When taking stock of what's important, there is a natural tendency to put more emphasis on recent events. Even with that in mind, the trade that sent Manny Ramirez from Back Bay to East L.A. has cast a long shadow over this baseball season.
It gave the Dodgers the power threat they needed to take control of a weak N.L. West, put Manny on course towards MVP discussion, and cleansed the Red Sox clubhouse of stains so foul that it took Curt Schilling nearly two months to even begin to describe them.
OK, so the anti-Manny venom emanating from Yawkey Way is predictable and unfortunate.
But the Red Sox have done just fine without him, going 34-17 in August and September. In his absence, something clicked. Jason Bay certainly hasn’t matched Manny’s magnificent batting line, but his performance in Boston has been exactly as advertised: Besides an above-average bat, good baserunning, and solid fielding, he brings the day-in, day-out intensity that come with a competitor’s first pennant race.
In the long run, assuming that Manny would have been gone by season’s end, this deal ensured an adequate replacement for 2009 at the relative bargain rate of $7 million.
Do rumors and innuendo confirm that Ramirez would have quit on the Sox? Of course not. But as a Sox fan, I’m glad they didn’t bet their postseason on it.
The Miracle of St. Manny
Looking west, Manny’s impact on the Los Angeles offense has been huge. Need to make up for the gaping lack of production where Ned Colletti thought Andruw Jones would be? No problem—since Ramirez arrived he’s hit 17 home runs, and the team’s slugging percentage has gone up 20 points. After sitting at exactly .500 through July, Los Angeles has won 29 of 50 to take the division.
But credit for their success should also go to the starting pitching.
Despite Greg Maddux’s mediocre performance in blue, the rest of the staff has made up for the absence of Brad Penny. With Derek Lowe and Chad Billingsley anchoring the rotation, newcomers Hiroki Kuroda and Clayton Kershaw have both settled down since August.
If Theo Epstein hadn’t financed Manny’s L.A. vacation, it’s certainly possible that the Dodgers could still have taken a weak division. But Ramirez’s presence, along with an emerging rotation, turned the team into a legitimate contender.
It’s rare that a trade works for all sides—and this one didn’t.
The Pirates can still hope that at least one of the youngsters they received for Bay will turn into an every day major leaguer, but that hope is based on potential and not recent performance.
Andy LaRoche has still had barely 300 at-bats in the majors, but he hasn’t had any success either. He’ll probably get another season to develop across the diamond from his brother, confusing the hell out of drunken fantasy baseball players in leagues that use corner infielders.
Removed from the comfortable confines and lineup of Boston, Brandon Moss has performed like a fourth outfielder at best, rather than David Murphy redux. And Craig Hansen occasionally tosses a clean frame, but moving to a pitcher’s park hasn’t helped with his ERA or control.
Like LaRoche, he has enough talent to get another shot at putting things together, but success is looking less and less likely.
Insiders reported that with minutes to go before the July 31st trade deadline, Bay was expected to move to Tampa Bay. It’s uncertain exactly what the Rays would have given up, but with a decent arm like Jeff Niemann supposedly involved, it seems unlikely that Pittsburgh could have gotten a worse deal.
As a Sox fan, the fact that acquiring Bay meant blocking a division rival is one of the silver linings that take the sting out of giving up Manny.
The Red Sox would probably have gotten into the postseason whether they made the deal or not, and the Dodgers resurgence has as much to do with their rotation as their slugger.
While their deadline deal was certainly the season’s most dramatic trade, it wasn’t necessarily the most significant.
For two days in July, an arms race came to a head, bringing CC Sabathia and Rich Harden into the N.L. Central. (Randy Wolf followed a couple of weeks later, with slightly less impact.)
Adding Harden allowed the Cubs to keep starters like Carlos Zambrano fresh while still running away with the division. Some scouts say that on a good day, Harden's got the best stuff in the majors. He's confirmed that opinion since moving to Chicago, posting a 1.77 ERA with a 0.97 WHIP in 12 starts.
However, despite arriving just a day before Harden, Sabathia has thrown nearly twice as many innings for his new team, keeping an inconsistent squad squarely in the wild-card race, with an 1.78 ERA and six complete games.
If the Brewers miss the playoffs, it’ll be a moot point; but whereas the Cubs would probably have gotten in with or without Harden, Sabathia has allowed the Brewers to compete with New York and Philadelphia.
The Sabathia trade also affected the A.L. Central. In early July, it made sense for Cleveland—they were in last place, 13.5 games back and riddled with injuries. But they’ve made up seven games in the standings since, and you’ve got to wonder what that division would have looked like if the Indians hadn’t punted so early.
On the other hand, if Milwaukee misses the playoffs, they may regret giving Matt LaPorta and others for a couple of months of Sabathia.
While the trade could end up as a slight regret for Cleveland or Milwaukee, it’s a constant migraine for Mets fans. With another collapse potentially in progress, New York could have practically counted on a postseason berth if not for Sabathia.
Long before the Harden and Sabathia deals, the Mets acquired their own ace in Johan Santana. Yet if New York fails to make it, that offseason blockbuster may actually have been more significant for the Twins.
Minnesota relied on Livan Hernandez for half the season. If they had been able to send Santana out every fifth day, the Twins could very easily be in first place right now, fending off the White Sox, instead of vice-versa.
While the team currently atop the N.L. East didn’t go chasing aces, they certainly got a bargain in Brad Lidge. Despite a relatively pedestrian WHIP of 1.20, the closer has brought stability to the Phillies' bullpen, converting all 40 of his save opportunities this year.
Right now, that doesn’t look quite as big as Manny, CC, or Johan’s impact; but if the Phillies make a run, Lidge can erase some bad memories of October in this Pujols-free postseason.
The offseason’s other blockbuster turned out to be a bust—so far. Many predicted that Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis would put the Tigers over the top, but Detroit has been a season-long disappointment.
While Cabrera has had an off year, offense isn’t the team’s problem. Detroit’s bet that Dontrelle Willis would put things together in the American League was a long shot at best, and it hasn’t paid off.
On the flipside, while the Marlins could certainly use Cabrera (who couldn’t?), their offense has done fine without him. Over the next few years, Cabrera will be a stud, and Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller could become valuable assets for Florida; but in terms of this season alone, the deal ultimately wasn’t very significant.
In fact, it wasn’t even the most significant trade that the Tigers made. Giving up Jair Jurrjens for the American League version of Edgar Renteria (see Boston, 2005) was an unnecessary blow to Detroit’s weak rotation, and one that may sting for years to come.
Down to the Wire
There’s plenty of ways to judge which players and trades have had the greatest impact on the season. If you’re inclined to go with Win Shares, Manny and CC each have 13 with their new team, though Ramirez has earned his in nearly a month less. And in terms of one player’s contribution, it’s difficult to argue against No. 99.
But for all his petulant whining, Hank Steinbrenner had a point about the N.L. West. Manny may simply have given a weak team the edge in a weak division.
Unless the Dodgers can make it out of the NLDS and demonstrate that Ramirez makes them a balanced threat, it’ll be difficult to look past one of the most dramatic arms races in recent memory.
Three American League aces were brought to the National League this year to ensure that their new team made the playoffs. With three days left, it’s quite possible that only two will get there.
In this sense, it’s a question that will be answered on the field, and not necessarily by the actual players involved. Santana and Sabathia each have one start left on the season, but they (and the trades they were involved with) will be judged by whether or not their team is successful. Even if both win on Sunday, their ultimate impact depends on what happens on their days off.
Entering the final weekend, the significance of the past year’s moves provides yet another dimension to a great pennant race. With any luck, it’s a question that won’t get fully answered until late in October.