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The 3 forgotten trades that built the 2016 pennant race

No one thought much of Corey Kluber, Tanner Roark, and Steven Wright when they were dealt, but it’s hard to imagine this season without them.

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Thirteen months ago, the entire Tigers organization was divided on whether they should buy or sell at the trade deadline, and the smart money was on them buying. Mike Ilitch will never seem like the selling type. Consider that the team was as far away from the postseason at the trade deadline as the Blue Jays were.

They sold. They traded away David Price and Yoenis Cespedes, sending a wait-’til-next-year message to the clubhouse and fans. But it was a literal wait-’til-next-year message, as they’re contending with the help of a pitcher who morphed into an ace less than a year later. That's one nifty trick. It doesn't always have to work like that, but it is one of the expected scenarios of a high-profile trade. Team gives up a star for a young prospect, young prospect becomes a star. Then, perhaps, the star gets older and is traded for a young prospect with a chance to become a star. Sunriiiiise, sunset. And now a pennant race is being affected.

Today's focus is on a much different kind of trade. These deals also involved players affecting future pennant races, but they were dealt in trades that absolutely no one cared about. Years and years ago, representatives of two (or three!) teams picked up their phones or laptops or carrier pigeons and hammered out minor deals. There's a chance that one of them was mentioned on SportsCenter, possibly as an unmentioned component of an on-screen graphic. Mostly, though, it was hard to find anybody excited about the trade for either side. They were "inside baseball" trades, to borrow a term from politics.

They're kind of a big deal in retrospect. Three teams wouldn't be where they are today without those minor, forgotten deals. We didn’t care at the time, but in 2016, they’re dramatically affecting the pennant race. Say "How about that?" in your best Mel Allen voice, and take a stroll down memory lane to appreciate just how smart-lucky these three teams got.

Corey Kluber

The 2010 Padres had a 1½-game lead in the National League West at the deadline. They were looking for power, and the Cardinals were willing to trade one of their extra outfielders for a starting pitcher. Both teams were contending, so they had to involve a third team to make the prospect-for-veteran carousel to spin the right way. And that’s how the Indians traded a 31-year-old pitcher with a 4.65 ERA for their future ace, Corey Kluber.

It wouldn’t have happened if the Indians were enamored of any of the prospects the Cardinals had to offer for Jake Westbrook.

Indians: You gonna do that thing where you offer us a prospect who’s been fed powdered Stan Musial his entire time in the organization, then cut him off from the powdered Stan Musial once we get him?

Cardinals: Maaaaaaaaaybe.

The Padres wanted Ryan Ludwick, which made a lot of sense for them. The right-handed slugger hit 37 homers two years before, and he had a 123 OPS+ at the time of the trade. He was even under contract for the following year, which made it a curious deal for the Cardinals even if they had outfield depth, and that’s what it took to get Westbrook. All the Padres needed to give up was a 24-year-old pitcher who was doing alright in Double-A after a miserable, wild trial at the level the season before.

My analysis at the time:

  • The Padres nailed it
  • The Cardinals made a pointless move
  • The Indians didn’t do anything important either way

Which is exactly the opposite of what happened. Ludwick was a dud, and he was dealt by the Padres the following deadline ... for cash. Westbrook thrived for the Cardinals down the stretch because they also have powdered Bob Gibson on hand. And the Indians are leading the AL Central because of the deal.

Don’t be too hard on the Padres. There was an a-ha moment that might not have happened if Kluber stuck around.

Afterward, Kluber and his coaches had an idea for his next start in Syracuse: All his fastballs would be two-seamers. It was a radical move -- a pitcher at Kluber’s age ditching the four-seamer is not something you normally see. But the results were immediate. Kluber’s struggles had always stemmed from his inability to locate his fastball, but as Niebla recalled, 31 of Kluber's 34 fastballs against the Nationals' top farm team that day were strikes.

But because the Indians wanted to trade Jake Westbrook, because the Cardinals wanted him, and because they couldn’t agree on a simple prospect-for-veteran deal, the Padres got involved. No one cared much at the time. It only might win the Indians their first championship in a half-century.

Tanner Roark

The Rangers were also looking for a few additions in 2010, including a utility infielder for their bench. They settled on Cristian Guzman, two-time All-Star, who was having a fair season for the Nationals. Ian Kinsler had just strained his groin, so more middle infield depth made a lot of sense.

You could say the Rangers traded Tanner Roark because they were going through ...







... groin pains.

