This Cliff Lee trade is inevitable. I know it, you know it, even my esteemed colleague knows it. So, I think it’s worth examining whether these deals for mid-season rentals actually work out. And what better way to do that than look at the teams that actually played in the World Series over the past decade? After all, the chance to win a championship is the only reason to give up the farm for half a season of somebody like Clifford. Since I am only interested in mid-season rentals, I excluded deals made for players with more than one year remaining on their contracts (though I was quite generous with the definition of “mid-season” to mean “any point during the regular season”, not just the trading deadline). For example, I didn’t include the Phillies’ acquisition of Lee at the deadline last year, as he was locked up through the end of this season and technically wasn’t a rental. I also didn’t count players who were acquired at the deadline and then released after the season (like Aaron Boone in 2003). Find out who did what with whom after the jump.
(Sorry, I know my chart is difficult to see. Just click on the image for a larger view)
Now, one of the problems with my methodology is that it makes it seem like these teams were much more conservative at the trading deadline than they actually were. The Phillies, for example, have been quite active at the deadline the past couple of seasons, acquiring Cliff Lee and Ben Francisco in 2009, as well as Joe Blanton, Eric Bruntlett, and Matt Stairs in 2008. This is pretty typical of the moves the World Series teams have made during the regular season in the past ten years. If they do make a big splash, it’s generally for a player who will help the team for more than half of the season. And if they do make deals for a mid-season rental it is typically for relief help or to add depth to the lineup in preparation for a deep postseason run, rather than an ace or high-priced superstar. And that makes sense, since the truly elite teams don’t need a ton of help in the first place, and can afford to hang onto valued prospects if they deem the price for a particular player too high. Most of the championship contenders made their biggest moves during the offseason, either through smart trades (like the 2008 Rays) or signing free agents (like every Yankee team ever). The 2009 Yankees, for example, traded for Nick Swisher during the offseason in addition to signing C. C. Sabathia, A. J. Burnett, and Mark Teixeira, and only added Hairston and Hinske at the deadline as bench players. I don’t think anyone would argue that it was the Yanks’ mid-season rentals that put them over the top.
Of course, there are a few notable exceptions. The 2004 Red Sox pulled off a blockbuster 4-team deal with the Cubs, Expos, and Twins that netted Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientiewicz, sending Nomar Garciaparra and Matt Murton to the Cubs (whoo boy did the Twins get screwed in that deal, good thing it had almost no bearing on the outcome of the regular season). The 2006 Cardinals made significant moves to improve their team at the deadline as well, trading for Ronnie Belliard, Jorge Sosa, and Jeff Weaver. However, that Cardinals team was so weak that they really needed to pull off a major trade just to stay in contention*, and I doubt Cardinals nation is losing sleep over trading away the likes of Hector Luna, Rich Scalamandre, and Terry Evans. And the 2003 Marlins famously sent Adrian Gonzalez and a couple of other guys to the Rangers for Ugueth Urbina. The Marlins, of course, haven’t sniffed the postseason since 2003, compiling a perfectly average .500 record in that time. The loss of Gonzalez probably hasn’t hurt the Marlins nearly as much as being sold to the worst owner in all of sports, though.
*How in the heck did this team nearly sweep the Tigers out of the World Series?
Whenever superstar players get dealt as rentals at the trading deadline, it is typically to teams that are, shall we say, not quite as elite. These are teams that are good enough to win their (usually weak) division, but have gigantic holes and often mistakenly believe that this one player is the missing piece to put them over the top. The 2008 Milwaukee Brewers are a case in point. They had a very good offense (worth 21.0 rWAR), but their starting rotation left something to be desired. So they dealt for C. C. Sabathia, and well, you know the rest of the story. Captain Cheeseburger helped propel them to a division title, but the rest of their rotation (and bullpen) was a mess and they were easily eliminated in the NLDS by the Phillies. I don’t think the loss of Matt LaPorta is going to hurt the Brew Crew too much, as a lack of offense still is not one of their biggest problems, but perhaps he could have been used as a trade chip to find a long-term solution to their starting pitching problem. And while the Brewers did snag some draft picks when C. C. signed with the Yankees, those picks were essentially worthless because the Yanks signed a boatload of Type A free agents that year (they ended up with the 47th overall pick in the first round and the 73rd overall pick in the second round).
So where does this leave the Twins regarding Cliff Lee? Well, the good news is that the Twins are still one of the league’s elite teams, even though they haven’t really been playing like it lately. Despite the recent rash of rough outings, the starting rotation still ranks among the best in all of baseball. Dealing for Lee probably won’t hurt as long as Seattle’s asking price isn’t too high, but standing pat probably isn’t going to kill them, either. One player, no matter how good he is, doesn’t generally have that much of an impact on a team’s postseason fortunes, and the Twins’ brass would be wise to avoid overpaying for Lee.