A two-time Cy Young Award winner traded before the age of 30-where have we seen that before? It’s only happened twice prior to this week’s Johan Santana trade to the New York Mets by the Minnesota Twins.
The first time came on October 9, 1970, when the Detroit Tigers traded Denny McLain to the Washington Senators for Ed Brinkman, Aurelio Rodriguez, Joe Coleman and Jim Hannan. They also sent along Elliott Maddox, Norm McRae, and Don Wert. The circumstances of McLain’s departure are much different than Santana’s. For one thing, McLain was even younger: Santana turns 29 on March 13, while McLain was six months from his 27th birthday at the time he was dealt. For another, there was no impending free agency hurrying the process along. Also, Santana, while not coming off his best season, is still near the peak of his abilities. McLain, on the other hand, was coming off of a miserable 1970 season that saw him suspended for consorting with mob types and missing time to shoulder problems. He had thrown 661 innings in the two seasons he won the Cy Young, 1968 and 1969, starting 82 games in the process and going all the way in 51 of them. He was also known as someone who enjoyed the nightlife. In 1970, he was reduced to 14 starts and under 100 innings. He was, in other words, someone a new team might want to approach with great caution.
Not Bob Short’s Senators, though. In the process of going after him full-bore, they made one of the worst trades ever. McLain was able to return to near full duty, starting 32 games, but his WARP3 of 1.3 indicates that his questionable effectiveness at this point in his career, which didn’t have much longer to run. His trademates didn’t light up the sky, either: McRae never played for the Senators, while Wert went 2-for-40 in 20 games. Maddox was the only thing like a productive player for Washington, totaling 7.0 worth of WARP3 in the three seasons he was there before being sold to the Yankees.
Had the trade been McLain for Jim Hannan straight up, you would probably nod your head and say, “I get that.” Hannan was a 30-year swingman who was about at McLain’s level at the time of the trade. Of course, he hadn’t won 31 games in 1968, so McLain brought more to the Tigers in the trade-much more. Hannan turned out to be the very least of the deal going the other way to the Motor City Kitties. While Rodriguez (third base) and Brinkman (shortstop) were never wizards with the bats-posting career EqAs of .230 and .218, respectively-they nailed down their side of the infield until it was airtight. Both had great arms and lots of range. Rodriguez was with the Tigers for the rest of the decade, while Brinkman was good for a 16.9 WARP3 in his four years in Detroit.
Either one of them by themselves would have tipped the trade in Detroit’s favor, but adding in what Joe Coleman did for the Tigers makes it a massacre. Over the next four seasons, he won 76 games and amassed a WARP3 of 26.1. The Tigers won their division in 1972, thanks in part to the players picked up in the McClain deal, while the Senators/Rangers lost 301 games in the three seasons following the trade. As blockbuster deals go, it was a real short-term franchise-gutter.
The second example of a pre-age-30 deal involving a multi-Cy Young guy came on December 11, 1991, when the Royals sent 1985 and 1989 winner Bret Saberhagen to the Mets for Kevin McReynolds, Gregg Jefferies, and Keith Miller. People talked of little else in Kansas City when this trade was made. At the time, it seemed unthinkable to have sent away the popular Sabes, although the trade’s defenders pointed to Jefferies-then just 23, but already the veteran of over 450 big league games-as something of a catch. In the end, nobody in the trade ever quite lived up to expectations. Saberhagen had one season with the Mets (1994) that was reminiscent of his best work in Kansas City. McReynolds faded fast, and Miller’s career was killed by injuries. Jefferies never lived up to anybody’s expectations and became something of a Flying Dutchman, doomed to wander from team to team, not hitting with enough power to play a corner position, nor playing defense well enough to play up the middle.
