Some truths are eternal. About 93 years ago, the Philadelphia Phillies traded their right-handed ace, Pete Alexander, to the Cubs. Alexander, 30 years old, was in his seventh season. He had two ERA titles, and had led the NL in wins five times, including the four seasons prior to the trade. Overall, his career mark was 190-88 with a 2.12 ERA and 61 shutouts, a category which he led in annually. Pete Alexander and his sidearm sinker and curve were deadly. The Phillies were fearful they were going to lose him after the season—not to free agency, which didn’t exist, but to the military. They resolved to get whatever they could for him. That turned out to be a catching prospect, Pickles Dillhoefer, a middling right-handed pitcher, Mike Prendergast, and $55,000.
Alexander is in the Hall of Fame. Dillhoefer lasted just 12 plate appearances with the Phillies (and died at 27 while a member of the Cardinals), Prendergast just 38 games, and knowing the Phillies, they spent the $55,000 on Raul Ibanez’s great-grandfather. Whatever their motives for the trade, which weren’t too different from modern teams worrying about losing players after their contract year, the Phillies didn’t get anything like equal value for one of the best pitchers in the game.
Normally, when writing about the difficulty of trading star players for prospects and getting any kind of return, you would have to reach back throughout history for these kinds of examples, if not as far as 1917, but you don’t have to do that anymore. You could pull out a 1989-vintage Rickey Henderson going from the Yankees to Oakland for Luis Polonia, Eric Plunk, and Greg Cadaret, or Minnesota’s favorite deal from 2008, in which they gift-wrapped Johan Santana for the Mets, receiving Carlos Gomez, Philip Humber, Kevin Mulvey, and Deolis Guerra. These deals are the rule, not the exception. When a star is traded for prospects, the seller almost always loses out just because the vast majority of prospects don’t achieve anything close to greatness.
There are exceptions, famous exceptions such as Ernie Broglio, who was something like a star (but no Santana) at roughly the moment he was dealt to the Cubs for Lou Brock; the Cardinals got one of the few players who was seemingly established as a journeyman at 25 but suddenly developed into something better. Simultaneously, Broglio lost his touch at 28, making the deal look even better for the Cards. Mark Langston brought the Mariners 10 years of Randy Johnson’s service. The Rangers are still sorting through the package they received for Mark Teixeira, and if Neftali Feliz turns out to be the only player of the five received worth remembering, he might turn out to be enough.
On the other hand, even Feliz and Elvis Andrus together might not add up to one Mark Teixeira, and therein lies the difficulty of this kind of deal. Sellers like to pretend that dealing a star for a pile of prospects is about rebuilding, but it isn’t. It may be about salary relief, or wanting to have players whose future is more concrete than that of a free-agent compensation draft pick that won’t be spent for close to a year. It may be about wanting to avoid the expensive arbitration process, or just intended to exchange one body for several, but it is almost never a literal rebuilding move. Rebuilding means acquiring players like the one that was just dealt away. The media will kick around these deals and talk about who won the trade. The team that got Mike Piazza (for Preston Wilson, Ed Yarnall, and Geoff Goetz) won the trade, that’s who.
It’s fun to mock the Reds for declaring that Frank Robinson was “an old 30” going into 1966 and swapping him for Milt Pappas, Jack Baldschun, and Dick Simpson, but the sin wasn’t in what the Reds got back, it was in picking up the phone in the first place. The Mets’ “Midnight Massacre” of 1977, when they dealt Tom Seaver to the Reds for Steve Henderson, Pat Zachry, Doug Flynn, and Dan Norman? It shouldn’t have been surprising that the Mets didn’t receive any players worth 7-10 wins a season–there are only so many of those to go around. The Diamondbacks made two trades involving Curt Schilling, one to get him and one to give him away. They gave away four players (Travis Lee, Vicente Padilla, Omar Daal, Nelson Figueroa) and received four players (Brandon Lyon, Casey Fossum, Jorge de la Rosa, and Michael Goss) and didn’t come close to approximating Schilling’s value in either case. Heck, we can already be reasonably sure that we won’t someday say, “It was too bad the Phillies had to trade Cliff Lee, but at least he brought them multiple award-winners Phillippe Aumont, Tyson Gillies, and J.C. Ramirez! They were the foundation of a Phillies dynasty”!
Yet, as I said above, these kinds of examples are no longer necessary, because the kinds of deals that have been made around this year’s trade deadline. Whatever one thinks of the prospects received in the deals for Lee, Dan Haren, and Roy Oswalt, you have to squint very hard to project any of them as a coming star. Perhaps Justin Smoak will someday fulfill that description in Seattle, but given his 10-for-63 showing with the Mariners, his weak performance with the Rangers, and a minor league record that was hardly dominant, that day may be awhile in coming.
Smoak aside, the return has been about aspiring fourth starters and right-handed middle relievers, compromised personalities like Josh Lueke, and pure tools-over-performance types like Anthony Gose, whose projection as something more than a fifth outfielder relies on the distant, perhaps never-arriving day when he harnesses those tools and turns into…what, Gary Pettis? That the Astros would immediately flip Gose for future Ross Gload/Ryan Shealy/Ryan Garko type Brett Wallace speaks to the marginal nature of both prospects. Deadline trading has officially become a degraded pastime.
As we get further away from the star pitchers and see more run-of-the-mill talents being dealt, deals like the one that sent the venerable Miguel Tejada to San Diego, the chances of the seller making a successful exchange become more pronounced. Just to pick one deal, consider the 2005 trade that sent Juan Pierre–a player who generally wasn’t very valuable even at his best–from the Marlins to the Cubs. The Fish received three pitchers: Sergio Mitre, Ricky Nolasco, and Renyel Pinto. None of the three will see their uniform numbers hanging on the wall of the Marlins’ new ballpark, but they do demonstrate that when you give away nothing, you might get something back that exceeds it in value. The reverse is also true. When you give away something of value, you might get nothing, or something of so little value that you’re worse off than when you started.
We like to pretend it’s otherwise, if, for example, the Nationals hold on to Adam Dunn this weekend some will say that they were foolish not to get what they could. Yet, the truth is that unless they were very lucky or very canny in their trading, the end result would have been no different—Dunn gone, and perhaps not even a puff of Smoak to mark his passing.