June 1, 1976: The Texas Rangers traded infielders Roy Smalley and Mike Cubbage, pitchers Bill Singer and Jim Gideon, and $250,000 cash to the Minnesota Twins for pitcher Bert Blyleven and infielder Danny Thompson.
One might look at these two whoppers and quite reasonably infer that the Rangers of the mid-1970s were in a major buying mode. Such an inference would be correct, but only to some extent, as owner Brad Corbett’s organization also committed some big-time selloffs in the same period: Ferguson Jenkins was dumped off in November of ’75, and Jeff Burroughs in December of ’76. And both Perry and Blyleven, despite having performed just fine for Texas, would be dumped themselves in the winter of 1977-78. Overall the Rangers in those years, despite a very impressive array of talent, didn’t demonstrate the ability to devise a plan or commit to anything, and they pretty much just frittered it all away.
June 13, 1976: The San Francisco Giants traded first baseman Willie Montanez, infielders Craig Robinson and Mike Eden, and outfielder Jake Brown to the Atlanta Braves for third baseman-first baseman Darrell Evans and infielder Marty Perez.
Darrell Evans was quite possibly the single most underrated player of all time. Essentially, on every circumstance liable to render a player underrated, Evans scores about an 11 on a 1-10 scale. To take just one of the factors, Evans had his very best season early in his career: his spectacular 1973 performance, at the age of 26, meant that his every subsequent performance was held up in comparison to that, and falling short, it cast him in a disappointing light. Evans’s multiple very good seasons were thus rarely appreciated for how good they were. (In this regard he bore more than a little similarity to Norm Cash.)
Thus the Braves were frustrated with Evans’s quite strong performances of 1974 and 1975. And when he fell into a monumental slump in early ’76 (he truly was doing nothing in those early weeks except walking, striking out, and popping up), they lost patience. Thus the Giants, who as we saw last month had made a less-than-wise trade of Garry Maddox for Montanez, were able to redeem themselves with this extremely advantageous move.
Speaking of underrated players …
Smith simply didn’t have a weakness. He merited far more substantial MVP consideration than he typically received, and he was traded twice, both times for less talent than his. The Red Sox gave him up for Rick Wise and Bernie Carbo, and the Cardinals here for Ferguson: fine players all, but just not capable of delivering what Smith delivered.
June 15, 1976: The New York Yankees traded pitchers Rudy May, Dave Pagan, Tippy Martinez, and Scott McGregor and catcher Rick Dempsey to the Baltimore Orioles for pitchers Ken Holtzman, Doyle Alexander, Grant Jackson, and Jimmy Freeman and catcher Ellie Hendricks.
The purpose of this mega-exchange was quite clear: the Orioles, scuffling at 25-31, were willing to give up talent in the short term in order to get younger, while the Yankees, getting so close they could taste it after their long rebuilding program, were loading up to win now. All that made sense, although the one piece of it that never added up to me was why the rock-solid 31-year-old veteran May was going from New York to Baltimore.
Anyway, the Yankees got their eagerly-awaited pennant in ’76, and it’s impossible to argue with the success they sustained over the next several seasons. But did Yankee General Manager Gabe Paul give up a boatload of talent here, or what? May was predictably good, Martinez and Dempsey both became productive assets for the Orioles for a long time, and McGregor became a star. Baltimore GM Hank Peters executed a spectacularly successful trade.
June 15, 1977: The Philadelphia Phillies traded pitcher Tom Underwood, outfielder-first baseman Dane Iorg, and outfielder Rick Bosetti to the St. Louis Cardinals for outfielder Bake McBride and pitcher Steve Waterbury.
McBride was too fragile and inconsistent to be a real star, but he was a very fine player. However, this exchange was reasonable and fair. The Cardinals would get a useful utility man in Iorg, and they would flip Underwood for Pete Vuckovich. Meanwhile McBride would help the Phillies reach the post-season four times in five seasons.
A date which has lived in infamy to Mets fans: the Midnight Massacre, as it was quickly dubbed by the press.
It’s entirely possible that Mets’ ownership could have and should have avoided the contract negotiation mess in which they found themselves with Seaver in 1977. But let’s assume it was inevitable: the question then becomes, should they have allowed him to play out his contract and leave as a free agent, or should they have accepted this offer from the Reds? This package of talent wasn’t empty, but it was hardly robust. All things considered—not only Seaver’s immense ability and accomplishment, but also his iconic status as the franchise player—probably the team would have been better off in letting him walk (and thus at least salvaging PR points by forcing Tom Terrific to play the villain) rather than submitting to this deal, which amounted to a capitulation.
