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40 years ago: Gillick robs the Yankees blind

The Jays acquire future Hall of Famer Fred McGriff

Oakland Athletics v Toronto Blue Jays

Five days ago, Fred McGriff was announced as 2023 inductee to the Baseball Hall of Fame, a move many considered widely overdue. In the way the timing was perfect, a coda to a Blue Jays tenure that began almost exactly 40 years before. While this year’s winter meetings wrapped up with the Jays having done very little, as the meetings were similarly wrapping up on this date in 1982, Pat Gillick finalized a deal that would end up paying huge dividends in time.

The main part of the deal was reliever Dale Murray going to the Yankees for outfielder Dave Collins and pitcher Mike Morgan, with a minor leaguer going either way. On that basis alone, the trade would rank as a solid win, but the Jays also got a then-obscure A-ball prospect named Fred McGriff. That made it a franchise altering major heist worth examining in detail, but the deeper background makes the trade even more interesting.

The 1981 World Series was tumultuous for the Yankees. After edging the Milwaukee Brewers in the division series, the Yankees rolled over the “Billyball” Oakland Athletics helmed by former Yankee manager Billy Martin with a sweep of the ALCS. The streak continued as they jumped out to 2-0 lead at home to position them for a third championship in five years.

But then they dropped three straight one-run games in Los Angeles. Steinbrenner got into a fight with two Dodgers fans in an elevator while bombastically questioning managerial moved and player decisions. They went down quietly 9-2 in game six at home. Marquee free agent acquisition Dave Winfield went 1-for-22. Steinbrenner took out advertisements apologizing for what he deemed a lackluster effort.

He also decided that offseason to pivot from a team oriented around power to speed, despite a roster full of aging sluggers with expensive guaranteed contracts. To that end, he targeted free agent outfielder Dave Collins, who had stolen 79 bases in 1980 while hitting .300 a couple times.

Another suitor were the Toronto Blue Jays, coming off a woeful year of regression on the tail end of their expansion struggles. It was the proverbial darkest hour before dawn, but the fans’ patience was wearing thin with attendance sagging, and the Jays were looking to make a splash. At 29, Collins was entering what was then considered a player’s prime years, so he fit their fans as someone who could help right away but also down the road.

It came down to the Jays and Yankees, and the Jays actually outbid the Yankees. But in the playing for an established winner rather than a basement dweller was the decisive factor, along with a commitment that Collins would play everyday in the outfield. Normally that would go without saying for a top free agent, but the Yankees had the aforementioned glut of defensively limited high profile players.

It turned out that by spring training that promise was forgotten, and Collins was shuffled all over the place. The “pivot to speed” got off to halting start and Steinbrenner quickly grew impatient. Gillick was able to take advantage by dropping John Mayberry and his big contract on the Yankees, who was essentially done as a major leaguer and had been supplanted on Willie Upshaw. That just served to further sideline Collins, who spent an unhappy season as a part time player.

For their part, in early 1981, the Jays had taken a flyer on a reclamation project. At various points, Dale Murray had been a successful long reliever in the NL with his bread-and-butter being a sinking fastball that didn’t leave the park. But towards the end of his run with the Mets he started giving up gopher balls, it didn’t get better when they flipped him to the Expos, and he was released late in the 1980 season.

He didn’t exactly have teams beating down his doors, so the Jays signed him to a AAA contract with an invite to spring training to take a look. They had him try a forkball as his main secondary weapon instead of the slider he had always used, and the results were promising. He was assigned to Syracuse to get experience with it.

It really took, and he was dominant out of the bullpen, and by May a call-up seemed imminent. However, a strike deadline loomed, so the Jays left him down so he wouldn’t be get called up only to be out of a job. The 50-day strike ended up wiping out two months by the time the season resumed in August, and the Jays picked up a couple pitchers cast-off from other teams, so Murray only got the call when rosters expanded in September despite a sub-2.00 ERA.

It carried over, as he posted a 1.17 ERA in 15.1 innings the final month. He then filed for free agency, but worked out a new contract with the Jays before the free agent draft. He was a stalwart in 1982, posting a 3.16 ERA in 111 innings. Nonetheless, when the Yankees came calling for bullpen help that winter, Gillick was happy to listen since Roy Lee Jackson and Joey McLaughlin had also turned in strong career years.

That set the stage for a franchise defining trade. Ironically, the Yankees were the one team that Texas native Murray didn’t want to go to. Him and Gillick had worked out a new contract for 1983, but he wanted a very limited no-trade clause. Knowing the Yankees were interested, Gillick demurred on finalizing the contract.

Thus, the Jays were able to get their man a year later, whom Steinbrenner was only too happy to move. For good measure, the Yankees threw in $400,000 (the maximum allowed in trades by Bowie Kuhn dating back to Charlie Finley’s attempted sell-off) towards his salary, so Collins came at a significant discount.

The only thing Collins regretted was not signing in Toronto in the first place (for more money). Alas, it wouldn’t come up all roses for him north of the border either. With Lloyd Moseby blossoming into a star and an emergent Jesse Barfield, playing time in the outfield ended up squeezed and by midseason Collins was relegated to part-time platooning. After a career worse 1982, he rebounded only slightly to .271/.343/.328 (86 wRC+) in 118 games and 451 plate appearances.

1984 finally saw a major rebound to the above average play (.308/.366/.444, ~3 WAR) that Collins had achieved at his peak with Cincinnati. But with George Bell emerging alongside Barfield and Moseby, the outfield picture was even more crowded. Gillick took advantage to move Collins to Oakland for the theoretical missing piece at the back of the bullpen. He did sell high on Collins, though Bill Caudill’s flameout made the trade nonetheless a spectacular failure. But that’s a story for another day.

Mike Morgan makes for an equally interesting story as the other major part of the return at the time. The 4th overall pick by Oakland in the 1978 draft, he negotiated to immediately brought to the majors and made his MLB debut less than a week later. Not surprisingly, he wasn’t close to ready, and ended up in the minors after three starts. he got another shot in 1979, with another rough half season of starts, and would not resurface until 1982.

By then he had been traded to the Yankees, and with appropriate minor league seasoning posted a solid 4.37 ERA in 150.1 innings. But he regressed in 1983, and despite considerable promise was superfluous to the Yankees’ rotation needs. Thus, he was available to the Blue Jays.

The book in him at the time of the trade was excellent raw stuff with top end fastball velocity, but would come easily undone when things started going wrong and spiral to not having any command. The Jays planned to slot him into the 4th spot of the rotation behind the established trio of Dave Stieb, Jim Clancy and Luis Leal. But Jim Gott had a dynamic spring to claim to beat him spot, and Morgan ended up the 5th starter but effectively long man due to the early schedule.

He struggled with consistency, developed shoulder tendinitis in June and missed most of the summer as Rule 5 pick Jim Acker emerged to claim that role. Even after returning, he barely pitched the last month. In the spring of 1984, Morgan was beat out by Jimmy Key for the last roster spot and sent outright. He had a decent season in Syracuse (4.07 ERA in 185 innings), but wasn’t brought back and Seattle drafted him that year’s Rule 5 draft.

He then missed almost all of 1985, but then managed to stay healthy for a couple years as a backend starter. He bounced to Baltimore and then Dodgers, where he finally put things together approaching age-30. In the end, he had a pretty good career, starting over 400 games and throwing 2700 innings as inning eating mid rotation type for most of his career. But little value that attaches to this trade.

The final piece was barely discussed at the time, purely in passing by the print accounts. Some details on Fred McGriff finally appeared two week later on December 23rd in a short Globe and Mail article by Larry Millson aptly titled “Trade ‘kicker’ displays power for Blue Jays”. He quoted Pat Gillick:

You’re always looking for an extra guy in a deal. He’s a kicker in the deal. But in two or three years he might look like a pretty important guy.

That proved to be both prophetic and understatement. The Tampa native had spent his first two years in the Gulf Coast League (his manager in 1982 a guy by the name Carlos Tosca), but the Jays “were impressed by the power of the 6-foot, 4-inch first baseman who hit nine home runs”. The other details in the article were that McGriff was able to live at home, worked in the offseason “as a stock boy in a supermarket from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.” and had to confirm the trade from the local newspaper after a friend told him because the Jays didn’t have a current phone number and it took a week to contact him (through work).

In 1983, McGriff broke out with 28 home runs in A-ball, adding 22 more in 1984 across Double-A and Triple-A. Really, he just kept hitting, all the way to Cooperstown. Time is a circle, and just as Willie Upshaw supplanting John Mayberry was an important element in the chain that gave rise to this trade, by 1987-88 McGriff in turn supplanted Upshaw.

What of the Yankees end? Dale Murray was mediocre in 1983, turning in a 4.48 ERA in 94 innings. Nonetheless, faced with potentially losing Goose Gossage as a free agent, George Steinbrenner did what he did best and threw a bunch of money to keep him. He got a two year deal north of $1-million even though he was done as a productive major leaguer. He pitched just 26.2 more innings, released in April 1985. Tom Dodd got a cup of coffee with the Orioles in 1986.

All in all, it was about a lopsided a trade as they come.