Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Historic Hot Stove: Mark McGwire

It's been pretty clear over the last few weeks that this year's hot stove is going to be remembered for its focus on pitching. From the Roy Halladay auction up there in Toronto to Cliff Lee in Cleveland to all the other pitchers supposedly up for grabs - Jarrod Washburn, Eric Bedard, Justin Duchsherer, George Sherrill, Scott Kazmir, among others - teams are definitely looking for pitching above all else. There are some bats on the market, yes, but nothing really that inspires much excitement.

Well, maybe that's premature: Oakland did send slugger Matt Holliday to St. Louis in exchange for a couple of prospects, but that doesn't exactly match the magnitude of the last deadline-deal that the A's and Cardinals paired up on, when Mark McGwire was sent to the Cardinals for three less-than-stellar relief pitchers (of whom T.J. Mathews was the most successful).

Heading into that July in the summer of '97, the A's were sitting dead last in the AL West, 14 games behind the Mariners. As the month continued, they played worse and worse baseball, going 7-19 on the month, and McGwire's impending free agency suddenly became that much more important to Oakalnd's front office. The speculation that it brought on was hardly covert. From the late-July 1997 Sports Illustrated:
Mark McGwire. Only in the 1990s could a player be chasing Roger Maris's home run record and still be on the trading block. But McGwire is scheduled to be a free agent next season, and Oakland can't afford to re-sign him. But trading him won't be easy, despite his major-league-leading 34 home runs at the end of last week. As a veteran with at least 10 years of experience and at least five seasons with one team, McGwire can veto any trade, which could limit Oakland's options. The Cardinals and the Marlins, to cite two examples, have both expressed interest in McGwire, but he is reluctant to switch leagues in midseason. He also wishes to finish his career in Southern California, so that he can be close to his son, Matthew, who lives with his ex-wife in Orange County. That leaves the Angels as the best fit. Oakland rejected Anaheim's recent offer of centerfielder Jim Edmonds for McGwire, asking instead for outfielder Garret Anderson and a pitching prospect. According to A's general manager Sandy Alderson, the chance that McGwire will be dealt is 50-50.
It's almost funny how naive these trade preview pieces sound after the fact, though I guess that's what happens when you're trying to be a responsible journalist and all. Still, it's obvious that Mac was hot commodity.

By July 31st, the A's were down to only two suitors - the Angels and the Cards. Anaheim was fighting the Mariners for the division lead, sitting only a half game back, while St. Louis was struggling to stay in the race, 7.5 games behind the Astros. Logic would seem to say that Anaheim was the frontrunner at the time and, in fact, many thought the Cardinals had played themselves out of the race. Writers in St. Louis were even questioning the wisdom of making the trade.
One could make a case that the Cardinals will play unquestionably their most significant game of the season tonight.

For starters, it will be their last against the first-place Houston Astros, who are six games ahead of them in the National League Central after a 5-4 win at the Astrodome on Tuesday night.

If the Cardinals win tonight, they will cut the deficit to five games and feel good about making a last run at Oakland slugger Mark McGwire.

If they lose, they will be seven games behind with no games left against Houston. And there really would be little reason to go after McGwire. His potential two-month stay probably wouldn't be enough to lift the Cardinals past the Astros. It also might be risky business, considering the prospects and the money (some $2 million) the Cardinals would have to pay McGwire for the remainder of the season before he became a free agent.

General manager Walt Jocketty said the outcome of the game could affect what he did "a little bit. The performance of the team has some bearing, but not all the bearing," he said.
And it didn't. The Cardinals ended up losing their "most significant game of the season" that night but still managed to swing the deal with the A's. The desperation the Cards felt of being on the cusp of the playoff race must have been stronger than any desire the Angels had to improve their already competitive squad.

The trade made for an emotional moment in Oakland when it was announced:
"This is personally a very difficult day for me," Sandy Alderson, the A's president and general manager, said this evening at an Oakland Coliseum news conference. "When I came into baseball, Mark was the first college player I ever scouted. . . . {But} I think this was right for the organization, and I hope it's right for Mark."

McGwire, as a player with at least 10 years in the major leagues and at least five seasons with his current team, had the right to veto the deal but didn't. He seemed to fight back tears at times as he sat alongside Alderson and he said: "I grew up with this organization. It's not an easy decision to make. But you come to a crossroads in life where you think change will be good for you. . . . I think this deal is good for myself and good for the Oakland A's. . . . The last few seasons haven't been the greatest team-wise. How many years I have left, I don't know. I think I can still help a team to a championship."

