Ranking Major League Baseball's 10 Biggest In-Season Trades Since 2010
Major League Baseball's 2021 non-waiver trade deadline is fast approaching, and we are downright giddy for the next few days of wild rumors and eye-popping news in connection with Friday's deadline.
But until we can start with the rapid reactions and report cards on 2021's deadline deals, we wanted to take a trip down memory lane through the past decade-plus to reminisce on some of the biggest in-season trades in recent history.
What makes a trade "big" is rather subjective. There could be star names that grab headlines, immediate playoff implications or long-term impact involving salaries and/or prospects. All are welcome in this discussion, though we did try to make sure to highlight the ones that most affected the postseason in the year the trade happened.
Please be sure to note that we're focusing exclusively on in-season trades, however, these aren't necessarily just late-July deals. In fact, the two biggest ones on our list both happened in late-August, so don't lose faith if your favorite team fails to make a big move this week. It's still possible to put together a blockbuster after guys clear waivers.
Here are 10 honorable mentions before we dive in:
- Cleveland gets Corey Kluber in a three-team deal at 2010 deadline
- Baltimore acquires Chris Davis and Tommy Hunter for Koji Uehara at 2011 deadline
- Marlins 2012 fire sale puts Hanley Ramirez in Los Angeles and Anibal Sanchez in Detroit
- Cubs trade 2014 All-Star Jeff Samardzija—prior to 2014 All-Star Game—for Addison Russell
- Blue Jays get Troy Tulowitzki and David Price in two separate deals before 2015 deadline
- Atlanta trades Craig Kimbrel to Padres in early April 2016
- Orioles deal Manny Machado to Dodgers for quintet of prospects in 2018
- Trevor Bauer to Cincinnati and Franmil Reyes and Yasiel Puig to Cleveland as part of three-team deal in 2019
- Astros trade four prospects for Zack Greinke before 2019 deadline
- Starling Marte to the Marlins in 2020 for Caleb Smith, Humberto Mejía and Julio Frias
10. Pirates Miss the Mark with Archer
Trade: Tampa Bay Rays trade Chris Archer to Pittsburgh Pirates for Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows and Shane Baz
Date: July 31, 2018
Over the past few decades of frustrating history in Pittsburgh, the Pirates have typically been the team that cultivates the multiple-time All-Star only to sell him for parts when he gets too expensive. Jason Kendall, Brian Giles, Jason Bay, Freddy Sanchez, Joel Hanrahan, Mark Melancon, Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole all had relatively similar career arcs in western Pennsylvania in that regard.
But one of the few times they decided to dive into the opposite end of that pool, it didn't work out so well.
Chris Archer had a strong run with Tampa Ray. He got AL Rookie of the Year votes in 2013 and AL Cy Young votes in 2015. He was a two-time All-Star who had a 3.60 ERA from 2013-17. He was durable, not missing a single start from June 1, 2013 through June 1, 2018. And the Pirates wanted to pair him with Jameson Taillon and Trevor Williams atop the rotation for a 2018 postseason push.
Unfortunately, by the time he started pitching well in the season's final month, it was too little, too late. Archer had a 6.45 ERA in five August starts, and the Pirates entered September with the fifth-worst record in the NL, 10 games back of the second wild-card spot.
The following year, he had a career-worst 5.19 ERA. The year after that, he missed the entire season due to thoracic outlet syndrome.
Pittsburgh ended up paying him over $20 million for 1.5 FanGraphs WAR.
Worse yet, the Pirates gave up Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows to get Archer. The former had a 1.78 ERA in 12 starts in 2019 and was well on his way to 2021 AL Cy Young consideration prior to a forearm injury. The latter batted .291 with 33 home runs in 2019. Tampa Bay fans are very happy with both.
And let's not forget: Pittsburgh could have avoided this whole problem by just hanging onto Gerrit Cole for $6.75 million in 2018.
9. Hunter Pence Times Two
Trade No. 1: Houston Astros trade Hunter Pence and cash to Philadelphia Phillies for Jarred Cosart, Jon Singleton, Josh Zeid and Domingo Santana (July 29, 2011)
Trade No. 2: Philadelphia Phillies trade Hunter Pence to San Francisco Giants for Tommy Joseph, Nate Schierholtz and Seth Rosin (July 31, 2012)
Back-to-back years in which the same guy was the centerpiece of a deal that made a World Series contender even stronger.
