Deadline Deals Are Often Overrated

We’re entering the final days before the July 31 trading deadline, and that means the rumor mill is running on overdrive. Every team within sniffing distance of contention looks at the available talent and prays they’ll be able to add the final piece that pushes them over the top into the playoffs, hopefully without needing to sacrifice too much of their future to do so.

The gold standard for this type of trade in recent years has been the deal the Los Angeles Dodgers pulled off in 2008, acquiring Manny Ramirez from the Boston Red Sox at the deadline and then watching as he put up a .396/.489/.743 line and nearly 3 WAR in barely two months of play. The Dodgers won their division by two games that year, and none of the prospects they surrendered ever amounted to anything. As far as deadline deals go, that’s the dream scenario.

But back here in reality, it’s incredibly rare that a late-July acquisition ever pays off like the Ramirez deal did. For all the attention and passion that gets put into following every rumor as the the deadline approaches, the most essential question often gets overlooked: Are the trades teams make to upgrade even worth the trouble?

Over the past two seasons, more than 40 trades have been made involving major league players within the six weeks of the deadline, and most are quickly forgettable. (Case in point: The hardly earth-shattering move last July 30 in which Pittsburgh and Toronto swapped Brad Lincoln and Travis Snider.) Just 11 of those players contributed even a single win of value to their new teams during that time and just two managed 2.0 WAR.

There’s obviously some additional context to be examined in here, since the new acquisitions may be taking time away from those who are decidedly less than replacement level (Matt Garza‘s recent entry into an injury-tattered Texas rotation being a good example), but it’s a quick and effective way to compare across teams and seasons.

By definition, deadline moves are somewhat limited in the value they can offer a team simply because the players have spent most of the season playing elsewhere. As we cross the 100-game threshold this week, slightly less than 40 percent of the season remains to be played, so for starting pitchers that means they might be able to make 11 or 12 starts for their new clubs. Since even the best starters are worth in the 7 WAR value range for an entire season, that makes it difficult to expect more than a one- to two-win boost over replacement in the limited amount of time left in the season — and even that minimal expectation must be lowered if you’re not adding one of those truly elite pitchers in the first place, which rarely happens and won’t this year.

We’ve seen that play out over the past two years in that only five starting pitchers — Ryan DempsterZack GreinkeJ.A. Happ and Anibal Sanchez in 2012, and Doug Fister in 2011 — contributed at least one win above replacement for their new clubs after their deadline trades. Greinke’s Angels sacrificed a package including All-Star shortstop Jean Segura to acquire him, yet of that group, only the two Tigers, Fister and Sanchez, ever threw a postseason pitch for their new clubs even though all five joined rosters that were already among the most talented in the game. With the limited impact relievers can offer over the final two months — maybe 20 to 30 innings — few deadline bullpen additions can make or break the season, either.

It’s a similar story on offense, as just six hitters added even 1.0 WAR to their new teams over the past two seasons — and that’s being generous by including Kevin Youkilis, who was traded from Boston to Chicago before June turned to July last year. In 2011, Carlos Beltran played well for the Giants but at the high cost of pitcher Zack Wheeler, and the Giants missed the playoffs. While Hunter Pence was outstanding for the Phillies that year, providing 2.5 WAR as the only recent offensive example of a player giving his team a huge boost, he also did it for a team that won its division by 13 games. (The next year, Pence was among the least valuable additions at the 2012 deadline, hitting just .219/.287/.384 for San Francisco.)

If there’s value to be had from players moved in deadline deals, it’s more often than not found in subsequent seasons. That seems obvious when you’re the team doing the selling, as David Schoenfield noted when he outlined how much success Texas has had picking up prospects over the past decade (despite being on the losing end of such a deal in 2011 when the Rangers sent Chris Davis to Baltimore). But it’s also why buyers place so much value on adding players who aren’t simply rentals, since the future full year(s) of control they’re adding can be so much more important than the two months immediately ahead.

For example, Hanley Ramirez provided the Dodgers with a nice boost over incumbents Dee Gordon and Luis Cruz when he came over from Miami last July, but the 1.5 WAR he brought wasn’t enough to get them into the playoffs. This year, when healthy, he has been among the most valuable players in the game and a focal point of the Dodgers’ recent run to first place.

Fister was not only excellent down the stretch in 2011, but he has continued to be one of the more valuable and underrated starters in the game ever since. It’s team control that makes Houston starter Bud Norris an appealing target, even though he may not be as desirable otherwise as a rental like Garza.

With the recent changes in the collective bargaining agreement to restrict draft pick compensation, midseason trades have become even more problematic. Players traded midseason are no longer eligible to receive qualifying offers that would entitle their teams to collect an extra draft pick if they leave, further limiting the value of those acquired during the year. It also means that the trading team wants to be compensated for the loss of that pick as well.

As we’ve already seen this year, there are fewer impact players on the market than ever, hurt by the second wild card and the industry trend of locking up young players on long-term contracts before they reach free agency. That may make the trade deadline less fun, but it’s probably a good thing for teams looking to buy — more often than not, the desired in-season impact just isn’t there.

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Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times and TechGraphs, and was an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.

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