The virtual 1965-68 Washington Senators

We’ve had fun exploring some what-if scenarios involving good teams, or even great teams, that might plausibly have been better. The rule we follow in this game is that we can’t invoke any transactions that didn’t actually occur, but we can negate some that did, and examine the likely consequences.

This time we’ll play the same game, only instead of examining how a good team might have been better, let’s think about a bad team that might have been worse.

The new Senators

One of the odder episodes in baseball history took place in the autumn of 1960. Washington Senators owner Calvin Griffith persuaded his fellow American League owners that continuing to operate his franchise in that city was untenable, and thus he needed to relocate to Minneapolis-St. Paul. The odd part was that those same owners simultaneously reasoned that the best place to locate an expansion team was none other than Washington, D.C.

Thus the long-suffering baseball fans in our nation’s capital, having spent decades watching the Senators flounder in the second division, saw their ball club move away just as it was about to achieve competitiveness. As a consolation prize, Washington fans were given a new ball club, one virtually guaranteed under the conditions of expansion-draft talent distribution to flounder in the second division.

And so the replacement Senators did flounder, losing 100 or more games in each of their first four seasons. They would manage a .500 record just once in the 11 years they did business in Washington before this franchise too decided to skip town. They were bad.

But they quite easily could have been quite a bit worse, and the manner in which they were spared that fate turned on a single seemingly insignificant transaction.

Claude

In the summer of 1957, the Cincinnati Reds signed a 17-year-old high school southpaw named Claude Osteen. Despite his extreme youth, Osteen progressed rapidly through the Reds’ minor league system; by 1959 he was presenting a strong year in Triple-A, and for 1960 Cincinnati installed him on the major league roster.

But Osteen didn’t thrive in 1960. He was relegated to the back end of the bullpen by manager Fred Hutchinson. The wisdom of this deployment of the prized young prospect is questionable, to say the least; in his few and brief mop-up outings, the rookie was quite ineffective. Osteen’s can’t-miss stature was distinctly reduced. He opened 1961 on the Reds’ major league roster, but after just one early-season relief appearance, he was sent back to the minors.

With regular work in Triple-A in 1961, Osteen regained his touch, going 15-11 with solid peripherals in 191 innings. Nonetheless, in mid-September of that year the Reds dealt the just-turned-22-year-old Osteen to the Senators, in exchange for cash and a player to be named later—the classic bargain-basement dump-off price tag.

What on earth motivated the Cincinnati organization to so blithely kiss off this obviously promising young left hander?

Expansion shenanigans?

I’ve spent decades wondering about it. A few years ago I encountered someone who offered an explanation that at first glance sounded logical, but upon further examination holds no water. The explanation goes like this:

The National League was preparing to hold an expansion draft of its own in October of 1961. Thus the Reds would be required to expose a proportion of the players on their 40-man roster to the draft; they could protect only so many. And, so this explanation goes, reasonably hopeful though they may have been that Osteen eventually would blossom as an effective major leaguer, he hadn’t yet, and so the Reds were going to leave Osteen exposed to the draft.

Moreover, embroiled as they were in the stretch run of a pennant race, the Reds weren’t about to make significant use of the still-unproven prospect in September ’61 anyway. And so—follow this now—the idea arises of trading him for a player to be named later: They expect to lose Osteen in the expansion draft anyway, so why not trade him and get something in return? Yet here comes the devilishly clever part: The player received won’t arrive until after the draft, and so won’t be exposed to it! Brilliant! Yes?

Well, no. Because here’s the thing. When Osteen was removed from the Reds’ 40-man roster, all that meant was that someone else on the roster would be exposed to the draft in his place. It isn’t as though the Reds gained an extra draft-protected roster spot. So instead of losing Osteen in the draft, one of the six players Cincinnati did surrender (Gus Bell, Elio Chacon, Dick Gernert, Jay Hook, Ken Johnson and Sherman Jones) went in his place.

Insofar as their expansion draft exposure was concerned, the trading-Osteen-for-a-player-to-be-named-later gambit gained the Reds nothing. (And for their sake, one hopes the guy the Reds lost instead of Osteen wasn’t Ken Johnson, who turned out to be perhaps the best player selected in the 1961 NL draft.)

So this explanation gets “nice try for creativity” points, but it’s highly doubtful that the Reds were so confused by the process as to believe that in this way they were gaming the system. No, the only way in which the Reds’ trade of Osteen made any sense for them is if they believed that the nominal cash-and-a-player-to-be-named-later package they would receive from the Senators would turn out to be of equal or greater value than Osteen.

And to that end, it’s simply the case that the Reds were guilty of a good old-fashioned talent-evaluation blunder, of major proportion.

Turning Claude into Dave

The player named later was Dave Sisler. He was a 30-year-old right-handed relief pitcher, as drab and unexciting a journeyman as could be found.

He was the son of a great major leaguer, and the brother of a good one, but this Sisler was nothing more than garden-variety bullpen fodder. He’d been acquired by the Senators in the AL expansion draft a year earlier, and had delivered an entirely predictable blah performance in 1961: 60 innings in relief, with an ERA+ of 93. Yawn. For this you trade a 22-year-old southpaw with first-rate minor league credentials?

Thus, from the Senators’ point of view, the deal was simple larceny. Kudos to Washington GM Ed Doherty; one wonders exactly what sort of compromising photographs he had of Reds GM Bill DeWitt.

But let’s imagine that DeWitt hadn’t been hoodwinked, and that the Senators had been unable to acquire Claude Osteen from the Reds. (For our purposes, we won’t know or care what otherwise would have become of Osteen, whether he went to the Colt .45s or the Mets in the draft, or whether the Reds managed to hold onto him; in our scenario all we know is that the Senators didn’t get him.)

Washington minus Claude

Had the 1962 Senators included Sisler on their pitching staff instead of Osteen, they’d have been a worse team than they were. But the difference wouldn’t have been enormous. Osteen that season established himself as a bona fide major league starter, but he wasn’t yet anything special; for sure he was a heck of lot better than the mop-up reliever Sisler, but the margin between them wasn’t more than a couple of wins.

But in 1963 and 1964, the Osteen-less Senators would be more significantly impaired. Sisler was gone from the majors by ’63, and over the course of these two seasons Osteen steadily developed into one of the better pitchers in the American League. And a signficantly impaired Senators team would be a bad team indeed, as even with Osteen on board they lost 106 games in ’63 and 100 in ’64.

But wait. It gets worse.

Claude + John + $$$ = Frank + Ken + Pete + Phil + Dick

In December of 1964, the Senators swung a blockbuster trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers, in which Osteen was the centerpiece. He was packaged along with a weak-hitting, good-fielding young third baseman named John Kennedy and a fat bundle of $100,000 in exchange for several players who would play key roles for the Senators: outfielder Frank Howard, third baseman Ken McMullen, pitchers Pete Richert and Phil Ortega and first baseman Dick Nen.

While Kennedy would be put to use by the Dodgers in a utility role, and the cash component of this deal was clearly significant, it’s certain that without Osteen the Senators wouldn’t have been able to acquire all this talent. And just what would that have meant for the Washington ball club?

Well, let’s see … in our scenario Kennedy will remain with the Senators, and he’ll hold the roster spot that actually was taken by McMullen. We’ll give Howard’s 1965 spot to journeyman outfielder Fred Valentine, whom the Senators actually farmed out that season. The spots that Richert and Ortega held on the pitching staff can be filled by Nick Willhite (another youngster from the Dodgers’ organization whom the actual Senators acquired and then returned to L.A. that year) and Jim Hannan (like Valentine, a guy whom Washington farmed out for most of 1965). Nen was promoted by the Senators from Triple-A halfway through the ’65 season when incumbent first baseman Bob Chance was sent down; we’ll keep Chance in the majors all year.

Here’s what we get:

1965

 Pos Player          B Age     G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG OPS+
 1B  B. Chance       L  24   138  444   37  109   22    0   12   46   38  115 .245 .305 .376   95
 2B  D. Blasingame   L  33   129  403   42   90    8    8    1   17   35   45 .223 .287 .290   66
 SS  E. Brinkman     R  23   154  444   33   82   13    2    5   32   38   82 .185 .251 .257   46
 3B  W. Held         R  33   129  432   53  106   20    3   20   63   62   98 .245 .340 .444  124
 RF  W. Kirkland     L  31   123  405   44   92   12    1   17   61   26   86 .227 .274 .388   88
 CF  D. Lock         R  28   148  508   53  111   18    1   20   49   69  141 .219 .312 .376   97
 LF  J. King         L  32   132  437   56   96   18    3   21   61   66   83 .220 .322 .419  111
  C  M. Brumley      L  26    79  216   14   45    4    0    3   14   20   33 .208 .280 .269   59

