Offseason blockbusters:  December (Part three:  1982-2007)

We’ve already had two heaping portions of December deals. But what the hey, it’s the holidays! Let’s have thirds.

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.

Dec. 9, 1982: The Philadelphia Phillies traded shortstop Julio Franco, second baseman Manny Trillo, outfielder George Vukovich, catcher Jerry Willard and pitcher Jay Baller to the Cleveland Indians for outfielder Von Hayes.

Dec. 14, 1982: The Philadelphia Phillies traded pitchers Mike Krukow and Mark Davis and minor league outfielder Charles Penigar to the San Francisco Giants for second baseman Joe Morgan and pitcher Al Holland.

Paul Owens had been the Philadelphia GM for a successful decade, and here he behaved like someone who knew exactly what he wanted and wouldn’t be prevented from getting it. Hayes would never quite develop into the superstar this five-for-one acquisition would seem to have expected, but he would become an excellent, remarkably well-rounded player, and the almost-40 Morgan would have enough left in the tank to help the Phils win the pennant in 1983.

And yes, that is the very same Julio Franco who was still active in the majors in 2007, and whom with the Phillies at the tail end of 1982 had been a teammate of Pete Rose, who arrived in the majors in 1963 as a teammate of Joe Nuxhall, who arrived in the majors in 1944 … well, I’ll let you see how few moves you can take to get back to George Wright.

Dec. 5, 1984: The New York Yankees traded pitchers Jay Howell, Jose Rijo, Tim Birtsas and Eric Plunk and outfielder Stan Javier to the Oakland Athletics for outfielder Rickey Henderson, pitcher Bert Bradley and cash.

Dec. 10, 1984: The New York Mets traded third baseman Hubie Brooks, catcher Mike Fitzgerald, outfielder Herm Winningham and pitcher Floyd Youmans to the Montreal Expos for catcher Gary Carter.

Here each Big Apple franchise shipped out a truckload of farm produce in exchange for the best player on a hinterlands team that found itself financially unable to retain its star. Carter, though no longer quite the player he’d once been, would be a key contributor to the Mets’ championship ball clubs of 1986 and ’88. But the Yankees, though Henderson would perform brilliantly, would never reach the postseason with him on board.

Dec. 6, 1988: The Texas Rangers traded first baseman Pete O’Brien, outfielder Oddibe McDowell and infielder Jerry Browne to the Cleveland Indians for second baseman Julio Franco.

We meet Señor Franco once again. He’d developed nicely in Cleveland, first as a shortstop and then shifted to second base. His solid all-around play had gradually and steadily improved, and by 1988 Franco was among the better second basemen in the game. Yet Indians GM Hank Peters nonetheless decided his team would be better off with this unimposing threesome instead of Franco.

Score one big time for Rangers GM Tom Grieve. In Texas, Franco would step into stardom, reeling off consecutive seasons of 30, 27 and 28 Win Shares, while O’Brien, McDowell and Browne would continue to be so-so.

Dec. 4, 1988: The Baltimore Orioles traded first baseman Eddie Murray to the Los Angeles Dodgers for pitchers Brian Holton and Ken Howell and infielder Juan Bell.

Dec. 8, 1988: The Baltimore Orioles traded pitchers Ken Howell and Gordon Dillard to the Philadelphia Phillies for outfielder Phil Bradley.

The ’88 Orioles had been preposterously bad, at 54-107, and thus it’s understandable that GM Roland Hemond felt the need to do something significant. But this parlay, which was effectively Murray for Bradley and Holton, succeeded in reducing payroll but not a whole lot else.

Nevertheless, for reasons not readily obvious beyond the emergence of relief ace Gregg Olson, the Orioles dramatically improved in 1989, to 87-75. Olson was named Rookie of the Year, Frank Robinson was named Manager of the Year and Hemond was named Executive of the Year.

Dec. 6, 1989: The New York Mets traded pitchers Randy Myers and Kip Gross to the Cincinnati Reds for pitcher John Franco and minor league outfielder Don Brown.

Of all the forms that trades may take—leveraging a surplus at one position to shore up another, exchanging prospects for proven talent, shedding payroll and so on—the most basic is certainly the “challenge trade.” That’s an exchange of two players at the same position, and in it purest form of players of the same type at the same position. In such a trade there’s no subtlety or complexity whatsoever as to what each team is attempting to accomplish; it’s a simple wager, two teams putting their money on which guy is going to perform better in a specific role.

Challenge trades don’t get much purer than this one. Myers and Franco were both ace relievers, both threw left-handed, neither was great, but both were very good.

One has to look quite closely to find any meaningful difference between them, but when one does, the edge would seem to have been on Myers’ side. He was two years younger, and his peripheral stats had been more impressive. On the other hand, Franco had been consistently productive for a longer period, even factoring in the age difference. Of course, his more extensive track record meant that Franco was carrying a heftier salary. So while it was a very close call—too close really for either team to be making a trade over—I’d have guessed that the Reds were going to gain the advantage.

But it wouldn’t turn out that way: Myers would have one excellent season in Cincinnati (teaming with Rob Dibble and Norm Charlton to form the tremendous “Nasty Boys” bullpen trio that the Reds rode all the way to the World Championship in 1990), but another that was so-so (in which manager Lou Piniella would shift Myers to the starting rotation in the second half as a means of shaking him out of a slump), and then be traded away. Franco, on the other hand, would settle in as an institution in New York, a consistently solid performer and a huge fan favorite, remaining with the Mets for 15 years.

Dec. 6, 1989: The San Diego Padres traded catcher Sandy Alomar, outfielder Chris James and infielder Carlos Baerga to the Cleveland Indians for outfielder Joe Carter.

Dec. 5, 1990: The San Diego Padres traded outfielder Joe Carter and second baseman Roberto Alomar to the Toronto Blue Jays for first baseman Fred McGriff and shortstop Tony Fernandez.

Jack McKeon was the San Diego GM in the first of these earth-shakers, and a year later it was Joe McIlvaine (following Joan Kroc’s sale of the team to Tom Werner). Given that, perhaps it isn’t fair to assess the two trades as connected elements in a team-building program, but from the perspective of the franchise of course they were: The interests of the business abide regardless of who’s in charge of minding the store, and how well.

And when you look at it from that perspective, the Padres traded both Alomar brothers and Baerga, all at the outset of their careers, plus the useful role player James, in exchange for an early-to-mid-career McGriff and a mid-to-late-career Fernandez. In terms of Win Shares, San Diego surrendered 621 post-trade, and gained 400 (including Carter’s 1990 contribution). In other words, it was nothing close to a fair deal. At the time I couldn’t understand what the point of it all was, and nothing since has made it any clearer.

If nothing else it was, as Studes has described, one of the most massive transfers of talent in the history of the sport. While I’m told that size does matter in certain applications, it would seem that this isn’t one of them; in the trading realm, magnitude does not equate efficacy.

Dec. 23, 1990: The Montreal Expos traded outfielder Tim Raines, pitcher Jeff Carter and a player to be named later to the Chicago White Sox for outfielder Ivan Calderon and pitcher Barry Jones. (On Feb. 15, 1991, the Expos sent minor league pitcher Mario Brito to the White Sox, completing the deal.)

From Montreal GM Dave Dombrowski’s perspective, the primary motivation for this deal was financial: The Expos couldn’t (or at least wouldn’t) afford to keep Raines. But it wasn’t merely a salary dump; Dombrowski wasn’t just accepting prospects in return. Calderon was a minor star in mid-career, and would command a healthy salary of his own (though not quite that of Raines), and Jones was an established reliever.

