As someone who has been in the sports journalism business off and on ever since 1993, I can tell you that the month of July is one of the most difficult for a community-based newspaper that focuses on local content. There is the occasional youth sports event, a very late college signing, and in some places you have American Legion baseball — I once covered a program that won two state titles in that.
But for the most part, you have to rely on the national sports scene, and when you get to July, that only leaves baseball. And by the beginning of this month, baseball has separated the contenders from the pretenders, and the pretenders from the no-hopers (hello, KC and Miami). The MLB All-Star Game takes place in July of every year, but the real news there is in the trade market, as the teams that know they’re out of the race, or never really were in it to start with, sell off any useful parts they have to anyone willing to make a good offer.
The struggling teams rarely have anything to lose in these sorts of deals. Most of the players being dealt are pending free agents anyway, and keeping them around for the last 60-70 games of the season is of no benefit to anyone. The players are just playing out the string before their next contract, and anything they do well helps their teams win games they’d rather lose, and improve their draft position.
There are winners and losers in the July “silly season” basically every year, and sometimes we don’t know who the winners were until years later. There were a couple of legendary examples of this from my teenage years. In 1987, the Detroit Tigers struck a trade-deadline deal with the struggling Atlanta Braves, bringing veteran pitcher Doyle Alexander to the Motor City in exchange for a prospect. Alexander went 9-0 with a 1.53 ERA for Detroit, lifting them to the AL East title by two games over Toronto.
Great trade, right? Well…no. First of all, Detroit lost in the AL playoffs and Alexander pitched poorly. Second, the prospect’s name was John Smoltz. Oops…
Three years later, the Boston Red Sox were trying to beat out Toronto for the AL East title, and felt like they needed some help in their bullpen down the stretch. So they dealt a prospect to Houston in exchange for a reliever named Larry Andersen. Andersen, as a Red Sox, was fantastic. He pitched in 15 games, 22 innings, and had a 1.23 ERA. He had 1.2 Wins Above Replacement for Boston in just 22 innings, for crying out loud. The Red Sox won the AL East by two games over the Blue Jays.
Wonderful — except that Boston was swept in the 1990 playoffs by a powerhouse Oakland team that had won 15 more games in the regular season. And that the prospect was Jeff Bagwell, who hit 449 home runs, had 79.9 WAR and made the Hall of Fame, all in a Houston Astros uniform.
It can work the other way. Three years ago, the Kansas City Royals covered up some deficiencies in their lineup and starting rotation by adding do-everything Ben Zobrist and starting pitcher Johnny Cueto. KC would have won the AL Central title without them, especially since Cueto didn’t even pitch very well over the rest of the regular season. But he pitched well in the ALDS against Houston and in the World Series, where he threw a two-hitter in his only appearance against the Mets. I don’t think the Royals win the championship in 2015 without those guys, and for them, it was now or never that season.
The three players that the Reds got from KC for Cueto have been well below replacement level; one, Brandon Finnegan, has been slightly above replacement in Cincy, the other two far below. The other deal was with Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s, and it has been a bit more painful. The Royals traded two players to Mr. Moneyball, and one of them was a young pitcher named Sean Manaea, who’s been good. Not John Smoltz good, but very good. But they can justify this, because: 1) the Royals won the World Series with Zobrist; and 2) they wouldn’t be any good right now even if they had Manaea. By the time KC is good again, Manaea would have been approaching free agency.
This kind of calculus is going to be interesting this season, since there’s one player out there who is a potential game-changer for any team that gets him, and whoever gets him is going to risk losing at least a Manaea, and maybe even a Bagwell or a Smoltz — Orioles infielder Manny Machado, who is a free agent at the end of the season. At least eight teams are known to be chasing after Machado, and Baltimore is asking for a massive return for a player who has amassed 29.9 WAR in 846 career games to date. He’s the type of player who can lift a contender to a championship, but whoever gets him had better win it, or the price might be painful in the years to come.
The same can be said for some guys who are on the block and attractive to teams in need of pitching, rather than a bat. Starters Cole Hamels and J.A. Happ aren’t superstars on the same level as Machado, but could have the same impact for a contending team being forced to pitch a poor starter every fifth day. The New York Yankees certainly qualify, and the Arizona Diamondbacks have some question marks of their own.
And of course, there will be many lesser lights dealt, and teams will try to catch lightning in a bottle, like the Red Sox did with Larry Andersen 28 years ago. They’ll just hope they don’t trade away a future Hall of Famer, and get harassed about it for the rest of their life, like then-Boston GM Lou Gorman did. It was even mentioned in his obituary when he died in 2011. (I read Bill James even in those days, before Moneyball made him famous, and I knew it was a bad trade when it was announced…but I would be lying if I said I knew just how badly it would turn out.)
So let the 2018 edition of the “Prospects for Playoff Help” lottery begin, and hope your team isn’t the poor schmucks who trade the next Jeff Bagwell or John Smoltz.
John Cate is Sports Editor of the Mount Airy News. Contact him via Twitter at @johncate73.