Let's get the greatest recent exception to this opinion out of the way right now. His name is Cliff Lee, and he pitched his new team into the World Series in consecutive years. What Lee brought down the stretch to the Phillies in 2009 and the Rangers in '10 is immeasurable. Well, all right, you can count up win totals, playoff gate receipts and jersey sales, but the point is that both the Phils and the Rangers got more than a fair return on their investment, in terms of the prospect pool surrendered to the Indians and Mariners, respectively.
But how often is an ace-type arm like Lee's available on the market? Not often at all, and certainly not in 2011.
In 2008, CC Sabathia arrived from the Tribe and boosted the Brewers' bid for that organization's first playoff berth since 1982. And if merely crossing into October for the first time in more than a quarter-century was the end-goal, it was well worth it. But the Brewers, who claimed the National League Wild Card, were four-and-out in the NL Division Series and then lost out on first-round Draft pick compensation for Sabathia's pinstriped departure (thanks to the outdated Elias rankings that had Mark Teixeira ahead of Sabathia on the free-agent pecking order, thereby giving the Yankees' first-round pick to the Angels, not the Brew Crew), so it would be difficult to label their Sabathia swap as a total success. The champion Phillies wound up getting more mileage out of a less-heralded pickup in Joe Blanton, who won two games for them in the postseason.
Looking at the past three seasons -- a time when prospect protection has been at its peak -- the only instance in which the non-waiver Trade Deadline held an absolute deciding factor in a division race was also in 2008, when the Dodgers, two games back of the D-backs on July 31, dealt for Manny Ramirez. And while the Dodgers won the division and made it to the NL Championship Series on the might of Manny Being Manny, they, too, fell short of the World Series. A year later, the Cardinals used their Matt Holliday pickup to pull away from the Cubs in the NL Central, only to get swept in the first round.
Before the Lee deals, the last World Series participant to do anything of real significance at the Deadline was Boston in 2004. The Red Sox sent Nomar Garciaparra and Matt Murton to the Cubs and received Doug Mientkiewicz from the Twins and Orlando Cabrera from the Expos. Three months later, they broke the "Curse of the Bambino" with the steady defense of their two infield acquisitions, at the expense of their former franchise face, providing a huge help.
"You never know who is going to be the guy who is going to help you," Cabrera said. "I always remember the Carlos Beltran trade [from the Royals to the Astros in 2004]. Ridiculous. The guy went off. You cannot tell me they were going to get that boost [without Beltran]. The attitude on that team changed. Everything changed."
Beltran was actually acquired more than a month before the Deadline, and his impact was, indeed, profound, as he hit 23 homers in 90 regular-season games and then another eight in the playoffs for an Astros team that won the NL Wild Card, then fell to the Cardinals in seven games in the NLCS. Furthermore, all the Astros gave up to get Beltran was Octavio Dotel, John Buck and a wad of cash.
Unfortunately for those in need of a quick fix, not only is Beltran seven years older but examples of a player of his ilk arriving and dramatically changing the course of a season are not exactly abundant.
Where the Deadline seems to have a more helpful history is in the case of role players. Look at Dave Roberts, who arrived to those 2004 Red Sox from the Dodgers and contributed one of the more memorable stolen bases in postseason history. Or the White Sox '05 trade with the Padres that netted them Geoff Blum, whose pinch-hit home run won Game 3 of the World Series. Or the '10 Giants' acquisitions of Javy Lopez and Ramon Ramirez to bolster their bullpen. None of these guys was a particularly sexy pickup, in the traditional sense, but they filled a particular void and augmented an already strong core.
Really, the Deadline ought to be viewed as one small part of the picture. The Giants' most significant in-season move last year was, in retrospect, the waiver-wire selection of Cody Ross in late August (a move that was made only so that the division-rival Padres wouldn't
get their hands on Ross). And in a year in which so many teams are still in the race but several are sure to fall out of it in the next few weeks, we could see more examples of waiver-wire savvy lending a helping hand to contenders.
The problem with the Trade Deadline is that its history is littered with aggressive acquisitions gone wrong. Do the Braves regret sending Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison and Jarrod Saltalamacchia to the Rangers for Teixeira in 2007? You bet they do. How did sending Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen and John Halama to Seattle for Randy Johnson work out for the Astros in 1998? Not that well. Did the Expos hit paydirt after sending Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee and Brandon Phillips to the Indians in 2002? Survey says no.
These are extreme examples, of course, but they leave a lasting memory. This memory, combined with the game's economics, its increasing lean toward youth and more widespread attention placed on prospects creates a certain level of caution among the mid- and small-market general managers. And who could blame them? Nobody wants to give up the next big thing for the next big bust, and that reluctance has plenty of historical influence.
If we're being rational, the Deadline ought to be viewed as a time for incremental improvements, not sweeping gestures.
Then again, where's the fun in that? We want chiseled abs in eight minutes, and we want the road to the World Series paved in one fell swap.