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Justice: Trade hindsight far from 20/20

Swaps might look bad years later but the reasons behind them must be considered

The Tigers didn't get fleeced when they traded John Smoltz for Doyle Alexander 26 years ago. People point to that trade when lopsided deals are evaluated. But to criticize the Tigers is to miss a larger point.

The Tigers knew Smoltz had a terrific arm and great makeup and all that stuff. They knew he might very well have a long, productive Major League career. At the time, though, he was 20 years old and had pitched in only 21 games above Class A.

The Tigers weren't thinking about what Smoltz might be in five or 10 years when they traded him to the Braves for a 36-year-old right-hander in the twilight of his career. At the time, the Tigers were only thinking of the 1987 season.

They'd won the World Series three years earlier and were in position to go for it again. When the deal was made, they were a mere 1 1/2 games behind the Blue Jays in the American League East.

What gets lost in looking at the deal now are two factors. One is that Alexander did almost everything the Tigers hoped he'd do. He was 9-0 with a 1.53 ERA over the final six weeks of the 1987 season as the Tigers went 34-18 and caught and passed Toronto.

In making the deal, the Tigers sent a message to their fans and -- perhaps more important -- to their players that they were fully invested in 1987, that nothing else mattered. Here you go, boys. Here's the help you've been looking for.

General managers and owners sometimes have to make these calls. They can be timid, hold onto their best prospects and hope something works out. Or they can act decisively and give their players a shot of confidence.

In this case, the right move didn't exactly have the right results. The Tigers did get back to the playoffs, but didn't reach the World Series. They lost the AL Championship Series to the Twins, and Alexander made two poor postseason starts.

You know the rest of the story. Smoltz became one of the cornerstone players of Atlanta's incredible run of 14 straight postseason appearances. He won 210 games and saved 154. He was an eight-time All-Star and a Cy Young Award winner. He pitched in the postseason 13 times and is a slam dunk for the Hall of Fame.

All these years later, it's clear that the Braves got far more out of Smoltz than the Tigers got out of Alexander. But in that time and place -- that is, the summer of 1987 -- the trade made sense for the Tigers.

Not every in-season trade is like that. The Cubs were 26 games out of first place when they sent Lou Brock to the Cardinals as part of a six-player deal in 1964. In that case, they simply whiffed on a guy who played 16 seasons with St. Louis, helped win two World Series and went to the Hall of Fame.

But the Mariners, on the other hand, were going for it when they dealt right-hander Derek Lowe and catcher Jason Varitek to the Red Sox for reliever Heathcliff Slocumb in 1997. Seattle made the postseason, though Slocumb pitched poorly.

Lowe pitched the clinching game of the 2004 World Series for the Red Sox, and Varitek went on to become one of the most respected Boston players of all-time. Still, the trade made more sense for the Mariners at the time it was made.

And that's why analyzing in-season trades is tricky. They must be looked at largely in the context of why and when they were made. If they look different five years later, so be it.

Go ask any player about what those deals do for a clubhouse. They have the ability to inspire and energize. They're a message from management that they believe in the players they've got on hand and are going to do everything possible to help them win. The future is now.

And so, as another non-waiver Trade Deadline approaches, you might hear analysts joke about that Alexander-for-Smoltz deal when they discuss the risks of short-term deals.

They do not often discuss the alternatives. That is, playing scared, not taking chances, is no way to run a franchise. At some point in the life of every baseball team, there's a time to go all in for that season, to stop worrying about collecting prospects and to try to win now. Sure, trades come with risks, but that's life.

And when you hear about Larry Andersen-for-Jeff Bagwell, remember it didn't seem as dumb then as it does now. The Red Sox led the AL East by 6 1/2 games on Aug. 30, 1990, and wanted Andersen, 37, to shore up their bullpen.

Andersen did just that, pitching in 15 games and compiling a 1.23 ERA. But like the 1987 Tigers, the 1990 Red Sox couldn't finish. They held on to win the AL East but were swept by the A's in the ALCS.

They paid for it as Bagwell went to the Astros, hit 449 home runs and helped them make six playoff appearances in a nine-year stretch. Bagwell had hit just six home runs in 710 Minor League at-bats at the time of the trade, so the Red Sox had no idea he would become one of the great power hitters of his generation.

But he was just 22 at the time, and there's always a risk when trading prospects. Most times, no one hears from them again. Other times, they play their way to the threshold of Cooperstown.

The Astros made one of those deals at the 1998 Deadline in sending right-hander Freddy Garcia, shortstop Carlos Guillen and left-hander John Halama to Seattle for Randy Johnson.

The Astros were going for a championship, and as Bagwell said later, "When Randy walked in that door, we thought we were going to win a championship. Management sent the message they believed in us."

Johnson went 10-1 down the stretch, but like the 1987 Tigers and 1990 Red Sox, Houston didn't get out of the first round of the playoffs. Johnson left the Astros to sign with the Diamondbacks the following offseason. Meanwhile, those three young players helped the Mariners make the playoffs in 2000 and 2001.

Winning now was what the Braves had in mind when they acquired Mark Teixeira from the Rangers at the Deadline in 2007. They sent Texas a bundle of prospects, including shortstop Elvis Andrus, right-hander Neftali Feliz and left-hander Matt Harrison, three players who have helped the Rangers win two pennants.

But the Braves knew what they were doing. They knew the risks. If they'd finished the deal and won the World Series, they would have considered it a huge win.

Regardless, it was still the right thing to do.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.