On the eve of Game 1 of the 2009 World Series, just after he had submitted his team's official roster for the showdown with the Phillies, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman picked up the phone and went shopping. He dialed Dave Dombrowski, his counterpart with the Tigers, who was perplexed to hear from the G.M. of a team about to play the World Series.
"Why are you calling me?" Dombrowski asked.
Cashman had figured his work for 2009 was over once he submitted his Series roster. It was time to work on the next season, and one of his priorities was to upgrade centerfield, a position shared by Melky Cabrera and Brett Gardner in what, a week later, would become a world championship season. Cashman targeted Curtis Granderson, then a 28-year-old Tiger under club control through 2013 (at an average of around $9 million per season) who had had just enough of an off year (.249 batting average, 141 strikeouts) to perhaps be available. Dombrowski, watching the Detroit economy sour and anticipating a drop in attendance, was willing to listen in order to create payroll flexibility.
That phone call led to scores of others, which in turn led to a three-way trade among the Yankees, Tigers and Diamondbacks five weeks later at the winter meetings. Seven players—all between the ages of 22 and 28—were uprooted, and maybe, just maybe, the seeds were sown for a 2011 World Series triumph. All seven of those players are in the postseason, spread among teams representing half the field. Says Tigers manager Jim Leyland, "It's one three-way deal in which every team involved can legitimately say, 'I'm happy we did it.'"
Watching the Division Series without being reminded of The Trade was like surfing channels or the Web without encountering a Kardashian. On Sunday, for instance, righthander Max Scherzer of Detroit (traded from Arizona) no-hit the Yankees into the sixth inning of Game 2 of their series, with Austin Jackson (from New York) leading off and playing centerfield and Phil Coke (from New York) and Daniel Schlereth (from Arizona) in the Tigers' bullpen. Detroit survived an eighth-inning home run from—guess who—Granderson for a 5--3 victory that evened the series at one game apiece.
Arizona, meanwhile, dropped two games in Milwaukee last weekend, entrusting both starts to pitchers who could be considered direct descendents in The Trade family tree. Righthanders Ian Kennedy (acquired from New York) and Daniel Hudson (from the White Sox in July 2010 in exchange for righthander Edwin Jackson, an original Trade piece the Diamondbacks obtained from Detroit) won 37 games this year for Arizona, only to get ambushed by the Brewers for nine runs in a combined 12 innings in Games 1 and 2.
Edwin Jackson is the only player among the original seven no longer with the team that acquired him in December 2009. After being shipped to the White Sox for Hudson, he was traded to the Blue Jays a few days before this year's trade deadline and immediately flipped to the Cardinals, his sixth team in 33 months. Jackson, who could be on the move again this winter as a free agent, was the likely Game 4 starter for St. Louis in its NLDS against the Phillies, which was tied at a game apiece after the Cardinals came from behind for a 5--4 win on Sunday. "He's like the Kevin Bacon of baseball," says St. Louis outfielder Lance Berkman. "Six Degrees of Edwin Jackson. I think Edwin is obviously a guy with a lot of talent, a lot of raw ability. But I think he also has come a long way in terms of his polish. Early on some of the teams may have traded him thinking, Well, we need a guy that pitches and not just throws. I think Edwin's developing into that."
Three-way deals are difficult enough to pull off; having all three teams win their divisions two seasons later is an extreme rarity. Perhaps the one other three-team swap that had a similar impact on a future postseason was the deal made over four days at the 1980 winter meetings in which the Padres, Cardinals and Brewers shuffled 17 players. Two years later St. Louis, having acquired outfielder David Green and pitcher Dave LaPoint, beat Milwaukee, which had grabbed closer Rollie Fingers and catcher Ted Simmons, in the World Series. If the Brewers close out Arizona, it would be their first postseason series win since '82.
Granderson has advanced so far from his down season of 2009 that when he batted at Yankee Stadium in Games 1 and 2 last weekend, fans chanted "MVP! MVP!" The centerfielder put himself in the award discussion with 41 home runs this season and league-leading totals of 119 RBIs and 136 runs—thresholds reached in those categories in the same season by only four other Yankees: Alex Rodriguez, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth.
Granderson's revival began in August 2010, when he was struggling so badly for the Yankees that he checked out of the lineup for two days to undergo a swing change with hitting coach Kevin Long. Think of it as a swing intervention. Granderson reduced the amount of motion in his hands in his preswing routine and kept two hands on the bat on his follow-through rather than one. "I didn't consider them major," Granderson says of the changes. "The main thing was to be more quiet in my setup. And I closed my stance a bit. And the two hands? Hey, 50 percent of hitters do it, 50 percent use one hand, so who knows?"