Is there anything America loves more than a good old-fashioned baseball trade (OK, with the possible exception of a nationally televised Paula Abdul meltdown)?
Of course not. And never in recent memory have so many offseason trades left such a monumental imprint on a season.
Johan Santana. Dan Haren. Erik Bedard. Miguel Cabrera. Brad Lidge. Miguel Tejada. And we haven't even mentioned the American League's home run leader (Carlos Quentin), RBI leader (Josh Hamilton) and stolen-base leader (Carlos Gomez), or the National League's ERA leader (Edinson Volquez) yet. They were all involved in trades just this past winter. What a concept.
But not all those offseason deals are working out the way we expected when they hit the transactions column. So let's take a look at which trades have had the biggest impact so far:
The whole idea of any trade, theoretically, is to make both teams better. So it's tough to beat this one. Arizona wouldn't have the best record in baseball without Haren. But this deal is just as responsible for the A's being 22-14.
Haren has ripped off six quality starts, so he's been as good as advertised. Meanwhile, the A's have gone 10-3 in games started by Eveland and Smith; Anderson is 5-1 in Class A; Gonzalez is hitting .343, with a .410 on-base percentage, in Triple-A. So this trade has set up the A's to be good for years -- just what Billy Beane had in mind.
"Billy knew we had depth that we'd probably talk about," Arizona GM Josh Byrnes said. "So they came out of this with quality and quantity. And for us to get a starting pitcher at Dan Haren's level without getting into free agency was something that really fit."
Scout's View: "Probably as good a baseball deal as you'll see. Arizona did a hell of a job recognizing this was their chance to win and going out and getting a guy like Haren, and still keeping their top tier of prospects. And Oakland got guys who can help them for a long time."
(Mets get Johan Santana from the Twins for OF Carlos Gomez, RHP Phil Humber, RHP Kevin Mulvey and RHP Deolis Guerra).
True, this deal hasn't propelled the Mets into first place. Also true: Santana is "only" 3-2, with a 2.91 ERA. But he's also tied for the league lead in strikeouts. And his bullpen has already blown two saves for him. And he left one of those two losses trailing the Braves, 1-0, in the eighth inning. So he ought to be 6-1. But even at 3-2, he's still been a definite upgrade on, say, Brian Lawrence.
It's a little tougher to judge the Twins' end, since Gomez -- the only player from this trade currently in Minnesota -- is still just an often-charismatic work in progress. On the one hand, as he proved Wednesday, he's a cycle waiting to happen. On the other, it took that cycle to nudge his on-base percentage to a measly .306. In terms of defense, one scout said, "I don't see a whole lot of difference between him and Torii [Hunter], other than name and reputation." But in terms of offense, the same scout said that he's "like a toolbox without a key."
And there's a sidebar to this story that has left its mark on the season, too. The aftermath of not trading for Santana still hangs over the Yankees -- and will keep on hanging unless Phil Hughes turns into an ace or Santana blows out a rotator cuff. Or possibly both.
Scout's View: "Think about where the Mets would be without Santana. If they didn't have Santana, they'd have been holding their breath, wondering if Pedro [Martinez] was going down, or how many times he'd go down. So just knowing you have a guy this good going out there every five days is a huge psychological advantage."
There were lots of people who had their doubts about Lidge -- and his fit for a judgmental town like Philadelphia. Well, never mind. The Phillies, shockingly, have the second-best bullpen ERA in the National League. And it all starts with the closer.
Lidge has spun off 16 straight appearances without allowing an earned run. And since he found his arm slot for his slider two weeks ago, he has been ridiculous. He has faced 31 hitters in that span. Only three have reached base. Meanwhile, the pivotal figure from Houston's end -- Bourn -- is hitting .195 with a .272 OBP.
Scout's View: "Lidge looks like the Lidge of old. Bourn plays great defense. And when he gets on base, it's a double [because he's 13 for 13 in steals]. But is he going to get on base enough? Is he going to hit good pitching? The jury is out on that."
(Rangers get Josh Hamilton from the Reds for RHP Edinson Volquez and LHP Danny Herrera)
Was there a more fascinating deal than this one last winter? Hamilton has made it all the way back from self-induced drug oblivion to rank, in one scout's words, as "one of the 10 most talented players in baseball, just in pure tools and raw talent." And clearly, he's located the key to his toolbox. He's leading the majors in RBIs (36), and he's third only to Manny Ramirez and Kevin Youkilis in the AL in extra-base hits (18).
But Volquez, whom Texas initially force-fed into the big leagues at too young an age, has been writing a spectacular comeback saga himself. He leads the league in ERA (1.06) and lowest slugging percentage allowed (just .238). And he has become the first Reds pitcher since the 1912 invention of earned runs to start a season by allowing no more than one earned run in each of seven straight starts. So the only thing that stops us from placing this trade higher on this list is that, despite these heroics, both teams have been massive disappointments.
Scout's View: "I'm not sure how to rate this one. It's a high-impact trade that hasn't impacted either team."
Here's another trade that's tough to measure. Outside of a short DL stint, Bedard has been terrific, allowing a total of only seven earned runs in his five starts. But maybe this deal proves there's only so much of an impact one starting pitcher can make. His team is 11-19 when he doesn't start.
Meanwhile, Sherrill is second in the league in saves; Jones is working his way toward stardom; the upwardly mobile Tillman is limiting the Eastern League to a .198 batting average against him. And maybe the biggest impact on the Orioles, said an official of one club, was the culture change: "After 10 years of being stuck in a short-term mind-set, just the commitment to trade Bedard and [Miguel] Tejada, and to bring back some young talent and finally rebuild, is a really important step they had to take."
Scout's View: "I love Erik Bedard. But honestly, I thought Baltimore kicked [Seattle's] butt in this deal. Sherrill has done an unbelievable job. Adam Jones has star potential. And Tillman I mean, wow. Now if they take Sherrill and move him at the deadline and turn him into something else that can help them, the Orioles made a tremendous deal."
6. Braves-Tigers (RHP Jair Jurrjens and OF Gorkys Hernandez for Edgar Renteria): "At this point, Atlanta has won that deal," said one scout. "Jurrjens [4-2, 2.84] has been their most consistent starter."
Only two active pitchers have started an All-Star Game one summer and then been traded in the following offseason -- and coincidentally, they were once traded for each other. Can you name them? (Answer later.)
7. White Sox-Diamondbacks (OF Carlos Quentin for 1B Chris Carter, who was later traded to Oakland): "He's made a tremendous impact on the White Sox in a short period of time," one NL executive said of Quentin. "He got logjammed in that [Arizona] system a little bit, so he got easy to overlook. But the talent was always there. In my experience, most evaluators look for reasons to cross guys off the list versus reasons to put them on. It's easier to say no than yes. And this guy was a classic case."
8. Orioles-Astros (SS Miguel Tejada for OF Luke Scott, RHP Matt Albers, RHP Dennis Sarfate, LHP Troy Patton and 3B Mike Constanzo): Baseball people are all over the map on the quality of the Orioles' return in this deal, although, as one executive put it, "the fact that they got anything good for that guy is amazing." But if the only thing you know about Tejada this season is that he aged two years, pay attention: He was last seen hitting .331. "He's been much better defensively than most people thought, too," one scout said. "Looks like a recharged guy."
9. Tigers-Marlins (Miguel Cabrera and LHP Dontrelle Willis for LHP Andrew Miller, OF Cameron Maybin, C Mike Rabelo, RHP Burke Badenhop, RHP Eulogia De La Cruz and RHP Dallas Trahern): We won't be able to judge Florida's half of this deal until about 2010. And Willis has been a mess. But the surprise is that Cabrera has been: (a) an offensive disappointment, (b) such a defensive disaster at third base that he had to be shifted to first within three weeks, and (c) so lackadaisical that players on other teams are privately questioning whether he flicked on his cruise-control switch after signing an eight-year, $153.3-million contract this spring. "I expected him to come in there and be superman," said one scout. "He's been anything but that."
