Late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner told his then manager Lou Piniella on July 13, 1987, "I just won you the pennant. I got you Steve Trout." Trout, a lefthanded starting pitcher Steinbrenner acquired from the Cubs in a trade, never won a game for New York. He went 0--4 in 14 games, and the Yankees finished in fourth place.
Such exuberance over the acquisition of a veteran starter is repeated nearly every July. The hired gun, even if he starts only a dozen or so games, is the most coveted asset of the pennant race, the brass ring of the trade-deadline carousel. The Rangers, a franchise that has never won a postseason series, kicked off the shopping season this July by doing exactly what helped the Phillies win the NL pennant last year: They traded for Cliff Lee. Texas obtained the lefthander from Seattle on July 9 for four young players, the most significant one being first baseman Justin Smoak. The Rangers' chief competitor in the AL West, the Angels, answered that move on Sunday, when they acquired Dan Haren from the Diamondbacks for lefthander Joe Saunders and two minor league pitchers. One more ace was expected to be dealt before the July 31 deadline: Roy Oswalt of Houston, who has especially drawn interest from the Phillies and the Cardinals. A consolation prize for teams that miss out on Oswalt could be Ted Lilly of the Cubs, a less spectacular but solid starter who has drawn interest from the Mets and the Tigers.
Oswalt (143--82 lifetime) turns 33 in August and is owed $16 million next year and, if his option is exercised, $16 million in 2012. Despite his 6--12 record, Oswalt has his best strikeout rate (8.4/9 IP) and WHIP (1.11) since he was a rookie, in 2001. Haren, 29, is owed $25.5 million through 2012, with a club option for 2013. Like Oswalt, he has been a durable pitcher with strikeout stuff, though in 36 starts since the 2009 All-Star break he is 12--13 with a 4.61 ERA.
"When you're giving up six or seven years of potential," says Texas G.M. Jon Daniels, referring to trading prospects, "you want as much of a given as you can get. That's the ace pitcher."
Getting a top starter for prospects is so popular in July because, despite how Trout panned out, such trades are a good bet to succeed. Three July acquisitions in the past four years have won World Series games for their new teams: Lee of the 2009 Phillies, Joe Blanton of the 2008 Phillies and Jeff Weaver of the 2006 Cardinals, who combined to go 25--10 with their new teams in those years, including 9--2 in the postseason. Moreover, July acquisitions CC Sabathia (2008 Brewers), Denny Neagle (2000 Yankees), Randy Johnson (1998 Astros) and David Cone (1995 Yankees) helped their new teams get into the postseason the same year, while Kevin Appier (1999 Athletics) and Curt Schilling (2000 Diamondbacks) helped deliver postseason berths the next year.
As an added bonus, most July trades for an ace in the wild-card era have heavily favored the team getting the ace. You have to go back to 1998, when Houston shipped righthander Freddy Garcia, infielder Carlos Guillen and lefthander John Halama to Seattle for Johnson, to find a good return in prospects for an ace traded in July. More recent trades need more time to judge, but the early returns are tepid on the key players dealt for Jake Peavy (Clayton Richard went from the White Sox to the Padres) and Lee last year (Carlos Carrasco, from Philadelphia to Cleveland) and for Sabathia in 2008 (Matt LaPorta from Milwaukee to Cleveland).
Rarely is the cost as high as what the Tigers incurred back in 1987, one month after Steinbrenner went Trout fishing. Detroit traded for veteran pitcher Doyle Alexander of the Braves, who helped Detroit make the playoffs. Atlanta, however, acquired from Detroit a prospect named John Smoltz, who would win 213 games.
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