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The Brewers are hoping for big things from Francisco Rodriguez, but a reliever isn't likely to crack this list of best-ever buyer's acquisitions, which originally ran as a "You Could Look it Up" column on October 3, 2008.
When looking over the entire history of deadline-day trades, one is inevitably reminded that the vast majority of all trades, deadline and otherwise, amount to nothing, with nonentities being swapped for nonentities. This is true even of the big names that are typically dealt from also-rans to contenders around the non-waiver trading deadline of July 31 (and, before that, June 15). For buyers, very few trades have the kind of impact envisioned at the time of their consummation: a marked improvement at the position the acquiring team is upgrading and a boost into the postseason.
It is for this reason that the trades made by the Angels, Brewers, Dodgers, Red Sox, and White Sox around this year's deadline are notable. Each of these clubs acquired a veteran. Three of the five received extraordinary performances from their acquisitions, and all five made the playoffs. Consider the performances of these players by the simple measure of Wins Above Replacement:
CC Sabathia 6.7 Manny Ramirez 5.6 Mark Teixeira 4.8 Jason Bay 2.5 Ken Griffey Jr. 1.0
The first three of those performances rank among the best ever among deadline acquisitions, but before we get to recounting that elite crowd, a few words on definitions. How does one rate a deadline deal? First, you have to identify when a deadline deal takes place. For the purposes of this article, I limited the time frame to the deadline and the two weeks preceding it. Defining success is a more difficult matter. Mark Teixeira killed for the Angels, but they were going to win the American League West with Casey Kotchman, too—a less productive half-season would have been successful for them, but wouldn't have made our list. If the goal was to make the Angels more competitive in the playoffs, we can infer that that has been achieved without having any quantification to point to. An example of the "enough is enough" acquisition is Donn Clendenon, who went to the Mets on June 15, 1969. He hit .252/.321/.455 for the Mets, which was not very special, then or now, but the added bit of power gave them the extra push they needed to pass the Cubs and win their first division title.
Similarly, many teams have made successful deadline acquisitions and not made the playoffs. It's a bit outside of the time parameters I just mentioned, but it makes for a good example: in 1979, the Red Sox found themselves playing in a very competitive AL East. With the club in second place, just one game out in mid-June, they sent pitching prospect Pete Ladd and a player to be named (another young pitcher, Bobby Sprowl) to the Houston Astros for first baseman Bob Watson. Watson played nearly every day from then on, batting a terrific .337/.401/.548 (3.8 WARP in 84 games). Nonetheless, the Red Sox topped out at 91-69, 11½ games behind the division-winning Baltimore Orioles. It was a successful trade in every way, but not in the sense that we're trying to establish here.
Finally, for the purposes of this examination of deadline deals, we are concerned with buyers, how much production they got out of their acquisition, and if they made the playoffs. For the long-term effects of deadline deals, including such memorable numbers as the Jeff Bagwell-for-Larry Andersen swap and other deals beneficial to sellers, see Cliff Corcoran's essay in our book, It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over. For some other specific examples, you can check out my earlier BP series on deadline deals: part one, part two, part three, and part four.
With no further clarifications to make, here are the ten greatest buyer's deadline-deal acquisitions prior to Sabathia, Ramirez, and Teixeira:
The Red Sox obviously gave up some long-term value here, but they accomplished their immediate goal of making the playoffs. In third place, 1½ games behind the front-running Tigers, and hampered by a starting rotation that dropped off badly after Roger Clemens and Bruce Hurst, the Sox swung the deal for veteran curveball specialist Boddicker. He delivered 11 quality starts in 14 tries, leading to a 2.63 ERA in 89 innings. The Sox played just .500 baseball after acquiring Boddicker, but his help was crucial as they squeaked in one game ahead of the Tigers with a weak 89-73 record.
Gary Sheffield was supposed to have been New York's regular right fielder, but a collision at first base put him out from late May until late September. Joe Torre found himself patching with a cast of inadequate thousands—Bernie Williams, Bubba Crosby, Terrence Long, Aaron Guiel—until the Phillies decided to give away the unpopular Abreu, who rediscovered his power stroke in New York, batting .330/.419/.507 after starting 98 games and hitting .277/.427/.434 for the Phils. A half-game behind the first-place Red Sox at the time of the trade, the Yankees surged, taking the division title by ten games.
A 26-year-old rookie sensation with the Yankees in 1942, Borowy had a career record of 56-30 (.651) with an ERA of 2.75 when new Yankees' president Larry MacPhail sold him to the Cubs, supposedly because the pitcher had a sore arm. It was a highly unpopular move, one not helped when Borowy went 11-2 with a 2.13 ERA down the stretch. The Cubs were already up by five games at the time of the deal; with Borowy pitching, they somehow gave two games of their lead back, winning by three over the Cards.
