By SEAN RAPOSA
August 5, 2008
Every year around this time when ESPN starts running commercials for the World Series of Poker, I get the itch to slam in the “Rounders” DVD. The 1998 classic starring Matt Damon, Edward Norton and John Malkovich is one of my top-20 favorite movies for sure. I sat down to it Wednesday night and as I watched Mike McD walk back into the clutches of death at KGB’s place telling himself, “You can’t lose what you don’t put in the middle … but you can’t win much either,” I wondered which major league GMs would have the same gusto and show down come Thursday’s trade deadline. In the words of Lester “Worm” Murphy, there was a “lot … of … action.”
The raucous day culminated a thrilling trade season that started way back in December and saw numerous big names swapping unis right up to the final bell. Now that the dust has settled and the chips have been flung around the table, it’s time to sort this out and see who bluffed and maneuvered their way to the big stack. In keeping with the poker theme, I’m breaking down My Five trade market champs into WSOP categories. The bracelet winners are as follows:
No. 5: Razz - Florida Marlins
Razz is a game that few casual poker players are familiar with. The style of play is like that of traditional poker, except it’s the lowest hand that rakes the pot. Ace-through-five (“the wheel”) is the best hand. Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria must be a Razz pro; in fact, I have already agreed to front his entry into next year’s WSOP event. This season he has perfected the art of winning with a small hand. His team is only two and a half games out in both the tight N.L. East chase and the Wild Card, and the tab for his 22 million dollar payroll (the lowest in baseball) was picked up by the rest of the league. Revenue-sharing actually brought the thrifty owner a $3 million spread. A real rounder is always playing with other people’s money.
That’s all well and good, but how does that translate to the trade market you ask? Well, the Marlins were hotly rumored to have a deal in place to acquire superstar Manny Ramirez from the Red Sox, but it fell through. Even given the fact that, once again, they wouldn’t have had to foot the bill, he is a big-name guy that would have upset their chemistry. To invoke a tried-tested baseball cliche, sometimes it’s the trades that don’t get made that improve your team. The Marlins are young, hungry and scrappy, and adding the aloof slugger was just too risky. Speaking of trades that don’t get made, the inactivity of the Phillies and Mets are also big reasons the Marlins are winners in my book.
At first, I was disappointed the team didn’t add a starting pitcher. They did add left-handed veteran reliever Arthur Rhodes - who will help - but I thought they were an arm in the rotation away from contending. Like all poker champs - (sorry Mike McD, it’s true - luck has shined on the Marlins in this department. The return of injured righties Josh Johnson and Anibal Sanchez couldn’t have come at a better time. This help from within is the final piece that makes the Marlins my official dark horse in the National League.
No. 4: Omaha HiLo - New York Yankees
Omaha is a game with multiple winners. Players can choose to angle for the high hand, the low hand and sometimes both. In typical Yankees fashion, Brian Cashman wanted the whole pot, and he got it. Lose an All-Star catcher to injury? No problem; just get another one. Need a new 40-homer outfielder and a left-handed specialist reliever? You got it. It truly is amazing what this franchise manages to put together year in and year out. The Yankees have “alligators’ blood” and they simply never go away; they just keep hanging around. No matter how dead in the water they are proclaimed, I have learned all too well through my years backing the Sox that they are always a threat.
The above-referenced acquisitions of Pudge Rodriguez, Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte are gigantic additions to a Yankees squad that was once again semi-reeling through the first half. Both teams that the Yanks have in their sights, the Rays and the Red Sox, failed to make significant improvements through trades and the loss of Ramirez (a notorious Yankee-killer) is a big indirect boost to their chances. They currently stand only ten games over .500 and five and a half games out in the A.L. East, but I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see all three teams bunched within a game or two in the next couple weeks.
