When selling works

As the trade deadline approaches in Major League Baseball, every fan is wondering the same thing: “How can my team get better?”

Sometimes the answer lies in acquiring a star that can help now, sometimes in acquiring a bunch of potential stars that can help in the future. For the general manager in buy mode, the cost is high but the risk is relatively low: he usually knows what he’s getting, the issue becomes whether or not the player he gets does what he’s supposed to do. Sometimes it works, like CC Sabathia to Milwaukee, and sometimes it doesn’t, like Mark Langston in Montreal.

For the GM in sell mode, the risk is far greater and the consequences much more dire. Not only is his team giving away what is usually one of its best players (if not already the best on the team), they’re not exactly sure what’s coming back. No matter how many Top-50 prospect lists these new guys are on, or how high a grade Kevin Goldstein gives them, there is no guarantee any of them will ever work out. Some become decent players, but others will never make it out of the minors. There’s also the issue of patience being needed to properly evaluate deals that involve prospects, but today’s sports fan exercises patience the same way Ozzie Guillen holds his tongue.

Next to the draft, the trade deadline is the biggest crapshoot in baseball. But sometimes, when the stars align and the Pittsburgh Pirates aren’t involved in the deal, trading away the team’s best player can help said team in fantastic ways. Here are the top three from the last decade: 

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2007: Rangers send Mark Teixeira to Atlanta for Neftali Feliz, Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison, Beau Jones and Jarrod Saltalamacchia

This trade is why teams are willing to sell superstars for prospects. It was the catalyst move that eventually led to Texas becoming back-to-back AL Champions and one of the most dominant teams of the day (the Edison Volquez-for-Josh Hamilton deal didn’t hurt, either).

The Rangers still had Mark Teixeira under contract for another season, but didn’t feel confident enough an extension could be completed, so they decided to deal their All-Star first baseman. The Braves were more than happy to swoop in, and because he was more than just a rental player, a large ransom was sent back to Texas.

Teixeira didn’t fail in Atlanta, but he wasn’t the piece they needed to get into the postseason (Atlanta ended up shipping Teixeira out at the ’08 deadline to the Angels). As for the Rangers’ haul? Shortstop Elvis Andrus finished second in Rookie of the Year voting in ’09 and is a two-time All-Star with a solid glove and a 9.8 WAR during his tenure with Texas. Neftali Feliz won Rookie of the Year in 2010, racked up 72 saves in two years as closer before becoming a starter in ’12 (injuries have stalled a so-far solid starting career). Matt Harrison has been in the rotation since he got to Texas in ’08, and has improved every year, making his first All-Star appearance this season. Although Saltalamacchia was shipped out and Jones never made it through the minors, 3-for-5 is a helluva good deal for the Rangers, and one any team would be ecstatic to replicate.

2003: Twins acquire Francisco Liriano, Joe Nathan and Boof Bonser from the Giants for AJ Pierzynski.

This is a brilliant excuse to write Boof Bonser over and over again. The Giants, wanting a catcher who could hit, acquired A.J. Pierzynski from the Twins. In return, San Francisco sent Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano and the aforementioned Bonser. Pierzynski played just one year with the Giants and wasn’t able to push them into the postseason. In a six-year span, Nathan had 246 saves and a 1.87 ERA. He made the All-Star team four times and twice was in the Top-5 of Cy Young voting. Liriano’s consistency was an issue, but when he was on he was one of the most dangerous pitchers in the league, and Minnesota’s 1-2 punch of Liriano and Johan Santana was to be feared. Bonser wasn’t great, but he didn’t have to be for Minnesota to completely win this trade. Boof Bonser.

2002: Indians acquire Brandon Phillips, Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee and Lee Stephens from the Expos for Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew.

This is a deal that still haunts the depreciating number of Expos fans out there. Colon was a damn fine pitcher and Montreal needed some rotation help, but what they sent back to Cleveland was a hell of a haul. Cliff Lee would end up winning a Cy Young with the Indians and become one of the more dominating lefties of the later half of the 00’s. Grady Sizemore was an incredibly talented center fielder whose potential was never fully reached because of injuries. Brandon Phillips didn’t stay with the team for long as he was shipped to Cincinnati in 2006, but he has emerged as one of the more consistently good second basemen in the National League, and flashes some of the nicest leather in the game. Stephens and Drew never really amounted to anything, so at least that part’s a wash.

INCOMPLETE:

Blue Jays acquire Kyle Drabek, Travis D’Arnaud and Michael Barrett from the Phillies for Roy Halladay

Shortly after this deal the Jays swapped Barrett to Houston for Anthony Gose, who was called and made his major league debut on Tuesday night against New York. Gose is an incredibly gifted athlete, highly touted in the minors and, like every single prospect ever, destined for greatness. D’Arnaud might have joined Gose as a first-time major leaguer, but a knee injury has put that plan on hold. Drabek showed flashes in his time with the Jays, but has lacked consistent control and is currently on the disabled list for the foreseeable future, having recently undergone Tommy John Surgery. Potential-wise, the Jays got an ace-pitcher and a franchise center fielder and catcher when the dealt Halladay, possibly the best pitcher of this generation. The haul is fantastic, but the final result is still an incomplete.

Any deal that includes Cliff Lee

Three in the last five years Cliff Lee was dealt for a bevy of prospects (ironic because he appears on this list on the other side of the spectrum). In 2009, Lee was traded from Cleveland to Philadelphia for Jason Knapp, Carlos Carrasco, Jason Donald and Lou Marson. That offseason the Phillies flipped Lee to Seattle for J.C. Ramirez, Phillippe Aumont and Tyson Gillies. Six months later, Lee went to Texas for Justin Smoak, Blake Beavan, Josh Lueke and Matthew Lawson. None of those prospects have become superstars, and in comparison to the Halladay deal, the Jays got the best haul out of any of the Lee deals. But the jury is still out.

Like mentioned earlier, it’s a crapshoot. The above examples prove the gamble could work. Others – like the “haul” Kansas City got for Carlos Beltran – are just big giant fails. Buyer beware to anyone looking to give up prospects for Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels or anyone else who may be “worth it” on the trade market this season.

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