Trade deadline underscores game's westward power shift
The five best players moved in the last days before the trading deadline all wound up moving to West division teams: Zack Greinke to the Angels and Ryan Dempster to the Rangers in the American League; Hanley Ramirez and Shane Victorino to the Dodgers and Hunter Pence to the Giants in the National League.
For many years the economic engine of major league baseball was found in the I-95 East Coast corridor, but this month the Phillies dumped players and the Yankees and Red Sox added only bit parts, including, yes, Ichiro Suzuki, who is a useful player but not the impact one of his prime. The last day before the deadline gave us no blockbusters and no Jake Peavy-level surprises. But what it did do is reaffirm that some of the balance in this game has moved westward, largely on the strength of television money.
The Rangers and Angels, fortified by the largesse of regional sports networks, continued to escalate their postmodern Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. And the Dodgers, under the deep-pocketed ownership of the Guggenheim group, have raised the cost of doing business in what used to be a more democratic NL West. The Giants, a growth stock ever since their 2010 World Series championship, have signed on to play at that cost. The Diamondbacks have not. And just wait until the Dodgers get their television bonanza within the next year.
Here are the other 10 takeaways you need to know from what happened at the trading deadline:
Chicago did well to squeeze two decent prospects out of the Rangers system in the Dempster trade: Kyle Hendricks, a former Dartmouth pitcher with a 7:1 striekout to walk ratio, and Christian Villanueva, a smooth-fielding third baseman with a .350 OBP. Indeed, not 20 minutes after completing the deal, the Cubs were getting calls from other teams inquiring about the Class A players.
But the Cubs didn't get the best package on the table: pitcher Randall Delgado from the Braves. That didn't happen because Dempster exercised his 10-and-5 rights and refused to go to Atlanta. Then a possible deal with the Dodgers never came close to materializing. Los Angeles made it clear it would not part with any of its top prospects: Zach Lee, Allen Webster, Chris Reed and Rubby de la Rosa. The Dodgers did talk about pitchers Josh Lindblom and Ethan Martin, but that was for a package that included Dempster and Alfonso Soriano -- and they wound up using those pitchers to get Victorino.
Ramirez actually looks motivated for the time being, and now Victorino addresses two big holes in the Los Angeles roster: leftfield and leadoff. The Dodgers' leftfielders have hit a league-low four home runs and have driven in fewer runs than every other team except Pittsburgh. The Dodgers' leadoff hitters rank 14th in the league in OBP. Strangely, the four worst teams in the league according to OBP out of the leadoff spot are all contenders: the Reds, Pirates, Dodgers and Nationals. So much for ideal lineup construction.
Pittsburgh is a better team than it was a few days ago, with a platoon of Starling Marte and Travis Snider in leftfield and Gaby Sanchez getting at-bats against lefthanders at first base and off the bench. Yes, Chad Qualls, acquired from the Yankees, is a big step down from Brad Lincoln as a setup reliever, but getting Snider from Toronto was worth it to address one of the least productive leftfield positions in the NL (league-worst 23 RBI).
But here's the other good news: The Pirates, currently in second place in the NL Central and tied for the wild card lead, play 40 percent of their remaining games (24 of 60) against three intradivisional rivals who have checked out for the season, Milwaukee, Houston and Chicago. (The first-place Reds have 19 games left against the bottom three.) No more Greinke, Dempster, Paul Maholm, Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez, Chris Johnson, etc. It's beginning to look like at least one wild card might come out of the NL Central, where there are many wins to be had.
Welcome to a bizarro world in which the Phillies are selling off players and the Pirates are adding. Philadelphia's fold may be the most shocking development of this season. Think about what just happened: Philadelphia, with a $172 million payroll, played itself clearly out of contention by the end of July in a season in which five of the 16 NL teams are going to the playoffs.
The Phillies' system has been so drained by trades to keep the team's window of contention open that GM Ruben Amaro needed to restock the system when given this chance. (Philadelphia owes Atlanta a thank you note for the weekend sweep that removed the last bits of false hope of contending.) The Phillies did well but not great, getting Lindblom, a 25-year-old in Double A whose stuff seems to play better out of the pen, Martin, the first high school pitcher drafted in 2008 who has command issues (5.7 walks per nine innings), and catcher Tommy Johnson, 21, who has shown some power at a young age.
