Commentary

Deadline deals don't match the hype

Originally Published: July 3, 2008
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Well, the calendar says it's July. And you know what that means.

No, not the long-awaited arrival of Agib Talib at Buccaneers camp. No, not even the long-awaited arrival of your beach chair on a big white stretch of sand.

We mean, of course, it's trade-deadline month. A month in which you'll undoubtedly read more rumors than box scores. A month in which C.C. Sabathia is going to be a bigger topic of conversation than John McCain or Barack Obama.

Baseball Today

Jayson Stark talks to Peter Pascarelli and Eric Karabell about trade deadline possibilities, and agrees that the Rays are tops in the Power Rankings. Podcast

So before we get too close to that onrushing deadline, and before we all get too carried away with rumor-mania, we'd just like to slip in the following public-service announcement, to remind you of exactly what the trading deadline really is:

Overrated.

Yep, that word was "overrated," all right. Not because it isn't fun to watch, cover or analyze. It is. Not because nothing of consequence ever happens. It does.

But you know what the trading deadline almost never does? Live up to the insane hype all of us in the media biz so enthusiastically lather all over it.

Which might explain why, when we asked Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd this week if he had any advice for all the fine, upstanding, baseball-loving, rumor-devouring folks out there in the heartlands as this deadline approaches, here's how he replied:

"Yes," he said. "Relax."

Good advice. So we're going to try our best to follow it. And maybe we can help you do that, too -- by presenting the Top Five Reasons the Trading Deadline is Overrated:

5. Good arms aren't always good luck charms

There's no commodity teams chase harder at the deadline than starting pitching. And it's mind-boggling how rarely it gets them anywhere. Consider this:

• The last two starting pitchers acquired at midseason to win a World Series game were Jeff Weaver (picked off the scrap heap), for the 2006 Cardinals, and Mike Torrez (a relic of another era), for the 1977 Yankees.

• And the last two pitchers traded on Deadline Day (July 31) to win any kind of postseason game were Oliver Perez (a reclamation-project throw-in), for the 2006 Mets, and David Weathers (as a set-up reliever), for the 1996 Yankees.

Dead-line

Notable midseason acquisitions by World Series teams, 2005-07:

2007 Red Sox -- Eric Gagne
(6.75 ERA rest of season)
2006 Tigers -- Sean Casey
(hit .245 rest of season)
2006 Cardinals -- Jeff Weaver
(dumped by Angels after going 3-10, 6.29, went 5-4, 5.18 rest of season)
2005 White Sox -- Geoff Blum
(hit .200 rest of season, but hit a walkoff World Series homer)

So remember, friends, there's no assurance that trading for a C.C. Sabathia is going to give your team any better chance of winning the World Series than trading for, say, Tim Redding. And that's a fact.

The reason, said O'Dowd, is simply that those starting pitchers only get to play every five days. So "just look at the number of starts a starting pitcher is going to get by the end of September," he said. "It's probably 10. So if the guy doesn't dominate in eight of those 10 starts, it's a disappointing trade."

Position players are different, he said, "because they can blend into the mix." And bullpen arms, in the right role, "can make a big difference." And by the way, we can assure you O'Dowd really believes that, even though the only kinds of players he has on the block this month are (coincidentally) bats and relievers.

But those monster starting-pitcher deals? They create "a tremendous amount of pressure," he said. "And not many guys are able to handle that."

4. Even the right moves can turn out wrong

We've been studying some of the biggest trades made at the deadline over the past half-dozen years -- those trades we all labeled "winners" at the time. What did they accomplish, in retrospect? Not what anybody figured. That's for sure.

Remember last year's blockbusters? Mark Teixeira to the Braves? The Braves were 3½ games out of first when he arrived. They finished five games out. Eric Gagne to the Red Sox? All he delivered was a 6.75 ERA.

Want some others, from previous years? Carlos Lee to Texas in 2006? The Rangers went from 1½ games back to 13 back. Bartolo Colon to the Expos in 2002? They played sub-.500 ball the rest of the season and finished 19 games behind -- and the three prospects traded for him (Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips and Grady Sizemore) all turned into stars.

So what's the moral of that story? If you're a flawed team when you make that "perfect" trade, one guy -- no matter how big a name -- rarely fixes all your problems.

"The reason is there isn't a perfect team out there," said Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski. "So what happens is, as soon as you make one deal to address your biggest need, it creates another need."

