As a reminder, here are our ground rules:
- We’re talking about trades here, and only trades. No draft picks (expansion, Rule V 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.
O’Neill had been a good right fielder for the Reds, but was about to turn 30 and had never developed into a star. So Cincinnati’s 31-year-old rookie GM Jim Bowden, in his first transaction since being promoted into the job two weeks earlier, decided to exchange O’Neill for Kelly, who didn’t have O’Neill’s power or his arm, but had far more speed and range, and was two years younger.
Of course, O’Neill would immediately ratchet up to a new level of offensive production, while Kelly would go on being, well, Kelly. That the deal would turn out lopsided is something for which Bowden can’t really be faulted, nor can Yankees GM Gene Michael be fully credited.
Pedro as a rookie at 21 struggled a bit with his control, but his stuff was fully spectacular. Deployed by the Dodgers in a workhorse long-reliever mode, he’d been approaching unhittable. That said, while Dodgers GM Fred Claire’s decision to trade him certainly can be questioned, it’s also true that young pitchers are the least dependable life forms in the known universe, and thus there are innumerable plausible scenarios in which Martinez would today be long forgotten.
Or perhaps today Martinez would be laughingly recalled as the bait used by Claire to pull off an all-time great trade, because DeShields was, after all, an extremely attractive talent. Not yet 25, he was a good defensive second baseman with great speed, terrific plate discipline, and some pop in his bat. DeShields appeared to have conquered a problem with strikeouts, and thus was poised to be a high-average hitter. The only concern was that he’d been a bit prone to injury.
Instead, the outcome would be just about the worst conceivable scenario for the Dodgers: Pedro would, of course, blossom spectacularly in Montreal while DeShields was regressing miserably in Los Angeles. Score a huge success for Expos GM Dan Duquette (in one of his final transactions before moving on to Boston) on this big-time roll of the dice.
Nov. 13, 1996: The Cleveland Indians traded infielders Jeff Kent and Jose Vizcaino, pitcher Julian Tavarez and a player to be named later to the San Francisco Giants for third baseman Matt Williams. (On Dec. 16, 1996, the Indians sent pitcher Joe Roa to the Giants, and the Giants sent outfielder Trenidad Hubbard to the Indians, completing the deal.)
In his first significant transaction upon being hired as GM of the Giants, Brian Sabean detonated this blockbuster. From the reaction of the local media, you’d have thought he’d dynamited the Golden Gate Bridge. Trading the robustly talented, hard-working, cheerful fan favorite Williams for a package including no big names was, to put it mildly, a high-risk opening move on Sabean’s part.
My Bay Area fantasy league buddies were united in agreement that it was a giveaway, a disaster. But not me. I alone—well, me and Sabean, I guess—thought it was a smart play.
I can’t speak for Sabean, but here was my reasoning in liking this trade for the Giants:
1) They’d finished last two years in a row. They were bad, and they needed to face it. Major reconstruction was necessary; subtle incremental touch-ups weren’t going to get it done. This trade was the essence of major reconstruction.
2) Terrific though he was, Williams had missed significant time to nagging injuries in both 1995 and ’96. He would be 31 in 1997, and under the circumstances it wasn’t unrealistic to foresee an injury-related breakdown, or at least a decline, looming. As Branch Rickey liked to say, “It’s better to trade a man a year too soon than a year too late.” The market for Williams wasn’t going to get any better, and it might quickly get a lot worse. This trade ensured that the Giants wouldn’t have to deal with the worse.
3) Neither Kent nor Vizcaino was a star, but each was a reliable contributor. Both were a couple of years younger than Williams, and neither had his injury history. Tavarez was quite young, and had been inconsistent but impressive. This trade got the Giants’ roster younger with good talent, which is Step One for a rebuilding team.
4) Kent, Vizcaino and Tavarez addressed serious needs, as second base, shortstop and the bullpen were all gaping holes. While Williams’ departure would create an opening at third base, the Giants had 25-year-old Bill Mueller, who’d done well filling in for Williams in ’96, ready to take over. This trade improved the Giants’ depth, Step One-A for a rebuilding team.
The trade would work out far better than even I (or Sabean, I’m sure) anticipated, because Kent would suddenly morph into a great star. But even if he hadn’t, the Giants were still better off. Though Williams would remain reasonably injury-free for a few more years, he would never again be the player he had been in San Francisco. Mr. Rickey’s trading maxim was never better illustrated than in this bold and shrewd maneuver.
