Plugging Leaks

The trade deadline is always a confused mess of World Series hopefuls stocking up for the playoffs, bottom feeders buying lottery tickets and playoff contenders (real and imagined) beefing up for the mad dash toward the end of the season. Because anything can happen in the playoffs and anyone who claims to project minor league prospects accurately into the future is lying or an idiot, it is the latter category that interests me the most. So in this column, we’ll take a look at how some of the deals brokered in the past few days will impact who’s playing in October. (Hey, every columnist needs a trade deadline gimmick—this is the best I could come up with while futilely trying to negotiate the Berkeley housing market.)

Basically, despite the large number of deals and players changing hands, only four teams with realistic chances of making the playoffs strongly improved their odds. Noticeably conspicuous from the fray were the Boston Red Sox, Oakland A’s and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, who all stood by as their major competitors improved dramatically. Don’t be surprised if their trade deadline inactivity costs them a shot at a title this season.

New York Yankees: Acquired Bobby Abreu, Cory Lidle and Craig Wilson

With the Yankees tying the Red Sox for first place on Tuesday after picking up Bobby Abreu and Cory Lidle for minor leaguers, New Englanders are crying into their clam chowders (well, if they’re not, they should be). A few weeks ago, I ranked the biggest holes on American League contenders, and Bernie Williams and Sidney Ponson were ninth and tenth on that list, respectively. So even though Abreu hasn’t put up his usual numbers this season and Lidle is nothing more than a solid back of the rotation innings eater, the Yankees have clearly addressed their needs more than any other contender in either league.

While everybody knows about Abreu, a former All Star and Home Run Derby champion, I actually think that Lidle’s acquisition will also play a key role down the stretch for the Bronx Bombers. The Yankees had been using a combination of Ponson and Chacon as their fifth starter, and while no team is actually strong in the back of the rotation, fifth starters still have to start roughly every five days, especially for teams featuring creaky old pitchers like Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina (not to mention an injury prone Jaret Wright); the bottom line is that the games started by Ponson and Chacon count just as much in the standings as the ones started by Mussina and Johnson.

Flukey run last season aside, the Yankees have been trotting out two guys who, in an average start this season, would not give the team much of a chance to win at all in Chacon and Ponson.

PLAYER     2006 ERA    2005 ERA    CAREER ERA
Ponson     5.24        6.21        4.86
Chacon     7.00        3.44        4.90

Lidle      4.74        4.53        4.54

By replacing those two with a starter having a solid season with a consistent recent track record of, well, if not success, then at least solidness, the Yankees might just have stolen the division from the Red Sox by getting Lidle as a throw-in in the Abreu trade.

In addition, picking up Craig Wilson to replace Andy Phillips as the team’s first baseman will likely boost the offense. Wilson is a consistent .800+ OPS hitter, while Phillips and his career .658 OPS have yet to hit their way out of a wet paper bag.

Who knows, with this string of moves, and a now much likelier AL East crown, maybe George Steinbrenner will even start trusting Brian Cashman to run the team.

Texas Rangers: Acquired Carlos Lee, Kip Wells and Matt Stairs

With the A’s and the Angels quiet on the trade front over the deadline, the Rangers emphatically announced their continued presence in the race by dramatically improving their offense. Carlos Lee is a good offensive player having a great offensive year, and while he’s older and about to become a free agent, he should give the Rangers offense a significant boost. Kevin Mench, who Lee will replace in the lineup, isn’t a bad offensive player in his own right, but for the rest of this season Lee could be worth an extra win or two and keep the Rangers in contention till the end.

It’s true that the Rangers’ biggest question marks were on the pitching side, but you can never score too many runs; after all, whoever has more runs at the end of the game wins, and improving your offense is a good way of increasing your own run total.

On the other hand, acquiring the only recently healthy Kip Wells probably won’t help the Rangers as much as might be expected. Wells had a great run from 2002 to 2004, but showed a marked decrease in his ability to strike batters out last season to go along with a rise in his ERA. Just 29 years old, it’s not unrealistic to expect him to return to previous form (and it’s not like bad or mediocre pitchers never have two month long hot streaks), but given the limited time remaining in the season for him to get back into rhythm following a long injury layoff, it’d be a lot to expect him to singlehandedly turn the Texas pitching staff, 11th in the AL in runs allowed, around.

Given his lack of any semblance of defensive skills at this point in his career, Matt Stairs will probably be limited to the occasional start at designated hitter or pinch hitting appearance, where he can still be useful, though likely not in any way that will significantly impact the division race.

San Diego Padres: Acquired Todd Walker and Scott Williamson

Adjustment period aside, Todd Walker should also help fill an important hole for the San Diego Padres. Sure, he’s no great shakes, but even in a down year he is having a much better season than Mark Bellhorn at the plate (.742 OPS vs. .663 OPS), and has a much better track record of recent success. The Padres are stuck in a tight NL West race that, as of games played on Aug. 2, features all five teams within 3.5 games of each other in the standings, and Walker, if he can make the adjustment to third base successfully (and there’s no reason to think that he won’t, unless he lets his two bad throws today get to his head), could mean the difference between the Padres repeating as NL West champions or playing golf in October.

The move for Scott Williamson was slightly curious, as the Padres pen has ranged from solid to stellar this season, and Williamson has been injured and ineffective since leaving the Red Sox two seasons ago. Still, with relief regulars Brian Sweeney and Jon Adkins combining to strike out less than a batter every other inning, adding another power arm to the pen for depth can’t hurt.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Acquired Wilson Betemit, Julio Lugo and Greg Maddux

Every season, there’s a delusional team that thinks it’s still in the race when it really isn’t. It’s possible that the Dodgers, entering today three games under .500 and closer to last place than first place, are that team. But in a division where that only leaves them three games out of first, it’s hard to blame them for making a run for it.

Picking up Wilson Betemit was the big news here, following a strong 2005 with a breakout season (.867 OPS). Hyped as a top prospect seemingly forever, it’s easy to forget that he has only just turned 26 and should still be getting better. Considering the injured state of the Dodger infield, with regular starters Bill Mueller, Jeff Kent and Nomar Garciaparra out, adding Betemit, along with solid infielder Julio Lugo, gives the Dodgers a chance to keep their heads above water until their regulars return. With these moves, look for the Dodgers to be the Padres top challengers in the NL West if they can get a couple of their walking wounded back soon.

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Picking up Greg Maddux will also help them get Chad Billingsley out of the rotation while the getting is good. Somehow, Billingsley has managed a 3.93 ERA despite a WHIP of 1.75 and walking 10 more than he’s struck out. Maddux has fared worse in the runs department this season, but going forward should be a much more reliable option than the wild right hander, who remains a good prospect for the future.

All in all, this season’s trade deadline was much more interesting than last season’s, adding significant intrigue to the AL and NL West races, while potentially swinging the AL East over from the Red Sox to the Yankees. Now that the stage is set by these moves, there’s nothing more to do than to sit back and enjoy the stretch run, which for my money is the most exciting baseball around.

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