By Marc Normandin
Sometimes the trade deadline feels like a letdown. We get weeks of rumors -- which come nonstop in the days leading up to the deadline itself -- and then often, no real payoff. Maybe there's an intriguing trade here or a weird one there, but it never feels as big as we want it to.
That's not always the case, however. There are plenty of trades that reignite our love for mid-summer rumor season, like the one that the Red Sox and A's just pulled off. Our goal today is to recap some of the most significant of the wild-card era. After all, that's the time period in baseball with the most playoff spots, and therefore the most teams fighting desperately to remain relevant past July's closing days. Presented in no particular order, the biggest deadline trades of the last 20 years. Will Jon Lester and Jonny Gomes for Yoenis Cespedes end up on this list one day?
July 31, 2008: Dodgers, Red Sox and Pirates
The Red Sox were tired of Manny Ramirez' controversy. He had helped them win two World Series in a four-year period, but they felt they could win another without him or any of the antics that kept him in the headlines for reasons other than his amazing bat. The Dodgers needed offense for the stretch run and the Pirates wanted to capitalize on the last season-plus of team control they had on their own budding star, Jason Bay, so the three clubs got together and worked out one of the larger deadline deals in recent memory.
Third baseman Andy LaRoche and minor league reliever Bryan Morris went to the Pirates from the Dodgers, with the Red Sox sending change-of-scenery relief candidate Craig Hansen along with outfield prospect Brandon Moss to Pittsburgh. The Pirates sent Bay to Boston, and the Sox sent Ramirez to the Dodgers, completing the swap of sluggers without Boston having to take too far of a step back offensively.
Well, in theory. In his 53 games with the Dodgers, Manny batted .396/.489/.743, helping propel the Dodgers to first in the NL West in what was a tight and mediocre race. As they finished just two games up on the Diamondbacks, it's easy to point to this Ramirez deal as the reason they pulled it off. The Dodgers would lose to the Phillies in the NLCS, but they ended up keeping Ramirez around through 2010, with the still-slugging outfielder finishing his Los Angeles career with a 171 OPS+ in 223 games, when he wasn't busy being suspended. Bay wasn't quite as successful with the Sox, but he helped lead them to the ALCS, an event that briefly teased a Red Sox vs. Manny World Series until both the Dodgers and Sox lost. Bay then went on to have an excellent 2009 season before the Sox let him walk as a free agent, but used his draft pick compensation to acquire Anthony Ranaudo, who could very well be part of the Red Sox rotation before 2014 is over.
The Pirates were left out in the cold with basically the entire deal. Hansen remained a bust, and neither Morris or LaRoche ever turned into anything significant: As for Moss, he's incredible now with the A's, but posted a 77 OPS+ over parts of three seasons with the Pirates.
July 31, 1998: Mariners and Astros
Randy Johnson was a pending free agent on a mediocre Mariners club. His ERA wasn't what you'd expect from a pitcher with four top-three Cy Young award finishes in the previous five seasons, but all the numbers were still there, and he was an absolute workhorse, with 160 innings already logged by deadline time -- that was seven innings per start, on average, during the start of baseball's most prolific period for offense. The Astros had need of an arm as they pushed for a playoff spot, so they gave up Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen and eventually John Halama to pluck the Big Unit from the M's.
Garcia and Guillen would go on to successful and lengthy careers, but the star of this swap was without a doubt Johnson. He made 11 starts for the Astros in the season's final two months, compiling another 84 innings while going 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA; the average NL ERA in 1998 was 4.28, three full runs higher.
The Astros would end up winning 102 games and the NL Central, but lost in the NLDS to the San Diego Padres, who had their own ace in Kevin Brown. Brown beat Johnson in the series opener in a game that remained scoreless until the sixth, then Johnson lost to Sterling Hitchcock in the series finale. Neither of these were Johnson's fault, as he allowed just three runs over 14 innings, and saw just two runs of support from what was normally a fantastic lineup.
July 31, 1997: Red Sox and Mariners
The Mariners were cosmically owed the return they got for Johnson in 1998, in large part due to their horrific 1997 deadline deal. In order to receive closer Heathcliff Slocumb, who was a decent enough pitcher but hardly an elite stopper, the Mariners traded two prospects: catcher Jason Varitek and pitcher Derek Lowe.
Varitek would go on to play for the Red Sox for 15 years, developing a reputation as one of the top defensive catchers and game callers in baseball while also managing to bat .273/.353/.460 from 1999 -- his first year as the full-time starter -- through the end of his peak in 2005. Varitek was also a key contributor on both the 2004 and 2007 World Series-winning Red Sox teams, especially in 2007, where his abilities behind the plate helped a relatively shaky Red Sox staff through the season. He's now an assistant to the general manager, tasked with scouting and helping to develop future Red Sox.
Lowe pitched for the Red Sox for eight years, posting a 127 ERA+ in time split between relieving and starting, with the bulk of his 1,037 innings coming in the latter role. He was on the mound for each of the clinching games of the 2004 playoffs, and managed to finish his 17-year career without ever landing on the disabled list.
Slocumb posted a 92 ERA+ for Seattle over parts of two years and 96 innings.
July 31, 2007: Braves and Rangers
Franchise-shaping trades do happen in July sometimes. Ask the Rangers, who sent Mark Teixeira to the Braves with a year and change of service time left on him in exchange for a couple of prospects you might recognize: Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison and Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
Yeah, Salty never quite developed with the Rangers, but he eventually turned into a quality catcher for the Red Sox before signing a free agent deal with the Marlins this past winter. Harrison was quietly becoming one of the better pitchers in the AL before back surgeries derailed him, but it took hundreds of quality innings before that happened. Andrus is one of the top defensive shortstops in the majors, even if his bat sometimes leaves something to be desired, and Feliz was a successful closer before arm trouble derailed his career and conversion to starting. The Rangers used much of the return from this deal to help turn them into perennial contenders just a few years later, which was the entire point of the trade from their side.
