Mid-Season Blockbusters:  May (Part Two:  1960-2003)

Picking up where we left off last week

May 13, 1960: The Philadelphia Phillies traded first baseman Ed Bouchee and pitcher Don Cardwell to the Chicago Cubs for second baseman Tony Taylor and catcher Cal Neeman.

Two struggling teams decided to shake it up. The Phillies gave up more raw talent. Taylor was an impressive 24-year-old second baseman, but Neeman was a 31-year-old backup catcher, while Bouchee was 27 and had been knocking on stardom’s door, and Cardwell was 24 and looked like he might develop into something special. But Bouchee regressed and Cardwell never broke through, so the Phillies, with Taylor as a solid infielder for many years, got the best of it.

May 28, 1960: The Pittsburgh Pirates traded second baseman Julian Javier and pitcher Ed Bauta to the St. Louis Cardinals for pitcher Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell and infielder Dick Gray.

It was one of the more famous mid-season deals in history and a wonderful illustration of the “trade that helps both teams.” The Pirates were off to a strong start (24-14) and appeared headed toward a pennant race. The solid veteran Mizell looked to be an excellent addition to their starting staff, and while Javier was a top-drawer prospect, Pittsburgh could expend him because they had the 23-year-old Bill Mazeroski at second base. Meanwhile, the Cardinals had been in the second division for a couple of years and were off to another slow start (16-21), so it made sense for them to take the long view. The Pirates got their pennant, with Mizell playing a key role, and even though Vinegar Bend went sour immediately following 1960, that flag has flown forever. The Cardinals got a fine second baseman who would be a regular on three St. Louis championship teams later in the decade.

May 4, 1961: The Los Angeles Dodgers traded outfielder Don Demeter and third baseman Charley Smith to the Philadelphia Phillies for pitcher Dick “Turk” Farrell and shortstop Joe Koppe.

As we examined here, the Dodgers in 1961 had an outfield surplus of mammoth proportions, so converting Demeter, a very talented 26-year-old outfielder, into Farrell, a 27-year-old elite reliever, made perfect sense. The deal yielded no dividends for the Dodgers, however, as Farrell wasn’t effective in ’61 (though it was probably more a function of bad luck than anything else), and he was let go in the expansion draft that fall. Demeter did quite well in Philadelphia, and after a few years the Phillies cleverly flipped him for Jim Bunning.

May 23, 1965: The Houston Astros traded pitcher Ken Johnson and outfielder-first baseman Jim Beauchamp to the Milwaukee Braves for outfielder Lee Maye.

In his Baltimore stint in the 1950s wearing the field manager/general manager dual hat, Paul Richards had been a shrewd trader. But as the full-time general manager in Houston, he seemed to have lost the knack. This one was a head-scratcher. The 30-year-old Maye was a very good line-drive hitter with limited power and defensive skill—fine as a platoon player or fourth outfielder, but not the kind of guy for whom you surrender a solid, durable starting pitcher, plus a prospect. It didn’t work out well.

It is true that Lee Maye the baseball player was one and the same person as Arthur Lee Maye, lead singer with the Crowns and the Flairs and other doo-wop acts in the 1950s. But I’m guessing that wouldn’t have been what motivated the Wizard of Waxahachie to acquire him.

May 8, 1966: The St. Louis Cardinals traded pitcher Ray Sadecki to the San Francisco Giants for first baseman-outfielder Orlando Cepeda.

Sigh … do I have to?

Branch Rickey’s famous trading maxim was, “It’s better to trade a player a year too soon than a year too late.” That’s sound wisdom, and a variant on it might be, “It’s better to trade a player when his market value is high than when his market value is low.” Buy low/ sell high, in other words. Well, the Giants spectacularly botched this one in that regard. Cepeda had been a superstar, of course, but he was coming off a season lost to major knee surgery, and it wasn’t yet clear just how fully he’d regain his form—so the Giants went ahead and dealt him while that doubt was holding his market value way down. Therefore all they could get for him was Sadecki, who at just 25 was already in his seventh big league season, but had yet to establish himself as even so much as a consistent, dependable league-average starter.