 2S  K. Hamlin       R  30   117  362   41   99   21    1    4   20   33   45 .273 .333 .370  102
 OF  F. Valentine    B  30   119  320   33   79   11    2    7   24   35   51 .247 .321 .359   95
 3B  J. Kennedy      R  24   104  256   21   51    8    1    3   17   16   70 .199 .246 .273   49
 C3  D. Zimmer       R  34    95  226   18   45    6    0    2   16   26   59 .199 .284 .252   55
 1B  J. Cunningham   L  33    95  201   26   46    9    1    3   19   46   27 .229 .375 .328  104
 C   D. Camilli      R  28    75  193   12   37    6    1    3   17   16   34 .192 .257 .280   54
 1B  R. Sievers      R  38    28   57    4   10    2    0    2    5    8   10 .175 .277 .316   70

     Others                        91   11   23    1    0    4   15   15   25 .253 .358 .396  117

     Pitchers                     389   20   37    5    1    2   18   28  184 .096 .156 .133  -16

     TOTAL                       5384  518 1158  184   25  129  494  577 1188 .215 .291 .331   86


     Pitcher         T Age     G   GS   CG   IP    W    L   SV    H    R   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
     M. McCormick    L  26    44   32    5  205   10   14    1  219   90   25   48  102 3.69   94
     B. Narum        R  24    43   32    3  197    5   18    0  200  116   21  109   96 4.85   71
     B. Daniels      R  33    42   27    2  161    7   21    1  187  104   23   54   57 4.74   73
     J. Hannan       R  25    44   14    2  125    4   10    1  135   67   11   58   73 4.33   80
     H. Koplitz      R  27    34   12    0  112    4   10    0  103   55   12   51   62 4.09   85
     N. Willhite     L  24    39   16    1  109    4    6    1  122   73   18   51   70 5.04   69

     R. Kline        R  33    74    0    0   99    6    7   16  106   36    7   32   52 2.63  132
     S. Ridzik       R  36    63    0    0  110    5    5    3  108   61   18   43   72 4.02   86
     F. Kreutzer     L  26    52   14    2  110    2    9    0   90   56   10   69   90 3.94   88
     M. Bridges      L  34    48    0    0   69    0    3    0   74   31    4   30   47 2.67  130
     J. Duckworth    R  26    17    8    0   64    1    4    0   45   30   11   36   74 3.94   88

     Others                         7    2   71    3    4    0   66   42    1   38   33 4.84   71

     TOTAL                        162   17 1431   51  111   23 1455  761  161  619  828 4.14   83

Oof. Check out that nifty .215 team batting average, there. Aside from drawing walks and hitting a few home runs, this offense could do nothing well; the OPS+ of 86 would be last in the AL by a comfortable margin. And the pitching, while not quite the league’s worst, would be very close to it.

The actual 1965 Senators weren’t good, but they weren’t terrible. Their 70-92 record and eighth-place finish were both the best the young franchise had yet achieved. However, Howard, McMullen and Richert were their best players, and in our scenario none are present. Thus this Washington team, while it may have been first in war and first in peace, would most definitely be last in the American League.

It is, of course, something less than completely realistic to assume that had the Senators been without Osteen and thus unable to swing that particular big trade with the Dodgers, they’d have gone ahead and done just about everything else exactly as they did. But it is simply true to say that without Osteen and that talent capital he provided, their options would have been severely limited.

Scraping along

So what the heck, in the spirit of sadistic amusement, let’s keep following this scenario a bit further. Suppose the Senators kept to this particular path for the next several years, making every transaction they actually made, but still missing Howard, McMullen, Richert, Ortega and Nen.

In early 1967 they actually traded Richert to Baltimore, for first baseman Mike Epstein and pitcher Frank Bertaina. Since our version doesn’t have Richert, they can’t have Epstein and Bertaina either.

So how would this outfit be looking by, say, 1968? We would still have Kennedy on hand in place of McMullen. In the absence of Howard and Epstein, we’ll have the Senators keep Brant Alyea, Gary Holman and Hank Allen in the majors all year long, and also give more playing time to a few of their other outfielders. Nen was actually gone from Washington by ’68, so nothing changes there.

To replace Ortega and Bertaina, we’ll have them keep Jim Hannan in the majors all season, and we’ll also pick up journeyman right hander Joe Moeller from the Dodgers’ scrap heap. The Dodgers actually left Moeller exposed to the Rule V draft following 1967, and he was selected by Houston but then returned to the L.A. organization. Presuming the Dodgers still had Ortega, let’s assume the Senators would have taken Moeller off their hands.

How does all this work out?

