On Dec. 8, 2009, the New York Yankees were defending World Champions. The Detroit Tigers had barely missed the playoffs that season, losing an AL Central tiebreaker to the Minnesota Twins. And the Arizona Diamondbacks, just two years removed from an NL West title, had fallen to last place in the division, losing 92 games.
These three things seemed completely unrelated, but it was the contract status of Curtis Granderson, then the Tigers' center fielder, that started a process in motion that has resulted in three teams making the postseason in 2011.
Exaggeration? Maybe, but not by much. Trades generally favor one team or another; these days, with big-money players often traded for prospects, either the big-money guy helps the team he goes to or the prospects pan out -- rarely both. It's even more unusual for a multi-team deal to help all the teams involved. One recent trade involving four teams was completed at the non-waiver deadline on July 31, 2004. The Cubs got Nomar Garciaparra and Matt Murton; the Red Sox received Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz; the Montreal Expos acquired Francis Beltran, Alex Gonzalez and Brendan Harris; and the Twins received a minor league pitcher, Justin Jones (the Twins were primarily looking for salary relief).
Well. The Red Sox won the World Series that season, but Cabrera and Mientkiewicz were complementary parts, not stars; the Cubs missed the playoffs through no fault of Nomar's, but he got hurt the next year and Murton was nothing special; no one else in the deal ever had any large impact in the major leagues.
So when the Yankees, barely a month after the 2009 World Series, acquired Granderson from the Tigers, sending Phil Coke and Austin Jackson to the Tigers and Ian Kennedy to the Diamondbacks, who then shipped Max Scherzer and Daniel Schlereth to Detroit, it was viewed by many as a case of the rich getting richer. Granderson was viewed as a difference-maker, although his .249 average had brought his OPS+ down to just over league-average (102) in 2009. None of the others had been significant contributors in the major leagues; Edwin Jackson had the most MLB time through 2009, three full seasons and parts of four others. Ian Kennedy had been a top Yankee prospect but struggled in the majors.
Most expected Granderson to continue to be a solid regular upon joining the Yankees, but even the most optimistic fans probably didn't dream Granderson would do what he's done this year: lead the AL in runs and RBI and become a legitimate MVP candidate. For most trades, that would make it quite one-sided.
But the Tigers have received significant contributions from Max Scherzer, who has been their second-best starter behind Justin Verlander; Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth have both been useful middle relievers, and Austin Jackson, though his offense has been disappointing, is a plus defender in center field.
And the Diamondbacks may have received the best value of any of the three teams. Not only has Ian Kennedy blossomed into a top starting pitcher, but they traded Jackson to the White Sox for Daniel Hudson, one of Sox GM Kenny Williams' worst deals. Jackson was mediocre in Chicago and the White Sox shipped him off in another multi-team deal this season. Meanwhile, Hudson has been nearly as good as Kennedy; the revamped Arizona starting rotation (as well as their bullpen) is a big reason they're playing in October.
The Yankees were a good team before Granderson and probably would be a playoff team this year anyway, but it seems clear to me that the players the Tigers and Diamondbacks acquired were extremely important to their playoff seasons.
And that other three-team deal I mentioned? Edwin Jackson was one of several headliners in an eight-player deal. He wound up with the Cardinals, and they're in the postseason too. Grant Brisbee thinks this is all Jackson's doing. Maybe he's right. In any case, this rare trade that helped all the teams involved -- and one more besides -- will be on center stage this October.