As teams jockey for position in July, General Managers begin to assess whether their club is a buyer or a seller. These are two radically different perspectives when gauging the market.
The seller ballclubs are in a difficult position. First, the local market is already seething with disappointment. Take Cleveland for instance. When the team sputtered out of the gate and never made a good charge at the AL Central the fan base turned sour. Analyzing the economics of the situation, General Manager Mark Shapiro was forced to trade pending free agent CC Sabathia early to Milwaukee for prospect Matt LaPorta, Rob Bryson, Zach Jackson and a player to be named later. The focus is now on 2009 and beyond. The citizens of the Mistake by the Lake should be very receptive to this. It is reminiscent of the trade that Shapiro orchestrated with Bartolo Colon and the Montreal Expos. The Expos received a solid contributor in Colon (0.73 wpa) but lost prospects Grady Sizemore, Brandon Phillips and Cliff Lee for the rental of Colon for the rest of the 2002 season. "This very clearly and very definitively demonstrates that we are moving into a formal rebuilding process with players that we all feel are going to be here in the '04 and '05 seasons which are when we feel we can start to emerge as a contender again,'' Shapiro said. Sizemore and Lee have been building blocks for the Indians franchise and Phillips has been a great second baseman for Cincinnati. Meanwhile the Expos-cum-Nationals are now suffering the consequences of losing key prospects.
Secondly, the General Manager has to decide if it is a sellers' market, one where multiple ballclubs are vying for one of their league's six playoff spots, putting the General Manager in the difficult position of evaluating prospective talent from opposing clubs and trying to quantify how these prospects will be influential on their club's roster two or three years into the future. Sometimes this can backfire. When General Manager Dave Littlefield and the Pittsburgh Pirates decided in 2003 that they wanted to trim the budget and decided that third baseman Aramis Ramirez's contract with $6 million due to him in 2004 was too rich. For cost cutting measures, they dangled him for the buyers. "You don't like to trade a player like Ramirez who has come up through their system and performed like he did, but we need better talent and more financial flexibility,'' Littlefield said. "We need a lot more players to help us get to where we want to be.'' Interdivisional rivals Chicago Cubs and Jim Hendry ponied up shortstop Jose Hernandez, minor league pitcher Matt Bruback and minor league second baseman Bobby Hill whose stock had fallen wildly on his disappointing introduction to major league pitching. Bruback and Hill never ascended to the majors and Hernandez was a Dodger the following year. The Pirates trotted Chris Stynes out for 71 games at third base only to have him hit .216/.266/.296 with one home run in 174 plate appearances for $750,000. Ramirez, for $5.25 million more, hit .318/.372/.578 with 36 home runs. Pittsburgh could have waited one additional season before attempting to trade the 26 year old Dominican third baseman but opted to sell early, focusing on the rebuild.
But the gamble is just as high on the teams that are on the cusp of the race looking to buy. The General Managers, electing to "go all in" attempting to trade for one or two players that they think will push them over the top at the high cost of future, inexpensive talent, has often led to skeleton farm systems. The Atlanta Braves did this last year when they shipped five top prospects (including super-prospect Elvis Andrus) to Texas for Mark Teixeira. The Braves were 55-51, four and a half games out of the NL East behind the leading New York Mets, when they packaged Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison (a left-handed pitcher who the Twins just crushed), Neftali Feliz and Beau Jones for Teixeira and LOOGY Ron Mahey. "I'll think about next year next year," General Manager John Schuerholz said when pressed about the size of the prospect package. "If we win two pennants it is, or one World Series and one pennant. We wouldn't have done it if we didn't think it was worth it. We hope the result is that we win because of it, but there are no guarantees in baseball." Though Teixeira made significant contributions offensively (1.53 wpa in that span) to the Braves the addition wasn't enough as the team slipped the remainder of the season finishing 29-27 unable to overcome either Philadelphia or the Mets. This season almost at the same position as they were in one year ago, six and a half games out of the front-running Phillies, the Braves could go either way - become buyers or sellers - depending on how they want philosophically build in the future. With an aging core of expensive starting pitching (Glavine, Smoltz, Hudson) the club could choose to liquidate Teixeira who is on the final year of his contract and hope to reap dividends from whatever bounty a franchise rich in minor league talent (i.e. Red Sox) might be willing to trade.
Twins General Manager Bill Smith finds himself and his team in a precocious state. Just a game and a half behind the AL Central leading White Sox, the Twins are in a position to be buyers, hoping to address needs with two months remaining. Historically the Twins have been very hesitant on their maneuvers. They have not made any "deadline" acquisitions since 2001 when they were disappointed by the production of Rick Reed (-0.69) and Todd Jones (-0.69). Two seasons later they made an educated trade fifteen days before the trade deadline in what will prove to be the most successful mid-season addition by any team since 2001 (see Shannon Stewart below). They have succeed in spite of room for improvement, most notably a right-handed bat that can hit left-handed pitching and an E.I.G. (Eighth Inning Guy). Smith could let this current roster ride hoping that either the Chicago White Sox will falter. After all, Delmon Young could have a power-packed second-half and eliminate the need for a right-handed bat and the bullpen problem may have been exaggerated thanks to a series that exposed Neshek absence.
