Was there really a time when we debated whether Greg Maddux could be an asset for a contender? Why didn't we just ask if the earth was round, if poker was on television and if Will Ferrell had a movie in production?
Sure, the guy was 4-11 with a 5.77 ERA for a stretch of 17 starts in the middle of the season. Sure, he turned 40 in the middle of this run of beyond-his-prime pitching. But this was Greg Maddux.
Man, sometimes it's not that tough.
Maddux never once stopped trying to wring every ounce of ability out of his body. He competed just as hard with the Chicago Cubs' season going down the tubes as he did when he contributed to 10 consecutive division titles in Atlanta. And look at him now.
More to the point, look at the team that had enough faith in him to pull off a trade just before the July 31 deadline.
Maddux has helped carry the Los Angeles Dodgers from last place in the National League West to first, and now the question is this: How could the Cubs have let him go without at least seeing whether a one-year contract extension would keep him in Chicago for another season?
Cubs GM Jim Hendry let it be known that he wouldn't just give Maddux away because his team had done a little 18-40 act of hara-kiri while Derrek Lee was on the disabled list. Hendry didn't want his name associated with the dumping of a Hall of Famer. He said he would keep Maddux if he didn't get an elite prospect or big-league player for him.
Dodgers GM Ned Colletti pulled off the trade by offering shortstop Cesar Izturis, the 2005 All-Star who had become expendable when Colletti outbid Hendry -- ouch -- for Rafael Furcal. Now it appears Hendry can watch Maddux and Furcal (along with another discarded Cub, Nomar Garciaparra) in the NL playoffs.
Maddux-for-Izturis was a solid deal for the Cubs, assuming they didn't want to re-sign Maddux. They may wish they had done that if Doggy follows his 2006 renaissance with an encore in 2007, maybe even '08.
Never count Maddux out.
Colletti, who had been an assistant GM in Chicago at the start of Maddux's career, is glad he didn't. Maddux (3-1 with a 3.32 ERA in seven starts) joined rookie Chad Billingsley, Derek Lowe and relievers Takashi Saito and Jonathan Broxton in carrying the Dodgers to a 21-7 record in August. They continued winning in September, and since the July 31 trade had climbed from five games behind San Diego to two ahead, while also leapfrogging San Francisco, Colorado and Arizona.
Here's the kind of guy Maddux is. On the night he picked up his 330th career victory (and also his 80th career RBI), he tried to deflect the credit to Furcal and the other fielders who played behind him. "They catch the ball as well as any team in baseball,'' he said.
What's not to like about Greg Maddux? Getting him was a great move for Colletti and the Dodgers.
Here's a look at the handful of deadline trades that have had an impact anywhere near what Maddux has meant to the Dodgers:
2. Bobby Abreu and Cory Lidle to the Yankees from Philadelphia for four minor leaguers
It's easy to dismiss the work of GM Brian Cashman, saying he merely used George Steinbrenner's resources to buy Abreu and Lidle. That's what Boston GM Theo Epstein did. But in the era of Cashman and manager Joe Torre, the Yankees have been about a lot more than Steinbrenner's resources.
Credit Cashman for having the patience to ride out two full months playing without both Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui, the latter of whom should be back soon. Had Cashman and Torre not bought time by playing Melky Cabrera, Bernie Williams, Aaron Guiel and others, Abreu wouldn't have been available, at least not without having to sacrifice Scott Proctor or another good young pitcher.
While other GMs wondered what happened to Abreu's power, Cashman focused on reports from his scouts that said Abreu was working pitchers just as hard as he ever had. He is an excellent hitter, as he showed with a .374 batting average and .465 on-base percentage in his first 34 games in pinstripes. In October, he could be the difference between winning or losing two or three games, which could be the difference between getting to the World Series or falling short.
Oh yeah, and Lidle he's been valuable too. He's not a pitcher with electric stuff, but he won his last four starts with the Phillies and has gone 3-2 with a 3.38 ERA in his first six starts for the Yankees.
At the deadline, the key for Cashman was to add reinforcements who would help hold off Boston. Abreu and Lidle have done more than that, taking a team that was playing .594 baseball at the deadline and improving it to .603.
3. Mike MacDougal to the White Sox from the Royals for minor league pitchers Tyler Lumsden and Daniel Cortes
You never quite know what Ken Williams has up his sleeves. But most of his moves the last two years have paid dividends, and this one is no different.
With the White Sox falling behind Detroit and into an ugly pile of wild-card contenders, Williams was under pressure to make a big move. His team had no major holes, but that didn't stop some from expecting a big move, along the lines of Abreu or Miguel Tejada. Williams stayed focused and correctly identified a patchwork bullpen as his major concern.
Along with left-hander Scott Thornton, who was added in a deal at the end of spring training, MacDougal (1-1, 1.37 ERA in 19 2/3 innings) has solidified a bullpen that is missing Cliff Politte, Dustin Hermanson, Luis Vizcaino and Damaso Marte since the World Series.
In closer Bobby Jenks, MacDougal and Thornton, manager Ozzie Guillen has a late-inning corps that fits the mold of Lou Piniella's "Nasty Boys" from the 1990 Reds. All three throw in the high-90s and have at least one quality breaking pitch. Don't look for great turnover after this season. These guys could be set for years.
4. Bob Wickman to the Braves from the Indians for Class A catcher Maximiliano Ramirez
While Atlanta's streak of consecutive division titles is toast, the Braves have hung around in the wild-card mix. They wouldn't have done it without Wickman, who had quietly gone 11-for-11 in save situations before having a loss hung on him by the Phillies Sunday.
