Vetoed Trades, Part Five

I’ve been a little tardy in picking up the ball for the fifth part of this series, and for that I apologize. I hope it was worth the wait. In case you’re new to the series, here are parts one, two, three and four.

Vetoed trade: December 2003, the Texas Rangers send Alex Rodriguez to the Boston Red Sox for Manny Ramirez and Jon Lester.
Completed trade: February 2004, the Rangers send Alex Rodriguez and cash to the New York Yankees for Alfonso Soriano and player to be named later (Joaquin Arias).

I’m not going to spend a lot of space going through all of the details of how the deal to send A-Rod to the Red Sox collapsed. They are myriad. For our purposes here, the most critical additional detail is that a second trade that was contingent on the A-Rod trade was scrapped as a result of the Major League Baseball Players Association’s veto. That deal would have sent Nomar Garciaparra and Scott Williamson to the White Sox for Magglio Ordonez, Brandon McCarthy and another pitching prospect whose name I couldn’t find. But if you want to relive in detail how everything went down, check out what Gordon Edes wrote about the failed negotiations.

To say this was one of the most significant vetoed trades in the history of baseball is an understatement. That’s partially because a player had never been traded in the offseason after winning the most valuable player award, which Rodriguez had just done following a 2003 campaign where he posted a .298/.396/.600 line and showed plus-defense. Those totals helped him to a 9.3 WAR. The deal is also significant because it would have shipped Garciaparra out of Boston.

History may not remember Garciaparra as fondly as some other players. Sure, he won the rookie-of-the-year award, two straight batting titles and was a six-time all-star, but those accomplishments didn’t really capture how important he was to his city. This was the guy who had been given Ted Williams’ blessing. Nomar Garciaparra was the Boston Red Sox. Or at least, he had been. Things started to change when Theo Epstein took over. But even after the winter’s events and a first half that saw him only play 38 games, few were ready to part with “Nomahhhh.” When he eventually was traded, it was deflating. If you like, you can read the excellent review of the Garciaparra saga in this excerpt from Seth Mnookin’s “Feeding The Monster. The night of the trade, television stations showed little kids crying on the news. When he finally returned to Fenway in 2009 some five-plus seasons later, Garciaparra was given a long standing ovation. No matter what happened, no one wanted Nomar to leave. But I digress.

We’ll look at all four sides of this thing, including Chicago’s. First, let’s tackle the trade from the Rangers’ side. Instead of five years of Ramirez (’04-’08) and six years of Lester, they received two years of Soriano, and then the paltry return of Armando Galarraga (-.1 WAR in Texas), Terrmel Sledge (never played for Texas, and was part of the package that sent Adrian Gonzalez to the Padres) and Brad Wilkerson (0.6 WAR). Oh, and Arias, who after an aggregate sub-replacement-level of play across four seasons, was used to acquire Jeff Francoeur, who was his usual Francoeurian self; he walked once in 56 regular plate appearances in his short time in Texas. And then he reached base in just four of his 25 postseason plate-appearances in 2010. You’ll never believe this, but the Rangers didn’t re-sign him.

To make matters worse for Texas’ end of this, Soriano had two of his worst seasons there. In the two years before he joined Texas, Soriano compiled 10.7 WAR. In his two seasons after he left Texas, he put up 10.3 WAR. In each of those four seasons, he accumulated at least 5 WAR. But in his two seasons in Arlington, he posted 2.1 and 2.3 WAR, for a total of 4.4. His defense was partly to blame, but his offense there did not meet his usual standards. On the flip side, Ramirez posted 17.3 WAR in the next five seasons, including a six-win season during his walk year in 2008. And Lester has been worth 26.0 WAR in his career so far. And while Michael Young and Elvis Andrus helped patch the hole left by Rodriguez, A-Rod put up more value from 2004 to 2007 than Young did from 2004 to 2012. This was a big loss for the Rangers.

The White Sox, on the other hand, dodged a bullet. True, Ordonez didn’t amount to much in 2004 — and Chicago didn’t even get a draft pick for him as compensation when he left in free agency after the season. But Chicago’s deal with the Red Sox included sending off McCarthy, then still a prospect. McCarthy would later be dealt for a package that included John Danks, and while some may lament losing McCarthy, this deal worked out great for Chicago. Danks has been worth 16.9 WAR in six seasons while McCarthy has been worth 10 WAR in eight seasons. Plus, they also got Nick Masset, who was one of the two players that Chicago traded for Ken Griffey Jr. While “The Kid” didn’t do much for Chicago, it was a fun thing to have him, right?

The veto left the Rangers in a tough spot, and the Yankees took advantage of Texas’ vulnerability. No matter what you think of Rodriguez’s checkered history in New York off of the field, be it for the various starlets he has been associated with, his penchant for kissing mirrors or performance enhancing drugs, Rodriguez has delivered on the field:

 

Player WAR
Albert Pujols 67.8
Chase Utley 53.8
Roy Halladay 51.0
CC Sabathia 50.9
Alex Rodriguez 50.7

Those numbers are from 2004 to 2012. Technically, A-Rod has been the fifth-best player in baseball during that span, but the only player who was appreciably better than him was Pujols. And this probably sells Rodriguez a little short. He was so unhappy in Texas that he voluntarily moved off of his natural position at a time when he was one of the best in the game at his position. In his three seasons in Texas, Rodriguez was the fifth-best defensive shortstop. From 2002 to 2003, the 25.3 runs he saved defensively was matched at shortstop by only Jose Valentin. That he switched positions was really a remarkable thing.

The kicker of course is New York basically gave up nothing to get him. And while the team got very little from second base in the three years after Soriano departed, their patience with Robinson Cano’s fielding misadventures in 2005 proved to be a sound long-term strategy. Rodriguez, too, was a massive upgrade over the 1.7 WAR that Robin Ventura, Aaron Boone and Todd Zeile combined to post at the hot corner for New York in 2003. And again, as I mentioned above, it’s not like Soriano tore the cover off the ball in Texas. Even if he had, the Yankees acquired as few as four and as many as seven seasons of one of the greatest players in baseball history for three years of Soriano and Arias. That’s simply a trade that doesn’t happen today, and no amount of displeasure from A-Rod should have persuaded Texas to take such a bad deal.

I may be revising history slightly in Arias’ case. After a season in the Rangers’ system, he emerged as Baseball America’s No. 77 prospect, but the hope was fleeting. Even after a 2005 season that saw him hit .315/.335/.423 in Double-A, he dropped out of BA’s top 100 and never reappeared. In 2003, BA ranked him as the 16th-best prospect in New York’s system. I mean, that’s better than being the 17th- or 18th-best prospect — but for him to be the only other piece in a deal that netted a future hall-of-famer in the midst of his prime was nothing short of a coup for New York. (Update: I’ve also been reminded that the Rangers had their choice of Cano or Arias, and chose Arias. Just more salt in the wound for Rangers’ fans.)

While we can draw some fairly definitive conclusions for the Texas (awful), Chicago (bullet dodged) and New York (massive win) sides of this equation, Boston’s portion is a bit murkier. Most Red Sox fans will probably tell you “we didn’t need him,” and certainly that is true to some degree. After all, Boston won two World Series in the next four seasons without Rodriguez’s contributions. And also without much of a contribution from Garciaparra. But the team has languished at shortstop. Since the start of 2004, the Red Sox have only gotten 15.5 WAR from the shortstop position — less than 1.75 WAR per season. Only the Diamondbacks, Expos/Nationals, Mariners and Royals have received less production from their shortstops during that same time.

Having Rodriguez’s production at shortstop for most of that time — he probably would have had to move off of the position in 2010 or so — would have obviously been a major plus. But, while the Yankees got Rodriguez for a song, the cost for Boston was going to be much steeper. Ramirez and Lester totaled more than 43 WAR in the time they would have been under contract in Texas. Boston still would have come out ahead — especially if you throw in the McCarthy acquisition — but the team might have suffered in 2004. If they had wound up with Ordonez, they would have once again been in the market for a left fielder come the trade deadline. Would Dave Roberts have been enough? Probably, as A-Rod was nearly twice as good as Ramirez in 2004 — but it’s hard to say for sure.

The aftermath for the Red Sox was equally murky. When the team finally traded Garciaparra, Boston got little in return. For 2004, though, it was enough. Doug Mientkiewicz was awful, but he was used mostly as a defensive replacement for Kevin Millar. Orlando Cabrera, on the other hand, was a stabilizing force. Pokey Reese — in his last season in the majors — was exemplary on defense; Garciaparra hit well, but neither shortstop did both things well. And they both got hurt. Cabrera combined league-average offense and defense, and he stayed healthy through the end of the season. He started 58 of Boston’s final 60 regular season games at shortstop but only totalled .8 WAR. Perhaps not having to guess who was going to play shortstop each night — especially when on some nights the answer was Cesar Crespo or Ricky Gutierrez — was all the team really needed. And while it doesn’t seem like much in the grand scheme for a player of Garciaparra’s importance, it’s a fairly standard return for a player two months from hitting free agency.

It is hard to find a way to paint the trade — had it gone through — in a negative light for the Red Sox. Even from 2008 to 2010, the final three years of the contract Rodriguez signed with the Rangers, he was nearly as good as Lester was in that time. Their performances were separated by less than 3 WAR. Perhaps the different composition of the team prevents them from winning two World Series trophies, but saying that concretely is painting with too broad a brush. At the same time, because of those two World Series trophies, it’s hard to say that the Red Sox missed out by having the trade vetoed, other than how things unfolded with Garciaparra (though there’s a strong chance that he would have left in free agency anyway). In the end, the vetoed trade was a great deal for the Yankees, a horrible deal for the Rangers and neutral-to-positive deal for the others.



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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.


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