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 On paper, winners at Trade Deadline

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PostSubject: On paper, winners at Trade Deadline   Mon Aug 01, 2011 11:11 pm

On paper, winners at Trade Deadline
Teams bucking for postseason get aggressive in trying to improve
By Anthony Castrovince | Columnist | 08/01/11 10:00 AM ET

That was, uh, not your average Trade Deadline.

Put it this way. When the New York Yankees are taking the cautious approach -- protecting their prospects -- and the Cleveland Indians are throwing caution to the wind to land an available ace, it's a baseball Bizarro World.

Be they buyers, sellers or brokers, all but four of the 30 Major League clubs made some sort of swap in July, and 76 players -- not counting those yet to be named -- changed hands. It was a Deadline that defied mere short-term status, as the likes of Ubaldo Jimenez, Hunter Pence and Colby Rasmus -- big names under contractual control well beyond 2011 -- were moved. Meanwhile, some pending free agents who provided plenty of trade-talk fodder in recent weeks -- thinking here of Heath Bell, Josh Willingham and Hiroki Kuroda, to name but a few -- stayed put.

Long-term implications abound after July's dealings. And it will be a long, long, long time before we know if the Astros got enough for Pence, if the Indians gave up too much for Jimenez, if the Cardinals regret their Rasmus rationale, etc.

But here in the aftermath that is August, we can at least pick out which clubs are, "on paper" (and that's quite the key caveat), better and more adequately positioned for a 2011 postseason run than they were mere days or weeks ago. In the immediate, that's all that really matters.

Here then, in no particular order, are the 10 clubs that made the most dramatic improvements to their 2011 squad.

Whether they should have saved their receipts is a matter we can't yet determine.

1. This was a trade market rife with relievers, and no team took better advantage of that strength than the Texas Rangers. As was the case with C.J. Wilson a year ago, they made a major upgrade to their rotation by converting Alexi Ogando to starting duties this season. But that conversion came at the expense of the bullpen, and Neftali Feliz's inconsistency hasn't helped matters, either.

Enter Koji Uehara from the Orioles, followed by Mike Adams from the Padres. As two of the most dominant setup men in baseball, they'll both be in manager Ron Washington's 'pen not just this year but next.

"Now I've got two eighth-inning guys," Washington said. "I've got great flexibility. All it does is make our ballclub better. These two guys are capable of pitching anywhere in the ballgame."

The pressure on the Rangers' starting staff has decreased dramatically, for Uehara and Adams have combined to strike out 111 while walking just 17 and allowing just 51 hits in their 95 innings this season.

Meanwhile, the second-place Angels sat silent. Texas is already ahead in the American League West and improved considerably. If the Rangers can repeat, they're set up for a potent setup situation come October thanks to their aggressive approach at the Deadline.

2. Speaking of aggressive, the Cleveland Indians were bold as can be in hauling in an ace known as Jimenez, and that was certainly a change of pace for a club that had grown all too accustomed with shipping front-line starting talent elsewhere in recent years. It's not often that an ace under long-term contractual control at an affordable rate becomes available this time of year (or any time of year, for that matter), which is why the Indians were willing to gamble away a significant portion of their future -- former No. 1 Draft picks Drew Pomeranz and Alex White -- to land him.

"The thing I like about it," one Indians player said, "is that we're in a much better position to win a playoff series with Jimenez and Justin Masterson [fronting the rotation]. Now we just have to get there."

The only trouble for the Tribe is that the offense, aside from the low-key addition of Kosuke Fukudome, is still missing the right-handed impact bat that manager Manny Acta craved. The Indians will scour the waiver wire, hoping all the while that healthy returns by Shin-Soo Choo (due back mid-month) and Grady Sizemore (due back for September) will provide a boost from within. If nothing else, the Indians know they have a new reason to feel ample optimism every fifth day.

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3. That kind of optimism is something the Detroit Tigers have felt all season, what with Justin Verlander evolving into the game's most unstoppable arm (and it was nice of Maicer Izturis to call off the no-hitter alert just before Sunday's Deadline so that Twitter didn't completely combust).

But the Tigers, who take a 2 1/2-game AL Central lead into the new month, were utterly beatable otherwise, which is why their acquisition of Doug Fister to aid the rotation was such a necessary boost. Yes, Fister reaped the benefits of the Safeco Field safety net, but he's in the midst of a solid season and the run-support dilemma that marred his Mariners tenure shouldn't be an issue any longer.

"He gives us that solid guy," Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "A six- or seven-inning-type guy that gives us a chance to win every time he takes the ball."

The Tigers also reeled in David Pauley from Seattle to patch up one of the thinner bullpens in the AL. These aren't blockbuster acquisitions, by any stretch, and they came at the steep cost of Charlie Furbush, Casper Wells and two prospects, but with a deeper rotation and relief corps, the Tigers are better positioned in their attempts to maintain their slim lead.

4. No first-place club has a fatter lead than the six-game advantage the Philadelphia Phillies take into August. They've built that lead on the might of their deservedly hyped starting staff, but there were justifiable concerns about how adequately their left-leaning offense would back up that staff come October.

Those concerns were answered with the arrival of Pence, who brings more than just the brilliant "Pence-sylvania" headlines with him to his new home. Pence, acquired for a package of prospects highlighted by a couple of kids in Class A, has legitimate right-handed power, an increasingly rare commodity in this era of ample arms. Now, is Pence a truly elite performer? Not really, as his on-base percentage (.355) and slugging percentage (.468) aren't overwhelming, and his batting average on balls in play (.366) indicates some measure of good fortune.

But Pence certainly provides more protection for Ryan Howard than the Phils have had all year. And he might very well be the final piece of a World Series puzzle.

"Any time you add a player as significant as Hunter," reliever Brad Lidge said, "it just reassures your team about your goal and mission."

5. The Phillies' mission, first and foremost, is to edge the Atlanta Braves for the National League East title. And it could well be that the Braves are more cut out for the NL Wild Card. But how much better does their lineup look now that Michael Bourn is aboard? Quite a bit better, indeed.

Bourn brings speed (check) to the leadoff spot (check) and defensive prowess (check) to center field (check). He's the perfect fit for Atlanta's offense, right at a time when Dan Uggla has seemingly remembered how to hit.

"He was the one thing we were lacking," GM Frank Wren said. "We haven't really had a prototypical leadoff hitter in five or six years."

What's more, Bourn didn't cost the Braves any of their coveted top four pitching prospects. Bravo, Bravos.

6. When it comes to necessary enhancements that didn't mortgage a significant chunk of the future, we must also applaud those plucky Pittsburgh Pirates. They've dropped seven of their past 10 to fall 4 1/2 games back in the NL Central, so time is of the essence as the Buccos bid to not only crack the .500 mark for the first time in nearly two decades but also reach the playoffs.

While back-end relief help remains on GM Neal Huntington's waiver-wire wish list, the Pirates at least provided some incremental improvements to their offense in trading for Derrek Lee of the Orioles and Ryan Ludwick of the Padres. Are a fading Lee and an inconsistent Ludwick enough to save one of the least-productive offenses in the NL? Doubtful. But the price was right, and even marginal upgrades to this youthful unit should help the bottom line that is the scoreboard run total.

7. By contrast, the San Francisco Giants were the one team that took a huge stab at a short-term rental for potentially marked, not just marginal, improvement of their offensive attack. Carlos Beltran is a rental, and with that comes inherent risk.

Recognizing, however, that Matt Cain can be a free agent after next season and Tim Lincecum the year after that, the Giants know how quickly the window to contend can close. Time is of the essence, and they were willing to part with top pitching prospect Zack Wheeler to make the most of their opportunity to repeat as World Series champions.

Beltran, naturally, is not the same guy he was when he lifted the Astros on his back seven years ago, but he's nonetheless motivated by his pending free agency and, presumably, this chance at a championship. The Giants also brought in Orlando Cabrera, he of the miniscule OPS but immeasurable clubhouse and dugout fire.

So far, not so good on the Beltran front, as the hired gun has just two hits and the Giants have just one win since the trade was made on Thursday. Hey, we told you we're talking about on-paper improvements here.

8. The Giants are hoping Beltran gets hot, because the Arizona Diamondbacks continue to give them a run for their money. As with the Pirates, the improvements here are more of the miniature variety, but give the D-backs credit for not sitting idly by in a race in which few expected them to hold relevance. The D-backs solidified two back ends -- the one in their rotation, where Jason Marquis should eat up some innings, and the one in their bullpen, where Brad Ziegler is a nice option to augment the solid work setup man David Hernandez and closer J.J. Putz have done this season.

"K.T. was aggressive," said Putz, referring to GM Kevin Towers, "but aggressively smart."

9. Few, if any, have been more aggressive than Milwaukee Brewers GM Doug Melvin this year. He famously went all-in when acquiring Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum to solidify the rotation in Prince Fielder's walk year. And when the Deadline came calling, he got the swap season rolling the night of the All-Star Game, when he hauled in Francisco Rodriguez from the Mets.

This is the only trade we can adequately analyze at the moment, given that K-Rod has been aboard going on three weeks. He's tossed scoreless innings in six of his seven appearances, earning one win and five holds thus far, so he's fit in well in the eighth-inning role.

An ankle sprain to Rickie Weeks is a major blow to the Brew Crew, so enter Felipe Lopez and Jerry Hairston Jr. just before the Deadline.

10. The St. Louis Cardinals know all too well about adjusting to injuries. They lost Adam Wainwright before his first pitch of Spring Training. That's why improving the rotation was such a must, and the Cardinals conceivably did it with the addition of Edwin Jackson from the White Sox, by way of the Blue Jays.

Landing Jackson allowed Kyle McClellan to slide back into the bullpen, where he's had past success and where he's now joined by veteran right-hander Octavio Dotel and lefty Marc Rzepczynski. The Cards then wrapped up their Deadline dealings by adding a fading Rafael Furcal at shortstop.

The four-plus years of contractual control of Rasmus that the Cards forfeited in the Jackson trade is a steep, steep price for a short, short window. Looking long term, and knowing Jackson, like Albert Pujols, is a pending free agent, it was a gigantic gamble. But the Cards are on this list because their rotation and bullpen are both better (again, on paper) now than they were a week ago. And in their particular division, that might be a difference-maker.

"This," GM John Mozeliak said, "is a window to win."

The Trade Deadline is all about attempting to maximize that window of opportunity. Some took better advantage of it than others, but it remains to be seen how decisive this Deadline will be.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

“It takes pitching, hitting and defense. Any two can win. All three make you unbeatable.”    
–Joe Garagiola
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