Mid-Season Blockbusters:  July (Part One:  1896-1996)

We’ve looked at the biggest trades ever made in April, as well as May, and the long list of June deals. Now it’s time for the first of our two-installment survey of July transactions.

July 25, 1896: The New York Giants traded outfielder-first baseman Harry Davis and $1,000 cash to the Pittsburgh Pirates for first baseman Jake Beckley.

Trades weren’t common in the 1890s, but they did occur sometimes, and this was a big one. A thousand bucks was a pretty fair chunk of change in the baseball economy of 1896, and Beckley wasn’t a great player, but he was a darn good one: very durable and consistent, a solid hitter and a highly regarded defensive first baseman at a time when first base defense was far more critical than it has since become, and he was 28, in his prime. Interestingly, Davis, the kid the Giants surrendered in order to get Beckley, was just 22, but he would eventually develop into a remarkably similiar player in both style and quality—though he wouldn’t do it for the Pirates, but instead for the Philadelphia Athletics of the upstart American League, a few years and organizations later.

At the time of this trade, the Giants were in 10th place, 11.5 games behind the fifth-place Pirates. The rest of the way, the Giants went 32-20 and the Pirates went 22-27 (as Beckley hit .302 and Davis hit .190) and the Giants finished in seventh, just three games behind Pittsburgh.

July 20, 1916: The New York Giants traded pitcher Christy Mathewson, outfielder Edd Roush, and infielder Bill McKechnie to the Cincinnati Reds for infielder Buck Herzog and outfielder-infielder Red Killefer.

Well, now. It isn’t often that a team gets three Hall of Famers while giving up none, but that’s what the Reds pulled off here.

Okay, okay: Mathewson was 35 and would essentially retire to become Cincinnati’s manager, Roush was 23 and hadn’t yet established himself as a National League regular, and McKechnie would get to Cooperstown on the merits of his managerial achievements. But it was still quite a package, and it demonstrates just how highly John McGraw thought of Herzog, who’d played for him previously. It didn’t work out real well; Herzog would soon decline while Roush would blossom into a major star.

July 29, 1919: The New York Yankees traded pitchers Allan Russell and Bob McGraw and $40,000 cash to the Boston Red Sox for pitcher Carl Mays.

The second in a sequence of eight major transactions between the Red Sox and Yankees from December 1918 through January 1923 in which, along with an immense talent transfer, more than a quarter of a million dollars flowed from New York to Boston. Or, more precisely, into Boston owner Harry Frazee’s bank account.

As I mentioned here, in Rob Neyer’s otherwise terrific new book on baseball blunders, Neyer contends that Frazee’s actions in that period were defensible and undertaken in the best interests of the Red Sox franchise. Given that the team went from World Champion status in 1918 to eight last-place finishes in nine years beginning in 1922, while Frazee’s personal wealth (as Neyer takes pains to point out) flourished, I find that argument a tad short of persuasive.

July 25, 1921: The New York Giants traded outfielder Curt Walker, catcher Butch Henline, pitcher Jesse Winters, and $30,000 cash to the Philadelphia Phillies for outfielder Emil “Irish” Meusel.

I don’t remember where it was, but I recall reading someplace that this deal was one that particularly upset some observers, and led to the imposition of the mid-June trading deadline a few years later. Probably that was because when the trade was made, the Giants were in second place, four games behind the Pirates, and with Meusel hitting .329 for them the Giants went on to win the pennant by four games over the Pirates. One presumes that Pittsburgh fans were particularly unhappy about it.

July 23, 1922: The New York Yankees traded outfielder Elmer Miller, infielder Johnny Mitchell, outfielder-infielder Chick Fewster, pitcher Lefty O’Doul, and $50,000 cash to the Boston Red Sox for infielder Joe Dugan and outfielder Elmer Smith.

Deal number six in the Yankee-to-Frazee gravy train. Dugan would be the regular third baseman in New York through 1928. All the players acquired by the Red Sox were spare parts, including O’Doul, a very marginal pitching prospect, who would surface in the National League several years later as a heavy-hitting outfielder.

The June 15th trading deadline invoked in the mid-1920s stopped the flow of July trades, of course. None of significance would occur until the deadline was moved to the end of July in 1985 …

July 27, 1945: The New York Yankees sold pitcher Hank Borowy to the Chicago Cubs for $97,500.

A comparative study on an unwritten rule of baseball.

… but there was this fascinating event that took place in 1945. It was strictly a sale, and thus doesn’t meet our standard definition for inclusion here, but it was certainly a blockbuster nonetheless, and at any rate it’s just too bizarre to leave out.

Borowy was 29 years old, and one of the best pitchers in the major leagues. For some reason, the Yankees, who were just four games out of first place, decided that they wanted to unload him. For some reason, when they asked waivers on him, every other team in the American League passed, perhaps on the assumption that once he would be claimed, the Yankees would just pull him back anyway (though why that should prompt a team to not claim him isn’t sensible). Whatever the cause, the failure of the rest of the league to act freed the Yankees to sell Borowy to the Cubs for a king’s ransom.

Borowy went 11-2 the rest of the way, propelling the Cubs into the World Series while the Yankees finished in fourth, six and a half games out. Borowy was named National League Pitcher of the Year by The Sporting News.

July 19, 1985: The Cincinnati Reds traded outfielder Duane Walker and a player to be named later to the Texas Rangers for third baseman Buddy Bell. (On July 23, 1985, the Reds sent pitcher Jeff Russell to the Rangers, completing the deal.)

The stout-fielding, steady-hitting Bell had been a star for years, but he was 33 and not doing too well in ’85, and besides the Rangers were in last place. So it made sense to accept this offer for him. Walker was just a utility guy, but Russell was a talented young pitcher who’d been in the Reds’ rotation, and who would emerge as a star reliever for Texas.

Bell, meanwhile, continued to slump with the Reds, who were five games out of first place when they made this deal, and would finish five and half out. He would rebound, however, with strong years in both ’86 and ’87.

July 23, 1986: The Chicago White Sox traded outfielder-infielder Bobby Bonilla to the Pittsburgh Pirates for pitcher Jose DeLeon.

Admittedly, it’s a bit of a stretch to consider this one as having been a blockbuster when it took place. Yes, Bonilla had highly impressive tools, but at 23 he hadn’t hit especially well in the minors, nor in the first half of his rookie year. The 25-year-old DeLeon, meanwhile, had lights-out stuff, but following a successful rookie half-season in 1983, he’d encountered ever-deeper struggles.

Bonilla would, of course, soon blossom into a huge star. DeLeon would right himself and have some very fine years, though for whatever reason he never broke through to be the major stud he seemed capable of becoming.

July 5, 1987: The San Francisco Giants traded third baseman Chris Brown and pitchers Mark Davis, Mark Grant, and Keith Comstock to the San Diego Padres for third baseman-outfielder Kevin Mitchell and pitchers Dave Dravecky and Craig Lefferts.

July 31, 1987: The San Francisco Giants traded catcher Mackey Sasser and $50,000 cash to the Pittsburgh Pirates for pitcher Don Robinson.

Al Rosen had a remarkably good stint as San Francisco GM from 1986 to 1992. Inheriting a last-place ball club, he thoroughly remade the roster and turned it into a division winner in two years, and a pennant winner two years after that.

The Giants had gotten off to a fast start in 1987, but slumped through May and June, and were 39-40, in third place, when Rosen swung the mammoth San Diego deal above. Among the big package of young talent he surrendered, only Davis would pan out for the Padres; meanwhile, Mitchell would blossom into an MVP for the Giants, and Dravecky and Lefferts would be very solid contributors. And after the second deal, which further shored up their pitching, the team responded by going 38-21 the rest of the way, taking the division in a waltz.

July 21, 1988: The New York Yankees traded outfielder Jay Buhner, minor league pitcher Rich Balabon, and a player to be named later to the Seattle Mariners for designated hitter Ken Phelps. (On October 12, 1988, the Yankees sent minor league pitcher Troy Evers to the Mariners, completing the deal.)

This deal might be described as one in which a terrific talent (Buhner) was exchanged for a lesser one (Phelps). And it is true that Buhner would play 15 years in the majors to Phelps’s 11; Buhner would hit 310 major league home runs to Phelps’s 123; and Buhner would make an All-Star team and finish in the top 20 in MVP voting three times (including one fifth-place finish), while Phelps never was an All-Star and never got an MVP vote.

But it might not have been that way. Phelps, in fact, hit more homers per at-bat than Buhner (.066 to .061), had a better career on-base percentage than Buhner (.374 to .359), and had a better career OPS+ than Buhner (132 to 124). If Phelps had made the major leagues to stay at age 25, as Buhner did, rather than at age 29, and if Phelps had been made a full-time regular at age 27, as Buhner was, rather than never, we likely wouldn’t think of Buhner as much the better player. And Buhner could really play.

