Off-season blockbusters:  March (Part 2:  1981-2002)

We’ve successfully warded off the bleakness of the long, cold offseason by reviewing all of the biggest trades conducted through the offseason months, including the one that comes in like a lion. Here, that last one shows no signs of going out like a lamb.

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.

March 25, 1981: The Philadelphia Phillies traded pitcher Bob Walk to the Atlanta Braves for outfielder Gary Matthews.

In the first decade or so of his quarter-century tenure as the high-profile owner of the Braves, whatever else one might have said about Ted Turner, no one could accuse him of being complacent. Implulsive, yes, erratic even, but certainly not one to be hesitant to make something happen.

What Turner was making happen here was to have his GM (John Mullen) unload payroll, plain and simple. Turner had signed Matthews to a long-term deal as a free agent a few years earlier; the good, solid-all-around Matthews had done well, and at the age of 30 wasn’t yet showing signs of decline. But despite this, and despite the fact that the Braves in 1980 had performed by far their best since 1974, Turner had decided that he just couldn’t afford to keep Matthews. (Earlier that month, the Braves had similarly dumped their other power-hitting outfielder, Jeff Burroughs.) In a less-than-enviable bargaining position, the best Mullen could fetch in exchange for Matthews was the moderately talented young pitcher Walk.

March 30, 1982: The Kansas City Royals traded pitchers Renie Martin, Atlee Hammaker and Craig Chamberlain and infielder Brad Wellman to the San Francisco Giants for pitchers Vida Blue and Bob Tufts.

Tom Haller had taken over from Spec Richardson as Giants GM in July of 1981, and if nothing else Haller was active in re-making the team’s roster: This was the ninth trade Haller swung in that eight-month period. This one was typical among the flurry of deals in that its clear purpose was to get the team younger; Haller was in full-blown rebuilding mode.

Yet the Giants’ 1982 season, anticipated to be a take-some-lumps-while-we-develop year, would turn out to be a surprise success, as they got red hot in the second half and fell just short of winning the division. And this trade would turn out well also, as the obscure Hammaker would emerge as a fine (though quite tender-armed) starter, while Blue would undergo a cocaine-fueled implosion in Kansas City.

March 31, 1982: The Montreal Expos traded third baseman Larry Parrish and first baseman Dave Hostetler to the Texas Rangers for first baseman Al Oliver.

March 31, 1984: The Montreal Expos traded first baseman Al Oliver to the San Francisco Giants for pitchers Fred Breining and Andy McGaffigan and outfielder Max Venable.

In the spring of 1982, the emergence of young Tim Wallach in Montreal had rendered Parrish expendable, and GM John McHale pulled off a nifty deal to land Oliver, who was 35 but still one of the better hitters around.

For Parrish, it would be quite a jolt: The seven-year Expos third baseman, who’d never been with a different organization nor played an inning in the outfield, suddenly found himself with a new team in a new league and being introduced to a new position, right field (the Rangers had Buddy Bell manning third base), less than two weeks before Opening Day. Parrish would handle the challenge quite well, and even though Hostetler wouldn’t pan out, this trade would be one that benefited both teams.

Oliver would deliver a great season for the Expos in ’82, a career-best performance in most categories. But in 1983, though he’d still be good, it became apparent that Oliver was finally beginning to decline. Thus it wasn’t a shock to see McHale accept this mid-grade package from Haller’s Giants at the end of spring training in ’84.

The shock was Oliver’s accelerating decline in San Francisco. He continued to hit well for average, but was suddenly utterly devoid of power. In 1984, Oliver delivered exactly zero home runs and drove in just 34 runs (and scored just 27) while batting in the third, fourth and fifth slots in the order, before the Giants finally discarded him in late August. And as for Oliver’s fielding: In younger days, he’d earned the nickname “Mr. Scoop” for his nifty glovework at first base, but with the Giants that summer, his exasperated teammates took to calling Oliver “Mr. Oops.”

For the Expos, it didn’t go much better. Breining would get hurt and Venable was just a spare part. McGaffigan would do well, but McHale would trade him in July of ’84 for yet another veteran first baseman in his decline phase, Dan Driessen.

March 17, 1992: The Minnesota Twins traded pitcher Denny Neagle and outfielder Midre Cummings to the Pittsburgh Pirates for pitcher John Smiley.

March 30, 1992: The Chicago White Sox traded outfielder Sammy Sosa and pitcher Ken Patterson to the Chicago Cubs for outfielder George Bell.

Let’s see … the chain of events goes something like this:

The Pirates have won their second consecutive division title in 1991, but their attendance is no more than middle-of-the-pack. Unable to compete with the salaries offered by wealthier franchises, over the winter they’ve lost star slugger Bobby Bonilla to free agency. Their outstanding young southpaw Smiley is entering his free agent year, and the Pirates despair of losing him, too. So newly hired GM Ted Simmons accepts this offer of two raw-but-highly-regarded prospects from the Twins.

For their part, the Twins have won the World Series in ’91. Though they’re not exactly in a huge market themselves, and their attendance isn’t much better than Pittsburgh’s, and as such they don’t stand much of a chance of signing Smiley either, as defending World Champs they’re feeling a little cheeky. Thus GM Andy MacPhail’s go-for-it swap for Smiley.

