Sometimes the best moves are the ones you don’t make. That was never more true than 40 years ago, when baseball’s Winter Meetings wound up with the Toronto Blue Jays frustrated at not having consummated any transactions, but Dave Stieb still in the fold.
That winter the Jays found themselves at a crossroads. The novelty of the expansion franchise and the promise of a brighter future had yielded under the crushing weight of five years of finishing in the cellar of the AL East with seeming little evident progress toward building a contender. That spilled over to attendance, falling from 4th in the AL in the inaugural season to the middle of the pack in 1978-80, but down to 11th in 1981.
The first half half of the 1981 season was so miserable that the two month strike from mid-June to mid-August came as a merciful reprieve. The Jays finished 16-42 (a 45 win full season pace), losing their last 11 games. There were some green shoots in a second half, as the Jays regrouped for a respectable 21-27 mark. That winter there was the further backdrop of leadership turnover, as team president Peter Bavasi had resigned/been forced out just two weeks earlier.
So it was time to show real improvement in the standings as opposed to building for the future. In the words of Pat Gillick quoted by The Toronto Star’s Neil MacCarl on the Saturday before the Winter Meetings formally got underway in Hollywood, Florida: “We can’t deal for prospects...not that there is pressure on us, but we’ve got to win now, to so better than we have in the last five years”.
To that end, the Jays were aggressive in that winter’s free agent draft, securing negotiating rights to Reggie Jackson, Ron Guidry and Dave Collins after previously shunning big name veteran free agents who would command big contracts. But it also meant when it came to trades “we’re prepared to move anybody” Gillick told James Golla of the Globe and Mail. Nobody was untouchable, from slugger John Mayberry to younger players such as Jim Clancy and Lloyd Moseby.
That extended to budding ace Dave Stieb. MacCarl again: “We’ll listen to the situation on Stieb,” admitted Gillick, “but we are not going to do anything unless we think it is ideal. We would have to get at least two players who can play regularly for us right now and possibly a left-handed pitcher”.
But why would a team looking to win-now even entertain the notion of trading a 24-year old who had posted a 3.48 ERA over 426.1 innings in his first two full seasons, with four years left before free agency? The irascible Stieb had already clashed with management the previous two springs over salary, staging holdouts until his contract was renewed.
Starting in 1982 though, he would be eligible for arbitration. After having to settle for whatever the Jays offered (it’s worth noting, he made $85,000, more than twice the minimum of $32,500), he would have real leverage. But early negotiations were not going well, with agent Stan Comte describing the Jays initial offer as “completely unacceptable” on December 10th (at the time, going to an arbitration hearing was seen as nasty business).
The White Sox and manager Tony LaRussa (what’s old is new again) were early suitors for Stieb, proposing a nine-player deal. According to Gillick “they wanted Stieb and two or three other guys and they offered us five”. The Jays would have chosen the five, including two pitchers, from a list of eight including LHP Ross Baumgarten and DH Wayne Nordhagen.
Gillick did not find it particularly compelling. “What they offered is dead. With Stieb, we are not asking, we think the other teams have to make the offer”. But others were more serious: “two teams have made offers and we made counter-proposals after they asked what it would take to get Stieb”.
Gillick’s main thrust was to upgrade the lineup. “We are not interested in just trading Stieb for another pitcher. We are trying to deal for offence”. The Jays had other irons in the fire, but as the week proceeded their options dwindled. St. Louis outfielder Sixto Lezcano was a primary target, but he went to San Diego instead of being moved for Jim Clancy. Seattle outfielder Tom Paciorek had demanded a trade and even took Toronto off his no-trade list, but a deal fell through and ended up with the White Sox.
New manager Bobby Cox was particularly interested in free agent outfielder Collins, and GIllick was prepared to pay up. “We’re prepared to go a little bit higher than the other teams”. But that pursuit was stalled (Collins ended up signing with the Yankees for slightly less money, quickly ended up in Steinbrenner’s doghouse and was traded to Toronto). Late in the week the Jays struck out in their quixotic quest for Guidry as he returned to the Yankees.
Thus as the end of the meetings and midnight deadline for interleague trading on Friday, December 11th approached, Stieb was the main hope for action by the very frustration Blue Jays brass. The offers came in fast and furious.
Philadelphia offered six players for Stieb: OF Bake McBride, catcher Don McCormack, pitcher Marty Bystrom, infielder Luis Aguayo and pitching prospects John Reelhorn and Jim Rasmussen. This offer was reported on most extensively; it’s unclear if it was seriously considered, but this might be the best trade the Jays never made. It would have been a disaster: none of the six had any substantial subsequent MLB career.
A better offer came in from Montreal. They offered a three player package headlined by third baseman Larry Parrish. as well as Jerry White and Rowland Office. Parrish was a solid regular, and at least had a number of productive years left, but this too would have been terrible mistake.
The White Sox made another stab, offering pitchers Steve Trout and Dennis Lamp. Aside from the fact that the Jays didn’t want pitching back, this would have been the best offer value wise. Discussions collapsed when the Jays asked instead for a young hitter by the name of Harold Baines. Lamp of course would later end up in Toronto as a free agent, though that didn’t end well.
Despite their frustrations at the lack of progress in upgrading their club at the Winter Meetings 40 years ago, Gillick and the brain trust thankfully did not go on tilt and trade Stieb for an underwhelming return. Instead, Stieb blossomed into an ace over the following years, and the Jays made the meteoric rise from the cellar to the top of the AL East. Stieb went 17-14 with a 3.25 ERA in 288.1 innings (!) in 1982, and probably should have won the Cy Young (or for that matter, 1983/1984/1985).
It was not all smooth sailing though. The Jays and Stieb ended up going to arbitration in the spring of 1982, with the Jays prevailing at $250,000 over Stieb’s request for $325,000. The hearing left Stieb bitter, saying they may as well trade him. It all ende dup water under the bridge the next spring, when Stieb signed a three year deal guaranteeing over $2-million with vesting options for 1986-88 and incentives worth up to $5-million.
- Neil MacCarl in the Toronto Star: 12/6/1981 (D4); 12/9/1981 (F1/F2); 12/10/1981 (D4), 12/11/1981 (B1); 12/12/1981 (D6); 12/13/1981 (D6)
- James Golla in the Globe and Mail: 12/7/1981 (S7); 12/9/1981 (S1); 12/10/1981 (S2); 12/12/1981 (S4), 12/14/1981 (S2)