It might have worked out just fine for the Expos, but Calderon would soon become decimated by injuries. Raines, while never again performing as the superstar he had been in his mid-20s, would remain a highly useful player for a decade.

Dec. 11, 1991: The New York Mets traded infielders Gregg Jefferies and Keith Miller and outfielder Kevin McReynolds to the Kansas City Royals for pitcher Bret Saberhagen and infielder Bill Pecota.

When he arrived in the majors with a splash at the age of 20, Jefferies looked for all the world like a can’t-miss superstar. But somehow the whole wasn’t as great as the sum of the parts; despite his physical gifts and reportedly near-fanatical training regimen, at the age of 24 Jefferies was making no progress offensively, and actively regressing with the glove. Mets GM Gerry Hunsicker was ready to go in a different direction.

Hunsicker found a trading partner, Kansas City’s Herk Robinson, who was willing to part with the exquisitely talented, but monumentally fragile, Saberhagen. Yet just a year later Robinson would also be trading Jefferies, while Saberhagen was continuing his brilliant-when-not-on-the-DL career with the Mets.

Dec. 11, 1991: The Seattle Mariners traded pitchers Bill Swift, Mike Jackson and Dave Burba to the San Francisco Giants for outfielder Kevin Mitchell and pitcher Mike Remlinger.

Has any other team in history timed the trading for, and then the trading away, of a star of Kevin Mitchell’s magnitude as well as the Giants did with Mitchell?

Giants GM Al Rosen acquired Mitchell at the age of 25 in exchange for, essentially, Chris Brown. While Brown then flamed out, Mitchell blossomed in San Francisco, delivering a brilliant MVP season, plus two others with OPS+ rates of 150 and 141.

Then immediately, before Mitchell’s weight got out of hand, Rosen traded him away in the deal we see above. Though Mitchell was just 30 years old, though he would continue to hit very well, his utter lack of conditioning, and attendant chronic injury problems, meant that he would never again play in as many as 100 games in a season. Meanwhile, Swift and Jackson would both be excellent for the Giants, and Burba would develop into a solid contributor.

There might have been another case of timing as perfect, and trades as favorable, on both the acquisition and disposal ends, but without undertaking serious research I really can’t think of one. The Phillies with Jim Bunning come close, but Bunning was already an established star before they got him. The Yankees with Roger Maris would qualify, but Maris had already begun his precipitous decline before the Yankees traded him away.

Dec. 9, 1994: The Boston Red Sox traded outfielder Otis Nixon and infielder Luis Ortiz to the Texas Rangers for designated hitter Jose Canseco.

Canseco was 30 at this point, had already encountered more than his share of injuries, and was by now a full-time DH. But he remained among the more productive sluggers; in 1994 he’d been fourth in the AL in home runs, seventh in RBIs and ninth in slugging. Yet it’s a measure of just how far Canseco’s stock had fallen that all the Rangers could fetch for him in trade was Nixon, who had tremendous speed and great center field range, but was also about to turn 36, and carried a lifetime OPS+ of 77.

Dec. 1, 1997: The Arizona Diamondbacks traded third baseman Travis Fryman, pitcher Tom Martin and cash to the Cleveland Indians for third baseman Matt Williams.

One needed to look no further than this trade to see just how differently from the traditional model Diamondbacks GM Joe Garagiola Jr. was approaching the task of building an expansion team. The received wisdom was that expansion clubs must stockpile young talent, and be patient as it developed. Garagiola, perhaps because he saw how quickly the Florida Marlins had risen to World Champion status in the age of free agency, was having none of that be-patient stuff.

In November of ’97, on the very day of the expansion draft, Garagiola had packaged a couple of prospects together with expansion-pick journeyman third baseman Joe Randa and traded them for Fryman, a 28-year-old four-time All-Star. Not content with that, a couple of weeks later here was Garagiola packaging Fryman in order to snag Williams, who at 32 was a four-time All-Star, a four-time Gold Glove winner, and a four-time Silver Slugger.

Months before they would take the field in their first spring training game, the Diamondbacks had traded up from Randa to Williams, ardently expending collateral talent and cash along the way. It was anathema to traditional methodology, but Williams would be just one among several over-30 big-bucks stars Garagiola would aggressively acquire (including free agent Randy Johnson), and in 1999, in just their second season of existence, Williams would drive in 142 runs as the Diamondbacks won 100 games.

Dec. 15, 1997: The San Diego Padres traded first baseman Derrek Lee, pitcher Rafael Medina and minor league pitcher Steve Hoff to the Florida Marlins for pitcher Kevin Brown.

This was another in the stream of salary-purge evacuations by Florida owner Wayne Huizenga in the ’97 postseason. However, unlike the two others we encountered last month, in this case GM Dave Dombrowski succeded in receiving some serious talent in return, in the person of Lee.

Dec. 11, 2001: The New York Mets traded outfielders Matt Lawton and Alex Escobar, pitcher Jerrod Riggan and players to be named later to the Cleveland Indians for second baseman Roberto Alomar, pitcher Mike Bacsik and minor league first baseman Danny Peoples. (On Dec. 13, 2001, the Mets sent first baseman-third baseman Earl Snyder and pitcher Billy Traber to the Indians, completing the deal.)

Alomar had spent a brilliant decade in the American League, and though he would soon turn 34 he was still going strong when Mets GM Steve Phillips expended this big package to get him. Oops! Rotten timing: Alomar would suddenly, utterly and mysteriously fall off a cliff, in as complete and unpredictable a decline as has ever been seen in a player of his elite quality.

Phillips can take some solace in the knowledge that Escobar, the highly touted key talent surrendered by the Mets, never panned out.

Dec. 1, 2003: The Arizona Diamondbacks traded first baseman Lyle Overbay, infielders Junior Spivey and Craig Counsell, catcher Chad Moeller and pitchers Chris Capuano and Jorge de la Rosa to the Milwaukee Brewers for first baseman Richie Sexson, pitcher Shane Nance and a player to be named later. (On Dec. 15, 2003, the Brewers sent minor league outfielder Noochie Varner to the Diamondbacks, completing the deal.)

Woah, Nellie! What in the world was this all about?

Last month, we saw Joe Garagiola Jr. packing off Curt Schilling for prospects following the 2003 season, as the Diamondbacks shifted from win-now to rebuilding mode. Given that, what was Garagiola’s idea in expending this enormous package of talent, most of it young, in exchange for Sexson, who was entering his free agent season and carrying a salary of $8.7 million?

It defies explanation. Sexson would get hurt and contribute almost nothing for Arizona in 2004 (as the Diamondbacks utterly collapsed into a dreadful 51-111 season), but that’s really immaterial. Even if he’d had a great year, the Diamondbacks weren’t likely to contend that year, especially since they’d just dumped Schilling. This was a pointless waste from the Arizona perspective, and a terrific score by Milwaukee GM Doug Melvin.

Dec. 13, 2003: The New York Yankees traded pitchers Jeff Weaver, Yhency Brazoban and Brandon Weeden and cash to the Los Angeles Dodgers for pitcher Kevin Brown.

Dec. 16, 2003: The New York Yankees traded first baseman Nick Johnson, outfielder Juan Rivera and pitcher Randy Choate to the Montreal Expos for pitcher Javier Vazquez.

Critics of the Yankees often complain that with the enormous financial resources at his disposal, GM Brian Cashman does little more than buy competitive success. While obviously the Yankees’ vast payroll provides Cashman with room to maneuver that few, if any, other GMs enjoy, it remains the case that Cashman has often demonstrated excellent skill in marshaling the lavishly bejewelled chess pieces at his command.

These two deals were terrific work. Cashman rebuilt his starting rotation with two exceptional talents, and while he gave up some real talent to do it, he was careful to create no new holes.

