With David Price and Troy Tulowitzki already making a big impact on the Blue Jays and other deadline deals looking like they'll change the postseason picture, here's a list of my 10 picks for the in-season or deadline deals from recent decades that made a difference as far as who got to October or who did something once they got there.
What did he do? Lee went 7-4 with a 3.39 ERA for the Phillies, a step down from his 2008 Cy Young season in which he also won his first ERA title. That may not sound like much, but in his defense he received a team-worst 4.5 runs per game in support, and he gave them a front man to stick ahead of Cole Hamels to give them an excellent one-two punch.
How far did they go? To the World Series, where they lost to the Yankees in six games, but the Phillies won both of Lee’s turns, as well as each of his three previous postseason starts.
Do they make the playoffs without him? Yes, although it was closer than you think; while they were six games up on the Marlins when they traded for him on July 29, and they finished six games up, they were desperate for starting pitching, signing Pedro Martinez for his last spin in July.
Was it worth it? Absolutely. The 2009 Phillies don’t win the pennant without Cliff Lee; heck, they might not have gotten past the Rockies in the division series. In terms of impact, this was a bigger deal for the Phillies than Lee’s subsequent 2010 deadline deal was to the Rangers, when Texas acquired him from the Mariners.
2. 2003: The Cubs trade for Kenny Lofton and Aramis Ramirez, sending the Pirates Jose Hernandez, Matt Bruback and Bobby Hill.
What did they do? Filled huge holes in the Cubs’ lineup, because that club was severely handicapped by midseason holes at center field and third base -- one out of their control (losing Corey Patterson in early July with a torn ACL), the other self-inflicted after manager Dusty Baker quit on Mark Bellhorn at the hot corner pretty early on (even though Bellhorn had belted 27 homers for the 2002 Cubs). Lofton provided instant offense from the leadoff slot -- .381 OBP -- while Ramirez hit 15 home runs primarily from the fifth spot in the order.
How far did they go? Game 7 of the NLCS (or as far as Steve Bartman let them, your mileage may vary), which is as close as they’ve come to returning to the World Series since they lost their last advance-or-go-home game in October back in 1984.
Do they make the playoffs without them? No. The Cubs were 50-50 and in third place at the time they made the trade, 5.5 games behind the Astros, with the Cardinals in second place.
Was it worth it? In the context of the 2003 season, no doubt about it. Hill and Bruback didn’t pan out, and Hernandez was just a nice super-utility player. You might ask yourself whether Mark Prior’s career or Kerry Wood’s would have been different if they didn’t have to pitch in the postseason, but if that’s where you want to go, just remember Baker would still be managing this team for the next three years.
3. 1992: Blue Jays get David Cone, send Ryan Thompson and Jeff Kent to the Mets.
What did he do? The Jays added Cone on Aug. 27, when they were just 2.5 games ahead of the Orioles. Cone went 4-3, but after a rough pair of starts, posted a 0.94 ERA in his last five regular-season turns for Toronto. He lined up as the Jays’ No. 2 starter in the postseason behind Jack Morris. His Game 2 win over the A’s in the ALCS evened the series, but going up against Dave Stewart he got lit up in Game 5 while pitching on three days’ rest. He should have won Game 6 of the World Series, but Tom Henke blew the save in the ninth.
How far did they go? The Blue Jays won the World Series.
Do they make the playoffs without him? Probably, but remember, there was no wild card, and it was just a 2.5-game lead with more than a month of baseball to play. But if they didn’t have Cone in the postseason, they probably don’t get past the A’s in the ALCS: As it was, Morris got clobbered twice.
Was it worth it? In terms of impact, absolutely, even given the cost. Because by trading Kent, it meant the Jays would have to stick with Kelly Gruber at third the rest of the way, despite a .627 OPS. That said, nobody knew Kent would turn out as well as he did; at the time, most speculation was that he couldn’t play second. Within a single season, this was a bigger deal than Cone being sent to the Yankees in 1995.
