Baseball's Blunders

This winter has been filled with debate about the Phillies decision to trade Cliff Lee and bring in Roy Halladay. Could it have been done differently? Or, in a worst-case scenario, will it go down as one of baseball's blunders?

Back in 2006, Rob Neyer, as part of his "Big Book" franchise, brought out a volume entitled "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders." Other than being a great example of alliteration, it's an interesting book, detailing some of the most notable, for want of a better word, screw-ups, in baseball history. Neyer defines "blunder" as "the worst decisions and stupidest moments." Naturally, using that description, he has more than a few words to say about bad trades. In fact, he has two Interlude chapters devoted to "Bad Trades," in addition to going into excruciating (depending on which side of the trade you're on) detail on such deals as the A's trading Roger Maris and Bill Veeck trading away the 1959 White Sox pennant during the 1959/1960 offseason.

As Neyer points out, many of these trade blunders fall into either the category of one team grossly mis-valuing a player (the Lou Brock to the Cards deal, for instance). And some of these deals involve a team giving away a young player who becomes great for a short rental of an old player. The infamous Larry Andersen for Jeff Bagwell heist is an example, as was the Yankees giving away Fred McGriff (for Dale Murray) when the Crime Dog was 19 and had just led the Florida State League in home runs.  However, every once and a while, a team will trade an older, pretty good player for whatever reason, and get back very little in return, while the traded player proves he's still of considerable value. Some of these are strictly money deals, salary dumps, if you will. Connie Mack made several of those when he broke up his second dynasty during the depths of the Depression. Some of these are "Challenge Trades" involving two seemingly equal players that blow up in one team's face when the players involved turn out not to be equal. The Gaylord Perry for Sam McDowell trade, for instance. The Steve Carlton for Rick Wise trade. Then there are the rarer instances of a team trading an established star for a mess of pottage, or a case of Patio Diet Cola. No less a trading genius than Branch Rickey did that four days after Pearl Harbor, when he sent his star first baseman, Johnny Mize, to the Giants for Ken O'Dea, Bill Lohrman, Johnny McCarthy (who were these guys, anyway?) and 50,000 of Horace Stoneham's dollars.

Rickey was famous, or infamous, depending on your point of view, with both the Cardinals and the Dodgers for fleecing other National League teams in trades. One of his favorite trading maxims, as Neyer points out, was that it was better to trade a player one year too soon than to trade him one year too late. With Mize though, he traded him seven years too soon, depriving the Redbirds of a still big bat they could have used in the 1947 and 1948 seasons. In Mize's first six seasons with St. Louis he posted the following OPS+ figures; 161, 172, 175, 178, 176, 156. An average of 170. Maybe The Mahatma thought Mize was going to get drafted at the start of World War II and would be unavailable for years to come (he was, but not until after the 1942 season, and he was back in 1946). Or maybe he thought Mize was slipping in 1941 (even though the concept of OPS+ wasn't dreamed of). Whatever. What is certain is that in Mize's next four full seasons (1942, 1946, 1947, 1948) he posted the following OPS+ figures for the Giants; 161, 185, 160, 156. All equal to or better than his 1941 mark; an average of 166. For that matter, as Neyer points out in his book, although Mize was over the hill in 1949, he was still better than the two guys the Cards had at first that year, Nippy Jones and Rocky Nelson. In fact, Neyer says the Cards could have won the NL in '49 with Mize at first. Trading Johnny Mize was a blunder.

One good thing about blunders is that the keep on happening. So much so that Neyer can probably bring out a sequel in a couple of years. A sequel that might include several more instances of established players being traded for youngsters who turn out to be stars... a fairly common happening. On the other hand, such a sequel might also include the Phillies trading Cliff Lee for three middling prospects, and costing themselves multiple World Series titles. Sort of like Branch Rickey did in 1941. Conceivably a Blunder of the Ages.

In reality, what the Phillies did was to trade Lee and three prospects (Kyle Drabek, Michael Taylor and a single A catcher who can hit -- the prospects that went to Toronto) for Roy Halladay and three somewhat lesser prospects (the three guys they got from Seattle; Aumont, Gillies and what's-his-name, all of whom at least one expert did not have in his top 100 prospects). Now, Halladay is a better pitcher than Lee. But, isn't that balanced somewhat by the fact that they gave up better prospects than they received? Unless the prospects on either side turn out to be much better (or worse) than expected, the two trades overall look at first blush to be pretty close to a wash in total assets in the long run... which is what Phillies management has been insisting they are looking towards.

