Every year, rumors of an ace pitcher being moved at the trade deadline gain steam. This year it happens to be White Sox lefthander Chris Sale, who is coming off of his fifth straight all-star appearance and is a frontrunner for the American League Cy Young Award.
Pitchers of that magnitude are rarely moved midseason, but it does happen. The question is: do teams trading that caliber of pitcher at the deadline ever really get equal value back?
We looked back at every deadline deal in the wild-card era (1995 to present) involving an ace-caliber pitcher to find out, measuring the post-trade career wins above replacement (WAR) totals, as estimated by Baseball-Reference.com, of the players involved.
Obviously, factors such as contract length, pending free agency status, team record and payroll availability all play a role in such trades. But from a pure, on-the-field baseball standpoint, it’s clear getting an equal return back for an ace in a deadline deal is a tricky proposition based on our findings.
Only trades made in July were considered. Our baseline criteria is twofold. The deal must involve a pitcher who meets the following two criteria: (1) He won a Cy Young Award within the previous three years of the trade or had been an all-star each of the previous three seasons. Sale meets the latter criteria, and (2) He was traded for at least two players who had not yet exhausted their rookie eligibility.
July 28, 1995: Blue Jays trade RHP David Cone to Yankees for RHP Mike Gordon, RHP Jason Jarvis and RHP Marty Janzen
|Yankees receive||Post-Trade WAR||Blue Jays receive||Post-Trade WAR|
|David Cone||22.1||Marty Janzen||-0.6|
|Total: 22.1||Total: -0.6|
|Astros receive||Post-Trade WAR||Mariners receive||Post-Trade WAR|
|Randy Johnson||65.1||Freddy Garcia||35.7|
|Total: 65.1||Total: 69.0|
|D-backs receive||Post-Trade WAR||Phillies receive||Post-Trade WAR|
|Curt Schilling||43.8||Vicente Padilla||11.3|
|Total: 43.8||Total: 21.8|
|Brewers receive||Post-Trade WAR||Indians receive||Post-Trade WAR|
|C.C. Sabathia||28.9||Michael Brantley||16.5|
|Total: 28.9||Total: 15.0|
|Phillies receive||Post-Trade WAR||Indians receive||Post-Trade WAR|
|Cliff Lee||27.1||Carlos Carrasco||10.6|
|Ben Francisco||-0.1||Lou Marson||1.6|
|Total: 27.0||Total: 13.5|
|White Sox receive||Post-Trade WAR||Padres receive||Post-Trade WAR|
|Jake Peavy||13.1||Adam Russell||0.2|
|Total: 13.1||Total: 0.2|
|Rangers receive||Post-Trade WAR||Mariners receive||Post-Trade WAR|
|Cliff Lee||22.6||Justin Smoak||2.6|
|Mark Lowe||-0.3||Blake Beavan||1.5|
|Total: 22.3||Total: 3.0|
|Angels receive||Post-Trade WAR||D’backs receive||Post-Trade WAR|
|Dan Haren||8.7||Patrick Corbin||4.0|
|Total: 8.7||Total: 5.7|
|Angels receive||Post-Trade WAR||Brewers receive||Post-Trade WAR|
|Zack Greinke||21.4||Jean Segura||4.0|
|Total: 21.4||Total: 5.7|
|Tigers receive||Post-Trade WAR||Rays receive||Post-Trade WAR|
|David Price||9.5||Drew Smyly||3.3|
|Total: 9.5||Total: 2.4|
|Blue Jays receive||Post-Trade WAR||Tigers receive||Post-Trade WAR|
|David Price||4.0||Daniel Norris||0.3|
|Total: 4.0||Total: -0.3|
In 10 of the 11 instances an ace was traded at the deadline, the team giving the player away came out on the losing end of the deal. Even if you take out the two David Price deals because so many of the key pieces have careers ahead of them to change the outcome, you’re still left with eight of nine instances where the trading team got nowhere near the value the ace provided in future years. (
NOTE: The Cole Hamels deal from 2015 technically didn’t qualify under our parameters, but if you want to include it, Hamels 5.5 WAR with the Rangers since the deal is higher than the three major leaguers the Phillies received combined, although the prospects Philadelphia received are performing well enough they could eventually swing the trade in the Phillies’ favor from a WAR perspective.)
Even the one case where the trading team did recoup value—the Mariners in their 1998 Randy Johnson trade—comes with a caveat. The player who put them over the top in making the trade a win for them (Carlos Guillen) largely did so in a Tigers uniform. Johnson, meanwhile, went on to win four more Cy Young Awards after the trade.
It should also be noted that while the Indians were able to get quality players in each of their deals – receiving Brantley for Sabathia and Carrasco for Lee – it has been at least seven years since both trades and the total packages still account for barely half of the WAR the aces provided after the trade, well beyond the three-to-four year window most teams hope for when receiving such a haul. Same goes for the Diamondbacks-Angels deal for Daren Haren, where it has been six years since the deal was consummated and Haren, now retired, still has provided more than twice as many WAR as Patrick Corbin and Tyler Skaggs combined.
The White Sox can trade Chris Sale if they feel it’s the best move for their team. Based on the 20-plus year history of such deals in the wild-card era, though, they and their fans just shouldn’t expect whatever prospect haul they get to match Sale’s production the rest of his career.
The overall lesson of recent history is if you have the ability to keep the ace, you do. And if you don’t and have to trade them, don’t expect to see the dividends for a very long time, if at all.