A two-month window isn't much time to put a trade in perspective and slap a letter grade on it. But when a pennant race could hinge on every pitch and every plate appearance, it's all the time we have available.
Back in July, when hope sprang eternal, general managers throughout baseball were monitoring scouting reports, making phone calls and obsessing about ways to help their teams down the stretch. The trade activity continued into August, as players made their way through waivers.
In hindsight, the Tampa Bay Rays, Boston Red Sox and Colorado Rockies merely tinkered around the edges. The Angels were seven games behind the Texas Rangers when they acquired pitcher Dan Haren from the Arizona Diamondbacks, and never got any closer. And the Los Angeles Dodgers were third in the NL West and just a few games above .500 when GM Ned Colletti added Scott Podsednik, Ted Lilly, Ryan Theriot and Octavio Dotel to the mix. The Dodgers acted as if they were contenders, but the standings and common sense said otherwise.
Which teams did the best job of upgrading? In this week's edition of Starting 9, we assess the handiwork of contending teams' decision-makers and rank them on the results. If the grades seem charitable in some cases, it's because several of the general managers involved decided to take their shot, and didn't surrender a lot of young talent in return.
Many of the starters and relievers who changed teams in July and August have been terrific for their new clubs. Most of the hitters have been mediocre or worse. In the "year of the pitcher," that's only fitting.
How good has Oswalt been since joining the Phillies? Consider this: Washington first baseman Adam Dunn thinks Oswalt is a lot better today than when he was in Houston. And Dunn was in Cincinnati for eight years when Oswalt was racking up most of his cartoon numbers (23-3 with a 2.81 ERA) against the Reds.
One reason: Oswalt is making more effective use of his changeup. According to baseball statistics site FanGraphs, Oswalt is throwing the pitch 14.2 percent of the time, compared to 6.1 percent last year in Houston. Dunn was shocked when he faced Oswalt on Friday and got a changeup on a 2-0 count.
"This is the best I've seen him," Dunn said. "He'd kill us in Cincinnati, but we always had a chance. It didn't feel like, 'Aw crap, here's Roy.' He's just a better pitcher now. It used to be if the count was 2-0, you could book a heater. Now you might get a fastball, a curveball, a slider or a stinkin' good change. You don't know what you're gonna get."
Happ, shortstop Jonathan Villar and first baseman Brett Wallace, who arrived from Toronto in a spinoff trade, might all help Houston in the long term. But Oswalt is 7-1 with a 1.94 ERA for a team with serious designs on a world championship. Phillies GM Ruben Amaro hit the jackpot with this one.
Grade: A. We'll add a "+" if Oswalt pitches in the World Series.
The Twins dabbled in the Cliff Lee market in July before changing course and opting for Plan B: strengthening their pitching staff from the back end rather than the front.
It's hard to argue with the results. The Twins are 33-14 in August and September, and clinched the AL Central title on Tuesday. The bullpen ERA of 3.18 is the best in the American League. And Brian Duensing, who began the season in the pen, has made a smooth transition to No. 3 starter behind Carl Pavano and Francisco Liriano.
Manager Ron Gardenhire doesn't have a Joe Nathan to close games, but he can go matchup crazy in the late innings. He's got workhorse Matt Guerrier for the sixth and seventh, Fuentes and Jose Mijares for lefty hitters, and Fuentes, Capps and Jon Rauch with closer credentials in the ninth. Jesse Crain, now three years removed from shoulder surgery, is the Twins' most overpowering bullpen arm. He's back to throwing 95-96 mph, and is eminently capable of getting the big strikeout in a tight spot.
The conventional wisdom is that Minnesota lacks pitchers with the "stuff" to win in October. But the Yankees have several question marks behind CC Sabathia, David Price is the only Tampa Bay pitcher having a lights-out year, and the Rangers better hope that Cliff Lee's back problems don't flare up again. Gardenhire's combination of strike-throwing starters, a deep bullpen and a relentless offense might be enough to make the Twins a serious threat in the postseason.
Some Twins fans weren't happy that the team surrendered Wilson Ramos in the Capps deal, but Ramos has not shown a great deal of selectivity in the minors, and we're starting to hear some Miguel Olivo-Rod Barajas comparisons. If Capps can help Minnesota make an extended October run, general manager Bill Smith will gladly take that tradeoff.
Grade: B+. Typical understated Twins.
The Rangers pulled off a coup when they acquired Lee just as it appeared the Yankees were about to land him. Lee suffered some back problems and posted a 1-4 record and a 6.35 ERA in August. But he's pitched back-to-back gems against the Yankees and Mariners in September, and health permitting, he'll line up against CC Sabathia or David Price in the first game of the Division Series.
If you proceed under the assumption that Lee will leave Texas as a free agent this winter, the ultimate measure of this deal will come in October. If Lee pitches the Rangers to the World Series, it will merit an "A" grade regardless of how Seattle's young prospects fare. If he pitches poorly in the postseason and the Rangers make a quick exit, the deal will be perceived as a bold effort that failed to work.
But the Rangers have said they want to re-sign Lee, and general manager Jon Daniels isn't conceding anything at this point.
"We're not oblivious,'' Daniels said. "The average person who's either directly involved in the industry or just a fan has him wearing pinstripes. But we're not concerned with that. We know we have a lot to offer. At the end of the day, we believe we have a chance to win. I believe that would be a pretty compelling sales pitch if we do.''
Daniels hasn't had much luck with his other additions. Bengie Molina has done a nice job handling the pitching staff, but he's hitting .208 with a .540 OPS as a Ranger. Jorge Cantu has no RBIs in 68 at-bats with Texas, and Cristian Guzman has been equally bad. Jeff Francoeur has made a nice impression since coming over from the Mets, and will push for a spot on the postseason roster.
The Rangers didn't give up any top-tier prospects in their secondary trades, but parted with some talent to acquire Lee. If Smoak turns into a productive everyday player or Josh Lueke overcomes his off-field issues and parlays his mid-90s fastball into big league success, that's the price for acquiring a pitcher the magnitude of Lee.
Grade: B. Check back with us in a month.
Wood has been New York's most productive mid-summer addition, striking out 26 batters and allowing one run in 23 innings. Pitching coach Dave Eiland has tinkered with his mechanics, getting him to stand taller and throw with more of a downhill plane, and Wood has gotten enough consistent work -- and stayed healthy enough -- to warrant a more high-profile role in the postseason. He's essentially been the guy the Indians thought they were getting when they shelled out $20 million over two years.
Berkman is homerless in his first 89 at-bats with New York, while going through the obligatory adjustment phase. He's playing in the American League for the first time after 11½ seasons in Houston, and adapting to the role of part-time designated hitter. For proof how challenging that can be, consider the travails of Pat Burrell, who left Philadelphia for Tampa Bay, flopped as a Ray, and is once again thriving in San Francisco.
The Big Puma is starting to look more comfortable by the day, and it won't surprise anyone if he does a Hideki Matsui impersonation and comes up with some big knocks in October. He's a .321 hitter with a .992 OPS in 29 postseason games.
Grade: B. Once the Cliff Lee deal fell through, Brian Cashman chose to upgrade the bench and bullpen.
San Francisco Giants acquire outfielder Jose Guillen and infielder Mike Fontenot in trades and add Cody Ross on a waiver claim in August. On July 31, the Giants pick up relievers Javier Lopez and Ramon Ramirez in trades
San Francisco GM Brian Sabean put in some long hours trying to add an impact bat at the July deadline, but wound up going for quantity in August. The results have been mixed.
Guillen has contributed some big hits here and there and drove in six runs in a 9-2 victory over Milwaukee on Sunday. The Giants claimed Ross on waivers in late August, partly to prevent him from going to San Diego, and assumed the $1.1 million left on his contract when Florida let him walk. Ross has one extra-base hit in 49 at-bats with San Francisco, but he's still an upgrade over Aaron Rowand, who's hitting .105 (6-for-57) since August and barely gets off the pine these days. The Giants suddenly had more at-bats available for Ross when Andres Torres went down with an appendectomy.
None of San Francisco's late additions has had the impact of Pat Burrell, who signed a minor league deal on May 29 and doesn't really qualify as a deadline acquisition.
Surprisingly, it's the relievers who've stood out for San Francisco. Lopez and Ramirez have a combined 0.86 ERA in 42 innings. Fans who saw the two pitch in Boston might advise the Giants not to trust them with too much on the line, but manager Bruce Bochy has used them prudently and gotten the most out of them. They've played a big role in San Francisco's playoff push.
Grade: B. Javier Lopez and Ramon Ramirez. Who knew?
Flash back to late July, and the Padres were a pitching-rich, offensively challenged team that needed to find help for Adrian Gonzalez in the middle of the order. They added $3 million to the payroll to acquire Tejada and Ludwick, and GM Jed Hoyer told reporters, "We're a better team today than we were two days ago."
Tejada, whose skills have diminished at age 36, still plays with energy and a palpable love for the game. He has seven home runs in 190 at-bats with San Diego, compared to seven in 401 ABs with Baltimore. His range isn't much at shortstop, but he makes the plays on balls that he can reach, and still has a strong and accurate arm.
Ludwick is highly regarded in the clubhouse, and always accountable, but he has not produced to expectations in San Diego until recently. During the Padres' killer 10-game losing streak in late August and early September, Ludwick batted .194 (7-for-36) with six singles, a double and no RBIs.
