Last week I dug into the Baseball Reference archives in search of the most favorably lopsided trades in Tigers history. Determining where the Miguel Cabrera deal ranked prompted my search.
As I scrolled through the dozens and dozens of trades the Tigers have executed over the last century plus something struck me. Something I didn’t expect. The good and bad trades seemed about even in number–but not in degree. The really bad ones were much worse than the really good ones were great.
What, if anything, does this say about the Tigers? Have the Bengals been cursed throughout most of their history with feckless management? Too many GMs and managers easily swindled or simply incompetent? I don’t think so. After all, Detroit has usually been a first division club. And it recovers quickly from downturns. With the exception of the 12 seasons between 1994-2005, the Tigers have avoided long stretches of irrelevancy.
No, I suspect this imbalance is simply random. What it does say is that Detroit hasn’t been too adversely affected by losing in a big way on some trades
Anyway, what follows are the ten trades and moves the Tigers should have never made. They all resulted in moving players who went on to give their new teams considerably more value than the Tigers received. Each trade includes a net WAR (wins above replacement), the long-term difference between what the Tigers gave up and what they received. Or in the case of a waived player, what the player accumulated in WAR after wearing a Tiger uniform. On a strictly net WAR basis, the second worst trade in Tiger history was the 1987 Doyle Alexander-John Smoltz deal. It doesn’t make the list, however, because Alexander made significant contributions in a Tigers uniform by going 9-0 down the stretch of the 1987 season and helping Detroit nail down the AL East title.
On a side note: no Dave Dombrowski trade makes the list. And only one drops into the top 20: Omar Infante for Jacque Jones. It remains to be seen whether the Doug Fister or Prince Fielder trades will join this list.
Jacobson is not a household name among baseball fans and certainly not in Detroit. After a cup of coffee with the Tigers in 1915, he was dealt to St. Louis. The Tigers pitched in $15,000 as well, real money at the time. Jacobson hit .317 in ten seasons with the Browns and finished in the top ten in MVP voting twice. His 117 OPS+ in eight full seasons for the Browns is proof of his value. Despite a burly frame, he also fielded his outfield position surprisingly well. Jacobson combined with Ken Williams and Jack Tobin to give the Browns the greatest outfield in their history. His nickname, by the way, came while he played in the Southern League in Mobile. According to the invaluable book, The Ballplayers (William & Morrow, 1990), the grandstand band played “Oh, You Beautiful Doll,” after Jacobson, whose real name was William, hit a homer on Opening Day in 1912. The next day the local paper captioned the photo, “Baby Doll.” Bill James (no relation to that James) spent parts of five seasons in Detroit as a swingman and .500 pitcher. The Tigers spun their wheels during that time–but not because of the hole left in the outfield by Jacobson’s departure. If the Tigers had retained Jacobson it would have created a logjam of outfielders over the next few seasons. So Detroit didn’t really feel his loss. What the Tigers really needed during this stretch was pitching. James, however, was not the tonic the Tigers were looking for.
Bunning became a Hall of Famer. Demeter and Hamilton did not. Bunning threw a no-hitter for the Tigers. He bettered that with a perfect game for the Phillies. Demeter averaged 23 homers in three seasons with Philadelphia. He averaged 14 with Detroit. Hamilton suffered a few rocky outings and never provided any value. In fairness, Demeter was not a bust with the Tigers. His crime was that he failed spectacularly to equal the production Bunning gave the Phillies. The former Tigers ace was just as brilliant in Philadelphia as he had been in Detroit, making multiple All-Star teams, once finishing second in the National League Cy Young race, and striking out more than 1,000 batters. With Bunning around the Tigers may have racked up a few more pennants in the late 60s. Detroit managed to salvage something of the trade when it moved Demeter to Boston for Earl Wilson before the ’66 season.
This was probably Randy Smith’s second worst trade. The Tigers had picked up Gonzalez for a couple million as a free agent in 1998. He had never hit more than 20 homers in a season. With Detroit he clubbed 23. But Smith, who was a step slow to realize that hitting gobs of homers was the new game in town, dealt him to Arizona for Karim Garcia. The outfielder was a former Dodgers phenom selected by the Diamondbacks in the expansion draft who had yet to distinguish himself in the majors. Gonzalez power exploded after the trade. He averaged 28 homers in eights seasons with Arizona, topping out at 57 in 2001. In the short history of the Diamondbacks, Gonzalez is one of the franchise’s greats. Garcia hit 14 homers in parts of two seasons for the Tigers and was then dumped on Baltimore for the cost of a collect call. Just another glass of spoiled milk during the Smith era.
7. Sold OF Dixie Walker to the Brooklyn Dodgers -35.3 (August 1939)
Buried deep in the American League race, the Tigers waived Walker after he tore his knee in the middle of the 1939 season. Walker hit .300 for Detroit in parts of two seasons but showed little power potential. Still only 29, he intrigued Branch Rickey, who swooped up Walker up nothing. He spent nine seasons with Brooklyn, hitting .311 with a 129 OPS + and helping the Dodgers win multiple pennants. His winning personality and relentless effort also made him a favorite of the passionate Brooklyn fans. He played in four National League All-Star games and led the league in hitting in 1944. While Walker was starring in New York, the Tigers won a couple of pennants but struggled to find a consistent third outfielder. Perhaps with Walker the Tigers would have added another pennant.
6. Pitcher C.J. Nitkowski, Pitcher Dave Tuttle, and IF Mark Lewis for Pitcher David Wells -35.5 (July 1995; Reds). The Tigers were going nowhere, once again, in 1995. Nonetheless, they possessed a valuable commodity: a starting pitcher who was 10-3 with a 3.04 ERA (one of the tops in the league). He was also scheduled to be a free agent in another year. Smart organizations do what the Tigers ultimately did. Trade this commodity for a raft of young talent. Unfortunately that talent never came close to equally what Wells did the rest of his career. Even worse, it didn’t provide the Tigers with much value at all. Nitkowski was an entertaining interview but chronic underachiever. Tuttle never played for the Tigers. And Lewis posted a negative WAR for a season before being moved for a career minor leaguer. Detroit’s intentions were good, but the results were bitterly disappointing.
5. IF Maury Wills given back to the Dodgers -38.4 (April 1959)
The scrawny, erratic 26-year old infielder was loaned to the Tigers after the 1958 season. Detroit returned him in the spring, unimpressed with his bat and glove. In 1962, Willis won the National League MVP. He made five All-Star appearances and won two gold gloves. He broke Ty Cobb’s stolen base records. I’ll stop there. All the while the Tigers never seemed happy with their shortstops, rifling through four different ones in eight seasons. With Wills, the Tigers could have moved Dick McAuliffe to second base earlier, which would have strengthened both positions and perhaps helped the Tigers add more hardware in the 60s. Something that bears mentioning, however: Wills’ game was better suited to the Dodgers and Dodger Stadium. I doubt he would have put up the numbers he did in LA in Detroit, but he still would have been a valuable asset for the Tigers.
Here is another trade turned sour with the sad-sack St. Louis Browns. What are the odds? Blue, a slick-fielding first baseman who had a .402 career OBP, quarreled with Tigers manager and star Ty Cobb throughout his very productive seven years in Detroit. He continued to walk and get base hits in the five years after this trade. Manush, however, accounts for most of the WAR differential. He won a batting title for the Tigers in 1926 but slumped to .298 the next season. That prompted the Tigers to take the Browns offer of Harry Rice and change. Rice was a fiendishly skilled singles hitter in St. Louis and had a couple of very good years in Detroit before the Tigers traded him to New York for fading pitcher Waite Hoyt and journeyman IF Mark Koenig. Vangilder and Calloway did little in Detroit. Manush, on the other hand, averaged about four WAR over the next eight seasons and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
3. OF Juan Gonzalez, Pitcher Danny Patterson, and C Gregg Zaun for IF/OF Frank Catalanotto, Pitcher Francisco Cordero, C Bill Haselman, Pitcher Alan Webb, OF Gabe Kapler, and Pitcher Justin Thompson -46.1 (Nov. 1999; Rangers)
The trade represented Randy Smith at his most desperate. Four straight losing seasons, including two 90-loss seasons and one in the 100s made Smith an easy target for the Rangers, who were looking to move Gonzalez before his free agency year. Smith sent Texas half his roster, it seemed. In return, he received a disgruntled and unmotivated power-hitting star who despised the Tigers’ new den, the pre-reconfigured Comerica Park. Thrown into the deal for the Tigers were a middle reliever and backup catcher. Catalanotto, Cordero, and Kapler, who could have formed the nucleus of a resurgent Detroit, put up solid numbers over the next few years. Gonzalez underperformed, hitting just 22 homers for the Tigers and missing boatloads of games due to curious injuries. With each game Gonzalez missed the temper of Tigers fan rose higher until the outfielder became one of the most disliked players in franchise history. Gonzalez bolted Detroit after one year. Patterson hung around to become a reliable reliever for a few seasons. Zaun never donned a Detroit uniform. Instead, he was dealt for nothing a few weeks after the trade to Kansas City, where he continued in his role as an excellent backup catcher. A switch-hitter, Zaun had a career .344 OBP and regularly slugged over .400. He racked up 11.7 WAR after Smith acquired him and then inexplicably gifted him to the Royals. I’ve included Zaun’s post-trade WAR in the net calculation, because, well, how could I not.
If you are going to trade a future star for a Robinson there are plenty of better ones to choose from. Aaron had decent power for a catcher but lost his job in New York to Yogi Berra before being traded to Chicago. The White Sox then moved the 34-year old to Detroit for a pitcher who became a legend on the Southside. Pierce was a prep star in Detroit and only 22 when the Tigers traded him for a catcher pushing his mid 30s. Go figure. Robinson did hit 13 homers and post a 118 OPS+ in his first year with the Tigers. But that was pretty much it, as age robbed him of his skills after that. Pierce? There is a statue of the guy outside of US Cellular Field. Ouch.
And just for good measure the Tigers threw in $25,000. Ehmke and Herman account for most of the net WAR difference. Herman, just 19 at the time of the trade, moved on to Brooklyn where he became a star, finishing in the top 20 in MVP voting four times. He hit for power and average and posted a 141 career OPS+. Fielding, however, was not Herman’s strength. Ehmke, a side-arming control artist, twice won 17 games for the Tigers. He gave the Red Sox more good years, throwing a no-hitter, winning 20 games once, and averaging almost 5 WAR in four seasons. He is most famous, however, for starting Game One of the 1929 World Series for the Philadelphia A’s. Ehmke had won only seven games that year, but A’s manager Connie Mack played a hunch. He thought that Ehmke’s throwing motion and arsenal of slow stuff would fool the predominately right-handed hitting Cubs lineup. And boy was he right. Ehmke set a WS record by striking out 13 Chicago hitters in winning 3-1. That catapulted the A’s to a Series victory. Collins and Pratt were not ineffective in Tiger uniforms. The hard-drinking Collins won a little more than he lost as a Tiger and Pratt, who had been an outstanding 2B with the Yankees and Red Sox, closed out his major league career with Detroit in quiet but professional fashion. Throughout the 20s, the Tigers finished near the bottom in the American League in pitching and usually near the bottom in home runs. Ehmke and Herman certainly would have helped change that.