ANYWAY, they settled on Guzman, but it’s not like the Nationals had a lot of leverage in the deal. Guzman wasn’t especially good, for one. He was still owed about $3 million for the ‘10 season, for two. What does a team like the Nationals even ask for in a trade like that? Let’s see what this dummy thought:

His stuff, though, isn't exceptional, and while by and large his transition from relief to starting has been a success, he's got an uphill climb if he's ever going to make it. Not much impact potential here for the Nationals, which is about what you should expect for a guy like Cristian Guzman.

The pitcher in question was Tanner Roark, who was a 24-year-old having an unremarkable season in Double-A. He threw in the low-90s, usually sitting around 91, and he wasn’t missing a lot of bats. He was the kind of pitcher from whom you get 10 quality starts in a season of desperate need if you’re lucky. Every organization has a Tanner Roark, at least in theory. Some of them have a dozen.

But it was Roark who thrived. The strikeout pitch never developed, at least, not in a way that vaulted him above the league average, but he’s consistently proven that he is capable of limiting baserunners and runs. The Nationals even jerked him around a bit to make room for Max Scherzer, which would have crushed the spirits of a lesser pitcher, but he was ready when the team needed him in the rotation after all. He would be a $100 million pitcher on the open market today. The Nationals got him for Cristian Guzman.

As for Guzman’s time with the Rangers? He had 50 plate appearances, strained his quad, and never played in the majors again. His OPS+ for the Rangers was 1. Somehow that’s even worse than it being 0, at least aesthetically.

Steven Wright

This is not what Steven Wright looked like when the Indians traded him.

It took years to develop a knuckler that moved like that. Wright had just started his conversion when the Red Sox acquired him with the confidence that only a decade of Tim Wakefield could instill.

What was most interesting about the deal is the player going the other way. Lars Anderson was just 24, and three years earlier, he was ranked the No. 17 prospect in baseball, according to both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus, just behind a guy named Mike Stanton. He was one of the very best prospects in baseball, but his 2009 season was a mess. The 2010 season was a little better and included a cup of coffee, but he was stalling out in Triple-A.

Teams still wanted to take a chance on him, though.

The Boston Red Sox have offered at least three players, including no-hit pitcher Clay Buchholz, to the Toronto Blue Jays for ace Roy Halladay, according to sources with direct knowledge of the negotiations, while placing rookie reliever Daniel Bard and 19-year-old phenom Casey Kelly off-limits in any deal.

Contrary to a prior Yahoo! dispatch, another 19-year-old, outfielder Ryan Westmoreland, a Rhode Island product drafted on the fifth round last summer, has not been a part of the Red Sox proposal.

The Blue Jays have been given the choice of reliever Justin Masterson, Triple-A pitcher Michael Bowden, or Double-A first baseman Lars Anderson as the second player in the deal, with lesser prospects from the Red Sox system filling out the Boston offer.

Anderson could have been a part of a trade for Roy Freaking Halladay. Even two years later, when the star had really dimmed, he still had value.

The Red Sox were set to acquire Rich Harden from the A’s, but once they looked at his medical records, they were no longer willing to include both Lars Anderson and a player to be named. The PTBNL would have come from a list of high-upside players in the lower minors.

That’s how close the Cubs were to keeping Josh Donaldson, by the way. Which means they would have won more games in 2012, which means the Rockies would have drafted Kris Bryant, which means 74 home runs and Nolan Arenado sliding over to shortstop. Now that’s a fun alternate history.

As is, the Red Sox traded Anderson at his lowest value for a newbie knuckler. There would be no Harden, no Halladay. Just a random guy trying something new because the standard path to success was blocked. Shout out to the commenter at Over the Monster who nailed it, though.

The irony is ... by attempting to develop the knuckler he might be as legitimate a ‘prospect’ at age 27 as a conventional pitcher at 21. Same window of a few years needed to see how he might develop. Same potential of not panning out.

Indeed. And after an offseason where the Red Sox spent over $200 million to buy an ace, their random busted-prospect-for-lottery-ticket deal gave them a co-ace they weren’t expecting at all.

The moral of the story? Every prospect matters. Every one exists to break your heart or float through your dreams, even the weirdos who aren’t doing much of anything in the minors.

The 2016 pennant race is being written by the non-prospects who were shuffled around in 2010 and 2012. I’m planning to check back in four years and write the same article with different names, so I’ll see you then. Adalberto Mejia’s Cy Young will make sense in retrospect.

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