Everyone in the Phillies' management, from Dave Montgomery to Ruben Amaro, Jr. (aka RAJ) to Charlie Manuel has trumpeted time and again that they did not trade Cliff Lee for financial reasons. So much that the old Shakespearean line, "the lady doth protest too much," comes to mind. Still, it is true they could have saved virtually the same amount of money for 2010 by shipping out reliable innings-eater (though hardly a star) Joe Blanton. Sure, the return for Blanton would have been less than what they got for Lee... but how much less, and how significant is that, anyway? To trade, or not to trade, that is the question...

If indeed that is the question, then the choice RAJ faced came down to...

Three years of Blanton (who they figured they could sign at a "reasonable" figure) and three better prospects for Lee.


One guaranteed year of Lee (on the relatively cheap), fewer and/or not as highly-ranked prospects in a trade for Blanton, and gaining two draft picks if Lee departed as a Phillie (a key point) free agent. 

Unless, of course, if Lee resigned with the Phillies after the 2010 season (or even before the 2010 season), then they would have also gotten (most likely) three more years of Lee (and two fewer draft choices/prospects, since they wouldn't lose him as a free agent in this scenario.) Would resigning Lee after the 2010 season be so impossible, if indeed they didn't trade Lee for financial reasons? If they didn't trade Lee for financial reasons, then why not entertain that scenario, along with the codicil that most likely some other high-priced contract would also have to be moved (Blanton, maybe; Jayson Werth, maybe; even, Ryan Howard)? Remember, the name of the game ultimately is pitching, and that would mean at least three years (2010, 2011, 2012) of a Halladay, Lee, Hamels, Happ rotation (and who cares who the fifth starter would be). Anyone want to bet against that crew not pitching the Phillies into the postseason? You have to think that rotation would lead the Phillies to phoning up the rental people to see if they have any flatbed Fords, not for Winslow , Arizona , but for Philadelphia in Novembers to come.

Recall that, when he was traded, Lee made it very clear that he wanted to stay in Philadelphia . (The thought occurs that the biggest blunder at that point in 2009 wasn't made by the Phillies, but by Lee's agent, who may have rejected the Phillies' first offer out of hand as a negotiating ploy that blew up in his face.) And, can you blame Lee? He became an instant hero in a city that is absolutely passionate about its heroes, and for a team that went to the World Series for the second straight year. For that matter, don't you think Lee resigning with the Phillies for 2011 and beyond would be more likely if Lee was wearing pinstripes during 2010? For that matter, who's to say for certain that Lee wouldn't have signed an extension DURING 2010? (And, either of those possibilities would keep him out of the greedy paws of the Yankees and Red Sox. More on that later.) Maybe even at a discount so he could stay in Philly?

Well, even if they couldn't keep Lee past 2010, that still would have given the Phillies at least three prospects; say one Double A prospect for Blanton (that seems reasonable. doesn't it?) and two draft choices for Lee's free agency. OK, so maybe those draft picks wouldn't be real high since Lee would be more likely to sign with a high-payroll club, and that theoretically means a better team and lower picks. Of course, the Mets and Cubs are high payroll clubs...

Anyway, add it up, and the Phillies would still get three prospects either way. Maybe better prospects with the Lee trade, or maybe just more advanced prospects for Lee (Whoopee! Three players just getting to Double A, none of whom is in the MLB top 100 prospects.) But they still get three prospects either way. Of course, if Lee goes through free agency as a Mariner, then Seattle, not the Phillies, gets the two extra draft choices. And isn't that what the Phillies say they want… more prospects/draft choices?

That leads to another question. When are they likely to need said prospects?

Maybe you buy the idea that, after trading for Lee and then Halladay, the Phillies had to re-stock their farm system. That's reasonable on the surface; they did trade seven of their top 10 prospects. But, wait a minute. While re-stocking the farm system is important, just how important was it for either the 2010 or the 2011 season? RAJ has been quoted as saying that the Phillies, after the trades for Lee and Halladay, were thin on high-ceiling prospects above Class A. He's right, but, does that really matter for 2010 or 2011? Let's see...

For 2010, the answer is obvious... there was no move the Phillies could have made prior to the start of the 2010 season that would have made a difference down on the farm, at least, not for the 2010 major league team. Even for Cliff Lee, it seems highly unlikely that any team was going to give up even one player who would be good enough to make the Phillies' powerhouse 2010 squad, either as a pitcher or a hitter. As the team is now constituted, there don't exactly seem to be a lot of openings. A left-handed relief specialist (and they already have one good prospect that fits that mold, Antonio Bastardo) and a fifth starter, but that's about it. In the actual trading of Lee, the best they got back was a pitcher who is going to start the 2010 season in Double A. A lot of help he'll be in 2010 if Jamie Moyer can't recover from his surgeries and Kyle Kendrick turns out to be better suited for watching "Survivor" than surviving in the majors.

How about 2011? Yes, it certainly appears as if they will need to call on the farm system for 2011. There's a little matter of being short an outfielder, since, after signing Shane Victorino to a surprisingly large contract, it seems as if they won't have enough money to afford a much better hitting outfielder, the aforementioned Mr. Werth, past 2010. OK, so they need a prospect to fill an outfield hole in 2011. What about Domonic Brown? Before all the trades he was their top prospect, and that hasn't changed. And he'll be just about ready for a major role in 2011, maybe platooning with Ben Francisco, to keep their line-up from leaning too heavily to the left.

Let's move on to 2012. The lineup for 2012 is problematic at this point, but it seems safe to say they may well need their farm system at that point. Of course, 2012 is two full seasons away; that's some time to develop any set of prospects, whether they be from the Lee trade, from a Blanton trade, or from extra draft choices after losing Lee to free agency (again, assuming he leaves as a Phillie, if he goes as a Mariner, they get nothing, nada, for him except the three Double A guys), or their own draft picks from 2009, 2010 and 2011 (which, BTW, they won't have if they sign Lee as a free agent after the 2010 season). Plus, they also have time (two or maybe three years) to develop some of their retained prospects, like Anthony Gose and Trevor Mays.

Look, what it really comes down to is, by keeping Lee for the 2010 season, they could have either kept him for 2011 and 2012, or built their farm system by getting two draft choices. As it is, by trading Lee, they'll either never get back a former Cy Young winner still in his prime, or they'll LOSE two draft choices if they resign him after 2010. And that certainly doesn't help the farm system. What it also comes down to is, they traded a former Cy Young Award winner for three prospects they won't need (and probably can't use) until 2012 or so, after which, who's to say if they'll still be contenders. That, my friends, looks like a blunder.

Why is this so important? Why was the Lee trade potentially a Blunder of the Ages? After all, they did add the best pitcher in baseball to a team with back-to-back World Series appearances. Ah, that's why it's important. This may be inconceivable to most Phillies fans, but the fact is that they are now in the very small elite of baseball. And, as such, just making the postseason won't cut it. Making the NLCS won't cut it. For that matter, it'll even be hard to sell just making the World Series anymore. No, success for the Phillies in 2010, and 2011, and probably 2012 means just one thing, that funny-looking pseudo-crown trophy and Chase Utley getting another chance to exclaim "World's Bleeping Champions." That's what RAJ et al should be aiming for over the next three seasons. This may be a first in Phillies' history (though you could make this argument for the 1976-1983 team as well), but this is no time to think small, i.e., the NL East title. It's a time to think big, i.e., the World Series title. There is no guarantee that they'll be able to keep most of this team together past 2012, or that, even if they do, the principals will all play to their current level of excellence further along than that.

What would seem to be as sure as sure can be in baseball, is that, over the next three seasons, the road to the World Series title will go through New York and/or Boston , and that it will take pitching, starting pitching, the equal of the Yankees or Red Sox to accomplish that. That's what RAJ should be plotting his strategy for -- taking on the American League, and defeating same, in the World Series.

Connie Mack (and everyone else) was right when he said that pitching was 75 percent of baseball. And that was eminently clear in the 2009 World Series. The Phillies did not have the quality depth of starting pitching to match up with the Hateds. And now, without Cliff Lee, even if Cole Hamels comes back strong (as he very likely will), they won't have it in 2010, either, and it frankly seems bloody unlikely that they'll have it in 2011 or 2012. Even if it means losing two draft choices (which they would, in effect, pick back up again by letting Werth walk), Philly fans can only hope at this point that the Phils left Lee with a parting thought prior to his leave-taking for Seattle ... "give us a call when you're free again, Cliff." (Jayson Stark, among others, has said that Lee is likely to be a one-year rental in Seattle .) Otherwise, the trade of their 2009 ace, a trade seemingly made by thinking small instead of thinking big, could be a Blunder of the Ages.

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