This is the time of year when general managers are constantly conversing with other GMs and reassuring fans that they’re looking for the “right deal” or a “win-win situation.” The elusive goal is a deal that works for both sides, but that’s obviously easier said than done.
So let’s take a look at some notable trade-deadline deals in baseball history and separate the talk from the truth. John Smoltz for Doyle Alexander and Jeff Bagwell for Larry Anderson were both stinkers and are often cited as some of baseball’s worst, but both were completed in August and were waiver deals. Because of the rules of waiver trades, any team in baseball could have blocked them. In other words, all 28 teams not present in those swaps are somewhat at fault for letting those trades go through.
Instead, we’ll be focusing on deals in June and July — true deadline deals. Using the wins above replacement (WAR) that each team gave up, we can quickly appraise some of the most lopsided deals of the past 25 years. In this context, all WAR values are rest-of-contract numbers. When Mark McGwire was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1997, he had only two months of his contract left. Let’s not burn the Oakland Athletics for those 70 home runs in 1998. For prospects, the value is the WAR accumulated during their cheap, arbitration-controlled years.
Now, on to the trades.
WAR received: 2.4
WAR forfeited: 55.8
This is the most classic blunder, and the worst blemish on Omar Minaya’s résumé. It’s not that Colon didn’t help — he accrued 10 wins and 2.3 WAR over the second half of the season. It’s just that the Atlanta Braves were too good that year, and the Expos finished 18½ games back in the division. And look at the prospects Montreal gave up in the deal: Phillips didn’t quite blossom in Cleveland, but he was still arbitration-controlled when he broke out with the Cincinnati Reds; Sizemore and Lee combined to put up 49 WAR before they signed free-agent contracts (Andy Pettitte’s career WAR is around 49, just for reference). At first, it might have seemed like a win-win deal, but Cleveland ultimately snatched a much larger share of the success.
WAR received: 0.6
WAR forfeited: 40.4
Close behind Minaya’s blunder was the straight-up robbery performed by the Red Sox in 1997 when they turned their passable closer, Heathcliff Slocumb, into two franchise cornerstones in Varitek and Lowe. The duo gave the Red Sox great production at key positions before their arbitration years ran out. Considering that Slocumb gave the Mariners only 0.6 WAR the rest of that season, this move qualifies as one of the worst trade-deadline deals of all time, and a warning about the limits of what one should give up for a reliever.
WAR received: 10.8
WAR forfeited: 43.3
The Red Sox were on the other side of the deal, but it was hardly as poor of a swap as the Mariners’ disaster. Boddicker was actually a decent starting pitcher — he even won 17 games for them in 1990. Of course, Anderson accumulated 28.6 WAR (of his 36.2 career WAR) during his arbitration-controlled years in Baltimore. Had Schilling put together more than 0.3 WAR in Baltimore (he was traded to Philadelphia and had 14.4 WAR before signing his first free-agent contract there), this deal would be more widely remembered as a stinker.
WAR received: 2.7
WAR forfeited: 12.6
As proven time and again, teams most easily get burned when they give up starting pitching prospects, especially when they only get a reliever in return. Mantei was actually a decent closer for the Diamondbacks for a couple of years, and none of the other prospects Arizona gave up did Florida any good, but Penny alone was worth the deal. New York Mets fans might have expected to see the infamous trade of Scott Kazmir (15.6 RoC WAR) for Victor Zambrano (4 RoC WAR) here, but this one was far worse because Mantei was just a reliever.
WAR received: 1.1
WAR forfeited: 12.6
Yankees fans, particularly Frank Costanza, will remember Buhner as one who got away. Phelps put up 17 home runs and a sub-.250 batting average in less than a full year at DH before moving on. The position player equivalent of not trading starting pitching prospects for relievers is not trading position player prospects for designated hitters.
It’s easy to forget the trades that work out for the buyers, but they are not rare. Take the Cliff Lee trade in 2009. Lee gave the Phillies an invaluable 2.4 WAR (and an NL championship) last season, and is still providing value on that contract, albeit for his fourth team in two years. The book isn’t closed on the prospects the Phillies gave up, but so far they have only provided 0.3 WAR of value to the Indians. They have some arbitration-controlled years left, but Carlos Carrasco, Lou Marson and Jason Donald all seem like bit parts right now.
Perhaps the biggest lesson we can learn from all of this is not to give up decent prospects for relievers and designated hitters. That shouldn’t be too hard for the GMs to remember.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.