In his first game for Philadelphia on Saturday, Hunter Pence received a standing ovation from fans hopeful that his arrival from the Houston Astros represents the final piece of the Phillies' nearly finished championship puzzle. Pence had an RBI single in his debut that day, while Ryan Howard, hitting just in front of him, took full advantage of the new batting-order protection with four hits, including a home run and two doubles.
That same day in Chicago, the Red Sox's Adrian Gonzalez, the centerpiece of the best team in the American League, collected three hits, including a home run, in Boston's 10-2 win over the White Sox. Gonzalez, in his first season with the Red Sox after a December trade from the Padres, is all but running away with the AL Most Valuable Player award. A day later, Boston traded for an extra pitcher for the stretch run, Erik Bedard.
As August begins, the superpowers of both leagues -- Philadelphia in the National, Boston and New York in the American -- are content and muscular, ready to claim their accustomed places in the playoffs come October. The Yankees didn't deal before Sunday's trade deadline, but along with the Phillies and the Red Sox, they remain in position to do so -- they always are, every season -- with a waiver deal during the next few weeks as pennant races heat up.
The future for those teams is judged not in years but in the weeks leading up to the World Series.
But the story in parts of the baseball world outside of Interstate 95 is quite different. The also-rans of the league in places such as San Diego and Houston (and, at least in recent years, Cleveland) are trying to sell the vague idea of a long-term future to their fans by trading big-name, big-talent players for "prospects." They are not acquiring big league talent or spending money to make up for the loss of their stars, yet they expect the fans to support an empty product.
"Prospects" has become baseball's euphemism for the white flag.
In Houston, Pence is gone, traded by general manager Ed Wade to a team already a title favorite for a handful of prospects who might as well be magic beans. He did not acquire a big leaguer in the deal. Maybe Jarred Cosart, Jonathan Singleton and Josh Zeid will be good players; maybe they won't. But the Phillies gained a proven commodity in Pence without having to relinquish one -- or even Domonic Brown, a top young, promising player who already has played 89 games in the majors.
In San Diego, hope is supposed to be found in the highly touted minor league prospects acquired from the Red Sox for Gonzalez. But in the here and now, Boston and Gonzalez are speeding toward a pennant while the hapless, last-place Padres hitchhike the road to nowhere.
Exceptions to the outcomes of these stars-for-prospects trades do exist, and those aberrations become world-famous sentence fragments. Jeff Bagwell for Larry Andersen. John Smoltz for Doyle Alexander. For the low markets, steals like that are the holy grail of deadline deals. But in reality, most of them amount to little more than a Hail Mary. The Astros' finding Bagwell and the Braves' acquiring Smoltz are remembered because they virtually never happen.
Selling the future to fans through minor league prospects is perhaps the biggest scam in baseball. It is the easiest way for front offices to shed payroll, avoid accountability and produce the illusion that bigger and better things are just around the corner. Hope is a great commodity, but it should be real if it's going to be peddled. Here, instead, is what happens when top-level, big league players get traded for prospects: The team receiving the better player wins. The team receiving the prospects asks its fans to wait, and that isn't a fair request.
In 2007, the Indians were a game away from the World Series -- they lost a seven-game ALCS to Boston. The next season, Cleveland traded CC Sabathia to Milwaukee for prospects in July. And the next year, the Indians dealt Cliff Lee (who was under contract for two more years) and Ben Francisco to Philadelphia for more prospects -- a total of eight minor league players for two of the top five pitchers in baseball.
The 2008 Brewers, meanwhile, went to the playoffs largely on the strength of the great Sabathia, who went 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA for Milwaukee after the trade. And in 2009, the Phillies went to the World Series with Lee, who was 4-0 in the postseason and was the winning pitcher in both of Philadelphia's World Series victories in the six-game loss to the Yankees. Of the eight prospects Cleveland received in return for Sabathia and Lee, two (Zach Jackson and Matt LaPorta) were first-round draft picks, one (Jason Knapp) was a second-rounder and two (Jason Donald and Lou Marson) were third-round picks. Nice pedigrees, all, but none has amounted to anything special in the majors yet.
Jackson is 26 years old, has appeared in three games and has posted a 9.35 ERA. He is 2-3 with a 6.11 ERA in his career with the Indians. Rob Bryson, who was also part of the Sabathia deal, has yet to reach Triple-A.
