Detroit Tigers: Luis Gonzalez for Karim Garcia trade was a disaster

Luis Gonzalez, Detroit Tigers, Mandatory Credit: Vincent Laforet /Allsport
Luis Gonzalez, Detroit Tigers, Mandatory Credit: Vincent Laforet /Allsport /

Prior to the 1999 season, the Detroit Tigers traded Luis Gonzalez to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Karim Garcia. It was a disaster.

In a previous post from our series on Detroit Tigers trades, we looked at the trade for Damion Easley, which worked out pretty well. A few years later, Randy Smith made a trade that turned out much worse when they swapped outfielders with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Prior to the 1998 season, the Tigers signed Luis Gonzalez to a free agent contract. Gonzalez had split his career to that point with the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs and was a pretty average player. With the Tigers that year, the 30-year-old Gonzalez set career highs in home runs (23) and nearly set one in OPS (.816) as the Tigers limped to a 65-97 finish.

Karim Garcia, meanwhile, was a once top prospect in the Los Angeles Dodgers system, as Baseball America ranked him at high as #7 overall at one point (prior to the 1996 season). The Dodgers left him exposed in the expansion draft in 1997, and the Diamondbacks took him. In 1998, Garcia got into 113 games during Arizona’s inaugural season, batting .222 with nine home runs and 43 RBIs.

Garcia was only 22 years old, however, so trading away an average 30-year-old player – though he was coming off a good season – to acquire him, while he still had a lot of potential, didn’t seem like an unreasonable gamble. However, the trade quickly blew up in the Tigers’ faces.

We’ll start with Garcia. In 1999, he played in 96 Tigers games, batting .240 with 14 home runs and 32 RBIs. Then, after appearing in just eight games in 2000, the Tigers sent him to the Baltimore Orioles. Garcia bounced around until last appearing in the majors in 2004.

Garcia holds a career WAR of -3.2. He clearly was not the player the Tigers were hoping for. In fact, his biggest claim to fame probably is from the 2003 American League Championship Series, when he got hit with a Pedro Martinez pitch, which eventually led to a brawl.

Meanwhile, Gonzalez exploded as soon as he went to the desert. He led the National League in hits in 1999, batting .336 with 26 home runs and 111 RBIs. It was the first of five straight years in which he would hit at least 25 home runs and drive in at least 100, while he batted over .300 in four of those seasons. In 2001, he hit an incredible 57 home runs, leading the Diamondbacks to a World Series Championship.

Gonzalez had been a decent player for a number of years, but there was no way of knowing that, at 31 years old, he would just go off like that. So, I don’t fault Smith for making the trade at the time. It just turned out about as bad as a trade possibly could.

What would the Tigers have looked like with Gonzalez over those next few years? They still were pretty bad in the late 1990s and early 2000s, so in terms of winning it may not have made much of a difference. In fact, they probably would have eventually traded him to a contender anyway and gotten a much larger return.

There’s also a good chance that Gonzalez would not have hit as many home runs in, what was in its early days, a heavily pitcher-friendly Comerica Park. Maybe his game would not have developed in Detroit the way it did in Arizona.

Still, that doesn’t make it much easier for Tigers fans to swallow what has to be one of the worst trades in team history two decades after the fact.