This trade unquestionably cost the Giants the 1966 National League pennant. They fell short of the Dodgers that year by just 1.5 games. The deficit in runs generated they received in the guys (mostly Ollie Brown, 72 OPS+ and Cap Peterson, 62 OPS+) who took the at-bats Cepeda (who produced an OPS+ of 129 for St. Louis in ’66) would have taken, along with the deficit in runs prevented they received in Sadecki’s innings (68 ERA+, plus 19 unearned runs) compared to who likely would have pitched them (mostly Bob Shaw, who put up a 93 ERA+ after being sold to the Mets) was far more than enough to make up 1.5 games. At the time of the deal, the Giants were 18-7 and the Cardinals 8-14; over the remainder of 1966 the Giants went 75-61 and the Cardinals 75-65, and the Giants finished second to the Cards each of the following two seasons.

Worse yet, the Cardinals not only got an MVP year out of Cepeda in 1967, but they later traded him for another guy from whom they got an MVP year (Joe Torre), while the Giants got four years of 32-39, 97 ERA+ production out of Sadecki, and then traded him for a utility infielder (Bob Heise).

There. Are you happy now?!?

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May 28, 1966: The Atlanta Braves traded first baseman-outfielder Lee Thomas to the Chicago Cubs for pitcher Ted Abernathy.

Two guys who’d been excellent in 1965 but were off to bad starts in 1966 got swapped. Though he was 33, Abernathy would have several more excellent years ahead (even if 1966 wasn’t one of them). Though he was just 30, Thomas turned out to have suddenly and completely lost it.

May 29, 1967: The Baltimore Orioles traded first baseman Mike Epstein and pitcher Frank Bertaina to the Washington Senators for pitcher Pete Richert.

May 8, 1971: The Washington Senators traded first baseman Mike Epstein and pitcher Darold Knowles to the Oakland Athletics for first baseman Don Mincher, pitcher Paul Lindblad, catcher Frank Fernandez, and cash.

May 20, 1973: The Texas Rangers traded first baseman Mike Epstein, pitcher Rich Hand, and catcher Rick Stelmaszek to the California Angels for first baseman Jim Spencer and pitcher Lloyd Allen.

Then we have the interesting case of Mike Epstein, the all-time record holder for Times Being The Principal in May Blockbusters.

Epstein was huge, slow, lousy defensively, and a much-ballyhooed prospect who hit sensationally well in the minor leagues. He was also quite articulate and outspoken, and he was blocked in Baltimore by Boog Powell at first base. In the early weeks of his rookie year, with Epstein idling away on the Orioles’ bench, the organization decided that it would make more sense to send him back down to Triple-A so he could at least get some playing time. Epstein, who’d already torn up the minors, pitched a fit, and refused to report.

This just wasn’t done in those days. Epstein had no contractual capacity to refuse to do anything; under the Reserve Clause, he could either play wherever his contract holder assigned him, or he could permanently retire from baseball. But Epstein wouldn’t back down, and after a couple of weeks of angry stalemate between the Orioles’ management and him, the team decided he wasn’t worth the headache and traded him to the Senators. They made a good deal, in fact, as Richert was a fine pitcher who did well in Baltimore.

Epstein struggled a bit in his first couple of seasons in Washington, but then at the age of 26 in 1969, under the tutelage of new manager Ted Williams, Epstein blossomed into a first-rate slugger. But he regressed somewhat in 1970, and the Senators were facing the issue of an aging Frank Howard in left field, who really needed to be shifted to first base. So it wasn’t surprising when Epstein, off to a slow start in 1971, was traded.

What was surprising was that he was traded for another first baseman, which meant the deal did nothing to resolve the Howard-to-first-base issue. Indeed the entire structure of the trade made no sense from the Senators’ perspective; replacing the 28-year-old left-handed, power-hitting Epstein with Mincher, a 33-year-old left-handed power hitter, was simply a downgrade, and Knowles and Lindblad were essentially the same guy (a good 29-year-old lefty reliever). So the only way the deal would help Washington is if Fernandez stepped forward to take over as the first-string catcher, but while he was a three-true-outcomes wonder, they only gave Fernandez 30 at-bats before getting rid of him. Altogether it was a pointless transaction for the Senators, which was proving to be something of a specialty of owner Bob Short.

But it was a great trade for the A’s. Epstein did very well in Oakland; indeed in 1972 he was third in the league in homers and fourth in OPS+. But he had a lousy ’72 postseason (3-for-32 with one RBI), and A’s owner Charlie Finley abruptly dumped him off to Texas that fall in exchange for a second-tier reliever. At the time, everyone assumed the trade was just an act of pique on Finley’s part, anger over Epstein’s postseason slump, but as events unfolded it appeared as though perhaps Finley knew something: Epstein’s batting struggles continued with the Rangers. Early in 1973, they packaged him off to the Angels. Epstein didn’t hit a lick there either; indeed the slump that had gripped him in October of 1972 never ended. In early 1974, just a few weeks past his 31st birthday, Epstein’s highly eventful career was over.

