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January 16, 2004

Trading a Superstar

It's Not as Rare as You Might Think

by Mark Armour

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This past December, the Texas Rangers and Boston Red Sox almost pulled off a swap of Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez, with assorted lesser players and suitcases of cash also reportedly involved. While this was going on, there were countless media references to this deal being "the biggest trade in baseball history." This is a pretty bold statement, obviously, but these are some pretty big names so you didn't hear a lot of protest or debate about the claim.

Teams have been trading baseball players for 140 years or so, and many of these trades have involved 10 or more players changing sides. Of course, that is not what makes the A-Rod/Manny trade "big"; its bigness rests with its star power, with both principles being among the best players in the game and somewhere near mid-career. Setting aside Ramirez for a moment, how often is a player of the caliber of Alex Rodriguez traded at all? Not bloody often, obviously, since there have not been very many players as good as Rodriguez, traded or not.

This article will attempt to identify these rare deals, where a team has a superstar talent and decides to trade it away. For our purposes a "trade" requires one or more players to move in each direction. Babe Ruth was not traded from the Red Sox to the Yankees, he was sold. Eddie Collins and Frank Baker were sold by the Athletics. What's more, we are not interested in deals where money was an overriding component of the transaction. In 1935, Jimmie Foxx was dealt from the Athletics to the Red Sox in a two-for-two trade, but a check for $150,000 came the other way. The players the A's received were of little import--Connie Mack wanted the 150 grand. This codicil similarly eliminates deals involving such superstars as Tris Speaker, Joe Jackson, Pete Alexander, Lefty Grove, and Johnny Mize.

One more thing. On December 15, 1900, the Cincinnati Reds traded Christy Mathewson to the New York Giants for Amos Rusie. On first glance this appears to be what we are looking for: two Hall of Fame hurlers, winners of over 600 major league games, in a straight one-for-one deal. Unfortunately, Mathewson had not gotten started (he had yet to pitch a single major league game) and Rusie was essentially all done. Neither player was a star performer at the time of the deal. What we are looking for here is great players who were traded near their prime, leaving aside players who were traded either before they were great (Ryne Sandberg, Jeff Bagwell) or after (Willie Mays, Henry Aaron).

With those ground rules, there still have been several interesting trades of superstars. Here are some of the biggest, in chronological order:

  1. Cardinals deal Rogers Hornsby (age 30) to Giants for Frankie Frisch (28) and Jimmy Ring, November 8, 1926.

    This was the first of three consecutive off-seasons that Hornsby was traded. The Rajah had been the greatest player in the National League for a decade, although he was coming off a poor year by his standards in 1926 (EqA of .287, WARP3 of 5.2). Balancing that, he had just managed his team to a dramatic World Series title, which surely counts for something. Frisch, the Manny Ramirez of the deal, was a heck of a player, too, although a plane lower than Hornsby.

    After a great comeback season in New York (.342 EqA), Hornsby was dealt the next winter to the Braves for Shanty Hogan and Jimmy Welsh, a gross mismatch in talent that came about because John McGraw wanted Hornsby out of town. After tearing up the NL in Boston (.375 EqA), Rogers was dealt to the Cubs for five players and $200,000. Truth be told, Hornsby had trouble getting along with people, especially once he stopped hitting .400 every year.

  2. Reds deal Frank Robinson (30) to Orioles for Milt Pappas, Jack Baldschun and Dick Simpson, December 9, 1965.

    After this deal was consumated, Robinson was famously described by Reds' general manager Bill DeWitt as "an old 30," a judgment that proved to be considerably wide of the mark. At the time of the trade, Robinson was one of the better and more consistent players in baseball, with his 1965 season (.296/.386/.540, EqA of .319) a hair lower than the surrounding years. Pappas was a fine pitcher before and after the deal, but was reduced to a trivia question after Robinson won the MVP award 1966 and led his team to four pennants in six years.

  3. Astros deal Joe Morgan (28) with Ed Armbrister, Jack Billingham, Cesar Geronimo, and Denis Menke to Reds for Lee May (29), Tommy Helms, and Jimmy Stewart on November 29, 1971.

    The Reds had followed up their 1970 pennant with a 79-83 season, a collapse that many attributed to the loss of Bobby Tolan (and his 57 stolen bases) to a broken leg. The principal motivation for this deal was to give up some of their excess power (May) in exchange for some supposedly much needed speed on the bases (Morgan). In effect, the Reds were fortunate, because their overzealous pursuit of base stealing landed them the rest of Morgan's fabulous offensive game in the bargain. Lee May was a fine player, and had several excellent seasons in front of him, but this swindle would have favored the Reds even if Morgan had not been included.