10. Rays-Twins (RHP Matt Garza, SS Jason Bartlett and RHP Eduardo Morlan for OF Delmon Young, IF Brendan Harris and OF Jason Pridie): Six weeks into the season, the Garza-Young debate is still raging. "This was one of those change-of-scenery deals," said one scout, "because both clubs had about had it with the makeup issues of both guys. Right now, Garza looks like he's going to be a big rotation piece for that team as they go forward. But I'm not so sure about Delmon anymore. He swings at everything. And he's not a very good breaking-ball hitter. You spin it, and he can't lay off it. And if he hits it, he doesn't do much with it."
Ready To Rumble
• More to come? So were all those big offseason deals a portent of things to come this coming winter? Maybe. The free-agent market doesn't look much more enticing next offseason than it did last offseason. And we're at the point where quite a few teams have decided they're going to be conscientious objectors to free agency, if at all possible.
"Last [winter] proved you can make a good trade," said an executive of one deal-happy club, "as long as the first words out of the other team's mouth aren't, 'I'll make the deal if I can win it.' But there are still too many times when the approach is, 'I'll take your Cadillac and I'll give you my Volkswagen.' Well, no, no, no. That's not going to do it."
But Arizona's Josh Byrnes disagrees: "I think we'll see more of this. I think so many times, we're tempted to just evaluate trades in a vacuum instead of in the context with which they're made. For a team like ours, with a deep system, it doesn't make sense to keep our surplus stranded in Triple-A. To the extent we can use that surplus to help improve ourselves, that's a good thing. And if those trades help those guys get an opportunity they wouldn't have gotten with us, even better. I actually think fewer and fewer teams are thinking they have to win their trades. And that's a good sign."
Once again this week, we've asked some of the great minds in the scouting business to tell Rumblings what they've been seeing:
• CHIPPER JONES -- "The fans are going to elect David Wright to start the All-Star Game, but it should be Chipper. Don't get me wrong. David Wright is a really good player. But Chipper is such an accomplished hitter in so many aspects, I look at it like David Wright is basically learning to be Chipper."
• RYAN FREEL -- "You know what was [Dusty Baker's] biggest mistake? His highest-energy guy is Ryan Freel. But what was the first thing Dusty did? Sit him on his butt to play Corey Patterson. And it didn't sit well with that team."
• JOAKIM SORIA -- "He's not your conventional closer. He's up in the zone an awful lot. But he doesn't ever give you the same look on back-to-back pitches."
• CLIFF LEE -- "He's taken command of the game. He's just got that look now -- that look that says, 'You're not going to beat me today.'"
• MIGUEL CABRERA -- "For $150 million, you'd like to at least see him run a ball out. I watched him for a week, and I think there was one ball all week where he tried to extend himself. That was a double-play ball, and he was still like 4.8 [seconds] getting down the line. On a routine ground ball, he's 5.2, maybe 5.1. It's ridiculous to even pull the clock out."
• JUAN URIBE -- "He needs to lose some weight. They've already had to move him from shortstop to second. The next move might be to the airplane line -- or the unemployment line."
• This store is not yet open: You might think the in-season trade market would already be warming up. But the buzz we hear is that it might take weeks for any serious activity to erupt.
"I think because of what teams like Colorado and Philadelphia and the Yankees did last year, teams are more likely to stick with what they have for longer than they might have in the past," said an official from one contending team. "The thing is, last year was a really unusual year. You'd think teams would be looking at the history and asking, 'Was 2007 the aberration or was it all those other years?' But the sense I get is, a lot of people are hesitant to break up their teams because of what happened last year."