The Braves got a lovely two months out of Teixeira, with the first baseman batting .317/.404/.615, but it wasn't nearly enough, and Atlanta ended up finishing in third place in the NL East in spite of his efforts. They would trade him a year later to the Angels while mired in another mediocre season, and would only get back Casey Kotchman.
July 7, 2008: Brewers and Indians
It came a few weeks before the deadline, but its impact was undeniable. CC Sabathia had been a force of nature for three straight years, but was only pretty good in 2008 after three months of Indians baseball. With Sabathia a free agent at season's end, Cleveland dealt him for a package centered around Matt Laporta, and then the Sabathia of old arrived in Milwaukee. The now ace of the Brewers made 17 starts for Milwaukee, throwing 130 innings while posting a 255 ERA+ and striking out five times as many batters as he walked. Had he been eligible, that ERA+ would have easily led the Senior Circuit, as NL leader Tim Lincecum was only at 168.
Sabathia helped propel the Brewers to a wild card, their first-ever playoff berth since the switch to the NL, and first overall since losing the World Series in 1982. They would lose in the NLDS to the Phillies, but Sabathia made them good enough to finish ahead of the Mets, Astros and Cardinals, who likely all would have come out ahead of the Brewers had they not added Sabathia before the strongest stretch of his career.
Laporta played in parts of four seasons for the Indians but contributed little, and hasn't seen big league time since 2012. Pitcher Zach Jackson never amounted to anything either, but the player to be named later in the deal, who wasn't officially traded until three months later, was Michael Brantley. After a slow start to his career, Brantley is in the midst of a breakout campaign, having made his first All-Star team earlier this month.
July 29, 2009: Indians and Phillies
The Indians decided to give the Sabathia deal a second go, this time with Cliff Lee as the main piece. Lee was the Indians' top hurler in a post-CC world, and he was offered up to the Phillies, fresh off their 2008 World Series victory but hungry for another, in exchange for a package including Jason Donald, Carlos Carrasco and Lou Marson.
It's okay if you feel bad for the Indians right now.
Lee went on to post a 124 ERA+ for the Phillies, helping bring them back to their second consecutive World Series. While he allowed just five runs in his two starts and 16 innings, the Phillies fell to the Yankees, and dealt Lee to the Mariners months later -- like the Indians before and the Mariners after, the Phillies got little in return -- before eventually re-signing him to a lucractive long-term deal as a free agent 364 days later.
July 26, 2000: Phillies and Diamondbacks
The Phillies traded an ace to the Diamondbacks nine years before the Lee deal, sending longtime Phillie Curt Schilling to Arizona in exchange for Omar Daal, Nelson Figueroa, Travis Lee and Vicente Padilla. Padilla is the only one of the bunch who stuck around long enough to be productive, but Schilling took to the desert like he always belonged there. He posted a 130 ERA+ in his initial half-season with the D'backs, then, in 2001, was part of the 1-2 punch with Johnson that landed Arizona their first World Series championship. Schilling threw a league-leading 256 innings, led in strikeout-to-walk ratio with 7.5 times more punch outs than free passes, and led in wins, complete games and starts. He would finish second to his teammate, Johnson, in the Cy Young vote, who deserved to win in spite of how good Schill had been.
It's incredible the Diamondbacks almost lost the World Series despite the presence of these two, but they did not -- and got there in the first place -- in thanks to this deal a year earlier.
July 31, 2004: Red Sox, Twins, Cubs, Expos
This might not be the best, biggest, or whatever descriptive word you want to use for these deadline deals, but it's likely the most famous of the bunch. It's the deal that's believed to help give the Red Sox the last pieces they needed to make a run at the postseason and bring home their first World Series title in 86 years.
The Red Sox sent Nomar Garciaparra, who could still hit but was lacking defensively after age and injuries began to take their toll, to the Cubs along with prospect Matt Murton. The Cubs sent Francis Beltran, Alex Gonzalez and Brendan Harris to the Expos, and minor leaguer Justin Jones to the Twins. The Expos sent Orlando Cabrera to the Red Sox to replace Nomar, and the Twins sent first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz to Boston.
The result was the unthinkable for Red Sox fans, with Nomar in a Cubs jersey -- or any jersey besides Boston's, really -- but it ended up working in the end. The Red Sox wanted to improve their defense, so they found a defensive replacement and platoon partner for incumbent first baseman Kevin Millar in Mientkiewicz, and replaced Nomar with Cabrera, who didn't have the same bat but was considered a high-quality defender at the position. Cabrera ended up batting .294/.320/.465 in 58 games, dominated at the plate in the ALCS and posted a .381 on-base percentage in four World Series games. Mientkiewicz didn't fare so well offensively, and spent most of his time as a replacement, but he did his job defensively and managed to hit in the first two rounds of the postseason before sitting for all but one at-bat in the World Series.
It didn't end there for the Red Sox, either. With the pair of draft picks they received as compensation for letting Cabrera leave as a free agent after ending their 86 years of futility, they selected Jacoby Ellsbury and Jed Lowrie. Ellsbury ended up as a major component of two additional World Series winning Sox clubs, and Lowrie has had a fine career at the plate when healthy as well.
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Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written for BaseballProspectus, ESPN, and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin