Recent History’s Biggest Trades Within the Division

Here’s one of baseball’s ol’ conundrums: to trade within the division or not. On the one hand, every team, in theory, participates in a trade only because they believe their team will ultimately reap the greater bounty. So who better than to reap great bounties from, then, if not one’s divisional foe?

But then again, if one is positioned as the “seller” in the trade, receiving future prospective talent in exchange for future veteran experience, aren’t you boosting your rival’s odds of making the playoffs? Which thus raises your rival’s odds at reaping the previously unavailable bounties, i.e.: increased revenues the following season, attainment of status as a desirable free-agent destination, glorious championship booty?

But then again, if you are truly reaping the greater trade bounty, won’t these additional spoils be, in due time, gloriously available to you?

I will not attempt to answer any of these questions. Instead, with some notable shifting around within their division during this most manic of weeks — Scott Kazmir, Jonathan Papelbon, Juan Uribe — I wanted to know which intra-division deal (completed before the July 31 non-waiver deadline) of the last decade saw the most WAR changing hands in that season. I’m looking at the most impactful trade within each division, and without considering value from the trades that came in future seasons or transactions. (Also: I’m using Baseball-Reference WAR here, as B-R splits up WAR by team played for within the same season.) Ordered by the divisions that saw the least to most WAR shifting hands:

NL East
July 31, 2009 – Marlins acquire Nick Johnson from the Nationals in exchange for Aaron Thompson.

Between Papelbon, Uribe, and the Marlins and Braves teaming up with the Dodgers in their three-team mega-deal, the NL East was due, if you will, for a big intra-division trade. This one was hardly a needle-mover: the Marlins, who were in the wild-card race, played the part of buyers as the directionless Nationals flailed around with the league’s worst record for the second season in a row. Johnson filled in pretty good at first base for a Marlins team that had been relying on Ross Gload and Jorge Cantu at the position — although Florida would still end the season well behind the Phillies in the divisional race and the Rockies in the wild-card race. Times have, uh, changed.

If you’d like, though, this is one of the very most important trades in all of baseball history, whose ripples still shape our baseball world today. The Nationals ended this season with 59 wins, while the Pirates finished with 62. The presumed #1 pick in the following year’s draft was Bryce Harper.

NL Central
July 24, 2012 – Pirates acquire Wandy Rodriguez and cash from the Astros in exchange for Rudy Owens, Colton Cain, and Robbie Grossman.

Ah yes, the good ol’ days where the Astros were not just bad, but bad in the NL Central. This was a deal that managed to go poorly for both teams. The Pirates were 58-43 and in control of a wild-card berth on the day of the trade, only to stumble down to 79-83 in what is currently their last non-playoff season. (Not that it was Wandy’s fault.) The Astros’ prospect haul also came up short, as Grossman is the only player still with the franchise, and he has slashed .143/.222/.245 in 24 games this season.

AL Central
July 28, 2010 – Tigers acquire Jhonny Peralta from the Indians in exchange for Giovanni Soto.

Why, no, that’s not Geovany Soto — the mesmerizingly slow-throwing catcher — involved in this deal, but rather Giovanni Soto, 24-year-old relief pitcher who is still in the Indians’ system and yet to debut in the big leagues. This was probably considered a great return at the time for Peralta: the following offseason, the Tigers declined just a $7M option for Peralta, eventually re-signing the shortstop to a two-year/$11.25M deal. The Tigers drifted from five games back at the time of the move to 13 games back at season’s end, but clearly this move would pay large dividends for the team.

Also, 2010 is the last season in which Peralta hasn’t made it to >at least the League Championship Series.

AL East
July 31, 2014 – Orioles acquire Andrew Miller from the Red Sox in exchange for Eduardo Rodriguez.

The Red Sox were actually a smidge closer to the division lead on Deadline Day last year than they are this year. And boy did Miller really, really help out the Orioles, who expanded their division lead from 1.5 games on the day of the trade out to 12.0 games when the season ended. Please note that Miller, a reliever, provided more value in his 20 regular-season innings (0.9 WAR) than starter Wandy Rodriguez (0.7) or position players Johnson (0.3) and Peralta (0.8) above provided for their respective teams. Plus Miller followed that up with 7.1 scoreless postseason innings. Given Rodriguez’s strong debut this season, there was a lot of value going both ways in this trade.

AL West
July 9, 2010 – Rangers acquire Cliff Lee and Mark Lowe from the Mariners in exchange for Justin Smoak, Blake Beavan, Josh Lueke, and Matt Lawson.

Remember when Lee was one of the game’s elite pitchers and was also getting traded every few months? A chance for the Mariners to dramatically revitalize their farm system was clearly lost here. The Mariners lost this one in just about every dimension: Lee pitched for the Rangers in the 2010 World Series; without Smoak the Rangers pursued Mike Napoli in a trade for 2011, when he appeared for the Rangers in the World Series, all while the Mariners fell into Lueke’s bad-karma vortex.

NL West
July 27, 2010 – Giants acquire Marco Scutaro from the Rockies in exchange for Charlie Culberson.

Trade-deadline time is easily one of the top three baseball weeks out of all 52 weeks of the year — and perhaps there are times when this has been your very favorite week of all. It’s our favorite week because there is, virtually every season, a trade significant enough that it re-orients the entire geography of the league. The trades described in this article are not such trades. So, the initial question was: should teams trade within their own division? The underwhelming answer that the industry has provided is: “Well, we don’t really do that.”

Perhaps it is because of deals like Scutaro-Culberson — completely innocuous at the time, and quickly exploding into one of the most one-sided transactions of all-time. It hardly matters that Scutaro is sitting on the Giants’ payroll with $6.6M of dead money this season: in 2012 Scutaro was waddling along in Colorado at below replacement-level, 36 years old, with his career about to reach a quiet end. And then, upon arriving in San Francisco, Scutaro turned into a ferocious superstar, actually finishing >seventh on the team in offensive WAR in about 40% of the season. That was just the prelude, of course, to Scutaro winning the MVP of a seven-game NLCS, lifting the Giants to the World Series, which they would win. This is why — even though Scutaro played way, way, more games for the Blue Jays or Red Sox — he will always be remembered first as a Giant. For which the Rockies are responsible.

We hoped you liked reading Recent History’s Biggest Trades Within the Division by Miles Wray!

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Miles Wray contributes sports commentary to McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Ploughshares, The Classical and Hardwood Paroxysm. Follow him on Twitter @mileswray or email him here.

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Ullu ka Patta
Ullu ka Patta

This is also instructive in that Eduardo Rodriguez and his half season of production has been the most valuable minor leaguer exchanged. Sobering thought for fans of selling teams…