There’s a very simple reason why teams don’t start trading away valuable players in April. No matter how bad the media and baseball fans think a team will be, teams do not enter a season without optimism. And it normally takes more than a few bad weeks to break that optimism.
Even if a miracle is needed for certain teams—see Astros, see Marlins—you just never know how things will really shape up until the games are played on the field. A particular division might not be as good as anticipated. Injuries could lower expectations for certain contenders. Or a team might just be a lot better than their 25-man roster “on paper” would indicate.
But often times, it becomes painfully clear to some teams relatively early that it will be a very long season. In some cases, however, they do not want to upset their fanbase by trading away their best players. In reality, many fans aren’t looking ahead and weighing roster moves on what they will mean to the future success of the club.
The Astros would be a good example of a team that probably knows it isn't going to be very good and would be willing to trade a few of their better players, namely starting pitcher Bud Norris. They did, after all, trade shortstop Jed Lowrie a few weeks before spring training after unloading most of their major league talent last July.
Nevertheless, general manager Jeff Luhnow was optimistic heading into the spring and spoke of a team that he felt would exceed expectations. So why not at least let April and May play out before looking to make trades again? That at least sounds like the plan for most teams.
Could a case be made, however, for trading earlier in the season in order to get more in return? In other words, what would a return for four or five months of an impact player look like as opposed to just two or two-and-a-half?
Even if the impact player acquired makes a difference of one WAR (win above replacement player) per month, the difference could mean three extra wins in the standings at the end of the year.
Three extra wins would’ve put the White Sox in a tie for the AL Central lead with the Tigers last season. The Rays would’ve ended in a tie for the last wild-card spot. The Dodgers would’ve been an NL Wild Card with three more wins.
And while we wouldn’t have had as much excitement on the last day of the 2011 regular season, the Red Sox or Braves wouldn’t have had the opportunity to squander their playoff-spot leads if WAR figures accurately translated into three extra wins.
Would a team give up another prospect or a better prospect for a few extra wins at the end of the season?
Using WAR as a reference (via Baseball-Reference.com), let’s take a look at some successful free agent-to-be July acquisitions over the past several years (2006-12) and figure out how much more of an impact they could’ve made on their team had they been acquired three months earlier.
Angels acquire RHP Zack Greinke from Brewers on July 27, 2012, for SS Jean Segura, RHP Johnny Hellweg and RHP Ariel Peña
Greinke's 2012 Pre-Trade WAR (21 starts): 2.2
Greinke's 2012 Post-Trade WAR (13 starts): 1.4
Team Result: 4 GB of playoff spot
Realistically, it would’ve been tough to pry Greinke away from the Brewers, who were within striking distance of a playoff spot up until mid-July. The Angels were actually quite fortunate that the Brewers were in the midst of a seven-game losing streak when they decided to trade away their ace. The Brew Crew heated up down the stretch and re-entered the playoff picture in August and just missed out.
Holding on to Greinke could’ve actually made a difference for whichever team had him the entire season. Whoever said trades were a great idea? As it turns out, the Halos might have acquired him about two months too late.
While Jerome Williams was running off three consecutive poor starts, all Angels losses, before landing on the DL in June, and Garrett Richards had one really bad start in that same rotation spot later in the month, Greinke pitched great in four of five June starts. He could've made up the difference of the four wins that would’ve earned the Angels a playoff spot.
As it turns out, they're without Greinke, who left as a free agent, two pretty good pitching prospects and a shortstop, Segura, who is the talk of the league right now with a .367 batting average and terrific defense through his first 13 games. Segura also posted a mostly negligible 0.2 WAR after the trade in 2012 (with a 0.0 beforehand).
Rangers acquire RHP Ryan Dempster from Cubs on July 31, 2012, for 3B Christian Villanueva and RHP Kyle Hendricks
Dempster's 2012 Pre-Trade WAR (26 starts): 3.5
Dempster's 2012 Post-Trade WAR (12 starts): 0.3
Team Result: Wild Card; 1 GB in AL West
Although he appeared to be more comfortable in the National League pitching most of his games at Wrigley Field and not facing a DH (outside of interleague play), Dempster settled into the Texas rotation and ended up winning seven of his 10 decisions with the team. The Rangers won eight of his 11 starts after acquiring him.
In the span of about five weeks leading up to Dempster’s acquisition, however, the trio of Justin Grimm, Roy Oswalt and Martin Perez combined on five poor starts, three of which turned out to be losses. Between June 5 and July 16, Dempster didn’t allow a run in a span of five starts.
Surely, he could’ve been the difference between the one or two wins necessary to win the division and play in a best-of-five series in the playoffs as opposed to the one-game playoff against the Orioles, which resulted in a loss.
They didn't give up a ton to get him. As deep as their farm system is, it's hard to think they couldn't have acquired him with a slightly better, but not outrageous, trade offer four-six weeks earlier.
Giants acquire OF Carlos Beltran from Mets on July 28, 2011, for RHP Zack Wheeler
Beltran's 2011 Pre-Trade WAR (98 games): 3.5
Beltran's 2011 Post-Trade WAR (44 games): 1.0
Team Result: 4 GB of playoff spot
The 2011 Mets weren’t a terrible team that fell out of the pennant race early in the season. But they never appeared to be much a threat, either, hanging around the .500 mark and not close enough to a playoff spot to ever make much noise.
So had the Giants been willing to give up their top prospect Zack Wheeler at the end of April when they were 13-13 and 4.5 games out in the NL West, and the Mets were going nowhere at 11-16 and 7.5 back in the NL East, maybe the Carlos Beltran era would’ve started much earlier.
