The Rumor Mill
It’s the last post of the old year, so what better time to dig up the final trade rumors for 2005. The Mets are very close to completing a deal with the Devil Rays for Danys Baez, but there remain questions about the cost. According to several published reports, the Mets will send the Devil Rays a package headlined by either Jae Seo or Aaron Heilman. From the Mets’ perspective, surrendering Seo would be no great sacrifice, but the loss of Heilman would be damaging. To give up Heilman straight-up for Baez is questionable; to give up Heilman along with other players for Baez would be foolish. Unlike Baez, who is strictly a short-stint closer, Heilman has the ability to start, pitch in long relief, or work as a set-up man. Simply put, he has a much higher ceiling than Baez, whose wildness resulted in inconsistency in 2005… For some reason, the Mets are collecting center fielders the way they used to stockpile pitchers. With Carlos Beltran entrenched for the next half-decade or so, the Mets first acquired Tike Redman from the Pirates and have now signed Endy Chavez, late of the Phillies. It’s hard to see how the Mets will be able to carry all three on their Opening Day roster, so expect the loser of the Chavez/Redman battle to be spending some time in Triple-A Norfolk—or on the waiver wire…
In the meantime, the Pirates are collecting veteran players with good nicknames. The Bucs settled for Joe “The Joker” Randa to play third base after watching their bids for Bill Mueller and Nomar Garciaparra. During the winter meetings, they completed a trade for Sean “The Mayor” Casey, who will man first base. One of the Pirates’ next decisions will involve Craig Wilson, whom I like to call the “Blond Bomber.” While the Pirates are currently planning to use Wilson as a platoon right fielder with Jody Gerut, that seems like an awfully small role for the talented right-handed slugger. Look for the Pirates to play Wilson plenty this spring, in the hope that he’ll prove his hand healthy and increase his trade value to other teams. Wilson will be a free agent after the 2006 season, raising the urgency to trade him at some point this spring or summer…
Now that Johnny Damon has switched American League East addresses, the center-field rumor-of-the-week festival must move from New York to Boston. The Red Sox are prowling for any and all available center fielders, including the following: Coco Crisp, Joey Gathright, Jeremy Reed, and Dave Roberts. The Red Sox’ first choice is Crisp, who would also cost the most in terms of potential trade compensation. A terrific left fielder, Crisp has enough speed and arm to make the transition to center, while also filling Boston’s craving for a new leadoff man. The Indians would like a position player and a pitcher in return, which is why names like Kevin Youkilis and Bronson Arroyo are being bandied about. That package should be more than enough to secure Crisp; in fact, the Red Sox would want Crisp and someone else in return for the corner infielder and starting pitcher. There is another holdup to talks with Cleveland. The Indians need to acquire an outfielder to take Crisp’s place, and that’s something that the Red Sox can’t help them with right now… The Mariners’ Reed carries a lesser price tag than Crisp, but pitching must once again be the centerpiece of any exchange. Seattle would love to add either Jon Lester or Jon Papelbon, but that’s not going to happen. (The Mariners must have been kidding when they offered Reed and Gil Meche for one of the Sox’ dynamic duo.) More realistically, the Mariners might be able to pry loose Arroyo or Matt Clement, but the Red Sox are understandably reluctant to give up either for Reed, who slumped badly in 2005. At one time the key player in the Freddy Garcia deal, Reed played better than expected in center field, but that didn’t make up for his .322 on-base percentage or his .352 slugging percentage, which were far too reminiscent of Jack Reed… In the meantime, the Red Sox are hotly pursuing a pair of Devil Rays, including Gathright and shortstop Julio Lugo. Much like the Mariners, the Devil Rays are asking for either Lester or Papelbon, which the Red Sox smartly won’t do. They’d rather give up a package of Arroyo and newly acquired third base prospect Andy Marte… Ideally, rather than having to trade Arroyo or Clement, the Red Sox would like to part company with the unhappy David Wells and have a natural trading partner in the Padres. A Wells-for-Dave Roberts swap makes too much sense, but the Padres have inexplicably taken Roberts off the trade market. Perhaps they’ll reconsider now after the acquisition of Adrian Gonzalez from the Rangers; with Gonzalez now available to play first base, the Padres could move Ryan Klesko back to left field, leaving no room for Roberts as a regular…
The Mariners surprised some observers by tendering a contract to Gil Meche in the first place, but they only did that because of the realization that a talented young pitcher always has trade value in this perpetually pitching-poor world of ours. The Mariners have dangled Meche in talks, either as part of a larger package or in an effort to acquire a B-level prospect straight-up. The M’s have talked to several teams, including the aforementioned Red Sox and the rebuilding Rockies…
And Another Thing
As the old year winds down, I’d like to offer a note of thanks to several folks with MLB.com who have been helpful to me this year. Thanks to Dinn Mann for inviting me to join the MLB Weblog community. Thanks also to Mark Newman and Jacob Wilson for the help they’ve given me with regard to the mechanics and promotion of a weblog.
As a final note, let’s remember those baseball people who left us in 2005. The list includes several folks who touched me in some way, including Nelson Briles, Bob Broeg, Donn Clendenon, **** Dietz, Cesar Gutierrez, Elrod Hendricks, Pat Kelly, Rick Mahler, Vic Power, **** Radatz, Ted Radcliffe, and Earl Wilson. Rest in peace.
Donn Clendenon died in September at the age of 70, the victim of a long battle with leukemia. I once co-hosted a show on MLB Radio with him, and while I can hardly say that I knew him well, he could not have been more friendly or cordial during our brief time on the air. Donn never once reminded me that he had played professional baseball, and that I had not, instead treating me with respect. He seemed like a true gentleman.
Clendenon was one of the few African-American players of his era who attended college. As an amateur athlete in the collegiate ranks, Clendenon had several options to choose from in picking his career path. The six-foot, four-inch Clendenon was a talented basketball and football player—he was given the nickname "Big Train" because of the powerful style as a running back—which resulted in contract offers from both the Harlem Globetrotters and the NFL’s Cleveland Browns. Ultimately, Clendenon chose baseball, signing a professional contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Clendenon played most of his prime seasons with the Pirates, enjoying a career year in 1966, when he hit a career-high 28 home runs. (That was an especially impressive number given that he played half his games at cavernous Forbes Field.) Yet, his contributions to the New York Mets in 1969 remain his most lasting legacy. In many ways, the 1969 season was the most tumultuous season of Clendenon’s career. After having been taken by the Montreal Expos in the 1968 expansion draft, Clendenon found himself on the trading block. In January, the Expos made him and outfielder Jesus Alou the centerpiece of a four-player package that brought star outfielder Rusty Staub over from the Houston Astros. It was a bad trade for the Astros, and it was only made worse when Clendenon decided he did not want to play for Houston. When spring training rolled around, Clendenon announced that he intended to retire and would not report to his new team.
In the past, a player announcing his retirement usually would have resulted in the voiding of the trade. The Commissioner’s Office, led by the newly elected Bowie Kuhn, decided to take a different task, allowing Staub to report to Montreal and Alou to Houston, permitting Clendenon to remain with Montreal, and demanding that the two teams restructure the rest of the deal. The Expos eventually sent right-hander Jack "Bone" Billingham and left-hander Skip Guinn to Houston as replacements for Clendenon.
Clendenon’s "retirement," which was really more strategic than genuine and displayed his off-the-field intelligence, showed other players that they didn’t necessarily have to comply with undesirable trades that put them with unwanted teams. In April of 1969, Ken "Hawk" Harrelson tried a similar strategy when the Boston Red Sox traded him to the Cleveland Indians. Not wanting to play in Cleveland and give up his many business interests in the Boston area, Harrelson "retired" for 48 hours, finagling a new two-year contract from the Indians during his brief layoff. Even more significantly, Clendenon’s maneuver may have also had influence on Curt Flood, who was traded by the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies after the 1969 season but refused to report to his new team, setting the stage for one of baseball’s greatest court battles.
In the short term, Clendenon’s strategy would help the Mets—enormously. The Mets probably didn’t know it at the time, but Clendenon’s brief retirement and his subsequent return to Montreal would eventually place him on the trade block again. Unhappy with Clendenon—who in turn became unhappy because of sporadic playing time in Montreal—the Expos decided to trade Clendenon a second time. On June 15, which was formerly baseball’s trading deadline, the Mets made themselves a fortuitous deal with the Expos, sending backup infielder Kevin Collins and three minor league pitchers north of the border for Clendenon. (Of the players dealt, only young right-hander Steve Renko did anything of consequence for the expansion Expos, becoming an effective member of the starting rotation in the franchise’s early years.)
This time, Clendenon didn’t balk at the deal. He joined the Mets, at first becoming a platoon partner with Ed Kranepool at first base. Clendenon immediately strengthened the Mets’ lineup against left-handed pitching and deepened a relatively thin and inexperienced bench. In due time, he became the Mets’ everyday first baseman—in an important decision made by manager Gil Hodges. In 72 games with the Mets, Clendenon finished with 12 home runs and 37 RBIs, solid numbers to be sure, but hardly earth-shattering. Still, Clendenon gave the Mets a more powerful presence against left-handed pitching, deepened the bench by allowing Hodges to bring Kranepool over the bench, and played a smooth first base, fitting in well with a team that emphasized pitching and defense. With Clendenon providing a boost, the Mets overcame a nine-and-a-half game deficit and won the Eastern Division by eight games over the far more talented Chicago Cubs.
More significantly, Clendenon saved his best hitting for the postseason. He became the centerpiece of the Mets’ offense during the World Series against the substantially favored Baltimore Orioles. In Game One, Clendenon doubled and singled in a Series-opening loss. In Game Two, he powered a critical solo home run that lifted the Mets to a 2-1 victory. Clendenon then homered in Game Four, and again in the clinching Game Five, as the Mets finalized their stunning upset of the seemingly invincible Birds of Baltimore. After the clinching victory, Clendenon was voted World Series MVP.
While the Mets probably could have won the National League East without Clendenon, they would have been hard-pressed to overpower the talented Orioles—in five games no less—without the presence of Big Train. That’s why fans of the "Amazin’ Mets" will always remember the importance of Donn Clendenon.
Bob Broeg, who died in late October after battling a number of illnesses, was the first baseball figure I interviewed after joining the Hall of Fame staff in 1995. I was a little bit nervous about the interview, in part because it was my first for the Cooperstown audio archive. There was also the matter of Broeg’s last name, a tricky moniker that could be pronounced in a variety of different ways, including the phonetical pronunciation of BROAG. Not wanting to embarrass myself, I did some research into his name, determining that the proper pronunciation was BRAYG.
I started the interview by introducing Bob as Bob BRAYG and then posing my first question. Before answering the question, Bob corrected me. He pointed out that his name was pronounced BRAYG. Of course, that was what I had just said—BRAYG. I think that Bob had become so used to hearing people mispronounce his name that he assumed that I had just done the same.
Naturally, being corrected after having done nothing wrong unnerved me a bit. By the end of the interview, I had mostly forgotten that momentary feeling of awkwardness. Rather, I came away from the interview remembering Bob’s love of baseball—and his knowledge of everything St. Louis. I also took note of that booming laugh, one of the Broeg trademarks. That laugh, which was often drawn at his own expense, only displayed more of the passion that Bob felt about the stories he had to tell.
A lot of baseball fans will go through their lives knowing little about the sportswriters who cover the game. Their focus—and I guess this is understandable—is on the players. Yet, if you really want to learn something about the history of the game, you need to listen to what the Bob Broegs of the world have to say. Here’s a man who knew Jackie Robinson personally, who could have told you anything about Frankie Frisch, who came up with the nickname "The Man" for Stan Musial, and who knew the daily routine of Bob Gibson on days he pitched. A man with that kind of information is something special.
Every time a man like Bob Broeg passes away, we lose a little bit of our link to baseball’s past generations. In the case of Broeg, I’m glad that I had a chance to interview him—and preserve just a bit of that all-encompassing St. Louis baseball knowledge on a tape recorder.
Earlier this week, I wrote an article for MLB.com about the baseball figures who have died during the past 12 months. Since this is the final week of the year, I thought it might be appropriate to pay tribute to a few of those people that I had the privilege of meeting. In today’s first tribute, I’ll offer up a few thoughts on a very good pitcher and a better man.
I can’t say that I was with friends with former major league pitcher Nelson “Nellie” Briles; I simply didn’t know him that well. But I did get to spend some time with him, through an interview I did with him about the 1971 Pirates and during a Hall of Fame Weekend visit in 2001, when Nellie’s friend and teammate, Bill Mazeroski, officially entered the Hall. Based on the few experiences I did have with Nellie, I wish that I would have had more opportunities to talk baseball with him.
Articulate, thoughtful, and knowledgeable, Nellie Briles could talk baseball with anyone. More importantly, he liked to talk about other people in baseball, people that he liked. When I called him up on short notice in 2001 to ask him if we could do a program with him in the Hall of Fame’s Bullpen Theater about Bill Mazeroski, he didn’t hesitate. He was accommodating, gracious, and charming. It was as if Nellie didn’t want to lose the opportunity to honor his friend on the weekend that he was entering Cooperstown.
Nellie died in February of this year, just before the start of spring training. He was far too young—only 61. In perhaps his most lasting legacy as a ballplayer, Nellie was an important part of the 1971 World Championship Pirates, both on the field and in the clubhouse. His masterful two-hitter in Game Five remains one of the greatest World Series pitching performances of all time, perhaps only second to Don Larsen’s perfect game in 1956. Even after Nellie’s playing days, he continued to do great work—he and people like Sally O’Leary—in running the Pirates’ Alumni Association, the best group of its kind in all of baseball. Nellie Briles was one of the good ones.
In lieu of the usual Friday night rumor fare, I thought it would be appropriate to offer some comments on longtime Baltimore Orioles catcher and coach Elrod "Ellie" Hendricks, who passed away earlier this week. It’s especially sad when someone dies so close to the Christmas holiday, and even moreso in Ellie’s case because he passed away just one day before his 65th birthday.
While I certainly can’t claim to have known Hendricks as well as someone like fellow blogger Brooks Robinson (the truest of baseball gentlemen), I did have the pleasure of interviewing Ellie one time in spring training. As I recall, it was during the spring of 1996, at the Yankees’ new spring training facility in Tampa, Florida. With the Orioles preparing to play the Yankees, Hendricks was in his usual location–on the playing field, where he loved to be whenever possible. At the time, I was conducting video interviews for the Hall of Fame’s archive, and found Hendricks, who would talk to anyone, to be as approachable as anyone. I started asking him about his favorite memories, including World Series moments. And while I don’t remember off-hand too many of the details of what Hendricks had to say, I do remember him smiling, being affable at all times, and doing his best to offer some legitimate insights for the Hall’s archive. From what I hear, this was typical Ellie Hendricks.
While star players often become the faces of franchises, sometimes journeyman ballplayers became synonymous with a team through hard work, longevity, a community-minded spirit, and a general amicability. Hendricks embodied all of those qualities, making him as recognizable to Orioles diehards as superstars like Cal Ripken, Jr. or Brooksie himself. In many ways, Hendricks was the Orioles–from 1968 through this past season, as a player, player-coach, and bullpen coach. If not for brief pitstops with the Chicago Cubs in 1972 and the New York Yankees in 1976-77, Hendricks would have been associated continuously with the Orioles from 1968 to the current day–for a total of 37 years.
