The July 31 trade deadline has come and gone, leaving the question of which players dealt will prove to be just short-term rentals. There’s a player or two traded like this every season, a star due for free agency who goes to his new team for a few months and then heads on to more lucrative environs in the off-season. Sometimes, cards depicting these players on their interim teams don’t even appear until after they’ve left town.
Here are 10 famous short-term rental players from baseball history:
Randy Johnson, 1999 Upper Deck Black Diamond: A case could be made that Randy Johnson was the best short-term rental in baseball history. It’s a distant memory now, though the trade paid big dividends for the Houston Astros, who went 37-16 after acquiring Johnson from the Seattle Mariners at the 1998 deadline, winning the National League Central Division.
Johnson did his part, going 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA over the remainder of the season. He was the kind of power pitcher who thrived in Astrodome in the 1970s and ’80s, and one would be hard-pressed to find a stretch where the likes of Nolan Ryan or J.R. Richard or Don Wilson dominated comparably. In 43 innings at home with the Astros, Johnson allowed just two runs.
One can only wonder what the Big Unit’s career stat line may have looked like with longer time in Houston. Then again, given Johnson’s four straight National League Cy Young Awards that followed with his free-agent destination Arizona Diamondbacks, perhaps the point is moot.
Mike Piazza, 1998 Leaf Rookies and Stars: The greatest offensive catcher in baseball history, arguably, played a total of five games with the Florida Marlins, a [very] brief pit stop between the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets in the spring of 1998. The trade never really made sense, as the Marlins, fresh off a World Series win, had launched into rebuilding mode, and Piazza’s card looks appropriately surreal.
That said, an entire subculture in the collecting community is apparently devoted to scooping up cards from Piazza’s time with the fish, proving that when it comes to memorabilia, most anything is potentially worth obsessing over.
Jon Lester, 2015 Topps Heritage Refractor: Now this is just cruel. When the Oakland Athletics dealt for the Boston Red Sox ace at the 2014 trade deadline, it was a foregone conclusion that Lester would leave as a free agent at season’s end. One does not work in the Oakland front office or even last as an A’s fan without unrelenting acceptance of the harsh economic realities the team faces.
A’s fans knew that absolute best-case, Lester would stay for two glorious months, fuel a World Series winner, and cash in elsewhere. He got the last part right, of course. One would think that card manufacturers like Topps would see this coming. The end product as pictured here just feels morbid.
Mark Teixeira, 2009 Topps: One of the smartest move an aging power hitter can make is to avoid the dump truck of cash often available in Anaheim, as anyone who’s seen their numbers drop after signing with the Halos, from Fred Lynn to Mo Vaughn to Josh Hamilton can attest. Angels Stadium was, is, and probably always will be a pitchers park.
Mark Teixeira destroyed the place, though, during his brief stint with the Angels in 2008, posting a .379/.460/.670 slash at the ballpark. So what did Teixeira do? Found that dump truck of offense-killing cash in New York, where the new Yankee Stadium that opened in 2009 has held the slugger to a .262/.359/.526 slash.
Zack Greinke, 2012 Topps Update: One could think Zack Greinke was taking a risk by leaving the aforementioned pitcher-friendly Angels Stadium after his sojourn in Los Angeles in 2012. But Greinke went one better, making his way to Dodger Stadium which has helped make legendary pitchers since the days of Sandy Koufax.
A lot of Koufax’s Hall of Fame career comes from Dodger Stadium, where he was 57-15 with a 1.37 ERA. Greinke might be the most dominant Dodger home pitcher since, though, going 25-5 with a 2.04 ERA in his park. This card is but a distant memory.
Carlos Beltran, 2012 Topps Heritage: Beltran looked like a natural with the San Francisco Giants after the team traded for him at the midpoint of the 2011 season, posting a .323/.369/.551 slash in 44 games with the team.
Unlike some players here, Beltran doesn’t look out of place in the uniform on his card either. And the card itself is a doozy, featuring a scrap of game-used uniform. Alas, it’s a window into a brief, ultimately fruitless period in Beltran’s career, as the Giants missed the playoffs and cooled on their big acquisition at season’s end, letting him sign with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Cliff Lee, 2010 Topps Update Gold: Lee went 4-6 with a 3.98 ERA and a rather pedestrian 1.4 Wins Above Replacement in his short stint with the Texas Rangers. He was brilliant in the American League divisional and championship rounds of the playoffs, though he got rocked in the 2010 World Series, fleeing back to the Philadelphia Phillies where he’d pitched in 2009 not long thereafter. Still, his time in Texas led to this handsome offering from Topps so it’s not all bad.
CC Sabathia, 2008 Stadium Club: CC Sabathia wasn’t in Milwaukee very long, just long enough, really, to maximize his free agent stock and score a contract that New York Yankee fans rue to this day. As Sabathia struggles through his third consecutive moribund season, the mastery of his brief time with the Brewers, when he went 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA and a robust 4.9 WAR in 130.2 innings, sure does seem a long way off.
Bartolo Colon, 2003 Donruss Team Heroes: So much looks dated about this card, from the now-defunct team it represents to the svelte ace who bears a minor resemblance, at least in the picture here, to one-time fellow Montreal Expos hurler Pedro Martinez.
It’s rare for a baseball card to capture a historical crossroads, but this one does it, showing the final high-water mark for the Expos, when management made an all-in run at the 2002 playoffs. The trade of course backfired spectacularly, costing Montreal three future big league starters: Lee, Grady Sizemore, and Brandon Phillips. In fact, one could argue, ironically enough, that without the trade the Expos might still exist.
Will Clark, 2001 Topps Division Series Highlights: This seems like the perfect card to show the triumphant end to Will the Thrill’s 15-year career, when he parlayed a deadline trade from Baltimore into helping the St. Louis Cardinals make a playoff run. Clark posted a .345/.426/.655 slash for the Redbirds over the balance of the season, his 167 OPS+ in St. Louis near his career high 175 OPS+ from 1989.
And when it was all over, after the Cardinals lost in the National League Championship Series, Clark walked away from baseball to spend more time with his autistic sons. If it’s not the best end to a career in baseball history, it isn’t far off.