Ludwick has been working in the cage with hitting coach Randy Ready to improve his balance at the plate, among other things, and he has produced big hits in wins over the Cardinals and Dodgers the last few days. The Padres are going to need a lot more of that in the next 10 days if they hope to make the postseason.
Grade: C+. Tejada might be the most productive hitter who changed teams at the deadline.
Atlanta Braves acquire first baseman Derrek Lee from the Chicago Cubs for three minor league pitchers, send Yunel Escobar to Toronto for Alex Gonzalez in a shortstop swap, and add outfielder Rick Ankiel and reliever Kyle Farnsworth in a five-player deal with Kansas City
The Braves hoped Lee might recover from a disappointing first half and look more like the 35-homer, 111-RBI man of 2009, but he hasn't been driving the ball with much authority until recently. He's still an upgrade over Troy Glaus, who was wearing down physically and didn't have much left in the tank by late July. Lee has also been a defensive upgrade at first base.
When the Braves traded Escobar, there was some sentiment that the move might come back to haunt them, because he's 27 years old and blessed with All-Star caliber skills. But manager Bobby Cox and the Atlanta players had run out of patience with Escobar, so general manager Frank Wren didn't have much choice. The second-half offensive numbers for Gonzalez and Escobar have basically been a wash.
Farnsworth has been a non-factor in the Atlanta bullpen, and Ankiel is hitting .208 in 101 at-bats with the Braves. Nate McLouth, Melky Cabrera, Ankiel and Atlanta's center-field contingent rank 27th in the majors with a .658 OPS.
Wren did get the Cubs and Royals to eat about two-thirds of the $6.5 million still owed Lee, Farnsworth and Ankiel, and he refrained from trading away Atlanta's top-tier pitching prospects. The Braves sent lefty pitcher Tim Collins, who's generously listed at 5-foot-7, 155 pounds and throws 90 mph-plus, to Kansas City in the Farnsworth-Ankiel trade. Those Billy Wagner comparisons are overblown, but Collins sure is fun to watch.
Grade: C. No impact moves here, but the Braves are still in the thick of the wild-card race.
St. Louis Cardinals trade outfielder Ryan Ludwick and acquire pitcher Jake Westbrook in a three-way deal with San Diego and Cleveland. Three weeks later, they acquire third baseman Pedro Feliz from Houston for minor league pitcher David Carpenter
Is there a tougher team to assess than St. Louis? General manager John Mozeliak acquired Westbrook because he thought the Cardinals needed another starter to ease the burden on Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia. The trade was not a hit in St. Louis, where Ludwick won a Silver Slugger Award in 2008 and was popular with both his teammates and Cardinals fans.
Westbrook, a reliable sinkerballer in the Dave Duncan mold, has given the Cardinals what they expected. He's 2-4 with a 3.77 ERA, and eight quality starts in 10 appearances.
Ludwick, conversely, has been mediocre in San Diego. But the Cardinals are 19-27 since the trade, and the absence of a reliable wing man for Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday has been cited as a major reason for the team's late fade.
It didn't help that David Freese blew out his ankle within days of Ludwick's departure. Mozeliak tried to fill the void with Feliz, but he's been a bust. Feliz has a .482 OPS as a Cardinal, and Baseball Prospectus assigns him a VORP (value over replacement player) of minus-14.6 this season. That's fifth worst among MLB position players behind Brandon Wood, Jose Lopez, Adam Moore and Luis Valbuena.
Grade: C. Westbrook has held up his end, and the strategy was sound enough. But everything else went wrong for the Cardinals.
When Chicago GM Kenny Williams acquired Jackson from the Diamondbacks, it was presumably with the intention of flipping him to Washington for Adam Dunn. That rumored deal never came to fruition, and Jackson was terrific out of the chute. He struck out 10 or more batters in three straight starts at one point.
Jackson dazzled them in Detroit for a while and threw a 149-pitch no-hitter in Arizona, so he's capable of dominating an opposing lineup. But he's also 27 years old and pitching for his fifth organization, and will make $8.35 million in 2011 before becoming eligible for free agency. Hudson, in contrast, is 23 years old, barely making the minimum salary, and under the Diamondbacks' control through 2015. Which pitcher would you rather have?
The Ramirez acquisition made even less sense for Chicago. Scouts said that he looked disinterested, had lost bat speed and was no longer a hitter capable of taking a team to the promised land. But Williams likes making big deals, rather than functional, Minnesota Twins-type deals, and this one came across as either: (a) a desperation move; or (b) some kind of vanity project.
The White Sox didn't surrender any players for Ramirez. But $4 million seems like a high price for a few headlines, a couple of yuks and a .309 slugging percentage in 55 at-bats. Ramirez will probably find a job next spring, but he's likely to sweat it out, Jermaine Dye-style, unless he's willing to work cheap.
Grade: C-. It's sure not because of Manny.