The Athletics traded Yoenis Cespedes last season and fell apart. The Mets traded for Cespedes this season and turned unstoppable.
Is it as simple as that? Is Cespedes that much of a galvanizing force?
Well, he's good, crazy good of late. But this is a team sport, and no one player can single-handedly determine a club's fate.
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The 2014 Athletics and '15 Mets indeed have proven opposites, but not simply because the A's traded Cespedes and the Mets acquired him.
In both cases, the pictures are far more complex.
The A's were on a "downward track," according to general manager Billy Beane, when they sent Cespedes to the Red Sox for left-hander Jon Lester and outfielder Jonny Gomes at the non-waiver deadline.
First baseman Brandon Moss, catcher Derek Norris and infielder Alberto Callaspo went into massive slumps. Catcher John Jaso and shortstop Jed Lowrie suffered injuries, and center fielder Coco Crisp was in and out of the lineup.
The question to this day is whether Cespedes, through his sheer presence, reduced the pressure on the A's other hitters, enabling them to remain comfortable in complementary roles. Some inside the A's clubhouse believed that, but the numbers did not necessarily support their theory -- Cespedes had a .298 on-base percentage in 2013-14.
What's more, the entire narrative might have turned out differently if the A's had protected a 7-3 lead in the eighth inning of the wild-card game, with Lester on the mound. The A's might have gone on to beat the Angels in the Division Series (the Royals swept L.A.) And the trade would have looked a whole lot better.
As for the Mets, while Cespedes has 17 homers in 41 games since joining the club -- including nine in his last 13 -- he is hardly a one-man show.
Consider all that has happened with the Mets since July 24. They've traded for infielders Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe. Activated catcher Travis D'Arnaud. Promoted left fielder Michael Conforto. Activated third baseman David Wright.
Conforto, in his first 144 major-league plate appearances, is batting .288 with seven homers and a .904 OPS. Oh, and one other Met also should count as practically new -- shortstop Wilmer Flores, who had a .660 OPS before nearly getting traded, and has a .886 OPS since.
Put it all together, and this simply isn't the same team.
Cespedes is a difference-maker, no doubt. In fact, it's fair to ask now where the Red Sox would be if they had not traded him for right-hander Rick Porcello in a four-player deal last offseason.
Yes, Cespedes was mediocre in Boston, but he clearly relishes the spotlight and the team was in last place. If the Sox had kept him, they still would have needed pitching, but could have avoided signing Hanley Ramirez.
Meanwhile, the next decision on Cespedes -- the free-agent decision -- will carry the biggest stakes yet.
One rival exec said he initially believed that Cespedes would command $80 million, but now believes that the outfielder's contract will exceed $130 million.
A long, expensive deal could prove a mistake, considering that Cespedes turns 30 on Oct. 18. Then again, there is something about him, isn't there?
Ask the 2014 Athletics. Ask the 2015 Mets.
SORTING OUT THE CENTRAL
For perspective on the NL Central, it depends whom you talk to -- and when you talk to them.
An NL veteran told me over the weekend, "The Pirates are the best in the division, we all think" -- "we," meaning he and his teammates.
The player cited the strength of Pirates' lineup, bench and bullpen, saying that the Cubs' 'pen isn't as good and that the Cardinals' only dominant relievers are Trevor Rosenthal and Kevin Siegrist (the Pirates' bullpen ranks second in the NL to the Mets in opponents' OPS, while the Cardinals' is tied for third).
A rival executive, however, raised concerns about the Pirates' rotation behind right-hander Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano, the latter of whom has struggled of late, with a 5.09 ERA in his last eight starts.
The exec also questioned the Pirates' defense, noting that the team has committed the most errors in baseball and ranks 22nd in defensive efficiency (Some of that is attributable to the Pirates' major-league high 26 errors at first base, 19 by Pedro Alvarez, and earlier injuries to shortstop Jordy Mercer and third baseman Josh Harrison.)
A second exec notes that the "rested, healthy version" of the Cardinals is still the favorite, particularly since they lead the Pirates by 2 1/2 games and Cubs by 6 1/2. The Cardinals are averaging only 3.33 runs in September, second-worst in the NL. But their injured players -- Randal Grichuk, Matt Adams, Matt Holliday -- are trickling back now. And while their rotation finally has bent, with a 6.03 ERA in the past 12 games, no one seriously expects it to break.
Then there are the Cubs, who lost two of three over the weekend in Philadelphia, damaging their chances to gain home-field advantage for the wild-card game. Will it even matter? "(Jake) Arrieta is going to beat whoever he faces, you can book that," the NL veteran said. And Arrieta, he of the 1.00 ERA in his last 16 starts, and Jon Lester, he of the career 2.57 postseason ERA, might be the best 1-2 starting punch in the division.
My hunch is that the Cardinals will hold on, but they will meet the Pirates one more time, in the next-to-last series of the regular season. That series will take place at Pittsburgh's PNC Park, and the Pirates are a major-league best 49-22 at home.
METS' DePODESTA: A SECOND CHANCE?
You don't hear as much as you once did about Paul DePodesta, the Mets' vice-president of player development and scouting since Nov. 2010. But maybe you should.
DePodesta is one of the architects of the Mets' revival. And while some in the industry view him as the team's likely successor to GM Sandy Alderson, who is under contract through '17, nothing would stop a club in search of a GM from asking permission to interview him now.
A number of teams say they want a GM with a strong background in analytics; well, DePodesta was one of the first. He initially attracted attention when, as an assistant GM with the A's, he became a principal figure in the book, "Moneyball." He then left the A's at age 31 to become the Dodgers' GM under former owner Frank McCourt in 2004 and '05.
Analytics then were much less accepted than they are today, and some of the media in Los Angeles ridiculed DePodesta, even after the Dodgers made the playoffs in his first season. But now, at age 42, he has a far more varied background than many GM candidates who are known for their sabermetric savvy.
Alderson wanted one person to oversee the Mets' amateur drafts, farm system and international program, with the idea of establishing consistency throughout the organization. DePodesta has been that person for nearly five years; he has always enjoyed building.
The biggest question perhaps, is whether DePodesta would consider returning to a GM's role, particularly after his trying experience with the Dodgers. The answer, according to major-league sources, is yes -- as long as he was with the right people, in the right situation.
HOW ROYALS' VENTURA TURNED IT AROUND
Royals right-hander Yordano Ventura drew considerable attention in April by seemingly trying to pick a fight with every team.
A crisis of confidence followed, one that took Ventura several months to resolve.
Ventura served a seven-game suspension after triggering a brawl with the White Sox, spent nearly three weeks on the disabled list with ulnar nerve inflammation and even was demoted for one day before regaining his groove in August.
Ventura said that he regained his confidence when he resumed pitching inside. He had stopped doing that after nearly triggering a brawl by hitting the Athletics' Brett Lawrie on April 18.
"After that first fight, everything was different for me," Ventura said. "Every time I threw inside, I had a problem on my hands."
Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland persuaded Ventura that he needed to be the same pitcher he was before.
"I just told him that he can't let stuff that happened early on change who he is," Eiland said. "He's still a guy who has to pitch with a little bit of flair without crossing the line. Part of that is that he has to pitch inside.
"If he hits a guy, he hits a guy -- that's part of it. He didn't want the team mad at him anymore. He didn't want the league mad at him. He didn't want people thinking he's a crazy kid. But I said, 'You have to pitch inside. You have to get back to being yourself.'"
Though Ventura's last two outings have been somewhat rocky, he has a 2.51 ERA in his last seven starts.
GOINS, GOINS . . . SHORTSTOP!
Any team would rather have Troy Tulowitzki than Ryan Goins at shortstop, right?
Yes, of course.
Still, Goins rates as an even better defender than Tulowitzki and actually has been a better hitter since Tulo joined the team on July 29.