• The Griffey Watch: Junior Griffey told USA Today he expects the Reds to ask him to waive his no-trade clause after he hits his 600th homer. But an official of one club that would like to upgrade its outfield is skeptical that there's a real fit for Griffey -- even in Seattle -- because of contract issues.
"The option year [at $16.5 million for 2009] is going to be a big issue," he said. "You know he's going to want that option picked up if he's going to waive that clause. I would assume that if it's a team he wants to go to, he would waive it, if it's a team that puts him in a position to win. But I'm not sure there's a team out there, that fits all his criteria, that would pick up that option."
In the past, Griffey has expressed interest in going to only three cities: Atlanta, Seattle and Chicago. Seattle is the only place on that list where you could envision any level of interest in paying Griffey $16.5 million next year. But can the Mariners put him in a better position to win this year? Not unless they get on a big roll over the next two months.
• The Griffey Watch, Part 2: Then there's one other pesky issue. If you trade for Junior Griffey at this point, what are you trading for?
"In 1999, that would have been a great trade," said one scout. "Does that answer your question? To me, the Carlos Delgado Theory applies. He hasn't slipped quite as much as Delgado, but he's slipped. He doesn't throw well anymore. He doesn't defend real well. And he's lost his 'pull' power at the plate. Guys are throwing fastballs right by him."
• Wastin' away in Cabrera-ville: If Miguel Cabrera and Orlando Cabrera can get traded, can Daniel Cabrera be far behind? The Orioles dangled him at the trading deadline last year and had no success. But all of a sudden, Cabrera has churned out five quality starts in a row -- so he's starting to pop back up on those all-important July shopping lists.
"The two guys I keep trying to figure out are Edwin Jackson and Daniel Cabrera," said an official of one team trolling for starting pitching. "I know they have good arms. But are they ever going to be 'pitchers'? I'm not sure Jackson is going to be available. But I know Cabrera will be. They [the Orioles] keep indicating their [July] game plan hasn't changed at all. They're praying that Cabrera and a bunch of those relief pitchers will be in demand [at the deadline]."
• Chasing royalty: Another team that is telling clubs it expects to have pitching to deal in July is the Royals. The pitchers most likely to find a taker: Ron Mahay and Jimmy Gobble. And, of course, Brett Tomko is available before every trading deadline.
• Lean to the left: The Phillies have just about given up on finding a left-handed reliever elsewhere, so they're zeroing in on the left-handers in their system. They'll give Steve Kline more time to get straightened out, despite his 8.00 ERA in Triple-A. They'll take another look at the usual suspects: Fabio Castro, J.A. Happ and Brian Mazzone. They just moved their most advanced left-handed pitching prospect, Josh Outman, to the bullpen in Double-A. But a guy to keep an eye on is J.R. Swindle, signed out of an independent league last year and currently relieving in Double-A. Left-handed hitters versus Swindle the last two years are just 6 for 67 (.090).
• An open door for the closer? While the Phillies have yet to explore what it might take to re-sign Pat Burrell, there are rumblings that they've told another impending free agent, Brad Lidge, that "at some point" in the near future, they'd like to get a feel for Lidge's interest in staying.
Phillies assistant GM Ruben Amaro Jr. told Rumblings the club considers Lidge's future to be "much like Burrell's situation." But when asked whether the team planned to wait until the end of the year to discuss an extension with Lidge, Amaro replied: "Not necessarily. But those are discussions we prefer to keep internally."
Those negotiations could well turn on the length of contract Lidge has in mind. If he models his requests after the four-year deals that Billy Wagner and Francisco Cordero got, the conversation might end in a hurry.
You may recall the Phillies offered Wagner only two years. And the closest they've come in the last two decades to giving any pitcher a four-year contract was the three-year deal, with a vesting option, that Curt Schilling signed in 1997. On the other hand, Lidge has told his buddies he likes everything about Philadelphia -- so far. Of course, one of them says, "he hasn't been booed yet."