4. 1993: Braves trade for Fred McGriff, sending the Padres Mel Nieves, Donnie Elliott and Vince Moore.
What did he do? After getting picked up over the All-Star break, the Crime Dog ripped 19 home runs and slugged .612 while completing a Braves murderer’s row with David Justice and Ron Gant. The Braves averaged 4.1 runs per game before the trade, but 5.5 in the second half.
How far did they go? The Phillies beat the Braves in six games in the NLCS in what was the last wild card-free postseason.
Do they make the playoffs without him? No. The Braves edged the Giants by a game, and were nine games back when they added McGriff. The difference in WAR alone between McGriff in his time with the Braves and the man he replaced, Sid Bream, was 2.2, and it’s hard to see how you pick up that huge second-half kick without McGriff in the mix.
Was it worth it? Absolutely. McGriff was Braves' property through the 1995 season (they subsequently re-signed him), and none of the people he was traded for were going to haunt the Braves.
What did he do? If Manny’s act had worn thin in Boston, it got more than a second wind in L.A., as Ramirez clouted 17 homers in 53 games, hitting at an insanely great .396/.489/.743 clip. It was perhaps Manny at his most ridiculous and fun, demonstrating he still had some gas in the tank.
How far did they go? They won the NL West with an 84-78 record and swept the Cubs in the NLDS before losing to the Phillies in the NLCS.
Do they make the playoffs without him? No. The Dodgers were 54-54 and two games behind the D-backs on July 31, having lost to the Snakes that very day. The Dodgers finished two games up with a 30-24 kick. This was about as straightforward as a massive upgrade can get. Juan Pierre had started 72 of the Dodgers’ first 108 games, most of them in left, and generated an offense-only WAR (or oWAR) of minus-0.2, while Manny played 53 of their last 54 and generated plus-3.6 -- that’s your four-game swing right there.
Was it worth it? Yes, for them and for the pure entertainment value. And as far as the talent, they’d already traded for Casey Blake to man third base, while LaRoche never did pan out.
6. 2004: The Astros pick up Carlos Beltran in a three-way trade that put Octavio Dotel with the A’s and Mark Teahen, John Buck and Mike Wood in Kansas City.
What did he do? OK, I’m cheating a little, since this wasn’t close to a deadline deal, getting consummated on June 24. The Astros were 38-34, and had come to the reasonable conclusion that Craig Biggio wasn’t helping them much as a 38-year-old center fielder; they’d traded away Richard Hildalgo earlier in June in part to open up a corner for him. Beltran came in as an all-world center fielder gearing up for free agency, and promptly put on a show, putting up a .926 OPS, hitting 23 home runs in 93 games, and providing a 14-run improvement over Biggio via defensive runs saved.
And then he went nuts in the postseason -- his first time playing in October after having to start his career as a Royal when that wasn’t a happy thing to be -- hitting four homers in both the NLDS and the NLCS.
How far did they go? Finishing second in the NL Central to the Cardinals, they lost to them in the NLCS in seven games after beating the Braves in five in the division series.
Do they make the playoffs without him? They don’t, because even if Jason Lane gives them a nice year in a corner replacing Hidalgo, Biggio’s defense was that bad. The Giants were a game back in the wild-card race with 91 wins, and the Cubs had 89.
Was it worth it? Yes. Not only is there no way they make the postseason without Beltran, Dotel had already pitched his best seasons, getting worked like a galley slave by the Astros over the previous four seasons.
What did he do? Put up a 11-2 record with a 1.65 ERA after the Brewers struck early by getting the Indians’ big lefty on July 7. The Brewers went 14-3 in his 17 starts, and he was so determined to get them into the postseason that he pitched on three days’ rest in each of his last three turns.
Do they make the playoffs without him? No, because the Mets finished just a game back in the wild-card race, with the Astros and Cardinals not far behind. And let’s face it, with a rotation leading with the reliably fragile Ben Sheets and whose second-best starter was Manny Parra, you wouldn’t expect to win the 90 games the Brewers ultimately did.