Don't see something like that very often.
With the first trade, Houston was already well on its way to completely bottoming out and was just shedding salary wherever possible. The Astros traded away both Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt before the 2010 deadline and dumped both Pence and Michael Bourn in July 2011. And they proceeded to lose at least 106 games in each of 2011, 2012 and 2013.
Two of the guys they got for him (Jarred Cosart and Jon Singleton) were prized prospects, but neither one panned out in the long run. It was actually Domingo Santana (originally a "player to be named later" in the trade) who had the most MLB value, but the Astros traded him to the Brewers before he became a quality asset.
Pence batted .324 and slugged .560 the rest of that 2011 season with the Phillies, helping pace them to the best record in baseball (102-60). He went just 4-for-21 with no extra-base hits in the NLDS loss to the Cardinals, though.
The following July, it was Philadelphia's turn to at least somewhat admit defeat.
The Phillies signed Pence to a one-year, $10.4 million deal that offseason, but they were 12 games below .500 on the morning of the July 31 trade deadline and opted to let another team worry about trying to sign the 29-year-old to a long-term deal. He landed in San Francisco where he was a key contributor for two World Series titles (more so in 2014 than in 2012).
The Phillies got even less for Pence than the Astros did. Seth Rosin pitched just six innings in the majors, Nate Schierholtz made just 73 plate appearances for the Phillies, and Tommy Joseph—though he did hit 20-plus home runs in both 2016 and 2017—had a career Baseball-Reference WAR of negative-0.6.
8. The Royals Go All-In (and Win)
Trade No. 1: Cincinnati Reds trade Johnny Cueto to Kansas City Royals for Brandon Finnegan, John Lamb and Cody Reed (July 26, 2015)
Trade No. 2: Oakland A's trade Ben Zobrist and cash to Kansas City Royals for Aaron Brooks and Sean Manaea (July 28, 2015)
The first trade went from good to bad to awesome for the Royals.
The good was how Johnny Cueto pitched upon arrival in Kansas City. Through his first four starts in new threads, he went 30 innings with a 1.80 ERA, including a complete-game shutout. The bad was the next five starts, in which he had a 9.57 ERA, lost all five games and looked like a guy destined for one of those trips to the IL with "dead arm."
Overall, he gave the Royals a 4.76 ERA and a 4-7 record in 13 regular-season starts.
But when the games really mattered, he brought the goods.
In the do-or-die ALDS Game 5 against the Astros, he went eight innings and allowed just two hits in the series-clinching victory. Then, after an absolute nightmare in Game 3 of the ALCS against Toronto (eight earned runs in just two innings), he pitched a complete-game two-hitter in Game 2 of the World Series against the Mets. It was a feat made even more critical by the fact that Game 1 went 14 innings the previous night.
Ben Zobrist, on the other hand, was solid throughout his stint in Kansas City. The utility man hit .284 during the regular season with the Royals, but he kicked that up a notch to .303/.365/.515 during the playoffs. He had at least one hit in 13 of Kansas City's 16 postseason games.
For those two World Series-altering rentals, the Royals didn't give up a ton. Sean Manaea has been a solid starting pitcher in Oakland for the past six seasons. However, John Lamb, Cody Reed and Aaron Brooks each has a negative career WAR on Baseball-Reference while Brandon Finnegan's only decent season was 2016.
Small price to pay for a ring.
7. Cole Hamels Fires No-No; Packs His Bags
Trade: Philadelphia Phillies trade Cole Hamels, Jake Diekman and cash to Texas Rangers for Jorge Alfaro, Alec Asher, Jerad Eickhoff, Matt Harrison, Jake Thompson and Nick Williams
Date: July 31, 2015
As far as the Phillies are concerned, Cole Hamels couldn't have picked a better time to throw his only career no-hitter.
That 13-strikeout gem against the Chicago Cubs came on July 25, 2015—six days before the trade deadline for a team that not only entered the day with the worst record in all of baseball (35-63) but by a 6.5-game margin.
The Phillies had signed Cole Hamels to a six-year, $144 million extension in July 2012, and they pretty much had to get out from under the remainder of that deal in order to properly hit the "reset" button in 2017 when they could finally stop paying Ryan Howard $25 million per year. And that no-hitter made the 31-year-old, three-time All-Star a little more attractive on the open market.
Meanwhile in Texas, the Rangers had the bats to compete with anyone but one of the worst starting rotations in baseball. Excluding Hamels, 11 different pitchers started at least two games for the Rangers in 2015, only one of whom had an ERA below 3.90 (Yovani Gallardo, 3.42).
Desperate to not squander what would surely be one of Adrian Beltre's final good years at the age of 36, the Rangers more or less blew up their farm system to get Hamels. Jorge Alfaro and Nick Williams were the big names, but Jerad Eickhoff, Jake Thompson and Alec Asher all ranked among Texas' better prospects at the time.
In the end, though, they didn't give up much. Asher and Thompson each pitched around 120 innings in the majors, neither appearing in a game since 2018. Eickhoff had a fine first year-plus in Philly, but he hasn't done much good since the end of 2016. Williams hit some home runs in 2017 and 2018, but he had a FanGraphs WAR of negative-0.2 in his career. And while Alfaro was OK before becoming one of the pieces that netted the Phillies J.T. Realmuto, he hardly blossomed into the top prospect they were promised.
And Hamels fueled the Rangers' postseason run. They were two games below .500 when they traded for him, but they went 38-22 the rest of the way to win the AL West. Hamels went 7-1 and went at least six innings in each of his 12 starts. He was even better the following year, reaching the All-Star Game as the ace of the staff.
6. Fernando Tatis Jr. for James Shields
Trade: San Diego Padres trade James Shields and cash to Chicago White Sox for Fernando Tatis Jr. and Erik Johnson
Date: June 4, 2016
Over the years, there has been a ton of in-season "MLB player traded for prospect" deals which went on to make the team trading away the prospect look extremely foolish.
In 2012, the Cubs traded 35-year-old Ryan Dempster to the Rangers for a young arm by the name of Kyle Hendricks. (The Cubs also got Christian Villanueva in that deal.) Hendricks has been a staple atop the Cubs rotation for the past eight seasons, including an MLB-best 2.13 ERA in 2016. Dempster made 12 starts for the Rangers with a 5.09 ERA.
In 2015, the Orioles gave Zach Davies to the Brewers for two months' worth of Gerardo Parra's services. And to make matters worse, those services were nowhere near what was advertised. Parra was hitting .328 prior to the trade deadline only to hit .237 in Baltimore.
The following year, the Astros traded Josh Fields to the Dodgers for Yordan Alvarez. Fields at least gave the Dodgers two-and-a-half solid seasons of relief with an ERA of 2.61, but there's no question Houston got the better end of that deal in acquiring the 2019 AL Rookie of the Year.
The biggest one, however, was the Padres turning James Shields into Fernando Tatis Jr.
At the time, it sure felt like the Padres were getting the raw end of the deal. Not only were they trading away an ace for a 17-year-old with no professional experience and a 26-year-old pitcher (Erik Johnson) who hadn't amounted to much in his MLB stints, but they also agreed to pay more than half of the $58 million left on Shields' contract.
In retrospect, it was money very well spent. Tatis is now one of the best players in baseball, and "Big Game James" fell apart in Chicago, giving the White Sox a 5.31 ERA in 77 games pitched.
5. Cubs Fleece Orioles
Trade: Baltimore Orioles trade Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop to Chicago Cubs for Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger
Date: July 2, 2013
In early July 2013, the Cubs were well on their way to their fourth of five consecutive seasons with a final record at least 12 games below .500 while the Orioles were 11 games above .500 and looking to improve upon the previous year's trip to the ALDS.
Fast forward to 2015-17 and the Cubs played in three straight NLCS and won a World Series, while the Orioles sputtered their way toward their seemingly permanent current state of "rebuilding."
While I don't want to say that mutual seismic shift was entirely because of this one trade, let's just say it played a big part.
At the time, the trade absolutely made sense for Baltimore. From 2010-13, Jake Arrieta had a 5.46 ERA in the big leagues. Even his Triple-A stints during that time were less than promising. Meanwhile, Pedro Strop was struggling mightily that season with a 7.25 ERA in 29 appearances out of the bullpen.
