Going all-in for an ace? Summer rentals bring hope, but no guarantees

David Price's tenure as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays' starting rotation will unfold against a backdrop of urgency. He has 11 or 12 regular-season appearances to make an impression with his new team. That breaks down to 1,200 pitches or thereabouts. If October shakes out the way the Blue Jays hope, Price will contribute a few hundred more before turning his attention to free agency and a nine-figure windfall this winter.

In the meantime, pitch counts and statistical calculations can't convey the sense of excitement Price provides every fifth day, or the world of promise that his presence heralds for October. Maybe Price will make his mark in a one-game wild-card matchup, or in the AL playoffs against the likes of Johnny Cueto or Dallas Keuchel. If the Blue Jays reach the World Series for the first time since 1993, Price could go head-to-head with Madison Bumgarner, Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke or the best the Pirates, Cardinals, Mets, Nationals or Cubs have to offer on the biggest stage of all.

Price, who previously relocated from Tampa Bay to Detroit in July 2014, is in rental mode for the second straight summer, and the get-acquainted process is going quite smoothly, thank you. Since his arrival in Toronto, Price has reveled in a trip to a Philadelphia cheesesteak joint, melded seamlessly in clubhouse video-game competitions with his new teammates and posted a 2-0 record with a 1.61 ERA in three starts. Price arrived in Toronto with a career 16-2 record and a 2.41 ERA against the Blue Jays, so his dominance comes as no surprise to his new teammates.

"There's only a handful of guys out there like that -- starting pitchers who are difference makers and can get you over the top," said Blue Jays manager John Gibbons. "David is that one guy on any given night who can completely shut a team down, and very few guys can do that.

"Pitchers like that are intimidating. Psychologically, they do something for you and something to the other side. When a team goes into a game facing David Price, they don't feel good about it. Now that we've brought him on board, we have that guy who can do that to other teams."

Managers and general managers routinely allude to the benefits that aces provide beyond the raw numbers. Aces stop losing streaks. They give the starters behind them the freedom to take a deep breath and slot into less high-profile roles. And they eat enough innings to give the bullpen a virtual guarantee of a light workload every fifth day.

The residual surge of emotion and confidence in a clubhouse is hard to measure, but Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos received a first-hand glimpse as details of a Price trade began to leak at the non-waiver trade deadline and the Toronto players started catching wind of the news.

During the height of the insanity, Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista texted Anthopoulos and asked him whether there was any credence to the reports.

"Si," texted Anthopoulos, rather cheekily.

To which Bautista replied "Yes!!!!!!!!" (Give or take a few exclamation points.)

Bolstered by the arrival of Price and fellow deadline acquisitions Troy Tulowitzki, LaTroy Hawkins, Ben Revere and Mark Lowe, the Jays have gone 13-4 in August to seize control of their October destiny. According to the Westgate SuperBook, the Jays have 6-1 odds to win the World Series -- tying them for third with the Dodgers behind Kansas City and St. Louis.

The short-term boost from Price's arrival comes with potential long-term costs. The Blue Jays sent pitching prospects Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd and Jairo Labourt to Detroit in exchange for Price. Factor in the additional haul of players the Jays surrendered to acquire Tulowitzki and Hawkins from Colorado, and it's put a major dent in a farm system that ESPN's Keith Law ranked as the 19th best in baseball earlier this year.

Anthopoulos was readily aware of the risks before taking the plunge.

"You understand that you're going to give up good players," Anthopoulos said. "These aren't supposed to be one-sided trades. We all know what David Price is. We've seen him for a long time. With young players and prospects, they have the ability to be great, but there's risk to that. Some can be stars. Some don't pan out. Some might take a little bit longer. That's why deals get made, right?"

The benefits and downside to 'rentals'

Are rental pitchers worth the cost in prospects who can be under club control for multiple seasons? The Doyle Alexander-for-John Smoltz and Larry Andersen-for-Jeff Bagwell trades accentuated the downside risks of contenders going "all-in." But history provides a broader context to reflect the tough calls that general managers make.