Was it worth it? Yes, even without taking into account LaPorta’s flop as a highly-touted hitting prospect or Brantley’s subsequent development into the best player the Tribe received in the deal. The Brewers didn’t have a huge chance of going deep into the postseason, but creating a little bit of hope and faith under new owner Mark Attanasio by putting the Brewers into the postseason for the first time in 25 years and just the third time in franchise history? Totally worth it.
8. 1998: Astros trade for Randy Johnson, send Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen and John Halama to Mariners.
What did he do? Johnson went 10-1 in 11 starts with 1.28 ERA with 12.4 K/9, which was higher than his best single-season rate up to that point of his career. When Houston got him on July 31, they’d seen their NL Central lead cut in half in July, down to 3.5 games, but with the Big Unit dealing this well, Houston went on a 37-16 kick to win the division by a dozen games. This was a straight two-month rental for an ace bound for free agency.
How far did they go? Eliminated in the LDS by the Padres in four games; Johnson lost Game 1 to Kevin Brown, 2-1, and was pulled trailing 2-1 in Game 4 for a pinch hitter in the top of the seventh with the bases loaded and two outs. The bullpen then got clobbered to guarantee elimination.
Do they make the playoffs without him? Yes, and probably win the NL Central, too.
Was it worth it? Yes, even if it was expensive, because it’s hard to envision the Astros beating anybody in a postseason series without him; Shane Reynolds was their top starter, and this was the year before Mike Hampton became a big deal. To see Johnson pitch that well in a stretch run was amazing, and it was GM Gerry Hunsicker’s biggest “I’m going for it” move with the great Astros teams of the late 1990s. But the cost was steep: Garcia and Guillen were both Top 100 prospects who’d reached Triple-A and were almost ready to star, and Halama was a decent back-end rotation starter.
9. 1987: Tigers trade for Doyle Alexander, sending John Smoltz to the Braves.
What did he do? Alexander ran up a 9-0 record in 11 starts with a 1.53 ERA, and the Tigers won every start he made. To put that in context, the average team in the homer-happy 1987 season was averaging 4.9 runs per game, and only three AL starters had an ERA under 3.00.
How far did they go? In a huge upset, the Tigers lost in the ALCS to the Twins in five games. Alexander got lit up in the eighth inning of Game 1 to blow a one-run lead, and was chased in the second in Game 5.
Do they make the playoffs without him? No. They added Alexander after the deadline on Aug. 12, and were 1.5 games behind the Blue Jays and just a game ahead of the Yankees at that point. But with Alexander pitching insanely well, the Tigers finished 33-18 to win the AL East by two games. Alexander’s WAR with the Tigers was 4.4; the man he replaced, Dan Petry, produced a minus-1.6.
Was it worth it? Well, it cost them Smoltz, so with the benefit of hindsight, no. Smoltz was easily the best prospect in the Tigers’ organization, while Alexander was 36 years old and coming close to the end of his career. In the Tigers’ defense, winning the division seemed like it would put them in the World Series and add a second title to their great run with a team built around Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker and Jack Morris. But Alexander and Morris couldn’t outpitch Bert Blyleven and Frank Viola.
10. 1996: Yankees trade for Cecil Fielder, sending Ruben Sierra and Matt Drews to the Tigers.
What did he do? The original slugging Fielder provided the Yankees with a 100-point boost in OPS over Sierra, and slugged 13 homers to finish with 39 on the year. Getting his first real shot to contribute in October, Cecil-san came up with a big Game 2 in the ALDS, helping the Yankees avoid an 0-2 hole, and his ALCS homers in Games 2 and 5 keyed wins.
How far did they go? The ’96 Yankees made it to the World Series for the first time since 1981, and won their first World Series since 1978.
Do they make the playoffs without him? Almost certainly, but it’s worth noting that the Yankees did tumble from 10 games up when they added Fielder at the deadline to winning the AL East by just four games.
Was it worth it? Absolutely.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.