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Today in Blue Jays History: Jays trade for Cliff Johnson

MLB: USA TODAY Sports-Archive
There is a reason why we have a Tom Henke picture in a story about a trade for Cliff Johnson
RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

38 Years Ago

On August 29, 1985, the Blue Jays sent three minor leaguers, Matt Williams (no, not that Matt Williams), Jeff Mays and Greg Ferlanda, to the Texas Rangers for Cliff Johnson.

At the time of the trade, the Blue Jays were in 1st place, 4.5 games up on the second-place Yankees, but we were running a platoon of Al Oliver and Jeff Burroughs at DH. They could have done a better job at the position, though Burroughs (the right-handed hitting half of the pair) was hitting.261/.375/.422 at the time, which doesn’t seem that bad to me. On the other hand, Oliver was hitting just .257/.298/.376, but the Jays, for whatever reason decided to replace Burroughs, not Oliver. Burroughs was just used as a pinch hitter the rest of the way.

The Jays didn’t give up much for Johnson. Only Williams would ever play in the majors, and he just pitched in 5 games for the Rangers over the last month of the 1985 season and was never heard of again. The Jays were very familiar with Johnson; he played for them in 1983 and 1984, leaving as a free agent after the 84 season.

Even though Johnson didn’t hit much for them, over that last month, just .274/.343/.315, with just one extra-base hit, a home run, in 24 games, we did make it to the playoffs, losing out to the Royals in 7 games. Cliff hit .368/.400/.474 in those seven games.

The Jays platooned in a few positions back then:

  • Catcher, with Ernie Whitt and Buck Martinez (I wonder what happened to him).
  • Third base with Rance Mulliniks and Garth Iorg.
  • And, of course, DH.

The Jays won 3 of the first 5 games of the series, then, starting with game 6, the Royals devised a plan to neutralize the Jays platoons. They started a right-hander, then, fairly early in the game, replaced him with a lefty (Bud Black and Charlie Leibrandt in games 6 and 7, respectively) and the Jays would replace their left-handed platoon hitters with their right-handed partners. Then, late in the game, they would use their right-handed closer, Dan Quisenberry.

Quisenberry was, as well as being a very good closer, a right-handed submarine-type pitcher. He had a much rougher time with LHB than RHB, so he had a much easier time with our lefties out of the game. Quisenberry had blown saves in the 2nd and 4th games of the series.

The plan worked in a short series.

Anyway, none of that is why I wanted to make note of the anniversary of the trade.

As mentioned, Johnson had been a Jay in 1984 but signed with the Rangers as a free agent in the off-season. Back in the 1980s, there was a much different way to compensate teams for losing free agents than there is today. In the early 80’s, the MLB owners wanted some way to compensate teams that lost star players to free agency. More to the point, they wanted a way to slow the pace of salary inflation that free agency caused. One of the major causes of the 1981 player strike was the issue of free-agent compensation. The players, of course, wanted to keep the pace that player salaries were growing.

What they came up with was a complicated system. Baseball-Reference explains it better than I can:

The compromise that was reached following the strike was to set up a free agent compensation draft, through which a team losing a top-notch free agent would get to pick a player from a pool of players made available by the other Major League teams. Free agents were divided into three classes, based on playing time and performance over the previous two seasons: in descending order, these were Type A, Type B and Type C. Only losing a Type A player would activate the compensation draft; Type B players would continue to be compensated with draft choices, and Type C’s would not trigger any compensation.

All teams could protect 26 players in their organization from the draft, except for teams who signed a Type A free agent that year, who would protect 24 players. Teams could opt out of the right to sign Type A free agents and, therefore, not have to place any names into the pool. As a result, the team losing a player could be sure to pick a player who would help immediately if that was their wish (although some lower-level prospects would also be available). The draft occurred once a year, in January or February, between the end of the free agent signing season and the opening of spring training.

Cliff Johnson was considered a Type A free agent, and the Blue Jays selected reliever Tom Henke from the Rangers as compensation. Henke went on to be perhaps the best closer in team history (Duane Ward might argue). Henke saved 217 games for the Blue Jays over eight seasons. The Jays got a pretty return for renting out Johnson for five months. Without that rental we wouldn’t have Henke, and without Henke, would we have won the World Series in 1992?