The highs and lows of deadline deals
There's excitement for any player who gets traded at the deadline, but there's also risk
The only place major leaguers want to be in October is playing in the postseason. After going through a grueling 162-game schedule, racking up uncollectable frequent-flier miles, and forgetting hotel room numbers from the blur of checking in and checking out, players come to the finish line once October rolls around. Most of the time, players want to collapse, an appropriate response given that they often play on fumes for the latter part of the six-month season. But then, there is a chance to attain the ultimate baseball honor: to be a champion after taking the key step of finishing strong as a member of a playoff-contending team.
For the bulk of my professional career, I saw very little of the playoffs. My minor league teams were mediocre and so were my major league teams. By the time I signed a one-year deal as a free agent with the Texas Rangers for the 2003 season, I had never experienced playing in a division series, much less a league championship series, or the World Series. Come October, I was at home considering which Halloween party to attend.
As the end of this month approaches, more than a few players will be in the same position as I was back in 2003. They are putting up solid numbers for teams that are out of playoff contention. So just like me, they have to ask themselves: "Do I want to go somewhere else?"
After spending the early part of the 2003 campaign on the disabled list, I returned to my best form, the same form that resulted in 204 hits and a .325 batting average in 1999. I was back, I was better and I was also attractive trade bait.
As July came to a close, I was of two minds. On one side, I thought if I stayed in Texas I was going to waltz into free agency in 2004 with a better résumé than I had the year before. I was hitting at a near .400 clip at the time. If I could keep the momentum going and finish out the season with a flourish, I could erase those lost six weeks on the disabled list. More importantly, I would be recognized again as an everyday outfielder, trumping the Scarlet No. 4 (for fourth outfielder) that someone had stitched onto my scouting report during the 2002 campaign.
The other side of my mind told me that July is when teams are not only jockeying for playoff position, but for the future of the organization. Most of these futures don't include the revival of a 33-year-old veteran player. I began to realize that it was unlikely that the Rangers -- who were already well out of playoff contention -- would just let me play out the season, paving the way for my continued success as if I were a 24-year-old prospect. I was making too much money for a team that wasn't going to see October. I also had a lot of value to a contender. My best-case scenario was a trade to a team that saw me as a player who could contribute as a starter.
Of course, whatever my mindset, I had nothing even resembling a no-trade clause in my contract, so it wasn't up to me. The Rangers had the power to keep me or trade me. As the July 31 trade deadline approached, I became fairly certain that I was going to get a new address. Would I be traded to a contender? Could I fall into the right situation in which I would both be competing for the postseason and be the starting center fielder? If I was traded to another club, would I fit into their plans for next season as well?
My ambivalence became determination. Being in contention would be a nice change after a career that showed me that the postseason was only an illusion. How else could I get a World Series ring but by getting moved elsewhere?
Dreams are just that -- dreams. They unfold with us being the center of the story. The walk-off home run we hit to clinch the division series. The eight-inning, three-hit performance to knock the Braves out of the mix and move one step closer to the bling. The storyline in my head didn't include a trade to the Cubs, a team in the middle of the pack, and helping them by playing against some lefties and pinch-hitting from time to time.
If nothing else, there was some irony in the transaction that moved me to Chicago. I had been drafted by the Cubs and after a tumultuous minor league relationship full of question marks, doubts, upside and winter ball, I had finally made it to the big leagues in 1996. Chicago then traded me to Philadelphia prior to the 1998 season, where I became a starter and where I also made it a priority to put a big foot on my former employer -- a reminder that I was once a loyal minor leaguer, expecting to be a Cub for life.
But let's let bygones be bygones. The Cubs did give my career life by moving me to a place I could play, and then they traded back for me in 2003. I was back as a Cub, but also back with the same question mark about whether I was a starting outfielder or just a fourth outfielder.
As the end of this month approaches, more than a few players will be in the same position as I was back in 2003. They are putting up solid numbers for teams that are out of playoff contention. So just like me, they have to ask themselves: "Do I want to go somewhere else?" Players such as Roy Oswalt, Prince Fielder or Adam Dunn would immediately be impact players for another team that has a chance to make the postseason. Others, despite excellent seasons to date, might be relegated to part-time roles.
I can certainly understand why someone like Jake Westbrook, someone fully entrenched in Cleveland and who has already tasted the postseason, may not be so anxious to change uniforms, even if it would be an upgrade for the rest of this season.
My upgrade in 2003 worked out pretty well. The Cubs made a nice run to win the National League Central title. Then we knocked off the Braves in the NLDS. In Game 3 of the NLCS against the Marlins, I got a key hit in the 11th inning that helped us win the game and position ourselves for what everyone thought would be the team's first World Series appearance since 1945.
That didn't happen and neither did my hopes to use my success with the Rangers to secure a starting job the next season. I lost any leverage I had when I was moved from center field in Texas to the bench in Chicago. In 2004, I barely got a job as a fifth outfielder to ride the pine in Philadelphia.
I can say I was on a team that won a division title. I came whisker close to appearing in a World Series, so much so that I can still taste it. But as close as I was to that promised land, I ended up further away from being able to add years to my career. By getting traded to the Cubs in 2003, I won and that will go down in history, yet in the end I personally lost.
So sometimes we give players heat about not wanting to leave a situation in which the team may be out of playoff contention. We may see it as lack of confidence, lack of a desire to win, or just plain complacency. But keep in mind that a player may get traded and end up on the bench of a playoff contender, and his new team may not win anything but a ticket back home at the end of the regular season. And after the season is over -- even after a glorious run like I had in Chicago in 2003 -- that player may just be a temporary commodity that isn't needed next year.
Doug Glanville, who earned a degree in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, played nine major league seasons with the Cubs, Phillies and Rangers. He serves on the board of Athletes Against Drugs and the fundraising committee of Boundless Readers. His book, "The Game from Where I Stand," was released May 11. Click here to buy it on Amazon.com.
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