Sunday, December 26, 2010

Volume 5, Number 32: Randy Smith, Bud Selig and the Ken Caminiti trade

With baseball's offseason now in full swing with winter meetings, trades and free agent signings, I thought I'd look back at one blockbuster trade, one made almost exactly 16 years ago, and analyze the unusual circumstances that led to it. It sort of ties in with Christmas in that, not only did said trade take place around Christmas, to one team, it sure felt like one heck of a present.

On December 23, 1994, about four months after Major League Baseball's 1994 playoffs and World Series were cancelled due to a labor impasse, and with its players still on strike, acting commissioner Bud Selig and baseball's other 27 team owners decided to implement a salary cap (that was one of the issues over which the players had gone on strike in the first place).

Once that cap was in place, the Houston Astros were well over it and needed to cut back in its payroll. Enter the San Diego Padres, a team that had slashed salaries under the ownership of TV producer Tom Werner. Randy Smith, the Padres' general manager at that time, was regarding as an up-and-coming executive in baseball and was also the youngest GM in baseball. Soon, Smith would become one of the luckiest executives in the history of sports management.
  • First, the condition that led the Astros and Padres to talk about a trade--the salary cap--turned out not to be a permanent condition. The cap was, not surprisingly, rejected by the players, and after a few more months of talks, they agreed to the "luxury tax"-based revenue sharing system that still is in effect today.
  • Second, it also worked to Randy's benefit that the Astros' president was Tal Smith--his father!
In the end, 3B Ken Caminiti, OF Steve Finley, SS Andujar Cedeno and three other players went to the Padres. Caminiti would win a National League MVP award, appear in two All-Star Games, and win three Gold Gloves and a Silver Slugger award with San Diego. Finley would be a productive outfielder for well over a decade, earning two All-Star Game appearances, a few Gold Gloves and a World Series ring (with the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks). Both Caminiti (may he rest in peace) and Finley were key players on the 1998 National League Champion Padres.

If you were in charge of the Astros, you might have been expecting a passel of prospects. That wasn't the case here, though. In return, the Astros got OF Derek Bell, OF Phil Plantier, SS Craig Shipley, IF Ricky Gutierrez, and a couple of relief pitchers. Shipley and Gutierrez were supposed to replace Caminiti and Cedeno in Houston but didn't; Bell, while a productive everyday hitter, simply wasn't as good a hitter as Finley (and his career didn't last as long, either); and Plantier was dealt back to the Padres for two minor league pitchers in 1995. Basically, the Astros got some inferior, lower-salaried players in order to get under the "salary cap."

Thanks to the trade, the Pads went from 47-70 in the strike-shortened 1994 season to 70-74 in the lockout-shortened 1995 season. The Detroit Tigers must have seen how they had gone from 61-101 (Smith's first season as Padres' GM) to 70-74 and concluded that Randy Smith had done all the work behind the improved winning percentage, when in reality, Bud Selig (as the executive responsible for implementing the salary cap) had as much to do with it as Smith did. So in October 1995, the Detroit Tigers hired Randy Smith as their new general manager.

Thing is, the resurgence the Padres were undergoing at the time was not entirely Smith's handiwork. I have just argued here and now that Bud Selig had more of a hand in building the '98 Padres than Smith did.

As the Tigers' GM, Smith...
  • Oversaw a series of bad drafts (the best player he took turned out to be starting pitcher Jeff Weaver)
  • In two separate trades, traded away both 1B Cecil Fielder and 3B Travis Fryman to get a starting pitching prospect (Matt Drews) who never pitched in the majors (Drews rewarded Smith by going 2-14 with an 8.27 ERA in 1999, his final year in the Tigers' system)
  • Traded away a group of players and cash (most notably OF Gabe Kapler and SP Justin Thompson) for just one season of Juan Gonzalez
  • Offered Gonzalez a monstrous 8-year, $140 million contract (thank goodness that Gonzalez didn't sign it, otherwise the Tigers might have gone bankrupt)
  • Traded veteran outfielder Luis Gonzalez to the Arizona Diamondbacks for a younger outfield prospect named Karim Garcia--a trade that backfired as Gonzalez played on a high level for several years afterwards, while Garcia wasn't even worthy of a starting job in baseball, and
  • Signed a group of players (Weaver, 3B Dean Palmer, 2B Damion Easley, OF Bobby Higginson) to long-term lucrative contracts that quickly became albatrosses around the Tigers' necks.
In four of Smith's six full seasons as Tigers GM, they had lost 92 or more games; when owner Mike Ilitch fired him just six games into the 2002 season, Detroit was on its way to a 55-106 season. Smith has not been a GM of any other baseball team since. In 2003, the Tigers would rack up the worst record in American League history (43-119).

(Note: This blog entry also talks about the trade in more detail, and does mention that the trade appeared "to be a straight salary dump" by Houston, but does not mention the fact that just five days earlier, Selig had attempted to implement the salary cap. I just posted a comment on there mentioning just that.)

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