It has become as familiar as the swallows return to Capistrano or the cicada which chirp toward the dog days of July and August. Usually by Memorial Day, the separation between contender teams and pretender teams has been meted out by record, standings, payroll, box office gate and contract structure (in that order).
MLB teams with terrible records and high-priced players are desperate to swing deals while those players have trade value and other teams look to rent some help for the stretch run. The Trading Deadline has become almost a national holiday for baseball fans – not unlike Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day. July 31. Fans pack the family for a the three day weekend, head for the beach (or down the shore if you prefer) and glue themselves to MLB’s 24-hour live coverage both online and on TV involving rumors, Twitter feeds and pure speculation – another sports event without actual sports. OK maybe it’s not quite that bad! Not like NFL Draft or March Madness Selection Show. More like a Fantasy Baseball show where the players actually change teams.
For baseball General Managers, this is the time of year when they earn their salary. These guys strut around the ballpark in sunglasses and golf shirts dividing their time between photo ops, media banquets and tee times most of the year but for the weeks leading up to the Trading Deadline they are sleeping in their office, living out of vending machines and burning the midnight oil. Half of them have overpriced players with expiring contracts on sinking ship teams looking to sell. The other half have decided that their team is in contention and needs one more piece added. Usually the latter are looking for “difference-makers” either an extra starting pitcher or a lineup thumper or possibly some bullpen help. Much as it is with real estate or the stock market, buyers and sellers need to negotiate a deal that works for both sides – and it is about locquation, locquation, locquation.
Large market teams become accustomed to the role of buyer (such as the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox or White Sox) and are always expected to go shop for whatever they need each season. Even the deepest farm systems have limits regarding minor league talent to deal – not to mention payroll issues. Philadelphia has become a bit spoiled by recent deadline deals. 2008 saw the importation of Joe “Kung Fu Panda II” Blanton from Oakland for little-known Gio Gonzalez and Josh Outman (ironically this deal was originally supposed to include much-hyped Michael Taylor). The Phillies won that year with Blanton and Jamie Moyer (picked up toward the end of 2006) in the rotation with Cole Hamels, Kyle Lohse and not much else. If you recall, Brett Myers was splitting his time between the rotation and the bullpen in 2007 but had returned to the starting corps in time to hoist the trophy.
2009 saw GM Ruben Amaro try to make an offer for Roy Halladay and then “settle” for Cliff Lee. The deal included Lee—along with OF Ben Francisco leaving Cleveland for Philadelphia, in exchange for Carlos Carrasco, Jason Donald, Lou Marson and Jason Knapp. All Lee did was pitch a complete game (5-1 vs. Giants) taking a no-hitter into the sixth and notching two hits as a batter (double and run scored) in his first game as a Phillie. Through his first five games against the NL, Lee amassed a 5–0 record, 39 K in 40 IP, and a 0.68 ERA. His success carried into the postseason and resulted in a 6-1 win over the Yankees in Game One of the World Series (10K, no walks, no earned runs). Amaro felt vindicated but the Phils lost the series and Amaro still wanted Halladay. So like Captain Ahab, GM Amaro went off in search of his proverbial white whale. Eventually, the Phillies offered Toronto an offseason trade on Dec. 14 which was surprisingly similar to the one offered at the trading deadline – save that this one did not include young lefty JA Happ. The deal did include heralded prospect Kyle Drabeck along with catching prospect Travis D’Anard and Michael Taylor. Halladay also agreed to a three-year, $60 million contract extension with a one-year vesting option for $20 million with the Phillies. Lee was then dealt to Seattle in an effort to “re-stock the farm system” but instead resulting in the Phillies acquiring for J. C. Ramírez, Phillippe Aumont and Tyson Gillies.
At the 2010 Trading Deadline Phillies Amaro orchestrated a deal with his old trading partner (and former boss) Houston Astros GM Ed Wade. Wade had made the Brad Lidge deal (Lidge and Eric Bruntlett in exchange for OF Michael Bourn, RP Geoff Geary and 3B Michael Costanzo) possible not to mention taking Phillies castoffs Brett Myers and Jason Michaels into the fold. Wade would also send Lance Berkman to the Bronx for a two month rental. The Yankees barely even noticed Berkman in the lineup as he struggled with American League pitching and wound up signing in St. Louis. This time Wade and Amaro swung a deal which brought Roy Oswalt to Philadelphia in exchange for JA Happ, OF Anthony Gose and SS Jonathan Villar plus $11M. The Phillies also are famous for picking up veterans like Matt Stairs and Mike Sweeney for the stretch run.
The good news? Phillies have won 4 straight NL East titles, two NL pennants and one World Championship and are making a run at five straight years of being one of the landmark elite MLB franchises. The bad news is that their payroll (just over $175 million) ranks second only to the New York Yankees (who are just under $200 million). The Phillies bulging payroll has put them within reach of Major League Baseball’s Competitive Balance Tax glass ceiling for the first time in team history. The $175 million Phillies payroll includes average annual values of contracts of players on the 40-man roster, benefits and signing bonuses. By season’s end (if nothing changes) the payroll could be even higher with performance and award bonuses owed to existing players. MLB’s luxury tax threshold is $178 million meaning that every dollar over is taxed at 22%.
