With the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline rapidly approaching, the question on everyone’s mind is whether the Tampa Bay Rays will trade David Price.
Should the Rays deal the Cy Young Award-winning left-hander, they are likely to receive a bounty of young talent (mostly prospects) in return. The team that acquires Price should get a big boost heading toward the playoffs.
However, as you'll see in the case studies below, trades are not always even.
Houston Astros Acquire Randy Johnson (July 31, 1998)
The Mariners parted with The Big Unit at the 1998 trade deadline, sending him to the Astros in exchange for Carlos Guillen, Freddy Garcia and John Halama.
Johnson went 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA and four complete-game shutouts in 11 starts and guided the Astros to an NL Central title. They went on to lose to the Padres in the NLDS, with Kevin Brown out-dueling Johnson in the series opener.
Guillen was called up by the Mariners a little more than a month after the trade and went on to post a 25.9 fWAR (FanGraphs WAR) over 14 seasons.
Garcia debuted the following season as a 22-year-old, and the right-hander opened eyes by finishing second and ninth in the AL Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Award voting, respectively. He pitched for seven different teams over 15 seasons in the major leagues and finished his career with 2,264 innings pitched and a 32.7 WAR.
Halama posted a 7.2 WAR and played for seven different teams over parts of nine seasons. Overall, the three players combined for 27.7 wins during their time with the Mariners.
Milwaukee Brewers Acquire CC Sabathia (July 7, 2008)
If you want a shining example of how a midseason blockbuster trade can improve a team’s chances of reaching the postseason, then look no further than the Brewers' acquisition of CC Sabathia from the Indians in 2008.
The Brewers had a 50-40 record and were four games back in the NL Central when they traded for Sabathia, who was set to become a free agent following the season.
The left-hander gave it everything he had down the stretch, even with a big contract on the line. He went 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA, throwing seven complete games and registering three shutouts in just 17 starts.
No one will ever forget when he started on three days’ rest with the season on the line and pitched the Brewers to their first postseason appearance since 1982. It speaks to Sabathia’s utter dominance that he finished fifth in the NL Cy Young voting despite only playing a half-season in the league.
Back in 2012, J.P. Breen of FanGraphs helped put Sabathia's remarkable performance in perspective:
Ultimately, the trade allowed the Brewers to upgrade from Seth McClung to CC Sabathia in the starting rotation. McClung held his own as an emergency starter, posting a 4.24 ERA in the rotation that year, but the overall upgrade for the organization was likely three or four wins. Sabathia was worth +4.6 WAR during his stint with the Brewers. It was one of the more impressive stretches on the mound in recent years. In fact, of pitchers who threw at least 100 innings during the 2008 season, only 18 pitchers compiled more than +4.6 WAR over the entire season.
The Indians received three prospects in return for Sabathia, including Matt LaPorta (Milwaukee’s first-round pick from the previous year). However, LaPorta never panned out for the Tribe, as he produced a dismal minus-1.4 WAR in 291 career games before his release following the 2013 season.
The other big name in the deal was outfielder Michael Brantley, who arguably has been the Indians' best player this season and was selected to his first All-Star Game nearly six years after the trade.
Philadelphia Phillies Acquire Cliff Lee (July 29, 2009)
The Phillies won their second NL title in as many years in 2009 before losing to the Yankees in the World Series, though it’s doubtful they would have made it that far without Cliff Lee.
The Phillies landed Lee and outfielder Ben Francisco a few days before the trade deadline. They dealt Jason Knapp (currently at the High-A level in the Rangers system after four years away from the game), Carlos Carrasco (2.0 WAR over five seasons with the Indians), Jason Donald (0.5 WAR over three MLB seasons) and Lou Marson (2.7 WAR over five MLB seasons).
Lee went 7-4 with a 3.39 ERA and three complete games (one shutout) in 12 starts after joining the Phillies. More importantly, the veteran left-hander went 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA and two complete games in five postseason starts.
After the season, Lee walked via free agency and signed with the Seattle Mariners, though he wouldn’t be long for the West Coast.
Texas Rangers Acquire Cliff Lee (July 9, 2010)
After seeing what Lee did for the Phillies, the Rangers decided to trade for the then-31-year-old several weeks before the actual deadline. They acquired Lee and right-hander Mark Lowe in exchange for Justin Smoak, Blake Beavan, Josh Lueke and Matt Lawson.
