Nightengale's Notebook: MLB trade deadline's disappointments can make it all right in October

PHOENIX — The San Diego Padres should have clinched a playoff berth by now, maybe even scaring the Los Angeles Dodgers with their prized trade-deadline acquisitions.

The New York Yankees should have a deep starting rotation, all set to overcome the Houston Astros in the playoffs.

The Minnesota Twins should have clinched the AL Central and be selling playoff tickets.

The New York Mets should be deeper and stronger than any team in the National League (besides the Dodgers) in their bid for their first World Series title since 1986.

Well, strange things can happen when players switch teams at the trade deadline.

PUJOLS: 700th home run is a once-in-a-lifetime feat

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There are bags to pack. Teammates to meet. People to impress. Fans to please. Self-inflicted pressure.

And a comfort level that suddenly has been shredded, leaving even the greatest players desperately searching for answers.

The Padres made the greatest trade deadline moves acquiring Juan Soto and first baseman Josh Bell from Washington, alongside All-Star closer Josh Hader and slugger Brandon Drury.

Well, nearly two months later, and the Padres’ improvement has been minimal at best, going just 23-22, even after their recent five-game winning streak.

Juan Soto reacts after a walk against the Cardinals.
Juan Soto reacts after a walk against the Cardinals.

Soto endured the worst slump of his career, hitting .063 (3-for-48) without an extra-base hit in a 17-game stretch. He’s hitting .234 with a career-low .787 OPS in 43 games since his arrival with just 16 RBI.

Bell, who accompanied Soto in the same trade, is doing even worse. He was hitting .301 with an .807 OPS this season in Washington, and now is hitting just .196 with a .600 OPS, producing eight extra-base hits and 11 RBI in 44 games for San Diego.

“Obviously, we would all love to be hitting .400 the first two or three weeks after getting traded over,’’ Bell told USA TODAY Sports. “You want to help your team win and make a name for yourself, especially in September. But it’s this last stretch that people will remember us for.’’

Hader also endured an awful stretch after the trade, going through a brutal five-game span in which he coughed up 11 hits, seven walks and 12 earned runs in 2⅔ innings (14.50 ERA). Hader appears to have acclimated though, giving up two hits and one run in seven September appearances.

“There’s no excuses,’’ Hader said. “For me personally, it was a mechanics issue, but you do have to get a sense of comfort back. You’re meeting new people. Getting into a new routine. Different clubhouse. New guys. New personnel.’’

And, of course, the pressure.

Look what’s happened with Darin Ruf of the Mets. He was supposed to be the perfect fit as a right-handed DH in the Mets’ lineup. But after hitting 11 homers with 38 RBI with the San Francisco Giants, Ruf is hitting just .155 with a .215 OBP  and .207 slugging percentage since being traded to the Mets. He's still looking for his first homer.

The Mets' Darin Ruf can't flag down a fly ball against Oakland on Saturday.
The Mets' Darin Ruf can't flag down a fly ball against Oakland on Saturday.

The Twins thought they had their closer in All-Star Jorge Lopez of the Baltimore Orioles, who saved 19 games and had a 1.68 ERA. He has been dreadful since his arrival, yielding a 5.60 ERA, allowing 35 baserunners in 17⅔ innings. Tyler Mahle, the starter they acquired from Cincinnati, is out for the year.

The Yankees’ trade pickups have gone belly-up, too. Frankie Montas, who is 1-3 with a 6.35 ERA in his eight starts since being traded from Oakland, is back on the injured list with shoulder inflammation. And outfielder Andrew Benintendi, who was acquired from the Royals, is out for the rest of the regular season with a broken right hamate bone.

There have been precious few players who have reached expectations since being traded in late July and August. Seattle Mariners starter Luis Castillo has been terrific since leaving the Cincinnati Reds, going 3-2 with a 2.83 ERA in nine starts, yielding 46 hits and striking out 64 in 54 innings.

The Mariners were impressed enough to give him a five-year, $108 million contract extension.

And no one cleaned up like the St. Louis Cardinals, who acquired starters Jordan Montgomery from the Yankees and Jose Quintana from the Pittsburgh Pirates. All they’ve done is go 8-3 with a 2.24 ERA in 19 starts, leading the Cardinals to the brink of the NL Central title.

Still, the struggles by players traded at the deadline have far outweighed those living up to expectations, making you wonder just how daunting it is for players to have their lives uprooted midseason.

“It’s not as easy as people think,’’ said Padres All-Star third baseman Manny Machado, who didn’t provide quite the impact the Dodgers envisioned when they acquired him in 2018 from the Baltimore Orioles. “You’re changing clubhouses. You’re moving across the country. You’ve got to take care of your family. You’re dealing with different coaches. You’re in a different division. A different coast. Everything.

“It’s not just packing a bag and playing baseball. It takes a little time to get used to getting back onto that train. That’s the beauty of baseball. Baseball is a sport of routine, and once your routine gets out of whack, just like when you’re traded, it takes time to get back on track.’’

The Padres still are in the driver's seat for a postseason berth, their first in a full season since 2006. When the playoffs start Oct. 5, they believe they’ll be just fine.

And they should find their comfort level by the time October rolls around, says a man who has been traded midseason three times and played on nine teams in his 14-year career.

“It’s an adjustment for sure,’’ said Arizona Diamondbacks reliever Mark Melancon. “The first time you might have the most pressure, especially outside pressure. But after that, you realize they traded for who you are, so you just have to continue to do what you’ve been doing.

“The saving grace is that you’re usually going to a good team, so the excitement there takes over, you get a boost, you get a life, all of the other things are going to come together. ’’

It has taken time, longer than the Padres ever anticipated, but all could be forgotten once the playoffs begin, as long as they’re participants.

“You start with a new slate then, and as long as we’re playing up to our standards,’’ Bell says, "hey, why not us?"

What if Cardinals had traded Pujols?

Albert Pujols, who just completed Mount Rushmore as the fourth player with 700 home runs, uses his 13th-round draft selection as motivation to this day .

“I never forgot,’’ Pujols said. “I remind myself all of the time.’’

Well, Jeff Scott, who was the St. Louis Cardinals scouting director when they drafted him with the 402nd pick, reminds himself too what they almost missed.

The Cardinals thoroughly scouted Pujols, but didn’t bother including him on their board of top 125 players and even picked 15 players before Pujols.

Scott confesses that he never even saw Pujols play at Maple Woods Community College in nearby Kansas City. He played with Cardinals Hall of Fame manager Whitey Herzog’s grandson and was roommates with then-Royals GM Herk Robinson’s son.

“Mike Roberts was the scout on him,’’ Scott said, “and he said he’s got a pretty good bat. The Royals worked him out. So did Tampa. The Rays were looking at him as a catcher.

“Finally, the 13th round rolls around, and we say, 'OK, boys, that will be our next pick.’"

They got lucky again a year later when they nearly traded Pujols. The Cardinals needed a catcher, and eyed San Diego Padres catcher Carlos Hernandez. The Padres wanted Pujols or outfielder Ben Johnson, who was in the same draft class as Pujols, but selected in the fourth round.

“Brad Sloan and Ken Bracey, who worked for the Padres and lived in Peoria where they saw Pujols a lot, really wanted Pujols,’’ Scott said. “I got a call from [former Cardinals GM] Walt Jocketty and he says, 'Would you trade Johnson or Pujols for Hernandez?’ I told them I wouldn’t trade either one.’’

The Cardinals wound up trading Johnson and veteran reliever Heathcliff Slocumb for Hernandez and minor leaguer Nathan Tebbs.

Johnson’s career lasted 98 games.

He hit seven home runs, 693 fewer than Pujols.

“Thank god Pujols wasn’t the one who was traded,’’ Scott said. “Can you imagine?

“To this day, I can’t tell you who we picked in the ninth round, the 10th round, the 11th round, the 12th round, but I sure remember who we drafted in that 13th round.’’

College friends

Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Jordan Luplow, who went to college and played baseball at Fresno State for two seasons with Yankees star Aaron Judge, wishes he could say that he instantly predicted stardom.

It wasn’t until Judge’s final year at Fresno State in 2013, Luplow says, that it finally hit him.

“Maybe I was just too close to it, maybe being in the game together was too much to see what he could turn into,’’ Luplow says, “and not knowing the big leagues and how that all works.

“Well, I remember Stanford coming to our place for a weekend series, and Mark Appel was their starter. I mean, Appel was insane. He was so good. He was the No. 1 pick in the country. Well, Aaron hit two home runs off him, one off the scoreboard and one just to the left of it. When that that happened, at that very moment, I said, 'This guy is going to go first round and he’s going to be a superstar.'

Sure enough, here is Judge, drafted 31 picks after Appel, making history.”

“He’s such a good dude, he works so hard,’’ says Luplow, who still keeps in touch with Judge. “He’s earned everything he’s got, that’s the best way to put it. Playing with him, seeing what he does behind the scenes, whatever happens with his contract, I think, is going to go pretty well for him. He’s earned it. He's put in the work.

“He’s handled the pressures and the New York lifestyle flawlessly. I think he’s done one of the best jobs since Derek Jeter, from the outside looking in. I want the best for him. Everyone does."

Luplow regales teammate Christian Walker, who has hit a career-high 36 homers this year, with stories about Judge, as they check every day and night whether he’s hit another homer.

“To be that locked in over 162 games,’’ Walker says, “it’s impressive. The consistency, the determination. He’s humble. He seems like a great teammate, a great guy. It's an awful lot of fun to watch.

“It seems like he was hot, and somehow got hotter. It’s not an accident what he’s doing. He knows his swing in and out, and has done a lot of cool things with his swing over the years.

“How can you not be impressed?’’

Marmol giving back

St. Louis Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol, who is on the verge of leading his team to the NL Central title in his rookie season, has another passion that drives him.

It’s the impoverished kids in Guatemala, where Marmol and his wife, Amber, visited on a mission trip back in 2013, and vowed to make a difference.

“There was a village of kids who were eating only one meal every three days,’’ Marmol said. “We wrote a check, and they were able to eat three meals a day for the next six months or so.

“They sent us a picture of a big wooden table with everybody sitting and having food in front of them. My wife said, 'How do we do this times a million?’

“It changed our lives.’’

Marmol helped design a sports application Versus, with conversations featuring baseball and softball stars like Albert Pujols, Adam Wainwright, Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith, Jennie Finch and Jessica Mendoza, lending their voice to help young athletes in baseball and softball.

The app costs money, of course, from $199 to $299 annually, but half of the proceeds are directed towards a feeding center in Guatemala, with Versus kicking in 10% to charitable organizations that focus on development and access for underserved youth in the United States.

The application not only provides on-field instruction, but gives a stronger understanding of the mental and physical sides of sports. Users get  answers from the baseball and softball stars on about 500 recorded questions asked by Marmol’s research team. Pujols answered questions for 10 hours a day for four days.

“When I got promoted,’’ said Marmol, 36, MLB’s youngest manager, “I really wanted to do this well, and give credit to where I grew up. I had some access to some really brilliant people. I wanted to learn. I asked a lot of questions because of the have the access I had. It opened up so many doors for me. ...

“I’m really proud of what we’re doing.’’

Around the basepaths...

– Chicago will be the center of drama this winter.

On the North Side of town, the Cubs plan to spend big money in the free agent market, hoping to land a marquee shortstop.

On the South Side, the White Sox have to determine whether their window of opportunity has already closed. Do they continue to go for it with their same group or blow up the team?

They almost must decide whether or not to bring back manager Tony La Russa, who’s out the rest of the year after undergoing a procedure for his pacemaker.

La Russa has one year and $4 million left on his deal, but there’s a deep divide in the organization whether they should bring him back, boot him upstairs, give the manager’s job to interim Miguel Cairo – or look outside the organization and target someone like three-time World Series champion Bruce Bochy.

Stay tuned.

– Aaron Judge grew up a San Francisco Giants fan but his favorite player wasn’t Barry Bonds or Jeff Kent, rather infielder Rich Aurilia.

It’s the reason he wore No. 35 growing up, even emulating his batting stance.

So does Aurilia believe that will play a factor in Judge’s free agency this winter?

“Would it be nice to have him here?’’ Aurilia said on the Giants pregame show. “Of course, it would. But as every home run keeps going on here, there's less and less of a chance I think the Yankees don't sign him back."

– The Seattle Mariners have quite the starting pitching future after locking up Luis Castillo to a five-year, $108 million contract extension.

They have Castillo, Robbie Ray, Logan Gilbert and George Kirby under contract the next four years.

– Dodgers three-time Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw says that he’s not done yet, believing he’s still on top of his game and plans to return again in 2023.

“I hold the right to change my mind,’’ Kershaw told the LA Times, “but as of today, I think that I’ve got at least one more run.’’

Why not? He’s still dominant, going 9-3 with a 2.39 ERA in 19 starts entering Saturday, and is having way too much fun.

“This year,’’ Kershaw says, “has been a blast for me, personally.’’

– The Seattle Mariners haven’t reached the playoffs since 2001, the longest drought in North American team sports and have a 99% chance of ending that drought.

Yet, now having to play down the stretch without rookie All-Star center fielder Julio Rodriguez, who’s on the injured list with a bad back, their odds of getting home-field advantage are slim.

It would be a shame for a team to go 21 years without being in the playoffs and their hometown fans don’t get to witness a single game.

– Kansas City Royals staffers were stunned with the news that Dayton Moore, president of baseball operations, was fired.

Forget the fact that Moore led the small-market Royals to their first World Series title since 1985 and two AL pennants, he’s as widely admired and respected as anyone in the game.

He would be a perfect fit for the Commissioner’s Office.

“I’ll never work for a better person’’ one longtime Royals executive said.

It was a sentiment echoed throughout the organization.

– The scary part for the rest of the AL Central about the Cleveland Guardians’ season is that they are only going to get better, with 16 players making their MLB debuts this season, six of their top prospects on the way and a low payroll with room to add free agents.

Cleveland tried to acquire first baseman Matt Olson and pitcher Carlos Rodon during the winter, but in the end, it didn’t matter, blowing past the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins down the stretch.

The Guardians, whose average age is about 26 years old, are on verge of becoming the youngest team in the wild-card era to win a division.

"I don't know if you can put an age on being competitive,’’ Guardians manager Terry Francona said.

With all due respect to Brandon Hyde of the Baltimore Orioles, Scott Servais of the Seattle Mariners and Dusty Baker of the Houston Astros, Francona should be the AL Manager of the Year.

– The Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees may be among the best teams in baseball, but three weeks before they open the postseason, neither team knows who their closer will be in October.

– Greatest news: Toronto Blue Jays broadcaster Buck Martinez spent three days in Houston, underwent a gamut of tests and was told he is now cancer-free.

– Rocco Baldelli’s managerial job is safe with the Twins, says Derek Falvey, Twins president of baseball operations.

“Rocco's a big part of our future,’’ Falvey told reporters. “Not just next year, but beyond.’’

– The same isn’t true for Royals manager Mike Matheny, with J.J. Picollo, their new executive vice president of baseball operations, refusing to give a vote of confidence for Matheny or any of his coaches.

– Atlanta rookie sensation Spencer Strider, who’s done for the regular season with an oblique strain but is scheduled to return in the postseason, has quietly set a record.

He’s the first pitcher in history to finish a regular season with 200 or more strikeouts and fewer than 100 hits allowed.

Strider’s regular season: 11-5, 2.67 ERA, 202 strikeouts, 86 hits.

– Coors Field continues to be a house of horrors for the Padres: They have lost 14 of their past 15 games against the Colorado Rockies in Denver.

– Dusty Baker will become only the fourth manager in history to win at least 100 games in a season in each league, joining Hall of Famers Sparky Anderson, Tony La Russa and Whitey Herzog.

Check out his last six full seasons:

  • 2012: Cincinnati Reds, 97-65, NL Central title

  • 2013: Reds, 90-72

  • 2016: Washington Nationals, 95-67, NL East title

  • 2017: Nationals, 97-65, NL East title

  • 2021: Houston Astros, 95-67, AL West title, AL pennant

  • 2022: Astros, 98-53, AL West title

Baker, by the way, was in uniform for the last three players who hit No. 700:

Henry Aaron: Atlanta teammate.

Barry Bonds: Chicago Cubs manager.

Albert Pujols: Houston Astros manager.

– Atlanta entered Saturday having lost three consecutive games without a home run for the first time since 2019. No one on the team has struggled more this month than first baseman Matt Olson, Freddie Freeman’s replacement, who is hitting .111 (8-for-72) with 26 strikeouts.

– Veteran starter Mike Minor, 34, is considering retiring after the season.

“I’m not closing the door, but it’s barely cracked,” Minor told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “It’s mostly if I get the itch to play, then maybe. It also goes along the same lines of if I feel good. If I don’t feel good, then that answers that question pretty easily. I’d have to feel good, and I’d have to want to play and want to be away from my family again.”

– Pujols on not getting his 700th home run baseball with the fan leaving the ballpark after getting the ball authenticated: “Souvenirs are for fans," he said. "If they want to give it back, great, but I don’t focus on material stuff. Have (a) bat, uniform, things that are special. If they want to keep that baseball, I don’t have any problem with it.’’

– The Twins were 47-39 when center fielder Byron Buxton was in the starting lineup, but just 26-39 when he wasn’t.

His season is over, scheduled to undergo season-ending knee surgery.

Buxton, who signed a seven-year, $100 million contract last winter, has played 100 games just once in his career.

– The Chicago White Sox could finish the year without a single player hitting 20 home runs. It would be the lowest total for their home-run leader since Ivan Calderon had only 14 in 1989.

– Early 2023 Rookie of the Year watch: Phillies starter Andrew Painter.

Painter, 6-foot-7, could become only the fourth pitcher in 20 years to make his debut at the age of 19, joining Julio Urias (2016), Madison Bumgarner (2009), Felix Hernández (2005) and Edwin Jackson (2003).

“He has the capabilities to be as good as any young pitcher that I’ve been around,” Phillies president Dave Dombrowski told reporters. “And when I say that, there’s been some really good ones that I’ve been around.”

Check out his stats this season:

6-2, 1.56 ERA, 103 2/3 innings, 67 hits, 25 walks, 155 strikeouts.

– Congratulations to great guy Stephen Vogt, the Oakland A’s veteran catcher, who announced his retirement this past week after a World Series championship and two All-Star appearances in his 10-year career.

Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB playoffs are chance for trade deadline disappointments to shine