You can sign a great player, but that's just about writing a bigger check than anybody else. You can draft a great player, but that's just about your pick coming before somebody else's pick. The true connoisseurs know that the fun is in trades.
In a trade, it isn't enough to spot the talent or have the resources. A trade requires persuasion and sacrifice. It demands that a GM sell somebody on a hypothetical in which this lives there and that goes here. It puts a smart GM in a position to embarrass -- or be embarrassed by -- another smart GM. Free-agent deals "pay off" and draft picks "bust," but trades produce winners and losers.
This year's LCS teams were built through free agency, drafts, international scouting, waiver claims -- and at least 35 trades. Who won these trades? In one sense, these four teams all won all their trades because they're here, in the LCS, and getting here was the whole point. But in a more interesting sense, we're going to rank the trades based on how well they have turned out so far.
Collectively, those 35 really cover the gamut: Some produced regrets, some produced superstars, and in the middle are a whole bunch of trades that were narrowly "won," in the sense that these teams wouldn't quite be what they are -- wouldn't have quite the balance, the depth or the strategic character -- without them.
Two notes: We are counting trades in which the players reached the end of their contracts and re-signed, even though, yes, they were signed as free agents. All of these judgments are tentative and reflect only the perspective of the LCS team. Some trades benefit both sides, and not all trades have losers.
Bolded and italicized names are the players on the postseason rosters.
Villar was a 25-year-old shortstop whose modest offensive breakout with Houston seemed sustainable. Sneed was a pitching prospect with some hope of becoming a back-of-the-rotation starter. Since then, Villar has the second-most steals in the majors and more WAR (9.6) than Eric Hosmer, Wil Myers or Nick Castellanos. Sneed, a low-leverage reliever the past two years, hasn't been asked to appear in a postseason game for Houston.
The headliners in this deal were Pham and Renfroe, and the Rays appeared to trade the better player in an effort to get younger and cheaper -- as the Rays do. Pham's offensive collapse this year should be a point in the Rays' favor. Renfroe's, though, kneecaps that argument. Renfroe batted just six times in the first two rounds of the postseason, then K'd in all four at-bats in the first ALCS game. The Rays' big offseason acquisition is not a contributing part of their postseason roster.
That sends the decision to the undercard: Cronenworth, the older, "lower-ceiling" prospect in the deal had a Rookie of the Year-level debut in San Diego. Edwards remains a prospect in the Rays' system, and to the extent that the Rays can "win" almost every trade by swapping one win today for two less expensive wins in five years, Edwards might still deliver them this one. At the moment, though, it stinks.
Perez is a perfectly fine backup catcher.
32. Braves trade Jaime Garcia, Anthony Recker and cash to Twins for Huascar Ynoa, July 2020
For this one, it is too soon to say. Ynoa has promise but is only a small part of Atlanta's postseason pitching plan right now.
No teams in the past four years have made more trades than the Rays and the Mariners, so what were they supposed to do, not make a five-player deal centered on four replacement-level players? Give Zunino credit, though: He had the biggest hit (by win probability added) in one of the Rays' six wins this postseason and the second-biggest hit in three others.
This was one of the weirdest trades of the transaction-math era, as the teams essentially swapped burdensome contracts of players they didn't want so that the Dodgers could spread their luxury-tax obligations across multiple seasons -- or maybe it was to consolidate them. The point is that it was mostly accounting gimmicks. (Gonzalez and Kazmir never appeared in a Braves uniform.) Culberson was the strangely placed throw-in, and for a brief period in 2018, he performed ably as the underperforming Dansby Swanson's overperforming doppelgänger. But with Swanson now good, Culberson is superfluous. He batted seven times this season.
Graterol, the reliever who let Fernando Tatis Jr. hit a baseball over the wall last series, is and should remain a good one, a 22-year-old with a 100 mph sinker and steady control. But Maeda might be one of the finalists for the AL Cy Young this year, so this is here.