A few other thoughts on Hendricks:
*Although hardly a star, he was one of those critical role players that Earl Weaver used so expertly during Baltimore’s glory years from 1969 to 1971. As a left-handed hitting catcher, Hendricks platooned with Andy Etchebarren, giving the Orioles an occasional home run, solid defense behind the plate, and a catcher who capable of forging a good rapport with his talented pitching staff.
*I’m not sure why the Orioles traded Hendricks to the Cubs in the middle of the 1972 season, but they quickly realized their mistake and reacquired him prior to 1973. And then again, the Orioles traded him in 1976, this time as part of the massive deal that brought Rick Dempsey to the Birds. Hendricks became a backup catcher with the Yankees, playing behind the durable and gritty Thurman Munson. As a left-handed hitter and strong character guy in the clubhouse, Hendricks seemed like a perfect fit as a backup catcher in the Bronx. That’s why I don’t understand why the Yankees let him go after the 1977 season, allowing him to return to Baltimore for a third stint with the Birds.
*Hendricks didn’t look like your typical catcher. Built tall and lean, he featured the wiry frame of a rangy shortstop or a light-quick center fielder. He was also a catcher at a time when few African Americans were given the chance to play behind the plate, in part because of racist inclinations that regarded blacks as somehow lacking the needed intelligence to call a game. Not surprisingly, catchers like Hendricks and Manny Sanguillen proved the racists wrong.
*Hendricks’ career statistics are hardly overwhelming, but for fans of baseball in the 1970s, his value exceeded the numbers. More importantly, Ellie was one of baseball’s good people–positive, upbeat, and always willing to give back to the game. For that–and many other reasons that Orioles fans surely understand–Ellie Hendricks will be missed considerably.
Well, we can forget about the notion of Bubba Crosby starting in center field for the New York Yankees. Exchanging his Red Sox and wavy mane of hair for a set of pinstripes and a possible crew cut, Johnny Damon surprised more than a few observers by signing a four-year, $52 million contract with the Yankees.
I have to confess: I’m shocked. I felt all along that Damon would return to the Red Sox, simply using the Yankees to drive the length of the deal to five years and eventually re-upping with the Red Sox come January. The Yankees may have felt the same way; that’s why they gave Damon’s agent, Scott Boras an ultimatum: either sign on the dotted line now, or we’ll move in a different direction to find a center fielder for 2006. The strategy worked. Realizing that there was no chance of securing the seven-year deal he initially craved, Boras decided to take the best available offer at the moment—which happened to come from the Yankees and not the Red Sox.
Is Damon the answer to the Yankees’ center field quagmire? Not really, based on his diminishing range and ragged throwing arm. At this point of his career, Damon is better suited to play left field, but that position is already occupied by Hideki Matsui. Now assuming the glamorous role of center field at Yankee Stadium, Damon will be an improvement over Bernie Williams, but only by a small margin. And with Matsui and Sheffield featuring gloves of iron in the outfield corners, the Yankees’ exterior defense remains a major concern.
In order for Damon to come close to justifying the $50-plus million ($13 million per year) he’ll receive over the length of the contract, he’ll have to prove that his late-season slide was merely a slump, and not the beginning of a precipitous offensive decline. By season’s end, Damon looked broken down and brittle. At 32 years of age, he’s reached a point where players of his ilk—those who rely on speed and slashing—often become severely depreciated. That’s not what the Yankees want, at a time when they are desperately in need of the energy and athleticism that a vintage Damon would bring to the Bronx.
Although Damon may be depreciating, his signing will still be a benefit to the Yankees—at least from this perspective: he’ll help the Yankees merely by not being able to help the Red Sox. His departure from Boston comes at a most inopportune time for the Sox. Without Damon, the Red Sox have no one ready to step in and play center field and no one capable of batting leadoff. Much like the Yankees earlier this offseason, the Red Sox will now have to consider the prospects of overspending on a flawed free agent like Preston Wilson or overpaying for a player like Jason Michaels, who’s being valued too highly by the Phillies, in a potential trade. Or they’ll have to pursue more reasonable deals with the Indians (for Coco Crisp), the Mariners (for Jeremy Reed), the Devil Rays (for Joey Gathright), or the Padres (for Dave Roberts). So instead of being able to concentrate on their bullpen woes, the Red Sox will now the face the additional tasks of locating a center fielder and leadoff man, which they may or may not be able to find in the same player.
With all the rumors flying about the Yankees offering a one-year contract to Nomar Garciaparra to play first base, I’m amazed by how many New York fans and media outlets have expressed negativity about this move. The reasons for the naysaying are threefold:
1) Garciaparra is a Red Sock.
2) Garciaparra is a shortstop, not a first baseman.
3) Garciaparra is too injury prone.
Let’s take the arguments one at a time.
Garciaparra is a Red Sock. This one is just plain silly. By this rationale, the acquisition of Babe Ruth must have been a mistake for the Yankees. According to this philosophy, the Yankees would never acquire players who once played for the Red Sox, such as Wade Boggs and Roger Clemens. As much as Yankee fans stoke the fires of their rivalry with their counterparts in Boston, they shouldn’t delude themselves into thinking that once beloved members of Red Sox Nation can’t ever play for the Yankees. The key is acquiring former Red Sox who can still be productive players in the Bronx.
Garciaparra is a shortstop, not a first baseman. This one doesn’t hold much more water than the first argument. Of all the teams that have shown interest in signing Garciaparra (a list that includes the Indians, Blue Jays, Dodgers, and Pirates), none intend to use him as an everyday shortstop. Smartly, Garciaparra has conceded this point, embracing the possibility of playing other positions in an attempt to increase his marketability. With regard to the specific switch from shortstop to first base, this should not be a problem for an athletic player like Garciaparra. If you can play shortstop in the major leagues, assuming you’re not the height of Phil Rizzuto, you can play first base. While shortstop is one of the two most demanding fielding positions on the diamond—catcher being the other—first base is the easiest position along the defensive spectrum.
Garciaparra is too injury-prone. Of the three arguments, this is the only one that is defensible. Given his physical problems of the last two seasons, Garciaparra has become a risk. In paying him $4 to $5 million to play in 2006, the Yankees might only be getting 70 games worth of Garciaparra, if that much. Still, it’s a reasonable risk to take. Without Garciaparra, the Yankees’ options at first base are Jason Giambi (who can’t field a lick) and Andy Phillips (who had to have a great spring in 2004 just to convince the Yankees to carry him as the 25th man). With Garciaparra in tow, the Yankees would still be able to use Giambi as a DH and could still use Phillips as a backup infielder. If Garciaparra were to be felled by a major injury, those options would likely remain in place for the Yankees.
As the Yankees look toward 2006, they need to make their team more athletic in the field and more versatile. The addition of Garciaparra would help in both areas. With little effort, Garciaparra would likely be a vast defensive improvement over Jason Giambi, who can’t throw and can’t move laterally. At the same time, Garciaparra would give the Yankees quality depth behind Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez across the infield. And given his expressed interest in learning to play the outfield, Garciaparra might be able to help out in left or right field, allowing Hideki Matsui or Gary Sheffield to DH from time to time. If the Yankees can convince Garciaparra to take a one-year deal in the neighborhood of $5 million, they would only be helping themselves, with little downside. It’s a move that Yankee fans should be rooting for Brian Cashman to make.
This past week, major league general managers gathered in Dallas for the annual winter meetings, which produced 20 trades and 15 free agent signings. All in all, it was a fairly active session, but like most winter meetings, it paled in comparison to what happened during the winter meetings of 1971. For a few days that winter, baseball’s general managers turned the sport upside-down.
Shortly after the game’s 24 general managers landed in Phoenix, Arizona, during the final days of November in 1971, a flood of news conferences and announcements poured through hotel suites and lobbies. On November 29, no fewer than six teams involved themselves in a series of blockbuster trades, all involving prominent players with well-established reputations. In a swap of star pitchers and staff aces, the San Francisco Giants sent Gaylord Perry and touted shortstop Frank Duffy to the Cleveland Indians for Sam McDowell, one of the era’s hardest throwing pitchers. In another exchange, the Chicago Cubs dealt left-hander Ken Holtzman, the owner of two career no-hitters, to the Oakland A’s for outfielder Rick Monday, the first player taken in baseball’s initial amateur draft of 1965. Still, as big a ripple as both deals caused, they paled in comparison with the day’s biggest trade: the Cincinnati Reds’ swap of power-hitting first baseman Lee May and infielders Tommy Helms and Jimmy Stewart to the Houston Astros for second baseman Joe Morgan and four other players (infielder Denis Menke, outfielders Ed Armbrister and Cesar Geronimo, and pitcher Jack Billingham). The grand totals for the day? Six teams, three trades, 13 players, a half-dozen household names…Wow.
Still, there was more news to come, news that would dwarf the activity of November 29. Three days later, on December 2, major league teams engineered eight trades, involving a total of 30 players. The slate of activity included a three-player deal between Kansas City and Houston, in which the Royals acquired promising first baseman John Mayberry from the Astros for two young pitchers, Jim York and Lance Clemons. In the biggest deal of the day, the Baltimore Orioles sent star outfielder Frank Robinson (and hard-throwing reliever Pete Richert) to the Los Angeles Dodgers in a six-player swap that brought young right-hander Doyle Alexander and three minor leaguers to Baltimore. After acquiring Robinson, the Dodgers sent slugging first baseman Richie Allen–one of the era’s greatest and most controversial talents–to the Chicago White Sox for standout left-hander Tommy John and an obscure utility infielder named Steve Huntz.
By the time the winter meetings ended on December 3, major league teams had combined to make 15 trades, while swapping an unprecedented 53 players. The burst of off-season activity served two purposes. The series of blockbuster deals generated headlines in newspapers and sports weeklies, keeping baseball’s hot stove churning during the NFL’s post-season push. More significantly, the trades created a series of aftershocks that would affect the game’s landscape–both individually and from a team standpoint–for years to come.