They could've been back in the playoffs, and maybe we’d be using words like “dynasty” and “three-peat” when describing the Giants after last season's championship.
Of course they waited until July 26—they had a three-game lead in the NL West at the time—to give up Wheeler and acquire Beltran. Had they pulled off the trade three months earlier, they could have had 76 games from the switch-hitting right fielder with a .913 OPS, as opposed to Nate Schierholtz (.774 OPS), their primary right fielder.
They also would’ve been more likely to run away from the pack in the NL West instead of losing 11 games in the standings and the division title to the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Rangers acquire LHP Cliff Lee and RHP Mark Lowe from Mariners on July 9, 2010, for 1B Justin Smoak, 2B Matthew Lawson, RHP Blake Beavan and RHP Josh Lueke
Lee's 2010 Pre-Trade WAR (13 starts): 3.4
Lee's 2010 Post-Trade WAR (15 starts): 1.4
Team Result: Division Winner; Lost World Series
The Rangers acquired Lee in early July while owning a 50-35 record and a 5.5 game lead in the AL West. Although they went just 40-37 the rest of the way, they still won the division title and finished the season with a nine-game lead over the Oakland A’s. If anything, maybe his acquisition put them in cruise control, and they’re lucky the rest of the division didn’t play very well either.
It’s doubtful the Mariners would’ve traded within the division so early in the season, anyways, and they would’ve asked for the moon if they were to move Lee before they did.
As it stands, this is one example where a very good team in a very mediocre division made the right choice to hold off until July to make a deal. The package of prospects (Justin Smoak, Matthew Lawson, Blake Beavan, Josh Lueke) it took to acquire Lee (and reliever Mark Lowe) for three months hasn’t had much of an impact in the majors, either.
Cardinals acquire OF Matt Holliday from A's on July 24, 2009, for 1B Brett Wallace, OF Shane Peterson and RHP Clayton Mortensen
Holliday's 2009 Pre-Trade WAR (93 games): 2.9
Holliday's 2009 Post-Trade WAR (63 games): 2.3
Team Result: Division Winner; Lost in NLDS
With three teams right behind them in the NL Central race, the 52-46 Cardinals acquired Holliday in late July. Behind Holliday, who hit .353 with 13 homers and 55 runs batted in after joining the club, they proceeded to win 39 of their next 64 games to finish with a comfortable lead in the division and clinch a first-round playoff series against the Dodgers.
With the third-best record out of the three division winners, however, the Cards were without home-field advantage entering their first playoff series. The Dodgers won two at home and then swept the third and final game in St. Louis. Could the results have been different if they had home-field advantage? Possibly, but we'll never know.
Acquiring Holliday much earlier in the season—the A’s were pretty much done by mid-May—and the 2.8 WAR he had in Oakland likely would’ve amounted to even more in St. Louis where Chris Duncan (.689 OPS) and Rick Ankiel (.473 OPS) weren’t contributing much at all. Three more wins and they would’ve leap-frogged the Phillies and secured home-field advantage in the National League Division Series.
Dodgers acquire RHP Greg Maddux from Cubs on July 31, 2006, for IF Cesar Izturis
Maddux's 2006 Pre-Trade WAR (22 starts): 1.3
Maddux's 2006 Post-Trade WAR (12 starts): 1.8
Team Result: Wild Card; Lost in NLDS
Acquiring a fifth starter can seem insignificant, considering they typically aren’t guys who are going to give their team seven-plus innings with two earned runs or less and nine or 10 strikeouts in a game. But when a pitching staff starts to thin out because of injuries or inconsistency late in the season, stabilizing the back of the rotation with a veteran who can give five or six solid innings can make a big difference.
In the case of the 2006 Dodgers, that veteran ended up being Greg Maddux. His presence in the rotation a few months prior to his acquisition, however, would have very likely ensured the Dodgers ended the season atop the NL West, not in a tie with the Padres, who won the tie-breaker. Instead, the Dodgers went into the National League Divisional Series without home-field advantage and were swept by the Mets.
Jae Seo and Odalis Perez made 18 horrific starts between them during the first three months of the season—Perez allowed at least 6 ER in five of eight starts, Seo allowed at least five ER in four of 10 starts—while the 40-year-old Maddux had shown some regression but was still capable of pitching into the sixth or seventh inning and rarely gave up more than three or four earned runs.
A swing of at least four wins would’ve been very likely if Maddux had been acquired from the Cubs once they had fallen out of contention in mid-May, resulting in an NL West division title, 92-win season and home-field advantage in a first-round matchup with the Cardinals. I can't imagine it would've cost the Dodgers any prospect who we'd still be talking about today.
Of course, we can’t discount the impact a player can have on an entire team. The confidence level spreads throughout the clubhouse, hitters get better pitches to hit throughout the lineup and starting pitchers are more effective if they trust that their offense will score runs and their defense will catch the ball behind them.
Hitters won’t try to do too much if they know their starting pitchers will keep them in the game and the bullpen can hold a lead.
We also can't easily take into account the impact the other player(s) in the trade made or could have made, as we're just focusing on the key player's impact in each case.
In most cases, acquiring an impact player early in the season will cost a team more young talent than they’d have to give up in July. Sometimes a team may not feel it needs to make a move until then, but while a team that does choose to eventually utilize this strategy will have to be aggressive, a few extra months of an impact player could produce just enough difference to make it well worth it.