The best midseason deals of the past quarter-century
CC Sabathia has been a season-changing acquisition for the Milwaukee Brewers, going 9-0 in his 11 starts since being acquired from Cleveland. But let's cool the Cy Young Award talk. Remember, Brandon Webb also went 9-0 for the Diamondbacks this year -- then has added 10 more wins and 129 more innings. Sabathia is not even in the discussion with Webb and Tim Lincecum of the Giants, who have shouldered more than twice the workload for their NL teams as has Sabathia.
That said, the trade for Sabathia figures to be one of the most impactful midseason deals of the past quarter century. Sabathia started the season 3-8 for Cleveland with a high walk rate and more hits allowed than innings pitched. Scouts wondered if he suffered from a tired arm after pitching deep into October for Cleveland the previous season. The Indians thought Sabathia was healthy, but they weren't quire sure what was wrong. So the Indians broke down video information available from Pitch-f/x, the tracking system available to fans via MLB.com. They compared 2007 results to 2008 results. What the Indians found was that Sabathia was releasing his pitches at a point nine inches lower than he did in 2007, a result of dipping his delivery and lowering his arm angle. The Indians quickly corrected the flaw and Sabathia went back to being a dominating pitcher with superior control. The Brewers have benefited from that adjustment.
This has been one of the more interesting years for midseason acquisitions. Sabathia, Rich Harden of the Cubs, Joe Blanton of the Phillies and Paul Byrd of the Red Sox are a combined 17-2 for contending teams. The Angels became the AL favorites with the acquisition of Mark Teixeira. The Red Sox are playing better with Jason Bay. And either the Diamondbacks, with Adam Dunn, or Dodgers, with Manny Ramirez, will parlay the addition of a big bat into a postseason berth. The Sabathia, Harden and Teixeira deals rank as especially impactful already, with the possibility, depending on how September and October unfold, of being historically important.
To provide some context to those deals, here are the five most impactful midseason acquisitions of the past 25 years. (The impact measured here is the immediate one for playoff contenders.) It's entirely possible that the Sabathia, Harden and Teixeira deals each will make a case for cracking the list before the year is out.
The Braves trailed the first-place Giants by nine games in the NL West before McGriff's first game with Atlanta after his trade from the Padres. During batting practice before that game, July 20, a Sterno can used to keep food warm in a Fulton County Stadium luxury box (the term "luxury" should be applied very loosely in the case of the old Launching Pad) tipped over, ignited a curtain and started a full-blown fire. No one was hurt, but the symbolism became unmistakable. The Braves caught fire themselves, playing .750 baseball with McGriff (51-17) to run down the Giants with 104 wins, one more than San Francisco. McGriff hit 19 homers and drove in 55 runs in those 68 games. He finished fourth in MVP voting.
Postseason postscript: the Braves were outpitched by an inferior Philadelphia team in the NLCS.
Sutcliffe made his first start for the Cubs on June 19, carrying a pedestrian 4-5 record after his trade from the Indians. He would make 20 starts for the Cubs and Chicago would win 18 of them. In those 20 starts, Sutcliffe pitched at least into the eighth inning 14 times. Despite playing in the NL for only 3 1/2 months, Sutcliffe won the NL Cy Young Award and finished fourth in MVP voting.
Postseason postscript: Sutcliffe had a 3-0 lead in the sixth inning of the final game of the NLCS against San Diego to put the Cubs in the World Series. He gave up two runs in the sixth and four in the seventh (all but one of the six runs was earned), and took the loss. He threw a career-high 258 innings that year. He missed 23 starts over the next two years with injuries.
New York was a game under .500 (41-42) when Cone made his first start for the Yankees July 29 after his trade from Toronto. The Yankees went 38-23 thereafter and stole the wild card spot, with Cone going 9-2. If you think the Brewers have been loose with their usage of Sabathia, knowing free agency awaits him, check how the Yankees used Cone, who also was headed for free agency. In 15 starts for the Yankees, he averaged 127 pitches. He exceeded 130 pitches seven times. His last five starts, including two in the postseason, included these stupendous pitch counts: 124, 139, 129, 135, 146. The next year, after he re-signed with the Yankees, Cone was found to have developed a potentially life-threatening aneurysm in his arm.
Postseason postscript: The Yankees blew a two games to none lead to Seattle in the best-of-five Division Series. Cone threw his 146 pitches in that final game.
Houston already was a first place team Aug. 2 when Johnson won his first start for the Astros after his trade from Seattle. Johnson was virtually unbeatable with Houston, going 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA in 11 starts. He finished seventh in Cy Young Award balloting despite making only those 11 starts.
Postseason postscript: Johnson pitched well, but was outpitched by Kevin Brown and then Sterling Hitchcock in Houston's four-game Division Series loss to San Diego.
Houston didn't wait until the trade deadline to make its move. It acquired Beltran from Kansas City on June 24, when it was five games out of first place and two out of the wild card. The Astros played .600 ball the rest of the way (54-36) to seize the wild card, with Beltran contributing 23 home runs and 70 runs in 90 games.
Postseason postscript: Beltran had one of the greatest postseasons ever, batting .435 with eight homers in 46 at-bats, but Houston fell one win short of the World Series.
Honorable mentions: Mike Boddicker, 1988 Red Sox; David Cone, 1992 Blue Jays; Jermaine Dye, 2001 A's; Larry Walker, 2004 Cardinals.