5. Kyle Lohse to the Reds from the Twins for Class A right-hander Zach Ward
You've got to figure Wayne Krivsky is going to be worn out when this season finally ends. Cincinnati's rookie GM has been in overdrive all season, making the best trade of the season at the end of spring training, when he got Bronson Arroyo from Boston, and then eight more after June 15. You're going to get mixed results with a pattern like this.
Lohse, in the doghouse in Minnesota, has been the best of the late acquisitions that have helped keep the Reds alive in the wild-card race while mounting a threat to fading St. Louis in the NL Central. He averaged more than six innings in his first five starts, compiling a 2.78 ERA.
In Arroyo and Lohse, Krivsky provides a lesson for his fellow NL executives -- if you have a chance to add a pitcher who has had any success in the American League, get him.
Five headbanger deals
1. Gary Majewski, Bill Bray, Royce Clayton, Brendan Harris and minor league right-hander Daryl Thompson to the Reds from Washington for Austin Kearns, Felipe Lopez and Ryan Wagner
Perhaps Bray and Majewski will help Cincinnati have a strong bullpen in 2007, but their '06 contributions hardly justify dealing Kearns and Lopez.
Krivsky was making a statement about his willingness to address needs when he orchestrated this eight-player trade with the Nationals. A leaky bullpen was keeping the Reds from contending, and Krivsky was willing to do what he could to fix it. That's admirable. But when you deal proven guys like Lopez and Kearns, you need results.
Neither the left-handed Bray, a former first-round pick, nor the right-handed Majewski, who pitched for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, has been a consistent contributor. Krivsky dealt for Majewski knowing he had been used heavily by Nationals manager Frank Robinson in the first half of the season, but it wasn't revealed that he had needed a cortisone shot in his shoulder shortly before the All-Star break and the trade.
Majewski said his shoulder had bothered him since spring training and spent most of August on the disabled list. This left Krivsky and the Reds steaming. They got the momentary bump from showing management's aggressiveness in pursuing a playoff spot, but they should have done better if they were going to deal Kearns and Lopez.
2. Carlos Lee and Nelson Cruz to the Rangers from the Brewers for Francisco Cordero, Kevin Mench, Laynce Nix and Class A left-hander Julian Cordero
There's this stupid tendency in Texas that says, "When in doubt, add offense." Maybe it goes to this being football country, where local icons don't get any bigger than the skill players who move the ball -- Roger Staubach, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Tony Dorsett, Michael Irvin, even Jay Novacek for goodness' sake. But wherever this heritage came from, rookie GM Jon Daniels has bought into it.
Daniels' two biggest trades failed to address the reason his organization always falls short -- a lack of pitching. He somehow moved Alfonso Soriano in a free-agent year -- with Texas coaches predicting a huge season -- without getting pitching, then went for a replacement slugger (Lee) at the deadline. The one starter Daniels did add, Kip Wells, lasted two starts before going out for the season with shoulder and foot injuries.
Lee has hit well with the Rangers, but his addition didn't make the team any better. The Rangers were 51-51 at the time of the trade and entered this week 20-17 since the trade. Now Daniels is in the uncomfortable position of choosing between probably overpaying Lee in the offseason or losing him to free agency for draft picks.
3. Todd Walker to the Padres from the Cubs for Class A right-hander Jose Ceda
Having released good-field, no-hit veteran Vinny Castilla earlier, San Diego GM Kevin Towers went in search of a third baseman. Somehow he wound up with Walker, a good-hit, no-field second baseman who was given on-the-job training at third.
The results haven't been pretty. You can't hang it all on Walker's play at third base, but the Padres tumbled out of contention for the NL West and into the mob of teams battling for the wild card.
4. Jeff Weaver to the Cardinals from the Angels for Double-A outfielder Terry Evans
This is a trade that Daniels and the other GMs who didn't get pitching can point to as proof that there just wasn't much available.
With Mark Mulder injured and the starting rotation in crisis, St. Louis GM Walt Jocketty decided to take a flier on Weaver, who had lost his job in Anaheim to his younger brother, Jered. This time the move from the AL to the NL wasn't enough to resurrect the career of a worn-out pitcher. Weaver, who was 3-10 with a 6.29 ERA with the Angels, has gone 2-4 with a 5.34 ERA in 10 starts for St. Louis.
While the Cardinals are heading toward a postseason berth, they won't scare anyone with a starting rotation that ranks eighth in the National League with a 4.53 ERA. If St. Louis winds up facing the Dodgers and Maddux makes a difference, Jocketty will want to puke.
5. Javy Lopez to the Red Sox from the Orioles for a player to be named later
Had Jason Varitek been the only big loss for Boston, this deal might have been a factor. But the Red Sox imploded like few contenders in recent memory, losing players to injury and illness and getting swept in an emotional five-game series at Fenway Park.
This has been a bad, bad year for Theo Epstein and the catcher's position. The Red Sox have started six different catchers, and it didn't have to be that way. Boston opened the season with an outstanding backup for Varitek, but Epstein panicked when Josh Bard had trouble handling 40-year-old knuckleballer Tim Wakefield. He shipped Bard and right-hander Cla Meredith to the Padres to get back Doug Mirabelli, who was traded for Mark Loretta after the 2005 season.
Wakefield made only 14 more starts before going on the disabled list with a strained rib cage, and Bard has emerged as a .325 hitter for the Padres. Meredith has been San Diego's best set-up reliever, and the Red Sox exacerbated their problems by trading serviceable right-handed reliever David Riske to the White Sox for Javier Lopez, one of five lefty relievers they've tried. What a mess.
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com. His book, "Say It's So," a story about the 2005 White Sox, is available at bookstores, through amazon.com or direct order from Triumph Publishing (800-222-4657).