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Trade Deadline Power Rankings: Part 1, the Vanquished

Find your team on this list and hang your head in shame

Welcome back, noble traveler! We trust your two-week vacation in beautiful Flin Flon was as restful as it was invigorating. Did you gaze in wonder at the statue of Josiah Flintabbatey Flonatin? Did you marvel at a town so impressive it needs two different provinces to host it? Were you kicking yourself for traveling all that way without
reading the news from two years ago
?

Fret not, intrepid explorer. You’re back home now. And thanks to this handy-dandy baseball trade deadline summary, you’ll feel like you haven’t missed a thing.

One note before we get started: Though we’ve labeled these two parts as “The Victors” and “The Vanquished,” it’s a little more complex than that. Few teams showed perfect execution at the deadline, just as few teams did absolutely everything wrong. With that sensible caveat out of the way, let’s start the count-up, from the worst deadline performer all the way up to the best.

30. Chicago Cubs

The period leading up to the trade deadline boils down to a vast exercise of supply and demand. Every team in baseball, from loaded first-place clubs to the worst of the worst, has at least one useful relief pitcher … sometimes two or more. But not every contending team needs a relief pitcher, or has the stomach to give up useful prospects to get one. So we have to be realistic about some sellers’ situations: You can’t sell crap if no one wants your crap, even if it’s pretty good crap. All this means you’re going to read about a lot of teams that stood pat at the deadline. Some will be described with mild irritation, their lack of movement disappointing but somewhat understandable. One or two no-move clubs will actually earn praise for their patience.

The Chicago Cubs fall into exactly neither of those categories. Carlos Pena, Carlos Marmol, Marlon Byrd … Chicago reportedly had multiple opportunities to cash in veterans with little to no keeper value for younger talent. Yet other than the minor trade of Kosuke Fukudome for fringe prospects Abner Abreu (no relation to Bobby) and Carlton Smith (yes, he is related to both of them), the Cubs did nothing. Because being better than the Astros is apparently good enough.

Not to worry, though. Jim Hendry’s got this.

29. Minnesota Twins

Five years ago, the Twins rallied from 10.5 games out with eight weeks to go, winning the AL Central on the last day of the season. Many of the moves (or in this case nonmoves) that the Twins have made since then seem rooted in that improbable and very likely totally unrepeatable comeback. This year, it was not trading useful and affordable trade chips like Jason Kubel (.356 wOBA) or any of the 9,000 relief pitchers the Twins have assembled. GM Bill Smith apparently runs the Twins on the exact same principles that prompt old ladies to pull one-armed bandits for hours at a time: He’s a slave to intermittent reinforcement, convinced that with Joe Mauer back (but not hitting anything like the Joe Mauer of old), Joe Nathan healthy (but not pitching like the Joe Nathan of old), and Justin Morneau due back … sometime, the Twins can easily make up seven games and pass three teams in the next eight weeks. Because if they did it once, dammit, they can do it again.

Smith did pursue one trade that nearly materialized at the deadline. Too bad it was a terrible one. He was all set to offer Denard Span, a speedy on-base machine with excellent defense signed for four more years at $23 million, to the Nationals for a deal fronted by young reliever Drew Storen. You might recall that in 2010 the Twins traded Wilson Ramos, a starter-caliber catcher with six years of future team control, for Matt Capps, another expensive Nats relief pitcher. Luckily for Smith, the Nats refused to honor his wish to make Steve Lombardozzi’s moderate-hitting middle-infield-prospect son a Twin like his dad. Stay tuned for next July, when Rizzo offers Tyler Clippard for Joe Mauer (contract paid in full), Target Field, and 10,000 autographed Daunte Culpepper jerseys … and Smith turns him down because he refused to throw Screech the Eagle in the deal.

28. Los Angeles Dodgers

SCENE: 3:44 P.M., SUNDAY, JULY 31. THEO EPSTEIN AND JACK ZDURIENCIK CONVERSE ON GMAIL CHAT, FRANTICALLY TRYING TO HAMMER OUT A DEAL WITH THE DEADLINE APPROACHING.

