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Summer trades often trump Hot Stove deals

Past 3 champions all made influential trades during season
MLB.com

The baseball world is holding its collective breath as we wait to see what will happen with Japanese star Shohei Ohtani and trade candidate Giancarlo Stanton. Once those two players secure a home for 2018, the rest of this offseason's dominoes figure to fall soon afterward. All 30 MLB clubs will be in search of a player who can put them over the top next year, and Ohtani and Stanton are just two of a large group of players available this winter who could provide that boost.

But if recent history has taught us anything, it's that the offseason is far from the only time a club can get its difference-maker. Indeed, each of the past three World Series champions made their biggest, most influential moves in the sweltering heat of July and August instead of during the Hot Stove months. Here's a look back at those three summer moves, which proved to be indispensable to those champions' successes come October.

The baseball world is holding its collective breath as we wait to see what will happen with Japanese star Shohei Ohtani and trade candidate Giancarlo Stanton. Once those two players secure a home for 2018, the rest of this offseason's dominoes figure to fall soon afterward. All 30 MLB clubs will be in search of a player who can put them over the top next year, and Ohtani and Stanton are just two of a large group of players available this winter who could provide that boost.

But if recent history has taught us anything, it's that the offseason is far from the only time a club can get its difference-maker. Indeed, each of the past three World Series champions made their biggest, most influential moves in the sweltering heat of July and August instead of during the Hot Stove months. Here's a look back at those three summer moves, which proved to be indispensable to those champions' successes come October.

Hot Stove Tracker

Aug. 31, 2017: Astros acquire Justin Verlander and Juan Ramirez from the Tigers for Daz Cameron, Franklin Perez and Jake Rogers
Houston added veteran leadership in Brian McCann and Josh Reddick last offseason, along with a pitcher in Charlie Morton who made a huge difference in October. But the Astros' summer contained all the "will they or won't they" intrigue typical of the Hot Stove, as they were heavily rumored to be trading for Jose Quintana and then Verlander to fill out their rotation. Verlander's $56 million price tag appeared to be too high for Houston -- up until the final minutes of the Aug. 31 deadline for players to be eligible for the postseason roster, when the Tigers' front office put the ball in Verlander's court. Astros ace Dallas Keuchel made an impassioned call to Verlander on the night of his decision, and the rest was history.

"He goes, 'You won't regret this decision if you decide to join the Houston Astros,'" Verlander said of Keuchel's call. "And that kind of resonated with me, and that stuck with me."

No matter how he pitches in 2018 and '19, Verlander's brief time as an Astro this fall will resonate with the team's fan base forever. All he did was win nine of his 10 decisions, including the postseason, with a 1.66 ERA and 81 strikeouts over 70 2/3 innings. That included an MVP performances in the American League Championship Series, when Verlander shut down the Yankees in Games 2 and 6 while joining Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax and Curt Schilling as the only pitchers to strike out at least 20 Yankees in a postseason series.

"There's something different when you put a major piece like that in your clubhouse," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said of Verlander. "I think that presence alone gave guys hope and belief that things were going to be good for us."

Video: Watch Verlander's 21 K's in 21 seconds in the ALCS

July 25, 2016: Cubs acquire Aroldis Chapman from the Yankees for Adam Warren, Rashad Crawford, Billy McKinney and Gleyber Torres
Cubs fans were eager to see the team build on a 2015 National League Championship Series appearance, and general manager Theo Epstein showed he was serious to make another run when he splurged on Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist while also re-signing Dexter Fowler in the offseason. And with Chicago out in front with baseball's best record in July, Epstein jumped ahead of a host of suitors and dealt for the biggest name on the market, Chapman, a full six days before the non-waiver Trade Deadline.

"It was tough to give up what we gave up, but if not now, when?" Epstein said.

Chicago's young core had matured without super-prospect Torres, and it was clear that the future was finally the present on the North Side.

It's fair to say Epstein and the Cubs got exactly what they expected from Chapman down the stretch, as the flamethrowing lefty converted 16 of 18 save opportunities and allowed three earned runs while striking out 46 in 26 2/3 innings. Cubs manager Joe Maddon called on Chapman in 13 of Chicago's 17 postseason games, and while Chapman did show signs of wear, he saved four games and rallied back from a blown save to be the winning pitcher in Game 7 of the World Series.

"I always understood that coming here and winning a championship was going to mean so much," Chapman said, "not only to the organization, but to the fans and the people of Chicago."

It's hard to imagine a World Series title meaning more to a fan base after 108 years of waiting.

Video: WS2016 Gm1: Maddon on acquiring Chapman, his usage

July 26, 2015: Royals acquire Johnny Cueto from Reds for Brandon Finnegan, John Lamb and Cody Reed
July 28, 2015: Royals acquire Ben Zobrist from A's for Aaron Brooks and Sean Manaea
There was no denying Cueto's talent at the time the Royals made their move; his season ERA stood at 2.62 the day he was traded, and only Clayton Kershaw had posted a lower ERA over the prior four campaigns than Cueto's 2.48. But for weeks it appeared that Kansas City's timing couldn't have been worse, as Cueto went 4-7 with a 4.76 ERA down the stretch.

Luckily for the Royals, their 6 1/2-game cushion when the trade went down helped them weather the storm. Cueto found his mojo in September, posting a 3.24 ERA over his final four regular-season starts before shutting down the Astros in the decisive Game 5 of the AL Division Series (two earned runs over eight innings).

Cueto struggled against the Blue Jays in Game 3 of the ALCS (eight earned runs in two innings) but showed his resiliency once again in the Fall Classic. Taking the ball in Game 2, Cueto stifled the Mets for just one run on two hits in a complete-game effort. Four days later, Cueto and the Royals were World Series champions.

"We knew his potential," Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain said after Cueto's sensational Game 2. "We knew what he could do on the mound. It was just a matter of doing it. He showed up tonight in a big way."

Video: WS2015 Gm2: Cueto retires 15 straight in victory

Two days after they had acquired Cueto, the Royals took a chance on Zobrist -- despite his impending free agency. Zobrist's ability to play both the infield and outfield was a big selling point for Kansas City, particularly after Alex Gordon went down with a groin strain.

"He's a guy we can plug in anywhere," manager Ned Yost said at the time. "He's played everything but pitcher and catcher, I think."

At age 34, Zobrist played at second base, third base, left field, right field and designated hitter following the trade -- all in 59 games for the Royals down the stretch. Zobrist brought a clutch bat to October, just as he did for the Cubs the following autumn, hitting .303 with an .880 OPS while driving in six runs as Kansas City captured its first World Series title since 1985.

Video: WS2015 Gm4: Zobrist ties postseason doubles record

It's hard to imagine any of the past three champs going all the way without the marquee names they acquired over the summer, and they're not the only recent winners to have made a splash in July or August. Hunter Pence and Marco Scutaro proved essential to the Giants' title run in 2012, two years after unheralded waiver pickup Cody Ross, scooped up in late August, sparked San Francisco in October. Veteran pitcher Jake Peavy, while not as dominant as he had been with San Diego, proved to be a useful summer pickup for both the Red Sox in 2013 and Giants in '14.

Some of baseball's biggest names will change uniforms in the coming weeks, but the Hot Stove is now just one of several spots on the calendar in which titles are won from the front office.

Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.