Brandon Warne (@Brandon_Warne on Twitter, give him a follow) posted a tweet today that really stood out, partially because of it's simplicity, and partially because I immediately thought I knew the answer.
What's the last trade where a team acquiring a reliever for a position player actually won the deal?— Brandon Warne (@Brandon_Warne) July 31, 2012
Good question, no?
In my less-than-infinite wisdom, I was sure I knew the answer. I'm of the school of thought where I believe that relievers are generally overvalued, and that the value of position players far outweighs the value of guys who pitch less than 80 innings per season. But was I right? I should probably take a page out of my math teacher's book -- a correct answer is only worth something if you show your work, and here, I've got no hard data to back up my claim. Yet.
So, I decided that I should research the last 10 years and figure out how many teams received an overall positive return from a deadline (or near-deadline) deal for a reliever where a positional player (or offensive prospect) was the return. For methodology's sake, let's use the stats fWAR and SD/MD to determine how useful the reliever was (post-season included), and fWAR and assorted ML stats for the players dealt. Also, I chose trades where a reliever was the primary or only piece in motion, because deals like the Farnsworth-Ankiel trade of 2010 are tough to judge given the additional pieces.
Let's start with 2011, and work our way back to 2002, shall we?
July 31, 2011 - The Athletics traded Brad Ziegler to the Diamondbacks for (Free) Brandon Allen and Jordan Norberto
Not a bad start for the relief side. Ziegler posted 0.4 fWAR in 20.2 innings in 2011 for the D-Backs, including five shutdowns against one meltdown. Ziegler was also horrible-terrible-bad in the 2011 postseason (one meltdown, got one out despite facing seven hitters), and has been a bit better than average so far in 2012 with eight SD, seven MD, 3.05 FIP and 0.6 fWAR.
Brandon Allen still hasn't found much success at the ML level, moving to New York and Tampa in an attempt to latch on with an ML club. He's actually been worth -0.3 fWAR in limited ML action, and now plays in Japan. Norberto has been an effective reliever with the A's this season, posting 14 shutdowns against 3 meltdowns with a 3.86 FIP and 0.2 fWAR. Given Norberto's cost and staying under team control, this deal might be a wash in total, but the Diamondbacks did ok in giving up Allen.
July 30, 2011 - The Orioles traded Koji Uehara to the Rangers for Tommy Hunter and Chris Davis
Uehara was part of a massive upgrade to the Ranger bullpen at the end of 2011, but seemingly found himself in the doghouse after initially disappointing in the move to Arlington. Too many HR led to seven shutdowns against three meltdowns, but only 0.1 fWAR during the regular season, followed by a complete disaster of a postseason. Uehara has been effective in 2012, but has also struggled with injury and only pitched 21.1 innings to date.
After consistently disappointing at the ML level in Texas, Chris Davis has been worth about 0.5 fWAR in his time with the Orioles. Davis has finally emerged as a league-average hitter in Baltimore (101 wRC+), showing power to go with an extraordinary strikeout total. Tommy Hunter was a solid starter for the O's to finish 2011 (0.6 fWAR, 4.68 FIP), but has struggled in 2012 over 100 innings of work, and has been worth -0.2 fWAR. Neither side has been completely happy with the deal, but the Orioles got an inning-eater and a regular at the dish, so they probably win the trade for now.
July 19, 2011 - The Rangers traded Zach Phillips to the Orioles for Nick Green
Phillips pitched very well in the bigs in 2011 and in Triple-A for the Orioles this season, but has only been able to throw 8.2 big league innings since the trade. Green, however, never cracked the ML roster for the Rangers and is back to toiling in the minors, now with the Miami Marlins. If the O's get anything at all out of Phillips, they win this deal.
July 31, 2010 - The Pirates traded Octavio Dotel to the Pirates for James McDonald and Andrew Lambo
This did not work at all for the Dodgers. Dotel was below-replacement for 18.2 innings, I guess, since he posted a -0.1 fWAR and recorded two shudowns against three meltdowns. The Dodgers sent him to Colorado for Anthony Jackson before the season even ended, so he wasn't a difference-maker in the least.
Meanwhile, McDonald has flourished as streaky-but-exciting starter for Pittsburgh, and is one of the reasons the team is in contention for a playoff spot. But Lambo, a former top prospect, has stalled, and currently toils in Double-A. The trade would be junk-for-junk, aside from the inclusion of McDonald, which makes this an awful deal for LA.
July 31, 2010 - The Pirates traded Javier Lopez to the Giants for Joe Martinez and John Bowker
This one, so far, looks awesome for the team that acquired the reliever. Javier Lopez has been a very solid bullpen piece for the Giants. Since 2010, Lopez has been worth 1.6 fWAR, has 41 shutdowns against 14 meltdowns, and was tremendous in 5.2 innings during the postseason in 2010, when the Giants won the World Series.
Bowker was below-replacement in his time with Pittsburgh, was traded to the Phillies for cash, and is currently playing in Japan. Martinez pitched alright during a brief stint with the Pirates, but quickly moved on to Cleveland and Arizona, where he hasn't seen much time in the bigs. This deal's a big win for the Giants.
