The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Outfield

We’re still a month away from the July 31st trade deadline, but teams need to start thinking about “buying” vs. “selling” as soon as possible. Whether or not your team’s GM gets the best deal often depends upon whether or not he’s ready to act before the last day of July rolls around.

So as a fan, which should you be rooting for? Buying or selling?

The DFR: BaseballIf you root for a stinkpot like the Phillies, making any improvements should be a top priority; you can play last-place ball without Cole Hamels, so why keep him around?

The Royals and Yankees are well positioned to make an October run; they’re “going for it,” and acquiring more help is pretty much a no-brainer.

But if your team is somewhere in the middle, the picture becomes much more muddled. The instinctive reaction always says bring in some big star who will boost the team from pretender status into true contention. On the other hand, nobody likes seeing his team’s top player sent away to help someone else’s squad make a championship run–especially when the returns on the swap are a bunch of “prospects,” which is often a term used for another team’s throwaways.

…Holliday was such a dog with Oakland that the A’s still need to put a flea collar on everyone they send out to left field.

As is often the case, history may be the best guide here. While landing a big name talent is usually a plus, sometimes such a move can blow up both the team’s short term performance and it’s long term health. Just ask any Oakland A’s fan.

In 2009, the Athletics acquired Matt Holliday from the Colorado Rockies. That was not a deadline trade; it happened in the off-season, bringing Holliday to Oakland before the start of that season. Holliday was by then an established star, a three-time All-Star and Silver Slugger winner, a post-season MVP, and once he even came close to scoring a playoff clinching run.

But for the fact that the trade happened before the season, the Holliday acquisition was  typical of a deadline deal. Two seasons removed from an ALCS loss, the A’s had been sputtering below .500, and they brought in a top performer from another club to boost the team back into contention. Holliday, in the last year of his contract, was certainly going to be out of Oakland’s price range at the end of the season–a classic “rent-a-player” who is brought in with the “go for it” ethos in mind.

It didn’t work out, largely because Holliday made it clear from the start that he didn’t want to be in Oakland. He got off to a slow start, which was bad enough; worse, he spent his days in green and gold wearing a permanent “shit-stink” face and featured bad body language for all of his 93 games with the A’s. With Holliday’s unhappiness made manifest, A’s GM Billy Beane obliged his left fielder by moving him to St. Louis, where Holliday remains in the lineup and makes regular appearances in the playoffs, including one World Series win in 2011. So the Cardinals, it turns out, made a great deadline deal when they rescued Holliday from his West Coast exile.

Some might sympathize with Holliday’s plight. Few of us would want to be told to pack up and start doing one’s job in a different state. But Major League Baseball players are well-compensated for just such eventualities, and not one of them signs a contract unaware of the fact that being traded is a possibility (short of a contract stipulation disallowing that–but nobody has that sort of thing included in a first contract).

It is also worth noting that, upon receiving his boarding pass for the Midwest, Holliday’s play in 2009 immediately improved. In roughly two-thirds as many games with the Cardinals as with the A’s, Holliday had almost exactly as many RBI, two more home runs, and almost as many hits and runs scored, while both his batting average and slugging percentage showed major improvements. Apparently, the newly-homed Holliday discovered what batting coaches have sought since the beginning of baseball: a cure-all for slumps. It turns out that it’s a new ZIP code.

Holliday came to the A’s at the cost of Carlos Gonzalez, Huston Street, and Greg Smith. Smith has long since been consigned to the dust bin of history, but the other two became All-Stars in their own right, and while Gonzalez has struggled the last couple of seasons, Street remains a top closer, now with the Angels. In the aftermath of the 2009 trade, the A’s sputtered for three more years, and Holliday was such a dog with Oakland that the A’s still need to put a flea collar on everyone they send out to left field. No wonder East Bay fans booed him lustily when the Cardinals came to town in 2013.

Thankfully, the bad times didn’t last in Oakland–and part of what pulled the team out of the doldrums was…you guessed it…another trade.

Again, it was another hot stove trade, but one that resembled a July exchange–except this time it was the Athletics unloading the “name” and getting young guys in return. Before the 2012 season, Beane sent former All-Star closer Andrew Bailey (and Ryan Sweeney) to the Red Sox for a couple of scrubs–and one other player, who turned out to be Josh Reddick.

To be sure, Reddick did not come to Oakland with anything near Holliday’s pedigree. He was a young part-time player in Boston, and life with the Athletics likely promised more playing time and opportunity to succeed. But Reddick had just been traded from the perennially contending Red Sox to the struggling A’s, and there was at least the potential that he might have come in disappointed and dog-like, à la Holliday.

But it didn’t happen that way. Indeed, Reddick showed up in Oakland with a “get it on” attitude and quickly established himself as not just a fan favorite, but an integral part of Oakland’s turnaround. He hit 32 bombs, played stellar, Gold Glove winning defense in right field, and helped lead the charge Oakland’s division-winning 2012 season–even gaining some MVP votes. Reddick has since had a couple of disappointing, injury-plagued years, but he assisted greatly in getting the franchise back on track (and he’s healthy now and contributing as the A’s pull themselves out of this season’s early hole).

This tale of two trades illustrates why, as a baseball fan, you should give your favorite team some slack if the GM sends some big name player away for what looks like spare parts. Because not all of us get to be the worthies in St. Louis, where certain players will deign to give us their best efforts. Nor are those spare parts always throwaways; tomorrow’s stars have to come from somewhere, just as today’s stars did in their time. Getting talent that comes complete with the right attitude is the best bet for good times ahead. That happy future can begin in the off-season–or just as often, it starts on July 31st.


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