While no other two-time winners have been traded before the age of 30, a number of one-time winners have been. They are:
- Dean Chance: Traded on December 2, 1966 by the California Angels with a player to be named later (Jackie Hernandez) to the Minnesota Twins for Jimmie Hall, Don Mincher, and Pete Cimino
Chance had won the award for the Angels in 1964 when there was still just one prize given out for all of baseball (it wasn’t until 1967 that Cy Youngs would be given out in both leagues). Was it the right choice? Absolutely, as Chance easily had the best season for an American League pitcher from 1961-1970. Here are the 10 best pitching seasons by VORP for the decade of the pitcher:
99.5: Sandy Koufax, 1966 Dodgers 92.8: Dean Chance, 1964 Angels 88.3: Bob Gibson, 1969 Cardinals 87.7: Sandy Koufax, 1963 Dodgers 87.6: Sandy Koufax, 1965 Dodgers 85.5: Bob Gibson, 1968 Cardinals 82.0: Juan Marichal, 1965 Giants 81.6: Juan Marichal, 1966 Giants 80.8: Jim Bunning, 1966 Phillies 79.8: Don Drysdale, 1964 Dodgers
As you can see, Chance is the only American Leaguer on the list. This is one of the reasons why, for those who came of age in this period, the current state of league disparity is so jarring – it runs counter to the way things used to be. At any rate, by the time of the trade Chance was deemed expendable after coming back down to earth in 1965 and 1966. He rebounded with his second- and third-best seasons his first two years in Minnesota before arm problems put the kibosh on his career. The Twins won this trade.
- Jim Lonborg: Traded on October 10, 1971 by the Boston Red Sox with Ken Brett, Billy Conigliaro, Joe Lahoud, Don Pavletich, and George Scott to the Milwaukee Brewers for Marty Pattin, Lew Krausse, Tommy Harper, and minor leaguer, Pat Skrable.
Lonborg infamously broke his leg in a skiing accident the winter after winning his Cy Young Award in 1967. He was never a power pitcher again after that, even when his career immediately revitalized upon arriving in Milwaukee. At the time of the trade, he was coming off of four seasons in which he had amassed a WARP3 of just 7.9, so he was not the centerpiece of the deal by any means.
- Vida Blue: Traded on March 15, 1978 by the Oakland Athletics to the San Francisco Giants for Gary Alexander, Gary Thomasson, Dave Heaverlo, Alan Wirth, John Henry Johnson, Phil Huffman, $300,000, and a player to be named later (Mario Guerrero).
Seven players and a big pile of cash? Blue already had nearly 2,000 innings on his odometer when the A’s dealt him across the Bay. His Cy Young Award was also seven years distant, as he had won it at the tender age of 21. Even so, he had one of his better seasons his first year as a Giant. Only Guerrero and Johnson became regulars for the A’s, with Johnson having a nice rookie year in ’78, although it proved to be his best season. I guess those 300 bricks must have felt good in Charlie Finley’s pocket.
- Bruce Sutter: Traded on December 9, 1980 by the Chicago Cubs to the St. Louis Cardinals for Leon Durham, Ken Reitz, and a player to be named later (Ty Waller).
If there was one thing the Cubs didn’t lack in 1980, it was potential closers. Sitting around their bullpen watching Sutter rack up the saves were future Cy Young Award winner Willie Hernandez, career saves leader Lee Smith, and Bill Caudill, who would make the ’84 All-Star Game as the A’s closer. Durham didn’t much make it out of his twenties, but he hit 138 home runs as a Cub and appeared in two All-Star Games. Reitz had made the All-Star team himself in 1980, but that belies a season in which he came to the plate 561 times and scored just 39 runs. That’s pretty jarring; his decline in Chicago was fairly quick. Sutter simply carried on as previously.
- La Marr Hoyt: Traded on December 6, 1984 by the Chicago White Sox with minor leaguers Kevin Kristan and Todd Simmons to the San Diego Padres for Ozzie Guillen, Tim Lollar, Bill Long, and Luis Salazar.
Hoyt’s peak with the ChiSox was short and sweet: two eight-plus WARP3 seasons, 1982 and 1983. After a down ’84 he was shipped west just a few weeks shy of his 30th birthday in a deal that would have serious long-term impact on the White Sox franchise, in that it brought them the everyday shortstop who would later become their first championship-winning manager in 86 years. Cosmically, Hoyt owes the team nothing.
- Frank Viola: Traded on July 31, 1989 by the Minnesota Twins to the New York Mets for Rick Aguilera, David West, Kevin Tapani, Tim Drummond, and a player to be named later (Jack Savage).
