Bats and Postseason Relief Aces acquired or not acquired; farm systems either Replenished, or Burned To Ashes Like The Cubs’. It is THE annual day when a front office can Make A Difference and alter a club’s course for better or worse, via the Blockbuster Trade.

This is a bunch of malarkey.

Don’t get me wrong: occasionally, a trade leading up to the deadline genuinely transforms a team’s history. But they’re rare. Most July trades don’t actually do much for either side, in the end, because baseball isn’t basketball and by the nature of the thing, single players just can’t make that much difference. To illustrate, here’s six years’ worth of examples of “blockbuster” July trades, with as much commentary as I could include without making this abusively long.

Notes: what constitutes a “blockbuster” is unavoidably subjective. For me, it means the acquisition of an established star (4+ wins or so) player, or perhaps a sufficiently famous reliever. Similarly, whether a trade ultimately “made a difference” to a club can be subjective, though I’ve tried to stick to objective criteria: for buyers, a trade “made a difference” if it tipped a division or Wild Card race in the buyer’s favor, or the buyer won the World Series and the acquisition played especially well in the playoffs; for a seller a trade “made a difference” if they got a star out of it.

Here we go. If prospects are unnamed or ignored, there’s a reason for it:

2011

SFG gets Carlos Beltran from NYM for Zach Wheeler. The Giants were 4 games up in their division when they acquired Beltran, and ended up missing the playoffs. Wheeler was promising but hasn’t been anything special yet. DIFFERENCE MADE: none for either team. SF would have lost with or without Beltran, and Wheeler contributed to a Wild Card team last year but isn’t a star.

PHI gets Hunter Pence from HOU. The Phillies were up 5 in their division when they acquired Pence, and ultimately won by 13. Pence was great for them, but very bad in their squirrel-shortened postseason. Houston’s prospect haul turned out to just be some guys. DIFFERENCE MADE: zero, to either team.

DET gets Doug Fister from SEA. The Tigers had a slim lead in their division, and eventually won it by 15 games. Fister was fantastic for the Tigers in 2011, but... 15 games. Fister was very good against in 2012, when they won the division by 3 games. Then he was dumped on Washington for not much, and was never good again. None of the prospects Detroit initially gave up for Fister amounted to anything. DIFFERENCE MADE: Detroit… no in 2011, but yes in 2012. Seattle, no.

CLE gets Ubaldo Jimenez from COL Drew Pomeranz and others. Jimenez had 2.5 years of control left at the time, and although Cleveland missed the playoffs in 2011 and 2012, they made the Wild Card game in 2013, a year Jimenez put up 3.4 fWAR. Pomeranz never did much with the Rockies and didn’t bring back anything important when they traded him. DIFFERENCE MADE: Cleveland… not really? Jimenez spent almost as much time with them being bad as being good. Colorado, nope.

ATL gets Michael Bourn from HOU. I seem to remember the 2011 season going downhill for the Braves after the deadline. And none of the prospects they gave Houston for Bourn did anything. Bourn did have an outstanding season for the Braves in 2012, however, which pushed them into a Wild Card game in the first year the league held those things. They lost to the Cardinals. DIFFERENCE MADE: Braves yes, a year later; Houston no.

The Rasmus Trade. The author expressed no opinion on whether it worked, but does note that it occurred.

2012

LAA gets Zack Greinke for Jean Segura and others. The Angels were 4 back in their division but leading the (now two-team) Wild Card race. They finished out of the playoffs. Jean Segura had one very good year on a bad Brewers club, and was otherwise bad for them until traded for spare parts. DIFFERENCE MADE: none, for anybody.

SFG gets Hunter Pence from PHI for some guys. The Giants were a game up in their division at the deadline. They ended up taking it by eight games, and went on to win the World Series. Pence was awful in the playoffs though. As for the Phillies… Tommy Joseph, like the other two guys they got, is ultimately just a guy. DIFFERENCE MADE: nope.

2013

BOS gets Jake Peavy from CWS for Avisail Garcia, Frankie Montas, and others. Quiet year… Peavy was still considered a big name at the time, and Boston was a half game back in their division. Peavy was a 1.0 fWAR pitcher in a Red Sox uniform, but Boston won the division by 5.5 games and Peavy was lousy in the (unfortunately not canceled) postseason. Avisail Garcia has been sub-replacement in his career up until this year, and Montas is looking like a future fungible reliever. DIFFERENCE MADE: no difference for either side.

2014

OAK gets Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel from CHC for Addison Russell, others. This was an all-in trade for Oakland in early July. They were 3.5 up in the division at the time. Then they fell apart down the stretch and ended up losing the Wild Card game to KC. Yikes. Meanwhile, Addison Russell became a very good player on a championship team, which in itself justifies the deal from the Cubs’ end. DIFFERENCE MADE: A’s oh my heavens no; Cubs yes.

DET gets David Price from TB for Drew Smyly, Austin Jackson, and Willy Adames. Detroit had a healthy division lead when they acquired Price, which they just barely held on to – they took the division by one game. Without Price they’d have been stuck with a Wild Card. Smyly’s been solid albeit fragile for the Rays, and Adames is now a top prospect. DIFFERENCE MADE: Detroit yes, Tampa TBD but encouraging.

