On July 28, 1995, the Toronto Blue Jays were 35-47, in last place in the AL East by four games, and 10.5 back of the first-place Red Sox. This was a shame as they had sent three young players to the Kansas City Royals for David Cone just before the season started. Cone was pitching well — a 3.38 ERA over 130.1 innings — but that wasn’t nearly enough. Beyond John Olerud, Roberto Alomar, and a budding star named Shawn Green, they didn’t have much of an offense. While Cone and Al Leiter anchored the pitching staff, presumptive ace Pat Hentgen was having a horrible year (5.11 ERA in ’95, which he followed up with a Cy Young in ’96). So on July 28, the Jays traded Cone to the Yankees for Jason Jarvis, Mike Gordon, and Marty Janzen.
I’ve often heard people say that deals like that don’t happen any more. Three nobodies for a pitcher like David Cone? Fat chance, right? Well, maybe not. Janzen, after all, ranked #40 on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects in 1996, so he wasn’t exactly a schmuck throw-in. He was actually a pretty good prospect who struck out about a batter per inning in the minors while keeping his walks very low. No, he never made it in the majors, but that’s the path trodden by many a prospect. So the Yankees didn’t give up nothing for David Cone. They traded a pretty good prospect, good enough to land fairly high on BA’s list the next year.
How does that compare to other memorable pitcher trades? RABer The Artist, writing as Steve S. at The Yankee Universe, takes a look back at seven recent pitcher trades and what the receiving team sacrificed in the process. In concluding, he notes that “the framework of a deal seems to include one top flight minor leaguer, surrounded by filler of various levels of floors and ceilings.” That seems to be what the Yanks gave up for Cone.
The most comparable trade on Steve’s list is the Tim Hudson trade. The A’s held a $6.5 million 2005 club option on Hudson. They exercised it and then dished him to the Braves for Juan Cruz, Dan Meyer, and Charles Thomas. It’s got the top flight minor leaguer in Meyer, plus the unknowns in Cruz and Thomas. Cruz had already bounced from Chicago to Atlanta, and was known for his velocity and inconsistency. Thomas was a decent prospect who had had a big season in AAA in 2004. The Braves turned that into Hudson, much like the Yankees took the high-ceiling Janzen, plus a few unknowns, and turned it into Cone.
While I disagree with some of the analysis (Brett Anderson was most certainly one of the centerpieces to the Haren trade, not Dana Eveland), Steve gives a good look at some recent deals. It seems the deals were split in terms of who won: the team receiving the pitcher or the team receiving the prospects. There were, however, a few landslides.
Unfortunately, this list doesn’t provide a ton of perspective for this year’s trade deadline. All the but one were in the off-season. Moreover, all of them involved pitchers 29 years of age or younger, while this year’s big names, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay, are both on the other side of 30. The biggest difference, though, is the timing. Only the CC Sabathia trade came at the deadline. Both of this year’s names are a bit more attractive, because their contracts not only cover this year’s pennant rate, but also carry over to next year.
This doesn’t mean that Lee and Halladay will necessarily stay put. It does mean, though, that Mark Shapiro in Cleveland and J.P. Ricciardi in Toronto are right to demand top-tier talent for their pitchers. Unlike six of the seven deals Steve mentioned, these pitchers provide help down the stretch. Beyond that, they fill a rotation spot next year for the receiving team. That’s highly valuable, and Toronto and Cleveland should demand an equitable return.
Then again, once the deadline passes (there’s little chance either Lee or Halladay makes it through waivers), that added value is wasted. Neither pitcher will help their own team down the stretch as they could have helped another. In the off-season, teams obviously aren’t going to pay as much as they would now, since they only get one season out of the pitcher, rather than a crucial two months, plus the playoffs, on top of the one season.
There is still a wild card here, though. Heading into this season, most teams were tapped on payroll. Just a few could afford to add dollars. This affects deadline trading, because many potential trading partners just can’t afford to take on salary this year (though I’m sure most teams could find room for the remainder of Lee’s $5.75 2009 salary). Once we hit the off-season and teams shed some contracts, perhaps the Blue Jays and Indians will have more potential trading partners, creating more competition and therefore getting a better package of prospects than they would have received at the deadline.
We may see a pitcher dealt before the deadline, but it’s not a given. While pundits preach that the Blue Jays will never get more for Halladay than they will right now, they forget that only a small number of teams can even afford Roy. Opening up the bidding to more teams in the off-season, when teams will have more free payroll, could yield a larger return. So while we’ve seen prospects for pitcher deals work out in the past, don’t expect a team to gamble on one now.