The San Francisco Giants are going for it. They traded for Carlos Beltran(notes), the best hitter on the trade market, in a deal that should become official Thursday. To acquire Beltran, they sent the New York Mets a 21-year-old right-hander named Zack Wheeler who by all accounts was San Francisco’s most promising pitching prospect.
The St. Louis Cardinals are going for it, too. They traded for starter Edwin Jackson(notes), a hodgepodge of three relievers and backup outfielder Corey Patterson(notes) on Wednesday. To acquire their haul, they sent the Toronto Blue Jays a package that included three relief pitchers of minimal consequence and a 24-year-old center fielder named Colby Rasmus(notes) who a year ago by most accounts was one of the best hitters in the National League and who, in the words of one executive who coveted him, “is going to make us all look stupid for not ponying up to get him.”
Switch-hitter Carlos Beltran has been the most coveted bat among available players at the trade deadline.
Baseball’s trade season turned interesting Wednesday after weeks of jockeying, parrying, bluffing and negotiating. Players are on the move, teams are girding themselves, general managers are thinking big and the fantasies of playoff runs are guiding moves that can affect organizations for years. Which is why we must understand that even as the Giants and Cardinals dream the same dream, they are nothing alike.
Going for it is not a deed with a singular outcome. It is graded on a continuum, good to bad. And in a busy hour Wednesday afternoon the Giants and Cardinals provided us with lessons on both ends.
The San Francisco Giants' window is closing, as do all windows in professional sports. They start closing almost immediately after they open. Age, ego, money, free agency – almost anything can metastasize inside a locker room and tear apart a wondrous group of athletes that accomplished something magnificent.
[Related: Giants swing deal for Beltran]
For the Giants, it was winning the 2010 World Series. Most of the season they lurked on the outskirts of the playoff race only to parlay the most brilliant six-week pitching run anyone ever had seen into a chunky band of white gold with a diamond-studded interlocking SF. They returned this year with the same flaw – an inability to score runs – and down went their best hitter, Buster Posey(notes). Their pitching still was so good, and their hitting still was so not, and it left the Giants with a choice.
Go for it?
Well, that meant a few things. First was identifying the target. Jose Reyes(notes), the Mets’ dynamic shortstop, made the most sense. The Giants loved him, yearned for him. Then the Mets yanked him off the market. Next best was Reyes’ teammate, Beltran, a player with far more flaws. The balky knee that kept him out the majority of the previous two seasons. The impending free agency. The contract that prevented the team from reaping compensatory draft picks if he signed elsewhere.
But that window. That window taunted Brian Sabean, the Giants’ general manager, the man whose fetish for past-their-prime players has turned into a running joke in recent years but who nonetheless honed in on the 34-year-old Beltran and remained trained on that prize. Philadelphia intervened. Texas interrupted. Atlanta cut in. Boston flirted. Maybe in an effort to drive the price up and maybe because they were serious – none of that really mattered, not to Sabean. He just saw the window.
Giants general manager Brian Sabean celebrated a world championship in November and is positioning the Giants for another deep October run.
He saw the contract of Matt Cain(notes) expiring after next season and he saw Tim Lincecum(notes) hitting free agency a year later, and even if the Giants do attempt to re-sign them, it’s nothing close to a certainty. Barry Zito(notes) may be gone by then, and Aaron Rowand(notes) and Aubrey Huff(notes), too, but free agency does some unkind things to pitchers’ values. If Zito is a $126 million man, after all, what does that make Cain and Lincecum worth?
The smartest GMs will see that window moving and while they can’t stop the thing, they endeavor to make it go in slo-mo. Even if their hitting is abominable, and even if it's going to take some unexpected performances from position players, the Giants owe it to themselves to make a run at a championship now and next season.
Which is why Wheeler, who throws 95 mph and has struck out more than one hitter an inning in the minors, found himself expendable. Sometimes to survive a team needs to give up a player for whom it paid $3.3 million not quite two years ago and get a Carlos Beltran, who with one swing can give ample support to Lincecum or Cain or Madison Bumgarner(notes) or Ryan Vogelsong(notes).
That is how you go for it.
This is how you don’t.
By allowing a manager to banish a kid, a kid who, yes, rubbed some people wrong, copped an attitude at inappropriate times, played insubordinate too often, but was still just a kid, and one whose font of talent is matched in just a handful of places across the sport. Colby Rasmus, the wrong-rubbing, attitude-copping insubordinate, picked up his passport and went to the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday. And he did so because his manager would sooner lose a game than work through a grudge.
