[N]o man can weigh this world, without throwing in something, somehow like Original Sin, to strike the uneven balance.
People in the same trade are always competitors.
—Ancient Chinese proverb, huh?
Killers, huh? I’d trade the pair of you for a good Camp Fire Girl.
—From Here to Eternity
A few hundred years ago the Yankees traded some beads to the Indians for the isle of Manhattan. They even made the Indians eat the bulk of Manhattan's remaining contract in the deal.
And yet that does not even compare to Nolan Ryan for Jim Fregosi. Now that was a lopsided deal if there ever was one.
We have all heard of some doozies. Each team has its legendary trades that haunt or vaunt the fanbase. In Philly, there's Von "5-for-1" Hayes, the man on whom the Phils placed all their hopes at the start of the Eighties by sending five players to the Indians, all of whom made it to the majors. Then there's throwing in future Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg on a deal with the Cubs to swap aging shortstops. Both deals helped the Phils fall from one of the better franchises in baseball at that start of the Eighties to one of the worst over the last two decades (though Hayes would have some success with the Phils). Then there's the classic, a young Ferguson Jenkins wrapped up and shipped to the Cubs for two aging starters.
Every team has their own legends. Besides Ryan, the Mets lost Tom Seaver twice. The A's made a cottage industry out of dismantling their dynasties starting with the early days of Connie Mack through the glory days of Charlie O. Finley. Finally, it's a little known fact that every major-leaguer in the past twenty-five years at one time passed through the Expos organization before they were shipped off for, usually, Wil Cordero and a bucket of ice. I guess it's the exchange rate.
So every team has its fair share of lopsided trades. How do we determine which one was the worst (or best)? Can it be quantified? Should it be? Should we dabble in god's domain? We must, we must.
One thing that Bill James suggested in Win Shares was that trades could, in theory, be evaluated by comparing the Win Shares given up and received by the teams involved, like credits and debits in a spreadsheet. Thanks to some research from Win Shares master Studes and Retrosheet trade data I did James one better, comparing by WSAR (Win Shares Above
Studes and I started discussing how to quantify trade efficacy this offseason, which led to our research collaboration on the topic. This article and Studes' are the first in a series of articles on the history of baseball transactions. We're lousy with ideas.
Anyway, here were the twenty most lopsided trades of all time:
Date: January 10, 1991
Trade: Houston sent Glenn Davis to Baltimore for Steve Finley, Curt Schilling, and Pete Harnisch
Win Share Difference: 529
WSAR Diff: 280
This is the ultimate cautionary tale for GMs who want to nab a star by giving up the farm, or at least all the farmhands.
The Orioles had grown tired of Randy Milligan's inconsistency at the plate and salivated at the idea of injecting power into their lineup via Davis. Being a seven-year veteran in the cavernous Astrodome, Davis was still able to collect thirty home runs in three seasons. The Orioles expected that to translate into 40 or 50 in Memorial Stadium, and they wanted to generate fan interest as they prepared to move into Camden Yards in 1992.
They were coming off a disappointing 1990 season (76-85) after making great strides the previous season (from a catastrophic 54-107 record in 1988 to 87-75, in second place, just two games behind the Blue Jays in 1989). One more star could right their course.
Meanwhile, the Astros had fallen into fifth place in 1990 (75-87) and were looking to rebuild. They had a young Craig Biggio behind the plate and just about to bloom into an All-Star. In August they stripped the Red Sox of a minor-league Jeff Bagwell for 15 games from Larry Andersen. With then-third baseman Bagwell in tow, the Astros felt that Davis, a free agent at year's end, was expendable.
The Astros plucked Steve Finley, who was a regular for the O's in 1990 (though he played no more than 73 games in any of the three outfield positions), eleven-game winner Pete Harnisch, and a young reliever and would-be closer, Curt Schilling, from the Oriole roster. All would be between 24 and 26 years old in 1991, and all had at least one major-league season under his belt.
Harnisch would be an All-Star in 1991 and would be a reliable starter for the 'Stros over the next three years. Finley would be inserted in center field and even though he hit just three home runs in 464 at-bats in 1990, he would eventually become the power hitter he's known to be today. Unfortunately for the Astros he would never hit more than 11 for them in his four seasons in Houston. He would then be traded to the Padres on December 28, 1994 in their monster 11-man deal. Schilling would spent one year in the Astro pen and then after a trade to the Phils for Jason Grimsley at the end of spring training in 1992, he would finally become a starter. The Astros collected the most lopsided bounty in trade history and they failed to unearth the best of it.
Meanwhile, Davis would hit just 24 home runs and play 185 games over the next three seasons in Baltimore. After playing at least 150 games a season from 1986 to 1989, Davis at age 29 would never play more than 106 in a season.
Here’s a comparison between the two sides in the deal: