For the next two weeks, You Can Look It Up, dedicated to exploring the baseball of today through the examples of the past, will examine the key midseason trades for each franchise (midseason being generously described as June 15 to the end of the regular season) and evaluate each trade to see what a midseason addition is really worth, and, if possible, discern patterns and discover which deals really help and which are of little or even negative value. After we break down each trade, we’ll come to a “snap judgment,” a hasty conclusion. At the end of the series, we’ll see if those judgments add up to any helpful conclusions.

Before We Begin

It is with great sadness that we note the passing of Mets’ Hall of Fame broadcaster Bob Murphy. Murphy was a consummate professional who delivered a crisp play-by-play of the game, never letting an anecdote, trademark call, verbal frill, or digression get in the way of the action. The verbal choreography of a Mets broadcast with Murphy and his last partner, Gary Cohen, was a study in perfect timing, with anecdotes neatly folded between pitches. You never heard the words, “We’ll get back to that story after the break,” on a Mets game. They always got it in, and if they didn’t have the space to finish, they didn’t start.

His voice was warm, and his understated “We’ll be right back with the happy recap” after a Mets win was heard all too infrequently during most of the years he covered the team, yet he always sounded sincere. Murphy wasn’t a homer, but he sounded interested, invested in the outcome. He brought a sense of enthusiasm and excitement to the proceedings. Over 40 years with the Mets this man had broadcast thousands of losing ballgames, and sometimes it was hard to wonder if his joviality wasn’t a put-on, an act. If it was, he was very, very good at it.

Murphy’s Mets broadcasts were a pleasure to listen to, unmarred by the showy bombast that is the trademark of their crosstown counterparts. The game was always the story. Today the story is Murphy and the happy recap is a memory–but it’s a good one. Thank you, and rest in peace.

The Minnesota Twins

The first four deals listed here are all part of the Twins’ desperate attempt to win the American League West in 1987. Because they are small deals that add up to one example of a frenetic attempt to do something, anything, we’ll break slightly from our usual format and wait until we’ve listed all four deals before looking at the result and making a snap judgment.

Date: 6/7/1987
Trade: Dealt C/Palindrome Mark Salas to the New York Yankees in exchange for RHP Joe Niekro
Record at Trade: 29-26 (.527), Second Place, 2.0
After Trade: 56-51 (.523)
Finish: 85-77 (.525), First Place, +2.0
Intended Upgrade: Starting rotation

Date: 6/24/1987
Trade: Traded RHP Danny Clay and 3B Tom Schwarz to the Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for LHP Dan Schatzeder and cash
Record at Trade: 41-29 (.585 ), First Place, +4.0
After Trade: 44-48
Finish: 85-77 (.525), First Place, +2.0
Intended Upgrade: Bullpen

Date: 7/31/1987
Trade: Acquired LHP/Social Animal Steve Carlton from the Cleveland Indians in exchange for a Player to Be Named Later (P Jeff Perry)
Record at Trade: 56-48 (.538), First Place, + 2.5
After Trade: 31-29 (.517)
Finish: 85-77 (.525), First Place, +2.0
Intended Upgrade: Starting rotation again; we can’t go into the post-season with Les Straker as our third starter

Date: 9/1/1987
Trade: Acquired DH Don Baylor from the Boston Red Sox in exchange for a Player to Be Named Later (P Enrique Rios)
Record at Trade: 69-64 (.518), First Place, +0.5
After Trade: 16-13 (.552)
Finish: 85-77 (.525), First Place, +2.0
Intended Upgrade: Designated Hitter/Leadership?

Result: The Twins were a mediocre team with exactly two above-average players on offense (Kent Hrbek and Kirby Puckett), two decent pitchers (Frank Viola and Bert Blyleven), and a huge home field advantage. Luckily, they found themselves in a division that nobody wanted. A year later, Tony LaRussa’s A’s would dominate the division, but in 1987 there were only a bunch of .500 teams, each standing around waiting for something to happen. To their credit, the Twins knew they had to improve. The problem was, they didn’t have much to trade. The roster at AAA Portland included Billy Beane, Ron Gardenhire, Alvaro Espinoza, Tom Nieto, Chris Pittaro, and Jeff Bittiger. No one at AA Orlando had hope of growing up to be even Chris Pittaro, let alone Billy Beane. Without much to deal, they aimed low, acquiring three stars of the 1970s on the verge of retirement: Niekro (42), Carlton (42), and Baylor (38). Schatzeder was just 32 and had been serviceable swing man in 1983. He posted a 6.39 ERA as a Twin. The old-timers were about the same. Arguably these trades hindered the Twins more than they helped.