• The son also rises: A scout who covers the Carolina League says it's "almost tragic" watching Roger Clemens' son, Koby, try to go about his business as he transitions to his new position as starting catcher for the Salem Avalanche. "The guy has a bull's-eye on his back," the scout said. "But it looks like it drives him a little bit." The one concession Koby asked the club to make to help him weather the storm: Keeping ESPN and ESPNews off the clubhouse TV before games.
• Sori about that: Not that it's all Alfonso Soriano's fault, but it's hard not to notice that the Cubs went 10-5 with Soriano hurt -- and then went 2-5 in the first week after his return. Soriano's defense in left has been so unsightly that scouts have questioned why he didn't go out on a brief rehab option before he came back. But the buzz is that Soriano sent word that he wasn't too interested in even a quick minor league cameo, so the team decided not to press the issue.
• Open Micah night: If you haven't read Jerry Crasnick's Starting 9 column this week on Micah Owings and the best-hitting pitchers in baseball, we highly recommend it. Meanwhile, you won't be surprised to find that the Diamondbacks continue to kick around ideas to utilize Owings' Ruthian offensive skills in some creative new way -- including running him out to first base or the outfield once in a while on days he doesn't pitch. So how come that hasn't happened? "His day job is pretty important," GM Josh Byrnes said with a laugh. "We still want him to be able to keep focusing on pitching and on his next start."
Beware the Iron Pigs
Here at Worldwide Rumblings Headquarters, we always want to keep you ahead of the curve. So we want to point you toward those International League standings where, in scenic Allentown, Pa., the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs are off to kind of a rough start:
As in 5-29.
Amazingly, one pitcher -- Brian Mazone -- has four of their five wins. Which means the other 14 men who have gone to the mound for those Iron Pigs are a combined 1-26.
But here's the good news: Their magic number is 14.
Dan Haren (started last year's game) and Mark Mulder (started the 2004 classic). They were traded for each other in the deal that sent Mulder from Oakland to St. Louis in December, 2004.
Not to make the playoffs, obviously. To avoid going down as the worst team in minor-league history.
If they win just 14 more games -- which would compute to a 19-125 season -- they would guarantee themselves a higher winning percentage than the late, great 1951 Granite Falls Graniteers of the Western Carolina League.
That team roared to the finish line, losing its last 33 games in a row to finish at 14-96 (a .127 winning percentage). And, in perhaps its greatest feat, that club also had more managers (two) than wins (one) in its final 60 games. (Right you are. Those unstoppable Graniteeers lost 59 of their last 60.)
So as rough a start as those Iron Pigs may have had, we're absolutely confident of this: They won't have a worse finish than the Granite Falls Graniteers.
Unhappily Ever After Dept.
This week's coveted Greed is Bad award goes out to the rats in the hats at Dr. Seuss Enterprises.
Their crime? Forcing the well-meaning Lake Elsinore Storm, of the California League, to pull the plug on last week's brilliant Dr. Seuss Night promotion.
Why'd that happen? No, not because the Storm couldn't locate enough green eggs. Because the team couldn't locate enough green cash to convince the grinches at Dr. Seuss Enterprises to drop their threatened legal action.
Only one positive development came out of that cancellation -- one of the great press releases in modern baseball history, as penned by Matt Dompe, the Storm's director of game operations, and assistant GM Alan Benevides. Here goes:
The Padres affiliate, the Lake Elsinore Storm
Tried to put on a promotion that wasn't the Norm
We called it Dr. Seuss Night on our website
But something about that didn't seem right
Dr. Seuss Enterprises didn't see it as funny
They said we could do it but we didn't have the money
They didn't appreciate our publicity ploys
So we have to inform all the sad girls and boys
Through the face of it all we thought we'd persist
Until we were served with a cease and desist
The theme has been cancelled but the game will go on
Perhaps it wouldn't matter if we were in Taiwan
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.