Conventional wisdom indicates that the Phillies need to dump some salary dead weight – but who? Well, first to mind when one hears the term salary dead weight is Joe Blanton ($8.5 million contract through 2012). Sadly Blanton (1-2, 5.50 ERA, 6 GS, 34 IP, 45 H, 21 runs – all earned, 9 BB/24K) has been battling shoulder and elbow soreness all season. Not even Ed Wade would trade for this guy! Next to be considered might be Raul Ibanez ($10.5 M remaining on his contract which expires end of 2011) as he could be a DH or pinch hitter for some wealthy American League team (that can afford to pay $10M for a part-time player). Ibanez was below the Mendoza line until two weeks ago (now .236, 4 HR, 18 RBI) but still could prove valuable as a role player for either the Phillies or a trading partner. Who in their right mind is going to trade a major league hitting outfielder (which the Phils desperately need) for Raul Ibanez – a streaky, aging, limited major league hitter? Jimmy Rollins’ deal at $8M expires after the 2011 season but the only other shortstop above the AA level is Wilson Valdez. What truly makes sense is to deal from a place of surplus wealth – which means Brad Lidge and Jose Contreras.
Brad Lidge has been anything but “Lights Out” since his amazing perfect 2008 season (41 SV, 1.95 ERA, 69 IP, 35BB/92K) which resulted in the Phillies franchise second World Championship. 2009 saw his ERA balloon to 7.21 and he notched just 31 saves in 62 games. It was later revealed that he was suffering from several injuries and he turned in a respectable performance in 2010 (27 SV in 50 games, 2.96 ERA). His 2011 season has so far consisted of rotator cuff surgery, rehab and recovery and it remains to be seen exactly when he will be able to return or how effective he might be. He is 35 years old and owed approximated $10M on his contract. Even if Lidge were to return, would he accept a setup role to his former caddy Ryan Madsen? Meanwhile Jose Contreras ($2.75 M per season through 2012) might be more palatable to potential suitors. Contreras is a converted starter who suddenly last season became an effective setup man for Madsen and Lidge. After it was announced that Lidge’s rotator cuff surgery would sideline him into June, it was Contreras not Madsen who was named closer. That experiment lasted all of 2-1/2 weeks as Contreras was sidelined with elbow damage. Assuming either Contreras or Lidge return healthy, they might be the most viable and most marketable trade bait. Every team is always seeking more pitching and in the modern era of specialized bullpens what team wouldn’t want an upgrade to their setup corps?
Now the real question of who might be available? A lot of that depends upon the standings by June. With the wildcard and divisional champion spots available, the postseason push usually includes a larger field of teams until very late in the season. Even teams hovering around the .500 mark could consider themselves contenders in a weak division or a crowded wildcard race. So we’d be looking at teams who are well below .500 or so horribly far behind the pack that vultures are taking resort weekends to await the arrival of these cellar-dwellers within satellite range of the division leaders. Baltimore, Minnesota, Chicago White Sox, Washington, Houston and San Diego all appear to be candidates for trade fodder. By that time, their “Games Back” column in the standings should read like the va-va-va-voom measurements on Marilyn Monroe (or in some cases Kathy Bates). Other teams that will take a wait-and-see approach would be LA Dodgers, Arizona, Cubs, Pittsburgh, Mets, Seattle, Kansas City, Detroit and Toronto.
By July we could be talking about real estate agents for the likes of Miguel Cabrera, Vladimir Guererro, Derek Lee, Mark Reynolds, Paul Konerko, Carlos Quentin, Adam Dunn, Hunter Pence, Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, Ryan Ludwick, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Jeff Francoeur, Josh Willingham, Andrew McCutcheon, Ichiro Suzuki and Jose Bautista. Mind you, this is not a complete list and it is likely to only include players with expiring contracts but part of the fun is that you never know who will be on the open market. Could Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder be dealt if their teams fall out of contention? Maybe teams would go cheaper and rent from the Over 40 Store with Jim Thome or Jason Giambi? What about BJ Upton or Carlos Pena? What would the asking price be for Felix Hernandez, Jered Weaver or Dallas Braden? Could Danny Haren change teams yet again and what about anyone of value on the Washington Nationals? San Francisco became scrap heap specialists last year acquiring Cody Ross and Pat Burrell for the stretch run but if the Dodgers blow up can San Diego step into contention again? Ryan Ludwick could be on the move again to help a club for the right price and don’t forget all of the great talent shopping in Wrigleyville. More interesting, what if Cleveland keeps winning and winning and winning? Could they go from worst to first and become a buyer on the open market or will they look to sell off the likes of Grady Sizemore and Shin Soo Choo? Let’s wait and see what rumors abound…
About the Author
Written by Christopher Rowe
Contributing writer Comcast Sports, NY Times contributing stringer 1996-2000, Contributing writer Yahoo Sports (2001 World Series). Contributing writer Newsday Long Island (1992-1994, Jets Training Camp) and Newak Star Ledger. Freelance Copywriter, Editor/Founder Atlantic Times Weekly (1993-2003) fantasy football magazine, produced screenwriter and general humorist. Hofstra University grad, Marist College honorary alum, Salesian; Purveyor of the Value and Valor of Philadelphia Eagles 1960 NFL Championship; Adrent believer that Eagles could have won Super Bowl XV...and Super Bowl XXXIX...plus modern decade of Eagles 5 NFC Championships... Believer in the Broad Street Bullies and the 1983 Sixers... Witness to Philadelphia Phillies World Series championships 1980 & 2008, Suffered Phillies first pro sports team to reach 10,000 losses,witnessed "1980 Cardiac Kids," 1983 "Wheeze Kids," 1993 "Macho Row" and many, many, many not-so-memorable seasons in-between... until the Philadelphia Baseball Renaissance of 21st Century, Five NL East division titles 2007-2011, 3 NLCS appearances 2008-2010, 2 consecutive World Series berths 2008 & 2009. 2008 World Champions of baseball [miss ya Harry and Richie]; "collector" of MLB ballparks (42 stadiums including 15 which are gone); Fantasy Football & Baseball player since 1992. Always a sports fan... Tenui Nec Dimittam Contact me firstname.lastname@example.org