Finding deadline's winners and losers
Rangers, Phillies do well before clock strikes zero; Yankees, Astros, Cubs not so much
Wait. What just happened?
Did the Astros just trade away everybody but Milo Hamilton and Drayton McLane's limo driver? Did the Yankees just sit out an entire trading deadline without denting the transactions column even once? Did this deadline really come and go without B.J. Upton, Heath Bell, Hiroki Kuroda or Denard Span getting traded, after we all just spent three weeks predicting they would?
Well, wasn't that special!
But it's the kind of stuff that happens every year in the last week of July, when the trading deadline wreaks its customary havoc. So let's sort it all out with our annual look at the Deadline Winners and Losers.
This is the time when one of the best front offices in the game rises to the swap-meet moment. And Nolan Ryan, Jon Daniels and the Rangers' brass did it again, loading up on two of baseball's most dominating setup men -- Mike Adams and Koji Uehara. And here's what's really unfair: The Rangers control both those guys for next year, too.
Any team thinking ahead to what it might be like to have to deal with this outfit in October ought to consider this -- the combined numbers of Uehara and Adams so far this season:
95 innings, 51 hits, 111 strikeouts, 17 walks.
"They can play Little League now," laughed one NL executive. "Just give 'em six [innings], 'cause they've got the final three covered."
Hunter Pence wasn't the best PLAYER traded before the deadline. But he might have been the best FIT.
When the Phillies grabbed their cart and went shopping, what were they looking for? Let's see. Right-handed hitter. Check. Right fielder. Check. Controllable for a couple of years beyond this season. Check. Younger than any member of their current nucleus. Check. A turbo-driven energizer who would fit into the personality of their clubhouse mix. Check.
That's Hunter Pence. He's just what the trade doctor prescribed for this team.
"I'm going on record with this right now," said one exec the night the Pence deal went down. "This is going to be the deadline pickup of the year. He's going from a team where he had to be The Guy, where they pitched to him like he was Mickey Mantle, to a team that fits his demeanor, where he can just play hard and be a contributor, not a carrier. He balances their order. Defensively, they got better. So they go right to the head of this class for me."
They lost out on Pence. They got outbid on Carlos Beltran. The best bats on the market were dropping off the board. So the pressure was mounting on the Braves this weekend, not just to keep up with the Phillies and Giants, but to make a move that made a real impact.
Enter Michael Bourn. Take a guy who has a .354 on-base percentage, add him to an offense whose leadoff hitters ranked 26th in baseball in OBP 'til he showed up and see what happens.
Now consider the lineup-changing effect of Bourn's 32-SB wheels (injected into a roster that had swiped 42 all year). And, finally, add in his top-of-the-charts defense. And this was a monster of a deal, especially considering the Braves were able to make it without giving up any of the elite pitching prospects they had balked at trading for Beltran or Pence.
If Bourn fits in and does what he was imported to do, said one scout, "this team is going to be dangerous."
When you build a team around starting pitchers who could blow out at any moment, you need to approach life with a sense of urgency. So it's hard not to applaud GM Brian Sabean's decision to step on the go-for-it accelerator pedal and do whatever it took to give this team its best chance to win again.
Beltran is a switch-hitting, middle-of-the-order force with a lot riding on him these next couple of months. And Sabean's other two pickups -- Jeff Keppinger and Orlando Cabrera -- are up-the-middle upgrades with intangibles off the charts. So as long as those pitchers keep going out there and firing, what's the problem?
Well, here's the problem, according to a couple of execs who cast dissenting votes on this pick: The Giants didn't have a good weekend in Cincinnati. And some people in the game wonder if the arrival of Beltran will disrupt the chemistry of a special group -- particularly the mix-and-match outfield characters (Cody Ross, Nate Schierholtz, Aaron Rowand) who were such a big part of the Giants' championship surge.
"They addressed a need," said one of those dissenters. "But I'd have liked this better if they'd gotten a guy who fit into their hunger and their chemistry the way a guy like Pence would have."
It's easy to heap praise on the buyers. It can be tough to remember that you can also sell and be a winner.
So let's hear it for the Mets' new regime, which took two players -- Beltran and Francisco Rodriguez -- who seemed just about untradeable six months ago, and turned them into a potential top-of-the-rotation starter (Zack Wheeler) and more than $5 million very useful dollars that vanished off the payroll thanks to these two deals.
For a long time this month, it didn't look as if the Mets had a prayer of extracting an A-plus prospect for Beltran -- a commodity who was a pure rental, controlled where he could be dealt and carried no draft-pick compensation. But the Mets' brass hung in there until the Giants relented and gave them Wheeler, a pitcher four different scouts described last week as a No. 1 starter waiting to happen. "Best minor league pitcher I saw all year," said one of them.
This was a pivotal moment in the life of Sandy Alderson and the new Mets regime. And they aced this test, whether the grades were handed out by their accountants or the baseball men.
Would anybody have believed it last December, the day the Yankees lost out on Cliff Lee, if you'd said that seven months later, Deadline Day would come and go, and the mighty Yankees wouldn't have made a single trade -- not for a top-of-the-rotation monster, not for a salary-dump inning-eater, not even for a subway token to be named later?
Amazing. Of course, it didn't help that what they hoped to shop for never hit the market -- not unless you thought Ubaldo Jimenez was that guy (which the Yankees clearly didn't). Nevertheless, if they don't have a productive August, sailing in the waiver-deal waters, the Yankees are in danger of being a team that makes it to October without a made-for-October rotation.
"I think they're in trouble," said one scout. "I look at their rotation, and there's CC [Sabathia]. And then there's CC."
All right, first the good news: They made two gigantic deals (Pence and Bourn). And they got back a group of players with a chance to be tremendous -- one of these decades.
Scouts drool over the two centerpieces in the Pence trade (first baseman Jonathan Singleton and pitcher Jarred Cosart). And we heard great reports on two of the Atlanta pitching prospects the Astros reeled in for Bourn (Brett Oberholtzer and Paul Clemens). But now the bad news:
They traded away the only two position players on the roster worth watching. They couldn't move the pitchers with the biggest contracts -- Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers. And the only big leaguer (Jordan Schafer) they got in return for either player they traded is hurt.
So the Astros just about invited their fan base to go order some chimichangas, watch a lot of high school football and not stop back at the ballpark for like the next thousand days -- because the entertainment provided by their baseball team between now and then isn't going to be much fun.
"They're basically starting to shape themselves for 2015," said one NL executive. "It's almost like they're doing an expansion team."
It's tough not to feel sorry for these players. The Angels have busted their tails to hang within two games of a more talented team (in Texas) that just went out and dealt for the two best relief pitchers who got traded. Meanwhile, the Angels' own bosses let this deadline pass without adding a bat, a middle reliever or a Mickey Mouse T-shirt.
So in a way, their trade-free deadline dance has a chance to be every bit as deflating to this roster as the failure to sign Carl Crawford last winter.
"You know, sometimes," said an official of one team, "if your team plays well like they have and you don't do something at the deadline, it can almost have an effect the other way, where you lose guys who have been playing their rear ends off trying to stay in it. I don't know if that's going to happen with this team. But it could."
The Reds have been one of baseball's biggest disappointments on the field. This week, they were also one of baseball's biggest disappointments off the field. It seemed as if they were in the mix for every big name out there -- and came away with NO names, big or small.
"And the thing is, they've got a farm system that's loaded with pieces to move, too," said one front-office man. "That's hard to understand, especially in such a winnable division."
We heard from enough Cubs fans this month to know exactly what they were hoping this deadline would bring -- an Everything Must Go closeout sale. On Alfonso Soriano and his $18 million-a-year fizzle. On Carlos Zambrano and his $17.9 million shenanigans. On Aramis Ramirez and his $14.6 million home run-or-bust act.
Unfortunately, that was impossible. Between no-trade clauses, contracts that acted like no-trade clauses and low-energy under-performance from so many guys on this roster, the Cubs headed for the auction stand with almost nothing they could sell, other than Kosuke Fukudome. And once Fukudome was gone, that's exactly what they did get moved:
"Now that," said one scout, "is a deadline loser if I ever saw one."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is now available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.
Follow Jayson Stark on Twitter: @jaysonst