When a trade is more than a trade

In June, the GM of a fading team had any number of problems, but an immediate concern was a couple of real sore spots: the young left fielder was so egregiously awful that he’d been sent down to the minors, replaced by a spring training NRI. The aging slugger at first was slugging well enough with a .263/.328/.491 line, but his defense was pretty bad and he wasn’t really part of a long-term plan.

So our GM made a trade: He sent the slugger to another team and got three prospects back, one of whom was a Triple-A first baseman he could drop right into the starting lineup. The youngster rewarded his faith with a .286/.351/.490 line that’s even better than that of the player he traded. Plus he’s young and cost-controlled and actually gives a Rolling O about improving his defense. And we haven’t even mentioned the other two "free" prospects.

This is essentially the trade the Cleveland Indians pulled off when they sent Russell Branyan to Seattle.

While I can’t tell you much about Placeholder Jones or Warm Body Smith, the two (ostensible) prospects they actually got in return, I can tell you that since being returned to the majors, Cleveland's own Matt LaPorta has been the real live middle-of-the-order bat that he was supposed to turn into eventually. And although there are obviously other factors involved (LaPorta worked on his swing in Columbus, normal development), the fact is that LaPorta looks a lot more comfortable at first base than he ever did in left field, and getting to play every day seems to help as well. Is this because he isn’t looking over his shoulder anymore? Is he no longer pressing to prove he belongs? Is he simply benefiting from getting plate appearances nearly every day? I can’t tell you any one of these is true, but I can tell you that .286/.351/.490 is a very, very far cry from the .218/.290/.277 he was hitting before being sent back to Columbus on June 8.

Trading Branyan may have netted the Tribe two excellent young ballplayers. Frankly, I doubt it. If either player makes even one appearance in an Indians uniform in their respective lifetimes, I’ll be moderately flabbergasted. And the Indians didn’t save a lot of money in the deal, either, sending cash along with Branyan to defray his cost. No, the trade had one immediate benefit: It cleared out first base for Matt LaPorta to play every day.

If you look at the flurry of moves the Indians undertook, you might see a pure money-saving deal in sending Kerry Wood to the Yankees, and I won’t argue that $1.5M wasn’t a prime motivating factor. But as long as Wood was on the club, the team was going to use him to close games, meaning that Chris Perez would not get this experience, even though Perez is clearly the one of the two who is more likely to be an important player beyond 2010.

(For the record, I think that Jake Westbrook was traded for two reasons: to get Corey Kluber and to be nice to Jake Westbrook. Austin Kearns was traded to be nice to Austin Kearns and because he’s been pretty bad since his hot start. Jhonny Peralta was traded because he isn’t any good. Actually, Peralta’s leaving does open third base for extended looks at players like Jayson Nix and potentially Jared Goedert, but this is not likely to be as dramatic as LaPorta’s emergence.)

Down the road and (slightly) up the standings in the A.L. Central, the Royals sent Rick Ankiel and Kyle Farnsworth to Atlanta. For all the snide remarks about Farnsworth over the years, he’s pitched very well in 2010. And Tim Collins could be a terrific reliever. But one of the immediate benefits of this trade is that clearing Ankiel from the outfield leaves more chances for Alex Gordon and Mitch Maier to play regularly. (To this end, Jose Guillen should have been cleared as well, in my opinion.) Be objective: what is likely to contribute more to the Royals’ success as an organization: a highlight catch and a home run on a mistake fastball from Ankiel, or regular reps in the outfield and against major-league pitching for Alex Gordon? Even if it’s Maier who benefits more directly from Ankiel’s absence, the point still stands.

Washington almost certainly traded Matt Capps to get Wilson Ramos, but his departure also gives the team an opportunity to see if Drew Storen can handle the closing chores. Sending Cristian Guzman packing tells Ian Desmond not to worry about a slump costing him playing time, and lets them ... um ... I dunno, play Alberto Gonzalez at second more? (Not all options are super nifty.) The Houston Astros obviously traded Lance Berkman to trim payroll (and to be nice to Berkman), but it also gives them a chance to play new acquisition Brett Wallace every day without the fear that a few bad games will result in a fruit basket and the wazoo.

The vast majority of trades a non-contender makes serves one of two objectives: saving money or acquiring younger, cheaper talent. But it’s worth keeping in mind that sometimes, a less-obvious benefit is providing the opportunity for a player already in the organization to get the regular playing time he needs to develop. And every now and then, it’s almost like getting another prospect in the deal: one who was very close indeed to reaching the majors as an everyday player.