Nov. 11, 1997: The Florida Marlins traded outfielder Moises Alou to the Houston Astros for pitchers Manuel Barrios and Oscar Henriquez and a player to be named later. (On Dec. 16, 1997, the Astros sent pitcher Mark J. Johnson to the Marlins, completing the deal.)
These weren’t truly trades at all, of course, but were instead just Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga taking a huge salary dump, flushing away his World Series championship team almost before the seventh-game capacity crowd had joyfully departed Dolphin Stadium. What we see here isn’t the entire, um, movement, but instead just two of the largest, um, chunks in one of the stinkiest episodes in the long history of the sport.
Nov. 18, 1997: The Boston Red Sox traded pitcher Carl Pavano and a player to be named later to the Montreal Expos for pitcher Pedro Martinez. (On Dec. 18, 1997, the Red Sox sent pitcher Tony Armas to the Expos, completing the deal.
That was quite the week for fiscal-panic trades, indeed. Strictly speaking, Montreal GM Jim Beattie wasn’t dumping Pedro’s current salary, but he was getting what he could before watching Martinez walk away as a free agent. And despite being in a lousy bargaining position, Beattie got some real value here, in distinct contrast to the abject giveaways Florida GM Dave Dombrowski perpetrated above.
In John Schuerholz’ long tenure as Atlanta GM, he never was a particularly high-volume trader, but neither did he display hesitance to pull the trigger on a blockbuster when it made sense. This is a good example of a sound, reasonable Schuerholz deal: It wasn’t a steal, as the talent exchange was about even, but the Braves were converting assets they had the capacity to replace into dependable solutions to manifest problems. It was the essence of clear-eyed, confident, decisive general managership.
Nov. 2, 1999: The Detroit Tigers traded outfielder Gabe Kapler, pitchers Justin Thompson, Francisco Cordero and Alan Webb, infielder Frank Catalanotto and catcher Bill Haselman to the Texas Rangers for outfielder Juan Gonzalez, pitcher Danny Patterson and catcher Gregg Zaun.
As the immensely talented, but also flawed Juan Gone was poised to enter a free agent season at the age of 30, Rangers GM Doug Melvin opted to take what he could for Gonzalez in trade. It would turn out to be an extremely wise decision, not only because Gonzalez’ injury issues soon would get the best of him, but also because Melvin extracted an overly generous price from Tigers GM Randy Smith.
The key talent was expected to be Kapler, but the toolsy, highly touted onetime Minor League Player of the Year never would develop into a major league star. But never mind: In Catalanotto and Cordero, Texas yielded two additional fine players. For Detroit, the whole thing was enormously nonproductive.
It’s been eight years now, and I still can’t figure out what in the world Blue Jays GM Gord Ash was thinking. Green was better, younger and less expensive than Mondesi. Aside from those silly little issues, the deal made perfect sense.
Nov. 16, 2002: The Florida Marlins traded outfielder Preston Wilson, catcher Charles Johnson, pitcher Vic Darensbourg and infielder Pablo Ozuna to the Colorado Rockies for pitcher Mike Hampton, outfielder Juan Pierre and cash.
This parlay had a lot more to do with accounting than with ballplaying, as so many modern trades do. The core issue here was the preposterously too-rich contract the Rockies had lavished upon Hampton a couple of years earlier. Colorado was able to rid itself of that albatross, in exchange for giving Florida a still-cheap Pierre, and for the Rockies’ taking on the contracts of Wilson and Johnson that the Marlins were no longer happy with.
The Braves accepted Hampton (and the Rockies’ sweetener cash to help pay him), and the magician Leo Mazzone would perform his sleight of hand and get a couple of decent years out of the left hander. But even with that, Hampton would peter out long before his massive contract expired.
With the emergence of both Brad Lidge (whom we’ll encounter below) and Octavio Dotel, Houston GM Gerry Hunsicker figured he had the capacity to trade Wagner. That much was sensible. But the package Hunsicker accepted from the Phillies wasn’t exactly irresistible, and none of the three uninspiring talents the Astros acquired has amounted to much of anything. (Buchholz might yet be useful, but he’s now gone from Houston.) Score this one as a big win for Philadelphia GM Ed Wade.
The Brian Sabean of 1997, whom we saw above, was a clever and resourceful GM. But here … well …
Let’s just count the ways in which Sabean blundered, shall we?
1) Pierzynski was a pretty good catcher, but not really the stature of player one trades three young pitchers to acquire.
