CINCINNATI -- Another last-place season had just ended. The Texas Rangers were taking stock of what they needed in the off-season to end their run of misery.
They really needed an outfielder who could drive in runs. They really wanted Josh Hamilton.
Would the Cincinnati Reds be willing to part with the outfielder who had resumed his career after years of drug addiction? General manager Jon Daniels picked up the phone to find out.
"We put a list together of guys that could fit the bill, and it was a pretty short list," Daniels said. "Josh pretty quickly got to the top of it."
That October phone call started weeks of talks that culminated in an intriguing deal, one that has provided two of baseball's biggest surprises at midseason: Josh Hamilton for Edinson Volquez.
"That's a pretty interesting trade," Boston manager Terry Francona said.
Interesting? Try All-Star.
The 27-year-old Hamilton is among the vote leaders for the All-Star game next month at Yankee Stadium. He leads the majors in runs batted in, has led the AL in homers for much of the season, and is among its best in batting average.
Assuming he makes it to New York on July 15, it won't be a surprise if he digs in against Volquez, who leads the majors in ERA and has led the NL in strikeouts for much of the season. The three-player swap announced on Dec. 21 -- the Reds also got reliever Danny Herrera -- has become the definition of a perfect trade.
"Just tell everybody it's a draw," Hamilton suggested. "Both teams are winners in the trade."
Neither team is close to first place, but it's not because of the trade, which gave both of them something they desperately needed.
"I can't remember one in recent times where it paid off so quickly for each team," said Wayne Krivsky, who was fired as the Reds' general manager 21 games into the season. "Especially with two young players that weren't fully established at the major league level. For them to do that right away, it is pretty amazing."
At the time, both general managers worried they might be giving away too much.
Hamilton was a good story -- top pick in the 1999 draft, eight rehab stints for alcohol and drug addiction -- and an amazing player during his one season in Cincinnati. He has rare talent -- runs, throws, hits for power, hits for average, figures things out fast -- and a background that would give any team pause.
Hamilton batted .292 with 19 homers in his rookie season with the Reds, but health problems limited him to 90 games. There were questions about how much of a toll the years of drug use had taken on his body.
Could he stay healthy? Could he stay away from drugs?
Those questions got pushed to the background every time he swung a bat or made a play. Baseball scouts were amazed at what he did after being out of the game for three years.
"I'd never seen him before, but so many people had told me he was one of the best young baseball players they'd ever seen," Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. "I heard that a lot. He's big, he's strong, he runs well, he's got it all. He's the entire package."
The Reds felt the same way, but had other needs. With outfielder Jay Bruce ready to come up from the minors, Hamilton wasn't a necessity. What the Reds really needed -- what they'd needed for years -- was starting pitching.
When the Rangers asked about Hamilton, the Reds replied with a name of their own. They wouldn't make the deal without Volquez.
The 24-year-old pitcher went 1-10 in parts of two seasons with the Rangers, who saw that he needed to mature. They sent him all the way back to Single-A Bakersfield in 2007, and he went 0-4 with a 7.13 ERA there. Despite a 95 mph fastball and a darting changeup, he was getting lost in the shuffle.
The demotion made him grow up.
"To go all the way back to Single A, it made me think," Volquez said. "I think I pulled everything together last year."
Reds scouts noticed a change in his on-field demeanor in the minors. The Rangers had set rules for Volquez to follow -- for instance, he had to get on and off the field faster. Also, he was adding a slider to his combination of fastball-changeup-curve.
By the end of the season, he was back in the majors and again rated a top prospect. And every time the Rangers mentioned Hamilton, the Reds insisted on Volquez.
"It was a conversation that probably spanned more than two months," Daniels said. "I would say Wayne and I had 20-something conversations, and we discussed more than a dozen variations. But to their credit, Wayne knew Volquez was the guy that they wanted. Ultimately, we just had to do a gut-check internally whether it was something we were willing to do."
Krivsky's fortitude was tested, too.
"We thought long and hard about giving up Josh," he said. "I was squirming to be giving up a talent like Josh. But we had such good reports on Volquez."
Both players have prospered in their new settings far beyond anyone's expectations.
"It's surprising a little bit," Volquez said.
If they wind up going head-to-head at Yankee Stadium next month, the gut-check trade will become the epitome of the great deal.
"It is pretty amazing," Krivsky said. "It was just a perfect match."