May 4, 1975: The San Francisco Giants traded outfielder Garry Maddox to the Philadelphia Phillies for first baseman Willie Montanez.

In the minor leagues, Maddox was a big-swinging home run hitter, and a wonderfully successful one: he hit 30 homers in Class A in 1971, and nine in 48 Triple-A at-bats very early in 1972, before being brought to the majors where he would take over for none other than Willie Mays. But following his rookie season, Maddox completely re-engineered his batting approach, one of the rare times a player will do this so dramatically. From ’73 onward, the 6’3″ Maddox took a very short, almost arms-only, contact-oriented stroke from an exaggerated wide stance: an odd-looking style that consistently produced line drives and hard grounders but didn’t generate a lot of power. It’s questionable whether on balance this was a good idea, as despite his high average and outstanding speed, Maddox didn’t yield a great deal of offensive value.

But he was a terrific defensive center fielder, “The Secretary of Defense” indeed. The Giants’ decision to trade Maddox at age 25 (one of the final transactions conducted under the 40-season Horace Stoneham regime), while he was in the throes of an early-season slump, was unsound, especially given that Montanez wasn’t nearly as good a player. Fortunately for the Giants (as we’ll see next month), they soon found a way to come out of the parlay just fine.

May 16, 1978: The Texas Rangers traded outfielders Claudell Washington and Rusty Torres to the Chicago White Sox for outfielder Bobby Bonds.

Barry’s dad wasn’t a great player, but he was an extremely good one. Thus his legacy of being traded with nearly Bobo Newsom-like regularity (six times from ages 28 to 33), all the while delivering consistent, well-rounded, top-notch performance, is puzzling. Clearly it was more a function of his teams’ concerns with his personality (fast-talking, fast-living, hard-drinking) than disappointment with his play, and the teams that acquired him were repeatedly willing to give up a lot for the privilege. Here, the White Sox, who had just acquired Bonds the previous December in a deal in which they surrendered some impressive young talent (including the young Brian Downing), peddled him away just 29 games into the new season. The Rangers offered up the 23-year-old Washington, who looked as though he might develop into a major star, in exchange for Bonds, but then they too would deal him away as soon as the season concluded.

May 26, 1978: The St. Louis Cardinals traded pitcher Eric Rasmussen to the San Diego Padres for outfielder George Hendrick.

Though Hendrick’s personality was opposite that of Bonds—Hendrick was quiet to the point of (perceived, at least) sullenness, where Bonds was brassy—he was another guy (and likely not coincidentally, another African-American) who got traded more frequently than a player of his talent normally does. This deal sent the 28-year-old Hendrick to his fourth organization, despite having delivered five consecutive excellent seasons and having been an All-Star twice. The Cardinals didn’t worry about him, and he remained a star for St. Louis into his mid-30s. Meanwhile Rasmussen, who was never much more than a league-average innings-eater, quickly faded.

May 29, 1981: The New York Mets traded pitcher Jeff Reardon and outfielder Dan Norman to the Montreal Expos for outfielder Ellis Valentine.

He wasn’t quite as good—no, let’s make that, he wasn’t nearly as great—but the young Ellis Valentine in many ways presaged the young Vladimir Guerrero. He was that kind of a blow-you-away talent: the big, strong, long-limbed body with the loping gait that could burst into top speed in a heartbeat, the huge, scary right field arm, the swing-at-anything-and-hit-it-damn-hard power bat.

But Vladimir has (generally) been blessed with good health, and Ellis was cursed with anything but. Nagging injuries began early, and then in 1980, at the age of 25, a seriously terrible injury occurred: Valentine was hit in the face with a pitch, fracturing a cheekbone. He came back after several weeks of recuperation and hit well for the remainder of the 1980 season, but the minor hurts continued to accumulate, robbing him of his speed, and it began to be apparent that the superstardom which had seemed inevitable was instead questionable.

Quite possibly as a delayed effect of the beaning, in 1981 Valentine began to struggle with his hitting; his plate discipline, never prominent, receded to the vanishing point. In the early weeks of ’81, he was barely hitting his weight, and the Expos accepted a Mets offer of young relief ace Jeff Reardon (plus a utility player) that would have been unthinkable a year or two before. Instead of turning his career around in New York, Valentine rapidly spiraled downward. In his mid-to-late 20s, when he might have been stepping up from young stardom to the Hall of Fame track, Valentine was struggling, and soon failing, to hold a job.

Through the age of 25, Valentine batted .290 with 92 home runs. Following that, he hit .248 with 31 homers; he played 11 major league games after the age of 28. Reardon, meanwhile, became “The Terminator,” one of the top relief stars of his era, exemplifying the 1980s proto-closer style, and he pitched until he was 38. He was a four-time All-Star and worked in 880 major league games, recording 367 saves.

May 25, 1984: The Boston Red Sox traded pitcher Dennis Eckersley and infielder Mike Brumley to the Chicago Cubs for first baseman Bill Buckner.

Well, now, isn’t this an interesting one.

When this trade was made, both of its principals seemed to have their best days behind them. Eckersley was looking like one of the all-time great flameouts; after achieving great success in his early 20s, he’d since been merrily partying his way to mediocrity. In 1983, at the age of 28, he’d put up a truly miserable season, and when he got off to a scarcely better start in ’84, the Red Sox had seen enough. That Buckner was all they could get for him (plus having to throw in the prospect on their side of the deal) is a measure of how nearly washed-up Eckersley appeared to be. Buckner was 34, and while he’d been a good-but-hardly-great performer for many years, he’d lost his starting job to Leon Durham and was warming the Cubs’ bench.

In Chicago, Eckersley would arrest the free fall in his performance, but it wouldn’t be until after achieving sobriety and being converted into a reliever in Oakland, that he would regain stardom. Buckner would hold down the first base job in Boston, putting up numbers that superficially looked better than they were. His best days were indeed behind him, though (much to his agony) his greatest prominence was yet to be found.

May 25, 1989: The Montreal Expos traded pitchers Randy Johnson, Brian Holman, and Gene Harris to the Seattle Mariners for pitcher Mark Langston, a player to be named later. (On July 31, 1989 the Mariners sent pitcher Mike Campbell to the Expos, completing the deal.)

In stark contrast to the dynamic that would apply just a few years later, in 1989 the Expos were a contending franchise that offered up a package of young talent in exchange for a star, in classic “win now” mode. The Mariners, more than a dozen years into their existence, hadn’t yet achieved their first .500 season, consistently drew far fewer fans than the Expos, and were morosely getting whatever they could for their dynamic ace before he walked away as a free agent.

Langston (who, damn him, had starred for my arch-rival high school) was one of the better pitchers in baseball, and the talent the Expos surrendered to get him was substantial. Although the most notable among the three prospects was of course the impossibly tall and skinny fellow who would come to be known as The Big Unit, he wasn’t quite the blue chip one might imagine. In the first place, Johnson was 25 years old—think about that, he was (and is) just three years younger than Langston, whose 16-year major league career ended in 1999—and his major league resume included all of 11 games, in which he was 3-4 with a 4.69 ERA. At the age of 23, Langston had been winning 17 games and leading the American League in strikeouts. So even an upside of a career as good as Langston’s was a real long shot for Johnson in 1989.

Alas, predicting the development of young pitchers was, is, and likely always shall be an exceedingly tricky business.

May 4, 1990: The St. Louis Cardinals traded outfielder Tom Brunansky to the Boston Red Sox for pitcher Lee Smith.

Brunansky was a good ballplayer, not quite a star, but the next-best thing: not much batting average, but positive in power, positive in drawing walks, positive on defense, and not a liability on the basepaths. At the age of 29, he certainly represented an upgrade over the Danny Heep/Kevine Romine platoon the Red Sox had going on in right field.

Smith was far more celebrated than Brunansky. Superior even to Jeff Reardon (see above), he’d been the most dependably effective relief ace in baseball across the full decade of the 1980s. He was 32 in 1990, but throwing just about as hard as ever, showing no signs of imminent decline. But, curiously, in the 1989-90 offseason, the Red Sox signed as a free agent none other than Reardon, who was 34 years old, and while still good, no longer the first-tier reliever he’d once been.

So there were a couple of interesting things going on here from the Red Sox’s perspective: first, that they would sign Reardon when they already had Smith, and second, that they would then trade their top-flight relief ace straight up for a good-but-not-great right fielder. It represented an oddly roundabout manner of addressing their right field issue, and also represented an interesting implicit commentary on the relative value contribution of a relief specialist versus an everyday regular.

It worked out okay. Reardon wasn’t as effective as Smith, but he did all right as the new ace reliever (though the rest of the Boston bullpen was atrocious in 1990, at least until a very significant late summer trade, that we’ll be examining in a few months). Brunansky contributed his predictably solid season in right field, and the Red Sox were able to eke out a division championship with an 88-74 record in an unimposing American League East.

May 29, 1994: The Cincinnati Reds traded outfielder Roberto Kelly and minor league pitcher Roger Etheridge to the Atlanta Braves for outfielder Deion Sanders.

Clearly he wasn’t as good at baseball as he was at football (nor as good at either as he was at being a media star), but Neon Deion could play ball. By this point he’d proved that he was much more than just a novelty. But still the Reds’ decision to exchange Kelly for him is highly questionable: even with Sanders being three years younger, and even with his edge on Kelly in speed and defense, Kelly’s superior hitting and his willingness to play the complete baseball season just made him a better baseball player. The Braves were subsequently able to convert Kelly into Marquis Grissom, while the Reds were converting Sanders into Darren Lewis. It takes a whole lot of razzle-dazzle to make up for that.

If I really wanted to depress Reds’ fans, I would point out that in order to get Kelly in the first place, the team had given up Paul O’Neill. Probably I should just not mention that.

May 14, 1998: The Florida Marlins traded outfielders Gary Sheffield, Bobby Bonilla, and Jim Eisenreich, catcher Charles Johnson, and pitcher Manuel Barrios to the Los Angeles Dodgers for catcher Mike Piazza and third baseman Todd Zeile.

May 22, 1998: The Florida Marlins traded catcher Mike Piazza to the New York Mets for outfielder Preston Wilson, pitcher Ed Yarnall, and minor league pitcher Geoff Goetz.

Hello, police department? I’d like to report a crime …

Bear in mind that a couple of months later the Marlins dumped Zeile off to Texas for essentially nothing.

So, dismiss Eisenreich, if you wish, for being essentially over the hill at this point. Go ahead and dismiss Bonilla as well, though he still had some mileage left as a utility guy. But feel free to forget him too, and these deals still boil down to this: the 26-year-old Charles Johnson (a tremendous defensive catcher with something to contribute on offense) and the 29-year-old Gary Sheffield (one of the elite offensive forces of his generation) in exchange for the 23-year-old Preston Wilson. Now, Wilson’s a nice player and all, but come on.

This assault on competitive sensibility was premeditated, cold-blooded, and vicious. Worse yet, it was just one of a wave of similar acts perpetrated in the Miami area in that time frame, indicating the presence of a serial attacker, perhaps intending to commit franchisicide.

May 29, 2003: The Boston Red Sox traded third baseman-first baseman Shea Hillenbrand to the Arizona Diamondbacks for pitcher Byung-Hyun Kim.

In terms of sheer talent, the Red Sox got the better of this one, though not hugely so: Hillenbrand was okay, a dependable 27-year-old corner infielder; he just wasn’t as good as Kim, a 24-year-old with scintillating stuff who was capable of being deployed in a variety of modes. But the primary way in which this was a coup by Boston GM Theo Epstein and a blunder by his Arizona counterpart Joe Garagiola Jr. (or to be more fair, a blunder by Arizona field manager Bob Brenly) was the degree to which each team used the deal to address its needs. The Red Sox sorely needed bullpen help and were well-stocked at third and first, so they drew from a surplus and helped solve a problem. The D’backs, meanwhile, did have good pitching, and thus could stand to expend Kim, but they didn’t have much offense and could have used Hillenbrand’s bat in the lineup at third base—yet they deployed him mostly at first base (which simply blocked Lyle Overbay) instead of at third (where they continued to favor Craig Counsell). This made no sense.

Kim pitched extremely well for Boston in 2003, and his presence stimulated a revival of their beleaguered bullpen, allowing them to reach the ALCS (though they would suffer that memorably excruciating seventh-game defeat, in large part, ironically enough, due to manager Grady Little’s hesitance to go to his ‘pen). Arizona fell from a 98-64, division-championship 2002 season to an 84-78, third-place finish in ’03.

The plot subsequently thickened, as Kim got hurt (as young pitchers are wont to do) and delivered no value to the Red Sox following 2003 (indeed he was already ailing during the ’03 postseason, that being one of the issues that complicated Little’s bullpen deliberations). But even factoring that into the equation, this is a trade that Boston should make 100 times out of 100.

Next Month

Mid-Season Blockbusters: June

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