2) These weren’t just any three young pitchers San Francisco was expending; they stand in distinct contrast with, say, the three so-so prospects the Phillies exchanged for Wagner a couple of weeks earlier. Nathan was a filthy-stuff hard thrower the Giants had patiently nurtured through several years of injuries, and he’d just blossomed with a great year in their bullpen in 2003. Bonser was among the more highly regarded prospects in the organization, and Liriano was among the more highly regarded prospects in baseball.
3) The Giants didn’t need Pierzynski anyway. They already had Yorvit Torrealba, who’d demonstrated nice chops in two seasons as the San Francisco backup catcher, and who at the age of 25 was ready to step in as the regular. He wouldn’t likely be quite as good as Pierzynski, but he certainly wouldn’t be bad, and he’d be vastly cheaper in salary than Pierzynski while requiring the team to expend zero resources in trade.
In short, Sabean vastly overpaid for a resource he didn’t need.
And as bad as it was in concept, the deal would turn out even worse in practice. Pierzynski would have a sub-par year for the Giants, while generating antagonism with several teammates. Sabean would overreact, and simply release the 27-year-old catcher—who was, for all his faults, not the sort of talent one just throws away. But that’s what Sabean did, meaning the Giants traded all the post-2003 value of Nathan, Liriano and Bonser for one disappointing season from Pierzynski.
It may not be the worst trade of all time, but it absolutely deserves serious consideration for that distinction.
This deal was of the classic structure: The contender sends prospects to the rebuilding team in exchange for a key veteran. The Diamondbacks wouldn’t end up yielding much value here, as only Lyon has panned out, and he’s nothing special. But their main objective was to get out from under Schilling’s contract as they committed themselves to their youth movement, and to that end this was obviously a success.
As for the Red Sox, there would have been no Bloody Sock Game without this trade.
The logic for both sides here was sound enough: the Pirates were eager to unload Kendall’s backloaded contract, and the A’s were willing to take it on without giving up a heck of lot of talent in return. (I’m sure those with more accounting savvy than I can easily explain it, but I’ve always found the detail of each side sending the other cash here to be amusing … why not just net the difference, and have only one party transferring moolah?)
But as an A’s follower, I was never comfortable with this deal. Kendall had been a wonderful player, but his workload had been extreme, and he seemed highly vulnerable to a breakdown. That breakdown never occurred, but his performance with Oakland was never especially good (and in 2007 it was wretched), nothing close to worthy of that enormous salary.
Nov. 24, 2005: The Florida Marlins traded pitchers Josh Beckett and Guillermo Mota and third baseman Mike Lowell to the Boston Red Sox for shortstop Hanley Ramirez and pitchers Anibal Sanchez, Harvey Garcia and Jesus Delgado.
Both of these were classics in the prospects-for-established-talent mode, as the Marlins engaged in one of their periodic salary purges.
The one with Boston was about as big as this kind of a deal can get. And while it’s still too soon for the jury to have returned on all of the prospects, from the vantage point of November 2007 it’s clear that both sides have emphatically gotten what they were looking for. We already can call it a win-win.
With regard to the deal with the Mets, both sides are probably mildly disappointed: In New York, Delgado has begun to decline, and in Florida, Jacobs doesn’t look like he’ll be all that special. But neither has it gone badly either way.
Nov. 25, 2005: The Chicago White Sox traded outfielder Aaron Rowand, minor league pitcher Daniel Haigwood and a player to be named later to the Philadelphia Phillies for first baseman Jim Thome and cash. (On Dec. 8, 2005, the White Sox sent minor league pitcher Gio Gonzalez to the Phillies, completing the deal.)
There were three of these blockbusters of the same essential form two Novembers ago, and this one has turned out quite nicely for both teams.
Nov. 7, 2007: The Philadelphia Phillies traded outfielder Michael Bourn, pitcher Geoff Geary and third baseman Michael Costanzo to the Houston Astros for pitcher Brad Lidge and infielder Eric Bruntlett.
The flamethrowing Lidge has racked up strikeouts at amazing rates, but, alas, he has his weaknesses too: His control is iffy, and his high heater is home run-prone. Consequently the Astros have fallen out of love with the idea of Lidge as their closer. But in accepting this ho-hum offering from Philadelphia, this trade (as Tuck observed) looks ominously similar to the Wagner giveaway of 2003—and what makes it particularly interesting is that Ed Wade is now the GM on the Houston side.
This is a nice old-fashioned talent swap. Neither Cabrera nor Garland is a star, but both are solid, dependable producers—a quality of player essential to every winning team. Cabrera turned 33 this month, and so age-related decline is a concern, but overall this appears to be a fair exchange of very good players.
We’ll delve into December, historically the most intensive trading season of the year.