On Wednesday night, Carlos Gonzalez hit three home runs against the Houston Astros. The first one left the field before the pitch reached the plate -- don't ask how, just go with it -- and the last one almost sailed into the third deck. The Rockies right fielder is hitting .323/.391/.629 now, with 13 home runs. Nine of those came in May. Carlos Gonzalez just might be good at this baseball thing if his other career options don't pan out.
But he's a freak for other reasons, too. He represents a rare kind of trade in the baseball world: the franchise-player-out, franchise-player-in trade.
Matt Holliday was the Rockies back in 2008. Troy Tulowitzki was a 23-year-old coming off a disappointing sophomore season. Todd Helton was slowing down. Holliday, though, was a star. But after the 2008 season, the Rockies figured out they probably weren't going to afford an extension for him. Their options were a) to keep him around, sell a few t-shirts, and collect the draft pick when he walked, or b) to trade him for a gaggle of prospects.
That doesn't seem like much of a choice at all. It's always a good idea to trade established players for prospects on the Internet! Hooray, prospects! The idea is simple: Here, you take this fully formed star player, and you give us a guy who will be a star player in a couple of years with a little sunlight and water. Everyone wins. And so the Rockies took Carlos Gonzalez from the A's in exchange for Holliday, put him on a windowsill, watered him, and talked to him (studies show this really does help them grow), and before too long, he was a perfectly capable replacement for the star power of Matt Holliday.
That doesn't happen.
That isn't to say trades exchanging prospects for established players never work out. Of course not. The Texas Rangers won two pennants because they traded away Mark Teixeira. Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, and Matt Harrison have each been important to the Rangers' success. That was a franchise-changing trade. But it wasn't a trade that brought back anyone with the marketability and face-of-the-franchise potential that Teixeira used to have.
Your definition of "franchise player" might vary, but I'm using a loose definition of a really good player who stands out on his team. When Jason Bay was with the Pirates, he was just about the only good thing going for the team. But the Pirates clearly weren't going to give him a long-term deal, so they were practically forced to deal him. They received Brandon Moss, Craig Hansen, and a LaRoche. The bad one. It was not a franchise-player-out, franchise-player-in trade.
The Royals had two potential trades to make in the early part of last decade. For Johnny Damon and Carlos Beltran, the best player they received was … man, Mark Teahen? John Buck? When the Marlins opened up the bidding for Miguel Cabrera -- 24 years old and already one of the best hitters in the entire game -- they received what turned out to be shards of broken dreams and Cameron Maybin. They flipped Maybin for two relievers.
The only two comps I could find had to do with pitchers. The A's traded Mark Mulder, and Dan Haren came back in return. The Indians traded Bartolo Colon, and received Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips, six Inverted Jennys, 43 copies of Action Comics #1, and a wheelbarrow full of Apple stock certificates. Those trades sent a star pitcher out, and they got a star pitcher in return.
But subsequent Cliff Lee trades haven't proved as fruitful. He was recently traded three times for prospects in less than a year. That sentence gets weirder and weirder every time I read it. The best player involved in those deals so far is Blake Beavan. The second-best player was Mark Lowe, and he went to the Rangers with Lee. And when the A's had to make one of the same trades, they exchanged Dan Haren for several useful pieces. One of them became a franchise player for another team.
That player was Carlos Gonzalez. And now we've come full circle.
There are good trades. There are bad trades. There's 50 feet of crap, and then there's the Bartolo Colon trade. But the nice, even symmetry of a franchise-player-out, franchise-player-in trade is extremely rare. Matt Holliday left the Rockies in 2008; in 2010, they had a guy who was doing a danged good job of approximating Holliday's production. Good for the Rockies. But other teams shouldn't expect the same kind of fate. It seems to happen about once or twice a decade.