The Greatest Hits of the Bad Trade Band,
1910-2010, Volume X
1910-2010, Volume X
In Steve Goldman’s 10-part series on the worst trades in baseball history, every two series entries will cycle through the last 100 years by decade, one trade for each period of 10 years beginning in 1910, then begin again until 50 trades have been accounted for. This is part 10 in this series on lopsided swaps.
April 12, 1960: 1B Norm Cash traded by the Cleveland Indians to the Detroit Tigers for 3B Steve Demeter.
There are prospects and there are prospects. Norm Cash was a prospect for the Chicago White Sox. Playing for Waterloo of the Three-I League in 1956, the then 21-year-old had hit .334 with 23 home runs in 115 games. It was his second good year there (he had hit .290 and slugged .504 the year before) but as of 1960 his hitting ability had been obscured because he had spent all of the 1957 season and the first 10 weeks of the ’58 season in the military. When he was finally available for a full campaign, the White Sox, in their brilliance, let him sit as the Major League backup to the superannuated Earl Torgeson. When the latter proved to be finished at age 35, rather than give Cash a shot at the job, they traded for the shell of Ted Kluszewski.
Having effectively blocked Cash, that December the Sox traded him to the Cleveland Indians as part of a package for Minnie Minoso. The Indians had the slick-fielding Vic Power at first base. They also had a huge handicap in General Manager “Trader” Frank Lane, who was busily demolishing what had been a consistently strong organization since the mid-1930s. Lane preferred to stick with Vic and use Cash to obtain Demeter from the Tigers, who he felt would have value as a backup to starting third baseman Bubba Phillips, who had come over from Chicago in the Minoso deal.
Note that Phillips was 32 and a career .264/.314/.366 hitter to that point. Demeter, 25, had been seven years in the minors mixing good seasons with bad, but he had some ability. In a career that would last through 1972, he would play almost 2,400 games in the sticks and hit .290 with an average of 19 home runs and 46 walks per 162 games. Had he ever gotten a chance he should have been able to outperform Phillips, who slumped to .207/.249/.299 in 1960, but the Indians gave him five plate appearances and then buried him forever. Either Cleveland’s scouts believed Cash had less ability than his minor league performances suggested, or they did believe in him, but Lane didn’t care. It’s impossible to know given the GM’s compulsive trading.
The Tigers didn’t display more in the way of brilliance or perceptivity at first. Team President Bill DeWitt saw Cash as a way to back up first baseman Steve Bilko and their starting outfielders. However, Bilko slumped following an injury and Cash had won the job by June. He would hold first base for the next 14 years, hitting .271/.374/.488 with 377 career home runs. Relative to his leagues, he maintained about the same level of productivity as David Ortiz. Again, Lane gave that up for five Demeter plate appearances.
Courtesy: The Trading Card Database
November 29, 1971: 2B Joe Morgan traded by the Houston Astros with OF Ed Armbrister, RHP Jack Billingham, OF Cesar Geronimo, and INF Denis Menke to the Cincinnati Reds for 2B Tommy Helms, 1B Lee May, and INF/OF Jimmy Stewart.
H. B. “Spec” Richardson was general manager of the Houston Astros from 1968 through 1975. Among the players he traded for minimal return: Mike Cuellar (who won the Cy Young Award the next season), Rusty Staub, Mike Marshall, John Mayberry, Jerry Reuss, Jimmy Wynn, Mike Easler, and the future Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan. To put it succinctly, Richardson wasn’t very good at his job.
Morgan, who had first come to the Majors with Houston in 1963, had become a regular in 1965. Because of the offensive environment of the time and the suffocating nature of the Astrodome, his .263/.375/.396 rates through 1971 don’t scream “star” to us, but they work out to a 121 OPS+.
The Astros didn’t wholly appreciate this. First, Richardson didn’t know what he was doing—in addition to being a miserable trader, he was exorbitantly focused on things like curfews and bedchecks and less on team performance. Second, for much of Richardson’s term (1968–1972), his manager was former National League batting champion Harry “The Hat” Walker, a Mississippian Morgan has referred to as both “without question the most blatant racist I ever met in baseball” and “the biggest fool I have ever known in the game.” Like Richardson, Walker was obsessed with petty, military-style discipline, but was also predisposed to be hostile to blacks and Latinos. In his autobiography, Morgan quotes Walker as asking him, “Why are these people lazy? I mean, look at ’em. [Bob] Watson, [Cesar] Cedeno, Wynn. They just don’t have the capacity to concentrate. Are they born that way or something?”
