Trading big-name pitchers doesn’t always work out

Pondering Wang's — and the Yanks' — future
Tickets available for Friday's game

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.

Pondering Wang's — and the Yanks' — future
Tickets available for Friday's game
  • Tank Foster

    Interesting post. I assumed he was so good that some team would feel as if they had to have him, and wouldn’t let the opportunity pass. But you make a good point that he’s expensive and teams may not be willing to part with the number of high quality prospects needed to acquire him. ESPN Magazine had a story on how baseball executives are adopting ‘youth movements’ all over the league. Maybe Halladay isn’t going to get the interest we all expect.

  • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

    I kinda want Seattle to keep winning so they don’t put Bedard or Washburn on the market. Thus, driving the price up on Halladay and Lee, since there’s less supply and more demand.

  • Andy in Sunny Daytona

    If Boston would only trade Penny for a “Smoak” like bat, just imagine what they can get for future HOFer John Smoltz. I would think that a Matt Weiters or Jason Heyward would be in order.

    • whozat


      For that caliber player, the O’s would have to trade Adam Jones to ATL to GET Jason Heyward so that they can package him with Weiters.

      Then again, maybe the Sox should just keep their enviable depth. I mean, Matsuzaka, Penny and Smoltz? Those guys are all locks to be strong contributors.

    • Thomas

      I’ve heard that Epstein had to block Larry Beinfest’s phone calls, because he is sick of Beinfest constantly offering him Hanley Ramirez and cash for Smoltz. Theo said, “Why would I trade my fifth starter for a player that couldn’t even start for my team?”

    • Paul

      Paul also in sunny Daytona: Theo Epstein scars me, much slicker then Cashman. If Boston gets a big time hitter we are in for a war. I don’t see Cash making any move if the team stay consistent.

    • Tampa Yankee

      From ESoxPNation and Gammons:

      “As good and deep as the Red Sox pitching is right now, their offense is taking on water. They are third in the AL East in runs scored and OPS, behind the Yankees and Rays. More disturbing, the Red Sox’s team OPS has gone down every month this season. Their on-base percentage out of the leadoff spot is an abymal (it’s abySmal – nice editing Peter!) .309, which, coupled with .309 out of the ninth spot, kills them in front of Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis. The fact that Jason Bay is hitting .214 since the start of June hasn’t helped, not with the added pressure his agent has incurred by asking for a Teixeira-like deal.

      Mike Lowell and David Ortiz play their souls out, but Lowell’s hip restricts his speed. So Boston probably has to get a bat before the July 31 trade deadline passes. A’s GM Billy Beane will move Matt Holliday (he’s pushing hard for a trade involving Orlando Cabrera in order to get Cliff Pennington up and playing shortstop for Oakland), but he may not be a fit for Boston unless Bay were to leave as a free agent. Nick Johnson is available, but is also a health risk. Rios and Victor Martinez are discussion points for several teams, as is Jorge Cantu. Considering Boston’s young pitching and the Padres’ lack of it (although 21-year-old right-hander Mat Latos threw 96 mph Sunday), a multi-prospect deal for Adrian Gonzalez makes sense for both teams. The Padres’ ownership is worried about the public perception if the team were to trade away Gonzalez. Fans? What fans?”

      Are you kidding me? When then why not trade Clay Buchholz, Josh Bard, Lars Anderson (1B), John Smoltz and Brad Penny to the Card for Pujols and Carpenter!11!!11! Brilliant!!11!!1!

      • Tampa Yankee

        Sorry… Daniel not Josh Bard

        • Andy Stankiewicz

          Not to sound like a cold hearted asshole BUT maybe the stroke that Peter Gammons had a couple of years ago really did some serious damage to his brain. From the Red Sox getting a “Smoak” type bat for that lard ass Penny to a multi-prospect deal for Adrian Gonzalez makes sense for both teams. I do not want to even get into Gammon’s “Brokeback Mountain” feelings for the one and only Daniel Bard. FU Gammons and FU ESPN.
          OK my breaks over, now I feel like smacking my boss because he looks like Gammons.

      • The Honorable Congressman Mondesi

        What a fucking joke. Beyond the part you emphasized (Of course it makes sense for the Padres to trade Adrian Gonzalez to Boston… It would almost be like Boston was doing San Diego a favor!), I vomited in my mouth a little bit when I read this:

        “The fact that Jason Bay is hitting .214 since the start of June hasn’t helped, not with the added pressure his agent has incurred by asking for a Teixeira-like deal.”

        Peter, Peter, Peter… Come on, now. You can at least try to act like you’re not just a mouthpiece for the Boston F.O., can’t you?

        • Tampa Yankee

          I’ve lost a lot of respect for Gammons over the past couple years. I remember meeting him in front of what was then Legends Field at the time, the day after the Yanks got ARod and he seemed like a great guy but honestly, he really does just sound like a Sawx homer now.

          • Thomas

            It’s weird, I see Gammons like this: he was unbiased until the Red Sox won the World Series and now suddenly he is a huge homer. I realize he was always a Sox fan, but he didn’t start wearing it on his sleeve until they won it all, like a lot of Sox fans.

            • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

              I like how he went out of his way to not bash his boy Taco Bellsbury by saying just that the Sox “leadoff hitter” is struggling.

              Because he doesn’t have a name, you know.

      • Reggie C.

        Is this Gammons article really so grievous?

        He doesnt specify which RS prospects would go in an Adrian Gonzalez package. Sure Gammons comes off as a pompous ass at the end of the piece, but its not like he that Towers should grab at a Bowden & Bard package. Gammons has GOT to know full well that if Adrian Gonzalez were available , it’d cost HIS farm a MINIMUM of Buchholz, Lars Anderson, and D. Bard.

        • Mike HC

          Im with you Reggie. Gammons gets a horrible deal around here. The guy is a stroke survivor and is ancient. should he be retired, yes? Does he deserve to be ripped apart here? no. He thinks the Sox getting Adrian Gonzalez is good deal. What is the big deal there? ESPN has so many garbage writers, why not allow gammons to contribute to the website if that is what he wants.

          • deadrody

            Whatever! He’s a stroke survivor ? Yippee for him. Either it affects his work or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, its not an issue, if it does he should be retired.

            Nothing like people apologizing for others. We’re all big boys, I think we can take the heat over our criticism of the President and Treasurer of RS Nation without you apologizing for us.

            • Mike HC

              I didn’t apologize for you. I’m just saying I don’t think Gammons deserves the criticism.

            • Reggie C.

              Neither Mike HC or myself is doing Peter Gammons any favors by saying that this post’s content is innocuous. Gammons points out the obvious: Bay’s slumping, bad OBP from the top of the lineup, guys not hitting in general … yadayada. Yet, Gammons doesn’t offer any real solution beyond spouting the very obvious “Get Adrian Gonzalez” plan. I’m not even sure Gammons believes its possible since he doesnt bother naming any prospects specifically.

              Aside from a poor ending to Gammons’s post, it just comes off as another very obvious, lacking any inside-information piece of writing. I’m not going to rip Gammons for that…

  • JohnnyC

    Does anyone with a modicum of objectivity actually respect Gammons anymore? His columns are Red Sox f.o. propaganda sandwiches: a misleading opening paragraph or two on a current topic followed by several paragraphs on the Red Sox’s current obsession or agenda and concluding with a cursory summing up of the misleading opening. Hall of Fame wing be damned.

  • OmgZombies!

    Victor Zambrano for Scott Kazmir

    Even though it exactly a “big name pitcher” getting traded.

    But it was a win now kind of mentality displayed by the Mets which hurt them and still is.

  • Tank Foster

    Gammons comes off as a Boston shill, but he still gets great inside information and for that reason I enjoy reading him. You just have to roll up your pants before wading in.

    I guess my sense that Boston was playing above their ability is substantiated a bit by these comments on their offense. I thought Ortiz was offsetting some of their problems by improving in the last couple of months, but I had no idea Bay has been slumping so badly. Youkilis also cannot be on fire, as he was hitting almost .400 into May and is now at or below .300.

    What Boston needs is someone like Raul Mondesi.

    • The Honorable Congressman Mondesi

      Yeah, but you could really say that about Boston and 29 other MLB teams, couldn’t you?

      • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

        Raul Mondesi stabbed a pie.

        • The Honorable Congressman Mondesi

          Biggs: You see! It’s never “Hey! You’re that guy from Loser” or “Hey you rocked in Boys and Girls.” No, it always comes back to that fucking pie! I’m HAUNTED by it!

          Van Der Beek: You put your dick in a pie!

          • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

            HOLY SHIT YOU’RE THE DAWSON!!!!!!!

  • Mike HC

    I really enjoyed that post. I think you are dead on, which is why Halladay won’t be traded until the offseason or next years trade deadline. Teams like the Yanks, Sox, Phillies or whoever else is in the race will probably offer very similar packages in a year as they will/did this year. The Blue Jays should keep Halladay for another year, and trade him for a similar package of prospects then. I don’t think one extra pennant race is worth a second top prospect. Teams seem to agree with me.

  • deadrody

    For me, I would actually recommend the Yankees consider Cliff Lee. He won’t cost as much in prospects or salary, hopefully to the extent that it wouldn’t be a tragedy if they didn’t resign him after 2010, AND he’s a lefty. With how homer friendly the new stadium is, that alone makes him attractive.

    Then again, he isn’t exactly the same guy that won the Cy Young last year either, although he has been improving in June and July.

    • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

      …I would actually recommend the Yankees consider Cliff Lee. He won’t cost as much in prospects…

      According to whom? The fact that his salary is cheap actually increases his cost in prospects, because there’s a wider array of teams that could take on his contract (more demand).

      I have no reason to believe that Cliff Lee is going to come any cheaper than Roy Halladay.

    • Matt ACTY/BBD

      The highest I’d go for Lee is Z-Mac. I wouldn’t even think about giving up Joba, Hughes, Jackson, or Montero for Cliff Lee.

      • Reggie C.

        I’d give up Austin Jackson. Not the other 3 names however.

        Essentially i’d put a prospect package: A-Jax, Z-Mac, Melancon, & Betances. CLiff Lee is pretty damn good.

  • The Artist

    Thanks for the link Joe!