Or even when those deals work, you can still get flat-out unlucky. Ask former Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker, now a senior vice president for baseball operations in Tampa Bay. He made two of the best midseason deals of the past decade -- snagging Carlos Beltran in 2004 and Randy Johnson in 1998. Neither trade got his team to the World Series, even though it definitely wasn't their fault.

Beltran hit eight home runs in that postseason alone -- but Roger Clemens couldn't hold a one-run lead in Game 7 of the NLCS. And Johnson had a 1.93 postseason ERA, but his team scored two runs total in his two October starts -- "so we lose two low-scoring games in the first round," Hunsicker said, "and we go home."

Hunsicker has been asked "100 times" if he would make those deals again. He would. But that doesn't mean he still isn't haunted by how they turned out.

3. It's harder than ever

There was a time back in the late 1990s, when salary dumps still ruled the land, that a team could wander into the pre-deadline trade market and deal for a Randy Johnson or a Mark McGwire. But nowadays, in an age of unparalleled financial prosperity, those kinds of trades are harder to come by than ever.

You have very few dollar dumps. You have many more teams that think they're in July contention, buoyed by wild-card looniness and the rash of miraculous second-half comebacks over the past few years.

You have a stunning new emphasis on the value of good, young players. And, frankly, in an age when the deadline has never been more heavily covered or dissected, you have more GMs "who are afraid to make a mistake," O'Dowd said.

"So generally speaking," said Hunsicker, "you're going to overpay for what you get. And the guys you get are probably not going to get you where you hope to go."

That, friends, is the real-life state of the modern trading deadline. And because it is, many GMs tread into that market now with the idea that it's better to make deals for little pieces than big, overhyped blockbusters that mostly just blow up in their kissers.

"When you get those little pieces," O'Dowd said, "those players come in and the expectations are not as great. And that has a lot to do with it. I really believe that expectations are the most difficult thing in our game to deal with, both collectively [in front offices feeling heat to win] and on the individuals involved. We create these big expectations, and on the whole, very few people have the ability to meet those expectations."

So look at the trade imports who had the biggest effect on World Series champs of the last few years: Weaver, Geoff Blum, Dave Roberts, Ugueth Urbina. Let's just say they weren't we-interrupt-this-programming kind of acquisitions the day they all got dealt. But they paid off beyond anybody's expectation in October.

"It's amazing," said Dombrowski, "how winning takes place. Sometimes it's because you make a deal. But sometimes it's just bringing in a guy from your minor league system. Sometimes it's just changing your mix. …

"A lot of times, teams don't want to turn to young guys because they're not names. But a lot of times, that guy you call up is better than that guy you acquire in a trade at the deadline. The difference is that guy on the trade market is a more known quantity than that guy in Triple-A. But that doesn't mean he's better."

It's easy to forget that this time of year. But ask the Red Sox who made the bigger impact on their team last October -- Eric Gagne or Jacoby Ellsbury? We rest our case.

2. Don't pay the rent

We spend most of our time before the deadline focusing on players whose rendezvous with free agency is just a few weeks away. But while deals for those kinds of players are the trades most likely to happen, they're also the trades most fraught with danger.

"When you're trading for a player for a short period of time," said Hunsicker, "the reality is that any player, no matter how good he is, gets hot and gets cold. So the shorter period of time, the riskier it is because that player could go cold for a month."

No one remembers, for instance, that there was a three-week stretch, right after Beltran arrived in Houston, in which he hit .208, with nearly as many strikeouts as hits. It got so messy, Hunsicker laughed, that "I remember getting questions from my owner, a month after we got him, about how good this guy was."

TRIVIALITY

In honor of C.C. Sabathia, good luck with this question: Just three active Cy Young award-winners have been traded away at the trading deadline at any point in their careers after they won the award. Can you name them? (Answer later.)

Obviously, Beltran recovered in time to do his Mr. October act. But when you trade for a rent-a-player, "you're rolling the dice on whether you're getting the player you think you're trading for," Hunsicker said.

So more and more, we hear clubs talking about hunting this July for players they can hang on to for a year or two, or even three, after the deadline madness passes -- because, if nothing else, it gives them a better chance to get their trade booty's worth.