7. Orioles acquire OF/3B Bobby Bonilla and a PTBNL (career minor leaguer Jimmy Williams) from the New York Mets in exchange for outfielders Damon Buford and Alex Ochoa (July 28, 1995)
Bonilla WARP for Orioles: 4.4
Made the playoffs? No.
One of the few deals on this list that proved to be academic, at least in 1995, the Mets shifted the disgruntled but productive switch-hitter Bonilla southward in return for two prospects of limited potential. Bonilla, hitting .325/.385/.599 for the Mets, didn't slip too much in the AL, batting .333/.392/.544 for the O's. In second place by 4½ games at the time of the deal (with a record of 42-41), the Orioles went 29-32 the rest of the way to finish in third place, 15 games behind the division-winning Red Sox.
6. Cardinals acquire 3B Scott Rolen and RHP Doug Nickle from the Philadelphia Phillies for INF Placido Polanco, RHP Mike Timlin, and LHP Bud Smith (July 29, 2002).
Rolen WARP for Cardinals: 4.6
Made the playoffs? Yes.
It's a familiar story by now: fan and managerial discontent in Philadelphia came to center around their best player, Gold Glove third baseman Scott Rolen, also a .282/.373/.504 career hitter at the time of the trade. Dragging a bit at .259/.358/.472 through 100 games, Rolen picked it up with the Cards, hitting .278/.354/.561 in 55 contests. Already leading the NL Central by five games at the time of the deal, the Cardinals increased their lead to 13 games by the end of the season.
I'm breaking the rules a bit here, as the deal falls out of our established timeframe, but given that this is probably the most famous win-win deal in baseball history it seemed worth including it, just to forestall the questioning e-mails that were sure to follow its omission.
5. Astros acquire LHP Randy Johnson from the Seattle Mariners for RHP Freddy Garcia, INF Carlos Guillen, and a PTBNL (LHP John Halama), July 31, 1998.
Johnson WARP for Astros: 5.1
Made the playoffs? Yes.
Johnson made 11 starts for the Astros, going 10-1 with an ERA of 1.28. He pitched four shutouts, allowed 57 hits in 84 1/3 innings, and struck out 116… and then promptly left as a free agent. The Astros led the NL Central by 3½ games over the Cubs at the time of the deal, but with Johnson in the fold they finished at 102-60, 12½ games ahead.
As an underpowered, somewhat impatient corner outfielder, Winn is normally far from a great player, but there was nothing normal about his first 58 games with the Giants. He muscled up and hit 14 home runs in 231 at-bats, a far better rate than he would show at any other time in his career. Overall he hit .359/.391/.680 as a Giant, but it wasn't enough to boost a thoroughly mediocre team out of third place.
Future Hall of Famer Grimes was 36 years old and struggling badly with a very poor Braves team when the Cardinals swapped two veterans to pick him up. Just 3-5 with a nightmarish 7.35 ERA at the time of the deal, Ol' Stubblebeard made 19 starts for Branch Rickey's Cardinals, going 13-6 with a 3.01 ERA, an impressive rate given the pinball nature of the offense that season—the league ERA was 4.97, the number of runs scored per game nearly six. Grimes helped kick off an extraordinary comeback in St. Louis. The Cards were 26-28, in fourth place, 8½ games behind the Dodgers at the time of the deal. They went 66-34 the rest of the way to take the pennant by two games.
2. Cardinals acquire OF Lou Brock, LHP Jack Spring, and RHP Paul Toth from the Chicago Cubs for RHP Ernie Broglio, LHP Bobby Shantz, and OF Doug Clemens, June 15, 1964.
Brock WARP for Cardinals: 6.6
Made the playoffs? Yes.
A deal that was covered at great length in It Ain't Over, and one of most infamous (or celebrated) deals of all time, Brock was a third-year major leaguer who had looked like nothing special in two and a half seasons of full-time play with the Cubs. The Cubs gave up a future Hall of Famer for a small return, but with the exception of the immediate post-acquisition period covered here, Brock was rarely great, but varied between just decent and pretty good. He was never better than he was in 103 post-acquisition games for the Cardinals, batting .348/.387/.527 and driving the team from eighth place with a record of 28-31 and a deficit of seven games to first place with a final record of 93-69, good for a one-game lead in the craziest pennant race in history.
The Braves were leading the NL by 1½ games when they swapped for Schoendienst, considered the league's best offensive-defensive combination at the keystone. O'Connell, the player he replaced, was a decent glove but not much with the stick. The Braves' offense got a little deeper, their defense a little better, and the difference, along with the boost supplied by late-season hurricane Bob Hazle, was enough to boost them to runaway status.