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A team’s chance at success at baseball’s trading deadline: Do the homework, and be lucky

Face it, whether you like it, or not. The far turn of baseball’s mid-season that signals the drive into the stretch comes with the July 31 inter-league non-waiver trading deadline, even though most teams do nothing while many that do something live to regret it. The table gets set at the Deadline.

Motives collide, abetted by illusion. Teams desperate to dump salary dicker with teams deluding themselves that they are just a single missing link shy of a championship. Little wonder that few emerge satisfied.

In theory, you can essentially re-make your team the first of August. Back when Theo Epstein was still young and holding a hot hand, the Red Sox succeeded in doing precisely that in the unforgettable 2004 season. But such instances are rare. More common is the matter of hefty rentals paying small short-term dividends at brutal long-term prices. Exhibit A of that ticklish scenario remains C.C. Sabathia, who brought joy to Milwaukee that lasted only three months.

Without question the July countdown to the deadline whips up huge interest annually, bringing winter’s hot-stove fever to the howling heights of summer. But traditionalists, not surprisingly, hate it, believing it to be yet another of the tiresome gimmicks of the Selig Era that is so full of them. They argue that the old system that set June 15 as the deadline worked well while being fairer.

The idea behind all such deadlines is to make it more difficult for rich big-foot teams like those from the Bronx and the Fenway to load up when and how they dang well please while cherry-picking the weaklings. But if the later deadline seems to favor the high-powered, there’s plenty of evidence weaker teams have learned how to make it serve their interests too.

Moreover, in the good old days, the old rules didn’t always work that well. During their absolute heyday, from the ‘40s into the ‘60s, the Yankees specialized in snaring choice NL prizes like Johnny Sain, Johnny Mize, Ewell Blackwell, and Enos Slaughter long after the June deadline, usually right around Labor Day, when it helped most. This happened year after year.

Only once did those rapacious Yankees of old get stung in such capers, and that was in their 1951 deal landing them certified Boston Braves legend Johnny Sain in exchange for the hallowed and timeless … “player to be named later.” Sain, a great pitcher, would substantially help the Bombers win four more crowns in five years. But the price exacted by the Braves shortly before they split for Milwaukee was very steep for the unnamed player turned out to be rather more than the usual character no one has heard of or ever gets to see. It was Lew Burdette, who starred for a generation, winning 203 games while near single-handedly whipping the Yankees in the 1957 World Series. Such delightful irony!
The 1951 Sain-Burdette deal established the concept and now, more than ever, the currency of choice in deadline dealings is “prospects.” Money remains a factor, but the over-riding consideration is the quality of such unknown kids that the veteran being ditched can command with the art of appraising the potential of fuzzy-cheeked phenoms from A-Ball being very, very tricky. No one does it brilliantly but many think Oakland’s Billy Beane does it best. That’s at the core of what made Beane the hero of “Moneyball.” Smart baseball men avoid Billy when he comes seeking their teenage striplings in exchange for his burned out has-beens.

Epic scores – in which one team cleans the clock of the other – are rare.  But they do happen every blue moon or so. Invariably it’s because the selling team has scouted the low minors brilliantly.

In the late summer of 1987, the Tigers managed to convince themselves that one more dependable pitcher would put them over the top, so they went after the Braves’ Doyle Alexander. “Downtown Doyle” was no ace, but he was a durable and savvy veteran innings-eater, respected for his grittiness. When Atlanta asked for an obscure 20 year old laboring for Detroit’s Glenns Falls Rookie League team in return, the Tigers were pleased to oblige. After all, the kid had a record that summer of 4-10 with a 5.68 ERA.

His name was John Smoltz and his Hall of Fame-worthy career would end here in Boston 22 seasons later. For the record, the Tigers in 1987 made it to the playoffs but swiftly got bounced by the Twins nor have they won the championship since.

For Bostonians, however, the even more notable example of how these games within the game can backfire historically came three years later when the Fenway braintrust – trumping the objections of its entire scouting staff – agreed to send the highly regarded 22- year-old prospect Jeff Bagwell to Houston for cagey but 37-year-old reliever Larry Andersen.

It was the deal that haunted Lou Gorman the rest of his fine career, although in fairness to Lou it must be stressed that Andersen was dandy in his brief stint here. Lou always insisted there’s no way they’d have made the 1990 playoffs without him and he was right. Unfortunately, the mighty Oakland A’s, featuring the steroid-juiced Bash-Brothers, Canseco and McGwire, swiftly eliminated Boston, and two months later Andersen was made a “special free agent” by an arbitrator and promptly signed with San Diego, leaving the Red Sox to look like suckers. When Bagwell makes the Hall of Fame – and that’s likely to happen soon – you can expect this aggravating anecdote to get resurrected again and again.

Clearly the bottom line of our little tale is simply this: If you yearn to play in this strange and convoluted mid-summer swap-fest, you had better do your homework, and you’d better be lucky.

The teams dumping established players, often but not always the less prosperous, so-called small-market teams, are getting mighty skilled at the fine art of shaking down the buyers. A fine example came last summer when the Mets succeeded in conning the Giants into parting with premium pitching prospect Zack Wheeler in exchange for veteran slugger Carlos Beltran, whom the Mets had no hope of retaining.  At 22, Wheeler remains a terrific prospect whereas Beltran has left San Francisco for greater success and money in St. Louis. It’s a minefield. But before closing the book on this caper perhaps we should wait for Wheeler to at least make the majors.

Teams can out-smart themselves and it happens often. The ultimate example came in July 2004 when the Yankees, still on top but with their pitching looking shaky, urgently sought Randy Johnson. Faced with re-building and needing to dump payroll, Arizona was anxious to trade the stomping and fuming “Big Unit” but wasn’t keen on the prospect New York kept insisting they take. When neither side budged, the deal fell through at the deadline. Who was the prospect the Diamondbacks rejected, you ask? The answer is Robinson Cano, then still in the minors.

Think how baseball history pivoted on that curious whim. If the Yankees had acquired Johnson, there’s no way they’d have folded in 2004 and there would have been no concomitant “miracle” in Boston for the Red Sox would not have had the pleasure of feasting mainly on punching bags Kevin Brown and Javi Vazquez in 2004’s fateful playoffs. That winter, New York finally landed Johnson – without sacrificing Cano – too late.

And so the circus resumes. In coming days there will be deals, and maybe many, given that with a new playoff round more teams than usual are hallucinating on the illusion they are genuine contenders. Deals have already gone down, a couple of them quite odd.

Big names are being bandied about with most being pitchers, as ever the most precious commodity: the Rays’ Shields, the Phils’ Hamel, Garza and Dempster of the Cubs, Greinke of the Brewers, Liriano of the Twins, maybe even Cliff Lee of the Phils, once again. Will the injury-plagued Yankees re-load with Shane Victorino? Will the injury-ravaged Red Sox rebuild with Garza, Greinke, or Liriano?

More likely, none of this will happen. But that won’t quiet the Talk Shows. Just remember to be careful what you wish for, lest you get it.