Phelps certainly had his weaknesses: he was slow, and he was a poor defensive first baseman. He might also have not been able to hit left-handed pitching very well, but since he was given such a limited opportunity to do so (208 at-bats in 11 seasons), it’s really impossible to know. But his strengths were huge and obvious: he had tremendous power and outstanding strike zone judgement. Yet he wasn’t given more than a few cups of coffee in the major leagues despite putting up the following AAA performances:

– .265 with 20 homers and 98 walks at age 24
– .294 with 23 homers and 128 walks at age 25
– .333 with 5 homers and 12 walks in 66 at-bats at age 26
– .333 with 46 homers and 108 walks at age 27

It would take yet another AAA half-season of hitting .341 with 24 homers and 54 walks in 270 at-bats before he was allowed a trial of more than 22 major league at-bats. While one can rationalize the repeated decisions of three separate organizations to pass on Phelps, there can be no conclusion in hindsight other than that the decisions were exceedingly bad, given his eventual terrific major league performance in limited play. Phelps may very well have been one of the premier sluggers in the world in the 1980s, yet he was left in the minor leagues for almost half the decade, and was never made a major league regular.

None of this was the Yankees’ fault. But it was their misfortune, not only that the package of young talent they surrendered to get Phelps included the future star Buhner, but that once they got Phelps he was nearly 34 years old and would quickly decline.

July 29, 1988: The Boston Red Sox traded outfielder Brady Anderson and pitcher Curt Schilling to the Baltimore Orioles for pitcher Mike Boddicker.

It is, of course, not difficult in hindsight to see which prospects turned out well and which vanished into oblivion. Being able to pick the winners real-time is the far more challenging task, and while we have to expect major league general managers to take advantage of extensive scouting reports, statistical data, and just-plain expert intuitive insight, we also have to acknowledge that at a certain level every decision involving players with little or no major league experience is something of a crapshoot.

Thus while it’s tempting to look back from the perspective of almost twenty years and shake our wiser-than-thou heads at the Red Sox’s foolishness in letting that kind of young talent get away, in exchange for a guy many casual fans might only slightly remember, we shouldn’t. This was in fact a fair and reasonable trade on the part of both teams, and it worked out splendidly for both.

To be sure, both Anderson and Schilling were very impressive prospects. Anderson had been a college player, drafted at age 21 by the Boston organization, and had done everything well at every minor league level (hitting for average with decent power, showing exceptional strike zone judgment, and playing excellent defensive center field). He hadn’t yet hit well in the majors, but at age 24 in 1988, it looked as though he soon would. Schilling was more raw, at 21 in his third pro season and not yet having reached AAA, but he’d posted solid numbers at every level so far, and had the great size and build of a classic power pitcher. So these two kids certainly looked a lot better than most players at their stages of development.

But they were, after all, just two developing kids. Schilling hadn’t yet reached the majors, and Anderson hadn’t yet played well in the majors. They both offered potential value, but that’s all they offered; neither had yet delivered any actual major league value, and it was entirely possible that neither ever would. There are countless ways in which talented young players can and do fail to deliver on their promise.

Meanwhile, the 30-year-old Boddicker had been consistently delivering real major league value for six straight years. And meanwhile, the Red Sox were in third place, just a game and a half out of first, in a very tightly-contested, essentially wide-open American League East Division race. The only team hopelessly out of the running in that race was the Orioles, who’d infamously started that season 0-21, and were buried deep in the cellar. Under these circumstances, the logic of Baltimore GM Roland Hemond in giving up the known fine quality of Boddicker was just as sound as the logic of Boston GM Lou Gorman in giving up the potential fine quality of Anderson and Schilling.

Boddicker would go 7-3 with a 157 ERA+ in 89 innings the rest of the way in ’88, and the Red Sox would win the division by a margin of a single game: it’s quite fair to say the Boddicker acquisition was the single key to their victory. Moreover, he would give Boston two additional fine years, including a 17-8 performance in another down-to-the-wire division championship in 1990. Good as Boddicker was, both Anderson and (especially) Schilling would turn out to be better—but not for several years down the line, as both went through a period of struggle (during which Schilling would be traded two more times) before, interestingly, both suddenly broke through as stars in 1992.

July 18, 1989: The Los Angeles Dodgers traded infielder Mariano Duncan and pitcher Tim Leary to the Cincinnati Reds for outfielder Kal Daniels and infielder-outfielder Lenny Harris.

