The Major League Baseball trade deadline is Aug. 1 here in 2023 and that means the rumor mill is churning. The biggest possible trade candidate that many believed (hoped) would be moved this season was Shohei Ohtani. I speak in the past tense because the Angels aren't going to trade him, at least not at this juncture. Perhaps things change in a few days, but it seems unlikely at this point.
Had Ohtani been moved, he would've been one of the best players ever traded during a season. It is a robust list, though, attempting to name the best players ever traded before the deadline. I know this because I just compiled one and I'm here to share it with you right now. Fun, right?
Remember, in recent years, the deadline is always around July 31. It moves around a few days (like this year), but that's generally the target. That date goes back to 1986. Before that, the deadline was June 15. Also, we need to keep in mind there used to be a waiver trade period and we'll have one player listed below who moved via that method.
The best players traded during the season are divided up by subjective sections below. Remember, we're looking at how good the players were the season they were traded and not looking at prospects who ended up panning out eventually (meaning you can avoid sending me Jeff Bagwell and John Smoltz questions on social media). I cannot stress enough how much it matters that I considered only how good the player was when traded here, so there better be no backlash about Larry Walker or Curt Schilling or Jon Lester.
[Also, the players are listed alphabetically within each section, not ranked]
Highly notable trades
Bill Buckner and Dennis Eckersley - On May 25, 1984, the Cubs traded Bill Buckner to the Red Sox for Mike Brumley and future Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley. Buckner was a recent batting champ while Eck was a two-time All-Star, though he didn't take things to the next level until he was the A's closer a few years later.
The 2021 Cubs selloff - This transpired across multiple trades, but it was essentially the Cubs forever moving on from the group that won the 2016 World Series title and put together the best stretch of baseball in club history. Others went, but Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Báez all being traded within two days were the moves of significance.
The White Sox White Flag - On July 31, 1997, the White Sox were only 3 1/2 games out in the division yet traded starting pitchers Wilson Alvarez and Danny Darwin in addition to closer Roberto Hernandez to the Giants for six prospects. It was hugely controversial at the time, though they got some helpful players back (Keith Foulke and Bob Howry, namely).
Yoenis Cespedes - In his short time in Major League Baseball, Cespedes had established himself as an important middle-order hitter. The A's ended up trading him on July 31, 2014. At the time of the trade, the A's were 66-41. After the deal, they went 22-33 and lost the Wild Card game. But wait, that wasn't even the biggest trade of Cespedes' career. On July 31, 2015, the Tigers sent Cespedes to the Mets for Luis Cessa and Michael Fulmer. Cespedes would become a rock star. He hit 17 homers and drove home 44 runs in his 57 games the rest of the regular season. The Mets would win the pennant and Cespedes finished eighth in MVP voting the following season.
Bartolo Colon - Remember when the Expos traded for All-Star starting pitcher Colon in 2002 several weeks before the deadline (June 27) and then later ended up sellers? That was wild. Even more wild was who they traded for a few months of Colon (he was traded to the White Sox the following offseason): Lee Stevens, Brandon Phillips, Grady Sizemore and Cliff Lee.
Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist - The Royals grabbed two-time All-Star starting pitcher Cueto on July 25, 2015 and two-time All-Star utility man Zobrist on July 28. The best player the Royals parted with in either deal was Sean Manaea. They won the 2015 World Series. When in doubt, go for it. Flags fly forever.
Brian Giles - A two-time All-Star who had gotten MVP votes in four straights seasons, Giles had been posting some gaudy numbers with the Pirates. He was traded to the Padres in an August blockbuster that sent Jason Bay and Oliver Perez to the Pirates.
Matt Holliday - The stud outfielder was traded to the A's in the offseason following his age-28 season, then flipped during that season to the Cardinals. The Rockies had gotten Carlos Gonzalez and Huston Street for Holliday, but the A's got little of consequence in return when they moved him to the Cardinals.
Jon Lester - Lester went back to the A's in that aforementioned Cespedes trade. He was an established frontline starter with excellent postseason pedigree (two rings) and was hitting free agency after the year. He was great for Oakland in his 11 starts (2.35 ERA), but didn't fare well in the wild-card game and then signed with the Cubs the following offseason. It's fair to say Lester entered "superstar" territory with the Cubs, but at the time of this trade, I'm comfortable saying he wasn't quite there.
Andrew Miller - The lanky lefty was one of the best relievers in baseball in 2016, much like his teammate before the trades, Chapman. Miller went to Cleveland and was an utter force in the playoffs until he ran out of gas late in the World Series.
Hunter Pence - The two-time All-Star was traded from the Astros to Phillies in 2011 and Phillies to Giants in 2012, winning a ring with the latter.
Curt Schilling - After three-straight All-Star appearances, Schilling was traded from the Phillies to the Diamondbacks on July 26, 2000. After the trade, Schilling would elevate himself to superstardom (and legend status in Boston) with both the D-Backs and Red Sox, winning rings with both teams and finishing second in Cy Young voting three times.
Trea Turner - Fresh off making his first All-Star Game, Turner was traded to the Dodgers in 2021 as part of a blockbuster deal with future Hall of Famer Max Scherzer. Turner ended up finishing fifth in MVP voting that season, winning the batting title while leading the league in hits and stolen bases.
Larry Walker - The Hall of Famer wasn't traded until his age-37 season, when he wasn't a superstar anymore. Still, he hit .280/.393/.560 (144 OPS+) with 11 homers in 44 games for the Cardinals after they acquired him from the Rockies in 2004.
Good/great players who went nuts after the trade
Doug Fister - You could argue Fister wasn't even "good" when the trade happened in 2011. People who only focus on W-L record for pitchers certainly would, as he was 12-30 in his career. He had a 3.81 ERA (103 ERA+) and bad support from his teammates, but still wasn't quite established as good. After being dealt to the Tigers, though, he went 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA, 0.84 WHIP and 57 strikeouts against just five walks in 70 1/3 innings. The Tigers would win their first AL Central title ever and first division title since 1987.
J.D. Martinez - He wasn't quite the force he'd quickly become until after the trade, but "Just Dingers" was a one-time All-Star when the Tigers traded him to the Diamondbacks on July 18, 2017. He was having a big season before the trade. After? Holy smokes. He hit 29 homers while driving home 65 runs in just 62 games for Arizona. He finished 14th in NL MVP voting despite playing just those 62 games on the NL side. He became a much bigger star after the season when he signed with the Red Sox and helped them win the World Series.
Rick Sutcliffe - The Red Baron, who won the ERA title with Cleveland in 1982, was a one-time All-Star when he was traded to the Cubs on June 13, 1984 in a blockbuster that included Joe Carter. Sutcliffe made 20 starts for the Cubs that season, going 16-1 with a 2.69 ERA. He won the Cy Young, finished fourth in MVP voting and helped lead the Cubs to their first postseason berth since 1945.
He gets his own category because this entry is ridiculous. Teixeira in 2005 finished seventh in MVP voting while clubbing 43 homers with 144 RBI. He was only 25 and a few years away from free agency and becoming an incredibly hot commodity.
On July 31, 2007, he was shipped from the Rangers to the Braves along with Ron Mahay and Beau Jones. The Rangers' return would help win them two straight AL pennants: Elvis Andrus, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Matt Harrison and Neftali Feliz.
As if that wasn't a big enough deal, the next deadline the Braves decided to deal Tex. On July 29, 2008, they got Stephen Marek and Casey Kotchman for him. Sure, it was a year closer to free agency -- Teixeira would sign a megadeal with the Yankees the following offseason -- but it was a significantly lighter package.
Even better for the Angels was that when Teixeira signed elsewhere, they got the No. 25 pick the following draft as compensation. Does anyone know who the Angels drafted 25th overall in 2009? He ended up being a pretty good player. His last name is a kind of fish.
Carlos Beltrán - It was a three-team deal that sent Beltrán from the Royals to the Astros on June 24, 2004 (the biggest name in the deal otherwise was journeyman reliever Octavio Dotel). Beltrán was great for the Astros down the stretch and amazing in the playoffs. If you wanted to say he wasn't yet a superstar when traded, allow me to point out he was also traded from the Mets to the Giants on July 28, 2011, in a deal that sent Zack Wheeler to New York.
Nomar Garciaparra - Nomar was a .323/.370/.553 (133 OPS+) career hitter when the Red Sox decided to bail on him in 2004, sending him to the Cubs at age 30. The timing turned out impeccably for a young Red Sox executive named Theo Epstein, as the Red Sox won the World Series and Nomar was pedestrian the rest of his career.
Rickey Henderson - On July 21, 1989, just a few years after the A's traded Rickey to the Yankees, he was sent back home. This was the best leadoff man in MLB history in the middle of his prime. The A's won the World Series that year and took the AL pennant again in 1990 with Rickey winning the MVP. He'd be moved at the deadline again in 1993 to the Blue Jays, who won the World Series that year.
Keith Hernandez - It was June 15, 1983 when the Cardinals shipped the 29-year-old Hernandez to the Mets. He had won an MVP, a World Series ring and was one of the greatest defensive first baseman in history. He finish in the top 10 of MVP voting three times for the Mets -- including runner-up in 1984 -- and helped win the 1986 World Series.
Randy Johnson - The Big Unit had a Cy Young, ERA title and four strikeout titles in his time in Seattle. On July 31, 1998, the Mariners traded him to the Astros for Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen and a player to be named later (it was John Halama). Johnson went 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA in 11 starts for the Astros and then signed with the Diamondbacks in free agency after the season. He won the next four NL Cy Youngs.
Cliff Lee - Lee won the Cy Young with Cleveland in 2008 when he was 22-3 with a 2.54 ERA. He was traded to the defending champion Phillies on July 29, 2009. He was good after the trade and outstanding in the playoffs, helping lead Philly to its second straight NL pennant. He was traded to the Mariners the following offseason and then traded on July 9, 2010 to the Rangers. He again did great work in the first two rounds of the playoffs and ended up, again, in the World Series on a team different from the one he started the season with.
Fred McGriff - The Crime Dog, now finally a Hall of Famer, was traded four times in his career. One of those times came during a season when he was a superstar. It was July 18, 1993, when the Padres sent him to the Braves for Donnie Elliot, Melvin Nieves and Vince Moore. McGriff was outstanding for the Braves in his time there and they won the 1995 World Series with him as their everyday cleanup hitter (literally; he hit cleanup every single game).
Mark McGwire - After a lull in the middle of his career, McGwire became a monster in the mid-'90s with the help, we now know, of PEDs. He hit .312/.467/.730 (196 OPS+) with 52 homers in 1996. He had 34 homers in 105 games with the A's in 1997 when the Cardinals traded for him on July 31. He homered an absurd 24 times in 51 games the rest of the way and then hit 70 the next year. And 65 the year after that. The A's return for McGwire: Eric Ludwick, T.J. Mathews and Blake Stein.
Mike Piazza - Playing Piazza in a Marlins square on always gives me a chuckle. On May 14, 1998, he was traded to the Marlins. Six days later, the Marlins traded him to the Mets. He was a five-time All-Star before the trades and went seven times after. He finished his career as the most prolific offensive catcher of all-time and he was traded twice in just over a week when he was 29 years old.
Manny Ramírez - Manny had four top-five MVP finishes (and eight top-10) to his name when he was sent from the Red Sox to the Dodgers on July 31, 2008. And there, Mannywood was born. He went bonkers the rest of the season and the Dodgers swept the top-seeded Cubs in the NLDS.
CC Sabathia - The Big Man won the Cy Young in 2007 and was traded to the Brewers on July 7, 2008. In 17 starts for Milwaukee, he was nuclear, going 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, seven complete games and three shutouts. He put the team on his back down the stretch, often pitching on short rest. They made the playoffs for the first time since 1982. Sabathia then got his huge payday with the Yankees the following offseason.
Max Scherzer - The three-time Cy Young winner was coming off his eighth All-Star Game when the Nationals traded him to the Dodgers along with Turner in 2021. He went 7-0 with a 1.98 ERA in his 11 starts for the Dodgers, though he wasn't retained in free agency.
Tom Seaver - Tom Terrific was already a legend when traded at the deadline from the Mets to the Reds on June 15 for four players (Doug Flynn, Steve Henderson, Dan Norman and Pat Zachry). With the Reds, Seaver made three All-Star teams and finished in the top five of Cy Young voting three times.
Juan Soto - This one is easy to remember, right? It just happened last season. Less than a year removed from finishing runner-up in MVP voting at age 22, Soto was traded to the Padres from the Nationals, along with teammate Josh Bell, for a huge prospect package. Given his pedigree at such an absurdly young age, you could argue Soto as one of the most potentially impactful players ever traded during a season.
Justin Verlander - Here's the August-waiver trade I mentioned all the back in the introduction above. Due to a huge salary and a merely good season at age 34, Verlander cleared waivers and was eventually traded from the Tigers to the Astros in 2017. He would morph into the best version of himself after the trade, coming away with two more Cy Youngs and two World Series rings.