BOS gets Yoenis Cespedes and OAK gets Jon Lester. See above for Oakland; Lester ended up pitching that Wild Card game. Which they lost. Boston was in the middle of a lost season, and flipped Cespedes and a couple guys to Detroit the next offseason for Rick Porcello. DIFFERENCE MADE: Oakland no; Boston yes, if you count the follow-on trade.

2015

KC gets Johnny Cueto from CIN for Brandon Finnegan, John Lamb, and Cody Reed; KC gets Ben Zobrist from OAK for Seth Manaea. Let’s lump these win-now deals together. KC was already up big in their division, so these were playoff rentals. Zobrist was awesome in the playoffs and the Royals won the World Series. But Cueto was just okay. Manaea looks pretty good for the A’s, and has lots of control left. The Reds package is, at least, better than what a comp pick would have produced. DIFFERENCE MADE: yes for KC on Zobrist but not on Cueto; TBD for both buyers.

HOU gets Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers from MIL for Domingo Santana and other prospects. Houston was leading the AL West. The fell apart down the stretch and ended up in the Wild Card game (by one game), which they won, then lost the ALDS. Gomez contributed 1.0 fWAR post-trade, and Fiers chipped in half a win. Meanwhile, Santana’s an ok piece so far for the rebuilding (rebuilt?) Brewers, and Josh Hader and Brett Phillips may end up being something as well. DIFFERENCE MADE: Brewers TBD but some hope, Houston… a push? Gomez didn’t really outplay the guys he displaced. Tough call.

TOR gets Price from DET for Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd. The Jays were 6 back in the division and 2 in the Wild Card. Price was awesome (2.7 fWAR, 2.30/2.22 ERA/FIP for Toronto), and the Jays won the division by 6 games. Norris and Boyd have so far been back-end starters. DIFFERENCE MADE: nope. As great as Price was, the Jays got so hot down the stretch that it looks like they’d have won the division without him. And Price wasn’t that good in the postseason.

TEX gets Cole Hamels from PHI for a whole bunch of guys. Texas trailed by 8 in their division and 4 in the Wild Card. They ended up winning the division by 2. Hamels put up 1.3 fWAR after the trade, and 3.0 last year; he’s been pretty bad this year and has a year left on his deal. Jerad Eickhoff is the only part of the Phillies’ haul to play much of a MLB role so far and he’s just a guy, but guys like Jorge Alfaro and Nick Williams remain interesting. DIFFERENCE MADE: seems churlish not to say yes for Texas; TBD for the Phillies.

NYM gets Cespedes for Michael Fulmer and Luis Cessa. Cespedes (2.7 fWAR in 57 games; 156 wRC+) was tremendous after the deadline. The Mets were 2 games back in the NL East at the deadline; they went 37-20 down the stretch to win the NL East by 7 games. Meanwhile, Fulmer went on to be (so far) a 4-win starter for the Tigers (and Detroit flipped Cessa to the Yankees for Justin Wilson, who was good and last night got them some guys from the Cubs). DIFFERENCE MADE: Mets no; Tigers yes. As with Toronto, the Mets’ final division lead was so big that the Mets in all likelihood would have won the division regardless of Cespedes’s great play. And he was lousy in the playoffs.

2016

BOS gets Pomeranz from SD for Anderson Espinoza. The Sox were 2 back in their division. They won the division by 4 games, but Pomeranz didn’t help much: 4.59/4.78 ERA/FIP in 68.2 IP, for just 0.5 fWAR. He was moved to the bullpen in the postseason. Espinoza has slid pretty far down prospect lists, and had a Tommy John surgery this year. DIFFERENCE MADE: zero.

CHC gets Aroldis Chapman for Gleyber Torres and others. You know all about this one. DIFFERENCE MADE: this is TBD but looks great for the Yankees, obviously. The Cubs’ end had the beauty of turning out exactly as dumb as it initially looked — and it looked positively daft initially — when they won the division in a walk and Chapman had a meh postseason capped by blowing a save in Game 7 of the World god damn Series.

CLE gets Andrew Miller from NYY for Clint Frazier, others. Cleveland was already up comfortably in the division, and won yet more comfortably. But Miller was a beast for them in the playoffs, tallying 19.1 outstanding innings over 10 appearances. And he’s under control through 2018. Frazier’s a name prospect, but his statistical profile is looking pretty Grichucky. DIFFERENCE MADE: a moderate one for Cleveland; Yankees TBD.

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The final tally in 21 big ol’ blockbusters, with the author still carefully abstaining from assigning meaning to the Rasmus deal: they meaningfully swung the fortunes of the buyers 6 times (and only 4 of those came the same year of the trade), and of the sellers 3 times (with 7 cases TBD).

I think the Cardinals should strongly considering trading Michael Wacha. For similar reasons, I think they should probably trade Trevor Rosenthal and (maybe, given the apparently weak market for rental SPs) Lance Lynn. I also think they should try to bring in a star or two either now, or over the winter. There’s a chance that doing (or not) any or all of these things could matter a lot. But it’s not a very good chance, and as fans we should probably keep that in mind when we’re deciding just how emotionally invested we should get in the next five hours.