Offseason blockbusters:  February (Part 2:  1968-2008)

This offseason tradewinds cruise has sailed the swap-infested seas of October, November, December and January, and even the earlier regions of February. Now it’s time to chart a course for the biggest deals of this month, right up to the present day.

As a reminder, here are our ground rules:

– We’re talking about trades here, and only trades. No draft picks (expansion, Rule 5 or otherwise), no free agent signings, and no straight-up cash sales. Fascinating as drafts and signings and sales often can be, none offers the talent-for-talent exchange aspect of a trade, and thus neither is quite as interesting in terms of the talent judgment on the part of both (and occasionally three or four) teams making the trade.

– We’re talking about blockbusters here, not just any old trade. We define a blockbuster as a trade involving at least one player who was, if not a full-fledged star, at least a prominent, established regular, either at or reasonably near the peak of his career. To be included here, a trade has to have been perceived as a talent-for-talent whopper at the time it was made—these deals were all on the front page of the sports section for the teams involved, and many were front-page news across the country.

Feb. 13, 1968: The Los Angeles Dodgers traded second baseman Ron Hunt and infielder Nate Oliver to the San Francisco Giants for catcher Tom Haller and minor league pitcher Frank Kasheta.

This was a sound and sensible exchange on both sides. Each team leveraged depth at one position (the Dodgers had Jim Lefebvre and Paul Popovich to handle second base, while the Giants had Dick Dietz and Jack Hiatt coming along at catcher) to fill a hole (the Dodgers had just traded away longtime incumbent catcher John Roseboro, while for the Giants the flop of Tito Fuentes in 1967 had rendered second base a disaster area). Both Hunt and Haller would be the solid and dependable regulars their new teams sought.

But the interesting angle on this one is that it was a deal between the most intense of arch-rivals; these teams simply did not engage in trades with one another. This was:

– The first trade between the franchises since coming west in 1958.
– The first Dodgers-Giants trade since the Jackie Robinson deal of December 1956.
– The first completed trade (the Robinson deal was voided due to his subsequent retirement) between these teams since the Dolph Camilli deal of July 1943.

The next time the Dodgers and Giants would make a trade would be December 1985, with the Candy Maldonado-for-Alex Treviño exchange.

Feb. 25, 1972: The St. Louis Cardinals traded pitcher Steve Carlton to the Philadelphia Phillies for pitcher Rick Wise.

Everyone knows what a disaster this challenge trade turned out to be for the Cardinals. And most everyone knows that the deal wasn’t predicated so much on talent assessment as it was on the fit of pique St. Louis owner Gussie Busch was having with Carlton over salary negotiations.

But the truth is no one at the time realized the trade would backfire as spectacularly as it did. While it was evident that Carlton was a superior innate talent to Wise, the gap didn’t appear very significant at this point. After all, Carlton had just completed back-to-back seasons in which his strikeout rate had meaningfully declined, and his ERAs had been completely blah. Wise was a year younger than Carlton, and had blossomed in 1971 with a season that was demonstrably better than Carlton’s.

It was Busch’s bad luck (or maybe it was his bad karma, or maybe the trade served to motivate Carlton significantly) that Steve Carlton wouldn’t become, you know, STEVE CARLTON until he donned the Phillies uniform in 1972, while Rick Wise would just go on being good, steady Rick Wise.

(Both Carlton and Wise swung the bat quite well. Wise was an especially good-hitting pitcher; in 1971, he whacked six home runs, including two bombs against the Reds on June 23—a game in which he also tossed a no-hitter. Is that just about the coolest feat ever accomplished by any human being, or what?)

Feb. 11, 1977: The San Francisco Giants traded outfielder Bobby Murcer, third baseman Steve Ontiveros and minor league pitcher Andy Muhlstock to the Chicago Cubs for third baseman Bill Madlock and infielder Rob Sperring.

Spec Richardson’s 1967-75 tenure as GM of the Astros was notorious for a long sequence of ridiculous giveaway trades. But this didn’t deter new Giants owner Bob Lurie from hiring Richardson in 1976, and retaining him in the San Francisco GM role until mid-1981.

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And the truth is that Richardson’s trading record with the Giants wasn’t so bad. It was the case that he remained rather trigger-happy in the trading department, but few of Richardson’s San Francisco deals were howlers. And some were pretty sharp, such as this one: The emergence of young Jack Clark in the outfield allowed Richardson to exchange the veteran star Murcer for the great-hitting young third baseman Madlock.