Top Midseason Trade Values (By WPA) Since 2001
2.30 wpa | Shannon Stewart | of | 334 plate appearances, 6 home runs, .322/.384/.470
July 16th, 2003 - One of the more memorable trades for the Twins was also one of the most successful infusion of talent into a line-up prior to the trade deadline since 2001. The Twins gave up switch-hitting Bobby Kielty who had been hitting .251/.370/.420 with nine home runs providing a respectable 0.61 wpa to the team at that point in the season. The consensus was that the Twins needed a legitimate lead-off hitter. Jacque Jones, while bashing home runs, was masquerading as a lead-off hitter and not getting on base the way the line-up needed. The Twins tapped Toronto's Shannon Stewart who had been their object of affection for quite some time. Locally there were some who were hesitant about the trade. Stewart was hitting a very good .294/.347/.449 with seven home runs but had not been adding much to the Blue Jays, adding -0.12 in wpa. The Twins were 44-47, five and a half games behind the upstart Kansas City Royals when the deal was made. After the Twins went 46-25, finishing 90-72, appropriately defending their AL Central title. In the playoffs against the Yankees, Stewart went 6-for-15 with 2 doubles but failed to score a run in the four game series.
1.97 wpa | Bobby Abreu | of | 248 plate appearances, 7 home runs, .330/.419/.507
July 30th, 2006 - At the end of July, the Yankees were a half game behind the Boston Red Sox in the American League East race and had serious challengers in the American League Central for the Wild Card (White Sox, Twins). The Yankee braintrust traded four fungoe bats assumed to be minor league prospects to Pat Gillick and the Philadelphia Phillies for Bobby Abreu and Corey Lidle. Even though it was called a "trade" it was actually a pillaging as the Yankees tossed a few grains for not putting up a fight. Sure, the Phillies saved $36 million in the cost-saving efforts while Abreu and Lidle helped the Yankees go 36-24 on the remainder of the seaosn and watched as Boston tumbled 24-35 in that same stretch. The Yankees won the division but lost to the surging Tigers in the first round of the playoffs.
1.89 wpa | Greg Maddux | rhp | 12 starts, 73 innings, 6-3, 3.30 era
July 31st, 2006 - The Dodgers were staring up at the entire National League West at the trade deadline in 2006. Even though they were at 50-55, the only baseball team that resides in Los Angeles proper were not too far removed from the front-running Padres, separated by just 5 games. Convinced that this deficient was not insurmountable, Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti traded shortstop Cesaer Izturis, who was hitting .252/.302/.353 through 32 games in the season, to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for the future Hall of Famer. The Dodgers won 8 of Maddux's 12 starts and went 38-19 following the trade (the best record in that time in the majors). The Dodgers finished tied with the Padres but were announced as the Wild Card victors. The New York Mets manhandled the Dodgers in the first round of the playoffs as Maddux went 4 innings for the loss in his only start.
1.86 wpa | Fred McGriff | 1b | 208 plate appearances, 12 home runs, .282/.383/.559
July 22nd, 2001 - The Lovable Losers were 60-42 with a comfortable five game lead over the Houston Astros in the National League Central when they traded AAA-lifers Manny Ayala and Jason Smith to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for the 37-year-old Crime Dog. While McGriff's offensive performance was about the only positive thing found inside the Friendly Confines as the Cubs imploded nonetheless and finished the season 28-32 - thirteen and a half games behind the Cardinals and Astros at 88-74. The following season the Cubs received 4.23 wpa from McGriff as the franchise spiriled downward concluding 2002 with a 67-95 record.
1.76 wpa | Ugueth Urbina | closer | 38.1 innings, 3-0, 1.41 era, 6 saves, 1.51 pLI
July 11th, 2003 - It's rare that a team trades mid-season for a relief pitcher only to have that pitcher be wildly impactful to the team's success but the Marlins were blessed with their return in 2003. South Florida's first professional baseball team was sitting comfortably in 4th place in the NL East, 13.5 games behind the leading Atlanta Braves, when it was determined the team needed to upgrade their bullpen if they expected to compete for a playoff spot. The Rangers were at 38-53, dwelling the the cellar of the AL West and looking to purge whatever parts might provide a return. Closer Ugueth Urbina happened to be one of them. Urbina had saved 26 games for a lousy Ranger team and his 4.19 era didn't appropriate reflect his true abilities. The Marlins packaged four prospects including future All-Star Adrian Gonzalez (who the Rangers would later trade to the Padres for Adam Eaton) and an Urbina-infused Marlins team went 43-26 the rest of the season. Urbina was well worth the half-season investment, solidifying the bullpen as the set-up man for closer Braden Looper then assumed the closer's role in the Marlins' World Series run, throwing 13 postseason innings accumulating 4 saves in that duration.
1.72 wpa | Jermaine Dye | of | 265 plate appearances, 13 home runs, .297/.366/.547
July 25th, 2001 - Billy Beane and the Bay Area East Baseball Club found themselves 16 games behind the record-setting Seattle Mariners at the end of July in 2001. Oakland's only post-season hope to fend off the Wild Card contenders in the American League. The A's absconded with Dye, convincing the Royals to accept Neifi Perez and talked the Rockies into agreeing to take on three prospects. Oakland finished the remainder of the season 48-13, thanks to Jermaine Dye's performance, and the A's completed the with the second best record in the majors at 102-60 to secure the Wild Card berth. Oakland was escorted out of the playoffs in the Derek Jeter and the Yankees (or more appropriately because of Jeremy Giambi's inability to slide on a close play at home plate). Dye would play three more seasons in Oakland including a great effort in Oakland's divisional series loss to the Minnesota Twins in 2002 where he hit .400/.429/.650 in 20 at-bats.