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October 14, 2005

Reviewing the Juan Gonzalez Trade

In 1999, after the Rangers had lost in the opening round of the playoffs for the third time in four years, owner Tom Hicks, GM Doug Melvin and the rest of Ranger braintrust decided the team had reached its peak with the current roster. They wanted a roster younger, cheaper, and deeper in left-handed starting pitchers.

Texas started only four games with a lefty in 1999. Conceptually, additional left-handed pitching would make the team more competitive against the dreaded Yankees, who had beaten the Rangers in all three of their postseason appearances. Both The Ballpark and Yankee Stadium take more kindly to lefty hurlers. On the other hand, though New York did struggle against lefties during the regular season, their roster had extraordinary balance. Their top nine batters in the ’99 ALDS included four righties, four lefties and a switch hitter.

On October 25, the Sporting News summarized the situation as follows:

Trading Gonzalez is no longer unthinkable. The Rangers want to reduce their payroll from $75 million, which Mil be hard if they keep Gonzalez, whose contract calls for $7.5 million this year but probably twice that in a new contract.

Minor leaguer Mike Lamb might be ready at third, so free agent Todd Zeile probably won't be re-signed. Talented but injury-plagued Ruben Mateo should take over in center for Tom Goodwin. However, if Mark McLemore leaves as a free agent, the team will need a leadoff hitter and second baseman. A deal for Milwaukee's Fernando Vina would make sense.

Knowing the Tigers are desperate for a slugger, the Rangers, who need lefthanded pitching, could dangle Gonzalez for young lefthander Justin Thompson and second baseman Damion Easley. The Mets, with Gonzalez's old manager Bobby Valentine, and the Dodgers, assuming they deal Raul Mondesi, also could use Gonzalez.

If they can't re-sign 18-game winner Aaron Sele, the Rangers should try to lure two of the following free-agent lefthanders: Chuck Finley, Kenny Rogers and Darren Oliver. Finley, a proven Yankees and Indians killer, tops the list.

Much of this story came true. Sele, Goodwin and McLemore walked. Texas reached a verbal agreement with Todd Zeile, who then spurned them by taking a higher gross salary to play for the Mets. Lamb and Mateo replaced Zeile and Goodwin. Finley signed with Cleveland but Texas landed both Rogers and Oliver. They, along with lefties Matt Perisho and Doug Davis, would combine to start 81 games for Texas in 2000.

To cap the roster upheaval, on November 2 Texas traded two-time MVP outfielder Juan Gonzalez, reliever Danny Patterson and catcher Gregg Zaun to the Detroit Tigers for pitchers Justin Thompson, Francisco Cordero and Alan Webb, catcher Bill Haselman, infielder Frank Catalanotto, and outfielder Gabe Kapler. Haselman was the only throw-in. None of the others was over 26 years old, and all but Webb had appeared in the Majors.

As for Detroit’s motivations, the Tigers boasted ample young talent that translated into a disappointing 69 wins in 1999. With a move to Comerica Park looming, they wanted to contend and create some press in doing so. Detroit also finished 12th in the AL in runs scored and needed an offensive upgrade. Interestingly, they were a respectable fourth in homers with 212. What killed them was a league-worst on-base percentage of .318, thanks to walk-averse creatures like Deivi Cruz and Juan Encarnacion. Interestingly, Gonzalez didn’t draw many walks himself and relied heavily on power for his offensive production, exactly the kind of player Detroit had in surplus. Certainly, a healthy and happy Gonzalez would have provided a significant boost, but the Tigers probably could have received a similar boost from an OBP machine and given up less for him.

What became of these players? Here’s a summary including Win Shares while with Detroit or Texas from 2000-2005:

Win Share per season, 2000-2005 (9, gone, gone, gone, gone, gone – total of 9)
From 1996-1999, Gonzalez averaged 43 homers and 140 RBI with an OPS+ of 143. In one miserable season with Detroit, Gonzalez had 22 homers, 67 RBI, and an OPS+ of 113. He missed 47 games. Gonzalez hated the pitcher-friendly dimensions of brand-new Comerica Park and let them mess with his head. Not for the first time: in 1994 he sulked over the 385-foot power alley and imposing outfield wall of the new Ballpark in Arlington, and his rate of homers per at-bat fell by half. Gonzalez memorably declined a seven-year, $148 contract from the Tigers, a deal that would still have two years remaining had he signed it. Instead, he filed for free agency at the end of the season. Gonzalez resumed destroying the ball during a one-year stint with Cleveland, had one good but injured-plagued season and another just-plain-bad season with Texas, and has since accomplished next to nothing in seasons with Kansas City and Cleveland. Gonzalez has earned $38.6 million since passing on Detroit’s offer, certainly a princely sum but barely over one-third of what he would have made in Motown from 2001-2005. He’s 36, injury plagued and (to be as polite as possible) does not appear to evince much passion for the game.

(5, 7, 0, 2, 1, gone – total of 15)
Patterson spent five years with the Tigers, pitching well in relief in 2000-2001 and not so well for three more years. Injuries wrecked his 2002 and 2003 campaigns, and after one more, marginally effective season, Patterson took free agency.

To Detroit - GREGG ZAUN
(gone, gone, gone, gone, gone, gone – total of 0)
Zaun never played for Detroit. The Tigers shipped him to Kansas City during Spring Training “for future considerations,” according to Retrosheet. Since those considerations were never made explicit, they must not have amounted to much. In 2005, Zaun enjoyed a career season for Toronto at age 34.

(3, 0, 8, 12, 15, 9 – total of 47)
Cordero took a few years to mature. He faltered in 2000, pitching worse than even his uninspiring 5.35 ERA would suggest, then spent almost all of 2001 in AAA. Since 2002, Cordero has pitched 268 innings with an ERA of 2.64. After playing second fiddle to Hideki Irabu(!) in 2002 and Ugueth Urbina in 2003, Cordero entered the 2004 a season as The Closer and proceeded to save a franchise-record 49 games with an ERA of 2.13. Six years after The Trade, Cordero is the only player remaining with either organization.

(8, 17, 7, gone, gone, gone – total of 32)
Little Cat played everywhere but catcher, short and center field in his three years in Texas. In 2001 he had what remains his career year, batting .330/.391/.490 (131 OPS) and playing mostly in left field. For a while, Texas debated whether he or Michael Young would be the long-term answer at second base. Catalanotto earned $2.5 million during an injury-hampered 2002, and Texas decided to non-tender him rather than risk an arbitration-induced raise. Now with Toronto, Cat continues to bat pretty well, provide passable defense, and miss a few too many games with injuries.

(7, 5, 1, gone, gone, gone – total of 13)
Haselmann had played for Texas in 1998 and rejoined the Rangers for three more seasons. Every year, he broke Spring Training with the easiest job in the world: backing up Ivan Rodriguez, who had missed a miniscule total of 65 games in the last four years. Instead, he spent each late summer and fall as the #1 catcher because Rodriguez suffered season-ending injuries in his last three seasons as a Rangers. Haselman had two strong seasons (.275/.329/.461 and 285/.331/.400) before declining sharply in 2002. Texas let him go at that point, and except for a few at-bats in Boston he was done.

(10, 13, 3, gone, gone, gone – total of 26)
Kapler hit eighteen homers as a rookie with Detroit in 1999 and two more in his Ranger debut. The 24-year-old was definitely a work in progress compared to Catalanotto but with much more upside. Amazingly, he never surpassed those eighteen homers. Kapler did bat .302/.360/.473 in his first year with Texas but endured some crippling slumps and occasionally shaky outfield defense. He performed equivilantly in 2001 with a few more walks and fewer base hits. In 2002, with a shiny new arbitration-eligible contract of $1.85 million, he collapsed, batting a bleak .260/.285/.332 and trying out a new batting stance every couple of days. Texas glumly sent him to Colorado in exchange for fellow underachiever Todd Hollandsworth and pitcher Dennys Reyes, both of whom disappeared from Arlington after the end of the season.

(0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, -- total of 0)
Thompson underwent surgery for a torn labrum in August of 1999 but was expected to be one of three lefties in the Ranger rotation in 2000. Instead, additional arm trouble and surgeries derailed his career, and Thompson would not pitch again until 2002… for the rookie-league Gulf Coast Rangers. Thompson did finally return to the Majors in 2005 for a couple of late-season relief appearances. He threw a total of 140.1 innings in six years with the Rangers, 138.2 of them in the minors.

To Texas - ALAN WEBB
(0, gone, gone, gone, gone, gone – total of 0)
Texas appears to have ditched Webb after one season split among high-A and AA. Webb topped out in AAA with the Padres organization and spent 2005 in high-A Clearwater with the Phillies organization. He has nine years of minor-league experience and just turned 26.

Most Valuable Player By Season (in Win Shares):
2000 – Gabe Kapler, Texas (10)
2001 – Frank Catalanotto, Texas (17)
2002 – Francisco Cordero, Texas (8)
2003 – Francisco Cordero, Texas (12)
2004 – Francisco Cordero, Texas (15)
2005 – Francisco Cordero, Texas (9)

Aggregate Win Shares of Traded Players by Season:
2000 – Texas 21, Detroit 14
2001 – Texas 30, Detroit 7
2002 – Texas 18, Detroit 0
2003 – Texas 12, Detroit 2
2004 – Texas 15, Detroit 1
2005 – Texas 9, Detroit 0
TOTAL – Texas 105, Detroit 24

Texas might not have received all they’d hoped for, but they clearly demolish the Tigers in comparative value. Only Justin Thompson proved to be a total loss. Texas has a pitcher signed through 2007 with a career ERA of 3.26 and 111 saves. Frank Catalanotto had the best season (in terms of win shares) of any traded player in 2001. For a while, Gabe Kapler looked like he could provide more than what Kevin Mench does now. Even Bill Haselman helped out for a couple of years.

For all the talent Detroit surrendered to Texas, they received one bitterly disappointing effort from Juan Gonzalez and two solid years of middle relief from Danny Patterson. Two seasons after The Trade, Detroit lost 106 games. Three seasons after, they needed a two-game, season-ending win streak to avoid become only the second team in MLB history with 120 losses. They received not a single win share from their acquisitions from Texas that year. Even for a team that last won a division in 1987 (when the Olsen twins were one-year old and just starting to putrefy America with “Full House”), the last few years have been especially painful.

Ultimately, the trade didn’t accomplish much for Texas either. Though the Rangers got the better of Detroit, they have only one winning season in the last six years. They also have changed managers and general managers twice during that span and don’t have a single player from their last division-winning squad.

Both franchises have wandered awkwardly through modes of cheap, youth-oriented rebuilding and high-dollar free agent splurging. In the end, the players involved in the Gonzalez trade couldn’t compensate for each team’s greater deficiencies, both in talent and leadership.

Posted by Lucas at October 14, 2005 03:59 AM