Do deadline day trades work out?
Baseball trades have been happening since the game was invented. They used to be simple. One team had two catchers and no first basemen and the other had two first basemen and no catchers. So a deal was arranged and life went on. In today’s game, in addition to having to fit any players acquired in a trade into the payroll, most deals usually consist of a proven player from a non-contending team being traded to a contending team for one or more minor league prospects. Thus, it is almost impossible to assess any trades the day they are done.
If the Los Angeles Dodgers win the World Series this year, seven names you will definitely not see or hear about as being key contributors to the Series win are Willie Calhoun, A.J. Alexy, Brendon Davis, Angel German, Oneil Cruz, Scott Van Slyke and Hendrik Clementina. In fact, unless you are a really serious baseball fan, the only one of those names you have likely even heard of is Van Slyke.
The Dodgers have had the best record in baseball since the end of May. They are on a once in a century type run going 55-14 (.797) from June 1 through games of August 21. That record alone should make them favourites for the World Series, but at the non-waiver trade deadline of July 31, Dodgers President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman and General Manager Farhan Zaidi felt they needed to beef up the squad despite their gaudy record over the sixty days preceding the deadline.
The Dodger Front Office had a few concerns. All-world left hander Clayton Kershaw had been on the Disabled List since July 24 with a lower back strain. His return date wasn’t known (he is still on the DL but showing signs of a late August return) and the two teams that Friedman and Zaidi likely expect to be the Dodgers primary contenders for the National League pennant, the Washington Nationals and the Chicago Cubs, both have left handed hitting that needs to be neutralized.
With a well-stocked farm system at their disposal, Friedman and Zaidi started to work.
Firstly, to try and alleviate a bit of the Kershaw problem, the Dodgers acquired soon to be Free Agent starting pitcher Yu Darvish from the Texas Rangers. The price was Calhoun, Alexy and Davis. Calhoun was ranked as the number four prospect in the Dodger organization at the time of the trade and the number 69 prospect in MLB. A 22 year old second baseman, Calhoun is considered primarily a hitter, putting up good numbers (.298 BA, 23 HR and 67 RBI) at Triple-A Oklahoma City. Only 5 feet 8 inches tall, he has shown some power over the last two minor leagues seasons, hitting 50 home runs. He has some issues defensively and has yet to really settle into any one position. With an American League organization, the possibility exists he could become a DH. Alexy, 19 and an 11th round pick out of high school in 2016 was in the top 30 Dodger minor league prospects. He was playing at Full-Season Class-A Great Lakes starting 19 games, posting a 2-6 record with a 3.67 ERA, 86 strikeouts and 37 walks in 73 2/3 innings. He is clearly a few years away. Davis, a shortstop who just turned 20 had recently been promoted from Great Lakes to Advanced-A Rancho Cucamonga and while at Great Lakes he hit .245 with 8 home runs and 35 RBI. He is also clearly a few years away from the majors.
The Darvish deal gives the Dodgers two real benefits. If Kershaw is not healthy over the balance of the season, Darvish gives them a better replacement than anyone currently in the Dodger farm system. If Kershaw comes back healthy, then they have two top of the rotation starters. In either case, there is no need to rush Kershaw back, especially with a 20 game lead in their division.
Then, looking at the left handed hitting on both the Nationals and the Cubs (Adam Lind, Bryce Harper, Anthony Rizzo, Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber and Jon Jay), the Dodgers elected to shore up the left side of the bullpen. With Luis Avilan the only healthy lefty, Friedman and Zaidi traded for two left handed specialists; Tony Watson from the Pirates and Tony Cingrani from the Reds.
The price for Watson (Unrestricted Free Agent after the 2017 season) was German, a right hander pitching at Great Lakes (1-0 in 21 games with a 1.91 ERA) and Cruz a third baseman playing at Great Lakes (.240 BA, 8 HR, 36 RBI). To acquire Cingrani (Arbitration Eligible in 2017), the cost was outfielder Scott Van Slyke and minor league catcher Hendrik Clementina (playing at the Rookie League level). Van Slyke was a spare part in Los Angeles and has subsequently been outrighted to Triple-A by the Reds.
Net result was three proven major league pitchers obtained at the cost of only one player off the major league roster and that player was not a front line player.
These types of deals can sometimes pay off handsomely if the acquiring team does win the World Series. Cases in point are the 2016 Chicago Cubs who acquired closer Aroldis Chapman from the Yankees for a boatload of top prospects, won the World Series and then let Chapman go as a free agent. No matter how the prospects turn out for the Yankees, the Cubs will always say the risk was worth it. The 1993 Toronto Blue Jays acquired future Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson at the deadline for high ranking pitching prospect Steve Karsay and a player to be named later. The player to be named later was outfielder Jose Herrera. Neither Karsay nor Herrera had anything close to a good major league career. Like the Cubs, the Blue Jays will say the deal was a success.
On the other hand, teams can make these kinds of trades expecting to win as a result of their deals and seeing them backfire. The two best examples of such deals backfiring in a big way both go back a few years. In August 1987, the Tigers felt they needed some help in the rotation and acquired veteran Doyle Alexander from the Braves for a minor league pitching prospect. Alexander did what was expected, going 9-0 over 11 starts with a 1.53 ERA over the balance of the season, but the Tigers did not win the World Series and Alexander was out of baseball after the 1989 season. The Double A pitcher going to Atlanta was pitching at Glen Falls. His name was John Smoltz. I think we would all agree that the Braves won that deal. Similarly, in 1990 the Red Sox needed some bullpen strength and traded with the Houston Astros to acquire Larry Andersen. The Red Sox gave up a first baseman playing at Double-A Bristol. Andersen didn’t last long with the Red Sox (he pitched a meagre 22 innings for the Red Sox and left Boston after the 1990 season) and they didn’t win the World Series, but the Astros got a lot of years and a Hall of Fame career out of Jeff Bagwell.
There is no doubt the Dodgers, the best team in baseball right now bettered themselves with their July 31 dealings (and with their subsequent acquisition of Curtis Granderson from the Mets for a player to be named later), but whether it was enough to cement a trip to the World Series, we won’t know until late October.
The Dodgers are better than they were before July 31; there is no question about that. But whether the deals will pay off beyond this season we won’t know for several years.
That’s what makes decisions for General Managers tough and makes for great conversation amongst baseball fans.