July 14, 2009
You Could Look It Up
A few years ago, the Royals traded Jermaine Dye for Yuniesky-comp Neifi Perez. Now, that trade was an absolute disaster-the worst in team history in my opinion-but there was this indisputable line of reasoning. The Royals felt like they did not have a shortstop ready to play in the big leagues. This is a powerful problem: When you play baseball, you must have a shortstop… otherwise teams will laugh at you. Yes, true, they will laugh at you if you have Neifi Perez at shortstop too, but they'll laugh at you more if you don't have a shortstop at all.
Jermaine Dye has had a fine career, and that 2001 trade was indeed egregious, sending a 27-year-old right fielder who had hit .308/.372/.543 over the previous two seasons and had just won a Gold Glove to the Rockies for Neifi Perez, one of the worst hitters of all time, one who would bat an astounding .238/.265/.303 in one and a half seasons in Royals togs. Any brief against Allard Baird, the team's general manager from June, 2000 to May, 2006, must begin with this truly bizarre transaction, but was it actually the worst in team history?
Looking for the worst deal the Royals have ever made serves to remind one of just how far this team has come from its solid foundations of the 1970s under GM Cedric Tallis. So many key Royals of the period were acquired in trades that were outright blind steals: Amos Otis spirited away from the Mets for Joe Foy (1969), or John Mayberry and Dave Grangaard lifted from the Astros for Jim York and Lance Clemons (1971), and who can forget Hal McRae and Wayne Simpson filched from the Reds for Richie Scheinblum and Roger Nelson (1972)? While the Royals have made some solid trades in recent years, such as getting Alberto Callaspo from the Diamondbacks for Billy Buckner, or sending Ambiorix Burgos to the Mets and bringing back Brian Bannister, or even the trade for Dye himself, which merely got the Braves Keith Lockhart and Michael Tucker, these days the Royals are more likely to be the victims of larceny than its perpetrators.
Of course, no GM is immune from the odd trading mishap, and even Tallis has one of the franchise's biggest trading backfires one his ledger, the December 7, 1973 deal that brought 38-year-old former closer Lindy McDaniel to the club in exchange for 30-year-old outfielder Lou Piniella. Unjustly forgotten today, McDaniel belongs somewhere among the top 100 relievers of all time with his solid 21-season career, but he was all but finished in 1974 and he put in just 78 games for the Royals over two seasons, whereas Piniella would hit .295/.338/.413 (better rates then than now) in more than a thousand games with the Yankees.
An even worse Tallis-era trade was apparently directed towards healing an old wound. The Royals had drafted catcher Fran Healy from the Indians in the 1969 expansion draft, but after keeping him on the farm for two years, Tallis had sent him to the Giants in exchange for journeyman reliever Bob Garibaldi. Healy spent two seasons as a reserve in San Francisco, and failed to distinguish himself-while he hit a very respectable .280/.380/.376 in 47 games his rookie year, he suffered an epochal sophomore slump that saw his rates plunge to .152/.257/.222. Nonetheless, Tallis apparently hadn't gotten over him, and it was after this latter season that he re-obtained Healy in return for Greg Minton, a starting pitcher in the California League, thus foregoing all 16 seasons of the Moon-Man's big-league career, which featured a 2.99 ERA in 1089
There are a number of other early-years deals that went notably awry that we can briefly note here. In mid-1974, Gene Garber, then 26, was sold to the Phillies; there were 846 more appearances to go in Garber's long career. Dealing Tom Burgemeier, a lefty middle reliever and sometime closer who had 10 years of pitching left in him, with a 3.15 ERA (and a 54-35 record), to the Twins in October 1973 for minor leaguer right-hander Ken Gill didn't work out well. Future platoon legend Ken Phelps was sent to the Expos for the ghost of Grant Jackson in January 1982, this after two strong seasons at Triple-A Omaha (but before Phelps hit .333/.479/.706 in a full season at Triple-A Wichita). That same year, another future platoon star, Rance Mulliniks, was dealt to the Blue Jays for former 18-game loser Phil Huffman. Huffman never did pitch a game in a Royals uniform, but Mulliniks would play more than a thousand games for Toronto and hit .280/.365/.424.
Rookie general manager John Schuerholz was on some kind of roll in 1982, because that same spring he sent righties Craig Chamberlain and Renie Martin, second baseman Brad Wellman, and future NL ERA leader Atlee Hammaker to the Giants in exchange for two lefties, Vida Blue and Bob Tufts. Blue was something like a god at one time, but that moment had long since passed. The Royals got one decent season from Blue, followed by an injury year (0-5, 6.01 ERA in 19 games), followed by a one-year suspension for drug abuse. In a deal that partially redeemed the Blue trade, Tufts was later sent to the Reds for Charlie Leibrandt. Schuerholz did hold off until February 1983 to trade 19-year-old Cecil Fielder, who he had drafted the previous June, to the Blue Jays for washed-up outfielder Leon Roberts.
As bad as these trades were, none dethrones Dye-for-Perez as the worst in franchise history. For that, we must move closer to the present day, specifically March 27, 1987. That is the day that the Royals consummated the other worst trade in franchise history, the one with the starting pitcher and the backup catcher. Bedazzled by the mystique of the 1986 Mets, Schuerholz swapped for two members of the club, catcher Ed Hearn and right-hander Rick Anderson, plus another righty, Mauro "Goose" Gozzo. All they gave up in exchange was David Cone.
Weighing this deal against Dye-for-Perez, one finds that the three players did less damage than Perez did as Royals due to the fact that they hardly played for the Royals. Anderson and Hearn each appeared in 13 games, and Gozzo none at all, so at least the Royals didn't have to live with the bastard issue of this misbegotten trade. However, they did forego the six years they would have controlled Cone prior to free agency (1987-1992), during which time he went 84-51 with a 3.06 ERA. Put BP style, he was worth 30.3 wins above replacement (if you prefer SNLVAR, Cone delivered 28.6 wins above replacement). Dye has been worth 31.6 wins above replacement in his career to date.
The initial Cone trade blows Dye-for-Perez out of the water in terms of value, but it does not display the same poor form of analysis. A third-round pick in 1981, Cone's initial minor league work was highly promising, but in 1983 he missed the entire season to injury. He spent the next two seasons regaining his form, fighting his control all the while, something he continued to do in an 11-game major league audition in 1986. His value was not established. Hearn should not have been regarded as a top prospect, but he did have 49 major league games under his belt, and his minor league record was mixed, but he had hit well in Double-A… you can see how a team could convince itself that Cone was an unknown commodity of dubious value and Hearn might be a starting catcher in the bigs.
No such self-deception was possible in the case of Dye/Perez. Dye had had the two strong seasons already cited; Perez had had nearly 3,000 plate appearances in the big leagues, all of them with the Colorado Rockies in their pre-humidor ballpark, and yet he had hit .282/.313/.411, all of the production coming in his home park. There's no way to justify the trade, even if Dye had urgently to be traded, for reasons of finance, character, high water, or the plague. It's hard to say which would have been the greater sin: Baird making the trade in ignorance of Perez's true value, or his making the trade in full awareness of it.
There are other Royals deals that might qualify for inclusion here. The second trade of David Cone, after he returned as a free agent, a deal which netted the Royals Chris Stynes and two minor leaguers who didn't develop. The deaccessioning of Johnny Damon, which also cost the Royals Mark Ellis and brought them Angel Berroa, A.J. Hinch, and an aged Roberto Hernandez. Trading Carlos Beltran brought only one player of long-term value, Mark Teahen. You could even throw out some names that the Royals just plain missed on and gave away for no return or marginal veterans, players like Melido Perez, Greg Hibbard, Jeff Shaw, Jon Lieber, and Sean Berry.
In the final analysis, none of these deals add up to the willful giveaway of two players who, if not Hall of Famers-to-be, were still of extremely high quality. Cone was the more valuable property, both in terms of peak and career value, along with his Cy Young award, eight postseason teams, and five championship rings. Yet, Posnanski is correct that nothing quite matches the sheer, frustrating triumph of ignorance that was Dye/Perez. It might not have been the worst in team history in terms of pure value, but it was the worst in every other way that counts.