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Looking back at “The Trade” 30 years later

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How would we think about Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter for Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez now?

April 2 2009- Joe Carter sits with the 93 world series trophies. The team that won back-to-back Worl Photo by David Cooper/Toronto Star via Getty Images

30 years ago, “Stand Pat” Gillick pulled the trigger on true blockbuster trade, sending franchise shortstop Tony Fernandez and young slugger Fred McGriff to San Diego for power hitting corner outfielder Joe Carter and emerging infielder Roberto Alomar. It was easily the biggest trade in Blue Jays franchise history at the time, and arguably remains so 30 years later.

Of course, we know how it ended, with two World Series titles in the next three years. It’s not too often a team trades away two 45+ WAR, Hall-of-Very-Good players in their prime and can claim to have not been fleeced, much less won a trade. But then, it’s not too often a team acquires a future Hall of Famer near the beginning of his career either. Or a beloved franchise icon who literally hits a game winning World Series home run.

Based on the fact that the Blue Jays finally broke through and won two World Series, and the Padres didn’t go anywhere, the conventional wisdom became and has been cemented that the Jays won the trade handily. That it was a necessary if tough call that reflected Pat Gillick’s team building genius. But there’s a lot of “post hoc ergo procter hoc” logic(al fallacy) to that, and more importantly the game is evaluated has changed so much.

So on the 30th anniversary of the trade, I thought it would be a useful exercise to retrospectively break down the trade and players involved the way it would be analyzed today.


Tony Fernandez (age 28/29)

Contract Status: 6 years, 164 days of service; one year remaining on extension signed before 1989 at $2-million, with team options for 1992-1993 at $2.1- and $2.3-million

Career Production: 1028 games, .289/.338/.399 in 4,321 plate appearances for 102 wRC+, 28 WAR. Four gold gloves 1986-89, +55 defensive runs by total zone.

1990 Production: 721 PA, 108 wRC+, 4.5 bWAR / 4.9 fWAR.

Octavio Fernandez was the rare star player who never had a transcendent, MVP-type campaign, topping out at 5 WAR. The flip side was unbelievably consistency: in the second half of the 1980s, Fernandez played almost everyday at the top of the order, hitting for a high average and a little above average offensively overall, with dazzling glovework at short, posting 4-5 WAR season year in, year out. Not a bad return for a $3,000 signing bonus investment in April 1979.

In 1990, the average MLB salary was just under $600,000, in the midst of runaway salary inflation in the post-collusion years. That was up 36% in the two years since deal was signed, and would increase another 72% over the next years. Even with more modest backdrop, Fernandez’s continued high level of play ensured value in his contract; with the huge inflation it was a bargain.

At 28, Fernandez was still in his prime, and aging curves for the time would suggest another couple years before the decline phase. Did the Blue Jays know better? As it turned out, 1990 was Fernandez’s last star level season. He was a solid regular for most of the next decade, but never again exceeded 3 WAR in a season. Most of that came on the defensive side, which especially for premium defensive positions were considered young player skills. With hindsight, one can make the argument the Jays sold at the optimally high time.

Fred McGriff (age 27)

Contract Status: 4 years, 9 days of service, two year of arbitration eligibility remaining; $1.45-million 1990 platform salary

Career Production: 578 games, .278/.389/.530 and 125 HR in 2,322 PA for 152 wRC+, 19 WAR

1990 Production: 658 PA, 157 wRC+, 5.2 b WAR / 5.5 fWAR, 10th in MVP voting

Breaking onto the scene in 1987, McGriff established himself over the next three years as one of the best hitters in baseball. He pretty much did it all: hit 24-36 home runs in each of the three years, hit for a decent average, and walked 15% of the time to make him an-base machine. The value of that last part was not fully appreciated at the time and combined with a high of 92 RBI made him underrated. If there was one nit, he struck out a fair bit (by the standards of the time), which likely contributed the underrating as well. And he was just entering his prime years.

Unlike Fernandez, who fell eight days shy of a full year of service after 1985 (and thus lost two years of eligibility, first eligible in 1988 instead of 1986 since the 1985 collective agreement moved the eligibility from two years to three starting in 1987 with Super Twos added in the 1989 agreement), McGriff was just over the bar, having accumulated almost a full season in 1987 despite playing part time. Today, his service time would almost certainly have been managed more exactingly, to hold him under four years after 1990 and still have three years control.

But the Jays were theoretically selling two years of McGriff, though that rapidly became moot as McGriff signed a four year extension worth $15.25-million, with a 1995 option at $4.25-million. Again, salary inflation rapidly made that a bargain, but he made than lived up to it with his performance, posting a 151 wRC+ over the next four years. He dropped off after that, like Fernandez becoming an average regular for the first half of his 30s.

Roberto Alomar (age 23)

Contract Status: 3 years of service; first time arbitration eligible, three years of control

Career Production: 448 games, .283/.339/.379 in 1,959 PA for 106 wRC+, 11.5 WAR.

1990 Production: 646 PA, 106 wRC+, 3.0 fWAR / 3.4 bWAR, All-Star

Another case where modern service time considerations would have almost certainly resulted in an extra year of control remaining. Profile-wise, the parallels to Fernandez are almost uncanny: solid but not outstanding offensive production driven by high averages (he both walked and struck out a little more) and little power.

Alomar didn’t have the same track record, but a similar degree of consistency with 3-4 WAR seasons. He was a good defender at a premium position, though again short of Fernandez. The difference of course was that he was entering his age-23 season, not only his prime in front of him, but potential growth — whereas Fernandez was on the other side.

And indeed, the Jays got Alomar right before his breakout. Over the next five years in Toronto, he hit .307 and developed modest power to post a 125 wRC+. Defensively, he won the first of six straight gold gloves and 10 in total (though interestingly, the metrics rate him as mediocre). He finished 6th in MVP voting every year from 1991 to 1993 as the Jays finally broke through, and though the guy below has the more obvious claim, he hit arguably the most important home run in franchise history.

Joe Carter (age 31)

Contract Status: 6 years, 143 days of service; two years remaining on contract signed before 1990 with $5.9-million owed

Career Production: 1024 games, .262/.304/.456 in 4,242 PA for 103 wRC+ (175 HR, 646 RBI), 11 WAR

1990 Production: 697 PA, 80 wRC+, 24 HR and 115 RBI (!), -2 fWAR / -1.7 bWAR

With Cleveland, Carter had established himself as a prototypical middle-of-the-order slugging corner outfielder. From 1986-89, he averaged 31 home runs and 108 RBI, excellent performance by those standards of the day. Of course, he rarely walked (about 5%) and so was below average at getting on-base, and defensively. But that was largely overlooked back then.

Setting that massive difference in actual and perceived value, there’s the issue of his 1990 itself. Carter was eligible for free agency after 1990 and was already expensive for low-budget Cleveland, so they traded him to San Diego, conditional on working out ax extension that ended up $9-million over three years. His batting line proceeded to slump to .232/.290/.391, with just 24 home runs — and rated atrociously in the field. In short, it was a total collapse. Somehow he still managed to drive in 115 runs for a lousy team.

Today, if we saw a player’s production collapse in his age-30 season, we’d be very worried about a fundamental loss of skill. Maybe he’s be seen as a buy low candidate, but the contract would be underwater (relative to MLB average, equivalent of about $20-million salary today). Especially if he were understood to be a much more marginally valuable player.

In fairness, he did rebound, and was objectively a significant offensive producer in 1991 and 1992 (120+ wRC+), before tailing off after that (on a very expensive free agent contract, but that’s beyond the scope. To some extent, he was probably the first in a long line of players whose skill sets were very well suited to the Skydome (as it then was) and took off. But we’d want that to be a low-risk flyer, not the centrepiece of a deal.


In re-analyzing this trade through a modern lens, there’s two ways things are very different: the contractual considerations, and understanding player value. We’ll start with just the contracts.

The symmetry of this trade is quite remarkable. The Jays acquired five years of control they traded five of control. They traded one player at a premium defensive position and one bat-first slugger; they received one of each. They traded one 6+ year veteran and one younger player; they received one of each. They traded players totaling 55 years of age; they received ones totaling 54.

That extended to the money too. Fernandez and McGriff figured to make about $4.5-million in 1991 and $5.5-million on 1992, and about the same for Alomar and Carter. So all told, adding the contractual lens doesn’t really change anything, it’s a wash.

Turning to player value, as discussed above Alomar and Fernandez had very similar profiles. Fernandez had the higher established level of performance by about 1-1.5 WAR, but Alomar was still young enough to have remaining upside. Still, at the time, we’d probably say Fernandez had a clear edge as the more valuable player.

A rough projection for Fernandez would be something like 12 WAR over the next three years (4.5/4/3.5), and something similar for Alomar (maybe 3.5/4/4). With hindsight, we know Alomar significantly exceeded that (~17 WAR), and Fernandez came up short (7 WAR), making this leg pretty lopsided.

Similarly, Carter would seen to have been pretty similar to McGriff. He gave up 15-20 points in batting average and about 5 HR a year, but still averaged almost 20 RBI more per season. What really hurt of course, is the 85 point difference in OBP. That’s what made McGriff elite, and Carter more just good. Added to that, the magnitude of Carter’s collapse in 1990 would have raised real questions about his future.

On that basis, I’m quite confident that today if this deal happened not only would most not like it, there would be a lot of anger. In hindsight, even with modern analytics it still works out since Alomar ended up so much better than Fernandez, and Carter hit an iconic home run of enormous historical magnitude despite lagging McGriff’s production by so much.

Instead, what we’d probably consider fair is more of a straight up Fernandez for Alomar, with perhaps the Jays assuming Carter’s contract as an added kicker (maybe even eating some of the cash, or receiving a prospect to otherwise offset). McGriff stays as the DH, either negating the need for Winfield and Molitor, or becomes an incredibly valuable trade chip to improve elsewhere (instead of spending big on mediocre veterans like Jack Morris/Dave Stewart?).

Who knows how that works out — but that’s the fundamental nature of what ifs.

Poll

If "The Trade" happened today it would be considered

This poll is closed

  • 17%
    Great!
    (29 votes)
  • 23%
    Good
    (39 votes)
  • 33%
    A wash
    (55 votes)
  • 20%
    Poor/a mistake
    (33 votes)
  • 4%
    A disaster
    (7 votes)
163 votes total Vote Now