In July, Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs examined the success rate of teams that traded for a staff "ace" in the middle of a season since the start of the division series era in 1995. The results weren't pretty, but most baseball people contend that it's imperative for serious contenders to at least make the effort. Scan the list of World Series winners in recent years, and the roster usually includes a Bumgarner, Jon Lester, CC Sabathia or Cole Hamels. If the presence of a legit No. 1 in the rotation isn't necessarily a guarantee of success, the lack of one almost certainly increases the likelihood of an early exit.

"I've got to believe that almost every team that's won has had an ace," Gibbons said. "They might not have acquired it, but they already had one along the way."

As a means of broadening the discussion, ESPN.com established a slightly different set of criteria than Sullivan to assess the payoffs for MLB clubs who acquired starting pitchers midseason. Since 1995, a total of 27 pitchers cleared the following (very modest) barriers during a season in which they were traded: An ERA+ of 100, 150 innings pitched, a FIP of 4.00 or better and at least six strikeouts per nine innings.

Most of the pitchers who fit that description were on the verge free agency and qualified as classic "rentals." A few (e.g., Doug Fister of the 2011 Tigers or Jeff Samardzija of the 2014 A's) had additional time on their contracts and a longer horizon to make an impact.

Some findings:

• Of the 27 traded pitchers who met the ESPN.com criteria, 10 joined teams that failed to make the playoffs. Four clubs lost the wild-card playoff game; six exited in the division series; and three lost in the league championship series.

• That leaves only four teams that made a significant midseason trade for a starter who reached the World Series since 1995. The 2009 Phillies (Cliff Lee) and 2010 Rangers (also Lee) and 2012 Tigers (Anibal Sanchez) all lost the Fall Classic.

The only pitcher under the ESPN.com criteria who changed teams via trade since 1995 and pitched for a World Series winner: Edwin Jackson, who went 5-2 with a 3.58 ERA for St. Louis down the stretch in 2011.

Curt Schilling came close. In July 2000, the Arizona Diamondbacks sent Vicente Padilla, Nelson Figueroa, Travis Lee and Omar Daal to the Philadelphia Phillies for Schilling, who had a year left on his contract. The Diamondbacks missed the playoffs that season. But Schilling stuck around to help bring a title to Phoenix in 2001, then signed a $20 million extension to remain in Arizona for two more seasons.

Freddy Garcia also came close. In June 2004, the Chicago White Sox traded Michael Morse, Miguel Olivo and Jeremy Reed to Seattle for Garcia and Ben Davis. Garcia went 9-4 with a 4.46 ERA for a Chicago team that fell short of the playoffs in '04. But he signed a three-year, $27 million deal to stay with the White Sox over the winter and helped Chicago win a title in 2005.

• Two rental pitchers stood above the crowd with their impact: Randy Johnson went 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA for Houston in the summer of 1998, and Sabathia posted an 11-2 record with a 1.65 ERA in Milwaukee in 2008. But both of their new teams were eliminated in the division series.

The passage of time shows that it's a crapshoot to predict how prospects in these deals will fare. Who could have envisioned that Matt LaPorta would be out of baseball four years after coming to Cleveland from Milwaukee as the linchpin to that big Sabathia trade, or that Michael Brantley -- the player to be named later in the deal -- would emerge as an All-Star and American League MVP candidate at age 27?

Carlos Carrasco ultimately pitched to his potential as a prospect in a rental-pitcher trade. Patrick Corbin and Tyler Skaggs were on their way before suffering arm injuries that forced them to hit the "reset" button. And Jacob Turner failed to pan out with Miami as part of the Sanchez deal with Detroit in 2012.

Do the Angels feel major pangs of regret over trading Jean Segura, Johnny Hellweg and Ariel Pena to Milwaukee for Greinke, who made 13 starts for a Los Angeles team that finished third in the AL West in 2012? The answer is most likely no.