1968

 Pos Player          B Age     G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG OPS+
 1B  G. Holman       L  24   128  377   38   95   16    2    2   29   47   70 .252 .335 .321  103
 2B  B. Allen        L  29   120  373   28   90   12    4    6   38   28   35 .241 .294 .343   96
 SS  E. Brinkman     R  26   113  300   17   56    6    1    1   12   27   50 .187 .254 .223   48
 3B  J. Kennedy      R  27   126  447   37  101   15    4    6   39   37  127 .226 .285 .318   86
 RF  E. Stroud       L  28   131  374   44   89   12   11    5   27   26   61 .238 .288 .369  101
 CF  D. Unser        L  23   156  635   59  146   13    7    1   29   46   66 .230 .282 .277   73
 LF  B. Alyea        R  27   140  447   54  104   16    1   23   62   35  131 .233 .288 .427  118
  C  P. Casanova     R  26    96  322   16   63    6    0    4   24    7   52 .196 .210 .252   42

 OF  C. Peterson     R  25   121  343   26   73   12    2    5   29   28   51 .213 .272 .303   77
 S3  R. Hansen       R  30    86  275   25   51   12    0    8   29   35   49 .185 .277 .316   83
 O32 H. Allen        R  27   100  252   21   56    4    3    3   18   13   41 .222 .260 .298   72
 2B  F. Coggins      B  24    62  171   14   30    6    1    0    7    9   33 .175 .217 .222   36
  C  J. French       L  26    59  165    8   32    5    0    1   10   19   19 .194 .277 .242   61
 OF  F. Valentine    B  33    45  165   16   38    4    1    5   11   10   21 .230 .274 .358   94
 OF  S. Bowens       R  29    57  115   13   22    4    0    4    7   11   39 .191 .262 .330   82
 S2  T. Cullen       R  26    47  114    7   31    4    2    1   15    7   12 .272 .314 .368  110
  C  B. Bryan        L  29    40  108    6   22    3    0    3    8   14   27 .204 .301 .315   90

     Others                        44    4   10    2    0    2    4    5   14 .227 .306 .409  119

     Pitchers                     370    9   48    4    1    0   15   13  148 .130 .159 .146   -5

     TOTAL                       5397  442 1157  156   40   80  413  417 1046 .214 .271 .303   82


     Pitcher         T Age     G   GS   CG   IP    W    L   SV    H    R   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
     J. Coleman      R  21    33   33   12  223   10   19    0  212   98   19   51  139 3.27   89
     C. Pascual      R  34    31   31    8  201   11   15    0  181   72   11   59  111 2.69  109
     J. Hannan       R  28    33   29    7  193   12   12    0  208   79    7   66  101 3.31   88
     J. Moeller      R  25    36   32    6  185    9   16    0  198   80   15   44   93 3.45   85
     B. Moore        L  25    32   18    0  118    3    8    2  116   55    8   42   56 3.37   87

     D. Higgins      R  28    59    0    0  100    3    5   11   81   40    8   46   66 3.25   90
     B. Humphreys    R  32    56    0    0   93    4    8    2   78   40   13   30   56 3.69   79
     D. Bosman       R  24    46   10    0  139    1   10    1  139   63    9   35   63 3.69   79
     D. Baldwin      R  30    40    0    0   42    0    2    4   40   19    7   12   30 4.07   72
     D. Knowles      L  26    32    0    0   41    0    2    3   38   11    0   12   37 2.18  134
     B. Howard       L  25    13    7    0   49    0    6    0   62   30    7   23   23 5.36   54

     Others                         1    0   51    1    4    0   60   38    5   26   32 5.60   52

     TOTAL                        161   33 1435   54  107   23 1413  625  109  446  807 3.44   85

Not well. We thought the offense was bad in 1965? By this time, bottom-feeding in The Year of the Pitcher, it’s dwindled down to nothing: its total of 442 runs scored would be the lowest of any team ever playing a 162-game season.

But, how about this, the pitching actually doesn’t fare too badly. Both Ortega and Bertaina, after having been good in 1967, were terrible for the Senators in 1968, and by giving their innings to Hannan and Moeller this ball club actually has a somewhat better staff than the actual team. But that doesn’t make it a good staff by any means; this one would be essentially tied with that of the Angels for the worst in the league.

So our version remains a truly dreadful team, hopelessly mired in last place, 11 games worse than the actual cellar-dwelling Senators.

Where have you gone, Claude Osteen? Our nation’s capital turns its lonely eyes to you … woo-woo-woo …

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