J.P. Ricciardi and George Santayana
J.P. Ricciardi (Photo: Mike Carlson/AP)
J.P. Ricciardi (Photo: Mike Carlson/AP)

Posted Jul 31, 2009


Is there ever a good time to trade the best pitcher in baseball? And if there is, can you ever get equal value for him? Those are questions that J.P. Ricciardi has to ponder as the countdown to the deadline is on.

J.P. Ricciardi obviously has never read George Santayana. That’s the inevitable conclusion one will reach in light of the Blue Jays’ GM’s handling thus far of the “Roy Halladay Case.” J.P., despite his “Moneyball” credentials, apparently hasn’t learned anything from baseball history, because it sure looks like he’s condemned to repeat same. Which is? The simple fact that the team that trades the Best Pitcher in Baseball (or a strong candidate for that title) cannot and does not receive equal value for that individual. Certainly not in the short run, and probably not in the long run. Never happens, can’t be done. Just simple logic should make that clear. The Best Pitcher in Baseball has no peers, no equals, no one player that is his equal. And, although some GMs (Astros boss Ed Wade comes to mind since he’s made trades like this in both Philadelphia and Houston ) may think otherwise, quantity does not equal quality in this arena. Three or four good players, or good prospects, can never equal the Best Pitcher in Baseball, or his impact, certainly not in the season of the trade, or the season thereafter… which is what the Halladay Case involves, since he’s signed through 2010 and plans to go the free agent route afterwards.

Speaking of repeating history, this entire subject is in fact being repeated from the spring of 2008, when the Twins traded arguably the Best Pitcher in Baseball, Johan Santana, to the Mets for nowhere near his value. (Considering that he still hasn’t changed his evil ways, Santana is still in the running for the Best Pitcher in Baseball title, but, somehow it’s hard to imagine the Mets and Jays swapping these two aces.) To dredge up that story from last year’s “19 to 21” (and the subsequent book version, “The Breaks Even Out and Midnight Comes Quickly for Cinderella”) let us note that while great pitchers get traded all the time, it’s pretty rare for the Best Pitcher in Baseball to get dealt, and that such a deal is usually a forced trade, brought about by monetary considerations. To put it simply, J.P., when you’re forced to get rid of the Best Pitcher in Baseball because you either can’t afford him, or because you need an influx of cash, you’re going to get hosed in the deal. And the only thing you can do about it is to try and minimize your losses.

That lesson seems to be lost on the Jays’ GM, who seems determined NOT to trade Halladay, thus maximizing his losses, or minimizing his return. This, at least, appears to be the scenario that’s building, as the Jays ask for the moon and the stars, i.e., a ridiculous and almost equal return, from potential suitors for Halladay. A team’s top three prospects, including two pitchers, for just over a season’s worth of Halladay and the right to pay him $15 million-plus? C’mon, get real. Or rather, if the Jays don’t get real, and realize they’re NOT going to get anywhere near an even value for Halladay in 2009, and that they’ll get even less in 2010 when he’s a two-month rental, it’ll get to the point where all they will get for Halladay will be a couple of draft choices. Somehow, that doesn’t seem like much return for a pitcher who has already been proclaimed a future Hall of Famer.

 As noted last spring, let’s return to the five cases where at least an obvious candidate for the title Best Pitcher in Baseball, was traded. They were…

Grover Cleveland Alexander – after the 1917 season

Lefty Grove – after the 1933 season

Tom Seaver – during the 1977 season

Randy Johnson – during the 1998 season

Roger Clemens – after the 1998 season

The Alexander trade was on the surface incomprehensible, until you look at the balance sheet of Phillies owner William Baker, who was way over his head financially. Alex, 30 at the time, had just come off three consecutive 30-win seasons, leading the Phillies to their first pennant in the first one. Baker claimed he was trading Alex to the Cubs in December 1917 because he was afraid Old Pete wouldn’t come back in one piece from his service in France in World War 1. And that actually happened to a certain extent. Alex came back with a drinking problem, a malady that nonetheless didn’t stop him from wining another 175 or so games after the war. What was the deal Baker made? Alex for $55,000, Mike Prendergast and Pickles Dillhoefer. That’s not quite equal value.

Then there was Lefty Grove, going from Philadelphia (the Athletics in this case) to the Red Sox in a trade that may have been even more unbalanced than the Alexander deal. Grove was 33 years old when Connie Mack shipped him, Max Bishop and Rube Walberg (two additional pretty fair players) to Boston for; six figures worth of Tom Yawkey’s Depression Era cash, and two players as bad as Prendergast and Dillhoefer -- Bob Kline and Rabbit Warstler. Grove, who may have been the Best Pitcher of All Time, was coming off a stretch where he had won five out of seven American League ERA titles, and led the league in strikeouts seven straight times. Enough said on that deal.

The Tom Seaver deal was different, in that it wasn’t a money deal, although it was a forced trade, and a rare instance of a sportswriter actually having a lot of clout. Seaver was pretty much run out of town by the all-powerful bully of New York baseball writers, Dick Young, who took the Mets’ side in an on-going battle between Seaver and Mets GM M. Donald Grant. Forced to deal their embittered ace (who demand a trade), the Mets received Steve Henderson, Doug Flynn and Dan Norman from the Reds. What a joke.

The Randy Johnson to the Astros deal was a classic late 20th Century-early 21st Century trading deadline transaction. The Mariners figured there wasn’t enough money in the Pacific Northwest to keep Johnson, and the Astros needed an ace to get them into the 1998 postseason. So the 34-year-old Big Unit went to Houston as rent-a-pitcher for two months at a relatively steep cost -- Freddie Garcia, John Halama and Carlos Guillen. Garcia had four fine seasons (76-50) with Seattle , before being traded to the White Sox. Halama had four pretty good seasons (41-31) before leaving for Oakland (and ultimately oblivion) via free agency. Guillen was a so-so regular for three seasons before going to Detroit and becoming a minor star. None of those guys, including Garcia, was another Big Unit.

Clemens was 36, and coming off two successive pitching Triple Crowns when he was traded by (that’s right) the Blue Jays, to the Yankees for a package that included primarily Boomer Wells and a lot of money (the others were Homer Bush and Graeme Lloyd.) Now, Boomer was a pretty fair pitcher, and won more than 200 games, but he wasn’t any Roger Clemens, either in 1998 or at any other time. At least in this deal the Jays got a little more established talent than the Twins received for Santana… just not enough to make it an equal deal.

There have been many other deals of pitchers who have been traded when they were at or near the top of the heap in their profession. One that stands out as the all-time stinker of a deal was when Curt Schilling went from the Phillies to the Diamondbacks at the age of 33 for Travis Lee, Vicente Padilla, Omar Daal and Nelson Figueroa (whose claim to fame is that he has all five vowels in his last name) because he was convinced the 2000 Phillies weren’t committed to winning. And, with Ed Wade trades like that, the Phillies didn’t win until 2007. Remarkably, the same thing happened again in 2003, when the D’Backs decided to re-tool and sent Schilling to Boston for four more nonentities, “headlined” by Casey Fossum.

J.P., you better get real. Halladay is never going to have more value than he does at this moment. If you don’t have reasonable expectations for what you’ll get for him, you’ll get even less, and will indeed repeat history in the worst possible fashion. You might even end up with Vicente Padilla.




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