And it was compounded by the simultaneous giveaway of Kingman. Of course Kong had more than a few major flaws, but the only hitter in baseball who’d hit more home runs over the previous two seasons was Mike Schmidt; how trading Kingman for this laughably meager return could possibly be a better move than losing him to free agency is mystifying.
Whether they had gotten there through their own fault or not, the Mets were in a bad situation in June of 1977. But this was a demonstration of making a bad situation worse. Perhaps it might have been more aptly called the Midnight Self-Immolation.
The first few years of free agency provoked some amusing responses. In general, teams seemed to fear losing free agents more than they should have (see above), and they also somehow believed that every player signed as a free agent would automatically be a tremendous asset.
Case in point: Paul Dade. This fellow was nothing special at all, a 25-year-old seven-year minor league veteran with a grand total of 39 major league at-bats under his belt. But he entered the first-ever free agent market during the winter of 1976-77, and provoked such interest that the Indians signed him to a multi-year deal, and proceeded to give him near-regular playing time even though there was nothing in Dade’s modest skillset to warrant such treatment.
Fast-forward to June 1979: Dade had been plugging along, performing for Cleveland as the journeyman he was. The Padres, disappointed that their newly acquired first baseman Mike Hargrove was off to a dreadful start following several years of stardom, decided that swapping Hargrove for Dade, even-up, would be just the ticket.
This was, in a word, hilarious. Post-trade, Dade would play in 144 major league games before vanishing into obscurity. Hargrove would immediately revert to star-level performance, and play in 885 more games.
Note that this was an inter-league trade, which in previous years would have been impossible to execute in mid-season without each player clearing league waivers. That rule was eliminated beginning in 1979; through the June 15th deadline, trades could now be made between any major league teams without waivers.
So, wait a minute: the date of this big one was the 28th of June, two weeks after the mid-month deadline. What was going on here? These players had to pass through NL waivers in order to be traded. Thus, the division competitors of both the Pirates and Giants, including the defending champion Phillies and Dodgers, all chose to wink at this deal, following the “gentlemen’s agreement” posture regarding waivers, which is essentially, “I’ll let you make your trade, trusting that next time you’ll let me make mine.” This kind of thing has occurred from time to time throughout history, and while one can understand the logic of it, it sure doesn’t seem to embody the spirit of competitive intensity. Fans of every NL team other than the Pirates and Giants had a right to be hacked off about this.
The Giants in late June of ’79 were scoring runs nicely, but their pitching was a mess, and they were slogging along at .500. So it wasn’t a bad idea, conceptually, for them to trade hitting for pitching. Conceptually. But specifically: Madlock was 28 years old, capable of playing a decent third base and a more-or-less-adequate second base, and firmly established as a superb hitter. That’s a package of talent that doesn’t come along very often. So one would think that he might yield quite a bit of pitching talent in trade.
Whitson, Holland, and Breining were all nice enough pitchers, but let’s face it, these weren’t exactly A-list prospects. They would end up doing okay for the Giants (indeed Holland would be be a late-blooming pleasant surprise), but Madlock could flat-out hit, and he would hit up a storm for the Pirates for several years. The Pirates got the best of this one.
June 12, 1981: The New York Yankees traded pitcher Doug Bird, a player to be named later, and $400,000 cash to the Chicago Cubs for pitcher Rick Reuschel. (On August 5, 1981, the Yankees sent pitcher Mike Griffin to the Cubs, completing the deal.)
Essentially, this was just a good old-fashioned purchase. Note that figure of $400 grand, which was the limit on cash that could change hands in player transactions imposed by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn in the wake of Charlie Finley’s attempt to sell off several of his stars in mid-1976. Big Daddy Reuschel would help the Yankees reach the World Series in ’81, but he would subsequently get seriously hurt and prove to be a major disappointment.
A firing, thinly disguised as a trade. Whitey Herzog had given up the GM title in St. Louis in 1983, and was officially just the field manager, but this transaction made it abundantly clear just how powerful he was and intended to remain. Herzog had no illusion that the combined talent of Allen and Ownbey added up to anything more than a fraction of that of Hernandez, but that was really the point he was making. Herzog was fed up with the cocaine-partying antics of Hernandez, and with this move he made it abundantly clear whose clubhouse it was going to be from here on out.
Herzog had made an extremely similar move with John Mayberry in Kansas City back in 1978. In both cases he calculated that what he lost in talent in the particular deal, he would gain back with interest in renewed respect, focus, and commitment from the rest of his roster. Few times in baseball history has leadership been exercised any more boldly, and in both Kansas City and St. Louis it’s difficult to conclude anything other than it yielded very positive results.
June 13, 1984: The Chicago Cubs traded outfielders Joe Carter and Mel Hall, pitcher Don Schulze, and minor league pitcher Darryl Banks to the Cleveland Indians for pitchers Rick Sutcliffe and George Frazier and catcher Ron Hassey.
Perhaps the most extreme example ever of a trade that helped both teams while not being an even talent-for-talent exchange. Carter, of course, went on to become a star (not nearly as great as the mainstream media perceived him to be, but nonetheless a legitimate star), and Hall was useful guy for a long time. And Sutcliffe wasn’t really more than a good pitcher. But: the Cubs were in a pennant race, and not having won a title of any kind in 39 years, they were appropriately eager to make it happen, and Sutcliffe could reasonably have been expected to be of more use to the Cubs for that pennant race than Carter and Hall.
What couldn’t have been reasonably expected was that Sutcliffe would catch fire and pitch absolutely brilliantly, better than he ever had before and ever would again, going 16-1 and becoming the only pitcher ever traded in mid-season and winning the Cy Young Award. He was a key reason the Cubs, 34-25 at the time of the deal, went 62-40 the rest of the way and ran away with the division.
June 18, 1989: The Philadelphia Phillies traded outfielder-infielder Juan Samuel to the New York Mets for outfielder Lenny Dykstra, pitcher Roger McDowell, and a player to be named later. (On July 27, 1989, the Mets sent pitcher Tom Edens to the Phillies, completing the deal.)
June 18, 1989: The Philadelphia Phillies traded pitcher Steve Bedrosian and a player to be named later to the San Francisco Giants for pitchers Terry Mulholland and Dennis Cook and third baseman Charlie Hayes. (On August 7, 1989, the Phillies sent infielder-outfielder Ricky Parker to the Giants, completing the deal.)
What’s the opposite of The Midnight Massacre? The Midnight Masterpiece, perhaps?
If there was one single day that marked the turning point from the Phillies’ doormat status of the late 1980s to their pennant-winning season of 1993, it would have to be this one. The talent advantage the Phillies extracted from these two deals is extraordinary. GM Lee Thomas seemed to take a lot of heat, but you can’t give him anything but very high marks for the work he did on this particular day.
Speaking of this particular day: note the date of this trade, as well as the dates of those following. In 1985, the non-waiver trading deadline was moved from June 15th to August 1st, and then from 1986 onward was set at July 31st. While (as we see here) a number of important trades have continued to be swung in the month of June, the heaviest deadline-driven action moved to July (as we’ll see next month).
Here’s a vivid demonstration of just how different things were in the baseball world of 1989 than they would soon become. Though the Yankees were just 5 games out of first place when this deal was made, clearly they didn’t have much confidence in their capacity to win it, as they dumped off the superstar Henderson for three mid-tier commodities rather than play out the season with him and run the risk of losing him to free agency that fall. They would play poorly the rest of the way and finish in fifth place, and in fact be a bad team for a few more years. The A’s, meanwhile, already the defending AL champs, with Henderson on board would cruise to the division, league, and World Series titles.
Yet another of the classic trade structure: the contender yields superior long-term young talent to the tail-ender, but gains the key veteran it needs in order to win now. When the contender does indeed win now, the trade is a success for them, almost no matter how good the young talent turns out to be. When the young talent develops nicely, the trade is a success for the tail-ender, regardless of how well the veteran did for someone else.
This was one of those that worked out just as it was supposed to for both teams. Whiten and Hill would both become solid major leaguers, though neither would become a star (and interestingly, while Whiten was the more highly-regarded of the two toolsy young outfielders, Hill would have the better career). As for the Blue Jays, they were in first place when they made this deal, and they would get first-rate production from the veteran Candiotti and cruise to the division flag in 1991. Despite losing Candiotti to free agency that fall, the Jays would of course win not only division championships but pennants and World Series titles in both ’92 and ’93.
This one wasn’t that classic structure; instead it was more of a shameless (and distinctly modern) dynamic in which an owner, priming his franchise for quick sale, simply dumps salary with no real concern for what talent he gets in return. This time it was Owner Tom Werner stripping his Padres’ roster bare.
Hoffman would, of course, surface as a Closer God, yielding San Diego fans something out of this. But terrific as Hoffman has been, he, sir, has been no Gary Sheffield. And Hoffman truly wasn’t all that brilliant a prospect in 1993; he turned out far better than anyone realistically expected. This didn’t turn out to be quite the abject giveaway it might have been, but that was more a function of luck than design.