Taylor is a lefty specialist of the sort who should be endangered by the new three-batter-minimum rules, and by the standards of his peers, he has low strikeout rates and sky-high walk rates. This is an itty-bitty move, yet this year, Taylor had the second-best ERA in a shaky Houston bullpen, plus four scoreless appearances in the postseason thus far.
27. Astros trade Tyler White to Dodgers for Andre Scrubb, July 2019
As in the move immediately above, the Astros traded a hitter they didn't need for a younger reliever who walks too many batters. As with Blake Taylor, Scrubb -- who throws half cutters and half curveballs, half strikes and half balls -- defied his peripherals this year, walking almost a batter per inning while somehow keeping his ERA under 2. (White has already been released by the Dodgers.)
26. Astros trade player to be named later to Reds for Brooks Raley, August 2020
The Astros are in the ALCS with a bullpen that is half basically-untrustworthy-guys-recently-acquired-for-almost-nothing. I trust Raley -- who from 2015 to 2019 had a losing record as a starter in Korea -- more than I trust Scrubb or Taylor, but these are all moves that would be tiny, totally forgettable and forgotten if Houston weren't so desperate for people who could pitch in the sixth.
Diaz was the Astros' secret weapon in 2019 -- a high-contact utility player -- whose OBP plummeted in limited time this year. He'd be a starter on at least a third of the teams in the league.
24. Dodgers trade James Marinan and Aneurys Zabala to Reds for Zach Neal and Dylan Floro, July 2018
Floro's pretty good -- he'd probably get the eighth inning if he were in Houston this year -- but he's the Dodgers' lowest-leverage reliever.
This was an absolute disaster initially: Duvall slugged .151 in his first go with Atlanta, spent most of 2019 in the minors at age 30 and was hitting .229/.279/.417 on Sept. 1 this year. Then he hit three homers on Sept. 2, three more on Sept. 9 and ended up third in the National League in dingers this season. (Sims has turned out to be a quite good reliever for the Reds.)
Kemp had already been designated for assignment when Houston spun him off for Maldonado, an impending free agent acquired to back up Robinson Chirinos. The Astros liked Maldonado and his machete arm so much that they re-signed him to be the lead, and he started 46 of the Astros' 60 games this year. The progression of his walk rate over the past four years: 3.2% to 4.0% to 8.6% to 16.4%.
Choi has gotten a little worse every year that he has spent in Tampa Bay, but as a first baseman providing reliable corner-position offense for almost no salary, he fits the philosophy.
The Braves bought high on Greene, whose 1.18 ERA as the Tigers' closer was way out of line with his career numbers. But he has been pretty good -- not quite a carriage but certainly not a pumpkin. He's something in the middle, like a sled.
It looks almost like a strut: The Rays have so many good relievers and are so confident in their ability to find or create them evermore that they traded their closer -- coming off a dominant year and still not eligible for salary arbitration -- for an extra outfielder. Margot is fast, he plays great defense and he's right-handed in a mostly left-handed lineup. No AL team's hitters played fewer complete games than the Rays' did -- in other words, no team substitutes more than they do -- and Margot is a big part of making that work. Pagan got significantly worse across the board for the Padres; Margot, meanwhile, just hit his third postseason home run and made the best non-HR-robbing catch of the postseason.
Of all the splashy moves this Dodgers regime has made -- trading for Rich Hill, for Yu Darvish, for Manny Machado -- few have done as much for the franchise as this one, which produced ... a couple of role players. Barnes has never started more than 62 games in a season. Hernandez has never started more than 63 at any position in a season. Yet they've been valuable enough to become two of the longest-tenured players on one of the great teams in history, and some far more famous Dodgers (Yasmani Grandal, Joc Pederson, Cody Bellinger) have at times been benched or platooned in October so those two could play.
The local headline in Tampa Bay when the Rays traded a player to be named later for Wendle, a 27-year-old who spent most of the previous year in Triple-A: "Small Deal Done, Bigger On Deck." In fact, Wendle turned out to be a pretty big deal. He's 62nd in all of baseball in WAR the past three years, tucked between Carlos Correa and Jose Abreu. He started games in every spot of the lineup except cleanup this year and played at least 10 games at second, third and shortstop. (The "bigger" deal to come, in which the Rays shipped off Evan Longoria, didn't produce much.)
The Giants were trying to shed the final years of a big free-agent contract. The Braves, unexpectedly, and apparently all alone in this conviction, still saw the aging Melancon as a closer. While more conventional closer candidates have staffed the seventh and eighth innings for Atlanta, Melancon has pitched to contact, kept the ball on the ground and converted 25 of 28 save chances.
During the first game of last year's NLDS, Martin had to leave a game without throwing a pitch, having hurt himself while warming up. That turned out to make all the difference -- in that game and the rest of the series -- as the Braves' bullpen couldn't find the depth to replace him. He's healthy now, and he threw two perfect, high-leverage eighth innings in the wild-card round. As a Brave, Martin has walked only three batters unintentionally in just under 40 innings. Allard walked that many in his first start as a Ranger.
14. Dodgers trade Niko Hulsizer to Rays for Adam Kolarek, July 2019
The three-batter minimum is no friend to lefty specialists generally, but there will always be a role for pitchers as good as Kolarek has been: He has held lefties to a .113/.137/.141 line since the Dodgers acquired him, and his regular-season ERA in blue is 0.88.
Just another Rays reliever story: They acquired a 25-year-old with only nine (terrible) big league innings, no prospect pedigree, mediocre minor league numbers and two Tommy John surgeries, and as a rookie, he's closing out their postseason games with steady triple-digit heat.
Liberatore is a top-50 prospect. Martinez, the main pickup in this deal, didn't hit for Tampa Bay and was traded in July for a player to be named later. But Arozarena, the postseason's hottest hitter, has probably already won this one: He's slugging .886 this postseason and has scored more than a quarter of the Rays' runs. You don't have to believe that the 25-year-old is likely to keep doing this for five more years or ignore Liberatore's potential. The Rays are already deeper into the postseason than they've been in more than a decade, and Arozarena's being an unlikely hero doesn't make him any less of one.
Diaz has hit .278/.365/.451 as a Ray, roughly what Manny Machado and Paul Goldschmidt have hit since they changed teams the same winter that Diaz did. Bauers spent the 2020 season at Cleveland's alternate site.
It's hard enough to judge a trade of four prospects just one (minor-league-free) season later. It's harder still when it isn't quite clear what Greinke's ace status is right now. Of the five potential starters the Astros brought into this postseason, Greinke had the worst ERA but the best FIP. What's clear enough is that Greinke filled a hole that the Astros knew last summer was coming -- with Gerrit Cole's impending departure -- and one that they didn't know last summer was coming -- with Justin Verlander's elbow injury. The Astros, it turned out, desperately needed Greinke this year -- Beer and Martin would not have gotten the team into the postseason. Greinke just had his best strikeout rate since 2017, his best home run rate since 2015 and his best walk rate ever.
The "opener" strategy probably made Yarbrough more famous than any fourth starter in baseball, as he parlayed his pioneering role as the Bulk Guy into 14 wins as a rookie reliever in 2018. Nowadays he mostly just starts -- though he was effective for five innings of bulk against the Yankees in the ALDS -- and over the past three seasons, he has as many wins as Trevor Bauer and more than Patrick Corbin. (Smyly, who needed Tommy John surgery shortly after the trade, never threw a pitch for Seattle.)
8. Rays trade David Price to Tigers for Drew Smyly, Nick Franklin (from Seattle) and Willy Adames, July 2014
Besides making possible the Ryan Yarbrough trade, via Drew Smyly, this headline deal from the 2014 trade deadline produced Adames, who is ... probably the Rays' best position player? It's difficult to say definitively, but he's certainly in the mix: an excellent shortstop whose power broke through in the 2019 postseason and presaged his career-best .481 slugging percentage this year. He's 30th in baseball in WAR the past two years, tied with Francisco Lindor and tops on his team.
Occasionally, a team pulls off such a progression of heists that people start to wonder whether anybody should trade with them at all, given that nothing but one's own humiliation ever results. The Astros were briefly that team, and the acquisition of Pressly was the peak of Astros-trade paranoia: In the 365 days after they acquired him, he had the majors' best ERA (1.61) and second-best WHIP (0.77). Neither he nor the Astros has the same air of invincibility these days, but Pressly -- the team's closer this year -- might be Houston's most indispensable player at the moment because the rest of the bullpen is bad.
In the Braves' push to rebuild after a lousy 2014 season, they acquired at least five young pitchers who might, on a scouting report, have looked likely to lead a postseason rotation someday: Mike Foltynewicz, Matt Wisler, Sean Newcomb, Touki Toussaint and Fried. That list is why you trade for five: These potential aces have come, gone, risen up briefly or failed to develop at all, but collectively they have, indeed, produced baseball's most valuable thing: a single starting pitcher whom the Braves can confidently send to the mound for a Game 1 (or a Game 7).
5. Braves trade Shelby Miller and Gabe Speier to Diamondbacks for Ender Inciarte, Aaron Blair and Dansby Swanson, December 2015
This is one of the more predictably lopsided trades ever -- Miller has the worst ERA in baseball since the start of 2016; Enciarte became an All-Star -- but, until this year, it wasn't really in the way that everybody predicted. That's because it took until now for Swanson, the former No. 1 pick, to become a star. But now is when we live. Swanson finished sixth in the majors in WAR this year, one spot ahead of Fernando Tatis Jr.
4. Dodgers trade Zach Lee to Mariners for Chris Taylor, June 2016
The Dodgers have won eight division titles in a row, but their run as a permanent superpower really started in 2017. Since then, they've won 40 more games than any other NL team. In that time, Chris Taylor -- while playing semiregularly at shortstop, center field and two other positions -- is third on the club in WAR, or fourth (just a tick behind Clayton Kershaw) if we bring in pitchers. Zach Lee was waived by the Mariners within six months.
In the 15 months since the Rays got him, Anderson has been the best reliever in baseball, and he's in the mix for the most dominant stretch of relief pitching in history. In 38 regular-season innings, he has struck out 16 batters per nine innings and struck out 13 for every walk. His strike rate -- at 74% -- is a full two percentage points better than that of any other pitcher in baseball, and he has the highest chase rate and the highest swinging-strike rate. His ERA is 1.43. Six of his eight postseason appearances have been for more than one inning, two have been for more than two innings, and his role as a bullpen stopper is so broad that he has been brought into postseason games in the third, the fourth, the fifth, the seventh, the eighth and the ninth. The Cubs, in July 2016, wanted a bullpen ace for the postseason and traded Gleyber Torres for three months of Aroldis Chapman. The Rays, in July 2019, had the same wish, and they traded Ryne Stanek for six years of Anderson, who is better.
The only knock on the Dodgers is that they didn't trade for the best player in baseball -- probably. Mike Trout would win the vote for that title, but over the past five years, Betts is only 0.3 WAR behind Trout at Baseball-Reference, a negligible difference that is well within WAR's margin of error. Anyway, as a Dodger, Betts delivered with the majors' highest WAR this year. He hit .368/.435/.632 in the first two rounds of this year's playoffs.
Shortly after this move, we wrote about the Delmon Young trade tree, on which Meadows and Glasnow were the newest branches. We didn't realize at that time how sturdy they would be: Meadows finished 14th in MVP voting in his first full year as a Ray, and Glasnow is the ace the Rays called upon (on two days' rest!) last week in a deciding Game 5 against the Yankees. If this had been a full season, Glasnow's strikeout rate -- 14.3 per nine -- could have set the all-time record for a starter. (Baz, meanwhile, is one of the game's top pitching prospects.) At this point, a reasonable guess is that the Delmon Young trade tree -- which is closing in on 50 WAR for Tampa Bay -- could spin off another couple of trades and keep producing into the 2030s. In the meantime, Glasnow is an ace, and Meadows often bats leadoff for an ALCS offense.