The greatest fool's gold of the trading deadline: the prospects-for reliever gag. Every year, some team will trade too much for a reliever who pitches about 20 innings between the deadline and the end of the season. It's like the credit-card shopping of baseball -- "Well, I need this now, and you're willing to give it to me without any money? Ha ha, okay, here's my piece of plastic, weirdo. Good thing you didn't need real money! This will never come back to haunt me."
This is how the Twins gave up on Wilson Ramos for Matt Capps, and then found themselves giving Joe Mauer starts at first base a few months later. This is how the Dodgers gave away a promising player like James McDonald to the Pirates for Octavio Dotel. This is how the Giants ...
Year Tm W L ERA G IP H R ER HR BB SO
2010 SFG 2 0 1.42 27 19.0 11 3 3 0 2 16
Post SFG 1 0 1.59 9 5.2 1 1 1 0 1 6
... won a World Series. Those are the stats for Javier Lopez, a situational lefty, after he was traded to the Giants. The Giants gave up a spot starter and a AAA All-Star for him, which I thought was way too much at the time. But he pitched like the love child of Mariano Rivera and Jesse Orosco when the Giants needed him to. It wasn't the kind of thing you could predict, but, man, did it help.
That's what teams are chasing right now -- a magic shot in the arm. They're looking for someone to come in and dominate for 20 or 30 innings. It might be unlikely, but when it happens, no one will ever notice which what prospects went the other way. Unless the prospects get all good and stuff. Which also happens.
Man, trading is hard.
So here's a purely subjective ranking of the most attractive bullpen trade targets on the market when factoring in their talent, and what it would take to acquire them.
5. Tyler Clippard
Teams looking at Clippard shouldn't be surprised if the Nationals ask for a top prospect to start a package. Clippard is making around the major-league minimum right now, he isn't eligible for arbitration until after next season, and according to Baseball Reference, he won't be a free agent until 2016. The Nationals will ask for top prospects because Clippard basically is a top prospect.
4. Mike Adams
He's the best reliever on the list. Heck, he might be the best reliever in baseball -- compare him to Mariano Rivera statistically, and he comes out looking just as good, if not better. But he's cheap and under contract for 2012, so he'll take a huge package of prospects. Probably too huge to make him a good idea for anyone.
3. Brandon League
According to the Mariners, a League trade is "not likely at all." But he could bring prospects, and the Mariners need a closer right now like a homeless person needs an espresso machine. League's a free agent after 2012, so he'll still give a team more than a rental, which seems like the magic way to get more of a trade return. He'll cost less than Clippard and Adams because he's not as cheap as Clippard or as good as Adams, but he's still a talented reliever under control for one more year.
2. Heath Bell
He's a rental, but he's certainly the best closer on the market. The Padres almost certainly have to trade him, so they don't have a great amount of leverage, though they could always take the compensatory draft picks and go home.
1. Koji Uehara
Uehara is a) good, b) really really good, c) old, and d) relatively cheap, as he's signed for $4 million next year. He's the perfect storm. The Orioles should trade Uehara; the Orioles should not expect a bounty of top prospects for Uehara. Both can be true. This is the peak of his value (he still has that year of team control) and he's not going to help the Orioles win the AL East next year. It was a good move to sign him, and now the Orioles should cash in. And the team that trades for him won't feel so used in the morning.
The correct answer: don't trade good prospects for relievers. It's never a sound idea. But if you have to, look at Uehara first, Bell second, and then stop trying.
But watch teams chase that Javier Lopez ghost from last year. It happens every July. Remember, there's a chance that the reliever will have the best three months of his life, whereas it's unlikely that the prospect will even sniff the majors this year! It's a limited-time offer, so act now.