Here’s a question: how much guilt should one feel for being a fan of one of the handful of teams that could even entertain the notion of going after Santana? Yes, as a fan, it’s exciting my team got themselves one of the games few true aces. On the other hand, isn’t it too easy? Isn’t there something distasteful about having this advantage over three-quarters of the other teams? I’ll try to keep that in mind when he’s mowing down the Pirates on April 28 and keep from tearing up on their impoverished behalf.
When the Mets made the Viola trade, they were trailing the first-place Montreal Expos (a phrase that never got much use) by seven games. They finished six behind the Cubs and four out the next year as Viola pitched very well, delivering one of his three best seasons. The Twins can certainly feel good about this deal as well, simply by pointing to their ’91 World Series trophy. Aguilera had been crowded out of the Mets’ deep rotation, and the Twins eventually made him their closer, something at which he excelled for most of the next decade. Tapani had an 8.7 WARP3 in the ’91 season; he and Aguilera combined to win Game Two of the Series that year, although “Tap” was bashed about in Game Five. West never found his niche, but he did pitch well in the ’91 ALCS. The Twins should hope to get as much out of their new deal with the Mets as they did in this one.
- Jack McDowell: Traded on December 14, 1994 by the Chicago White Sox to the New York Yankees for Keith Heberling and a player to be named later (Lyle Mouton).
I’m still wondering how a player not eligible for free agency ends up with a no-trade clause like Santana has. I see how they can happen when you’re trying to entice a potential free agent to stay, or to lock up a player who is arb-eligible to a contract that takes him past his free agent eligibility, or as a perquisite for a free agent coming in from another team. I just don’t see them being a smart move for a player with no real leverage.
Anyway, if things had broken a little differently, McDowell could still be active. He just turned 42, making him just three months older than Greg Maddux. However, after throwing 38 complete games and over 750 innings between 1991 and 1993, there might have been some wear and tear issues. When the Yankees got him he was still effective, but they did not sign him to a long-term deal, which turned out to be the smart move, as his decline began almost immediately thereafter. Mouton had EqAs of .304 and .283 in his first two years of limited duty with the Sox, but never became a big-league regular.
- David Cone: Traded on August 27, 1992 by the New York Mets to the Toronto Blue Jays for Jeff Kent and a player to be named later (Ryan Thompson).
Cone was a late-season rental by the Jays acquired to contribute to their World Championship run before later signing a big contract with the Royals. Unfortunately for the Mets, Kent turned out to be a late bloomer-and that happened after they’d traded him to Cleveland for the unfortunate Carlos Baerga. Still, the Mets got nearly four years out of Kent as a regular in exchange for a pitcher they probably weren’t going to re-sign anyway. Thompson chipped in 12.2 WARP3 in his time as a Met as well.
- Pedro Martinez: Traded on November 18, 1997 by the Montreal Expos to the Boston Red Sox for Carl Pavano and a player to be named later (Tony Armas Jr.).
If the Mets and Santana cannot come to some sort of agreement, there is a chance that he will join a different list, former Cy Young Award winners who have found new teams via free agency prior to their 30th birthdays. That list is made up of Catfish Hunter, Dwight Gooden, Mark Davis, Greg Maddux, and Barry Zito. Which leads to this point: evaluating trades in the free-agent era isn’t as fun as it is for the days when talent would be swapped on a more or less equal footing, and not because one team wasn’t going to be able to meet the salary demands of an impending free agent. The onus on the Twins when trading Santana wasn’t necessarily in getting equal or greater value, but in making the best possible deal under the circumstances. Did they do that? It sure doesn’t seem like it to me. At any rate, in 1997 the Expos were in a similar situation with Martinez. In exchange for giving him to a team that could afford him, they got two minor league pitchers with big-league futures; both Armas and Pavano (sort of) were still active in 2007. In their careers, they’ve amassed a WARP3 of 42.2. For whatever it’s worth, in that same time period, Martinez has put up just about double that, 84.2. If that’s the best deal the Expos could have made at the time, so be it. Keep that in mind in the years that follow this week’s trade.