The perfect example, said longtime Braves GM John Schuerholz, is Teixeira. That trade last July "didn't work for us," Schuerholz admitted. "We didn't get to the playoffs. But we made that deal not only with an eye to what we might do last year but, if it didn't work, what we might do this year. He did all we hoped he would do, and more. It didn't get us there. But we knew that, even if it didn't happen, we'd have him for all of spring training and all of this season."

So maybe rentals such as Sabathia and Rockies reliever Brian Fuentes feel like the hot July names at the moment. But it won't shock us if Erik Bedard, Matt Holliday and Jason Bay turn into even bigger names in the next three weeks.

1. The deadline isn't even a deadline

For years now, one of Hunsicker's most indelible quotes has been stuck in our brain, only to pop out every July: The trading deadline, he said, "is an artificial deadline."

"I always felt like, if you were going to depend on making a trade at the trading deadline, you were painting yourself into a corner," Hunsicker said this week. "That's really not the way this job is supposed to work. I always felt like, just because that day on the calendar is coming up and all of a sudden a lot of pressure has built up, so you feel you have to make a deal by that deadline. … If that's how you're building your team, it just seems artificial."

And he couldn't be more right. A lot of truly awful trades get made before the deadline. And one of the biggest reasons is all the hype we create -- i.e., media and fans alike -- because it's a hype even GMs get sucked into, often against their will.

I think some of the best deals made at the trading deadline are the ones that aren't made.

--Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd

"The only [GMs] who can insulate themselves from those expectations," said O'Dowd, "are the ones who have been so successful, they don't feel like their jobs are threatened, or the ones who are able to put it all in its proper perspective just by virtue of their experience."

But for everyone else, the pressure builds. The rumors explode. The competition is wheeling and dealing. The clubhouse is watching. And "it builds to the point where a lot of guys feel like they have to do something," O'Dowd said. "That's why I think some of the best deals made at the trading deadline are the ones that aren't made."

In fact, he still hasn't wiped one of those nontrades off his mental chalkboard -- a 1995 blockbuster that would have sent Bret Saberhagen to Cleveland, where O'Dowd was assistant GM at the time.

It would have been a trade that required the Indians "to give up things we should never have been giving up," he recalls. So when Saberhagen went to the Rockies instead, "I remember the sense of disappointment when we didn't get him. But I also remember the sense of relief we felt that we didn't get him when we woke up the next morning."

Those '95 Indians made it to the World Series, if you'll recall, even though all of us brilliant media experts called them "losers" after the deadline. It's a vivid reminder that July's "winners" are often October's floppers -- and vice versa. It happens every darned summer, in the overhyped heat of another trading deadline.

Got that? Great. So you're duly warned about what this deadline is and isn't. Right? Good. Now that we've got that straight (he-he), let's get back to our regularly scheduled pre-deadline rumor-mongering.

Ready To Rumble

Seeing Red: Here's another intriguing name to add to your deadline shopping list:

Aaron Harang.

Harang

Two clubs that have spoken with the Reds in recent days report that, surprisingly, Harang is not on their untouchables list. According to one team, the Reds' latest stance is that they'll discuss anybody on the roster except Jay Bruce, Edinson Volquez, Johnny Cueto, Joey Votto and Edwin Encarnacion.

So that means Harang is a guy for whom they'll at least accept bids. But just understand they'll have to be very, very large bids.

"For them to make that move," said an official of one club, "you'd really have to stagger them because to their fans, that's waving the white flag. So you'd have to come at them with three strong, above-average-type prospects. And even then, I'm not sure they'd say yes. But if you could get him, you've got the best 3-10 pitcher in baseball."

True, Harang's record might be an unsightly 3-10. But look beyond that, and you'll see he'd still be a formidable addition to any rotation.

He has made 11 quality starts (one more than Cole Hamels). His record reflects the third-worst run support in the big leagues (2.96 runs per nine innings). He has a sub-4.00 home ERA in his pitcher's-nightmare park. And he's third in the NL in innings pitched. So he won't be priced like your average 3-10 commodity.

GOOFINESS OF THE WEEK

Don't spell this at home: The San Jose Mercury News' always-inventive Andy Baggarly reports that just because Omar Vizquel has won 11 Gold Gloves, doesn't mean he's a household name in his own glove company's household. The name on his glove is spelled V-I-S-Q-U-E-L.

Scouting bureau: One scout's review of Rays third baseman Evan Longoria: "It took Carl Crawford five years to get the feel for the game this guy got in five minutes."