No. 3: Limit Hold ‘em - Chicago Cubs
The Cubs are big winners. They currently hold the N.L.’s best record at 67-45 and the second-largest division lead in baseball at five and a half games. The trade that sent pitcher Sean Gallagher, outfielder Matt Murton and prospects to the A’s for pitchers Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin made them winners in the trade market as well. Not only is Harden a legit ace, but the timing of his acquisition was key in that it answered their newborn rival’s shocking move, which I’ll discuss in a moment. The problem is that they aren’t No. 1 here today, and they won’t be No. 1 on the My Five Contenders list that I’ll be unveiling next week, either. It’s all in the title engraved on the bracelet: Limit.
Maybe it was all those years of curse talk in Boston that has me skeptical of the Cubbies’ chances, but I just feel like there’s a limit to how far this team can go and therefore, how big the Harden move will turn out to be. There is no question that Carlos Zambrano, Harden, Ryan Dempster and Ted Lilly will be a formidable rotation come October, and their offense has produced all year, but a big piece to their success has already broken down. Rejuvenated closer Kerry Wood fell off the wagon (or is it on the wagon?) and found his way back to the injury heap, and I have this terrible feeling that Murphy’s Law will find Harden too. You might want to point to the Boston parallels and how they won in 2004, but I can’t even put into words the perfect storm that had to align for that to happen.
No. 2: Stud - Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Determining my winner for this category was by far the most difficult aspect of writing this column. Several “stud” players were moved this season, including future Hall-of-Famers Ramirez to the Dodgers and Ken Griffey Jr. to the White Sox. While I think both players will significantly improve their new teams, neither guy provides the same boost on both sides of the ball that Mark Teixeira does for the Angels. He brings his Gold Glove in to replace the departed Casey Kotchman at first base and he’ll be a perfect fit protecting Vladdy Daddy in the clean-up spot. The switch-hitter wreaked havoc during his first stint in the A.L. West for the Rangers, and I expect the offensive dominance to return now that he is in Anaheim.
Two weeks, one trade, and a slew of wins versus Boston and New York after I wrote that no one was giving the Angels enough credit, and now they are the American League favorites. It’s fun to be right on occasion. It stands to reason that since I like their chances before this deal, adding Big Tex has only boosted their standing. The pitching has been there all year, their bullpen is impeccable and now they have Vladimir Guerrero, Teixeira and Torii Hunter anchoring the middle of their lineup. As far as a midseason acquisition drastically improving a team’s title hopes goes, this is as nice a fit as I can remember, even though Teixeira is most likely a rent-a-player.
No. 1: The Main Event - Milwaukee Brewers
After Mike McDermott rolled up those three stacks of high society and jumped a cab to the airport bound for Vegas, two words embodied his drive: No limit. The Brewers shared his vision when they rolled the dice and pulled the trigger on the deal that sparked the CC Sabathia era in Milwaukee. The No-Limit Texas Hold ‘em Main Event is the biggest thing in poker and since they acquired the gentle giant, the Brew Crew has morphed into the same kind of spectacle in baseball - at least once every five days, that is.
There really isn’t much questioning that this has been the trade with the most drastic impact this season. Sabathia’s arrival completely reinvigorated a baseball franchise that had been mostly dormant for the better part of the last quarter-century, and he altered the entire competitive landscape of the National League. The question then becomes, does he make the ultimate difference? Considering that they are still five and a half games behind the Cubs - who delivered a four-game beating to them last week - and only one game up on St. Louis in the Wild Card race, it’s a tough call. I guess you’ll just have to come back next week to see where they rank in My Five Contenders. For now, their free-wheelin’-dealin’ ways has made them my No. 1 rounder in this year’s trade market.
Sean Raposa’s My Five column runs every Tuesday here on National Pastime. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Photos by The Associated Press
Be sure to check out our previous My Five columns: Starting rotations, The power alleys, MLB’s best bullpens, The table setters, Young guns, Burgeoning bats, Favorite first-half storylines, X-Factors, Financial blunders, Superbad Awards.