July 31, 2010 - The Indians traded Kerry Wood to the Yankees for Matt Cusick and Andy Shive
In his brief time with the Yankees, Wood walked a boatload of batters, struck out even more, and stranded most of the guys he left on base. Wood posted a sparkling ERA in both the regular season and the postseason, and managed 14 shutdowns against a single meltdown in 34 innings. Shive is out of baseball and Cusick plays for an independent league team, with neither having sniffed the bigs, so yeah, the Yankees win this one.
July 29, 2010 - The Nationals traded Matt Capps to the Twins for Wilson Ramos and Joe Testa
When you think of bad trades of relievers for positional players, this should probably be one that jumps out most often. Capps has been the on-and-off closer for the Twins since his arrival. In 2010, Capps performed well on arrival, but once he hit the postseason, things got ugly. Despite being worth 0.6 fWAR in the 2010 regular season for Minnesota, Capps had a very bad inning in the postseason, and since then he's been below-replacement (-0.5 fWAR since 2011) or injured, or both. Because he's a "proven closer" Capps has gotten plenty of save opportunities and a nice free agent deal from the Twins, but has 35 SD against 18 MD over the past two years.
Meanwhile, Wilson Ramos has blossomed in the nation's capital. He only saw limited time behind the dish in 2010, but broke out with a 3.3 fWAR season as the regular catcher in Washington in 2011. Since 2011, Ramos has had a tough time with a kidnapping and a season-ending knee injury in 2012, but he remains one of the best young catchers in baseball, and makes this trade a clear win for the Nats.
July 31, 2009 - The Dodgers traded Claudio Vargas to the Brewers for Vinny Rottino
This one's a slight win for the Brewers, who got 50 replacement-level innings out of Vargas before he was bounced from the majors. Vargas is currently pitching in Mexico. Meanwhile, Rottino's seen about 50 major-league plate appearances with the Marlins and Mets, and now plays for the Indians. He was let go by the Dodgers as a minor-league free agent, so they got nothing at all at the ML level.
July 30, 2009 - The Orioles traded George Sherrill to the Dodgers for Josh Bell and Steve Johnson
This did not work at all for anyone, really. Sherrill had a nice finish to the 2009 season with LA, posting a 0.4 fWAR and 13 SD against 3 MD. Then, in the playoffs, Sherill blew it entirely. In 4.1 innings of work, he registered a meltdown, and gave up four earned runs. Not good. 2010 was kind of like a slow-motion trainwreck, where Sherrill was very bad, with -0.5 fWAR and six SD against nine MD.
I guess the only good news is that Josh Bell (for the Dodgers), in his time in the majors, has been awful. In parts of three seasons, Bell has been good for -1.6 fWAR in 282 plate appearances. Neither Sherrill or Bell was able to get anything in return for their teams, and Johnson has never seen the majors. No team wins this trade, everybody loses.
July 26, 2009 - The Cardinals traded Chris Perez and Jess Todd to the Indians for Mark DeRosa
Chris Perez has been on. Over the past few years, since that 2009 trade, Perez has been the closer for the Indians and has notched 89 saves. More tellingly, Perez has given his team 102 shutdowns against 26 meltdowns and has posted 2.7 fWAR over parts of four seasons. The fWAR numbers along with mediocre FIPs (aside from a very good 2012) paint the picture of a good, but not great closer. However, Perez has been a cheap, cost-controlled option for the Indians at the back of the bullpen.
Meanwhile, people LOVE Mark DeRosa. Many of those people are general managers. Ever since this trade took place, Mark DeRosa has been a below-league-average bat and a below-league-average fielder. At any rate, DeRosa only spent about 262 plate appearances with St. Louis, and posted 0.6 fWAR in that time. He hit 10 homers, drove in more than a few runs, and hit the ball well in the 2009 postseason with a .385/.385/.462 triple slash in 13 PA. But given that DeRosa spent only a few months with St. Louis, compared to Perez's extended time in Cleveland, I'd give the Indians the win here in this deal, even though DeRosa was a little better on a rate basis.
July 19, 2009 - The Padres traded Cla Meredith to the Orioles for Oscar Salazar
Cla Meredith was quite an effective reliever for the Padres in 2005 and 2006, but faded quite a bit leading up to 2009. The Orioles still bought in on Meredith in 2009, and got a replacement-level reliever, as Meredith put up 0.1 fWAR in 28.2 innings (5 SD and 2 MD) through the end of the season. 2010 was not nearly as successful with Meredith and the Orioles, as he managed -0.4 fWAR with three shutdowns and four meltdowns. This wound up being his last season in the bigs to date. Salazar actually was worth more than Meredith both in 2009 and in 2010 for the Padres, although it isn't saying too much. In 2009, Salazar hit quite well and posted 0.4 fWAR in 121 PA. In 2010, Salazar was also below-replacement, but only with -0.2 fWAR, and followed Meredith out of the majors after 2010. I guess the Padres win this deal, but it was very close both in terms of performance and time with their new teams.
So, there you have it. That's every late-July trade of a reliever for a positional player over the last three years. There's seven more years to go to get a clear picture of the last decade, so look for another part to this article (as well as a couple of takeaways) later today.