Though Morgan’s disputes with Walker were quiet compared to those of teammates such as pitcher Don Wilson, who was sometimes enraged to the point of violence, the Astros nonetheless let it be known in baseball circles that Morgan was a troublemaker and that he was a poor influence on Wynn. They also insisted Morgan was an inferior player to Helms, the player who would replace him at the Keystone. According to Richardson, Morgan “managed to hit two points less than Helms this year and drove in only four more runs, despite having hit 13 homers to Helms’ one.” Helms had hit .258/.289/.325 in 1971, good for a 78 OPS+. Morgan had hit .256/.351/.407 for a 117 OPS+.
This is why when retrograde baseball thinkers denigrate a statistics-based front-office approach they should be laughed at: Richardson didn’t have the full array of stats now available. He had his eyes, his coaches, and his scouts, and he still didn’t know Joe Morgan was a better player than Tommy Helms.
The Cincinnati Enquirer ran fan reaction viciously panning the deal. Columnist Bob Hertzel opined, “May and Helms possessed the one intangible that is irreplaceable on a ball club . . . leadership.” Possibly Hertzel changed his opinion after the Reds went to the postseason in Morgan’s first season with the club, or he might have revisited it after his back-to-back MVP awards in 1975 and 1976, or the team’s World Series wins in both those seasons. The Astros wouldn’t make their first postseason appearance until 1980—with Morgan back on the team.
With the Red Sox in 1975, Fred Lynn became the first player in major league history to win the Rookie of the Year and MVP Awards in the same season.
Courtesy: The Trading Card Database
January 23, 1981: The Boston Red Sox traded OF Fred Lynn with Steve Renko to the California Angels for RHP Jim Dorsey, OF Joe Rudi, and LHP Frank Tanana.
Boston’s front office had screwed up a very basic operation, failing to send center fielder Fred Lynn and catcher Carlton Fisk contract renewals by the December 20 deadline. The players contended this made them free agents. The Red Sox contended that, as the players were under long-term contracts, they didn’t have to send them anything. The matter went to an arbitrator, but the Sox were clearly uncomfortable with their chances of winning because even as the hearing was proceeding they worked out a deal to send the former MVP and Rookie of the Year to the Angels.
As we’ve seen throughout this series, sometimes a player has to be traded—for contractual reasons, because he’s blocked, or due to a personality conflict. That the Sox felt the need to deal Lynn because of their administrative error is understandable. That they would make a deal this bad, even if they were under pressure, is less easy to forgive.
To that point in his career, Lynn was a career .308/.383/.520 hitter, albeit one who had just missed 52 games due to a broken toe. It was one of a number of injuries that had kept Lynn off the field or dampened his numbers, a problem that would worsen over the remainder of his career. Nevertheless, heading into his age-29 season he was one of the most valuable players in baseball.
In return for Lynn and 36-year-old journeyman Steve Renko, the Sox received a player they had long coveted (and momentarily possessed in 1976 prior to his sale being voided by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn) in outfielder Joe Rudi, a 34-year-old who had long since left behind his peak skills and his durability. In four years with the Angels he had hit .249/.297/.425. He would hit .180 in 49 games before departing as a free agent. Tanana, a 26-year-old left-hander, had been in the Majors since he was 19 and had led the AL in strikeouts (1975) and ERA (1977) by the time he was 23. Unfortunately, that meant that the Angels had already loaded nearly 1,100 innings on a very young arm. By 1978, the flame-throwing version of Tanana had been eroded away, replaced by the quintessential “crafty” southpaw soft tosser. He’d post a 4.01 ERA (about league average when adjusted for Fenway Park) and then also depart as a free agent. On a small-sample basis, Dorsey was one of the least successful pitchers in big league history, going into the books with an 11.79 ERA in 23.2 career innings.
When the trade was announced, Yankees Vice President Cedric Tallis said, “It appears that the Red Sox under pressure could not get the value you'd want for Lynn. It’s not possible to get full value.” Tallis was correct, but the Red Sox, led by longtime Yawkey acolyte Haywood Sullivan, might have come closer. And they lost Fisk too.
