10th anniversary: the A.J. Pierzynski trade

10 years ago today a trade happened that really, truly, madly, deeply helped one team more than the other. This trade was special. Many trades are debacles on the field, but this one happened to be a debacle on and off the field. In fact, it’s arguable that the off-the-field stuff is what really makes this trade so special. It’s one of the most one-sided trades of the 21st century.

On Nov. 14, 2003, the Twins gave catcher A.J. Pierzynski to the Giants for three players, and that trio clearly helped Minnesota more than A.J. helped San Francisco.

Now, A.J. isn’t a bad player. In point of fact, he has had a very long and productive career, and this trade came right in the middle of it. You wouldn’t expect him to be the short end of the stick in a really one-sided trade. But nevertheless, this is a trade that gives Giants fans convulsions to this day.

While A.J. has his talents, he also has one big issue. He may very well be the most disliked player in baseball. Normally, that isn’t a big deal. Athletes are there to play and win games, not to knit quilts together. They don’t have to actually like each other. But Pierzynski—especially back then—had the knack for being extra-specially dislikable. There’s a reason why polls of all major leaguers continually show him to be the guy most people want to bean.

In fact, the first sign that Pierzysnki might be a problem for San Francisco came immediately after the trade’s announcement. To say the Twins players were happy with it would be an understatement. This went beyond the classic, “Great trade! Who’d we get?” reaction. The players all but united to form a giant conga line across Minnesota. My goodness they hated that man.

Eh, who cares? Like I said, athletes don’t have to like each other. True, but in San Francisco, A.J. got along even worse with his teammates. Regardless of how little the Twins liked him, they kept him around for three years as a starting catcher. One year was more than enough for San Francisco. They non-tendered him after the 2004 season.

It was an odd non-tendering. Sure, Pierzynski had a down year, but he still hit .272 with moderate power. No, he wasn’t great, but he certainly was the most talented catcher the Giants had at the time.

But that wasn’t the point. This wasn’t about talent. This was about his personality. The Giants thought he was such a clubhouse cancer, such a jerk, that they had to get rid of him. So they did.

To be fair, A.J. Pierzynski latched on with the White Sox where he became a franchise fixture for the better part of a decade. People still often dislike him, but he proved he wasn’t a malignant, fast-acting clubhouse poison. You can make a decent argument the Giants just overreacted when they dumped him.

But dump him they did, after just one season; a season where he had a WAR of 0.5.

And what did they give up for one season?

Well, the least important man going to Minnesota was minor league pitcher Boof Bonser. He had a decent rookie year in 2006, going 7-6 with a 4.22 ERA but he rapidly fell apart. The Twins soon dumped him. If that was all the Giants gave up, they would’ve clearly gotten the better of the deal.

But there was another minor league pitcher in the deal: Francisco Liriano. Here is where the hurt really comes for San Francisco. In 2006, F-bomb went 12-3 with a spectacular 2.16 ERA and an un-Twins like 144 strikeouts in 121 innings. He soon developed arm problems and has never been that good since, but he still had a few more solid moments for Minnesota. And with a big season like his 2006, that’s all it takes to put Minnesota well ahead of this trade.

But, alas for the Bay Area, Liriano wasn’t the gem the Twins unearthed in this deal.

Not only did the Giants send two pitching prospects, but they also added a hurler with major league experience; a failed started turned middle reliever Joe Nathan.

Well, he’d been a middle reliever in San Francisco. But Ron Gardenhire made Nathan the closer, and he turned into Super Joe. He made four All-Star teams in the next six years. In one of his years off the team, he posted a 1.58 ERA. In seven seasons with the club, he saved 260 games while posting a 2.16 ERA. With the exception of Mariano Rivera, he might have been the game’s best closer in that span.

In all, those three pitchers gave the Twins 27.4 WAR, which is nearly 55 times the value the Giants received.

So yeah, that was a really one-sided trade made 10 years ago today.

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  1. LR said...

    For the record Pierzynski’s Twins teammates did *not* hate him. They kidded about him in an article and the writer took it seriously. There’s even a second article about how annoyed the Twins were that the writer misconstrued their comments. Pierzynski is still very close friends with many of his former Twins teammates. I’m not saying he is a misunderstood angel, but his “clubhouse cancer” reputation has been overblown for years.