3:44 P.M.
Theo: So what can we do to get Bedard?
3:45 P.M.
Jack: Send us a really good prospect
Theo: Well we’re not going to do that
3:46 P.M.
Jack: So … what then?
Theo: We need to find a third team, on really short notice, who’ll give up way more than they should
3:47 P.M.
Jack: Ned!
3:48 P.M.
Theo: Yes!! lol
(DODGERS GM NED COLLETTI JOINS THE CONVERSATION)
3:49 P.M.
Ned: what’s crackin’ fellas?
3:50 P.M.
Theo: Neddy my man!
Jack: We were just wondering …
3:51 P.M.
Ned: yeeeessss?
Theo: We were just wondering if you’d be willing to give up Trayvon Robinson for a bunch of random prospects. Yeah, Robinson has 26 homers this year, runs really well, and plays good defense. But he put up those numbers in Albuquerque and …
3:52 P.M.
Jack: … he ummm … well gee, Ned, don’t you want a minor league catcher who can’t hit and some random relief prospects instead?
3:54 P.M.
Theo: Ned? NED?!
3:56 P.M.
Jack: Hello?!?? deadline’s in four minutes!!!
3:57 P.M.
Ned: … sorry, I was watching a fly. Isn’t it funny they’re named “fly” and they fly around? right you guys??
Jack: Ned!!!
3:58 P.M.
Ned: Oh sorry. ya call it in guys, thats cool
Theo: Yay!!!
Jack: Yay!!!!

27. Chicago White Sox

Five days later and it’s still hard to figure what the White Sox were doing when they dealt Edwin Jackson and Mark Teahen for Jason Frasor and Zach Stewart. Yes, Stewart has some mild upside as a back-end starter or reliever, and Frasor bolstered Chicago’s pen. But did the deal really just boil down to Kenny Williams wanting to shed $7 million of Mark Teahen as a way to reclaim some of the dead money being paid to Adam Dunn and Alex Rios? It was widely reported by the time of the trade that the Cardinals were interested in Jackson, and that Jackson and Matt Thornton could have potentially landed Colby Rasmus. Were the Pale Hose seriously not interested in adding a potential star center fielder to their underachieving lineup?

You have to feel for Williams a bit: Two games under .500 and four games out of first, the Sox faced a tricky decision on whether to buy or sell. They kind of did neither. Or both. And they didn’t help themselves at all.

26. Kansas City Royals

Jeff Francoeur, on why the Royals opted not to trade him and Melky Cabrera (not to mention Joakim Soria or any of their other marketable veterans):

“I understand the business side of it, but I’m not even close to 30 — and Melky isn’t, either. Obviously, the Royals want to build for the future, but if we prove we can produce at a high enough level, why can’t we be part of that? It’s not like we have giant contracts. I think we’ve proven we can help this team win a championship, and do it soon.”

I don’t even … WHAT?!

25 Florida Marlins

Another stand-pat team. Here’s where you start to see the surprising number of clubs that offered around a veteran reliever or similar asset but simply couldn’t find a suitable taker. Leo Nunez (3.63 FIP) is a perfectly affordable closer (making $3.65 million plus incentives this year) who’s also fourth in the majors in saves with 30.1 But Kyle Farnsworth (2.68 FIP, 20 saves), Heath Bell (2.88 FIP, 30 saves), Francisco Cordero (3.87 FIP, 19 saves), and other closers for noncontending clubs were also out there and they didn’t get dealt either. Maybe the right approach isn’t so much to chastise each and every nonactive team for failing to make impact deals. Rather, it’s to commend those that do find a way to pull one off for their trading skill.

24. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Tea-leaf reading is never easy. But listening to Mike Scioscia talk glumly about the likelihood of acquiring Rockies reliever Rafael Betancourt or any other kind of help at the trade deadline, you got the sense that the Angels were more or less tapped out. “Tony’s talking to every club, especially this time of year,” Scioscia said in reference to GM Tony Reagins’ trade discussions. “We need the lion’s share of improvement to come in-house.” Translation: Payroll’s up more than $20 million this year because we stupidly took on 81 million dollars’ worth of Vernon Wells and his shitty .246 on-base percentage,2 so we’re not going to spend anymore.

The Rangers were the better team on paper (plus-90 run differential, vs. the Angels’ plus-21). Still, a two-game deficit at the deadline is nothing. It would have been interesting to see what might have happened had the Angels matched the Rangers’ aggression at the deadline. Instead, Texas solidified its clear-favorite status to win the West.