Quote of the week: Indians pitcher Aaron Laffey drilled Reds behemoth Adam Dunn twice in two at-bats Sunday. So, as Dayton Daily News Hall of Famer Hal McCoy reports, when Dunn headed for the plate the third time, catcher Kelly Shoppach sped to the mound and told Laffey: "Please don't hit him again. He's bigger than both of us combined."

Northwest Clearance Sale Dept.: Here's an interesting development: Clubs that have spoken with the Mariners report they're back-burning their attempts to deal Erik Bedard, for the moment at least, because they have more pressing priorities.

And what might those priorities be? Moving the likes of Richie Sexson, Jarrod Washburn, Miguel Batista and Adrian Beltre. That's what. Not surprisingly, unloading Sexson heads that list -- not that they're getting anywhere.

Seattle is even expressing reluctance to deal Raul Ibanez -- at this point, anyway. One club reports the Mariners would like to package Ibanez with someone like Washburn or Batista, in hopes of maximizing the return. Otherwise, they're saying they would move their left fielder only "for a quality young outfielder" and another piece.

Brew view: Clubs that have checked in with the Brewers say they're being so aggressive in their hunt for a big-time starting pitcher, they might even be willing to include J.J. Hardy or Rickie Weeks "in the right deal."

The Brewers have onrushing 21-year-old shortstop Alcides Escobar tearing it up in Double-A. So their middle infield would be covered long-term, and some combination of Craig Counsell, Bill Hall (if he's not dealt) and Joe Dillon potentially could handle it short-term. Let's say this again: The Brewers are a team you should not take your eyes off in the pre-deadline hysteria.

"They'd listen on just about anybody for the right pitcher," said an official of one club that spoke with them. "And they're still very deep in their system. We've got nine prospects on our list from their Double-A club alone."

In short order: The Tigers haven't said a whole lot about whether they plan to pick up Edgar Renteria's $11-million option for next year. But there are indications they're asking around already about shortstops they might be able to plug in next year -- from Jack Wilson types to prospects in the Elvis Andrus/Brandon Wood/Reid Brignac mold.

"If they could get a good, young shortstop for the future right now," said an executive of one club, "I have no doubt they'd do it."

Fuentes

Rocky time: Clubs that have spoken with the Rockies this week are reporting they're now open for business. Two weeks ago, they were hoping the return of Troy Tulowitzki and Holliday might launch them back into the race. But apparently, an 0-6 trip to Kansas City and Detroit ended that dream. So the first name they'll try to move is Fuentes, the only potential free agent on the roster. As reported previously, the Yankees, A's, Phillies, Mets, Red Sox and Rays are in. It's believed the Marlins also have checked in.

Fuentes is coming off an ugly week, however (seven earned runs in 2/3 of an inning over two appearances). So he'll need to straighten himself out before the bidding picks up.

"Everything he threw was flat," said one scout. "To be honest, I didn't really see an out pitch."

But Fuentes is so versatile, he might be the only reliever on the market who could be a closer, eighth-inning set-up man or situational left-hander. So he will get moved. The price tag, according to one club: "One good piece."

Royalty: If it's July, it must be time for left-handed reliever Ron Mahay to start showing up in Rumor Central. And a swarm of teams are believed to be interested (Yankees, Marlins, Phillies, Tigers, etc.). But unlike last year, when Mahay was a free-agent-to-be in Texas, the Royals have him signed for next year. They're also aspiring to appear as competitive as possible to their long-skeptical fan base. So, as an official of one interested club put it, "they'd have to have an overpayment to move him."

More left-handedness: Another left-handed arm who looks as if he'll be tough to pry loose is Pittsburgh's Damaso Marte. The Pirates have been telling teams they project Marte to be a Type A free agent -- so they would want the equivalent of a first-round pick and a sandwich pick to trade him. Our read of the market right now is this: They're not likely to get it.

McLouth

Pirates of the Monogahela: With Andrew McCutchen's time approaching, the Pirates are getting inquiries about the availability of Nate McLouth. But while they haven't said no, they envision moving either McLouth or McCutchen to hang out in their vast left-field expanse next season. So when McLouth's name comes up, they've been changing the subject to Jason Bay and Xavier Nady. Clubs that have talked to them say it's not impossible they could trade both their corner outfielders if they get a young, big league-ready outfielder back in one of those deals. One team that seems especially interested in Bay is Tampa Bay.

