Trading Bases

What the trade deadline moves tell us about the rest of the baseball season.

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After a furious spate of trades late last week, the baseball trade deadline, the annual ritual of speculation that signals we’re starting into the homestretch of the pennant races, came and went.

The usual construct for trades is that pennant contenders part with young prospects for short term veteran help from losing teams.  Thus the teams that are parting with big name talent gain long term and the teams getting them benefit now. The Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago White Sox made particularly smart moves that will enable them to have it both ways, contend now and later.

After a protracted and failed negotiation to obtain ace pitcher Roy Halladay from the Toronto Blue Jays, the Phillies turned to the Cleveland Indians and traded for their ace starter and 2008 American League Cy Young Award Winner, Cliff Lee.  Lee is 31 and after some dramatic ups and downs (he was demoted to the minor leagues for part of 2007, the season that preceded his Cy Young campaign), he seems to have found his groove.  He should be a top tier pitcher for the next four or five years.  The ingenious part of the trade is that barring a truly miraculous comeback by the NY Mets, the Phillies have the National League Eastern Division locked up.  Where the trade benefits them is in the postseason.  The Phils now have two top pitchers, Lee, and Cole Hamels, the 2008 World Series and League Championship Series MVP, to face opponents in the playoff series and lead their pitching for years to come.  Given this one-two punch on the mound and the Phils formidable offense, which at 5.39 runs per game, leads the National League, Philadelphia is in an excellent position to defend their World Series title deep into October.

Earlier this season, the Chicago White Sox nearly completed a deal with the San Diego Padres for ace starting pitcher Jake Peavy (the 2007 National League Cy Young Award winner), but he balked at joining the Sox.  Since then the Sox have remained competitive and the Padres have sunk into last place.  When the White Sox inquired again the trade was completed.  For the Padres the deal is simple; they need large amounts of young talent to begin rebuilding the team.  They acquired four players with potentially bright futures from the Pale Hose to begin the process.  For the White Sox the deal is trickier but no less attractive.  Peavy is currently out with an ankle injury, but is supposed to be back by the end of the month.  This will help the White Sox, who are embroiled in a three team race with the Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins for the American League Central crown.  If they win, the Sox will be able to sport one of the deepest and best four man pitching rotations of any playoff team.  Before the acquisition of Peavy, the Sox ceiling in the playoff was one-and-done, like last year’s team, which won the division and then lost in the first round to the Tampa Bay Rays.  The nine runs per game that they averaged in the first three games against the Yankees last weekend notwithstanding, the White Sox offense is below league average at 4.64 runs per game.  General Manager Ken Williams shrewdly realized that to win with this edition of the team, they will have to do it with pitching.  The bigger benefit is that the White Sox medical team is renown for keeping players healthy, which bodes well for Peavy who is only 28.  The trade was a deadline deal that should provide dividends for several years to come.

The Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals have been bitter rivals for so long that it makes the New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox hostilities look like a sandbox skirmish, and this season the two teams have made trades that set themselves up for a race to the wire.  The Cardinals fortified their offense with the acquisitions of outfielder Matt Holiday and infielders Julio Lugo and Mark DeRosa.  The Cubs bolstered their bullpen by adding John Grabow and Tom Gorzelanny.

In their deadline maneuvers, the Yankees and Red Sox may have overreacted to their teams recent play.  The Yankees were on a tear—they won 11 of 14 games--until they arrived in Chicago this weekend.  Thus, despite a shortage of starting pitching, they made only one deal, acquiring utility player Jerry Hairston Jr.  The Red Sox by contrast went through a bit of a dry spell before the July 31 deadline, going 5-8 and scoring an average of 4.1 runs per game, a stark contrast to their overall performance of 61-42 and 5.2 runs per contest.  They were active and acquired hard hitting catcher/first baseman Victor Martinez from the Cleveland Indians and first baseman Casey Kotchman from the Atlanta Braves.  Although the new acquisitions, gives the Red Sox more starters than they have spots in the daily lineup, it is a nice problem to have. 

The Oakland A’s and the Pittsburgh Pirates, two teams that had been positioning themselves to move veterans in exchange for prospects, were active, though in unpredictable ways.  The A’s traded two players from a team that is going nowhere fast, and received some young players with very good pedigrees, but oddly, they stopped there; the team has several more players it could have deal.  The Pirates on the other hand were having a solid season after many years of futility but decided to use the deadline as an opportunity for an overhaul.  They dealt nearly every player over the age 26 in favor of a strong youth movement to augment their new generation of rising stars like outfielder Andrew McCutcheon, who hit three home runs last Saturday night.  For the Pirates faithful, who were just getting accustomed to seeing competitive baseball, the trades are a bit of a disappointment but they look like a step back to facilitate several steps forward.  The trade deadline is usually about hope, short term and long term, and in the case of the latter, the Pirates were clear winners.