After his rookie season with Houston, Kenny Lofton was sent to Cleveland where he led the league in stolen bases for five straight years and won four consecutive Gold Gloves.
Source: Jerry Reuss on Flickr
December 10, 1991: The Houston Astros traded OF Kenny Lofton with INF Dave Rohde to the Cleveland Indians for RHP Willie Blair and C Ed Taubensee.
Acquiring an Ed Taubensee isn’t a bad idea if taken in isolation. The Astros had Craig Biggio behind the plate, but intended to move him to second base. Ready in-house replacements included Scott Servais and Tony Eusebio, neither of whom seemed like the second coming of Roy Campanella. To be fair, nor did Taubensee, and scouts did not exactly sing hosannas to his glove. However, he was just 23, batted from the left side of the plate, and had just hit .310/.377/.547 in 91 games for Triple-A Colorado Springs.
It was not clear at that time that Lofton would have a career that was Hall of Fame quality. It wasn’t even clear he would be a big league regular. A former 17th-round pick out of the University of Arizona, he was better known for his collegiate basketball career than his work on the baseball diamond. In fact, he had barely played. When he first entered the minors, the rust was noticeable, though he rapidly improved. As of the end of the 1991 season, he had played 358 minor league games and, while his speed, plate judgment, and ability to hit for average had begun to come into focus, he had slugged just .380, totaling just six home runs in 1,405 at-bats. A 20-game trial in the Majors had not done anything to alter the perception of him as a player, going on 25, who might make a good pinch-runner and fifth outfielder.
First impressions are very hard to shake. Lofton had outplayed the “raw kid with good tools” label, but Astros GM Bill Wood didn’t see that as much as he saw a need for a catcher and that the outfield, manned by Luis Gonzalez, Steve Finley, and Eric Anthony, was seemingly set. Instead, all three had been traded by June 1995, at which point Lofton was on the verge of making his third All-Star team and Taubensee was hitting .284/.354/.491 for the Cincinnati Reds. He had been traded there in April 1994 for two pitchers who never won a game in the Majors.
Courtesy: The Trading Card Database
February 8, 2008: The Seattle Mariners traded OF Adam Jones with LHP Tony Butler (minors), RHP Kam Mickolio, LHP George Sherrill, and RHP Chris Tillman to the Baltimore Orioles for LHP Erik Bedard.
The Mariners employed Bill Bavasi as general manager from November 2003 through June 2008. His predecessor’s final team went 93–69; his first went 63–99. Some of that wasn’t fault—the M’s were an old team, and in 2004 players like John Olerud (35), Edgar Martinez (41), and Jamie Moyer (41) played down to their ages—but some of it was. Trading Carlos Guillen, one of the better-hitting shortstops of the day, to the Tigers for Ramon Santiago and an infielder who would never be heard from again and turning his position over to Yuniesky Betancourt, or starting pitcher Freddy Garcia for Mike Morse, Miguel Olivo, and Jeremy Reed were less than brilliant on first examination.
Those trades pale in misery next to the trade for Erik Bedard. The left-hander had great stuff, but he also had durability problems that affected almost every season of his career. He never pitched 200 innings. He made it to 30 starts just once in 11 seasons. Even had he been at his best in 2008, he would not have made the difference for a Mariners team that went 88–74, which was encouraging, but was also outscored 794–813, so the record was deceptive.
To get him, the Mariners parted with five players, two of whom were still playing with the Orioles 10 years later. There is an argument to be made that Jones and Tillman never quite lived up to the prospect hype of their younger days, but they’ve made six All-Star appearances between them and helped restore the moribund Baltimore franchise to postseason play with appearances in 2012, 2014, and 2016. The Mariners haven’t been to the postseason since 2001, in part because they’ve failed to hold on to players like these, or failing that, realize an adequate return when trading them.
Bedard spent three seasons in Seattle but made only 46 starts. Add them together and you get a good old-timey season—255.1 innings, 212 hits, 101 walks, 249 strikeouts, 3.31 ERA. Conversely, since Jones was traded, Baltimore center fielders have hit an aggregate .275/.317/.451 with 264 home runs, while Seattle center fielders have hit .248/.306/.359 with 119 home runs. At this writing, Tillman is a free agent, but presuming Jones isn’t traded he’ll open the 2018 season in Baltimore’s outfield. He’s only 32, so Bavasi’s Folly could continue for quite a while longer.
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