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The Greatest Hits of Baseball’s Bad Trade Band,
1910–2010, Volume II

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 2 in this series on lopsided swaps.

By Steven Goldman, January 8, 2018
After seven seasons with the Yankees, Roger Maris was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. Shown here with teammates Tim McCarver and Orlando Cepeda, Maris (right) helped St. Louis win the 1967 and 1968 NL pennants.

December 8, 1966: The New York Yankees traded OF Roger Maris to the St. Louis Cardinals for 3B Charley Smith.

Charley Smith was a career .239/.279/.370 hitter, so if you didn’t know that the player the Yankees were giving up was vastly degraded from his peak, you’d be puzzled as to why the single-season home-run leader, a two-time MVP, had brought so little in return. As such, this trade represents not just an ill-judged swap, but the culmination of a series of bad decisions.

On June 28, 1965, Roger Maris left the second game of a doubleheader in Washington after one inning due to what was termed a strained right wrist. As was par for the course, the coverage after was about Mickey Mantle’s strained left hamstring. “Even if I pinch-hit and hit one out,” Mantle said, defending his inactivity, “I’d have to walk around the bases.” Meanwhile, Maris’s hand was not strained, but broken. X-rays either failed to reveal the injury, or, as Maris later suspected, General Manager Ralph Houk had elected not to tell him. (The New York Times report of Maris’s August 19 return describes him as having “dislodged a bone chip in his right wrist.”) Either way, Maris’s season was basically over; he’d take just four more at-bats the rest of the year. He had surgery to repair his hand that fall.

The hand continued to hamper Maris in 1966; he was unable to grip the bat with his old strength. When combined with injuries to both knees incurred when he jumped into the right-field fence at Yankee Stadium, he was limited to only 119 games and hit only .239/.307/.382. The Yankees faulted him for not playing. At season’s end, Maris told the Yankees something they understood as an ultimatum. He thought he said he intended to retire. They thought he said that he intended to retire if he were still a Yankee. That misunderstanding prompted the trade. Maris’s recent record and high salary promoted the low return. It was pointed out to an unnamed Yankees executive that Smith was perceived as a complainer, just as Maris was. “Yes,” was the reply, “but he’s moaning from a different [income] bracket. It makes a difference.”

“We are committed to making a fresh start with young players,” Yankees GM Lee MacPhail said. “I think Maris can have three or four more good years and we hope he does. There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with him physically.” Incentivized by the Cardinals’ Busch ownership with a beer distributorship to keep playing, Maris played well for the Cardinals in 1967 and 1968, though he was no longer a star. They won the pennant both seasons and the World Series in ’67.

Detroit Tigers pitcher Joe Coleman.

October 9, 1970: The Washington Senators traded SS Ed Brinkman, RHP Joe Coleman, RHP Jim Hannan, and 3B Aurelio Rodriguez to the Detroit Tigers for RHP Denny McLain, OF Elliott Maddox, RHP Norm McRae, and 3B Don Wert.

The second version of the Washington Senators operated under the twin handicaps of being an expansion team and having exceedingly poor ownership and management. Joe Coleman, both the father and son of big-league pitchers, was the third-overall pick of the first amateur draft. Rushed to the Majors at 18, he had to endure a high-pressure maturation that included being second-guessed by owner Bob Short and criticized by Manager Ted Williams, who insisted Coleman throw a slider, a pitch he didn’t have. What he did have was an excellent forkball, but the Senators weren’t interested in that.

Denny McLain was a year removed from winning his second consecutive Cy Young Award. In 1968 he’d gone 31–6 and also won the American League MVP Award. In 1969 he’d repeated as the AL leader in wins, this time with 24. Yet, much had changed in the intervening season. Sports Illustrated had revealed that the pitcher had been involved with organized crime via a bookmaking operation. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn suspended McLain through July 1 before ultimately clearing him; it was a bizarre decision that exculpated the pitcher because although it had been his intent to indulge in criminal activity, he hadn’t actually been good at it. “The difference is the same as between murder,” Kuhn said, “and attempted murder.”

McLain would be suspended twice more in 1970, first for dousing two sportswriters with buckets of ice water, then for carrying a gun onto an airplane. The second suspension ended his season. His final record was 3–5 with a 4.63 ERA in 14 starts. Somehow this was a pitcher Senators’ owner Bob Short just had to have. The deal that brought McLain to Detroit cost the Senators Coleman, who, freed to throw his forkball, went 62–38 with a 3.18 ERA in his first three seasons with his new team, as well as the left side of the Senators infield. Neither Brinkman nor Rodriguez could hit, but they were excellent fielders who would both earn Gold Glove recognition with the Tigers.

“The f---ing trade has ruined the club,” Williams told Senators broadcaster Shelby Whitfield. McLain was perhaps the worst pitcher in baseball in 1971, going 10–22 with a well-below league average 4.28 ERA. He was dumped on Oakland the following spring. The same year, Coleman would pitch a 14-strikeout shutout against those same A’s in Game 3 of the ALCS.

Courtesy: The Trading Card Database

December 10, 1980: The California Angels traded 3B Carney Lansford, OF Rick Miller, and RHP Mark Clear to the Boston Red Sox for SS Rick Burleson and 3B Butch Hobson.

The entire history of the Angels from their founding until 1998 can be summed up as, “Win a championship for Gene Autry before he dies. After he dies he won’t appreciate it as much.” It’s the same process that spurred on the Tigers until Mike Ilitch expired last February. In neither case did it work, because now and then the universe has to make it clear just how little it cares about our petty desires.

In the Angels’ case, racing mortality meant compulsively taking the products of the most fecund period in the history of their farm system and dealing them for veterans. In this instance, it caused General Manager Buzzie Bavasi to make a spectacularly unpopular trade. In order to obtain Rick Burleson, a 30-year-old shortstop who was a standout defender, a decent hitter for a shortstop of the pre-Ripken years, and a hardnosed gamer, the Angels had to give up the 24-year-old Carney Lansford, then regarded as the best player ever developed by the Angels; Clear, relentlessly wild but the closest thing the club had to a relief ace; and Rick Miller, a middling hitter but a Gold Glove–winning defensive outfielder. The Angels also received Butch Hobson, who was an almost perfect player in a sense—he was both one of the worst defensive third basemen in history and a hitter who struggled to reach base 30 percent of the time.

The Red Sox had made Burleson available because he was an imminent free agent. The Angels signed him to a six-year, $4.65 million contract. Today, that’s what Mike Trout tips his chiropodist, but in 1980 it was a great deal of money. Alas, although Burleson had a strong first season in his native California, hitting .293/.357/.372 during the strike-attenuated 1981 season, just 11 games into the following campaign he tore his rotator cuff making an off-balance throw on a doubleplay ball and missed all but 40 games of the next three seasons. He played well in a part-time role for the 1986 division winners, then departed for Baltimore, a club then obsessively collecting aged veterans for purposes that never did reveal themselves. Lansford played another 12 years, hitting over .300 five times and winning the 1981 AL batting title.

Source: Ewen Roberts on Flickr

November 19, 1993: The Los Angeles Dodgers traded RHP Pedro Martinez to the Montreal Expos for 2B Delino DeShields.

As the 1993 season came to an end, the Dodgers were looking for certainty at second base. The incumbent, Jody Reed, 30, was an imminent free agent. The Dodgers offered him a three-year deal worth $7.8 million. Reed said he wanted to test the market and the Dodgers withdrew the offer. Reed found that the market was completely uninterested in him. Unsigned into February, he ultimately signed a one-year, $750,000 contract with the Milwaukee Brewers. Meanwhile, the Montreal Expos offered up Delino DeShields, a four-year veteran at 24 and a career .277/.367/.373 hitter who had averaged 57 steals a season. All he would cost was Ramon Martinez’s younger brother Pedro, in 1993 a rookie set-up reliever and none too happy not to be starting. It seemed like a small price to pay. It wasn’t. That DeShields hit only .241/.326/.327 in three years in Dodger blue doesn’t even make the top-1o list of reasons this turned out to be a bad trade.

December 11, 2008: The New York Mets traded RHP Joe Smith to the Cleveland Indians as part of a three-team trade. The Seattle Mariners sent RHP Sean Green, RHP J. J. Putz, and OF Jeremy Reed to the Mets; sent INF Luis Valbuena to the Indians. Cleveland sent OF Franklin Gutierrez to the Mariners. The Mets sent 1B Mike Carp, OF Ezequiel Carrera, OF Endy Chavez, RHP Maikel Cleto, RHP Aaron Heilman, and LHP Jason Vargas to the Mariners.

This is a complex trade, but let’s just focus on one small aspect of it: It’s easy for teams to underestimate sidearmers. In 2008 and 2009 the Mets whiffed on two of them. In December 2008, they failed to protect Darren O’Day in the Rule 5 draft and he was plucked by the Los Angeles Angels. When he failed to stick in Anaheim and was returned, they put him on waivers and saw him claimed by the Texas Rangers. This time he posted a 1.94 ERA in 64 games, and his career has rolled on from there. Reed, who has proved to be a fine and relatively consistent reliever, was dispatched as a consequence of the Mets trying to reconstruct their bullpen in the wake of Billy Wagner needing Tommy John surgery in September 2008. At the time of the trade, Joe Smith had just completed his age-24 season. All the players acquired by the Mets are long gone. Smith has a 2.97 career ERA and might pitch a thousand games in the Major Leagues.

Reliever Joe Smith was on the mound for the Cleveland Indians during the team’s historic 22nd consecutive win in 2017.
Erik Jost on Flickr




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