Predicting the career trajectory of young players is tricky enough, but when you throw congenitally bad knees into the equation, it gets really difficult. Here, the Dodgers under GM Fred Claire bet that Daniels would overcome his knee problems, and the Reds under GM Murray Cook bet that he wouldn’t. It took a couple of years, but the Reds were proven correct.

Daniels is one of the all-time great What Might Have Been stories. He managed to play as many as 100 games only four times, but in three of those seasons he put up OPS+ figures of 169 (age 23), 143 (age 24), and 155 (age 26). At those same three ages (just one year following Daniels, in fact), Barry Bonds achieved OPS+ marks of 147, 125, and 161. Hank Aaron at 23, 24, and 26 was at 166, 153, and 155. Daniels played his final major league game a few weeks past his 29th birthday, and just a decade later he seems to be pretty much forgotten, but he was a staggeringly talented young player, who quite plausibly might have become an inner-circle Hall of Famer.

July 29, 1989: The Texas Rangers traded infielder Scott Fletcher, outfielder Sammy Sosa, and pitcher Wilson Alvarez to the Chicago White Sox for designated hitter Harold Baines and infielder Fred Manrique.

For reasons not entirely clear, and that certainly far transcend his good-but-never-great performance, Baines was utterly beloved on Chicago’s south side. Therefore this deal prompted yelps of protest, particularly since the package GM Larry Himes got for Baines was just a nothing-special middle infielder and two kids that no one had ever heard of. The protests were so intense, in fact, that White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf soon authorized the team to retire Baines’s number 3, while he was still actively playing, and not only that, while he was still actively playing for the Texas Rangers—while his career was still only about half-way finished, as it turned out, and while he still had two return stints with the White Sox yet to come.

Speaking of owners with, um, interesting managerial styles, the Rangers at this point were owned by a certain George W. Bush. As we’ve discussed, in principle it’s hard to fault Bush and his GM Tom Grieve for surrendering prospects to get a key veteran for a pennant drive. But the particulars here are that the Rangers were in fourth place, 8 games out when they made this deal, and it’s a reach to expect that an upgrade at DH would be very likely to make up that kind of difference over the remaining two months. It didn’t: Baines didn’t hit especially well down the stretch, and the Rangers went 28-32 the rest of the way and wound up 16 games behind. So in practice it’s quite fair to fault Bush and Grieve for this profound gaffe.

Worse yet, in the late summer of 1990, when Texas would dump Baines off to Oakland, the prospects they would net were the immortals Scott Chiamparino and Joe Bitker, a pair not exactly destined for the kind of achievements that awaited Sosa and Alvarez. (Of course, in context of the scale and depth of the consummate global-historical howlers he would yet commit in his burgeoning career, “W” was just warmin’ up. Perhaps this should be recognized as a mere training exercise.)

July 31, 1989: The New York Mets traded pitchers Rick Aguilera, David West, Kevin Tapani, and Tim Drummond and a player to be named later to the Minnesota Twins for pitcher Frank Viola. (On October 16, 1989 the Mets sent pitcher Jack Savage to the Twins, completing the deal.)

As we saw last month, the defending NL East champion Mets under veteran GM Frank Cashen, in frustration over not being able to get a hot streak going in 1989, had made the extremely foolish Juan Samuel trade in June. With the team still stumbling along in late July at 53-50, fourth place, Cashen now pulled the trigger on this boomer. He surrendered a ton of talent here, but this time, unlike in the previous deal, the guy he received (Viola) was a genuine blue chip, who would do extremely well for the Mets. Nonetheless, they would rise no higher than second place in ’89, as well as in 1990, when Sweet Music was a 20-game winner.

July 18, 1993: The Atlanta Braves traded outfielder Melvin Nieves, pitcher Donnie Elliott, and minor league outfielder Vince Moore to the San Diego Padres for first baseman Fred McGriff.

As we also saw last month, this trade—if that’s what we want to call it—came a little over three weeks after owner Tom Werner’s Padres had salary-dumped the 24-year-old Gary Sheffield to the Marlins. In that one, the Padres got lucky in that one of the cheap unknowns they received was an unheralded 25-year-old rookie named Trevor Hoffman.

This time, no such good fortune would be theirs; none of these token payments panned out. Thus it was even more of a complete gift to the Braves: eight games behind the Giants at this point, McGriff’s booming bat would spark them to a stunning 51-18 record the rest of the way, eclipsing San Francisco at the wire in one of the very most scintillating division races of all time.

And as a Giants fan, I’m still pissed off at Werner.

July 31, 1993: The Toronto Blue Jays traded pitcher Steve Karsay and a player to be named later to the Oakland Athletics for outfielder Rickey Henderson. (On August 6, 1993, the Blue Jays sent outfielder Jose Herrera to the Athletics, completing the deal.)

A classic tailender-dumps-the-free-agent-year-veteran-star-to-a-contender maneuver. The A’s were tied for last with the Twins and finished all alone in last; the Blue Jays were tied for first with the Yankees and ran away with the division by seven games.

The twist was that the even though the Jays went all the way with Henderson—not just the division, but the pennant and World Series to boot—they triumphed despite the fact that Henderson slumped terribly the whole time. And the further twist was that the team that signed him that off-season was none other than the A’s.

July 21, 1995: The Cincinnati Reds traded outfielder Deion Sanders, first baseman-outfielder David McCarty, and pitchers Scott Service, Ricky Pickett, and John Roper to the San Francisco Giants for pitchers Mark Portugal and Dave Burba and outfielder Darren Lewis.

The Reds were in first place by 6.5 games, but their pitching staff could certainly have used a shot in the arm. The Giants were 36-42, in fourth place, and realistically out of it. So the logic of these two teams hooking up at this point made sense.

However, the resulting deal didn’t make sense for the Giants. In Sanders they got a decent center fielder, but not one nearly worth his money or his hype; all the rest they got was a large pile of crud. For that they gave the Reds two very solid pitchers. It was one of the less fruitful moves that Giants’ GM Bob Quinn pulled off in his 1993-96 tenure, which had begun so promisingly with the Barry Bonds/Dusty Baker-infused great success of 1993, but then rapidly petered out.

July 28, 1995: The New York Yankees traded pitcher Marty Janzen and minor league pitchers Jason Jarvis and Mike Gordon to the Toronto Blue Jays for pitcher David Cone.

This trade didn’t make much of an impact on the 1995 division race; the Yankees were 5.5 games out at this point, and finished seven games out, while the Blue Jays were in last place and finished in last. But it would make a lot of difference in the Wild Card race, as Cone went 9-2 in pinstripes and the Yankees took the Wild Card by a single game. And it would also make a lot of difference in the seasons to come, as the Yankees would re-sign Cone following ’95, and he would be a key member of their rotation through much of their tremendous run of the late 1990s, while none of the kids the Blue Jays got would amount to anything at all.

July 28, 1995: The New York Mets traded third baseman-outfielder Bobby Bonilla and a player to be named later to the Baltimore Orioles for outfielders Damon Buford and Alex Ochoa. (On August 16, 1995, the Mets sent minor league pitcher Jimmy Williams to the Orioles, completing the deal.)

July 29, 1996: The New York Mets traded infielders Jeff Kent and Jose Vizcaino to the Cleveland Indians for infielders Carlos Baerga and Alvaro Espinoza.

On the very same day as the Yankees-Blue Jays deal above, the Orioles, a game ahead of New York in the AL East, surrendered a couple of pretty decent young talents to the Mets in exchange for the lusty-hitting Bonilla. Though Bobby-Bo did just fine, the Orioles faded over the second half, and finished a distant third. But it was a sensible move for both clubs: the O’s were a veteran team with a reasonable shot at the post-season, while the Metropolitans were clearly facing a need to rebuild.

A year and a day later, the Mets undertook another big shakeup, but this one wasn’t so sensible. Kent and Vizcaino were both 28-year-old regulars, good ballplayers. Baerga was 27, and had been a terrific star in previous seasons but was slumping very badly in ’96, and Espinoza was 34 and useful as nothing more than a utility infielder. For the deal to pay off, Baerga would have to rebound to his status as a heavy-hitting second baseman, but the Mets, unaccountably, played Baerga at first base for the remainder of ’96, and he didn’t hit a lick. They would move him back to second in subsequent years, but he was never able to recover the form he’d demonstrated in Cleveland, and indeed became one of the most notorious all-time flops. Meanwhile, the Indians were able to flip Kent and Vizcaino for the slick-fielding, power-hitting Matt Williams.

Taken together, these two Mets moves are a good illustration of the one-step-forward, one-step-back mode the franchise exhibited during the brief tenure (mid-1993 to mid-1997) of GM Joe McIlvaine.

Next Time

The many July deals since 1996, a cavalcade of trade-deadline activity.

References & Resources
Thanks to my buddy Chris Jaffe for providing excellent insight on Jerry Reinsdorf, the ’89 White Sox, and the Baines-Sosa deal.

Thanks to alert reader Jon Fellows for pointing out the significance of the 1995 David Cone trade to the AL Wild Card race.

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