23. Houston Astros

The Hunter Pence deal was a huge score, with the Astros converting a good-but-not-great corner outfielder who was about to get expensive into one of the top starting pitching prospects in the game (Jarred Cosart) and a power-hitting, 19-year-old first baseman. Had the Astros only executed that trade, they would have received a much higher grade. But the ensuing Michael Bourn deal felt like an afterthought, and a wasted opportunity. Getting a poor man’s version of Bourn (Jordan Schafer) and three middling prospects (Juan Abreu, Paul Clemens, and Brett Oberholtzer) almost made you wonder if Ed Wade even knew what kind of quality he was giving up — that Bourn was worth a full win more than Pence this season.

22. Baltimore Orioles

Derrek Lee’s recent hot streak (.510 slugging percentage in July) notwithstanding, the veteran first baseman owned a miserable .310 wOBA for the year, fifth-worst in the majors among qualified first basemen. Still, one of the four first basemen who’d fared worse than Lee this season was the Pirates’ Lyle Overbay, who watched Lee’s debut from the bench Monday night. He saw Lee hit two home runs.

Even if you can forgive the Orioles for not getting something for Jeremy Guthrie, Kevin Gregg, and other fringe veterans who wouldn’t have brought much in return, it would have been nice for the O’s to get something better than a soon-to-be-24-year-old first baseman still in A-ball for Lee. Even if the Bucs don’t end up going anywhere this season’s end, they should have had to pay up for unlimited Lee-related fan enjoyment.

21. Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays have received some pointed criticism from writers both national and local for not doing anything beyond tossing Felipe Lopez to the Brewers for a few pennies. Why not trade Johnny Damon or Casey Kotchman? Truth is, no contending team needed a DH, and Damon’s a defensive liability at this point if he doesn’t do anything more than that. First base wasn’t a need for any contenders except the Pirates, who got Lee cheaper than they might have gotten Kotchman had they entered the ring with Andrew Friedman and his cadre of sharks. Reliever Kyle Farnsworth seemed a strong trade candidate, but we’ve already delved into the bloated closer market — and besides, retaining Farnsworth on a cheap $3.3 million club option for a run at the playoffs next year isn’t a bad play.

Yes. We can forgive the Rays all of that. But not so much B.J. Upton. Before their fans lobby for the return of Vince Naimoli, though, remember that mitigating factors were everywhere. Upton’s having a lousy season with a wOBA of just .315. He went 5-for-52 in the two weeks leading into deadline day and was battling a nagging leg injury. Other teams either targeted better players (Hunter Pence, Carlos Beltran, Michael Bourn) or figured they could buy low on others (Ryan Ludwick) rather than have to pay up for two months of an iffy option. Most important, the Rays recognized they make their best trades during the offseason, when they have ample time to assess all contingencies, without being beholden to a hard deadline or the fickle whims of other clubs. They dealt Delmon Young and change for Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett, then won the 2008 AL pennant. They flipped Garza to the Cubs last offseason for four promising prospects and the (short-lived) Legend of Sam Fuld. They’ll get their chance again this offseason with Upton.

20. Cincinnati Reds

On July 24, the Reds sat three games out of first, with the Brewers, Cardinals, and Pirates all tied for the division lead. A week later, they were 6.5 games out, with the Brewers riding a hot streak and taking control of the NL Central. The trade deadline is complicated enough, but when you throw in a big, last-minute losing streak that requires shifting gears from “buyer” to “seller” it’s nearly impossible. No team had its fortune change so dramatically in late July as the Reds. So we’ll give them a pass for not finding takers for Cordero and other veterans (though convincing the Nats to take Jonny Gomes was fortuitous and strange).

The good news for Reds fans is this team still has much of the same young core that produced a division title last year. Johnny Cueto’s emerged as a capable no. 1 starter (3.35 FIP, 35th among the major league’s 114 starters with 100-plus innings pitched) and Jay Bruce is on the brink of stardom (21 homers, a .356 wOBA, and a strong glove that probably belongs somewhere between this year’s neutral rating and last year’s 19.7 UZR).3 If Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols leave the division, that could make the Central even more wide open, and give Cincinnati a chance to get back on top.

