Potential Difference Makers for the Stretch—American League

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Two examples of trades that made a significant difference in their team’s fortunes—and were under-the-radar, shrugged at, or ignored at the time—were when the Tigers traded for Doyle Alexander in August of 1987 and the Cardinals traded for Cesar Cedeno in 1985.

The veteran Alexander had experience in pennant races and was expected to bolster the Tigers’ rotation. Instead he pitched masterfully with a 9-0 record, a 1.53 ERA and, if you’re looking for numbers to prove how valuable he was, a 4.3 WAR. You can look at what the Tigers traded for him and say it was a mistake since they traded Michigan native, lifelong Tigers’ fan and future Hall of Famer John Smoltz to get him. But to be fair, Smoltz was a 22nd round pick who’d struggled in his time with the Tigers in the minors. In the moment, Alexander was the difference between the 1987 Tigers making or missing the playoffs. Had they won the World Series, I’m sure the Tigers would’ve said it was worth it even without 20 years of Smoltz. And there’s no guarantee that Smoltz would’ve been for the Tigers the pitcher he was with the Braves. We don’t know.

The veteran Cedeno, entering the closing phase of a career that should’ve been far better than it was given his talent, was traded to the Cardinals as a veteran bat off the bench in exchange for a minor leaguer who never made it and Cedeno posted a .434/.463/.750 slash line with 6 homers in 82 plate appearances. I was at the John TudorDwight Gooden classic pitcher’s duel where Gooden pitched 9 scoreless innings and Tudor 10. Cedeno homered off of Jesse Orosco in the top of the 10th to win the game. (That was also the night Pete Rose broke Ty Cobb’s hit record.)

There’s no telling how leaving a team playing out the string and joining a contender will wake up a veteran player and spur him to make a major contribution. It could be a starter, a reliever, a position player or a bench player, judgment comes in retrospect.

Let’s take a look at some American League players who are presumably available and could be to their new clubs what Alexander and Cedeno were for theirs.

Their National League counterparts will be posted later.

Josh Beckett, RHP—Boston Red Sox

He’ll get through waivers and loves the pressure of the post-season. Beckett would undoubtedly feel liberated by leaving Boston. The Red Sox would love to be rid of him on and off the field and the fans would also welcome his departure regardless of what they get for him—probably nothing more than salary relief. He’s got $31.5 million coming to him for 2013-2014 and is a 10 and 5 player; the Red Sox would have to pick up some of the freight to get rid of him. He’d okay a trade and it would be worth it to fans around the world to take up a collection to pay him off just to see how badly he’d unleash on Bobby Valentine and the Red Sox on the way out the door.

Kelly Johnson, 2B—Toronto Blue Jays

Talk surrounding the Blue Jays has centered around them trading shortstop Yunel Escobar to install young Adeiny Hechavarria at shortstop, but with Escobar under team control through 2015, the Blue Jays might be better-served to trade the pending free agent Johnson and let Hechevarria play second base. Johnson has power, walks and is solid enough defensively at second base.

Travis Hafner, DH—Cleveland Indians

He’s a free agent at the end of the season and no one is going to pay whatever he’s owed for the remainder of this season and the $2.75 million buyout. He’s also back in his office—the disabled list—with a back injury retroactive to August 6th. Someone would take him for nothing if the Indians pay his contract. He’d be a lefty bat with power and walks off the bench if he’s able to play. He’ll get traded at the end of the month.

Jeff Francoeur, RF—Kansas City Royals

Frenchy has been energized by changing addresses before. When he was let out of his Braves prison in 2009, he went on a tear for the Mets and, for a brief while, looked like he’d fulfill his potential away from the pressures and poor handling of him by the Braves. When the Mets traded him to the Rangers, he helped them with pop and his usual excellent defense. A team trading for him would be taking him on for 2013 at $6.75 million. Don’t be surprised to see him back in Texas with the Rangers. If he’d been in right field as a defensive replacement in game 6 of the World Series last year, the Rangers are world champions right now.

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Phillies Sign Jack Cust—Not Sexy But Maybe Important

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Sometimes it’s the understated and ignored acquisition or signing that turns out to be most important.

Eyes rolled at the Giants signing Pat Burrell and claiming Cody Ross last season, but without Burrell and Ross there likely wouldn’t have been a Giants World Series win.

In 1985, the Cardinals made a late-August trade for the stretch run when they acquired Cesar Cedeno for a nondescript minor leaguer named Mark Jackson who never made it to the majors. Cedeno was an unproductive part-timer in the twilight of his career with the Reds before getting to the Cardinals—upon which he went on a tear.

Over that final month in 1985, Cedeno batted .434 in 82 plate appearances with an absurd 1.213 OPS and 6 homers—some of which were game-winners. (I was at the September game in which Dwight Gooden and John Tudor hooked up for a scoreless tie through 9 innings; Cedeno pinch hit in the top of the 10th against Jesse Orosco and homered. Tudor finished the shutout in the bottom of the inning.)

Without Cedeno, the Cardinals would probably not have held the Mets off that September.

In what were essentially “nothing” moves, the Cardinals and Giants made it to the World Series.

It’s not sexy, but the Phillies signing of Jack Cust to a minor league deal could eventually be seen as big.

Cust was a washout with the Mariners this year, but that team is currently a lost cause; he was jerked around by the Athletics after rejuvenating his career with the organization, but the A’s are a farce of their very own with an upcoming feature film to prove it.

The difference with the Phillies is that he’s only going to be asked to do what he does in a limited role rather than as the lone power threat for two desperately short-handed clubs.

What Cust does is hit the ball out of the park; strike out; or walk.

The Phillies home of Citizens Bank Park will be more enticing to him than the vast dimensions of the Oakland Coliseum and Safeco Field, and he can hit a fastball. He murders the Giants’ Matt Cain and can catch up to Brian Wilson‘s fastball or walk if Wilson loses the strike zone.

Much like Matt Stairs‘s towering homer against a 100-mph fastball from Jonathan Broxton spun the 2009 NLCS into the Phillies favor and sent Broxton into a confidence-sapped tailspin from which he’s yet to recover, Cust could perform a similar function of a lefty bat off the bench against the Giants, Braves, Brewers or Cardinals—all potential playoff opponents for the Phillies.

Occasionally, all it takes is the smell of a pennant race to wake up a veteran’s bat. These inexpensive acquisitions wind up being turning points in a championship season without anyone realizing it at the time they were completed and it could be so with the Phillies signing of Cust.

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