On August 12 of 1987, the Detroit Tigers were just one and one-half game behind the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League East division and were intent on improving their odds of catching Toronto. Back in those days, there was a heightened sense of urgency in finishing first place because there were only two divisions in each league and no wild card berths.
With that in mind, the Tigers decided to make a deal to upgrade their starting pitching by acquiring veteran Doyle Alexander from the Atlanta Braves for a minor league pitcher who had a 4-10 win-loss record and 5.68 earned run average (ERA) at Class-AA Glens Falls. Alexander helped spearhead Detroit to a division title with a 9-0 record and 1.53 ERA, although they subsequently fell to the eventual world champion Minnesota Twins. The right-hander would pitch two more years for the Tigers posting a 29-29 record and 3.91 ERA.
Many of you may already know the name of the minor leaguer who Detroit sent to Atlanta – Hall of Fame inductee John Smoltz. The right-hander would go on to post 210 wins, notch 154 saves, earn a Cy Young award and win 15 postseason games with a 2.67 ERA during 20 seasons in a Braves uniform.
It’s easy to second-guess Detroit for making the move, but there’s risk associated with any transaction. Some contenders who are “buyers” in July are willing to forfeit a piece of their future in order to get themselves into the postseason, while teams that are not in contention – known as “sellers” – want to turn a veteran into commodities that can help their team for years to come.
In reality, the vast majority of buyers won’t get a player as helpful as Alexander was for Detroit and most sellers won’t get as much value as they want– let alone a Hall of Famer. My takeaway from the Alexander-Smoltz deal is that you can’t necessarily tell who benefited most from a deadline deal for several years afterwards.
With that in mind, I decided to take a retrospective look at the deadline deals from July 2011. I decided to go back four years so that there would be better perspective on the value of the prospects involved. By my count, there were 27 trades were made in July 2011 and most were unspectacular. But, these four deals were the most fascinating to me.
Carlos Beltran for Zack Wheeler
Beltran was in the last year of a seven-year contract with New York and wasn’t in the Mets’ future plans. As the trading deadline approached, the first-place Giants were reigning world champions and attempting to hold off the eventual National League West division winner Arizona Diamondbacks.
The defending champs were fighting an uphill battle to reach the postseason after losing several key players to season-ending injuries, including catcher Buster Posey who had been the 2010 National League (NL) Rookie of the Year. General Manager Brian Sabean opted to trade the number-six overall pick from the 2009 Major League Baseball (MLB) amateur draft for Beltran.
Although the Beltran played well during his brief stay in San Francisco – seven home runs .323 batting average – he missed 13 games in August due to a wrist injury and the Giants lost the division to the Diamondbacks and missed the postseason.
This deal was a coup for Mets General Manager Sandy Alderson who was able to get a top-notch prospect for a “rental player.” Wheeler won 11 games and notched a 9.1 strike out per-nine innings rate in 32 starts in 2014, although the right-hander did suffer a torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in March and is expected to miss 14 months.
Despite Wheeler’s injury, this deal was a win for the Mets who will have the 25-year-old under team control until 2020. His health outlook has to be considered positive when you consider that two teammates – 2014 Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom and Matt Harvey – have also have suffered UCL injuries and have performed well afterwards.
This is a situation where both teams fared well. Sure, the Giants could have used Wheeler. But, the team won two World Series since the trade, including 2012 when a healthy Posey won the batting title and the NL Most Valuable Player.
Hunter Pence for Domingo Santana, Jarred Cosart, Jon Singleton, Josh Zeid
This was easily the most fascinating deal for me because there are so many layers involved with it. For the Phillies, it was a straight-forward move. They wanted to improve their lineup and Pence didn’t disappoint. He hit 11 home runs and registered a .324/.394/.560 triple slash – batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage during 236 trips to the plate in Philadelphia. The Phillies went on to notch 102 wins and take first-place in the National League East division.
In return for the right-handed hitter, Houston picked up several prospects who are poised to make an impact with the big-league club. Singleton is still in the minor leagues, but he appears to be ready for the majors – 14 home runs and a superb .914 OPS through 63 games at Class-AAA Fresno.
Santana started the season as Houston’s number-three prospect and number-60 overall in the majors. After posting 11 home runs and .320/.444/.584 at Fresno through 54 games, he’s currently with the big league club as a replacement while Colby Rasmus is on the bereavement list.
Players acquired in a deal don’t necessarily have to reach the majors with a team to provide value. Houston flipped Cosart along with Austin Wates and Enrique Hernandez to the Miami Marlins for Francis Martes, Colin Moran, Jake Marisnick and a 2015 compensation draft pick.
Marisnick is currently patrolling center field for the Astros, while Moran is the number-seven prospect in the organization and Martes is Houston’s number-21 prospect. Also, the Astros used the compensatory pick from the Cosart deal to select outfielder Daz Cameron with the number-37 overall pick during this year’s amateur draft. Cameron remains unsigned as of this writing. Zeid is the only player who didn’t work out with Houston. He was waived in 2014 and is currently pitching for Class-AAA Toledo in the Detroit’s minor league system.
All-in-all, the Pence deal yielded Houston a starting center fielder, three of their top 21 prospects, and a high draft choice. Although Cameron’s story has yet to be written, the haul of prospects that the team got for Pence is impressive when you consider that he would have likely left as a free agent after the 2012 season.
Interestingly, Philadelphia traded Pence to the Giants a year later and didn’t recoup the value they had lost to Houston. They received Tommy Joseph, Seth Rosin and Nate Schierholtz in July 2012. Schierholtz departed as a free agent after the season, while Joseph and Rosin are playing at Class-AAA Lehigh Valley. Rosin isn’t on the 40-man roster and he’s been drafted and returned via the Rule 5 draft.
Michael Bourn for Jordan Schafer, Juan Abreu, Paul Clemens and Brett Oberholtzer
Unlike the Pence trade, this deal wasn’t well-received from the Houston perspective. The Braves added Bourn to be their lead-off hitter and center fielder for their postseason drive, but they ended-up falling one game short of the NL wild card berth to the eventual world champion St. Louis Cardinals.
Most of the pieces in this deal haven’t produced for the Astros – Abreu, Schafer, and Clemens have been waived or released. The only major league contributor has been Oberholtzer, who has a 3.61 ERA during 39 career starts.
Atlanta, on the other hand, made Bourn a qualifying offer after the 2012 season and were awarded a compensatory pick in the 2013 amateur draft after the left-handed hitter signed with the Cleveland Indians. The Braves used that pick to select Jason Hursh with the number-31 overall pick and the 21-year-old hurler is the team’s number eleven prospect. Four years later, Oberholtzer and Hursh are the only remnants from the Bourn deal. It may take a few more years before we know who benefited most from this trade.
Doug Fister, David Pauley for Casper Wells, Charlie Furbush, Francisco Martinez, and Chance Ruffin
At the time of the deal, the Tigers were in first-place and were looking for bullpen help and a starting pitcher. Although Pauley struggled during 14 games after the trade with a 5.95 ERA, Detroit hit the jackpot with Fister. The big right-hander was only 3-12 with the Mariners, but didn’t receive much run support in Seattle. That wasn’t a problem in Detroit, although it may not have mattered anyway. In 10 starts with the Tigers, Fister posted 8-1 record and a superb 1.79 ERA. Unlike the Smoltz deal that the Tigers made 24 years earlier, it doesn’t appear that they surrendered a future Hall of Famer to Seattle.
Mariners General Manager Jack Zduriencik was trying use major leaguers Fister and Pauley to get young players to help rebuild the team and he believed that all four players would be with Seattle for a long time. An ideal outcome for Seattle would have resulted in Wells becoming a starter-level outfielder, Furbush in the rotation, Martinez as a starting third baseman, and Ruffin as a productive reliever – perhaps a close. Unfortunately for the Mariners, it didn’t work out that way.
The only player still with the Mariners is Furbush, who Seattle initially tried in the rotation in 2011 – he posted a 6.62 ERA in 10 starts. Since moving to the bullpen in 2012, he’s thrived as a solid reliever for the team. Ruffin is no longer in professional baseball and – ironically – Martinez was traded back to the Tigers the Mariners in June 2013. Wells is also back in the Tigers minor league system and is playing with Class-AA Erie.
I believe the Mariners prematurely gave up on Wells when they designated him for assignment in 2013 to make room for Jason Bay – who the team released later that season. Wells wasn’t a world beater, but he was younger and more versatile than an aging Bay. During his two years with Seattle, the right-handed hitting Wells – who could play all three outfield positions – had a .710 OPS and 17 home runs during 432 plate appearances.
Many Seattle Mariners fans will lament that the trade of pitcher Michael Pineda to the New York Yankees for catcher Jesus Montero as the most disappointing trade in the Zduriencik era. I believe that the Fister deal was worse. The deal didn’t directly set back the Mariners pitching since they’ve been able to develop many young major league pitchers. However, Seattle could have made better use of Fister’s value in order to better replenish its 40-man roster.
With the exception of the Beltran deal, all of the buyers received a player who would be with the team for at least one more season. I’m certain that’s why the sellers were able to land so many bodies and – in some cases – value for one significant player.
Comparing Houston’s deadline deals side-by-side and reassessing the other trades helps to illustrate the uncertainty of dealing for prospects. The Bourn and Pence deals were made within two days of each other, yet yielded different levels of reward. The Pence deal was a franchise-changing transaction, while they weren’t as fortunate when they traded Bourn.
That doesn’t mean that the Bourn deal was a complete bust – they did get a starting pitcher. But, the crop of prospects that the Astros got from Philadelphia and Miami as a result of the Pence deal has positioned the team to enjoy sustained success. San Francisco absorbed the loss of Wheeler by winning two more World Series and the Mets have a young starter who will likely be part of the rotation for several more years.
It’s easy to critique deals when you have four years of history to help shape your opinion. General Managers don’t have that luxury and that’s why I’d caution fans of this year’s buyers and sellers to hold judgement on deadline deals until they how the prospects eventually pan out. For what it’s worth, I liked the Pineda-Montero deal at the time.