At the time, the swap of the 33-year-old Gaylord Perry for the 29-year-old Sam McDowell seemed promising for the Giants. After all, they were acquiring the younger pitcher and the harder thrower, not to mention the guy who happened to be left-handed in the deal. Yet, the Giants didn’t realize the extent of McDowell’s drinking problems, and how they would derail his career, making him an ex-Giant by 1973 and a shell of a pitcher before his 30th birthday. In the meantime, Perry went on win a league-best 24 games for the Indians in 1972 and 21 more games in 1974, when he captured the American League’s Cy Young Award. Unfortunately, the Indians didn’t finish any higher than fourth in the AL East, but they couldn’t reasonably blame the future Hall of Famer for their poor place in the standings.
Another major American League award would be won by one of the other superstars involved in the winter tradefest of 1971. For much of his career, Richie Allen had sparred with managers, first in Philadelphia and then in Los Angeles. Thanks to the trade that sent him to the White Sox, Allen would find his ideal manager in the Windy City. “The way I see it,” White Sox skipper Chuck Tanner told longtime Chicago sportswriter Jerome Holtzman, “he ought to help us win at least 20 games with his bat.” An exaggeration to be sure, but not by as much as some skeptics would have thought. Motivated by the always-encouraging Tanner, Allen led all AL batters in slugging percentage, RBIs and walks in 1972, while carrying the Sox to within a five-and-a-half-game finish of the far more talented Oakland A’s. It was arguably Allen’s best season ever–and would earn him the league’s MVP Award.
By the winter of 1971, the Kansas City Royals had played three full seasons as an American League expansion team. Although they were hardly ready for contention in the AL West, the addition of the 22-year-old John Mayberry gave their offense a foundation from which to build. By the time the Royals became a sanctioned playoff team (i.e. 1976), Mayberry had developed into a legitimate cleanup hitter. With Mayberry, George Brett, Hal McRae, and Amos Otis forming the nucleus of the Royal offense, Kansas City won back-to-back division titles in ’76 and ’77.
Other trades played even larger roles in affecting outcomes across the major leagues. Few would benefit as much as the game’s budding dynasty, the one taking root in Oakland. The addition of Ken Holtzman, who had clashed with an unyielding Leo Durocher in Chicago, gave the A’s a third top-drawer starter after Jim “Catfish” Hunter and Vida Blue. Given the chronically injured throwing arms of Chuck Dobson and John “Blue Moon” Odom, the A’s needed another reliable starter even more badly. With Holtzman in tow and their pitching staff a notch deeper, the A’s became a more formidable foe in the post-season. From 1972 to 1974, Holtzman won four of five World Series decisions while posting an ERA of 2.55. During that same span, the stylish left-hander pitched even more effectively in the American League Championship Series, forging a miniscule ERA of 1.55, with two wins in three decisions. Without Holtzman’s clutch post-season pitching, not to mention his nearly 20 wins per season from 1972 to 1974, the A’s might not have been fortunate enough to garner three consecutive World Championships.
In contrast, no trade had more of a negative impact on any one team than the Orioles’ decision to trade Frank Robinson, their best all-round player and most forceful presence in the clubhouse, where he ruled Baltimore’s famed “Kangaroo Court.” Although an aging player at 36, Robinson’s departure accelerated the Orioles’ fall from grace. The touted Merv Rettenmund–a .318 hitter as a kind of super utility outfielder in 1971–proved inadequate as Robinson’s replacement in right field, while fellow outfielders Paul Blair and Don Buford slipped badly, causing the defending American League champions to fall to third place in 1972. The Orioles bounced back to win the AL East the next two seasons, but lost both of their Championship Series matchups to the eventual World Champion A’s. Although Robinson’s presence certainly wouldn’t have guaranteed a victory over the A’s, the Orioles probably would have preferred him over Doyle Alexander, who was ineffective in his one post-season start against Oakland. As for Rettenmund, he also continued to struggle, prompting his trade to the Reds in the winter of ’73.
Although the Orioles clearly missed F. Robby’s presence, he actually proved a disappointment in Los Angeles. Clashing with venerable skipper Walter Alston, Robinson lasted only one injury-plagued season at Chavez Ravine before being dispatched to the California Angels, where he revived himself in 1973. As for the ’72 Dodgers, they did finish a respectable third in the National League West, but that still left them a full 10 and a half games off the pace of the Reds.
Ah the Reds. No team enjoyed a greater benefit from the ripples of activity at the 1971 winter meetings than the budding “Big Red Machine,” which renovated its infield at three of four positions with one fell swoop. In dispatching with Lee May as part of the trade with the Astros, the Reds cleared out first base for Tony Perez, who had been playing a less-than-ideal third base. The quality of their infield took another step upward with the addition of Joe Morgan, a very good but not yet hallmark player during his days in Houston, who replaced the more limited Tommy Helms at second base. Most importantly, the theft of Morgan provided The Machine with the missing link to its offense, which lacked speed, left-handed hitting, and Morgan’s ability to reach base. When asked about “Little Joe’s” .256 batting average, manager Sparky Anderson dismissed the number and revealed himself as an ahead-of-his-time baseball thinker. “Here’s a guy who gets on base an awful lot of times,” Anderson told Cincinnati sportswriter Earl Lawson. “His on-base ratio is unbelievable, like last year–149 hits and 88 walks.” And Morgan would get better. Enjoying a career breakthrough in 1972, Morgan led the National League with 115 walks and a .419 on-base percentage and batted a career-high .292, helping the Reds win the pennant and come within one game of the World Championship. Three years later, the future Hall of Famer spearheaded the Reds to their first World Series victory of the Anderson era, batting a career-high .327 and leading the league with a .471 on-base percentage on the way to winning the NL’s MVP Award. Morgan repeated as league MVP the following season, compiling a league-best .576 slugging percentage, as the Reds easily defended their title.
Thanks to a swap meet that saw over 50 players change uniforms, baseball throughout the 1970s underwent a drastic and undeniable facelift. Within a span of five winter days in 1971, major league general managers had made a series of decisions that would affect the following fortunes: the crowning of one Cy Young and three Most Valuable Player awards, the beginnings of a Royal foundation, the derailing of Baltimore’s American League championship run, the pitching puzzle of Oakland’s “Swingin’ A’s,” and the clockwork of the Big Red Machine. Now those were some winter meetings to remember.
After a quiet start, the winter meetings finished with a flourish of activity on Thursday. By the end of the meetings, 61 players had changed teams, through 20 trades and 15 free agent signings. All in all, it was a fairly active session, but many teams left without addressing needs while others fell short of their intended goals of trading off superstar players. Manny Ramirez and Barry Zito remain available in potential trades that could take place between now and the start of spring training. And let’s not forget the unhappy Miguel Tejada, who will now join his fellow stars on the rumor mill. The Red Sox still don’t know if they will have Johnny Damon, the Yankees remain without a center fielder, the Blue Jays need another big bat, the Mets are continuing their search for a second baseman, and the Cardinals are still trying to replace the retired Larry Walker. With all of that in mind, here are some of the possible moves that could take place in the coming days and weeks…
With the signing of catcher Ramon Hernandez, the Orioles are now in a position to deal the defensively challenged Javy Lopez. They’ve already discussed dealing Lopez to the Angels for Darin Erstad, who would continue to play first base, this time for the Orioles. Unfortunately, any team that acquires Erstad as a first baseman instead of as a center fielder is wasting his ample defensive abilities. The deal makes more sense for the Angels, who would use Lopez as their primary DH and occasional catcher, behind new No. 1 receiver Jeff Mathis. The departure of Erstad would clear a path for Casey Kotchman to play first base at Angels Stadium…
The Red Sox are committed to acquiring a veteran shortstop between now and February; their No. 1 target is Tampa Bay’s Julio Lugo, but it will probably take more than Andy Marte in a trade. There aren’t many appealing free agents, although former Marlin Alex Gonzalez does have some appeal for Boston’s braintrust. Contrary to one report, the Red Sox have no interest in the Mets’ Kaz Matsui, whose $8 million salary needs to be cleared out before New York can officially sign Mark Grudzielanek as its new second baseman…
The Red Sox and Yankees pulled off two of the steals of the winter meetings. In sending limited backup catcher Doug Mirabelli to the Padres, the Sox lifted an everyday middle infielder in Mark Loretta, giving them a solid contact hitter, defender, and clubhouse presence. While the Red Sox upgraded their infield, the Yankees did well in finding a taker for the unhappy and unproductive Tony Womack (thank you, Reds), while also extracting a potential 2006 contributor in Kevin Howard. With the departures of Womack, Mark Bellhorn, and Rey Sanchez, the Yankees don’t have a veteran backup infielder on their 40-man roster. The left-handed hitting Howard can play second or third base, draws walks, and has plus speed, making him a solid contender for a backup infield job in the Bronx… In the meantime, the Yankees have reopened talks with the Phillies about Jason Michaels. Philadelphia GM Pat Gillick has backed off his initial demand of Chien-Ming Wang and is now contemplating an offer of left-hander Sean Henn and veteran reliever Tanyon Sturtze. That would be a good exchange for the Yankees, but Gillick would probably prefer Aaron Small over Sturtze…
The Rangers have talked to their state rivals, the Astros, about a trade of Kevin Mench for some pitching help. The Rangers would like right-hander Brandon Backe as part of a return package, but the uncertain status of Roger Clemens makes the Astros hesitate about surrendering starting pitching. They’d rather give up a reliever, perhaps someone like Chad Qualls… Now that the Rangers have traded Alfonso Soriano to the Nationals, they may have a trading match with the Blue Jays. Don’t be surprised if the Rangers trade newly acquired outfielder Brad Wilkerson, holdover Laynce Nix, and possible one other player to the Blue Jays for a package of second baseman Orlando Hudson and right-handed pitcher Miguel Batista. Such a trade would give the Rangers a Gold Glove middle infielder and a potential addition to the rotation, assuming that Texas decides to convert Batista back to his old role. The Blue Jays would then be able to put together a middle of the order featuring Wilkerson, Vernon Wells, and new first baseman Lyle Overbay… The Blue Jays are also aggressively pursuing Nomar Garciaparra, which would represent their third major splash into the free agent pool. If signed, Garciaparra would fill a dual role as a third baseman and DH, making Shea Hillenbrand expendable in a deal for either prospects or additional bullpen help…
The apparent severing of ties with Clemens leaves the Astros in a position to pursue some new free agent pitching. With the $20 million they would have had to pay Clemens through arbitration, the Astros figure they can sign one or two veteran starters. One pitcher they’re pursuing is Jarrod Washburn, who was not offered arbitration by the Angels despite a 3.20 ERA in 2005. A finesse left-hander who can start or relieve, Washburn is the kind of pitcher who could thrive in the weaker-hitting National League.
It has been a relatively quiet set of winter meetings, salvaged only by a flurry of late-night trades, including two of the major variety. In the headlining move, the Rangers finally unloaded Alfonso Soriano, trading him to the Nationals for a package of outfielders Brad Wilkerson and Terrmel Sledge and a player to be named later. Although the Rangers didn’t acquire pitching in return for Soriano—which was really their primary intent—they did well in securing the services of a solid all-round outfielder in Wilkerson and another potential starting outfielder in Sledge. The additions of the two left-handed hitting flychasers puts the Rangers in a position to comfortably deal left fielder Kevin Mench (a possible fit for the Cubs) and possibly, center fielder Gary Mathews, Jr. (a perfect fit for the Yankees. The Rangers hope to receive some pitching in trades for either or both of those veteran outfielders… With the addition of Soriano, Washington now has a logjam at second base, where All-Star Jose Vidro has long taken up residence. If the Nationals don’t trade either of them, it’s likely that Soriano will finally be forced to switch positions. With young Ryan Zimmerman at third and Nick Johnson at first, there are no logical relocation options for Vidro in Washington. That means that Soriano would have to move to the outfield, which is where he should have been playing all along. Soriano could end up in either left or center, with Jose Guillen a fixture in right…In almost every way, Soriano doesn’t figure to be happy in Washington. He won’t be pleased with a move to the outfield and will grow weary of hitting in cavernous RFK Stadium. Given those factors, don’t be surprised if Nationals GM Jim Bowden redirects Soriano to another team, either before or during the 2006 season…
In the other Wednesday night blockbuster, the Blue Jays acquired the top-flite first baseman they’ve been seeking, extracting Lyle Overbay from the Brewers for a reasonable package of outfielder Gabe Gross, pitcher David Bush, and minor league left-hander Zach Jackson. Although Gross has some talent, he’ll be 26 years old in 2006, and Overbay does give the Blue Jays one of the two potent bats they’ve been seeking. The Blue Jays were also able to get the deal done without having to give up erstwhile closer Miguel Batista; they can now use Batista in a trade for another heavy hitter, possibly Mench of the Rangers… The Blue Jays will now have to decide what to do with Eric Hinske, their disappointing incumbent at first base. Do they make him a DH, roll the dice that he can return to third base, or simply trade him for whatever they can get? It’s yet another option for the freewheeling Jays… Though it’s debatable whether the Brewers should have received more for Overbay, the trade does make sense. It allows them to make room for Prince Fielder at first base, while adding a talented outfielder and a young right-hander to their 2006 mix, and a potential lefty stud in Jackson for the future… At one point, Shea Hillenbrand was rumored to be part of the deal, but it’s hard to see where he would fit in Milwaukee, which is committed to Fielder at first base and the athletic Billy Hall at third base…
Kudos to the Astros for biting the bullet and refusing to play games with Roger Clemens by opting not to offer him arbitration. If Clemens were to decide not to retire, the Astros would have needed to commit $18 to $20 million to the 43-year-old right-hander, once again hamstringing their efforts to improve the team in other ways. Besides, the Astros might still have a chance to sign Clemens, assuming that he opts to continue pitching and decides wait until May 1 to re-sign with Houston… Clemens won’t announce his intentions until January, but expect the Rangers and Yankees to make immediate calls to the Hendricks’ brothers, the agents for Clemens. Both teams will make substantial one-year offers for “The Rocket.” Clemens makes perfect sense for the Rangers, given their proximity to his home and their substantial need for starting pitching…
Even though the Cubs have acquired Juan Pierre to play center field, they’d still like to add Milton Bradley to their outfield equation, likely slotting him in right. The Cubs have offered second baseman Todd Walker in a straight up deal for Bradley. If the deal happens, the Dodgers would play Walker at second and slide Jeff Kent over to first, just as they were planning to do in the event of a trade for Soriano…
Although the Yankees have offered Bernie Williams salary arbitration, it’s still not a certainty that he’ll return to the Bronx. By virtue of a handshake agreement, Williams has agreed to decline arbitration, which means he would have to accept a lower salary for 2006, somewhere in the $1 to $2 million range. Additionally, the Mets have expressed interest in Williams, but only if he is willing to accept a role as a fourth outfielder, which would include playing some left and right field, and possibly learning the nuances of first base…
The most notable activity in Dallas today figures to be the Rule 5 draft, an opportunity for teams to take fliers on non-protected players from other organizations. In the past, the Rule 5, in its various forms, has seen players like Roberto Clemente, George Bell, and Kelly Gruber taken in the draft. Those players went on to have an impact for their new teams, Clemente as a Hall of Famer with the Pirates and Bell (as an MVP) and Gruber (as a brief contributor) with the Blue Jays. The players available in this year’s draft don’t seem to have that kind of potential, but the White Sox are expected to lose a talented young left-hander named Fabio Castro, who pitched in Class-A ball last year. Castro will likely be the first player selected in the Rule 5.