Monday, July 27, 2009

Historic Hot Stove: Sammy Sosa & Harold Baines

In his years in the White House, President George W. Bush would often joke that the biggest mistake of his adult life was signing off on the trade that sent Sammy Sosa from the Texas Rangers to the Chicago White Sox. It's a good laugh-line, especially for someone whose position affords such little room for humor, but it really makes you wonder: was trading a young and unproven Sammy Sosa really a big mistake?

I know that I'm not the first one to take a look at this question, but it still seems like a great way to kick off Hot Stove week. Plus, I don't think too many people have taken the time to go back and see what people were saying when the trade actually took place.

The trade took place on July 29, 1989, when the Chicago White Sox sent All-Star designated hitter Harold Baines and reserve middle-infielder Fred Manrique to the Texas Rangers for aging but expensive shortstop Scott Fletcher and two top-tier prospects - rightfielder Sammy Sosa and pitcher Wilson Alvarez. At the time, the Rangers were 55-47, sitting in 4th place, 8 games behind the California Angels. The White Sox were in the cellar of the AL West, with a 43-60 record, 20.5 games behind the Angels.

The Rangers were looking to add a power bat while also dropping the unweildy three-year, $3.9 million contract they had given to shortstop Scott Fletcher only the year before.
The Texas Rangers got the big bat they were seeking Saturday when they acquired designated hitter-outfielder Harold Baines from the Chicago White Sox for shortstop Scott Fletcher and two top prospects.

The Rangers also sent outfielder Sammy Sosa and pitcher Wilson Alvarez to the White Sox. Sosa was playing for Texas' Class AAA Oklahoma City farm club, while Alvarez was on the Rangers' Class AA Tulsa roster.
"For the past several years, we've been trying to acquire a designated hitter specialist,'' Rangers General Manager Tom Grieve said. "We feel we now have the best designated hitter in baseball.''
On the White Sox end, the trade wasn't so much about who they were getting as it was who they were giving up. Baines was a ten-year Chicago veteran, and was thought of by many as "Mr. White Sox". When the trade was announced, despite having been discussed in the weeks before (' "You keep hearing, `Baines is going to be traded, Baines is going to be traded,' " said Greg Walker, who will fill Baines' designated-hitter spot...'), it did not go over well.
Carlton Fisk, who always chooses his words carefully, chose these more carefully than ever.

"I don't have much good to say about that," said Fisk, still sweating after a pregame workout with hitting instructor Walt Hriniak. The subject was Saturday's Harold Baines trade. The mood was barely-restrained anger-and this was before the White Sox offense showed little in Saturday night's 2-1 loss to the California Angels.
"The No. 3 man right out of our lineup," Fisk said. "Take the No. 3 hitter out of any lineup throughout the major leagues and see what happens. From Alvin Davis to Don Mattingly . . . "

Fisk turned his head away and spit something into a sandbox near his cubicle. Even the spitting was angry.

"Harold and Freddy (Manrique) for one major-league player," said Fisk. "Two major-leaguers for one. And not just a major leaguer. Harold Baines. Harold Baines. You know what I mean? Harold Baines . . ."

No, spirits in the White Sox clubhouse were not soaring.
Despite Carlton Fisk's complaints, Sosa and Alvarez were definitely considered top notch prospects.
Sosa and Alvarez were two of the shining stars in the Rangers' minor-league system. Both saw brief service with the Rangers in recent weeks, Alvarez for one start and Sosa for five weeks. Both had been returned to the minor leagues.

Depth in their minor-league system allowed the Rangers to deal two of their top prospects for a proven hitter.

"We're not thrilled about dealing two of our best prospects,'' [Rangers manager] Grieve said. "But to get a player of Harold Baines' caliber, you have to trade quality.''

For the White Sox, mired in last place in the American League West, the trade was made with an eye toward the future.
In the end, the trade didn't really work out for anyone. Baines lasted only one year on the Rangers before getting traded to the A's at the end of August. Fletcher played out the rest of his contract with the White Sox, but not very well, barely squeezing out a .240 batting average over that time. Alvarez had a solid seven-year career with the White Sox before being traded to the Giants at the 1997 trade deadline, winning 67 games with a 118 ERA+ over that time. He also pitched a no-hitter in his first start as a member of the White Sox.

Sosa played only two full seasons for the White Sox before they traded him to the Cubs in 1992 for George Bell. In that time, Sosa was only a .227 hitter with 28 home runs and an 84 OPS+. He started putting his act together in '93, when he belted 33 home runs, but it wasn't until '94 that he was able to post an OPS+ better than 120. And then of course there was the completely unpredicatable 1998 season...

The point, though, is that, at the time of the trade, moving Sammy Sosa to the White Sox for Harold Baines was not a ridiculous move. Yes, he was a key prospect for the Rangers, but they were dealing from a position of strength in that regard. They were fighting for a spot in the postseason (8 games out is about when clubs are at their most desperate) and needed a good bat at the DH-spot, and there was no bat better than Baines'. Even on Chicago's side, they didn't see the inclusion of Sosa as a coup. They made certain to acquire a couple of top prospects, but no one saw Sosa as a Rookie of the Year candidate. Sosa certainly ended up blossoming in Chicago, but it wasn't in a White Sox uniform and it wasn't for another five years or so. It's hard to say, then, that trading Sammy Sosa in the summer of 1989 was all that big of a mistake for our former president.

No comments: