Published July 11, 2016
Somewhere, on some big league baseball roster, there’s a mystery man—or two, or three.
These mystery men don’t know it, but they will play a significant role in the 2016 playoff races.
Notice I didn’t say “pennant races.” True pennant races have gone the way of the dinosaur and drive-in movie theaters. We haven’t had a pennant race, in its purest form, since 1968. Ever since MLB split like an amoeba into divisions starting in 1969, we have playoff races.
But I digress.
The mystery men are players who will be dealt from their “have not” teams to one of the “haves”—or at the very least, a pretend have, on or around the July 31 interleague, non-waiver trade deadline.
It could be a Ryan Braun of Milwaukee. Or an Albert Pujols of Anaheim. Or a Julio Teheran of Atlanta.
Or a Victor Martinez or Justin Verlander of Detroit.
These players, who don’t know it yet, will join their new teams and at least one of them will help determine who get into the playoffs and who doesn’t. They could help their new team get into the playoffs with fantastic play, or help a rival qualify for the post-season because of gross ineffectiveness.
The late-season acquisition has some delicious history in baseball playoff races.
Cesar Cedeno was acquired by the Cardinals from the Reds in late-August of 1985. Cedeno, primarily a centerfielder, was, in his prime, one of the most electric players of the 1970s when he played for the Houston Astros.
Cedeno was a true five-tool player. A typical Cedeno season was a .280 BA, double-digit home runs, an OPS of over .800 and some 50-plus bags stolen. He also gunned down baserunners with his rifle arm for a centerfielder.
But by 1985, Cedeno was 34 and a shell of his former self.
The Cardinals dealt for Cedeno and basically gave the Reds a bucket of baseballs in return.
In September 1985, Cedeno turned into the Cedeno of old. Scratch that. He turned into a combination of Mays, Ruth and Cobb.
In 28 games as a Cardinal, Cedeno went 33-for-76 (.434) with six home runs, 19 RBI and five stolen bases. His OPS was an unworldly 1.213.
The Cardinals were nursing a 2.5-game lead in the NL East when they made the Cedeno trade. They edged the Mets by three games at the finish line, and there’s no way the Cards would have won the division if it wasn’t for Cesar Cedeno.
Cedeno wasn’t much of a factor in the NLCS or in the World Series, but the Cardinals play in neither if it wasn’t for him.
Two years after the Cedeno bargain, the Tigers dealt a low-level minor league pitcher named John Smoltz to Atlanta for soon-to-be 37 year-old right-hander Doyle Alexander.
I don’t have to refresh your memory on that one.
The Tigers have tried the late-season acquisition throughout the past 50 years or so, with variable success.
Third baseman Eddie Mathews came over from Houston in August of 1967. An unquestioned Hall of Famer, Mathews was secured for the ever-popular “player to be named later.”
Mathews, 35, cranked out six home runs in 108 at-bats as a Tiger in 1967, but his contribution wasn’t quite enough, as the Tigers lost the pennant—yes, the pennant—on the last day of the season.
Frank Howard was acquired from lowly Texas in 1972, on August 31.
Hondo, who had terrorized the Tigers for years as a member of the Washington Senators, was 36 years old at the time. He only got 33 Tigers at-bats in ’72, hitting one homer. The Tigers won the division in 1972, though Frank Howard’s mark was hardly indelible.
In 1993, the Tigers brought in one-time stud centerfielder Eric Davis.
The Tigers were on the peripheral of the division race, in fourth place, six games behind first-place Toronto, when Davis was acquired from Los Angeles on August 31 for that ubiquitous player to be named later.
Davis did OK for the Tigers, hitting six home runs in 75 at-bats in September, driving in 15 runs.
But the Blue Jays were too powerful and the Tigers finished fourth, 10 games behind.
In recent years, the Tigers have tried, with varying degrees of success, Jarrod Washburn, Aubrey Huff, Doug Fister, Delmon Young, Anibal Sanchez and David Price as key trade deadline acquisitions.
The above list is a microcosm of overall success in MLB when it comes to the fire sale trades.
You win some, you lose some. When the pundits say with certainty that a deadline trade is great for the acquiring team, don’t believe them, because they don’t know. They think they know, but they don’t really know.
Mention Huff’s name in Detroit and you’ll still get sneers, some seven years after his failed experiment (.189 BA in 106 AB), which was made all the worse when Huff went to the Giants and became a key contributor to San Francisco’s 2010 world championship.
But talk about Fister and the Tiger fan’s face will light up.
They’re out there—the mystery men whose acquisitions and subsequent performances will somehow shape the 2016 playoff races. They’re on their way to a contender—or a pretender—later this month, or in August.
We don’t know who they are yet—and neither do they—but they’re out there.
Will the Tigers get in on the action? And if so, how so?
I’m no soothsayer, but I somehow doubt that owner Mike Ilitch signed off an a $200 million payroll to sell off his assets two years in a row, though last year did bring a trio of pitchers with bright futures—futures that Ilitch may not be around to enjoy.
The Tigers are 46-43 at the All-Star break and, depending on the day of the week, they look like they’re either treading water, taking it in, or bailing it out successfully.
The Indians are gone in the Central Division. So it’s all about qualifying for the one-and-done play-in game.
Think about that for a moment. Teams all around MLB will be making crucial decisions about the futures of their franchises, based on whether they want to roll the dice and try to qualify for a single game this October.
Forget pennant races or even playoff races anymore.
Today we have play-in races.
That coveted (these days) 163rd game.