Looks like one of the classic veteran-for-young talent transfers, right? But hang on a second: at the time of this trade, the Indians were a five-time-defending division champion, with a record of 40-37, in second place, hardly all that inferior in status to the Yankees, who were a two-time defending division champion, currently at 38-35, also in second. Sure, the Yankees had been the big post-season winners, but you would think that would give the Indians all the more motivation to not hand them the 34-year-old slugger Justice, who was among the league leaders with 21 homers. Nor could it have been the case that the Indians were in any kind of a financial bind, given that they were on their way in 2000 to a major-league best attendance of over 3.45 million, their fifth consecutive 3.3 million-plus figure in ticket sales.
The package of three kids Cleveland received was nice, but they were just three kids, without anything close to Justice’s capacity to contribute over the balance of the 2000 season. I didn’t understand it then, and I still don’t. What the heck Cleveland GM John Hart was thinking was and is far beyond my powers of comprehension. The only logical explanation remains a Steinbrennerian version of a Jedi Mind Trick.
June 27, 2002: The Montreal Expos traded first baseman Lee Stevens, outfielder Grady Sizemore, pitcher Cliff Lee, and second baseman Brandon Phillips to the Cleveland Indians for pitchers Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew.
A lame attempt on MLB’s part to convince baseball fandom that even though they’d taken over the Montreal franchise with the obvious intent of killing it or moving it, hey, they were serious about making this team a contender! That’s right! We’re good guys here!
Or perhaps Expos’ GM Omar Minaya really thought this was the right thing for him to do to improve the team. If so, that’s even more lame. Colon was a terrific pitcher, but let’s remember: the Expos were 41-36 at the time of this deal, 6.5 games behind the perennial juggernaut Braves; the Expos had allowed 8 more runs than they’d scored, while the Braves had outscored their opponents by 76 runs. Was Colon really going to make up that magnitude of difference?
He didn’t; the Expos finished the year 19 games behind. Meanwhile Sizemore and Lee would take root and blossom in Cleveland. This, combined with Minaya’s subsequent dumping off of Colon in exchange for the immortal Rocky Biddle, constitutes episode number 43 in the slow, steady, systematic, and sickening evisceration of the Montreal franchise. I wish the Nationals well, but major league baseball has earned nothing but shame in this story.
June 24, 2004: In a three-club deal, the Oakland Athletics sent pitcher Mike Wood and third baseman Mark Teahen to the Kansas City Royals; the Houson Astros sent catcher John Buck and cash to the Royals and pitcher Octavio Dotel to the Athletics; and the Royals sent outfielder Carlos Beltran to the Astros.
This was a very interesting trade: a three-way that was reasonable and fair from every perspective, and yet which (so far, anyway) has yielded varying degrees of dissatisfying results for all three teams.
In the short run, the Astros got exactly what they wanted. In fourth place at 38-34 when they made this deal, with the help of Beltran they got red hot down the stretch and won the NL Wild Card, and then with a blazing performance from Beltran, they got to within one game of the World Series. But that’s as far as they got, and they were frustrated at not being able to sign Beltran that off-season, and so their bottom line is that it was a reasonable gamble that didn’t quite pay off.
In Dotel, the A’s got a very impressive pitcher who looked to have the stuff to step forward as a stud closer, but instead was inconsistent and then got hurt. Oakland has finished frustratingly short of the post-season in both 2004 and 2005.
And the Royals got an impressive package of young talent in exchange for a guy they were certain to lose to free agency within a few months, and they weren’t going to contend for anything in 2004 anyway. Yet neither Buck, Teahen, nor Wood has yet proven to be anything close to special. If none of them eventually breaks through, the whole exercise will have been for naught for Kansas City as well.
The suddenly struggling Mariners, properly fearful of losing Garcia to free agency, got what they could for him. In Reed they got a first-rate defensive center fielder, but Reed’s bat has been so marginal that it’s highly questionable whether he will make it as a regular, and the rest of the trade was just warm bodies being shuffled around.
Meanwhile Garcia has done predictably well for the White Sox. It’s too soon yet to close the book, but it’s looking like one that went strongly in Chicago’s favor.
The Phillies were bumbling along at 43-44, but the notion that they should expend hitting for pitching was more a park illusion than reality. And in any case, while Urbina was a solid reliever, Polanco was simply a much better player. This was not Philadelphia GM Ed Wade’s finest hour.
Mid-Season Blockbusters: July