Through the years, many teams have found a player or players to be the final piece of the championship puzzle. Rickey Henderson’s trade to the A’s for Eric Plunk, Greg Caderet and Luis Polonia gave Oakland much-needed speed to complement its power from Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco is the first to come to mind. But with every good trade there are usually twice as many bad ones done in the name of instant gratification. To that end, The List offers the worst of the worst of all time.
#5: Jay Buhner (Yankees) for Ken Phelps (Mariners)
If it is ever possible to work Frank Costanza into any List column, it must be done. Arguably one of Seinfeld’s funniest scenes ever, upon learning from Yankees owner George Steinbrenner that his son George was dead, all Frank could do was ask why The Boss parted ways with young Jay Buhner at the 1988 trade deadline for aging Mariners’ slugger Ken Phelps.
Frank Costanza: “What the hell did you trade Jay Buhner for?!? He had 30 home runs, over 100 RBIs last year, he's got a rocket for an arm, you don't know what the hell you're doin'!!”
Steinbrenner: “Well, Buhner was a good prospect, no question about it. But my baseball people love Ken Phelps' bat. They kept saying 'Ken Phelps, Ken Phelps, Ken Phelps.' ”
Since the episode aired eight years after the infamous trade, maybe, maybe 10 people outside of the Yankees’ die-hard fans got the joke. I was certainly one of them.
Phelps hit .224 after coming to New York and couldn’t take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch, hitting only 17 home runs in 122 games for the Yankees during his short tenure. The Bombers, who were in first place at the time of the trade, finished fifth in the AL East. Phelps was shipped to Oakland the following season and ultimately retired in 1990.
Conversely, over the next 14 seasons Buhner went on to become one of Seattle’s most popular players in its history. He hit 307 homers and drove in 951 runs while winning a gold glove in 1996.
#4: John Smoltz (Tigers) for Doyle Alexander (Braves)
Some say the Tigers have not been the same since the team dealt Detroit native Smoltz for the established veteran Doyle Alexander during its playoff run during the 1987 season.
The immediate results exceeded Detroit’s expectations, as Alexander was perfect in nine starts with an 1.53 ERA in leading the Tigers to the AL East championship. The postseason was a much different story, however, as Alexander lost both starts against the Twins in the ALCS, posting a 10.00 ERA. Alexander went 20-29 during the next two seasons before retiring at age 38.
Smoltz went to make up 1/3 of arguably the greatest threesome of starting pitchers on the same team for the Braves (Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux being the other 2/3). After a 12-11 start in his first full season with the Braves in 1989, Smoltz went on to win the 1996 Cy Young, has made four All-Star appearances and has been great in October on a team that usually tanks it in the playoffs (12-4, 2.72 ERA in 20 postseason games).
Smoltz has since moved to the bullpen to become one of the NL’s most dominant closers at age 37 (1.50 ERA and 23 saves thus far in 2004).
#3: Fred Manrique and Harold Baines (White Sox) for Sammy Sosa, Wilson Alvarez and Scott Fletcher (Rangers)
President George W. Bush once said that the biggest mistake of his adult life was trading away Sammy Sosa from his Texas Rangers. Michael Moore may whine that W. has made some larger ones since, but at the time the Sosa deal seemed like a sensible one.
554 home runs and three straight 60 plus home run seasons later, perceptions have changed quite a bit.
Baines, the principal player for Sosa in the trade, completely slumped after putting on a Rangers uniform, hitting only 3 home runs in 32 games while striking out 17 times.
Alvarez ended up being adequate for the White Sox, posting five winning seasons in six years in Chicago while posting two 15-game winning years.
Fletcher played for four different teams during the next six years before hanging it up in 1995.
#2: Jeff Bagwell (Red Sox) for Larry Andersen (Astros)
One of these players has gone on to hit 419 home runs and post a .300 career average while the other went on to win eight games with three different teams over a five-year stretch.
20/20 hindsight is easy when writing List columns, and we’re all about taking unfair shots as a result. At the time, Bagwell was only a Double-A player in the Red Sox farm system, while Andersen was a 37-year old reliever seen as a reliable closer for Boston’s quest to end the curse in October. Andersen went on to blow three of four saves for the Sox in that 1990 season, and the mighty A’s ultimately swept Boston in the ALCS.
Bagwell led Houston to the playoffs four times in five years from 1997-2001. The Red Sox have qualified for the playoffs three times since ’97.
#1: Lou Brock (Cubs) for Ernie Broglio (Cards)
Speaking of cursed teams, the Cubs made the worst trade in deadline history that exceeded even the lowest expectations of the Billy Goat.
Still, when this trade went down in 1964, just about everybody who followed baseball felt it was Cardinals officials who were delusional. The opening sentence in the Chicago Daily News the day after the trade says it all:
“Thank you, thank you, oh, you lovely St. Louis Cardinals. Nice doing business with you. Please call again any time."
At the time, Brock was seen as only an average offensive player (.258 batting average, 23 home runs and 92 RBIs playing two seasons in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field) and defensive liability (196 errors playing outfield for his career). The only compelling reason for the Cardinals to trade for him appeared to be his speed (70 stolen bases in two years with the Cubs).
Bing Devine, then the Cardinals general manager, recalled Brock's Cardinal debut in a 1989 Chicago Tribune column: "I was sitting in the stands in the old Colt Stadium, and a group of fans were just behind me, riding Brock and the Cardinals. One of them said, 'Broglio for Brock? Who could make such a deal?' And I remember saying to one of my associates, 'I guess I've got to agree. Who in the world would make such a deal?' "
After arriving in St. Louis, the steals continued for Brock at a dizzying pace (he finished as the all-time leader upon retiring), and his bat came alive as well, hitting .348 with 33 stolen bases in the Cards’ 1964 Championship season. Overall, Brock would play 16 more years in St. Louis, winning two World Series rings and earning a trip to Cooperstown in 1985.
Broglio developed arm trouble after coming to Chicago and only went 14-31 in a little over four seasons with the Cubs. He retired 13 years before Brock.
Only time will tell which teams blundered the most at this year's deadline.
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