Sunday, February 13, 2011

The 40 Worst Off-Seasons Ever, Part 1

By The Common Man

This list was inspired by a reader and Twins fan, Norm Steadman, who writes at Mister 70%. Norm has been understandably disappointed by Minnesota’s offseason so far, and wanted some way to feel better about their lackluster performance. To cheer Norm up, The Common Man thought he’d take him up on his suggestion to rank the 40 worst offseasons in baseball history.  This is part 1.  The series will be five parts long, and run every day this week, including some follow-up thoughts and conclusions on Friday.  Good news, Norm, this iteration of the Twins are going to have to work really hard to crack this group.

Before we begin, a couple of notes. First, criteria. What makes a bad offseason? One thing, obviously, is when a team makes moves that hurt the team in either or both of the short or long term. Bad trades, bad signings. Things that cripple a franchise’s ability to compete. In his analysis, The Common Man has tried to account for the Wins Above Replacement lost by each team over the next five years as a result of their actions, or (for modern teams) until a player traded away, waived, or released became a free agent again. He has also tried to account for teams whose terrible moves cost them postseason berths, and also for how fans likely felt if they were watching their team get gutted or flail about.

Second, this is probably not a complete list, and TCM welcomes your suggestions for other teams that should be on here. TCM was working a lot from memory and from references like Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Blunders, but there is not a good systematic way to examine all the data without digging through roughly 2300 team-offseasons. If you’ve got ideas of other terrible offseasons, by all means suggest them in the comments.

Finally, the list does not include the rumors and expectations surrounding a team as part of the analysis. For instance, there were rumors once that Yankees and Red Sox were going to swap DiMaggio and Williams. That didn’t happen, and so TCM is not going to use it to analyze what could have happened during that offseason. Obviously, the level of disappointment fans may have had that an anticipated deal didn’t come together (like the Twins attempts to deal Johan Santana to the Yankees and Red Sox in 2008) would affect their perception of the offseason. But that’s not possible across history. So instead, The Common Man is sticking to what did happen. So let’s get started:

(Update: you can find part 2 here.  Meanwhile, Part 3 is here.  And Part 4 is up here.)

40) 1994-95 Minnesota Twins
Moves: Lost Shane Mack, released Rich Garces, signed Kevin Maas and Jerald Clark with the intention of playing them, signed Greg Harris.  5.0 WAR lost.

Right off the bat, The Common Man can’t tell if he’s being objective enough here, given his closeness with the team and general knowledge of how they’ve operated in the past. It’s entirely possible that TCM is blowing this out of proportion. But, to steal a line from Jack Morris supporters, you really had to be there.

Prior to The Strike in ’94, the Twins knew that Kent Hrbek was retiring to pursue his lifelong dreams of eating and fishing as much as he wanted without having to “work out” or “do anything.” The Twins thought they had a budding replacement in Dave McCarty and so didn’t try too hard to fill the position, talking up Kevin Maas as a powerful stopgap. They also signed Jerald Clark to do most of the starting in LF, after Shane Mack decided to go to Japan rather than wait out the strike. Neither had actually played in the Majors the previous year. They also brought in Matt Merullo to catch, he had played in four games the previous season. Greg Harris, brought in to anchor the starting rotation, had gone 3-12 with a 6.65 ERA the year before in Colorado. The Common Man cannot tell you how depressing TwinsFest was that year.

Predictably, nothing went right. Harris got hurt, came back and posted an 8.82 ERA. Maas got hurt and hit .193/.281/.316. Clark just got hurt. So did Merullo. The Twins, realistically, wouldn’t have been a competitive team in 1995 no matter what. But God, it would have been nice if they’d actually looked like they were trying a little.

39) 1982-83 New York Yankees
Moves: Traded Dave Collins, Fred McGriff, Mike Morgan and cash for Tom Dodd and Dale Murray, traded three minor leaguers for Stan Javier and Bob Meacham.  Signed Don Baylor and Steve Kemp. Traded Lee Mazzilli for three minor leaguers and Tim Burke. 1.2 WAR Lost

If we actually extend out past the 5-year mark, these moves by the Yankees look much worse, as Fred McGriff didn’t really start cranking until 1988, just outside of our window. The Yankees were at the zenith of their George Steinbrenner, Win Now! Period, and made some bad calls here. The Bombers got two good years out of three with Don Baylor. But Steve Kemp became the poster child for bad free agent signings when he had two very disappointing years and earned The Boss’ wrath. As a sign of how schizophrenic the Yankees had become, Dennis Rasmussen was acquired from San Diego, then traded back, then re-acquired in three separate trades within two calendar years.