Tulowitzki has batted only .232 with a .682 OPS since that time, while Goins has batted .268 with a .761 OPS.
The Jays are more than comfortable defensively with Goins at short and Cliff Pennington at second base. And shortly after Tulo's injury, they acquired another superior defender, second baseman Darwin Barney, to be their primary middle infielder off the bench and make an occasional start against left-handers.
It's not ideal -- the Blue Jays would rather have the threat of Tulo's bat, and should know soon whether he indeed can return from a cracked left shoulder blade in about three weeks.
Either way, defense remains a priority for the Jays, who rank second only to the Astros in the AL in defensive efficiency, which measures the rate of balls in play that are converted into outs.
MACHADO: THE ORIOLES' NEW IRON MAN?
For all that Orioles third baseman Manny Machado has accomplished this season, he says his biggest achievement is playing in every one of the Orioles' 143 games.
Simply getting on the field every day was important to Machado, whose 2014 season started belatedly due to his recovery from left-knee surgery, and ended prematurely when he needed season-ending right-knee surgery.
Machado said his goal entering the season was to play 162 games, but adds that he isn't trying to break the record of 2,632 consecutive games set by a previous Orioles infielder, Cal Ripken Jr.
"I don't think anyone will break that record," Machado says. "It's not even worth trying."
AROUND THE HORN
● The Rangers were one of several clubs that talked to the Nationals about righty Stephen Strasburg last offseason, but never got close to a deal, according to major-league sources.
The talks were wide-ranging, involving a number of names, sources said. The Rangers also had interest in outfielder Steven Souza, who later went to the Rays in a deal that brought the Nats righty Joe Ross and shortstop Trea Turner. The Nats, meanwhile, had interest in shortstop Jurickson Profar, who at the time was expected to return from a torn muscle in his right shoulder.
As it turned out, Profar underwent surgery in February for a torn labrum, and is missing his second straight season. The Rangers and Nationals completed only a minor deal -- lefty Ross Detwiler to Texas for two minor leaguers. Detwiler was released on July 15, then signed with the Braves.
● The Braves could be one of the teams that pursues Cespedes in free agency, according to a source with knowledge of the club's thinking.
While other teams might outbid Atlanta, the Braves clearly will need to ramp up if they are going to field a competitive team by the time their new ballpark opens in 2017.
● A scout says of the next Phillies GM, "He's going to walk into a gold mine. The pitchers are 3s and 4s. But the everyday team could come on like gangbusters."
The scout, who recently saw the Phillies' Double-A club, was impressed not only by hitters such as outfielder Nick Williams and shortstop J.P. Crawford, but also by two pitchers.
Right-hander Jake Thompson has a 1.80 ERA in seven starts since arriving with Williams and others in the Cole Hamels trade. And righty Jimmy Cordero, who was part of the Ben Revere deal, throws strikes at 100 mph.
● The Royals' hitters speak almost reverentially of designated hitter Kendrys Morales. Outfielder Jonny Gomes says, "You can't beat him to the ballpark." Outfielder Alex Rios says, "You've got to see him every day."
Rios explains that Morales has a great feel in the batter's box, a feel that comes from researching pitchers, watching video and processing the information like few others. Ben Zobrist says that Morales knows what pitch he is looking for and what pitch he is going to get, then routinely puts a good swing on the ball.
● Orioles manager Buck Showalter says of Wade Davis, "He can throw his fastball for strikes down and away any time he wants."
Showalter, in fact, compares Davis to Hall of Famers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, both of whom had the ability to get back in the count by locating a quality fastball.
Davis is a reliever, but what a reliever.
Over the past two seasons he has a 0.96 ERA and .426 opponents' OPS in 130 2/3 innings.
● The Red Sox are 7-1-1 in series under interim manager Torey Lovullo, 18-10 overall. The overwhelming sentiment in the industry is that they could be very good again, very quickly.
And finally, congratulations to David Ortiz on his 500th homer. Ortiz is on track for his second straight season of at least 35 homers and 100 RBI -- while playing for last-place clubs.