It didn't seem like either one was going to help the team any time soon. But Scott Feldman? The 30-year-old had a 3.46 ERA through 15 starts with the Cubs and would at least be an upgrade upon Freddy Garcia in the starting rotation. Getting Steve Clevenger as an inexpensive backup catcher was a fine additional component for Baltimore.
But while Feldman merely gave the Orioles a 4.27 ERA the rest of the way before hitting free agency that offseason and Clevenger amounted to a 0.2 Baseball-Reference WAR in his two-plus seasons with Baltimore, Arrieta blossomed into the 2015 NL Cy Young winner, and Strop gave the Cubs a sub-3.00 ERA out of the 'pen in each year from 2013-18.
4. Mets Trade for Cespedes After a Lot of Drama
Trade No. 1: Milwaukee Brewers trade Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers to Houston Astros for Josh Hader, Brett Phillips, Domingo Santana and Adrian Houser (July 30, 2015)
Trade No. 2: Detroit Tigers trade Yoenis Cespedes to New York Mets for Michael Fulmer and Luis Cessa (July 31, 2015)
One trade happened on the 30th; the other happened on the 31st. But the chaos started on the 29th.
That's when word leaked of a deal in which the Mets would send Zack Wheeler and Wilmer Flores to the Brewers for Carlos Gomez. In the middle of a game, that news made its way down to Flores—who had been in the Mets' farm system since he was 16 years old—and he was memorably unable to hold back tears on the field.
But for whatever reason, the deal fell through.
Instead, Gomez (and Mike Fiers) ended up in Houston the next day while Milwaukee got back a guy who clubbed 30 home runs in 2017 (Domingo Santana) and what has been one of the best closers in baseball over the past few seasons (Josh Hader).
And instead of giving up an injured star pitcher (Wheeler) and a guy who had been with the franchise for nearly a decade (Flores) for an outfielder who ended up being a complete bust in Houston, the Mets were able to deal a pair of minor league pitchers for a guy who became the king of Queens for a few years.
Yoenis Cespedes mashed 17 home runs after the trade deadline and hit two more in the NLDS against the Dodgers. He had a pair of three-hit games to help carry the Mets to the World Series where they lost to the Royals. He proceeded to hit 31 home runs the following season and was named an All-Star for the second time in his career.
One of the minor leaguers they gave up (Michael Fulmer) was the AL Rookie of the Year the following season. He was also an All-Star in 2017. But I'm pretty confident Mets fans would still make that trade 11 times out of 10, given what they got from Cespedes.
Oh, and Flores? He hit a 12th inning walk-off home run a few hours after the Cespedes trade went down.
3. Aroldis Chapman for Gleyber Torres and Others
Trade: New York Yankees trade Aroldis Chapman to Chicago Cubs for Gleyber Torres, Adam Warren, Billy McKinney and Rashad Crawford
Date: July 25, 2016
Got to love a trade in which it feels like both teams hit the jackpot.
By late July 2016, three things were readily apparent: The Yankees were headed for a fourth consecutive season with fewer than 90 wins, the Cubs were going to make the playoffs, and the Cubs needed some serious bullpen help.
The Cubs traded for the Mariners' Mike Montgomery as well as the Angels' Joe Smith, each of whom had a sub-3.00 ERA the rest of the way. But the big move was getting Aroldis Chapman from the Yankees.
The left-handed strikeout machine paced the Cubs to their first World Series title in more than a century.
He had a 1.01 ERA and a 15.5 K/9 rate over 26.2 innings of regular-season work with the Cubs. And then in the postseason, he pitched in what felt like every single game, logging 15.2 innings of work with a 3.45 ERA. Of particular note was his Game 5 performance in the World Series, in which he executed an eight-out, one-run save with the Cubs trailing 3-1 in the series.
Basically, they wouldn't have won it all without him, and Chicago clearly won the trade in the short term by breaking the curse.
But the Yankees got quite the deal in the long term, too.
Gleyber Torres has struggled here in 2021, but he was an All-Star in both 2018 and 2019 and should be an impactful player for years to come. The Yankees also brought back Adam Warren, whom they traded to the Cubs seven months earlier for Starlin Castro. And they got those assets for what ended up being just a several-month loan, as Chapman re-signed with the Yankees that offseason. In both of Torres' All-Star years, New York hit triple digits in the wins column.