And, of course, three effective Major Leaguers, including a borderline Hall of Famer, were dealt for a reliever who was below replacement level in 120 innings for the Yankees. This is why people should just shut up and let Brian Cashman do his job.

38) 1965-66 Cincinnati Reds
Moves: Traded Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas, Dick Simpson, and Jack Baldschun. 17.7 WAR lost

“What I give them lasts a lifetime; what they give me lasts 142 games. Sometimes it seems like a bad trade. But bad trades are part of baseball - now who can forget Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas, for God's sake?” –Annie Savoy, Bull Durham
The only move the Orioles made that winter was a disaster. The popular account of the trade was that the Reds felt Frank Robinson was lazy and a malcontent, and that he was “not a young 30.” Larry Granillo actually has a good post about it here. Robinson would go on to put up 30.7 WAR over the next five seasons, and would win the AL MVP in 1966. Cincinnati suffered through a terrible season and finished 7th in the NL. Pappas continued to have a solid career through 1973, but would only have two and a half seasons in Cincinnati.

37) 1959-60 Kansas City A’s
Traded Joe DeMaestri, Kent Hadley, and Roger Maris for Hank Bauer, Don Larsen, Norm Siebern, and Marv Throneberry.  Traded Tom Sturdivant for Pete Daley.  Traded Hal Smith for Dick Hall, Ken Hamlin and Hak Foiles. 16.3 WAR lost

As some of you know, the Yankees were busy using the A’s as a farm team for a much of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and players shuttled back and forth regularly. One reason is that, allegedly, no one else would trade with the Yankees. General Manager George Weiss told reporters, “we have tried unsuccessfully to trade with other clubs in both leagues. The Yanks and Kansas City in faith in each other.” That faith must have been shaken when Maris won back-to-back MVP awards for the Bombers.

It made no sense at the time, given that Maris was only 25 (actually, he was younger than both Siebern and Throneberry, and the A’s didn’t have anybody to replace him. The A’s were already a last place club, and didn’t really get any better building blocks than the one they gave up. Still, the return wasn’t a total bust. Neither of the other players they gave up were any good, and some of the return was better than decent. Norm Siebern settled in at 1B and became the A’s star masher for a few years before moving on. But it was nowhere near enough to make up for what Maris did with the Yanks, and the reasons behind the deal are completely baffling.

Not that the A’s had much of an idea of what they were doing at this point. Hal Smith, for instance was a pretty good-hitting catcher the A’s tried to use at 3B. That didn’t work. So they dealt him for a whole bunch of nothing to the Pirates, where he formed the short half of a great catching platoon for the World Champs.

36) 1937-38 Philadelphia Phillies
Traded Dolph Camilli for Eddie Morgan and $45,000.  Sold Johnny Moore. Purchased Heinie Mueller. Traded Earl Grace for Cap Clark. Selected Al Smith off waivers. Signed Wild Bill Hallahan.  31.2 WAR lost.

In 1918, the Phillies began a downward spiral that saw them finish below .500 in 30 out of the next 31 seasons. It was, perhaps, the single most depressing stretch in any team’s history, and Phillies fans understandably dwindled. By 1937, just 212,000 fans actually attended a Phillies game. That’s an average of, roughly, 1380 fans per game. Which is worse than most minor league teams do today. By that point, owners were essentially using the team as a cash machine, buying young players at cheap prices from around the minors and then selling them at a huge markup. The Dolph Camilli deal above is one of the two most egregious examples of this.

Camilli was a popular player in Philadelphia, and the team’s biggest star. Camilli had made just $11,500 in 1937, and was holding out for $17,500. Rather than pony up, the Phillies traded him to someone who would, the Dodgers. Camilli would become a huge fan favorite in Brooklyn and would win the NL MVP in 1941. Eddie Morgan, meanwhile, would never play an inning for the Phillies.

The move may have kept the Phillies financially afloat in the short term, but fans were incensed, especially with the loss of Moore as well. Attendance dropped by 22 percent, to just over 166,000 fans. It must have been very easy to find a seat at the Baker Bowl that year.

35) 1948-49 Washington Senators
Moves: Traded Tom Ferrick, John Sullivan and cash for Sam Dente. Drafted John Simmons. Traded Mickey Vernon and Early Wynn for Joe Haynes, Ed Klieman, and Eddie Robinson. Traded Luis Aloma and Sammy Meeks. Signed Jim Pearce and Paul Calvert.  35.1 WAR lost.

To be fair to Calvin Griffith, Mickey Vernon and Early Wynn were both horrible in 1948 and looked like they might be done. In fact, Vernon had been below replacement level for two whole seasons before the trade. And Cal was being offered a starting 1B back, along with Haynes, who had led the AL in ERA in 1947, along with a relief ace in Klieman. Most of us would probably make that deal. In Cleveland, however, both players reignited their careers. Gus would become a stalwart workhorse on the mound, and Vernon found some offensive life. While Haynes and Klieman both tanked.

Even beyond this horrible deal, the Senators got back nothing from their wheeling and dealing. Not a single one of the players they acquired panned out. And in every case, the Senators gave up something positive to get them. Predictably, the club cratered and lost 104 games, and eventually had to reacquire Vernon using one of their pitching prospects (who, mercifully, never really caught on).

34) 1947-48 Pittsburgh Pirates
Moves: Traded Preacher Roe, Billy Cox and Hal Gregg for Hal Gregg, Vic Lombardi and Dixie Walker.  32.4 WAR lost.

The Pirates sought to make hay out of the Dodgers’ troubles after 1947, when Dixie Walker fronted a group of players who tried to revolt against Jackie Robinson breaking the color line. Walker was already 36, and Branch Rickey was, as ever, cognizant of his desire to trade a player one year too early rather than a year too late. So the Pirates pounced, picking up Walker and two young pitchers who had had recent success but who, in retrospect, may have been suffering from arm troubles. They gave up their troubled hurler Preacher Roe, along with young 3B Billy Cox and Gene Mauch. Roe would win 79 games over the next 5 seasons, including 22 in 1951 as the Dodgers ace.

The team also really wanted 27 year old hurler Bob Chesnes of the San Francisco Seals. So they sent $100,000 and a package of four players to get him. Chesnes had a very strong rookie campaign, but quickly faded. Meanwhile, one of the players sent to San Francisco, Gene Woodling, hit .385/.483/.603 with 22 homers by the Bay, and brought the Yankees calling after the season. New York bought him from the Seals and installed him as the regular leftfielder. Woodling responded with a 122 OPS+, and 12 WAR over the next four seasons before leading the AL in on-base percentage in 1953. The Pirates, meanwhile, while flush with outfielders for much of that period, had troubles at 1B.

33) 1904-05 Boston Red Sox
Moves: Traded George Stone for Jesse Burkett. 22.8 WAR Lost.

In 1905, the Red Sox were in an enviable position. They had just won the last two AL Championships, and looked poised to win again, with largely the same squad coming back. But the St. Louis Browns had made one of the great sluggers of the 19th century available, Jesse Burkett, and the Sox couldn’t pass up his bat. So they sent George Stone, whose batting style (according to Bill James) infuriated manager Jimmy Collins and some cash to Browns to pick up the 36 year old Hall of Famer-to-be. Burkett played well, posting a 116 OPS+ in a down offensive environment. However, the team scuttled to a 4th place finish and Burkett was released before the start of the next season.

Stone, on the other hand, became one of the biggest stars in the American League for the next five years, posting a 151 OPS+ and winning the sabermetric triple crown (BA/OBP/SLG) in 1906. His career was cut short, however, and he left baseball in 1910 and has been largely forgotten. But Stone may have been the best all around player in the AL for much of the 1900s. The loss of Stone probably didn’t cost the Red Sox any pennants, but if you’re going to make a single transaction over the course of the offseason, it needs to not be this disastrous.

32) 1981-82 Philadelphia Phillies
Moves: Traded Ryne Sandberg and Larry Bowa for Ivan De Jesus. Traded Lonnie Smith for Bo Diaz. Sold Bob Boone. Signed Larry Christenson. Traded Keith Moreland, Dan Larson, and Dickie Noles for Mike Krukow. 29.6 WAR lost.

The Phillies still viewed themselves, rightfully, as competitors in the NL East, and really didn't want to break in a rookie shortstop in Ryne Sandberg on the fly, but they couldn't live with Larry Bowa anymore. So they unwisely packaged them both for de Jesus, a player in relatively steep decline. You know the rest of the story.

The more interesting deal here is the decision to get rid of Lonnie Smith. Smith was just 25 and his hitting talent was undeniable (.321/.389/.437 in 572 PAs for Philly over 4 seasons, a 128 OPS+). The Phillies already had Bob Boone, but Boone was 33 and had had a tough season in 1981 (.211/.279/.295). The Phillies could probably be forgiven for not knowing he had another nine seasons in him. Bo Diaz, on the other hand, was 28 and had only just started receiving regular playing time, hitting .313/.359/.533 in 199 PAs in the strike-shortened year. It was enough to convince the Phillies to part with their best young player. Diaz came over an proved a decent offensive catcher in his tenure, but nowhere near the player Smith would be in those first two years under Whitey Herzog.

The Phillies would remain an excellent team through 1983, but would fall off quickly after that, as Sandberg and Smith helped their new teams into the '84 and '85 Series respectively.

31) 2005-06 Texas Rangers
Moves: Traded Adrian Gonzalez, Chris Young and Termel Sledge for Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka. Traded Alfonso Soriano for Brad Wilkerson, Armando Galarraga, and Termel Sledge. Traded Esteban German for Fabio Castro. Traded Ricardo Rodriguez for Vincente Padilla. Signed Kevin Millwood. 23.6 WAR lost.

If it could throw a ball, in the offseason between 2005 and 2006, the Texas Rangers wanted it. And to get it they gave up, not just uber-prospect Adrian Gonzalez, but one of their own young pitchers, Chris Young, who was actually much better than Adam Eaton when you account for the ballparks they threw in. The next day, Christina Kahrl proved a prophet, saying,
“I guess I'm not quite so certain that the Rangers got anything they really needed out of Eaton-Young deal, and if Eaton's useful, he's also more expensive, and that makes it more difficult for the team to do something when the rotation is already relying on Vicente Padilla to bounce back and adapt to life in the rough environs of Texas. A front three of Millwood, Eaton, and Padilla just doesn't look all that fearsome, not in a division where both the Angels and A's offer much better....This was simply a bad move, all to acquire a recognizable young veteran for the rotation, and it's going to come up short.”
Apologists like to say that Gonzalez was blocked by Mark Teixeira at the time. And technically he was. But by the middle of 2007, Tex had been dealt to the Braves, and the Rangers have been unable to fill the position since. They’ve still had tremendous success, but how much better would they have looked last year and this year with Gonzalez on 1B?

Millwood and Padilla both did ok, but neither would really justify the contracts they received in Texas. The Soriano deal, on the other hand, was praised at the time, as Soriano was on the outs with the sabermetric community and Wilkerson was a darling. But Wilkerson got hurt and eventually was forced out of the league, and Soriano, while getting overpaid, continued to produce elsewhere.


Mario S said...

Good post. I like your focus on the not so obvious parts of the bad off-seasons.

"The Phillies would remain an excellent team through 1983, but would fall off quickly after that, as Sandberg and Smith helped their new teams into the '84 and '85 Series respectively."

I think you mean playoffs not "Series" due to the whole, you know, drought since '45 for Sandberg's team.

Robert said...

What if Texas had groomed Gonzales for LF, leaving 1st open for Texeira,using the money saved in the A-Rod gift to NY, for a long term extension, and holding on to Travis Haffner as DH? Now that is an explosive team!

Charlie said...

Memorably horrible: 97-98 Marlins. Sox selling Ruth. Pirates 92-93. Slightly less obvious: Mets 91-92 ("worst team money could buy"). Maybe Dodgers 91-92.

The Common Man said...

Yes, Charlie. And they're coming. Hence, the "Part 1". Don't get ahead of the class.

Charlie said...

I thought the Sox losing Ruth should have been #36.

Professor Longnose said...

In 34 you've got Hal Gregg being traded for himself. Is that a mistake, or iwa there some weird deal going on?