19 & 18 TIE: Colorado Rockies and Cleveland Indians

So much has already been written about The Big Trade, the one that brought Ubaldo Jimenez and his incredibly favorable contract (less than $10 million combined in 2012 and 2013, plus an $8 million club option that got wiped out by the trade) to Cleveland for the Indians’ last two no. 1 picks (Drew Pomeranz and Alex White), plus two more prospects. Why trade a pitcher signed to such favorable terms when he’s a year removed from a monster season? And even if you’re freaking out over a nearly 3 mph loss in velocity, don’t ostensibly identical strikeout and walk rates (8.69 and 3.74 in 2010, 8.63 and 3.73 in 2011), as well as advanced metrics at least in the same ballpark (stellar 3.10 FIP in 2010, but a still solid 3.55 FIP this year) suggest a pitcher who’s coping pretty damn well? They do. The Indians should be happy to have Ubaldo.

Before we leave The Big Trade, a few more items that complicate things:

  • Several media outlets reported the Yankees’ interest in Jimenez, at least until they requested a physical contingent on a deal, and the Rockies reportedly said no. Did the Rockies know more than they were letting on?
  • The Indians had fallen to 2.5 games behind Detroit as of July 31, having followed a blistering 30-15 start with a terrible stretch in which they went 23-37. Did it make sense for the Indians to trade away their two best pitching prospects for the best win-now pitcher on the market?
  • How much value could Jimenez provide in 2012 and 2013, when he’ll still be cheap, and still offer a big potential boost for a young and fairly thin Indians rotation?
  • Did the Rockies score by landing Pomeranz, a 2010 first-round pick already in Double-A and racking up 11 strikeouts per nine innings? Or should they have held out for a top Indians hitting prospect like Lonnie Chisenhall or Jason Kipnis, knowing that even well-regarded pitching prospects like Pomeranz and White are still much riskier than equivalent position players?

I like this trade more for the Indians than most. I dislike this trade more for the Rockies than most. But it’s virtually impossible to render a deadly accurate prediction of how this trade will pan out, given the many variables in play, especially Jimenez’s health. We just don’t know for sure.

17. New York Yankees

The Yankees’ biggest weakness coming into the deadline was starting pitcher. The only potential frontline starter on the market was Ubaldo Jimenez, and the Rockies reportedly wanted to pillage the Yankees’ farm system. David Robertson gave the Yanks the high-leverage bullpen arm they needed, the lineup was stacked as usual, and even the bench had some quality this year, with players such as Andruw Jones chipping in. So why bother going nuts for a trade that wouldn’t make a big difference to a virtually certain playoff team anyway … let alone dip into the team’s cache of top prospects? Save Jesus Montero, Dellin Betances, and Manny Banuelos for a higher-impact trade. Or hell, keep ‘em. But Brian Cashman recognized that making a deal for the sake of making a deal makes no sense. Nice (non)work there.

16. Detroit Tigers

I have this theory that raw park effects and defense-independent stats don’t always tell the whole story on a particular player. Imagine you’re a pitcher in Petco Park. You know that hitters are far less likely to hit the ball out of the park. Couldn’t that change the way you pitch? Isn’t it conceivable that you could throw more strikes without the fear of an Earl Weaver Special in the back of your mind, thus improving your strikeout rate, your walk rate, and your overall statistical profile?

I think Doug Fister may have benefited from that effect while pitching for the Mariners. The combination of Safeco Field and an excellent defense behind him may have made Fister feel more secure in throwing strikes. That in turn may have led to some microscopic walk rates (career 1.9 BB/9 IP) which contributed greatly to Fister’s success. There are a couple of other more tangible statistical indicators that suggest Fister has had luck on his side, notably a very low home run-per-fly ball rate of 4.4 percent this season. But batting average on balls in play, strand rate, and other oft-cited luck markers don’t necessarily suggest a fluke, or a pitcher ripe for regression.

I wish I could properly test my theory to see if there’s something to it, but there are too many variables in play, and self-reported data such as “how confident was I when I pitched at Safeco Field” is rarely reliable. But the Tigers’ trade for Fister and fellow strikeout-challenged right-hander David Pauley depends largely on whether this effect is real, and if the new guys can adapt to conditions less favorable to pitchers. The good news for the Tigers? They might win a very weak AL Central anyway, even if Fister and Pauley (and recently acquired third baseman Wilson Betemit) fizzle out.

Next up: Trade Deadline Winners.

Jonah Keri’s new book, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First, is a national best-seller. Check out the Jonah Keri Podcast at JonahKeri.com and on iTunes, and follow him on Twitter @JonahKeri.


Previously from Jonah Keri:
A Giant Day
The Curious Case of Adam Dunn
Derek Jeter’s 3,000th Hit

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Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First, is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri