Offseason blockbusters:  January (Part 2:  1969-2008)

Last time, we examined the big shakeups of Januarys long past. Now we’re ready to review the year-opening swaps of more recent times, right up to those of this very month.

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.

Jan. 22, 1969: The Montreal Expos traded first baseman Donn Clendenon and outfielder Jesus Alou for outfielder-first baseman Rusty Staub. (Clendenon refused to report to the Astros. On April 8, 1969, the Expos sent pitchers Jack Billingham and Skip Guinn and $100,000 cash to the Astros, completing the deal.)

There may have been a more blundering trader in the history of baseball than Spec Richardson in his GM tenure with the Astros, but then again, there may not.

The notion of trading the not-yet-25-year-old Staub for anything was daft enough, but to swap him for the soon-to-be-34 Clendenon and the never-any-good-at-any-age Alou was just mind-boggling. Clendenon’s subsequent refusal to report was a stroke of luck for Richardson, as the settlement package brokered by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn was far more than Clendenon was worth—though even with that the deal remained distinctly lopsided.

During this period, Richardson also coughed up Mike Cuellar, Dave Giusti, John Mayberry, Joe Morgan and Cesar Geronimo for pennies on the dollar, and for good measure traded Jim Wynn for an over-the-hill Claude Osteen.

It was altogether astonishing. Somehow the Astros remained reasonably competitive throughout, but by 1975 they were a last-place ball club and Richardson finally was fired. But he’d soon be hired by—you’re going to make me say this, aren’t you—the Giants.


Jan. 29, 1971: The St. Louis Cardinals traded pitcher Nelson Briles and outfielder Vic Davalillo to the Pittsburgh Pirates for outfielder Matty Alou and pitcher George Brunet.

This was questionable wisdom on the part of Cardinals GM Bing Devine, from two perspectives. First, he was dealing Briles when his market value was at a low; Briles had been a fine pitcher for several years but was coming off a dreadful, injury-wracked 1970 season. And Devine was expending Briles along with the useful role player Davalillo for the underwhelming package of Alou, who’d enjoyed a nice run as the Pirates’ center fielder but was now in his early 30s, and Brunet, who looked to be over the hill.

It wouldn’t work out well. Briles would rebound while Brunet indeed hit the end of the line (as a major leaguer, anyway; he’d survive in the minors for a lo-o-o-ng time yet). Alou, though he’d continue to hit for a high average, would last only a half-season as the Cardinals’ center fielder before being shifted to right field and first base, positions at which his powerless production yielded significantly less value.

Jan. 11, 1977: The Los Angeles Dodgers traded outfielder-first baseman Bill Buckner, shortstop Ivan DeJesus and minor league pitcher Jeff Albert to the Chicago Cubs for outfielder Rick Monday and pitcher Mike Garman.

A sound trade by both Dodgers GM Al Campanis and Cubs GM Bob Kennedy.

Campanis had already performed slick moves in his swapping good-but-not-great packages for stud outfielders Reggie Smith and Dusty Baker, and here he did it again. Alas, Monday would suddenly encounter back trouble, and never again be the player he’d been through his prime. But even a diminished Monday was a formidable talent, and he’d provide highly useful service to the Dodgers as a role player into the mid-1980s.

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For Kennedy it was a splendid demonstration of “selling high.” Monday had just turned 31, and as the saying goes, he wasn’t going to be a part of any championship Cubs teams. Converting him into talent with more of a future made sense, and in Buckner and DeJesus the Cubs acquired two players who’d be regulars for years to come. Moreover, Kennedy’s timing proved perfect, as Monday’s subsequent injury troubles would deplete his market value.

Jan. 23, 1981: The California Angels traded pitchers Frank Tanana and Jim Dorsey and outfielder Joe Rudi to the Boston Red Sox for outfielder Fred Lynn and pitcher Steve Renko.

This followed on the heels of another bombshell between these clubs, the Rick Burleson deal of just a month earlier. (In early February Carlton Fisk would be declared a free agent by an arbitrator hearing his contract dispute case, and the end of the 1970s-Red Sox era could hardly be more complete.)

As we discussed last month, the Red Sox under GM Haywood Sullivan would handily win the Burleson trade, but not so with this one. Tanana would spend just one ineffectual season in Boston before departing as a free agent, Rudi would prove to be finished, and Dorsey would never get started. Meanwhile Lynn, after a miserable injury-plagued 1981, would give the Angels several excellent years, and the veteran Renko would have some useful mileage left as well.

Jan. 27, 1982: The Philadelphia Phillies traded shortstop Larry Bowa and infielder Ryne Sandberg to the Chicago Cubs for shortstop Ivan DeJesus.

So, it wasn’t a bad idea for Phillies GM Paul Owens to be thinking of finding a replacement for Bowa. Though the slender little shortstop had been a slick-fielding mainstay in the Philadelphia lineup for a decade, and he’d produced his typical sound season in 1981, he had just turned 36 and it was sensible to wonder how much future he had. So that much was reasonable.

But DeJesus, though he’d enjoyed a nice run as a solid-but-nothing-special shortstop for the Cubs, had suddenly encountered a disastrous 1981. How disastrous, you ask? This disastrous: His batting average was .194. His slugging average was .233. His OPS+ was 44. Pretty damn disastrous.

Given that, just a straight-up exchange of Bowa-for-DeJesus would be questionable from the Phillies’ standpoint. Unless Bowa suddenly declined and DeJesus strongly bounced back, the deal would be at best a break-even. So for the Phillies to sweeten the offer with the top-flight prospect Sandberg made it, well, a ridiculous trade.

Because here’s the thing: Sandberg was a shortstop, who’d just completed a nifty four-year minor league apprenticeship with a Triple-A season in which he’d hit .293 with nine homers and 32 stolen bases. If Bowa were about to decline, well then the Phils had their replacement candidate right there, ready and rarin’ to go. Of course no one knew exactly how good Sandberg would become, and his tremendous Hall of Fame career was obviously the best-case scenario. But you’d think it might have been a slightly better idea for the Phillies to give this kid a try, instead of swapping him as well as Bowa for the guy that Bill James’ Abstract that year called Ivan the Terrible.

From the Cubs’ perspective, it was certainly a brilliant trade by newly hired GM Dallas Green. But more than that, for the franchise it represented a measure of getting exceptional mileage out of Ken Holtzman: It was the southpaw Holtzman, you may remember, whom the Cubs had traded for Rick Monday back in 1971; then they’d gotten several excellent prime seasons from Monday before swapping him in the deal we saw above. That was nice work.

Jan. 28, 1982: The Baltimore Orioles traded third baseman Doug DeCinces and pitcher Jeff Schneider to the California Angels for outfielder Dan Ford.

This one never made much sense to me from the perspective of Orioles GM Hank Peters. Ford was a good, solid, dependable player, but he wasn’t a star. DeCinces hadn’t been nearly as consistent, but in his “up” years he’d hit better than Ford, and moreover he was a third baseman as opposed to a right fielder.

One thing the trade did do was open up third base for rookie Cal Ripken. But, as Earl Weaver would demonstrate in mid-1982, that consideration wasn’t important, anyway.

Questionable in concept, the deal turned out even worse empirically for Baltimore. Ford would fade prematurely while DeCinces was reaching new heights with the Angels.

Jan. 10, 1991: The Baltimore Orioles traded pitchers Pete Harnisch and Curt Schilling and outfielder Steve Finley to the Houston Astros for first baseman Glenn Davis.

The next time someone asks you, in reference to a proposed gambit of some sort, “What’s the worst that could happen?,” I suggest your answer might be, “the Glenn Davis trade.” Because this trade was the very essence, the Platonic Ideal, of the worst imaginable outcome for Baltimore GM Roland Hemond.

The deal turned out so catastrophically, hilariously rotten for the O’s that, as the years have passed, many folks have taken to describing it as bad in theory as it was in practice. But to do so is unfair: While it was seen as fairly risky, no commentator at the time declared it a giveaway. The truth is there was a healthy possibility that the trade would turn out just fine for Baltimore, or at least no worse than a break-even. For the results to become as ghastly as they did required, well, every element of the deal to turn out just badly as it possibly could, and the odds against that were of course very long indeed.

It’s important to understand just what kind of a power hitter Davis was. He wasn’t at all the mid-tier guy a cursory look at his raw stats, particularly from a post-scoring-boom perspective, might suggest. Davis’s stats were doubly depressed, by having a couple of his best years in the unusually low-offense seasons of 1988 and 1989, and also by playing half his games in the Astrodome (57 percent of his NL home runs were hit on the road). He was a one-dimensional hitter, but he was damn good at the one dimension: Under many other circumstances, Davis would have produced multiple 40-homer, 100-RBI seasons.

So even though he’d been limited to 93 games by injuries in 1990 (while still putting up an OPS+ of 143), the guy Hemond was trading for (and Astros GM Bill Wood was trading away) was a serious stud cleanup man who was just turning 30 years old.

For such a talent, it wasn’t extravagant to offer up a package of two young pitchers, neither of whom had yet achieved major league success, and a 26-year-old slap-hitting center fielder. Young pitchers are the least reliable performers known to mankind; they fizzle out all the time. And 26-year-old outfielders who’ve put up an OPS+ of 79 through 750 major league plate appearances have “journeyman” tattooed across their foreheads. What’s the worst that could happen?

Well, this:

– Your serious stud cleanup man is utterly decimated by a string of injuries, and is finished as a major leaguer within three unproductive years.
– The first young pitcher immediately blossoms, putting together three straight 200+-inning seasons in which he’s in the top 10 in strikeouts all three times, and the top 10 in ERA+ twice.
– The second young pitcher develops into a six-time All-Star, a three-time Cy Young runnerup, a winner of more than 200 games and a serious Hall of Fame candidate.
– The slap-hitting center fielder blossoms into a good line-drive hitter and then develops power, and becomes a five-time Gold Glove winner with more than 300 homers and 300 steals in his career.

Jan. 8, 2001: In a three-club deal, the Oakland Athletics sent outfielder Ben Grieve to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and shortstop Angel Berroa and catcher A.J. Hinch to the Kansas City Royals; the Royals sent outfielder Johnny Damon and second baseman Mark Ellis to the Athletics; and the Devil Rays sent pitcher Cory Lidle to the Athletics and pitcher Roberto Hernandez to the Royals.

Taking place before the period covered in Michael Lewis’ hugely bestselling Moneyball, this blockbuster was one of the events that made A’s GM Billy Beane’s extraordinary reputation, and attracted the attention of Lewis and others.

Three separate elements in this deal are remarkable from the Oakland perspective:

1. Its timing. In 2000, the Athletics had just won a division title after nearly a decade of fundamental rebuilding. At such a point, it’s highly unusual to see a team making a major lineup-and-style-altering trade, but Beane took exactly that risk, swapping his power-hitting left fielder for a speedy center fielder.

2. Its principal. Especially after just having achieved success, it’s exceptionally rare for a team to trade away one of its centerpiece young stars, but Beane took exactly that risk. Grieve wasn’t yet 25, had been a Rookie of the Year with the A’s and had delivered three straight fine seasons.

3. Its talent exchange. Beane gave up Grieve along with the mid-grade prospect Berroa and the marginal talent Hinch, and received the established star Damon, the useful journeyman Lidle, and the outstanding (though quite unproven) prospect Ellis. Even if the primary Grieve-Damon portion was considered a wash (and it would turn out that way, as Grieve would bomb in Tampa and Damon would have an off-year in Oakland before departing as a free agent), the secondary portion looked like it would go to the A’s advantage, and it did so extremely, as Ellis blossomed into a standout.

Moves don’t come much bolder, nor much sharper. Over his decade-long tenure in Oakland, Beane has proven to have his failings, but overall his acumen in judging talent, and in perceiving opportunities, has been first-rate. Perhaps Beane sometimes acts too boldly, imposing his will when things might be left well enough alone, but in general his strong bias toward action energizes the organization with an urgency, an intolerance of mediocrity, that’s a hallmark of successful enterprises everywhere.

Jan. 14, 2001: The Chicago White Sox traded pitchers Mike Sirotka and Kevin Beirne and outfielder Brian Simmons to the Toronto Blue Jays for pitchers David Wells and Matt DeWitt. (On March 20, 2001, DeWitt was returned to the Blue Jays, and minor league pitcher Mike Williams was sent by the Blue Jays to the White Sox, completing the deal.)

The first major transaction by Kenny Williams upon taking over as White Sox GM didn’t seem particularly remarkable at the time. Nor did it seem especially purposeful, as it was basically swapping one strong-but-unspectacular starter (Sirotka) fpr another (Wells); if anything it appeared rather risky given Wells’ advanced age.

Yet it soon became quite controversial, as within a few weeks the Blue Jays discovered that Sirotka was suffering from a shoulder injury. Toronto GM Gord Ash sought compensation from the White Sox, or cancellation of the deal, in a dispute dubbed by the media as “Shouldergate.” But Commissioner Bud Selig ruled it basically a case of caveat emptor, and all the Blue Jays received was the return of the marginal DeWitt in exchange for the even more marginal Williams.

In the end it would be a trade that essentially helped neither team: While Sirotka’s career would be over, Wells would have a mediocre, injury-shortened season himself with the White Sox in 2001, and then depart as a free agent.

Jan. 15, 2002: The Atlanta Braves traded outfielder Brian Jordan and pitchers Odalis Perez and Andrew Brown to the Los Angeles Dodgers for outfielder Gary Sheffield.

The notoriously high-maintenance Sheffield had been making very public his wish to be traded from the Dodgers. Yet GM Dan Evans’ explanation was, “We didn’t get rid of Gary Sheffield. We made the trade because we felt it made a lot of sense for us.”

Right, Dan.

I’d be inclined to take Evans at his word if he were, you know, Spec Richardson. But Evans’ trading record in his short tenure as Dodgers’ GM was all right. Suffice to say that in truth this deal was simply a case of the Dodgers getting whatever they could for the Sheffield package, which included a thundering bat, a fat contract and an excruciating personality. Jordan and Perez, decent talents though they were, combined for a mere shadow of Sheffield’s ability.

Jan. 15, 2003: The Chicago White Sox traded pitchers Antonio Osuna and Delvis Lantigua to the New York Yankees for pitcher Orlando Hernandez.

Jan. 15, 2003: The Chicago White Sox traded pitchers Orlando Hernandez and Rocky Biddle, outfielder-third baseman Jeff Liefer and cash to the Montreal Expos for pitcher Bartolo Colon and minor league infielder Jorge Nunez.

Okay, I understand what the Yankees were doing: El Duque had given them a few good years, but he was (at least) 37 and getting hurt a lot and no longer justifying his pretty-big contract. So dishing him off for the journeyman Osuna and change was a sensible salary dump; even the Yankees, after all, shed payroll when the situation calls for it.

And I understand what the White Sox were doing: packaging Hernandez along with a couple more journeymen (Biddle and Liefer) and scoring the first-rate ace Colon in his walk year. Indeed, this was a real nice move on Kenny Williams’ part.

But what was the purpose in Expos GM Omar Minaya accepting Hernandez as part of the package for Colon? The entire reason Minaya was getting rid of Colon was to dump salary, nothing more, nothing less. You’re the basket-case Expos, and you’re cutting costs; why on earth would you acquire a guy whom the Yankees had just decided was too expensive to keep?

It would get worse. El Duque would undergo rotator cuff surgery and miss the entire 2003 season, while the Expos ate every penny of his $4.1 million salary.

What a complete fiasco that entire Montreal situation was.

Jan. 11, 2005: The Arizona Diamondbacks traded pitcher Randy Johnson to the New York Yankees for pitchers Javier Vazquez and Brad Halsey, catcher Dioner Navarro and cash.

Jan. 11, 2005: The Arizona Diamondbacks traded catcher Dioner Navarro and pitchers Beltran Perez, Danny Muegge and William Juarez to the Los Angeles Dodgers for outfielder Shawn Green.

The Diamondbacks had endured a horrific 2004, going 51-111, with The Big Unit their only asset resembling a star. Given his age and cost, swapping him made eminent sense, and the deal GM Joe Garagiola Jr. negotiated with the Yankees was a nice one.

But what was the point of the parlay of Navarro along to the Dodgers in exchange for Green? Yes, Green had been a highly productive star a few years earlier, but since then his performance had distinctly declined while his salary remained sky-high—that was precisely why the Dodgers were eager to dump him. In what conceivable way did it serve the D-backs’ purposes at that point to take him on? That didn’t make a glimmer of sense.

Jan. 6, 2006: The Texas Rangers traded pitcher Chris Young, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and outfielder Terrmel Sledge to the San Diego Padres for pitchers Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka and minor league catcher Billy Killian.

Eaton had just turned 28, and had been an oft-injured starter for several years. His ERA+ figures in the past three seasons had been 97, 84 and 90. Otsuka was about to turn 34, and was coming off a season as a set-up reliever in which his ERA+ had been 107, and his WHIP 1.42.

For that duo, Rangers GM Jon Daniels surrendered Young, who was a starter soon to turn 27, coming off a season in which his ERA+ had been 108, plus Gonzalez, a not-yet-24-year-old first baseman who’d put up a .960 OPS in Triple-A in 2005.

You could make a case for Daniels’ deal, but not a real strong one. And its outcome was extremely one-sided. Both Young and Gonzalez have blossomed in San Diego, while Eaton withered in Texas. All the Rangers have to show for it is Otsuka, who’s been a good but non-durable reliever.

A tremendous deal by Padres GM Kevin Towers.

Jan. 3, 2008: The Chicago White Sox traded pitchers Gio Gonzalez and Fautino de los Santos and outfielder Ryan Sweeney to the Oakland Athletics for outfielder-first baseman Nick Swisher.

As we discussed on THT, I’m not really sold on the wisdom of this one from the A’s perspective. While Oakland might strike gold in one or more of the prospects, they of course might not as well, and in Swisher they already had a still-young and reasonably-priced cog they could be rebuilding around.

Rebuilding around cogs such as Swisher is what the White Sox, on the heels of a 72-90 season, should be doing, and so to that extent this deal makes sense for them. However, they’re a franchise with less young-talent capital than the A’s have recently gathered, and thus trading youthful assets is a questionable step. It may be the case that the best Swisher can do is help propel the White Sox into mediocrity.

In some odd way this looks like a trade that both teams may look back upon with regret.

Jan. 14, 2008: The St. Louis Cardinals traded third baseman Scott Rolen to the Toronto Blue Jays for third baseman Troy Glaus.

A few years ago this challenge trade would have been a blockbuster of mammoth proportions, but at this point both of these guys are so gimpy that it’s questionable whether it still qualifies as a blockbuster at all.

Rolen was better than Glaus when both were healthy. But Rolen’s two years older than Glaus, and over the past three years Rolen’s been even more banged-up than Glaus. While it’s obviously pretty much a roll of the dice for both teams, I like the Cardinals’ odds a little better.

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