Feb. 3, 1979: The California Angels traded outfielder Ken Landreaux, pitchers Paul Hartzell and Brad Havens and third baseman Dave Engle to the Minnesota Twins for first baseman Rod Carew.

This sort of trade has since become commonplace: Faced with the impending free agency of a star a team realizes it can’t afford to re-sign, the team puts him on the trade market before he departs. The star’s trade value is obviously somewhat depressed under such circumstances, but just how much it’s depressed is the question, and that question makes the assessment of these deals rather tricky. This is exactly the dynamic that occurred around Johan Santana this winter.

But in the 1970s, with free agency having just recently come to pass, such deals were a new phenomenon, subject to much controversy over whether they represented the Ruin of Baseball, and most definitely subject to much argument over just what constituted a fair talent exchange under the circumstances. The offer accepted here by the Twins’ Calvin Griffith would serve to roughly establish what the trade market often has borne in this situation: a multi-player package of young talent, but not first-order young talent. The centerpiece here, Landreaux, would emerge as a solid young regular, but not a star, and the rest of the package could best be described as Variations on the Theme of Grade B.

Feb. 23, 1979: The Philadelphia Phillies traded outfielder Jerry Martin, second baseman Ted Sizemore, catcher Barry Foote and pitchers Derek Botelho and Henry Mack to the Chicago Cubs for second baseman Manny Trillo, outfielder Greg Gross and catcher Dave Rader.

A solid, reasonable deal by both Phillies GM Paul Owens and Cubs GM Bob Kennedy. For the Phils, it was an upgrade at second base from Sizemore to Trillo. For the Cubs, it was an upgrade in the outfield from Gross to Martin and at catcher from Rader to Foote. Martin and Foote were both good enough to be regulars for the Cubs but not for the Phillies, yet the Phillies replaced them in their utility roles with Gross and Rader, who were both well-suited to that duty anyway.

All in all, everybody was happy.

Feb. 10, 1982: The New York Mets traded pitchers Jim Kern and Greg Harris and catcher Alex Treviño to the Cincinnati Reds for outfielder George Foster.

Back in December, discussing the Giants’ 1991 trade of Kevin Mitchell to Seattle, I asked this question:

Has any other team in history timed the trading for, and then the trading away, of a star of Kevin Mitchell’s magnitude as well as the Giants did with Mitchell? …

There might have been another case of timing as perfect, and trades as favorable, on both the acquisition and disposal ends, but without undertaking serious research I really can’t think of one. The Phillies with Jim Bunning come close, but Bunning was already an established star before they got him. The Yankees with Roger Maris would qualify, but Maris had already begun his precipitous decline before the Yankees traded him away.

The Reds’ handling of George Foster is certainly worth considering in this regard. Cincinnati’s acquisition of Foster back in 1971 (from none other than the Giants) in exchange for the immortal Frank Duffy was utter larceny. And their timing in trading Foster between the 1981 and ’82 seasons couldn’t be more perfect: he’d just completed his seventh consecutive outstanding year for the Reds, and was just about to lay a fat stinking egg for the Mets.

But it’s not as ideal as the Giants’ situation with Mitchell, in two regards. First, while Foster blossomed into a superstar slugger with the Reds, he didn’t do so right away; he struggled for a couple of years and was even sent back to the minors before emerging as a stud. And second, the package the Reds received from the Mets in exchange for Foster was, to say the least, underwhelming: an over-the-hill Kern, a not-yet-ready-for-prime-time Harris, and an only-suitable-for-backup-work Treviño.

Had Foster not belly-flopped the way he did in New York, Reds GM Dick Wagner would have had a lot to answer for, and Mets GM Frank Cashen would have been lauded for negotiating such a shrewd deal.

Feb. 1, 1985: The St. Louis Cardinals traded first baseman-outfielder David Green, pitcher Dave LaPoint, shortstop Jose Uribe and first baseman Gary Rajsich to the San Francisco Giants for outfielder-first baseman Jack Clark.

This was Giants GM Tom Haller’s turn at executing the Rod Carew-type deal discussed above, and he negotiated a reasonable return. It might have been an unusually good return had the highly touted Green developed into anything close to the sort of player all the scouts said he would become. But apparently Green was finding it a mounting challenge to remain sober, and in addition there was quite a bit of speculation at the time that he wasn’t quite as young as advertised; in any case he bombed big time. Still, in LaPoint and Uribe the Giants received useful commodities.

By far the most amusing angle on the deal had to do with Uribe, who was at that point not playing under the name of Jose Uribe, but instead under the name of Jose Gonzalez. That spring training, the young Dominican shortstop announced to the media, as best he could in his extremely limited English, that he wished no longer to be known as Jose Gonzalez, but instead as Uribe.

“No problem,” the media responded. “Henceforth and forever we’ll call you Uribe Gonzalez!” And so went the announcement through all the usual channels.

“No! No! That’s not what I meant,” the ballplayer haltingly communicated over the next several days. “Not Uribe Gonzalez!”

Reporters and broadcasters, struggling to understand, sent out a revised announcement: “Sorry, we had it wrong. This ballplayer does in fact wish to be called Jose Gonzalez after all.”

“No! No!” said the increasingly flustered ballplayer, now likely wishing he’d never brought it up in the first place. He did his best to make it clear what he meant: “Not Jose Gonzalez, and not Uribe Gonzalez. I want to be known as Jose Uribe. Got that? J-o-s-e U-r-i-b-e.”

And so, finally, the third announcement went though all the usual channels—actually more than the usual channels by now, because this silly little story was beginning to acquire some “News of the Weird” notoriety—that this obscure good-field no-hit little shortstop shall, “Henceforth and forever be known as Jose Uribe!”

Who knows, maybe that’s not what he meant either, but he just got sick and tired of trying to get the rest of us to understand.

At any rate, the best line on the whole comedy of errors was delivered by the exquisitely mordant Giants broadcaster Hank Greenwald. “Whatever else,” Greenwald said, “This guy certainly is the Player to be Named Later.”

Feb. 9, 1988: The St. Louis Cardinals traded outfielder Lance Johnson, pitcher Ricky Horton and cash to the Chicago White Sox for pitcher Jose DeLeon.

It’s hard to think of a player better-suited to the Whitey Herzog Cardinals than the blazing-fast Lance Johnson, but apparently GM Dal Maxvill decided that with Vince Coleman and Willie McGee already in their outfield, enough was enough, already. So Maxvill converted Johnson, along with the journeyman Horton, into the hard-throwing starter DeLeon. It was a fair deal all around.

Feb. 22, 1993: The St. Louis Cardinals traded outfielder Felix Jose and infielder-outfielder Craig Wilson to the Kansas City Royals for infielder Gregg Jefferies and minor league outfielder Ed Gerald.

Jefferies had been projected by everyone to be a major star, but it just wasn’t happening. As we saw in December, just one season before this the Royals had traded Bret Saberhagen to the Mets to take their chances with Jefferies. But in Kansas City, Jefferies’ performance was as it had been in New York: not bad, but nothing nearly as special as he seemed capable of producing. So here Royals GM Herk Robinson decided to go in a different direction.

The Cardinals would shift Jefferies to first base. Perhaps allowing him to just focus on offense was the key, as in St. Louis Jefferies would finally blossom as a first-rate hitter, with back-to-back terrific seasons. Then he would sign with the Phillies as a free agent, but again his performance would quickly fade, and his career would peter out, among the more disappointing in history.

Feb. 6, 1998: The New York Yankees traded pitchers Eric Milton and Danny Mota, shortstop Christian Guzman, outfielder Brian Buchanan and cash to the Minnesota Twins for second baseman Chuck Knoblauch.

A couple of decades after the Rod Carew trade, and the Twins were doing essentially the same thing again. GM Terry Ryan negotiated a pretty good package of kids; Milton would be a fine starter for a few years, and Guzman and Buchanan were useful talents (though the Twins’ insistence upon deploying Guzman as a full-time first-stringer, and particularly as a No. 2 hitter in the order, would be asking too much of him).

As for Knoblauch, with the Yankees he would continue to hit well. But after one season in New York, Knoblauch would come down with a severe case of Steve Sax Disease. Eventually the Yankees would feel compelled to shift Knoblauch to left field, but by that point his bat had gone south too, and he was deadweight. Knoblauch’s rapid deterioration from his late 20s to his early 30s was among the more disquieting unravelings in history.

Feb. 18, 1999: The New York Yankees traded pitchers David Wells and Graeme Lloyd and infielder Homer Bush to the Toronto Blue Jays for pitcher Roger Clemens.

The package Toronto GM Gord Ash negotiated in exchange for The Rocket wasn’t the standard youth-basket. In Wells, the Blue Jays got a front-line starter nearly as ultra-veteran as Clemens, and Lloyd was a veteran LOOGY. It was an interesting approach by Ash: This deal wasn’t nearly so much a step in the direction of rebuilding as it was a means of remaining competitive while cutting some payroll. Both teams would get what they were after.

Feb. 10, 2000: The Cincinnati Reds traded outfielder Mike Cameron, pitchers Brett Tomko and Jake Meyer and infielder Antonio Perez to the Seattle Mariners for outfielder Ken Griffey Jr.

Yet another in the general mold of the Carew trade. However, the return Mariners GM Pat Gillick received wasn’t exactly the traditional grab-bag of prospects: Cameron was already a very good young regular, and Tomko was already established as a major league starter, if not an especially good one. Given the particular circumstances regarding the near-certainty of the Mariners being unable to re-sign Griffey, and the attractiveness of Cincinnati to Junior as a destination of choice, this represented a reasonable deal for both ball clubs.

Feb. 16, 2004: The New York Yankees traded second baseman Alfonso Soriano and a player to be named later to the Texas Rangers for shortstop Alex Rodriguez and cash. (On April 23, 2004, the Yankees sent infielder Joaquin Arias to the Rangers, completing the deal.)

It may well be the case that the Rangers overpaid for A-Rod when they signed him to his legendary free agent contract; perhaps in the final stages of the negotiation the Rangers were essentially “bidding against themselves,” and wound up paying 10-20 percent more than was truly necessary to land him. But even if that’s true, the Rangers still signed A-Rod to a contract they believed they could afford, and there’s no reason to believe they couldn’t actually afford it.

And even if that contract was above A-Rod’s “true” market value, it remains the case that he performed brilliantly for Texas. Rodriguez couldn’t possibly have played any better than he did; the team’s struggles had nothing to do with him or his contract, and everything to do with poor management decision-making (as well as just plain bad luck, as is often the case) in the construction and aggregate performance of the rest of the roster.

In short, faulting A-Rod for the Rangers’ failure to contend is a classic example of the fallacy of blaming a team’s best player for the shortcomings of its worst, perhaps the most vivid illustration of this foolishness we’ve ever seen.

Thus, I remain completely unconvinced that it made sense for the Rangers to bail out of their A-Rod relationship after three years. Working out the deal they did with the Yankees saved the Rangers money (even accounting for the portion of his contract they agreed to continue to pay), but unless they would directly convert that savings into better players—which of course they didn’t—then this trade accomplished nothing toward making the Rangers a more competitive ball club.

It was a dumb move, a panic move, and its sole beneficiary was George Steinbrenner’s Yankees, behaving in a manner something like that of the avaricious and opportunistic Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life … cue George Bailey: “Can’t you understand what’s happening here? Don’t you see what’s happening? Potter isn’t selling. Potter’s buying! And why? Because we’re panicky and he’s not. He’s picking up some bargains.”

Feb. 2, 2008: The New York Mets traded outfielder Carlos Gomez and pitchers Philip Humber, Kevin Mulvey and Deolis Guerra to the Minnesota Twins for pitcher Johan Santana.

Feb. 8, 2008: The Seattle Mariners traded outfielder Adam Jones and pitchers George Sherrill, Chris Tillman, Kam Mickolio and Tony Butler to the Baltimore Orioles for pitcher Erik Bedard.

And still two more variations on the Rod Carew trade.

As we we discussed on THT, I’m not impressed with the deal negotiated here by Twins GM Bill Smith. Santana is an exceptional talent, and if this was the best offer on the table at this point, Smith would have been better off keeping his ace southpaw for now, and putting him back on the market near the midseason trading deadline; it seems highly unlikely Santana would fetch less than this from a contender in the heat of a tight race, and quite possibly more.

The Bedard deal is more reasonable. Orioles GM Mike Flanagan received a good return for the highly talented-but-fragile lefty, executing a pretty nice display of selling high for a Baltimore franchise that at last appears serious about building for the future. The talent Flanagan extracted from the Mariners appears to be roughly equivalent to that which the Mets surrendered for Santana, and yet good as he is, Bedard isn’t in Santana’s league.

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