No Victorino on the menu: Despite persistent rumors that the Phillies would trade Shane Victorino for a starting pitcher, an official of one club says: "I don't know where that's coming from." He said the Phillies have "never given the indication they're actively looking to do something with him." There was substance to the Victorino rumors last summer, when the Phillies still had Aaron Rowand around. But his legs and defense in center almost certainly make him an irreplaceable cog this year.

Incidentally, other clubs are reporting the Phillies also won't talk about their Double-A catcher, Lou Marson (currently hitting .322, with a .444 on-base percentage that ranks second in the Eastern League). They're now projecting Marson as their starting catcher in the very near future.

The Harden they come: The A's weren't really interested in giving any multiple-injury discounts on Rich Harden two months ago. So there's no chance they'd be offering any now that Harden recently spun off nine dominating starts in a row (4-0, 1.88 ERA, 69 strikeouts in 57 1/3 IP). In fact, Harden has been so overpowering, it's amazing the A's would consider moving him at all. But Billy Beane has never found a box he couldn't think outside of. And nothing has changed. So the A's will consider any offers that allow them to add and subtract at the same time. But any Harden deal would have to at least approach last winter's Dan Haren extravaganza.

TRIVIA ANSWER

Greg Maddux (won in 1992, '93, '94, '95, traded before the 2006 deadline), Randy Johnson (won in 1995, traded before the 1998 deadline) and Eric Gagne (won in 2003, traded before the 2007 deadline -- much to the delight of Red Sox Nation).

Life after the Iron Pigs: Brett Myers became the first Phillies pitcher to get sent to the minors after starting on Opening Day since Floyd Youmans in 1989. But while the Phillies and Myers agree that he'll only be with the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs for 20 days, what they can't agree on is his future beyond this season.

Myers made it clear to the Philadelphia Inquirer's Jim Salisbury this week that he loved closing last year and never embraced his return to the rotation the way an Opening Day starter should have. So obviously, what he'd like to do after this season is go back to short relief. But that only fits the Phillies' plans if they can't re-sign Brad Lidge. If they can't, he looms as their likely closer next season. If Lidge is back, Myers could find himself on the market this winter.

Dunn deal: We heard from three different teams this week that the Reds have "zero" takers on Adam Dunn. Hard to believe Dunn wouldn't be a fit for an AL team with a lineup deep enough that he wouldn't have to be a middle-of-the-order presence.

C.C. ya later? Are we absolutely positive this is the last month we'll ever see Sabathia in an Indians uniform? For one thing, we're hearing those last-ditch negotiations the Indians are holding with him at the moment aren't just token discussions. In fact, one baseball man who speaks with them regularly says he believes the Indians are making "an aggressive run" to sign their ace, and compared the talks with the effort the Indians made in 2002 to keep Jim Thome -- an effort that died because of years, not market dollars.

Sabathia

Secondly, Sabathia is being portrayed by his friends as a guy who isn't (A) anxious to leave, or (B) driven by money.

"I don't see him chasing the last dollar," said one friend. "He realizes he's already made a lot of money, and whether he signs for $15 million or $17 million or $20 million, it's still a lot of money.

"Knowing C.C. the way I know him, I don't see him enjoying a place like New York. I don't necessarily see him as being afraid of New York, but I don't see him enjoying life in that kind of market. I'm not saying he couldn't do it and thrive there. He's a guy who could succeed anywhere. But I just don't see him in a place like New York or Boston."

L.A. or San Francisco? Or Anaheim, near the home he's building in Orange County? That's a different story. But when another friend of Sabathia was asked where he'd most like to play in a perfect world, his answer was: Cleveland. And the Indians are clearly aware enough of his preference that, if they can't get him signed this month (and that's unlikely), they'll almost certainly tell him they'd like to talk again this winter after he hits the market.

Given the rampant theorizing that the Barry Zito contract has scared teams away from six- or seven-year deals for almost any pitcher, if Sabathia finds that no one is offering him more than four years, it wouldn't be a total shock if he wound up back in Cleveland. But just because it isn't impossible doesn't mean we'd advise you to bet those Cedar Point season passes on it.

Headliner of the week

This headline just in from the brilliant Chicago parody site, theheckler.com:

Hall of Fame Game rainout allows WGN to air classic 'Maury' episode
TV scheduling change gives me excuse to watch
'My boyfriend swears he had sex with my mother!'

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com