Smoak and Beavan are the only players still with the Mariners, though the former has struggled to the tune of a 0.1 WAR over the last five seasons.
Beavan has bounced between the rotation and bullpen, posting a 4.61 ERA and 0.6 WAR over 293 total innings.
Lueke also saw considerably time out of the Mariners bullpen before he was traded to the Rays in 2012—where he’s currently stationed in Triple-A—and Lawson failed to reach the major leagues.
Amazingly, Lee was better post-trade deadline in 2010 than he was the previous year. He registered a 3.98 ERA and 3.2 WAR over 15 starts and helped the Rangers reach the World Series for the first time in franchise history.
Lee was phenomenal during the division and championship series, winning each of his three starts and registering a 0.75 ERA. However, he struggled in the Fall Classic against the Giants, as he pitched to a disappointing 6.94 ERA and lost both starts.
The Giants ultimately defeated the Rangers in five games.
San Francisco Giants Acquire Carlos Beltran (July 28, 2011)
The Giants had high expectations in 2011 after winning the Word Series in 2010, so it was understandable when they traded for Carlos Beltran from the Mets. However, the two-month rental cost the Giants a promising young arm in Zack Wheeler, the team’s first-round draft pick from 2009.
Beltran played very well for the Giants over 44 games, batting .323/.369/.551 with seven home runs before landing on the disabled list in August with a hand injury. However, his performance alone wasn’t enough to get the team back into the postseason. The Giants went 25-31 over the rest of the season and finished eight games out.
Looking back on the trade several years later, Giants manager Bruce Bochy maintained that trading for Beltran was still the right move even though the team failed to reach the postseason (via Adam Rubin of ESPN New York):
But I think any time you have a chance to win the World Series [you go for it] -- which we did in '10, we made a move, and 2012 we made some moves, and it worked out and we ended up getting rings on our finger because of it. That's something a lot of clubs do. Unfortunately, we just didn't have the bats to quite get us there [in 2011].
Beltran left via free agency after the season and signed with the Cardinals. Wheeler, meanwhile, has blossomed into one of the better young starting pitchers in the game and represents a key piece of the Mets’ future.
The 24-year-old right-hander is quietly having a strong first full season in the major leagues, with a 3.78 ERA and 8.82 K/9 over 20 starts.
Los Angeles Angels Acquire Zack Greinke (July 27, 2012)
The Los Angeles Angels went all-in when they traded for Zack Greinke in 2012, the first year that featured a wild card play-in game.
The right-hander did everything he could to help the Halos reach the postseason, going 6-2 with a 3.53 ERA in 13 starts. The team ultimately came up short by dropping the final series of the season against the A’s.
In return for Greinke, the Brewers received a loaded prospect package comprised of shortstop Jean Segura as well as right-handers Ariel Pena and Johnny Hellweg.
Segura obviously was the big piece in the deal, as the 24-year-old was named to his first All-Star team as a rookie in 2013. Hellweg, who’s seen time in the major leagues but underwent Tommy John surgery in the spring, and Pena both have bright futures in the bullpen.
The six trades outlined suggest that a team willing to risk its long-term future is more likely to reach the postseason.
Both Randy Johnson and CC Sabathia guided their respective teams to appearances in the NLDS, while Cliff Lee played a major role in helping the Phillies and Rangers reach the World Series in back-to-back years.
Greinke and Beltran represent the exceptions to the theory. They played well following their respective trades but failed to reach the postseason. That being said, both players still improved their teams’ chances of reaching the playoffs and at least kept them in contention down the stretch.
However, history says that it’s hit or miss when it comes to trading prospects for high-profile talents.
For example, trading Randy Johnson to the Astros in 1998 netted the Mariners two future All-Stars in Freddy Garcia and Carlos Guillen. The same goes for the Brewers' and Indians' respective acquisitions of Jean Segura and Michael Brantley.
But not every prospects-for-star trade works out for both sides. The Indians and Phillies both came up empty with the prospect packages they received for Cliff Lee. None of the players involved in those trades developed into replacement-level talents.
Therefore, it makes sense for a team in the playoff hunt to potentially sacrifice its future for short-term success, provided that it fits the organization’s timeline.
As we all know, however, agreeing to and executing a trade of that nature is easier said than done.
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