The best player of the deal thus far is seventh-round pick Michael Brantley. The Indians are in contention this year in a lackluster AL Central Division despite struggling to stay above .500, but with the exception of Brantley (.273 with 41 RBIs as the starting left fielder), none of the players in either deal has been a big reason for whatever success they're having. (To the Indians' credit, they made a trade-deadline deal this past weekend from the other end of the spectrum, acquiring a major league pitcher -- Ubaldo Jimenez -- in exchange for prospects.)
In San Diego, one of the great robberies (an inside job, really) in recent baseball history took place in the Gonzalez deal this past offseason. The Padres, who missed the playoffs on the last day of the 2010 season, dealt their best player to the Red Sox even though he was under contract for another year. Instead of selling their fans in 2011 on the optimism of 2010's great 90-win season, playoff appearances in 2005 and 2006 and a thrilling one-game playoff in 2007, San Diego folded, giving Gonzalez to the Red Sox for first-round picks Casey Kelly (a pitcher) and Reymond Fuentes (an outfielder), along with Anthony Rizzo, a first baseman. Remember, the Padres were an afternoon away from the playoffs, then traded their best player and received nothing in return to help them win this season or probably next. Rizzo has appeared in 35 games for San Diego this season, and he's hitting .143.
The Red Sox didn't part with any of their big league players in the deal. Not Jacoby Ellsbury, not Clay Buchholz, not Josh Reddick. Both Kelly and Fuentes have potential -- Kelly is 21, Fuentes is 20 -- but neither is yet in Triple-A. Much space exists between Class A Lake Elsinore and Petco Park.
So as the Red Sox win, the Padres sold their fans a future that is at best cloudy and at worst illusory. Each day the Red Sox benefit from Gonzalez while the Padres wait for Kelly and Fuentes to reach the big leagues underscores the need for San Diego's front office to have acquired big league talent that, at least, would have sent the message to fans that every year is next year.
With free agency making it more difficult for smaller-market teams to re-sign their players, the old concept of a five-year plan is dead. Even if Kelly and Fuentes reach their potential in San Diego, simple economics likely will keep a low-payroll team such as the Padres from retaining them.
The better models for the small markets is Oakland or Tampa Bay, who get as much value as they can from star players while they have them. The Rays knew for two years that they were not going to re-sign Carl Crawford or Matt Garza, and they assumed Rafael Soriano would not return. But instead of holding a fire sale, Tampa Bay made the playoffs with them and readjusted when they were gone.
Oakland general manager Billy Beane takes a lot of heat. He has been the sole GM of the A's since 1998 and is one of the best thinkers in the game, but he receives outsized amounts of credit while other small-market teams outperform his. The A's have won exactly one playoff series, in 2006 against Minnesota, in his tenure. But Beane has never tried to sell the lie of shedding his best players at the deadline for prospects. The A's will routinely not re-sign players but will benefit from the value of having a player expected to leave -- Jason Giambi in 2001, Miguel Tejada in 2003, Barry Zito in 2006 -- perform for them, then be satisfied with the compensatory draft pick once the player leaves via free agency.
There is also a sensible middle ground for trading Hall of Fame-caliber and A-list players. It's called competence. In 1998, Seattle traded Randy Johnson to Houston for Carlos Guillen, Freddy Garcia and John Halama. Garcia went 76-50 for the Mariners, winning 18 games when Seattle won 116 in 2001. Guillen had injury problems with Seattle but became a very good player later in his career. The Mariners' general manager at the time was Pat Gillick, who was just inducted into the Hall of Fame.
In 2007, Jon Daniels traded Mark Teixeira to Atlanta in a deal for four prospects. Two of them -- Neftali Feliz and Elvis Andrus -- are core members of a pennant-winning club; a third, Matt Harrison, has been in the big leagues since the deal and is showing real promise.
In the end, the real story is a version of Moneyball -- as well as a lesson in accountability. Teams are going to lose players they cannot afford, but that doesn't mean management should be allowed to leave fans with nothing but hope at the big league level. Trading players the caliber of Gonzalez for prospects could not be more transparent. The Astros may yet be vindicated by the Pence deal, but the Indians proved by trading Lee and Sabathia that receiving prospects can mean little.
The Padres might be the worst offenders, just as they were years ago when they traded Fred McGriff to the Braves for nothing, giving Atlanta the 1993 NL West title. San Diego's front office quit on fans then as it did in December, offering them the amorphous concept of hope in lieu of spending and acquiring big league players, and it shows. The Padres are in last place in the NL West and 12th in the NL in attendance. They aren't fooling anyone.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42.