Every July, baseball fans and fantasy owners alike look toward the trade deadline. Trade rumors swirl all around major league clubhouses and across America’s sports pages. Every year we are excited by what our teams do at the deadline, and disappointed by what they don’t. But how often do those deadline deals bring us the ultimate prize – a World Series title?
The Win Now Mentality
Every summer fans of contending teams beg their GMs to pull the trigger and get the one player who’ll put them over the top. After all, there’s no time like the present. When you have a chance to make the playoffs, you’ve gotta take it. If you’re already in first place, you have to make sure you stay there. Nobody knows for sure if prospects will develop, so why hang onto them? Nobody knows if the team will stay healthy and contend again next year, so win now. And hey, even if the superstar costs a lot of money, the team can make it back with playoff ticket sales.
There’s no doubt that there’s logic behind the win now mentality. We don’t know what the future holds, and nothing’s more frustrating than watching your team stand pat while rivals bring in upgrades. But do deadline trades win championships? Recent history indicates otherwise.
Take a look at the last ten World Champions. Not one made a deadline deal that truly impacted a World Series win. In fact, only two champs since 1995 made any significant second half trades, and they weren’t even deadline deals. The 2000 Yankees got David Justice in late June, and his home run spree was a major factor in their championship. The 2003 Marlins acquired Ugueth Urbina in early July to stabilize their bullpen, and got Jeff Conine at the end of August to add hitting depth. The 1995 Braves, 1996 Yankees, 1997 Marlins, 1998-99 Yankees, 2001 Diamondbacks, 2002 Angels, and 2004 Red Sox basically stood pat all season. The last deadline acquisition to help his team win a World Series was Rickey Henderson of the 1993 Blue Jays—and he hit .215 the rest of the way (.170 in the postseason), so Toronto won in spite of, not because of, Rickey.
Recent Deals That Didn’t Work
That’s not to say that many contenders haven’t made deadline deals over the last decade. Some were made out of sheer desperation, while others were legitimately logical additions, but none brought their new teams to the Promised Land.
In 1997, the Cardinals traded three pitching prospects to Oakland for Mark McGwire. Nobody can deny McGwire’s impact on the franchise, on the field and at the box office. Heck, the prospects all flopped for Oakland. Nevertheless, the Cards only made the playoffs twice with McGwire, and never even got into a World Series.
The 1995 Yankees made a similar deal, sending three long-forgotten prospects to Toronto for David Cone. While Cone was terrific down the stretch, going 9-2, his ill-timed wild pitch helped Seattle upset the Yanks in the ALDS. Of course, Cone went on to win four World Series rings with the Yankees—just as the Diamondbacks’ 2000 trade for Curt Schilling helped them win it all the following season—but neither transaction resulted in a championship right away.
Another 1995 deal, a couple weeks before the deadline, had a similar result as the Cone trade. Boston acquired Rick Aguilera from the Twins, and he helped them hold on to win the AL East. But Aguilera blew a save in Game 1 of the ALDS, setting the stage for a Cleveland sweep—and unlike Cone, he left as a free agent after the season.
Ironically, Aguilera was part of a deadline trade that won a championship—but for the wrong team. In 1989, the Mets sent him to the Twins with young pitchers Kevin Tapani and David West, picking up star lefty Frank Viola. But while Viola pitched well for the Mets, he never made the playoffs with them. Yet Minnesota won it all two years later. Aguilera turned into an elite closer, while Tapani was a strong starter and West became a decent setup reliever.
Then you’ve got the panic trades. In 1997, Seattle gave up Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek for awful closer Heathcliff Slocumb, and Jose Cruz, Jr. for the mediocre Mike Timlin. Sure, the Mariners had a hole in the bullpen, but the newcomers didn’t help at all, and three of their best young players left to star on new teams.
Or how about the 2003 AL East? George Steinbrenner fumed when Boston got Jeff Suppan, Scott Sauerbeck, and Scott Williamson in deadline salary dump trades. The Boss responded by trading for Aaron Boone, whose late-season slump drove Yankee fans crazy. Of course, two of the three Red Sox pitchers stunk, and it was Boone who knocked them out of the World Series. Then again, Boone’s crucial strikeout in Game 4 helped Florida upset the Yanks, so chalk up another deadline deal that didn’t bring a trophy.
The truth is, the playoffs are often a crapshoot, and baseball history is littered with improbable October heroes—and stars who turn to zeroes. It’s very hard for one man to make the difference, especially in a 3-of-5 or 4-of-7 situation, where the most innocuous play (hello, Steve Bartman) can cost a team a series. And luck is even more important with a three-round playoff system.
The Rental Player
The 2004 deadline prize should have been Arizona’s Randy Johnson. He wasn’t dealt, but everything was set up for a classic deadline deal. He was a dominant pitcher nearing free agency with a bad team. In 1998, the Big Unit was in a similar situation, and Seattle traded him to Houston (getting good value in Carlos Guillen, Freddy Garcia, and John Halama). The Astros were ecstatic with RJ’s performance in August and September: 10-1, 1.28. Houston won the NL Central title, and they were heavy favorites against San Diego in the first round. Johnson pitched two great games, but lost both due to terrible run support. That’s baseball. Things happen. The Unit couldn’t possibly have done any better, and every expert thought he was the missing piece Houston needed. How was anyone to know that the Astros’ mighty bats would die so meekly, making Randy’s playoff performance irrelevant?
Making matters worse, the 1998 Astros had no chance to keep Johnson, who signed with Arizona after the season. That’s a big risk of trading for a star in his contract year. If you sign him long-term, like the Cardinals did with Scott Rolen in 2002 (or the Giants with Jason Schmidt in 2001), then the deal is worth making, even if it doesn’t pay off with an immediate championship. If not, you’d better win that year, because you’ve already mortgaged some of the future.
Even if the player is a 2-month rental, there’s no denying that a deadline acquisition can spark a team. Will Clark hit .345 for the Cardinals after a July 2001 trade, leading them to a division title. Urbina and Cliff Floyd played well for the 2001 and 2002 Red Sox, but couldn’t get them into the playoffs either year. Each of these players did their job, but it takes a whole team to go all the way. And for every Clark or Floyd, there are just as many Sidney Ponsons (3 wins after joining the Giants in 2003, and a total flop in the playoffs) or Jose Guillens (hampered by injuries after Oakland got him in 2003). For every hundred anonymous prospects thrown into deadline deals, a dozen turn into Jason Variteks or Freddy Garcias, haunting their original franchise for the next decade.
I’m not saying teams shouldn’t make trades—especially those with big payrolls. If they’ve got a glaring weakness and a low budget cellar-dweller has an expensive guy who can fill a need, then the trade can work for both teams. There’s no reason not to stick with a weak player just because most deadline deals haven’t brought the ultimate prize. If a GM can help his team without killing the budget or depleting the farm system, more power to him.
But by the same token, just because your team brings in a superstar in late July, don’t start planning for the victory parade. If recent history is any indication, the celebration will likely be in another city. Too many things have to go right for a team to win a championship, and one player, no matter how good, can’t do it alone.