The White Sox have finished second to the Twins in the AL West in 1991. Here in spring training, they see their division rival make this big move, getting yet stronger for 1992. White Sox GM Ron Schueler reasons that standing idly by and allowing that salvo to go unanswered isn’t what he’s being paid to do. So he up and arranges his own go-for-it swap, surrendering the toolsy-but-raw-as-can-be Sosa for the veteran power hitter Bell.

Smiley would deliver a fine year for the Twins in 1992, but they would fall short of repeating as division champs. Smiley would then indeed depart as a free agent, Neagle would eventually emerge as a star in the National League, and the Twins wouldn’t be a contender for the rest of the decade. The White Sox would fall short as well in ’92, as Bell was sliding off a cliff, and Slammin’ Sammy was preparing to blossom into superstardom on the other side of town.

It’s a tired cliché, but like most clichés, it rests on a fundamental truth: Sometimes, the best trade is the one you don’t make.

March 25, 1997: The Atlanta Braves traded outfielders Marquis Grissom and David Justice to the Cleveland Indians for outfielder Kenny Lofton and pitcher Alan Embree.

March 27, 1997: The Atlanta Braves traded outfielder Jermaine Dye and pitcher Jamie Walker to the Kansas City Royals for outfielder Michael Tucker and infielder Keith Lockhart.

John Schuerholz’ long tenure as GM of the Braves stands as one of the all-time greatest, in every regard. But even all-time greats pop up sometimes.

This spring training shakeup was nothing if not bold. The Braves were coming off a pennant-winning season, Grissom and Justice were both well-established stars, and Dye had put up a .459 slugging average as a 22-year-old rookie while filling in for Justice when he was hurt in ’96. Schuerholz abruptly exchanged this heart of his outfield for a well-established star (Lofton), a LOOGY (Embree), a solid-but-unexciting journeyman (Tucker) and a useful utilityman (Lockhart). Even more puzzling, Lofton was in the final year of his contract, and would indeed depart as a free agent following 1997.

It’s not entirely clear what Schuerholz was betting on. He guessed right that Grissom wouldn’t repeat his stellar 1996 performance, and that the still-raw Dye would have a few years of development yet to work through. But Schuerholz apparently also was anticipating that Justice’s injury problems would cause him to decline (wrong) and that the 26-year-old Tucker was capable of breaking out as something special (also wrong). All in all, the massive exchange wouldn’t turn out disastrously for the Braves, but given that Lofton was a one-year rent-a-player (and moreover would be injured and miss more than a month of ’97) and that Dye would eventually emerge as a star, it didn’t turn out well.

March 23, 2000: The St. Louis Cardinals traded pitcher Kent Bottenfield and second baseman Adam Kennedy to the Anaheim Angels for outfielder Jim Edmonds.

To be fair, the extravagantly talented Edmonds had an extremely worrisome injury history. And Kennedy would prove to be a solid, useful ballplayer.

But in all objectivity, there’s really no way this deal—Bill Stoneman’s first trade as the Angels GM—can be seen as anything other than an act of larceny by the Cardinals’ Walt Jocketty. Bottenfield was a garden-variety journeyman who’d lucked into an 18-win season in 1999, and Jocketty pounced on the opportunity to leverage that for all it was worth: He sold Bottenfield at his very highest point and bought Edmonds at his very lowest, executing one of the more one-sided trades in history.

It’s certainly true that Edmonds peaked late, putting up great seasons in his 30s as a Cardinal, better than any he had as an Angel in his 20s. But even if Edmonds had simply been as good in St. Louis as he had been overall in Anaheim, Jocketty still wins this deal.

March 28, 2001: The Florida Marlins traded outfielder Mark Kotsay and infielder-outfielder Cesar Crespo to the San Diego Padres for pitchers Matt Clement and Omar Ortiz and outfielder-infielder Eric Owens.

March 27, 2002: The Florida Marlins traded pitchers Matt Clement and Antonio Alfonseca to the Chicago Cubs for pitchers Julian Tavarez, Dontrelle Willis and Jose Cueto and catcher Ryan Jorgensen.

The big, tall, hard-throwing Clement was one of those toolsy pitchers who, not unreasonably, gets handed the ball a whole lot even though he isn’t delivering much in the way of results, because he seems this close to putting it all together. Clement in this period was racking up the innings and taking his lumps. He’d logged 181 and 205 innings with ERA+ figures of 94 and 83 for the Padres in 1999-2000, and with Florida in 2001 he worked 169 innings with an ERA+ of 84.

Yet obviously he was impressing people: Marlins GM Dave Dombrowski surrendered Kotsay, a good all-around young outfielder, to get Clement and the journeyman Owens, and a year later the Cubs’ Andy MacPhail put together a package that included the very-special prospect Willis to get Clement and the so-so closer Alfonseca.

In Chicago, Clement would finally perform well; though he never broke through as a star, he had a few good seasons. But Kotsay’s career has been better than Clement’s, and though Willis’ career seems to be at a crossroads right now, he’s already been better than Clement at his best, and may yet emerge as a great star.

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