Those Who Stand Pat...Stand Last

Over the next 60 or so hours, you're going to hear how a lot of baseball teams are one splashy move away from winning the World Series. But the truth is those teams that stand pat are more likely to be the last ones standing.

Look no further than last year. Even during a resoundingly boring month of deadline dealings—the biggest moves were made by the Braves, who obtained a new closer in Kyle Farnsworth, and the Giants, who traded for Randy Winn—the White Sox' acquisition of Geoff Blum for a minor leaguer July 31 garnered little more beyond a line in the transactions page.

Yet it was the White Sox who won the World Series, and it was Blum who, in his only at-bat of the World Series, hit the tie-breaking pinch-hit home run in the 14th inning of the Game Three win over the Astros.

Discussing potential blockbuster trades involving the likes of Alfonso Soriano, Roger Clemens, Miguel Tejada, Hank Blalock and Bobby Abreu makes for great conversation on sports radio, message boards, around the water cooler (does anyone ever actually gather around the water cooler?) and with your buddies in the fantasy league. And hey, we won't lie to you: From our vantage point, it's great for business.

But the truth is such blockbusters are usually the domain of fantasy leaguers and overeager reporters. In reality, such headline-grabbing deals are a lot tougher to pull off.

Finances, obviously, are always an issue, as are the unpredictable whims of the general managers negotiating the deal and the owners approving it. And there appears to be a sport-wide emphasis now on building and replenishing from within, which makes teams even more reluctant to trade promising young talent.

Most of all, though, general managers of contending teams are reluctant to mess with a good thing. To borrow a phrase from former Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart, the chemistry of a baseball team is a lot like obscenity: You can't define it, but you know it when you see it.

And historically, championship- and playoff-caliber teams have already had the winning pieces in place long before July 31. The last high-profile acquisition to heavily impact a pennant race was Randy Johnson, who went 10-1 with a 3.28 ERA in 11 starts for the Astros after he was acquired July 31, 1997. The Astros, who led the NL Central by 3 ½ games at the time of the trade, ended up winning the division by 12 ½ games but lost to the Padres in the NL Division Series.

The last big name to switch uniforms in late summer and play a vital role in leading his new team to a world championship was David Cone, who was acquired by the Blue Jays Aug. 27, 1992—nearly a month after the non-waiver trading deadline—and went 4-3 with a 2.55 ERA in eight games before he posted a 1-1 record with a 3.22 ERA in four postseason starts.

The White Sox were only the latest champion to make barely a ripple at the trading deadline. In 2002, the only deal the Angels made in July was acquiring backup catcher Sal Fasano and outfielder Alex Ochoa from the Brewers in exchange for Jorge Fabregas and two minor leaguers to be named later. Fasano appeared in two games for the Angels and had one at-bat while Ochoa had 65 regular season at-bats and appeared in 12 postseason games, mostly as a defensive replacement.

The big July move for the Diamondbacks in 2001 was to acquire starting pitcher Albie Lopez from the Devil Rays. Lopez went 4-7 in 13 starts but posted a 9.95 ERA in three postseason games. In 2000, the Yankees acquired Denny Neagle from the Reds and Glenallen Hill from the Cubs in July, but Joe Torre had so little faith in Neagle that he yanked him with the Yankees ahead with two outs in the fifth inning of Game Four of the World Series and handed the ball to Cone, who posted a 6.91 ERA in the regular season but got one out in his only Series appearance to earn the win.

Hill, meanwhile, hit 16 homers in 132 regular season at-bats but had one just hit in 17 postseason at-bats. The Yankees of 1999 and 1998 didn't make any moves at the deadline and swept the World Series both years.

The Marlins (2003, 1997) and Red Sox (2004) received pivotal contributions from their July acquisitions, but even those players were acquired to play complimentary roles. In 2003, the Marlins acquired Ugueth Urbina to bolster their set-up corps in front of closer Braden Looper. But when Looper struggled in September, Urbina took over as closer and collected four saves during the playoffs.

The Marlins acquired Darren Daulton for his leadership and Craig Counsell for depth in 1997, but Daulton hit .389 in the World Series and Counsell, who platooned at second base during the regular season, scored the tying and winning runs in Game Seven of the World Series.

The Red Sox of 2004 came closest to an overhaul in advance of a World Series championship. The Sox shocked their rabid fan base by trading franchise icon Nomar Garciaparra during a flurry of activity July 31 that netted the club shortstop Orlando Cabrera, first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz and outfielder Dave Roberts.

But those moves were more subtle than seismic. At the time, Garciaparra—who missed more than two months due to a lingering Achilles injury and was likely to leave as a free agent at the end of the season anyway due to his unhappiness in Boston—was a superstar in reputation only.

And Cabrera, Mientkiewicz and Roberts were acquired in order to shore up the Sox defense, which ranked among the league's worst prior to the trade, and to improve the club's depth. The Sox allowed 74 unearned runs prior to Aug. 1 and just 20 unearned runs the rest of the regular season. And Roberts, as you may have heard, stole the most famous base in Boston history in Game Four of the ALCS to jumpstart the Sox' historic World Series march.

Meanwhile, the teams that made the splashiest moves ended up all wet. If your favorite team holds on to its top prospect this weekend, you can thank the Mets, who dealt Scott Kazmir to the Devil Rays for Victor Zambrano and Bartolome Fortunato July 30, 2004. Somehow, two years later, the Mets are on their way to the playoffs, but CEO Jeff Wilpon will never live that deal down. And no GM or owner wants to be the new Wilpon—the next guy to deal away a sure-fire stud in exchange for nobody special in an ill-advised run at the playoffs.

The Nationals are still paying for the moves made by current Mets GM and former Expos GM Omar Minaya in 2002, when Minaya thought the Expos had a shot at the wild card and plundered his thin farm system to acquire Bartolo Colon and Cliff Floyd within a two-week span in late June and early July…only to trade Floyd to the Red Sox July 31 when he realized the Expos were falling out of the race. And though Curt Schilling shared World Series MVP honors in 2001, the Diamondbacks didn't make the playoffs after they acquired him in July 2000.

So enjoy the next two days of hot and heavy trade talk and hold out hopes this is the year an actual blockbuster comes together. But come the end of October, the team that wins it all will very likely be a team that needed to do little or nothing to improve itself in July.


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