  2. Jose said...

    As a Giants fan, this one still hurts.  Don’t forget the other things this trade was wholly or partly responsible for:

    The Giants did not have a real closer until Brian Wilson emerged in 2008. One of the pitchers they tried was Armando Benitez, who became the most hated man in San Francisco, easily surpassing Pierzynski and Jeff Kent.  Giants fans still spit at the mention of his name.

    After releasing AJ, the Giants finished under .500 for four years in a row after having 90 wins or better five seasons in a row. 

    During that stretch, the average age of the Giants as a team was over 30 years old until 2008, after Barry Bonds retired, when it dropped to 29.8.

  3. John C said...

    The impression I’ve always had about Pierzynski, with the exception of that one season in San Fran, is that his teammates have appreciated him, but you hate him if he’s on a team that you have to play against.

    If he could play all of those seasons in Chicago for Ozzie Guillen, he can’t be that bad of a guy. When he was with the Giants, he had Barry Bonds for a teammate. My guess is that AJ and Bonds didn’t get along, and since Barry Bonds was Barry Bonds, AJ had to go.

  4. Chris J. said...

    In Chicago, my impression was that AJ was hated by his ex-Twins teammates, and that was an extra edge to the rivalry between the two squads.

  5. Professor Longnose said...

    WAR trade values is an interesting subject. Have you covered this before? Lots of questions come to mind…the most one-sided trade, the trade with the most WAR combined no matter how distributed, how much the WAR specific players can get back changes when they are traded more than once…

  6. WillieMaysField said...

    A young cost controlled all star catcher for a first round bust, a 19 year old who showed promise but pitched less than 10 innings that season, and a relief pitcher who had one good season.  Sounds like a good trade to me.

  7. obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

    The problem was not Barry Bonds, that’s just unfounded speculation.  A lot of players spoke up for Bonds while he was a Giant, but then there were those who were unhappy as well.  It was not like the Giants DFAed good players left and right, for if that was true, that is what would have happened, particularly Jeff Kent, who really didn’t like Bonds.

    There were some rumblings of problems with AJP early on, but then it just exploded, with a pitcher leaking to the press that AJP was a cancer in the clubhouse, because he chose to do other things than prepare for the game with the pitcher before the game.  Then the pitcher was exposed to be Brett Tomko, making the clubhouse even more uncomfortable. 

    I don’t remember all the details, but it had nothing to do with Bonds, it sounded like to me that AJP somehow pissed off enough of the pitching staff that it was easier for the front office to get rid of him than all the pitchers who did not want to work with him. 

    Now, why they didn’t just trade him, somebody must have been willing to give up something for him, I’m not sure why.  Part of it might be because Ned Colletti blew the arbitration case, it was all over the media that it should be around $3.0M but for some reason he offered only $2.25M so the arbitrator had no choice but to go with his $3.5M asking.  That set a higher bar for any team taking him on.  Plus, the MLB grapevine might have spread about the discontent and thus teams waited for the non-tender, deciding to gamble on that instead, and get him at a lower price.

    I would also note that this trade might not have even been made by Sabean, but by Colletti.  Magowan came out at some point complaining that had the trade been ran by him, he would have vetoed it.  But, oddly enough, he didn’t name Sabean at all in that comment, either by name or by position.  Why not?  In the same time period, Colletti was interviewed, talking about how great it is to work for Sabean because he got to do things beyond his job of handling player contracts that he would not be able to do in other organizations, like making trades.  I have no proof, but I think these dots connect.

  8. obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

    While it was true that the trade cost the Giants greatly, particularly losing Nathan (I was OK with losing Liriano, even after he started out well, because when a teenager pitcher is out injured every year you got him, seemingly, you know that having him would be a double-edged sword; I’ve compared him with the Warner Brothers Michigan Jumping Frog that could sing, you can’t believe your luck, you can’t believe your curse), it worked out in the end for them, as unintended consequences.