With the Cardinals, he'll be reunited with former A's manager Tony La Russa. McGwire, 33, had spent all 11 of his major league seasons in Oakland. He led the majors with 52 home runs last year and has 34 homers this season. He called the prospect of a midseason switch to the National League challenging, but said he was happy to have all the trade speculation behind him.
The St. Louis writers were able to be a little more objective about the deal:
IN NEED OF MORE firepower and just more fire, the Cardinals took the risk of giving up part of their future for one of the game's top sluggers when they acquired first baseman Mark McGwire from the Oakland Athletics Thursday night.

In a deal that took the last four days to complete, the Cardinals, who have lapsed to the outer fringes of contention in the National League Central Division, dealt righthanded pitcher T.J. Mathews and minor-league righthanders Eric Ludwck and Blake Stein for the 33-year-old McGwire. McGwire has 34 homers and 81 runs batted in this season for Oakland but can be a free agent at the end of the season, thus involving another risk for the Cardinals.

The deal was completed just a few hours before the midnight trading deadline without waivers. McGwire, as a 10-year veteran - five with the same team - had to approve the trade.
Mac did not help the Cardinals reach the postseason that year, though it's hard to blame the guy: in his first two months in St. Louis, he hit 24 home runs with 42 RBIs while walking 58 times for an OPS+ of 182. In fact, the Cardinals were only 22-33 after McGwire joined the team. That didn't stop him from signing a contract extension in mid-September, though, making him a Cardinal through 2001. Which was, of course, a brilliant signing by St. Louis. Over the next 4 years, McGwire would hit 196 home runs, including the magical 70 he hit in 1998, and walk 427 times for an OPS+ of 182, all in Cardinal red. He was even able to help the team reach the postseason in each of his last two years in the bigs. It was a remarkable stretch, and one that made him one of the most enjoyable stars of the decade. (Of course, the steroids issue has since clouded our perception of this time - as well it should - but it was hard to argue with the results as they were happening.)

In Oakland, on the other hand, none of the three pitchers ever worked out. There were no Rookie of the Year winners or even All-Stars in the bunch. But, with the utter lack of leverage that Sandy Aldersen was working with, you can't really blame him. Plus, that's the risk that you run when dealing with prospects. McGwire would have left the team anyway, so the A's had to get something in return. It's only bad luck that that "something" never panned out.

With hindsight, it's easy to say that Oakland should have figured out some other way to move McGwire before the deadline, but I don't think that was at all possible. The Angels were competing well enough in the division that they didn't feel like they had to make any additional moves and the only other team that wanted to deal for McGwire refused to offer their best prospects. When you're in a position like Alderson was that July - being pressured to get something, anything for your star player before he leaves (and when he's at his peak) - trades like this happen. Sometimes they work out, and sometimes they don't. The McGwire trade may be not have worked, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't have happened. It'll be interesting to see if any GMs back themselves into the same corner this year *cough*Toronto*cough*.

[One other note... I came across this quote from one of the newspapers of the day. I couldn't really fit it into the piece above, but I thought it was too good to leave out:
McGwire, clearly, no longer is threatening Roger Maris' home run record. (It is also clear, by the way, after his cranky performance in New York, that extensive media attention will make him one grumpy guy if he ever does make a run at it.)...
Yeah, McGwire was a real grump as he chased down Maris. Real grump. We all hated the guy...]


Bill said...

"Oakland rejected Anaheim's recent offer of centerfielder Jim Edmonds for McGwire, asking instead for outfielder Garret Anderson and a pitching prospect."

Whoops. Can you imagine the A's with Edmonds in 2000-2004 rather than, say, Terrence Long? How many wins over their real-world 103 would they have finished with in 2003 with Edmonds' .275/.385/.617 instead of Long's .240/.298/.390 in the mix? But instead, you wanted Garret Anderson, a corner OF (or infinitely less spectacular CF) the same age as Edmonds who was already clearly the inferior hitter? Oy. I have to question how much Billy Beane really did learn from Alderson.

Oddly enough, if that deal had been made (Mac for Edmonds), the only difference it might've made in the standings is to push the Angels over the top in 1998, when McGwire might've helped them make up those three games they finished behind the Rangers for the right to get eviscerated in the first round by the Yankees. They both finished too far behind the Rangers in 1999, and then the A's made the playoffs every other year in that period anyway.

Interesting to think about, though. And maybe he would've helped them get farther once they actually got into the playoffs...

lar said...

I thought that was interesting too. Even considering how Anderson was in the "he's so underrated" camp for a few years, it's pretty easy to see that Edmonds had the better career (a HOF argument for Jimmy isn't silly).

I have no idea why he was so undervalued at the time, though. Remember the 1992 Expansion Draft? Edmonds was completely unprotected in that draft *and* still went undrafted. I wonder what everyone saw that kept them away from him...