    You might think I cheated including this deal, since Morgan became famous after this trade. However, Little Joe was a very good, but unappreciated, player in Houston, with EqAs between .290 and .310 every year, playing half his games in the Astrodome. His game advanced quite a bit with the Reds, but it wasn't as large an advance as people thought at the time. He merely evolved from an All-Star to the best player in baseball.

    You might be interested to know that Morgan's improvement was not directly related to his leaving Houston. Thanks to the work of baseball researcher Bill Deane, we know that during his years as an Astro, Morgan actually hit better at the Astrodome (.272/.401/.405) than he did on the road (.250/.251/.382). When he went to the Reds his home numbers improved (.282/.418/.473), but his performance on the road improved more, catching up to his home numbers (.294/.420/.468). Morgan himself claims that he became better once he began playing with great teammates.

  4. Athletics deal Reggie Jackson (30) with Ken Holtzman (30) to Orioles for Don Baylor (27) and Mike Torrez (29), on April 2, 1976.

    Even when cash does not trade hands, money has always been a factor in baseball trades. This deal was culminated at the start of the first season of full free agency, and all four of these players were unsigned and playing out their contracts. From the perspective of A's owner Charlie Finley, he was dealing two players who despised him for two who did not know him yet. Jackson had been the league's marquee player for several years, and had put up five straight .300 EqA seasons. Holtzman had won 77 games over the past four years, Torrez was coming off a 20-win year in Baltimore and Baylor was one of the bright young stars in the game. Considering that these were two of the best teams in the league, and the season was just about to start, this was a shocking deal at the time.

    In the event, both teams finished second in their divisions in 1976, but had no more luck signing their new players than they had their old ones. All four would be playing elsewhere by 1977.

  5. Mets deal Tom Seaver (31) to Reds for Pat Zachry, Doug Flynn, Steve Henderson, and Dan Norman on June 15, 1976.

    This was as turbulent a season as baseball had ever gone through, with the Messersmith decision of the previous winter meaning that all players without contracts (regardless of service time) would be free agents in October 1976. Many of the owners refused to adapt to the new order, instead resorting to the public whining about their ungrateful players that continues to this day. The new order was so new that the Lords had to make up the rules as they went along. Charlie Finley sold three of his players (Vida Blue, Rollie Fingers, and Joe Rudi) on June 15, but when commissioner Bowie Kuhn disallowed the deals he was no longer able even to trade them--the trading deadline had passed.

    Tom Seaver was revered in New York, but the above deal came about when the Mets could not come to terms with him on a contract just before the deadline. The pile of swag coming back was not enough for Seaver, who had several good seasons left in him. Since the Mets had no idea that they were going to be trading their star, they had to scramble to find the best deal they could in just a few hours. This is the kind of trade 10-year-olds talk about on the playground, trading quantity (from the favorite team) for someone else's superstar.

  6. Expos deal Gary Carter (31) to Mets for Hubie Brooks, Mike Fitzgerald, Herm Winningham, and Floyd Youmans, December 5, 1984.

    Carter was a seven-time All-Star, the best catcher, and one of the very best players in baseball. He was available because the Expos' clubhouse was a perceived to be a cesspool of jealousies and infighting, and management felt they had to do something dramatic. It wasn't that bad of a deal, as Carter had an awful lot of mileage on his body at this point and would prove to have only one big year left in him.

  7. Athletics deal Rickey Henderson (26) with Bert Bradley to Yankees for Stan Javier, Jay Howell, Jose Rijo, Eric Plunk, and Tim Birtsas, December 5, 1984.

    This deal illustrates fairly vividly the problem with dealing a superstar. You have Rickey Henderson, one of the very best players in baseball, already staking his claim as the greatest leadoff hitter in history. But your team isn't very good (75-87), so you figure: why not use Rickey to fill a bunch of holes on the team and pick up several promising players? The problem here is that you are left hoping that one or two of these players become regulars, or maybe one becomes a star, when you already had a star, a superstar in fact. And you just traded him away for some shiny gold rocks.

