Peter Gammons: MLB Trade Deadline: The Scales of Present and Future

marco scutaro

Marco Scutaro with the San Francisco Giants.

On August 12, 1987, the Tigers were a game and a half behind the Blue Jays in the American League East. Their general manager Bill Lajoie knew that three years out from their ’84 world championship this was probably the last hurrah for this team, and so he traded for the veteran starter Lajoie felt he needed, Doyle Alexander, at the cost to Braves GM Bobby Cox of a double pitcher whose minor league record that season was 4-11.

Alexander went 9-0, the Tigers were 11-0 in his starts, they made the post-season for the last time until 2006 and he finished fourth in the Cy Young Award balloting. In July, 2015, that 4-11 minor league pitcher may be inducted into the Hall of Fame. His name? John Smoltz, who went on to win 210 games and save 152 others for Atlanta. It was, as Lajoie later pointed out, the ultimate pennant race deal between two teams with opposite needs.

These July days counting down to the trading deadline on the 31st is a weighty decision period, the scales of present and future. The ’87 Tigers understood their future, and went for the present. The Braves were in the second year of Cox’s reconstruction of the Braves, and Smoltz became a cornerstone of a team that won five pennants, one World Series and finished first 14 times. Oh yes. And Cox will be inducted at Cooperstown before this month’s deadline.

By the time Cox’s Braves were ready to start challenging, John Schuerholz had come in as general manager, and in 1993 was faced with another present-future weigh-in. The financially-strapped Padres were in fire sale mode, so Schuerholz shipped three minor leaguers to the Padres for Fred McGriff on July 18. In the remaining 68 games, McGriff batted .310 with a 1.014 as Atlanta overcame the Giants in the West, then helped the Braves win their World Series in 1995. None of the three players traded to the Padres had any impact on their future.

As it turns out, few mid-season or deadline deals have come close to deciding world championships in the last 30 years. The last two players who were significant figures in a championship run were Marco Scutaro with the 2012 Giants and Orlando Cabrera, who was acquired in what was an unusual three-way deal on July 31, a trade that was as much as the departure of Nomar Garciaparra as it was trading for Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz. Sandy Alderson’s deal with the Yankees for Rickey Henderson in 1989 was a major element in their run to the series, as was Toronto’s waiver trade for David Cone on August 27, 1992, which sent Jeff Kent to the Mets. Cone was 4-3, 2.55 down the stretch and the Jays won three of his four post-season starts.

Toronto general manager Pat Gillick struck again in 1993, acquiring Henderson for Steve Karsay at the deadline. Henderson actually did little, hitting .215 in 44 games for the Jays and .225 and .125 in the ALC and World Series. But the oddity was that on July 31, Gillick thought he had a deal with Seattle for Randy Johnson, sending Al Leiter and Mike Timlin. But Gillick couldn’t find Mariners GM Woody Woodward, who was golfing in Florida, and finally agreed to the Henderson deal. Shortly thereafter, Woodward reached Gillick and accepted the deal. Gillick did not go back on his word to Sandy Alderson.

Johnson is one of the most fascinating trade deadline figures. In 1989, he was sent by the Expos to the Mariners in a four player deal for Mark Langston that was Dave Dombrowski’s shot at booming baseball in Montreal. It didn’t happen, like Omar Minaya’s final shot at saving the franchise in 2002 in dealing Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee and Brandon Phillips for Bartolo Colon, a deal that reversed two franchise’s fortunes. Johnson’s great 1995 post-season helped get Seattle Safeco Field, then in 1998 he was traded to Houston for Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen and John Halama, which much of baseball thought was a World Series deal.

Johnson went 10-1, 1.28 in 11 starts. The Astros won the division. But in the NLDS, Kevin Brown came up huge for the Padres, beat Johnson 2-1 in the opener and the Pads advanced to the World Series, which helped secure the financing for Petco Park.

The post-season isn’t necessarily winning everything, it’s what it does for the franchise. There are few better examples that the 2008 Brewers, who on July 8—with a 50-40 record and four games out—traded two highly-rated prospects to the Indians for CC Sabathia. Sabathia, a free agent at the end of the season, pitched his heart out, going 11-2, making his final three starts on three days’ rest and got the Brewers to the post-season for the first time since 1982. The most touted prospect, Matt LaPorta, did not work out. The other, outfielder Michael Brantley, six years later has blossomed to the point where he may be an all-star.

In 1977, Walt Jocketty changed the Cardinals franchise history when he acquired Mark McGwire from the Athletics for pitchers Eric Ludwick, T.J. Matthews and Blake Stein. Whatever was or was not in his locker or his body, McGwire became an important part of business history, hitting 70 home runs in his chase against Sammy Sosa in 1998, 263 in five seasons with St. Louis. He refueled the franchise, resulting in a new stadium. Ludwick (1-4, 8.25), Matthews (24-15, 4.78) and Stein (5-9, 6.60) ran out of gas.

Sometimes the big name trades don’t pan out immediately; the Diamondbacks traded for Curt Schilling in July 2000. He and Johnson were co-MVPs of the 2001 World Series.