Snap Judgment: You aim low, you hit low. The Twins did have a trading commodity, their highly thought of first base prospect Gene Larkin. The switch-hitter’s minor league stats were not impressive; that he drove in 104 runs at Orlando in 1986 counted for far more than it should have. Larkin wasn’t helping the Twins win. Had he been packaged with Salas, a left-handed hitting catcher who was still coasting on the high from his fluke .300/.332/.458 season (382 plate appearances) of 1985, the Twins might have been able to reel in something bigger. Of course, they won the World Series anyway, but with these trades they were swimming against the current.

Date: 7/28/2001
Trade: Traded LHP Mark Redman to the Detroit Tigers in exchange for RHP Todd Jones
Record at Trade: 60-44 (.576), Second Place, -0.5
After Trade: 25-33 (.431)
Finish: 85-77 (.525), Second Place, -6.0
Intended Upgrade: Bullpen.
Result: The Twins were short a closer because the decision to make LaTroy Hawkins the court of last resort turned out to be whole eternities premature, while Eddie Guardado was still thought of as a middle reliever/LOOGY type.
Snap Judgment: Trading a young lefty starter, particularly one with a successful year under his belt, for a defrocked closer should be a capital crime.

Date: 7/30/2001
Trade: Dealt OF Matt Lawton to the New York Mets for RHP Rick Reed
Record at Trade: 60-45 (.571 ), Second Place, -0.5
After Trade: 25-32 (.439)
Finish: 85-77 (.525), Second Place, -6.0
Intended Upgrade: Starting rotation
Result: Lawton was an underrated outfielder, a lowercase, less consistent Bernie Williams-type whose skills fit no obvious place in the batting order. That shouldn’t have mattered, but of course it did. The Twins had a clear shot at the division lead and figured they needed more pitching than their top three of Joe Mays, Eric Milton, and Brad Radke were providing. Mark Redman was gone and Johan Santana was hurt, while J.C. Romero and Kyle Lohse were ineffective. However, the trade was all risk with a low upside. Despite having a plethora of outfield prospects on hand, the Twins hadn’t identified who would take Lawton’s playing time or how his production would be replaced. Then there was Reed, who had been a very good pitcher in 1997 and 1998 but by 2000 was sliding towards average–in a non-DH league, in a pitcher’s park. Though gifted with outstanding control that mitigated his lack of strikeouts, it was still reasonable to suppose that moving to the American League might greatly reduce his effectiveness. In the event, Reed posted a 5.19 ERA in 12 Twins starts. Left field was manned by “staff.”
Snap Judgment: It takes a special trade to kill a pennant race dead. This is one of the few.

Date: 7/16/2003
Trade: Sent OF Bobby Kielty to the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for OF Shannon Stewart
Record at Trade: 44-49 (.473), Third Place, -7.5
After Trade: 46-23 (.667)
Finish: 90-72 (.556), First Place, +4
Intended Upgrade: Outfield
Result: Objective evaluation of this trade has been made difficult by some pundits calling Stewart a legitimate contender for the 2003 MVP award, which he was not. He got into 65 games as a Twin and played extremely well. He was certainly a key factor in Minnesota’s successful race to the top of the division chart. At the same time, the trade was not necessarily a good one for the Twins. At the time, Kielty seemed to possess a set of skills very similar to Stewart’s. Then there was the question of prioritization. Having hoarded young outfielders for years, the Twins were deep at that position but bare in the middle infield, where Cristian Guzman and Luis Rivas were eating up outs with no discernable return. While Kielty’s subsequent stagnation and Stewart’s fine play demonstrates that the Twins were correct in identifying a problem and a low-cost solution, this was not the only possible way out. With several outfield options available in-house, the Twins might have made a run for a middle infielder, an acquisition that would have served them well down the stretch, in playoff match-ups, and in subsequent seasons.
Snap Judgment: The Twins did well, but they could have done better.

Next Time:The Cincinnati Reds