Between now and July’s end, baseball fans get swept up in the efforts of their contending or non-contending teams to improve themselves. Several big trades have already been made, including the trade of Manny Machado from Baltimore to Los Angeles in exchange for several prospects. But what is the reality about such trades? Do the teams acquiring the name players actually reach post-season play? Do they get to the World Series, or win it? And what of the prospects; do they generate any value down the road for the downtrodden teams that acquire them? To answer these questions 50 trades were examined between 2007 and 2013. The results follow:
Methodology: The 50 trades that were evaluated took place between 2007 and 2013. Choosing this time period allows consideration both of the short-term impact of the trade on the contending team as well as the long-term impact of the trade on the non-contending team. A trade was included if two conditions were met: 1. The team acquiring the proven commodity was within five games of first place at the time the trade was consummated; 2. The team acquiring the prospects was more than 10 games out of first place. The short-term value of the trade was judged based on the Wins Above Replacement generated by the acquired player for the contending team between the date of acquisition and season’s end. (Some of the acquired players generated value for their new teams in subsequent seasons, but for purposes of this exercise that subsequent value was not included.) The long-term value of the trade was judged based on the Wins Above Replacement generated by the prospects for their new teams in the five seasons subsequent to the trade.
Of the 51 contending teams acquiring players (there was a three-team trade involving two contending teams), 19 went on to play in that year’s post-season. That means 32 (63 percent) failed to do so. Of the 19 that did reach post-season play after making such a July trade, eight reached that season’s World Series, five of them winning it. Those five were the 2007 Red Sox, 2008 Phillies, 2010 Giants, 2012 Giants and 2013 Red Sox.
What is far less clear, however, is whether any of those teams won that season’s World Series due to their July trades. The 2007 Red Sox acquired relief pitcher Eric Gagne from the Texas Rangers in exchange for three prospects, but Gagne actually generated a negative WAR during the Boston portion of his 2007 season, then gave up two runs in just three innings of post-season work. The 2008 Phillies traded three prospects to get starter Joe Blanton, but he too generated a negative regular season WAR. Blanton did pitch respectably in the post-season, making one start in a World Series the Phillies took in five games. The 2010 Giants sent two prospects to Pittsburgh for reliever Javier Lopez, who generated a 0.9 WAR that might arguably have been central to San Francisco’s eventual two-game NL West margin over San Diego. But when the 2012 Giants picked up Hunter Pence from Philadelphia for three prospects, Pence generated only 0.3 WAR for his new team, then batted .210 in post-season play. The 2013 Red Sox acquired starter Jake Peavy to bolster their pennant chances, and he did generate a 0.7 regular season WAR. But Peavy’s three post-season starts were terrible, generating one loss and a 7.09 ERA.
A deeper look at the data suggests that of the 50 deals, only two boosted the teams acquiring established players into post-season play; the rest either didn’t make it or would have made it with or without the trades. The two truly impactful short-term deals were the Brewers’ 2008 acquisition from Cleveland of C.C. Sabathia for four prospects and the Dodgers’ pickup of outfielder Manny Ramirez that same season for two prospects. Ramirez generated a 3.5 WAR for an LA team that won its division by two games. The Brewers beat the Mets for the NL wild card by one game; Sabathia produced a 4.9 WAR after joining Milwaukee. Neither of those teams, however, made it to the World Series. The Phillies beat Sabathia’s Brewers in a four-game NLDS, Sabathia allowing five earned runs in his only appearance, a loss. Ramirez went 13-for-25 in the 2008 post-season, but that did not prevent a four-games-to-one NLCS loss to the Phillies, who went on to beat Tampa Bay in the World Series.
Media types and officials of downtrodden teams routinely gush about the transformative value of prospects acquired at or near the trade deadline in exchange for established major leaguers. The reality is very much otherwise. The analyzed deals shipped a total of 121 prospects to non-contending teams, of whom only 44 generated long-term positive value for their new teams. And while there were a handful of long-term franchise-changers among the 44 – Corey Kluber, Michael Brantley and Josh Donaldson – most could only hope to be counted among “useful parts” such as Kyle Hendricks in Chicago, Josh Harrison in Pittsburgh and Tanner Roark in Washington.
Among the teams who traded stars for prospects in July deals from 2007 through 2013, only 21 percent reached post-season play during the five subsequent seasons.
Of the 50 trades, only 11 generated long-term value in excess of 5.0 games for the teams acquiring prospects. The best of those were the July 31, 2007 trade in which the Rangers acquired five players – among them Elvis Andrus and Matt Harrison – from the Braves for Mark Teixeira (+46.6 long-term WAR), the July 31, 2010 deal in which the Indians acquired Kluber from San Diego in a three-team trade that cost them Jake Westbrook (+31.5 long-term WAR), the July 7, 2008 trade that brought Cleveland Michael Brantley and three other players in exchange for Sabathia (+18.4 long-term WAR), and the July 30, 2011 trade that brought Baltimore Chris Davis and Tommy Hunter in exchange for reliever Koji Uehara (+18.7 long-term WAR).
The 51 teams trading for prospects – again, one trade involved three teams – had 255 opportunities you take advantage of the long-term benefits of that trade to reach post-season in any of the five seasons subsequent to the trade. In 53 of those subsequent seasons, the team succeeded in reaching post-season. That number is padded a bit, however, by the reality that some downtrodden teams made multiple trades, some reached multiple subsequent post-seasons, and some did both. Five times since 2008 a team that had invested in a July “deal for futures” did win the World Series, those five being the 2010 and 2012 Giants, the 2015 Royals, 2016 Cubs and 2017 Astros. Three other teams reached the World Series, those being the 2010 and 2011 Rangers and the 2015 Mets.
That is not to say, however, that the long-term deals were consequential to future success. The “futures” deal executed by the 2010 and 2012 champion Giants came about on July 20, 2008, when they sent Ray Durham to the Brewers in exchange for Steve Hammond and Darren Ford. Hammond neer made the majors, while Ford compiled a career WAR of +0.2 for the 2011-12 Giants. Here are the details of the deals that brought prospects to the future World Series champion Royals, Cubs and Astros:
Date Team Traded To For Long-term gain
7-30-11 Royals Mike Aviles Boston Kendal Volz —–
Yamaico Navarro —–
7-24-12 Astros Wandy Rodriguez Pitts. Cotton Cain —–
Robbie Grossman +1.6
Rudy Owens -0.2
7-31-12 Cubs Ryan Dempster Texas Kyle Hendricks +14.5
Christian Villanueva (traded to SD)
7-31-12 Cubs Geovany Soto Texas Jake Brigham —-
It’s readily apparent that only one of those “futures” trades contributed to the acquiring team’s world championship, that being the Cubs’ 2012 pickup of Hendricks from Texas. Four of the eight “futures” never made it to the big leagues, and a fifth never made it with the team that acquired him. Only two, Hendricks and Grossman, produced a net positive long-term WAR for their new teams.
Overall judgment: With rare exceptions, most trades of front-liners for prospects do not elevate teams to playoff status, either because the moves were unnecessary or because the acquired front liners were overrated. Nor, with rare exceptions, did the trades markedly improve the long-term prospects of the teams acquiring the prospects, either because the prospects never developed or because they proved at best to be marginal contributors.