In a span of 24 hours this week, three sure-fire, absolute-lock, no-doubt-about-it future Hall of Famers, Manny Ramirez, Ken Griffey Jr. and Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez, were traded. That may not be a record, but it gives baseball chatterheads a lot to talk about. However, once everybody settles down, they may notice that all this activity did little to change the balance of power in the major leagues.
Trade deadline deals usually do more to reinforce the status quo than change it. The reason is simple: The teams making the deal are already winning, and they trade a bit of their future for a player who will help them win now. That's exactly what is happening with the Griffey deal. He was traded from the Cincinnati Reds to the Chicago White Sox for a pair of prospects, relief pitcher Nick Masset and infielder Danny Richar. Both may develop into solid ball players, or both may wash out of the league in a few years. There is solid statistical evidence to advocate either career path. The known quantity is Griffey, and his arrival in Chicago will help them move one of their least productive bats, first baseman Paul Konerko, out of the line-up. Griffey is no longer a Gold Glove centerfielder, in fact, he hasn't played the position in two years but will return to it for the White Sox. The White Sox defense, their forte, may suffer slightly, but their offense will improve.
Chicago holds a slim lead over the Minnesota Twins in the American League central division. The Twins have surprised most observers by staying in the race until late in the season (this had figured to be a rebuilding year for them), but their run differential suggests that the White Sox would have put away the division soon, even without the help that Junior brings. Chicago has outscored their opponents by 80 runs to Minnesota's 26, and run differential is typically an excellent predictor of future performance. For the White Sox, the deal may reflect not only a need to strengthen the team for the division race, but also, Griffey's addition will help them vie for home-field advantage during the playoffs.
The Yankees acquisition of Pudge from Detroit for relief pitcher Kyle Farnsworth helped fill a void created when their starting catcher Jorge Posada was out for the season with a shoulder injury. The media in New York and fans on the street have reacted with glee to the arrival of a future Hall of Famer who is hitting over .290. Rodriguez will improve the Bronx Bombers; he's a substantial improvement over current backstop Jose Molina, but that batting average is deceptive. Unlike most other .290 hitters, Rodriguez doesn't walk much at all (19 times in more than 300 at-bats, once per 10 at bats is considered minimally acceptable), thus his on-base percentage is below average at .338. Also, Rodriguez, a player who hit 35 homeruns in his best season, has lost his power. He has hit five dingers this season, and it is no fluke; he hit 11 last season and 13 in 2006. Thus the Yankees' upgrade at catcher is from below average to average; faithful Yankee fans are hoping for much more than that.
The Yankees' have played exceptionally well lately, and the addition of Rodriguez will help them. However, the Yankee surge has been made possible by exceptional starting pitching, some of it by the likes of journeyman Sidney Ponson and the surprising Mike Mussina, who is enjoying a late-career renaissance after several years in decline. For the Yanks to stay in the race, they will need continued excellence from their pitchers.
The Rodriguez and Griffey deals were the undercard; the trade of Ramirez runs counter to most existing paradigms. However, Manny had worn out his welcome in Boston, getting into scuffles with teammates, engaging in name calling with management and failing to hustle on the field. The Red Sox had a widely publicized deal with Florida fall through, but just before the 4 p.m. Thursday deadline, they announced the blockbuster that sends Ramirez to the Los Angeles Dodgers, four prospects from L.A. and Boston to Pittsburgh and Pirate outfielder Jason Bay to the Red Sox.
Long term, this deal is a slam dunk win for Boston. Bay is an excellent player who figures to man left field for the Red Sox well into the next decade. The issue is that the Red Sox may have made themselves weaker during the current pennant race. They are vying with the Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays for the American League East Division title, and the team finishing second is likely to win a playoff berth as the wild card. Based on run differential, the Red Sox should be far ahead of their rivals, not locked in a close race. I'm hypothesizing a little here, but I suspect that Ramirez's antics have created such a distraction in the Boston clubhouse that his absence will enable Boston to win at a rate more in line with their performance.
Meanwhile, Manny will probably absolutely love to leave Boston, and his arrival in Los Angeles gives the Dodgers a potent bat to fortify a team that is getting hot at the right time. Dodger pitching is peaking; their staff has tossed four shutouts in the last week. The Dodgers are in a close race with the Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League West. The addition of Ramirez, combined with the return of shortstop Rafael Furcal, should enable the Dodgers to win the division.
The real winners in the trading season got their work done early. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim acquired slugging first baseman Mark Teixeira from Atlanta on Monday, and with their fortified offense, they should be able to win the American League pennant. Meanwhile, the Chicago Cubs earlier in July acquired ace pitcher Rich Harden, which solidifies their staff. Both the Angels and Cubs already have the best teams in their leagues, and their trades should make them the favorites to meet in the World Series.
Martin Johnson is a New York writer.