Do Midseason Trades for 'Hired Guns' Thrive or Blow Up in Teams' Faces?
It's supposed to be the ultimate short-term pick-me-up in baseball: the late-season trade for a hired gun.
This is a deal in which a team in (or on the fringes of) contention decides to throw a little caution to the wind and quote-unquote "go for it" by making a move to acquire a productive big-name player who is mere months from walking away as a free agent.
Given the player's looming free agency and the return going the other direction, there's usually a fair amount of risk involved. This is especially true since the latest collective bargaining agreement made it so that a team cannot present a player with a qualifying offer and obtain draft-pick compensation unless he has been with that club all season.
These deals pretty much come with built-in clichés: No guts, no glory. Go big or go home. Playoffs or bust. In other words, the hired gun—and nowadays, only the hired gun—is either worth it or he ain't. In the end, whether this type of trade is a success or a failure comes down to results—by both the individual player and the team as a whole—after the move is made.
With the depressed trade value of players under expiring contracts today, though, it's fair to wonder whether this kind of bold call is becoming a dying breed.
To wit, most of the key names who changed teams this season, from Jake Peavy to Alex Rios to Alfonso Soriano to Bud Norris, remain under contract or team control beyond this season.
The closest any player came to qualifying by our standards this year—big-name player traded in July or August with at least 2.0 WAR at the time of the deal—is right-hander Matt Garza, who compiled 0.9 WAR with the Chicago Cubs (albeit while missing the first six weeks with injury) prior to being shipped to the Texas Rangers for a package of young big leaguers and prospects.
With Garza a few months away from hitting the open market—unless the Rangers ink him to an extension first—the move was a calculated risk that may or may not pay off for Texas.
What follows is a review of similar swaps, in reverse chronological order dating back to 2008, to see if they were worth it—and whether teams should consider being bold and attacking the second half of the season with hired guns ablazin'.
Hired Gun: Ryan Dempster to the Texas Rangers
Full Trade: Traded by the Chicago Cubs to the Texas Rangers for Christian Villanueva and Kyle Hendricks
Date: July 31, 2012
Recap: Incidentally, this deal is very similar to 2013's biggest hired-gun trade involving Matt Garza in that a solid, middle-of-the-rotation right-hander went from the Cubs to the Rangers. Texas needed a starter after Colby Lewis and Neftali Feliz went down for the rest of the season and Roy Oswalt didn't work out.
Rangers' Record Prior to Trade: 59-43 (.578)
Rangers' Record After Trade: 34-26 (.567)
Dempster's Stats Prior to Trade: 5-5, 2.25 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 7.2 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, 2.0 WAR (16 starts)
Dempster's Stats After Trade: 7-3, 5.09 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 9.1 K9, 3.3 BB/9, 1.1 WAR (12 starts)
Rented or Re-Signed: Rented
Worthwhile or Worthless: Worthless, primarily because Dempster, who wasn't as effective in his first taste of the AL but did help the Rangers win eight of his 12 starts after the deal, pitched poorly in his start in game No. 162 against the Oakland Athletics, which forced Texas into the one-game wild-card playoff—which they lost.
Hired Gun: Zack Greinke to the Los Angeles Angels
Full Trade: Traded by the Milwaukee Brewers to the Los Angeles Angels for Jean Segura, Johnny Hellweg and Ariel Pena
Date: July 27, 2012
Recap: While attempting to overcome a horrible start to the season and make a massive comeback-slash-playoff push, the Angels wanted Greinke to serve as a co-No.1 with Jered Weaver atop a rotation featuring other quality arms in C.J. Wilson, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana.
Angels' Record Prior to Trade: 55-45 (.550)
Angels' Record After Trade: 34-28 (.548)
Greinke's Stats Prior to Trade: 9-3, 3.44 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 8.9 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, 3.6 WAR (21 starts)
Greinke's Stats After Trade: 6-2, 3.53 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 7.9 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 1.2 WAR (13 starts)
Rented or Re-Signed: Rented
Worthwhile or Worthless: Worthless, because by the time Greinke adjusted to his new team (Angels lost four of his first five outings) Los Angeles was already too far back to make the postseason run that never came. Oh, and giving up Jean Segura, an All-Star infielder this year at age 23, is going to hurt for years.
Hired Gun: Anibal Sanchez to the Detroit Tigers
Full Trade: Traded by the Miami Marlins with Omar Infante and a 2013 compensation draft pick (Round A) to the Detroit Tigers for Jacob Turner, Rob Brantly, Brian Flynn and a 2013 compensation draft pick (Round B)
Date: July 23, 2012
Recap: Landing Infante to shore up a hole at second base helped, but by getting Sanchez, Detroit was looking to strengthen an already dominant and deep rotation in order to increase the odds of staying ahead in the AL Central and advancing in October.
Tigers' Record Prior to Trade: 52-44 (.542)
Tigers' Record After Trade: 36-30 (.545)
Sanchez's Stats Prior to Trade: 5-7, 3.94 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 8.2 K/9, 2.5 BB/9, 2.3 WAR (19 starts)
Sanchez's Stats After Trade: 4-6, 3.74 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 6.9 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, 1.4 WAR (12 starts)
Rented or Re-Signed: Re-Signed ($80 million over five years)
Worth It or Worthless: Worthwhile, as not only did Sanchez go from good in the regular season to great during the postseason (1.77 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 8.0 K/9) to get the Tigers to the World Series, he also re-upped with them for the long haul, giving Detroit arguably baseball's best rotation.
Hired Gun: Carlos Beltran to the San Francisco Giants
Full Trade: Traded by the New York Mets with cash to the San Francisco Giants for Zack Wheeler
Date: July 28, 2011
Recap: Coming off a surprising championship in 2010, the Giants were hoping for a chance to defend their title by balancing out their still-dominant rotation and improving an offense that was missing reigning Rookie of the Year Buster Posey after a gruesome collision at home plate ended his season in May.
Giants' Record Prior to Trade: 61-44 (.581)
Giants' Record After Trade: 25-32 (.439)
Beltran's Stats Prior to Trade: .289/.391/.513, 15 HR, 66 RBI, 61 R, 3.1 WAR (419 PAs)
Beltran's Stats After Trade: .323/.369/.551, 7 HR, 18 RBI, 17 R, 1.2 WAR ( PAs)
Rented or Re-Signed: Rented
Worthwhile or Worthless: Worthless, as the Giants had a mini-collapse almost immediately after the trade, falling from first place in the NL West (by four games on the day of the deal) to second place two weeks later and missing a wild-card spot by four games.
Beltran doesn't deserve to be blamed because his performance held up, but SF fans didn't get to watch their team try to repeat. And now they have to watch the 23-year-old Wheeler successfully deliver in the Mets rotation.
Hired Gun: Edwin Jackson to the St. Louis Cardinals
Full Trade: Traded by the Toronto Blue Jays with Octavio Dotel, Corey Patterson, Marc Rzepczynski and cash to the St. Louis Cardinals for Colby Rasmus, Trever Miller, Brian Tallet and P.J. Walters
Date: July 27, 2011
Recap: This was essentially a three-team deal, as Jackson never even put on the Jays uniform after being traded to Toronto from the White Sox earlier the same day. In a tight battle for the NL Central, the Cardinals were looking for bullpen depth as well as another starter to help cover for Adam Wainwright's season-ending injury in spring training.
Cardinals' Record Prior to Trade: 55-49 (.529)
Cardinals' Record After Trade: 35-23 (.603)
Jackson's Stats Prior to Trade: 7-7, 3.92 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 7.2 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, 2.9 WAR (19 starts)
Jackson's Stats After Trade: 5-2, 3.58 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, 5.9 K/9, 2.7 BB/9, 0.6 WAR (12 starts)
Rented or Re-Signed: Rented
Worthwhile or Worthless: Worthwhile, which is the only possible answer when a team subsequently wins the whole shebang. The Cards snatch the NL wild card from the collapsing Atlanta Braves on Sept. 28—the final day of the season and one of the most epic dates in MLB history.
Hired Gun: Cliff Lee to the Texas Rangers
Full Trade: Traded by the Seattle Mariners with Mark Lowe and cash to the Texas Rangers for Justin Smoak, Blake Beavan, Josh Lueke and Matthew Lawson
Date: July 9, 2010
Recap: In search of a staff ace to lead a rotation featuring C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis—and not much else—to the playoffs for the first time since 1999, the Rangers went for the jugular by pouncing on Lee, who was rumored to be on the way to the New York Yankees.
Rangers' Record Prior to Trade: 50-36 (.581)
Rangers' Record After Trade: 40-36 (.526)
Lee's Stats Prior to Trade: 8-3, 2.34 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 7.7 K/9, 0.5 BB/9, 3.7 WAR (13 starts)
Lee's Stats After Trade: 4-6, 3.98 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 8.0 K/9, 1.0 BB/9, 3.2 WAR (15 starts)
Rented or Re-Signed: Rented
Worthwhile or Worthless: Worthwhile, because even if Lee wasn't exactly dominant and the Rangers didn't play as well over the final three months of the regular season, Texas still ran away with the AL West when the Angels fell apart. Lee was lights out in October in getting the franchise its first-ever playoff series win and first-ever World Series appearance.
Along the way, he hung eight scoreless against the Yankees in the pivotal Game 3 of the ALCS, in what was one of the best postseason performances ever by an opposing hurler at Yankee Stadium.
Hired Gun: Jarrod Washburn to the Detroit Tigers
Full Trade: Traded by the Seattle Mariners to the Detroit Tigers for Luke French and Mauricio Robles
Date: July 31, 2009
Recap: With both the Chicago White Sox and the Minnesota Twins right on their tail (forgive the pun), the Tigers were hoping Washburn, who looked like a new man after his first three seasons in Seattle went poorly, would help solidify the middle of their five-man.
Tigers' Record Prior to Trade: 53-48 (.525)
Tigers' Record After Trade: 33-29 (.532)
Washburn's Stats Prior to Trade: 8-6, 2.64 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 5.3 K/9, 2.2 BB/9, 2.5 WAR (20 starts)
Washburn's Stats After Trade: 1-3, 7.33 ERA, 1.56 WHIP, 4.4 K/9, 3.3 BB/9, -0.4 WAR (8 starts)
Rented or Re-Signed: Rented
Worthwhile or Worthless: Worthless, and while a knee injury was part of it, Washburn was so bad with the Tigers that he didn't get many nibbles that offseason and wound up never throwing another pitch in the majors. It could be argued that had Detroit not traded for the left-hander, that brutal loss in Game 163 might never have happened...because it never would have gotten that far in the first place.
Hired Gun: Matt Holliday to the St. Louis Cardinals
Full Trade: Traded by the Oakland Athletics to the St. Louis Cardinals for Brett Wallace, Clayton Mortensen and Shane Peterson
Date: July 24, 2009
Recap: The Cardinals sat atop the NL Central at the time this deal went down, but the Houston Astros, Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers were all within striking distance—only 3.5 games separated the four clubs.
Cardinals' Record Prior to Trade: 53-46 (.535)
Cardinals' Record After Trade: 38-25 (.603)
Holliday's Stats Prior to Trade: .286/.378/.454, 11 HR, 54 RBI, 52 R, 2.8 WAR (400 PAs)
Holliday's Stats After Trade: .353/.419/.604, 13 HR, 55 RBI, 42 R, 2.5 WAR (270 PAs)
Rented or Re-Signed: Re-signed ($120 million over seven years)
Worthwhile or Worthless: Worthwhile, as the Cardinals took off in mid-August, thanks in no small part to Holliday's beastly efforts as part of a lineup that was good but in need of a Robin to eventual MVP Albert Pujols' Batman. Though the Cards got bounced in a three-game sweep by the Dodgers in the NLDS, Holliday liked St. Louis so much, he chose to stick around that winter.
Hired Gun: Manny Ramirez to the Los Angeles Dodgers
Full Trade: Traded by the Boston Red Sox to the Los Angeles Dodgers as part of a three-team trade in which the Dodgers traded Andy LaRoche and Bryan Morris to the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Red Sox received Jason Bay by trading Brandon Moss and Craig Hansen to the Pirates.
Date: July 31, 2008
Recap: Idling along at .500 as the trade deadline approached but only two games back in the NL West, the Dodgers smelled an opportunity to make a run with the help of a midseason splash. They obtained Ramirez from the Red Sox, who'd grown increasingly tired of Manny, well, being Manny.
Dodgers' Record Prior to Trade: 54-54 (.500)
Dodgers' Record After Trade: 30-24 (.555)
Ramirez's Stats Prior to Trade: .299/.398/.529, 20 HR, 68 RBI, 66 R, 2.9 WAR (425 PAs)
Ramirez's Stats After Trade: .396/.489/.743, 17 HR, 53 RBI, 36 R, 2.9 WAR (229 PAs)
Rented or Re-Signed: Re-signed ($45 million over two years)
Worthwhile or Worthless: Worthwhile, with "Mannywood" taking over as soon as Ramirez touched down in L.A. He would key an eight-game winning streak that spanned August and September and put the Dodgers in first place for good by Sept. 6.
Although Los Angeles wound up losing to the eventual champion Philadelphia Phillies in the NLCS, Ramirez stuck around to help the club earn another division crown and NLCS trip in '09 (again, a loss to Philly).
Hired Gun: Mark Teixeira to the Los Angeles Angels
Full Trade: Traded by the Atlanta Braves to the Los Angeles Angels for Casey Kotchman and Steve Marek
Date: July 29, 2008
Recap: Already up 11.5 games by the time Teixeira was brought aboard—by far the largest division lead in the majors—the Angels wanted to let it be known that they were, without a doubt, the World series favorites not to be trifled with.
Angels' Record Prior to Trade: 66-40 (.623)
Angels' Record After Trade: 34-22 (.607)
Teixeira's Stats Prior to Trade: .283/.390/.512, 20 HR, 78 RBI, 63 R, 3.5 WAR (451 PAs)
Teixeira's Stats After Trade: .358/.440/.632, 13 HR, 43 RBI, 39 R, 3.4 WAR (234 PAs)
Rented or Re-Signed: Rented
Worthwhile or Worthless: Worthwhile, because Teixeira brought power to an infield that was missing it, and he helped drive the Angels toward the best record in the league at 100-62 (they won the AL West by a ridiculous 21 games).
