August 05, 2009

The rarest occurrence in baseball isn't a perfect game, a cycle, or even an afternoon without New York sports talk radio ranting that Joba Chamberlain Phil Hughes is the most irreplaceable relief pitcher of all time. The Halley's Comet of baseball is an instant-impact, win-win, challenge trade of rising stars.

The latest round of deadline deals featured the usual array of rented veterans changing teams, with a batch of three-years-away prospects (for the most part, not even the best prospects) going the other way. On the rare occasion when two young talents have been traded for each other, the results have heavily favored one team. Andrew Friedman will forever have Bill Smith on his Hanukkah card list after dumping burnout problem child Delmon Young on the Twins in exchange for front-line starter Matt Garza -- plus productive shortstop Jason Bartlett, for good measure.

That's what made the 2007 swap of Josh Hamilton for Edinson Volquez (and token throw-in Danny Herrera) so captivating.

Then-Reds General Manager Wayne Krivsky looked at his team's roster and saw too many outfielders and not enough viable starting pitchers. Meanwhile, Rangers GM Jon Daniels looked at his major league roster and saw plenty of hitters, but few players with MVP and marquee-name potential.

Each team had something to offer, though both would be taking a risk. In Volquez, the Rangers could dangle an electric right-hander with knockout stuff, the kind of pitcher who could either develop into an ace, or at least go down in a glorious blaze of strikeouts and walks. The 3-11 record and 7.20 ERA to start his big league career numbers were ugly, but the talent was undeniable. Meanwhile, the Reds knew they had a powder keg in Hamilton. A former No. 1 overall pick with supreme talent, Hamilton bounced around the minors and nearly washed out of baseball, his career squelched by drug addiction and other problems. But the sweet-swinging outfielder had just broken out with a 19-homer rookie season, and looked primed for an exciting career.

Still, even the biggest optimists couldn't have dreamed up better outcomes for both players than what transpired in 2008.

Volquez took his place alongside Tim Lincecum, Chad Billingsley and a small cadre of others in the new generation of pitching stars. He was still wild, walking 93 and leading the league with 14 hit batsmen. But Volquez was also, at times, unhittable. He fanned 206 batters in 196 innings, ran up a 17-6 record with a 3.21 ERA and made the All-Star team. So dazzled were writers by Volquez's coming-out party that they gave him enough votes to finish fourth in Rookie of the Year voting -- even though he wasn't actually a rookie.

Hamilton made an even bigger splash. Crushing the ball out of the gate, he ran up a line of .310/.367/.552 in the first half with 21 homers and 95 RBIs. He gained national prominence when he put on one of the most memorable slugging displays in the history of the Home Run Derby, launching 28 homers in the first round. By year's end, he'd hit .304/.371/.530 with 32 homers and 130 RBIs, finishing seventh in MVP voting and cementing his place among the game's brightest young stars.

Those days seem long gone now. Plagued by a torn abdominal muscle through much of the summer, Hamilton's '09 campaign looks like a track off TonyBatista's greatest hits album. He's hitting just .226/.277/.377 for the year, often looking completely lost at the plate. Before Monday's two-hit performance, Hamilton had collected six hits in his last 53 at-bats, with no home runs and 14 strikeouts. With Texas trailing the Angels and Red Sox in their playoff chase, one can't help imagine what might've happened if Hamilton were still bashing balls into the seats at Rangers Ballpark, instead of flailing weakly at breaking balls out of his reach.

Volquez wishes he could be so lucky. The Reds' righty lasted nine starts before leaving his June 1 start with what was originally reported as a back injury. The diagnosis was soon changed to a numb, tingling sensation in his fingers. Then it was elbow tendinitis. Three weeks later, Volquez shut down his rehab when his elbow pain persisted. After some encouraging long-toss sessions, he pitched a simulated game last week, but didn't make it through his scheduled 80 pitches. Finally, the news no one wanted to hear: Volquez needed Tommy John surgery. The procedure was completed on Monday, and the most optimistic timetables now call for Volquez's return next summer.

The Rangers, at least, still have reason for optimism. Hamilton is just 28, the Rangers have made big strides this season, and even if they fall short in their playoff push, they're loaded with elite prospects they can use to augment a promising big-league club or trade for an offseason difference maker like Roy Halladay.

The Reds? Not so much. There's still ample young talent on hand, including Johnny Cueto, Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips. But the team ate up a huge chunk of payroll flexibility by making a bizarre deadline deal for aging, injury-prone third baseman Scott Rolen and his $11 million 2010 salary. Moreover, typical Tommy John recovery times tell us we shouldn't expect Volquez to return to his old self until 2011 at the earliest.

But even that's being optimistic. You probably can't blame Dusty Baker for this one, as Volquez wasn't subjected to anything close to the workload Mark Prior withstood before his magical right arm turned to shreds. That's cold comfort for Reds fans, though. The rising star we saw in 2008 may never be the same again.

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