  8. Yankees deal Rickey Henderson (30) to Athletics for Greg Cadaret, Eric Plunk, and Luis Polonia, June 21, 1989.

    Four-and-a-half years later, Rickey is still a great player, so you get him back. Once again, there is no realistic hope that these players are going to add up to Rickey Henderson-in fact, it's a much less hopeful group than the 1985 lot. Nice reversal, but you missed out on some pretty good seasons, and Rickey might have helped out in 1987.

  9. Padres deal Roberto Alomar (23) with Joe Carter (31) to Blue Jays for Fred McGriff (27) and Tony Fernandez (29), December 5, 1990.

    For many years this was called "The Joe Carter Trade," and there are likely still people out there who think of it that way. That said, Carter clearly had the worst career of the players in the deal. Fernandez trails Carter in EqA .270 to .272, but Tony was a Gold Glove shortstop. WARP3, which estimates how many wins a player gave his team (on offense and defense) above and beyond a replacement level player at his position, ranks them this way for their careers: Alomar 132.9, McGriff 98.5, Fernandez 97.2, Carter 67.0, with the first two still playing.

  10. Athletics deal Mark McGwire (33) to Cardinals for Eric Ludwick, T. J. Mathews, and Blake Stein, July 31, 1997.

    In the next two months and two years, McGwire hit 159 home runs for the Cardinals, making this trade a serious rival for the Frank Robinson swindle of 1965. I almost didn't list this deal, since McGwire was a bit old to be considered in his "prime." On the other hand, it feels silly to exclude a guy who was right in the middle of the following run of EqAs: .366, .380, .339, .380, .344. I am forced to conclude that he was in his prime.

    McGwire was two months from free agency, so the Athletics could not have been expected to get his full trade value in return. Many of the post-1975 deals have to be judged through a different lens; a player's contract status, specifically where he is on his free agent clock, is a large part of his future value, muddying our ability to judge the deal.

  11. Expos deal Pedro Martinez (26) to Red Sox for Carl Pavano and Tony Armas, November 18, 1997.

    With the advent of free agency, there were those who thought that the age of the big trade was over, that the players had subsumed the role of directing their own career. In fact, there are more trades than ever before, but many of them are brought on because a team either wants to avoid a player becoming a free agent, or wants to rid themselves of their contract.

    Pedro Martinez was one of three reigning Cy Young Award winners to be dealt in the 1990s; the others were David Cone and Roger Clemens. In Pedro's case, the trade came just a few days after the announcement of his honor. Obviously, money played a role here, as the rape of the Expos Version 2.0 was in full swing.

  12. Dodgers deal Mike Piazza (29) with Todd Zeile to Marlins for Gary Sheffield (29), Manuel Barrios, Bobby Bonilla, Jim Eisenreich, and Charles Johnson, May 14, 1998.

    From the Marlins perspective, they were just dumping salaries and thought it would be easier to find a home for Piazza than the five other guys. However, the Dodgers were actually making a baseball trade, dealing their best player but getting a lot of talent back. In terms of total talent, this might be the biggest baseball trade ever made.

  13. Marlins deal Mike Piazza (29) to Mets for Preston Wilson, Ed Yarnall, and Geoff Goetz, May 22, 1998.

    I wonder what a game-used Piazza Marlin uniform goes for these days? He played three road games and two home games, so there might only be two of them available. This second Piazza deal was just a salary dump, one of many the Marlins partook in during that inglorious post-championship year. Sadly, it would be five long years before they would witness another World Series winner in south Florida.

  14. Mariners deal Ken Griffey (30) to Reds for Mike Cameron, Brett Tomko, Antonio Perez and Jake Meyer, February 10, 2000.

    The one thing that most of the above trades have in common is that the team acquiring the star player ended up better off. Perhaps this should go without saying, but for the most part you cannot replace a superstar with two good players and a few spare parts. This Griffey deal is the clear exception, mainly because Junior has not been able to stay healthy in his four years in the Rhineland. Despite what your friends in Seattle tell you, if Griffey had played 145 games per year for the Reds, he would have been a lot better than Mike Cameron.

  15. Red Sox deal Ted Williams (28) to Yankees for Joe DiMaggio (32), October 1946.

    This legendary deal, which never took place, is a good match for Rodriguez/Ramirez, if for no other reason than it never took place. Williams and DiMaggio were the two biggest stars in the game, and the symbols of their teams and cities. Of course, the deal would have been a steal for the Yankees, who would have received 2/3 of Ted's career in exchange for 1/3 of Joe's. The Yankees outfield in the 1950s would have been pretty good, too.

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