Alas, they lost to the Boston Red Sox in the ALDS in four games, but Teixeira went 7-for-15 (.467) with a team-high four runs. Oh, and that compensation pick the Angels got when the slugger signed his monster contract with the New York Yankees? That turned into this guy.
Hired Gun: CC Sabathia to the Milwaukee Brewers
Full Trade: Traded by the Cleveland Indians to the Milwaukee Brewers for Michael Brantley, Matt LaPorta, Zach Jackson and Rob Bryson
Date: July 7, 2008
Recap: This was arguably the gutsiest of all the hired-gun trades in the past five seasons, as not only were the Brewers in third place in the NL Central at the time of the move—in early July—but also because the small-market club had no chance to retain Sabathia with the big-money contract everyone knew he demanded.
Brewers' Record Prior to Trade: 49-40 (.551)
Brewers' Record After Trade: 41-32 (.562)
Sabathia's Stats Prior to Trade: 6-8, 3.83 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 9.0 K/9, 2.5 BB/9, 2.9 WAR (18 starts)
Sabathia's Stats After Trade: 11-2, 1.65 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 8.8 K/9, 1.7 BB/9, 4.3 WAR (17 starts)
Rented or Re-Signed: Rented
Worthwhile or Worthless: Worthwhile, because the guts and the timing led to (relative) glory. Getting Sabathia when they did meant the Brewers were able to squeeze about three or four extra starts out of their new ace to win the wild card over the Mets—by a game—and bring October baseball to Milwaukee for the first time since 1982.
All in all, there have been 11 notable hired-gun swaps over the past five seasons, all with varying degrees of success or failure. Here's a breakdown of the outcomes.
Number of Teams Whose Winning Percentage Improved: 6 of 11
While that's not exactly a ringing endorsement for making a bold, risky trade for a player in a contract year, at least one club seems to have gotten the hang of it. After bringing in Edwin Jackson in 2011 and Matt Holliday in 2009, the Cardinals' winning percentage jumped dramatically both times, from .529 to .603 with the former and from .535 to...wait for it... .603 with the latter.
Number of Teams Who Made Postseason: 8 of 11
That translates to 73 percent. Obviously, these teams were in contention at the time of their deals—which is why they made the moves in the first place—so the odds of getting to the playoffs were already elevated. Of the trio of clubs who failed to make it—the Angels in 2012, the Giants in 2011 and the Tigers in 2009—all three proved to be the ultimate cautionary tales.
Number of Hired Guns Who Re-Signed: 3 of 11
Anibal Sanchez (Tigers), Holliday (Cardinals) and Manny Ramirez (Dodgers) all returned to the team. Not coincidentally, those three clubs all made the postseason in the immediate aftermath, so perhaps getting to October—not to mention, a boatload of cash—can turn an in-season hired gun into more than just a rental piece. Still, the vast majority are just passing through.
Best Hired Gun(s)
It's a close call in which CC Sabathia battles a former Indians rotationmate by putting the Brewers on his back—he tossed an NL-high seven complete games in half a season!—to help Milwaukee earn its first postseason berth in 26 years.
Meanwhile, Cliff Lee helped the Rangers to their first World Series appearance in franchise history in 2010 by going 3-0 and allowing all of two runs across 24 innings—with a 34-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio!—in the first two postseason rounds.
For what it's worth, both were pitchers and both moved on to other teams, parlaying their massive success into even more lucrative contracts.
Take your pick between A) the 2009 Tigers for acquiring Jarrod Washburn then fading from seven games up in early September to an epic loss to the Twins in Game 163; B) the 2011 Giants for missing the playoffs—after winning it all the year before—despite getting Carlos Beltran from the Mets at the steep cost of prized pitching prospect Zack Wheeler; or C) the 2012 Angels for trading away soon-to-be All-Star shortstop Jean Segura as part of the package to land Zack Greinke, who couldn't get the Halos to October either.
Given that two of the worst hired-gun trades in recent memory happened in the previous two Julys (Greinke and Beltran), they are still fresh in many general managers' minds. That's at least part of the reason—in addition to the elimination of draft-pick compensation—why decision-makers were more hesitant to pull the trigger this season.
On the flip side, the contenders who did go for it from 2008 through 2012 were rewarded with at least an appearance in the postseason nearly 75 percent of the time. So it's tough to make the if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it argument.
Perhaps it says something, though, that the only squad to win it all after bringing aboard a hired gun in the past five years was the Cardinals in the year they added Jackson (and bullpen help). After all, Jackson is far from a star and wasn't especially impactful or clutch for St. Louis the rest of the way in 2011.
In other words, teams that are hiring a late-season gun shouldn't expect to be shot to a World Series win.