[Related: Cardinals bolster rotation]
Tony La Russa, as he is wont to do, tried to play innocent Wednesday. There is a truth about playing for La Russa: kiss the ring or he will imprint it on your forehead. Rasmus never puckered up, from the time he arrived as a 21-year-old to his last days in a Cardinals uniform.
“I’ve heard if you don’t get along with the manager in St. Louis, you can’t play,” La Russa told St. Louis-area media Wednesday. “That’s ridiculous. If you get on Tony’s bad side you're out of here – that’s wrong. …
“I know what upset our coaches, upset me, is that [the perception was] we were down on him and that we had given up on him. That was so untrue it was upsetting to us.”
Now, wait. Rewind the tape 24 hours. A local television reporter asked La Russa about Rasmus. Here was the manager’s response.
“No, he doesn’t listen to the Cardinal coaches much now,” La Russa told KSDK-TV, “and that’s why he gets in these funks, in my opinion.”
If that is not down on Rasmus, what is? Telling Rasmus his dad’s opinions are worthless? Actually, La Russa did that, too. Tony Rasmus was a classic stage parent, too involved in his son’s career for anyone’s good. But Colby trusts him. And the longer he stayed in St. Louis, the less Rasmus trusted his manager.
Ultimately, the Cardinals’ trade of Rasmus was about the Cardinals’ manager – the manager whose contract doesn't even bind him to the team for 2012. GM John Mozeliak called it a win-now deal, and it is. The Cardinals are better this year with Jackson, Octavio Dotel(notes), Marc Rzepczynski(notes), and Patterson than they were with Rasmus, Brian Tallet(notes), Trever Miller(notes) and P.J. Walters(notes), and this move might make them favorites in a crowded NL Central. Might.
St. Louis manager Tony La Russa greets Colby Rasmus on the field following a victory in 2010. .
They’re still not a team with a window.
Oh, the Cardinals are capable of a playoff run. Any team is. In 2006, St. Louis went 83-79 during the regular season, played out of its mind during the postseason and won the World Series. Three years later, the Cardinals entered October with a far stronger team. Los Angeles swept them in the first round.
Jackson rounds out a rotation that includes Jaime Garcia(notes), Chris Carpenter, Kyle Lohse(notes) and Jake Westbrook(notes) – a lot of good, nothing great. The Cardinals sorely miss Adam Wainwright(notes), whose elbow injury, in a roundabout way, necessitated this deal. St. Louis’ lineup remains hit and miss. For every Albert Pujols(notes), Matt Holliday(notes) and Lance Berkman(notes), there is a vacuum at second base, a suckhole at shortstop and an injury at third base.
This trade makes sense only if Mozeliak believes Pujols is leaving via free agency and he wants to ramp up for one last run with the man who for years has been the best player in baseball. Even if that is the case, Rasmus is the last player he should want to trade – the very sort who, if he couldn’t replace Pujols, surely could grow into a player around whom the Cardinals build.
Instead, they get two months of Jackson and the draft picks that will come when he hits free agency. And two months of Dotel, plus another pick. Rzepczynski should be a serviceable left-handed reliever for the next few years. Patterson is cannon fodder.
The final equation: two months of solid pitching, three draft choices and a left-handed reliever for three years of a five-tool center fielder.
A center fielder who has regressed this year, and whose reputation as a malcontent may prove correct in Toronto. If Rasmus’ struggles continue – struggle being a matter of perspective, of course, as his adjusted OPS is 11 percent better than league average – Mozeliak may lord it over his critics: He actually had sold high, when Rasmus’ perceived value was greater than his production. Perhaps the Cardinals spin those three picks into studs, and maybe the three players to be named later or cash the Blue Jays later will throw in turn out to be something, and their farm system could keep producing top-flight prospects like Shelby Miller(notes) and Carlos Martinez(notes) and Oscar Taveras, helping the machine roar unabated.
But until then, the Cardinals traded a nugget of gold for a couple pieces of silver, a chunk of bronze and a roll of tin foil.
Flags fly forever. That’s what Brian Sabean is saying, and it’s what John Mozeliak is saying, and each staked his claim to a cluster of them Wednesday: the small ones that denote division championships, the bigger ones that signify league championships and the oversized ones that celebrate world championships.
July is a month for romantics. Executives sit there and play fantasy baseball with their roster, and whether it’s the three-team, 11-player deal it took to send Rasmus to Toronto and Jackson to St. Louis or the simple two-player trade with Beltran and Wheeler, they’re always scheming to make themselves better. It’s fun to think what can be in October.
It’s why general managers go for it. All it takes, as Sabean and Mozeliak know, is a hot month. Each lived it. Each remembers it. Each sees it today.
And each hopes that doing business at the riskiest time of the year puts him on the proper side of the continuum, the one where going for it and getting it done are one and the same.
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