Brown, who turns 25 next month, will get a run in centerfield as Victorino's replacement in Philadelphia. We still don't know if he'll hit enough in the bigs -- he has hit .236 in 91 major league games. His career slash line in Triple A is solid, but not overwhelming (.286/.335/.432). So really, we still don't know what Brown is as a big league player, but he's at an age and with an opportunity that should provide the Phillies with a good idea as they head into the winter to re-tool this team.
Toronto's Gose, who turns 22 in 10 days, and was traded by Philadelphia to Houston in the 2010 Roy Oswalt deal, is three years younger and with a better Triple A resume than Brown (.292/.375/.432 in 92 games). Where once it appeared that he was blocked by a glut of outfielders in the Toronto system (goodbye Snider and Eric Thames, who was dealt to Seattle), now Gose gets a shot to establish himself in the big leagues as the Blue Jays' leftfielder.
Remember when San Francisco rolled the dice on a Carlos Beltran rental last year? At the cost of sending pitching prospect Zack Wheeler to the Mets, the Giants wound up out of the playoff picture, anyway.
Twelve months later, the Giants, with no progress from Brandon Belt, again found themselves without enough offense to feel good about their team, so this time they cashed in three chips, including Joseph, to get Pence from the Phillies. The unorthodox outfielder may not be a rental, but his contract situation is problematic enough for Philadelphia to have become motivated to move him. Pence could command between $14 million and $15 million in arbitration for next season -- a huge ticket for a good player but one who is not an impact player, who never has scored or driven in 100 runs in a season.
There was some talk that Philadelphia would non-tender Pence rather than pay that price. (If so, they would have traded him before a possible non-tender.) Pence, in a down year, was hitting .217 in July. It's a risk the Giants had to take -- again, especially with the Dodgers redefining how the game is played in the NL West -- but one with a steep price.
It was a bad deadline for Arizona. The two teams ahead of the Diamondbacks, the Dodgers and Giants, both improved, while the Diamondbacks tried and failed to get Dempster. At 3½ games out, they are still a factor in the NL West, but the gap they have to bridge just got larger.
Looking for an under-the-radar arm who can make a difference? Fister, whose work was disguised by poor run support with Seattle, did it for Detroit last year, and Maholm, who was overshadowed by the attention given rotation mates Dempster and Matt Garza before being traded to the Braves, might be the guy this year. No traded pitcher is throwing the ball better than Maholm, who has a 1.00 ERA in his past seven starts. Give the Cubs credit for signing Maholm off the scrap heap last winter -- the Pirates cut him loose -- and turning him into a trading chip with value.
The Blue Jays are going all Ed Wade when it comes to stockpiling middle relievers (Lincoln, David Carpenter, J.A. Happ, Steve Dalabar, etc.) Qualls, Brandon League, Randy Choate, Craig Breslow, Edward Mujica and Matt Albers all changed teams. The Cardinals took a first round pick from two years ago, Zack Cox, and traded him for a middle reliever, Mujica. And the Reds, who badly needed a lefthanded hitting outfielder who can get on base, used their trade chips to get Jonathan Broxton, a reliever who adds to what already was a strength, a lockdown bullpen with strikeout stuff.
Baltimore and Oakland have improbable shots at the postseason, but both teams did nothing, and it's hard to complain. The Orioles had a chance to get innings-eater Joe Blanton from Philadelphia, which sounded like a good idea given how their rotation needs help and their weary bullpen needs a break. But spending $3 million and talent to get a rotation filler probably wasn't the wisest move for a team that is headed in the wrong direction. Blanton was a good idea, but not at any cost.
Oakland has played so well in July that the Athletics didn't risk their chemistry by overpaying for a third baseman or shortstop. Oakland does get Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson back in August to make a strong pitching staff even deeper -- a staff that should at least keep the Athletics in the race into September.