2. Houston Finds Final Piece of Puzzle in Justin Verlander
Trade: Detroit Tigers trade Justin Verlander, Juan Ramirez and cash to Houston Astros for Jake Rogers, Daz Cameron and Franklin Perez
Date: August 31, 2017
By the end of August 2017, Houston already had the best record in the American League by a margin of 3.5 games over Cleveland. The Astros had not yet mathematically clinched a playoff spot, but it was going to take an historically awful collapse for them to miss the postseason at that point.
But after suffering through some injuries and watching other World Series contenders improve their starting rotations at the non-waiver July 31 trade deadline—the Yankees added Sonny Gray, the Cubs dealt for Jose Quintana, the Dodgers got Yu Darvish—the Astros knew they needed to add an arm somehow, some way.
They managed to get one of the best pitchers of the past two decades at quite literally the last possible moment, per the oral history of the deal written by MLB.com's Mark Feinsand.
And Justin Verlander was exactly what they needed.
He went 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA in five starts in September, but they got him for October. He went 2-0 in the ALDS against the Red Sox and was the ALCS MVP with 21 strikeouts and just one run allowed in 16 innings of work against the Yankees—a complete game in Game 2 and seven shutout innings in the must-win Game 6. He wasn't nearly that dominant in the World Series, but he gave the Astros two quality starts (at least six innings with three or fewer earned runs allowed) as they won the franchise's first World Series in seven games.
He didn't stop there, either. Verlander almost won the AL Cy Young in 2018 and did win it in 2019, winning a combined 37 regular season games with 590 strikeouts between those two seasons with the Astros. He led the majors in WHIP in both seasons, had the best K/BB ratio in 2018 and pitched more innings than anyone else in 2019 at the age of 36.
As far as what Detroit got in return for making Houston a juggernaut, the jury's still very much out.
Starting pitcher Franklin Perez was the prized jewel of their prospect haul, but the 23-year-old hasn't pitched at all since June 2019 due to injuries and still hasn't made it to the big leagues. Daz Cameron and Jake Rogers have played a little bit for the Tigers over the past three years, but neither one has made much of an impact. They're still young, though, and when it made the deal, Detroit certainly didn't expect the 2020 minor league season to get canceled amid a global pandemic.
1. The Red Sox-Dodgers Blockbuster
Trade: Boston Red Sox trade Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Nick Punto and cash to Los Angeles Dodgers for James Loney, Allen Webster, Ivan De Jesus, Rubby De La Rosa and Jerry Sands
Date: August 25, 2012
When Frank McCourt sold the Los Angeles Dodgers in March 2012 to a group headlined by former Los Angeles Lakers star Magic Johnson, it was more than just a symbolic changing of the guard.
It was a loosening of the purse strings.
Per SteveTheUmp.com, the Dodgers had a 2012 Opening Day payroll of a little over $95 million—nearly $60 million less than the Angels were paying their players just 30 miles down the road. And even that was evidently more than McCourt could afford while going through a very public divorce process. Once ownership changed hands, though, the Dodgers had all sorts of new-found money with which to play.
In four separate deals around the non-waiver deadline, they traded for Hanley Ramirez, Shane Victorino, Brandon League and Joe Blanton. And then in late August, they offered the Red Sox one heck of a financial bailout.
Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez had a combined total of around $250 million remaining on their contracts, and Boston was going nowhere fast with that much money tied up in that trio. Conversely, Los Angeles wanted an upgrade at first base in hopes of making a postseason push, and it had the funds to make it happen.
It didn't help them that season, as the Dodgers went 17-18 the rest of the way and missed the playoffs. However, Gonzalez played a big part in leading the offense from 2013-15, and they've made the playoffs in each of the past eight seasons. In many ways, it was a good trade for Los Angeles.
Neither James Loney nor Ivan De Jesus played for Boston beyond 2012 and offered little to no value that season. Jerry Sands never played for the Red Sox. And both Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa logged around 100 innings of replacement-level-at-best pitching. Yet, simply by virtue of getting out from under contracts that seemed impossible to unload, Boston won the deal—and won the World Series the following year.