As it would turn out, of course, both Brown and Vazquez would have their problems in 2004; even Yankee pitchers are inherently unreliable. But one can’t find fault with the trades Cashman engineered to bring them into the fold.

Dec. 13, 2003: The Atlanta Braves traded pitchers Jason Marquis, Adam Wainwright and Ray King to the St. Louis Cardinals for outfielder J.D. Drew and outfielder-catcher Eli Marrero.

Dec. 16, 2004: The Atlanta Braves traded pitchers Juan Cruz and Dan Meyer and outfielder Charles Thomas to the Oakland Athletics for pitcher Tim Hudson.

Dec. 18, 2004: The St. Louis Cardinals traded pitchers Danny Haren and Kiko Calero and catcher Daric Barton to the Oakland Athletics for pitcher Mark Mulder.

Dec. 8, 2005: The Atlanta Braves traded third baseman Andy Marte to the Boston Red Sox for shortstop Edgar Renteria and cash.

Oakland GM Billy Beane’s 2004 decision to offer up two of his three aces in the trade market, rather than lose them to impending free agency, was theoretically sound. Of course, the key to turning the wise theory into empirical success was to ensure that the talent yielded in the trades was worthy. In the Mulder trade Beane did extremely well—that deal is turning out to be a heist of historic proportion, in fact—but in the Hudson trade he did very poorly.

This much has been widely observed. But viewing the pair of Oakland deals within the context of the December blockbusters that bookend them here perhaps reveals a deeper pattern.

In December 2003, Cardinals’ GM Walt Jocketty, wary of losing J.D. Drew to free agency, traded him to the Braves along with utilityman Marrero for two pitching prospects and a LOOGY. Jocketty received plenty of value in the deal: King was useful, Marquis was good for a couple of years, and Wainwright might turn out to be something special. But the Braves also did very well, as in his walk year Drew put together a spectacular 34-Win Share season, by far the best of his career, and as a bonus Marrero had a terrific year in a platoon role. Both teams got what they were looking for in this trade.

In December 2005, Red Sox acting GM Bill Lajoie (the Sox and Theo Epstein were still in a contract dispute at that point), less than thrilled with the season presented by Edgar Renteria in his first year in Boston, traded Renteria to the Braves for the hugely touted infield prospect Marte. (Very shortly, upon his resumption of the GM role, Epstein would flip Marte in another trade, which we’ll examine next month.) Marte may yet make it as a major leaguer, but so far he’s been a rather thorough bust; Renteria, meanwhile, provided the Braves with two outstanding seasons as their shortstop.

What’s the common thread here? Four trades in which established talent was exchanged for potential talent. In three of the four cases, the established talent performed just fine for the new team; in the fourth case (Mulder), he did well initially and then collapsed. In two of the four cases, the potential talent blossomed, but in the other two, it withered.

One of the trades was a win-win, but the other three were all extremely lopsided. The GM scorecard looks like this:

- Beane: One win, one loss.
- Jocketty: One draw, one loss.
- Lajoie: One loss.
- The Atlanta GM, one John Schuerholz: Two wins, one draw.

That Schuerholz fellow was a pretty darn sharp deal-maker.

Dec. 8, 2005: The Washington Nationals traded outfielders Brad Wilkerson and Terrmel Sledge and pitcher Armando Galarraga to the Texas Rangers for second baseman Alfonso Soriano.

Rangers GM Jon Daniels was looking to get what he could for Soriano in trade, rather than lose him to free agency. Nationals GM Jim Bowden negotiatied a pretty modest price here; that much was nicely done.

But beyond that, this deal made precious little sense for Washington. In the first place, with Jose Vidro occupying second base, the Nationals had no room in their infield for Soriano, and so were forced to shift him to left field. This chagrined Soriano, and worse yet it served to reduce his potential value.

In the second place, suppose Soriano had a great year for the Nationals in 2006 (which he in fact did, earning 30 Win Shares)—well, so what? His performance wouldn’t be enough to make the team a contender (the Nats went 71-91), and given that he was certainly departing the team as a free agent following the season, just what was the point of acquiring Soriano and paying him $10 million for his one splendid season? How did that action serve to help build the Nationals into a sustainably competitive team? In short, what is Bowden’s plan, and what part did the one-year rental of Soriano contribute to its success?

Dec. 12, 2006: The Houston Astros traded outfielder Willy Taveras and pitchers Taylor Buchholz and Jason Hirsh to the Colorado Rockies for pitchers Jason Jennings and Miguel Asencio.

At the time this looked like it might be a nice move by Astros GM Tim Purpura, as Jennings had been knocking on the door for several years but had appeared to break through as a first-rate starter in 2006. But he suffered a disastrous sore-elbowed 2007, and is now an unsigned free agent whose career is in doubt.

Meanwhile Taveras, Buchholz and Hirsh all made useful contributions for the Rockies in 2007, and Hirsh might turn out to be pretty good.

Dec. 5, 2007: The Detroit Tigers traded outfielder Cameron Maybin, catcher Mike Rabelo and pitchers Andrew Miller, Burke Badenhop, Eulogio De La Cruz and Dallas Trahern to the Florida Marlins for third baseman Miguel Cabrera and pitcher Dontrelle Willis.

Dec. 12, 2007: The Houston Astros traded outfielder Luke Scott, pitchers Troy Patton, Matt Albers and Dennis Sarfate and third baseman Michael Costanzo to the Baltimore Orioles for shortstop Miguel Tejada.

Dec. 14, 2007: The Arizona Diamondbacks traded pitchers Brett Anderson, Dana Eveland and Greg Smith, outfielders Aaron Cunningham and Carlos Gonzalez and infielder Chris Carter to the Oakland Athletics for pitchers Danny Haren and Connor Robertson.

This year’s winter meetings produced no fewer than three huge deals of the same type: a satchelful of prospects in exchange for an established star. Yet each of the three big swaps presents interestingly different implications.

The Tigers and Diamondbacks emerge as obvious winners, at least in the short run. Cabrera is one of the elite stars in the game, just entering his prime, and Haren is certainly among the better starting pitchers. (Willis is a question mark at this point; he may rebound to stardom but just as well may be on the way to oblivion.)

The Astros are less certain to gain 2008 improvement from their deal. The question is whether Tejada’s 2007 dip in durability and performance was just one of those years, or whether at 32 he’s entering his decline phase. But at any rate the package of young talent the Astros sent to the Orioles isn’t Grade A (and indeed Scott isn’t even young), so they haven’t exposed themselves to great risk. This one seems to be a fair and reasonable exchange for both Houston and Baltimore.

For the A’s, to be turning around and peddling Haren just three years after having acquired him, and with his ceiling perhaps not quite yet reached, is certainly frustrating. But the haul of young talent Beane fetched for Haren is impressive, and moreover the Oakland decision to commit to rebuilding mode after having suffered a letdown 76-86 performance in 2007 makes a lot of sense.

The one team whose actions here are maddening is the Marlins. Former GM, now president of baseball operations Larry Beinfest has proven himself a very savvy judge of young talent, providing reason to believe the haul of saplings from Detroit will bear real fruit. But as John Brattain aptly observed, Florida’s intentions here are different from those of the Orioles, who are sensibly disposing of an expensive veteran, and of the A’s, who are legitimately re-tooling to attempt to build a new contender. Given everything we know about the Marlins’ ownership and circumstances, it’s all too evident that minimizing payroll is the be-all and end-all goal; building a new contender in Florida is no longer on the list of priorities, at least until a flood of revenue from their long-wrangled new publicly funded ballpark becomes a reality.

Next Month

We examine the January deals, the trades teams couldn’t manage to get done during the winter meetings.

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