    Yes, Benitez was horrible, basically blowing out his knee and his career within the first couple of months with the Giants, and Nathan would have been many many wins or WAR better than him, but because of that trade, we did end up worse in the following years, which helped us in the draft. 

    The Giants ended up selecting Lincecum in 2006; two more wins would have pushed them back a pick, four more wins, two picks.  The Giants ended up selecting Bumgarner in 2007; two more wins and they would have fell to 11th, three more wins to 13th, and any more wins, another drop, the teams were bunched.  The Giants ended up selecting Posey with the 5th pick in 2008; one more win drops them one pick, two more wins drops them all the way back to 9th. 

    I think the Giants probably would still have been able to select Bumgarner, and possibly Lincecum because most did not view him as a starter, but they most definitely would not have gotten Posey, and without Posey, I think it is pretty clear the Giants don’t win in either 2010 or 2012.

    So while the trade was bad, probably up there in franchise history with trading away Orlando Cepeda, Gaylord Perry, and George Foster, it ended up working out for the best for the Giants, with them being able to select Lincecum, Bumgarner, and especially Posey, and finally winning their first championship titles in San Francisco Giants history.

  9. Ken S. said...

    Uh, Jose, “the Giants did not have a real closer until Brian Wilson”?  Robb Nen saved 206 games for the Giants from ‘98 through ‘02, and pitched with a torn rotator cuff the last month of the ‘02 season as part of the effort to get to the Series.

    And the trade for Nen was so good, it was almost enough to forgive Brian Sabean for blowing it on Nathan:  The Giants got Nen from the Marlins for Joe Fontenot (only season in the majors: 0-7, 6.33 for the ‘98 Marlins) and 2 minor leaguers who never made the Show.

  10. John M said...

    IIRC, A.J. hit a trainer that came out to work on him.The trainer asked how it felt? A.J. hit him and said “like this”. That is the definition of a Clubhouse Cancer.

  11. jimmy j. said...

    if getting the bad end of that trade in order to draft timmy, madbum, and posey and win 2 world championships, id do it again and again and again. and if u guys or gals didnt know it, trading players and signing free agents in baseball or in all sports for that matter, is ALWAYS risky business. sometimes u win, sometimes u lose, but u gotta take the chance. the teams that always stand pat imo are always the big losers.as sabean likes to put it: its the cost of doing business..

  12. jimmy j. said...

    it never ceases to amaze me when trades are made that usually its always one team that comes out looking like it hit the jackpot, while the other team crapped out. it would have been nice to say both teams in a trade came out winners…im sure, if the giants could have looked into a crystal ball, maybe they dont make that trade, but thats not how it works…teams make trades based on what they feel they need at the time. if it works out, fine, if it dosent, well at least u can say you tried. there is NOBODY out there that can tell me they knew that nathan and larraino would have the careers they had with the twins…it just happened to work out well for them. but to have a buster posey and 2 world series in the last 3 years and the twins have how many?.if aj was still in frisco, there would be no posey….like i said in my previous post, id make that trade over and over again.

  13. jose said...

    Ken S, read a calendar.  Nen’s career was over BEFORE the AJ trade.  Between Nen and Wilson they didn’t have a real closer.

    As far as the theory that this trade brought about the two world series, that’s ridiculous and speculative.  There are too many factors involved.  It’s like saying the Zito contract was a huge positive factor instead of a big mistake.

    The Giants had been a competitive team for many years before AJ.  They were still in win now mode.  Who knows?  Without this trade they may have won even sooner (although they had other problems as well in those dark days.)  It’s fun to play what if but this trade obviously had results more negative than the Giants intended.

  14. Marc Schneider said...

    Gee, Jimmy, you are right.  I didn’t know that signing and trading players is risky.  Thanks for telling me.  I guess every team should look to make the worst trade possible so that they can be bad enough to draft enough good players so they can win the World Series at some later date. That’s great strategy.

    The fact is, you would only make that trade knowing in hindsight what you know now.  It was a bad trade that happened, by good fortune to work out eventually.  You can’t judge a GM by saying, well, it was really a terrible trade but, by the law of unintended consequences it worked out, so that GM really knew what he was doing.  No, he didn’t.  He just got lucky.

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