"As players, we live a little bit more in the day than the future," said Toronto third baseman Josh Donaldson. "But I don't think you can get caught up in how prospects are going to turn out to be. More times than not, prospects turn into suspects. And when you have the caliber of team that we have this year [in Toronto], we have guys in their prime -- and you can't stay in your prime forever. That's a fact of life."

'All-in' in Kansas City

Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore, who works in a market typically associated with collecting prospects rather than discarding them, made two bold moves for rentals at the deadline -- acquiring Ben Zobrist from Oakland and Cueto from Cincinnati.

Both players have made a big early impression. Zobrist hit .379 in his first 18 games with Kansas City, and Cueto has gone 2-1 with a 1.80 ERA and made dreadlocks fashionable in the heartland.

Moore, who parted with pitchers Brandon Finnegan and Sean Manaea in the two deadline deals, understands the risks of trading prospects after being second-guessed for his decision to send Wil Myers to Tampa Bay in a winter stunner in 2012. While James Shields enjoyed a productive two years in Kansas City and Wade Davis has emerged as one of the dominant relievers in the game, Myers has moved on to San Diego and been saddled with a reputation as a player who can't stay healthy.

"If you focus on what you're giving up, you'll be paralyzed from making deals," Moore said. "I love prospects, but I also know it takes a lot of time and a lot of at-bats and innings at the major league level to become a consistent producer. Clayton Kershaw was a .500 pitcher the first three years of his career. Look at Tommy Glavine's numbers the first couple years of his career. We have to rely on our farm system to help us win at the major league level, but also to acquire talent in deals that will put us in the position to win."

As Moore points out, the Royals upgraded their 2015 chances while hanging onto Miguel Almonte, Kyle Zimmer, Raul Mondesi Jr., Bubba Starling and several other bright lights in their farm system. Rather than lamenting the departure of Finnegan and Manaea, Moore has issued a challenge to his scouts and player development people to go out and find more young talent to fill the void. He's confident they will.

The Royals came within a game of winning a World Series last year after a 29-year playoff drought. With the outlook so upbeat for a return trip this season, Moore couldn't abide the thought of sitting back and maintaining the status quo just to cover his posterior for the long term.

"No successful leader that I know and respect says, 'Let's just make sure we're .500 this year and over the course of a 10-year period,'" Moore said. "We're competitors, and we're focused on trying to win a world championship every single day. If we had sat on our butts and not done anything at the deadline to improve our team when we had the ability to do so, that wouldn't have been part of maintaining a winning culture.

"When I worked in Atlanta, John Schuerholz would always say, 'If this player gets one hit to help us get to the playoffs or win a playoff game, or get to the World Series or win a World Series, it's all worth it.' That's how I was raised in the game."

When Anthopoulos consummated the Price trade on July 30, he saw a team with lots of potential to take flight. The Blue Jays were 52-51, but only two games behind Minnesota in the American League wild-card race. They sported a league-best run differential of plus-103, and were stagnating in large part because of a 10-22 record in one-run games. Most important, the roster was relatively healthy, and the Jays had 13 games left with the division-leading Yankees to assert themselves down the stretch.

Conventional wisdom suggests that Anthopoulos was ultra-motivated to win now because the Blue Jays haven't been to the postseason since winning back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and '93. But he ultimately made his trade calls with a sense of clear-eyed detachment that lessened the burden of history.

"I don't concern myself that we've gone 21 years [without making the postseason]," Anthopoulos said. "I've been here for five, and I can't make decisions based on that. The players are ultimately the ones who put us in position to make this possible. If I didn't think our club was that good, I wouldn't do it -- even if it had been 40 years."

Media members and armchair tweeters have the luxury of hindsight that allows them to second-guess trades that don't result in a victory parade. General managers live in a different world. They constantly have to balance the present with the future, and the World Series-or-bust litmus test is unrealistic, if only because the postseason is such a gantlet these days.

As long as winning remains the goal, there will be David Prices and Johnny Cuetos on the move and executives who take their best shot. The long-term risks are inevitable. The short-term bump in hope and enthusiasm is palpable. It's a trade-off that general managers -- and title-starved fans -- will always be willing to make.