And on July 27, 2012, the Giants traded a minor league outfielder named Charlie Culberson to the Rockies for Scutaro, a deal that did not lead MLB Tonight. Scutaro ended up MVP of the NLCS, the Giants won their second World Series in three years and, two years later, Culberson is a valued member of the Rockies. You can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need.

The Phillies announced Tuesday that after throwing a simulated game, Cliff Lee will pitch a minor league game this weekend, hoping to get him in shape to go out in the market around July 20.

Cliff Lee has been here before. He’s been the guy who was going to take a contending team deep into October, the chip that could begin the rebuilding of his team’s fortunes.

Actually, Lee was, in 2002, on the other side, when the Expos needed Bartolo Colon to contend for a franchise’s sake and gave Lee, Grady Sizemore and Brandon Phillips to get him, a deal that five years later helped the Indians get within one ALCS win of the World Series.

If he gets healthy in the next three weeks, Lee again is a card the Phillies will play to get young blood into the organization. He may be 35 years old, but he is in the condition of a World Cup soccer player, he is 143-90 lifetime, a Cy Young Award winner, 6th among active pitchers in Wins Above Replacement.

Yet he has been traded from the Indians to the Phillies to the Mariners to the Rangers, and of the 11 players acquired for him, two are currently in the major leagues—Justin Smoak and Phillippe Aumont, who has one major league win and a career 4.79 earned run average.

Former Toronto general manager and current Mets executive JP Ricciardi always cautions people, “prospects are just that—prospects.” In a four year period in the Nineties, Fred McGriff was traded for three “prospects,” none of whom ever pitched or player regularly in the big leagues.

The Colon deal was a win-win in the rebuilding of the Indians. When the Mets traded Carlos Beltran to the Giants for Zack Wheeler in 2011, it made sense for both teams; Wheeler is a part of a growing Mets power, although the Giants went from a game up at the time of the deal to 25-31 the rest of the way, finishing eight games out.

When the Cubs shipped off Matt Garza, Scott Feldman and Alfonso Soriano for young arms last season, they did it right. The Feldman return was Jake Arrieta, one of their best starters. Garza got them two major power bullpen pieces in Noe Ramirez and Justin Grimm and arguably their best minor league prospect, C.J. Edwards, while Soriano fetched Corey Black, another solid pitching prospect.

Go back to July 31, 2007, with the Braves trying to win one more time. To get Mark Teixeira, they gave up five prospects, including Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, rebuilding the Rangers for divisional and post-season runs while the Braves finished 2007 55-51 and the next season moved Teixeira for Casey Kotchman.

In 2011, then-Astros general manager Ed Wade sent Hunter Pence to the Phillies for three significant pieces of the Astros rebuilding process—pitcher Jarred Cosart, first baseman Jonathan Singleton and outfielder Domingo Santana, who soon will be playing in the Houston outfield.

The year before, after Josh Byrnes was replaced as Diamondbacks GM, his interim replacements Jerry DiPoto and Peter Woodfork, marketed Dan Haren and Edwin Jackson and got back a return of Patrick Corbin, Tyler Skaggs, Daniel Hudson and Joe Saunders to redo Arizona’s pitching.,

One of the strangest prospects deal came in 1997. On July 30, the day before the deadline, the Mariners bullpen blew a 7-1 lead in Fenway Park and lost in extra innings. Red Sox reliever Heathcliff Slocumb threw well in that game, and manager Lou Piniella convinced general manager Woody Woodward to try to get him. Boston GM Dan Duquette told Woodward he wanted one of two minor leaguers in any deal, catcher Jason Varitek or pitcher Derek Lowe.

Minutes before the midnight deadline, Woodward called back and asked to be reminded whom Duquette wanted. He mentioned the names Varitek and Lowe. Woodward said, “OK,” and agreed to trade both of them, who had very successful careers in Boston and were battery mates in the 2004 World Series.

Heathcliff Slocumb was 0-4, 4.13 the two months of the 2007 season, had a 5.32 ERA the next year and was released.

All of which is a cautionary sign to those who think David Price is going to bring back 2008 for the Rays, Jeff Samardzija is going to bring back two 2015 starting pitchers for the Cubs or Jon Lester, as some in New England argue, will bring the Red Sox two young bats that will be five year forces. This isn’t the way it works, not often. The Rangers’ 2011 run to what couldashoulda been a World Series was built by the Teixeira deal, but years later, Brantley-Sabathia was a pretty good long-term deal for the Indians, a franchise-changer for the Brewers.

Just remember the World Series deals. Marco Scutaro, Orlando Cabrera, and dip into the Red Sox Hall of Fame for Dave Roberts, purchased from the Dodgers on July 31, 2004 as Boston sent Garciaparra to the Cubs, who in that post-season had one historic stolen base and no plate appearances in the three series run to alter 86 years of history.


  1. jiminnc says:

    The PTBNL in the Garza trade was Neil Ramirez, not Red Sox AA pitcher Noe Ramirez

  2. Good article Peter. I was waiting for the Jeff Bagwell clincher.