Sell High / A Year Too Early

Cliff Lee might be the most recent example of failing to sell early on a player. (via Art Siegel)

Cliff Lee might be the most recent example of failing to sell early on a player. (via Art Siegel)

General managers have few rules of thumb to guide them as they wheel and deal, but one they can cite comes from Branch Rickey, who said, “It is better to trade a player a year too early than a year too late.” He meant that even if a player whom he traded went on to have two or three good years with another team, it was better to have traded him while he had value rather than to wait while his value declined, for decline it almost certainly would. Age, injury, or simple reversion to the mean would inevitably take its toll. Better, then, to sell high, especially if, as Rickey did, you had a pipeline of talent from the minor leagues that could replace the player you sold high.

In what follows, I examine three sell-high trades from across baseball history. No single lesson emerges from these trades, but they do tell us something about how humans perceive responsibility. With the possible exception of Ruben Amaro, who dithered while Cliff Lee tore the flexor tendon in his left arm, general managers rarely receive blame for holding onto a player too long. When they do, and a player declines, it is the player who is usually held responsible, and the general manager, like the fans, joins the list of those aggrieved by the player’s decline.

By contrast, when a general manager trades a player a year—or several years—too early, especially for a dubious return, he is the one who catches hell. General managers thus have an incentive to play it safe by not selling high. The best general managers, though, like Rickey, know that sometimes you cannot play it safe.

Perhaps no transaction illustrates Rickey’s axiom better than his own 1932 trade of reigning National League batting champion Chick Hafey. From 1927 to 1931, Hafey, a Cardinals outfielder, had few rivals. Over those years, he hit .338 with gap and home run power, putting up an OPS of 1.009 and an OPS+ of 150. That did not quite put him in the league of Babe Ruth (211) or Lou Gehrig (195), who were simply otherworldly during those years, but it did place him among the next tier of sluggers such as Rogers Hornsby (176), Al Simmons (166), Jimmie Foxx (155), Hack Wilson (155), and Mel Ott (148).

Unlike those players, though, Hafey had trouble staying healthy. Following the 1926 season, he had surgery to correct a sinus problem, which—accounts differ—may have affected the vision in his left eye. (Hafey was the first baseball star to wear eyeglasses.) But Hafey suffered other injuries and ailments as well. From 1927 to 1931, his peak years, he never played a full season.

Still, he routinely put up four-win seasons over those years, and in 1931, despite missing time, he hit .349 and compiled 4.2 WAR. (The defensive metrics do not like Hafey, which, if you trust them, pulled down his overall value by about half a win each year, but by all reports he had a fearsome throwing arm.) During his peak years, the Cardinals won three pennants and, in 1931, the World Series.

In 1932, Hafey held out for a higher salary, and rather than pay him, Rickey traded him to the Cincinnati Reds for pitcher Benny Frey, utility player Harvey Hendrick and cash. Frey, then 26 years old, pitched exactly three innings for the Cardinals in 1932 before Rickey sold him back to the Reds. Hendrick, 34 years old at the time of the trade, compiled all of 77 plate appearances for the Cardinals in 1932 before Rickey sold him back to the Reds. So the deal essentially amounted to Hafey for . . . cash.

That may not seem like much of a return for one of the best players in baseball, but prior to the amateur draft and free agency, cash played a far different role in trades than it would in later decades. Today, general managers mostly throw in cash to offset the bloated salary of a player they hope to trade. In the 1930s, however, general managers often sold players outright. They could then use the money to acquire other players, amateurs or veterans, or, as Rickey did, entire minor league teams.

Retrosheet does not say how much cash Rickey got for Hafey, and I have not found the information elsewhere, but we can make an educated guess. In a previous entry in this series, I discussed the Rogers Hornsby-Frankie Frisch trade of 1926. After that trade, The New York Times reported that Giants manager John McGraw had previously offered $250,000 for a young Hornsby, and the Brooklyn Dodgers had offered $275,000. At the time of the trade, the Times estimated that Hornsby could fetch $350,000 in the open market and Frisch $250,000. In terms of value, Hafey probably fell somewhere between the two, so $300,000 seems reasonable, and $300,000 in 1932 could go a long way. In theory, Rickey could use the money to sign scores of amateur prospects, one or two of whom might turn out to play like Hafey.

In the near term, the Cardinals replaced Hafey with a combination of Ernie Orsatti, a capable bench bat, and Ripper Collins, who, after languishing in the International League well past when he could have played in the majors, finally got his chance. To be sure, the Cardinals missed Hafey in 1932, falling from first to sixth place. In 1931, the Cardinals were 2.8 wins above average across all three outfield positions; in 1932, they were 2.5 wins below average in the outfield, which explains part of the fall.

But Hafey alone would not have reversed the five-win swing. That year, he only played 83 games for the Reds and lost a lot of his home run power. (He accumulated 1.9 wins.) Hafey bounced back the next two years, putting up three-win seasons, but after that he more or less retired from the game. In five years with the Reds, Hafey garnered a little over nine wins.

So who got the better of this sell-high trade? We cannot say unless we know how much cash Rickey got for Hafey, and what he did with it. But by making a couple of assumptions and back-of-the-envelope calculations, I think we can say that Rickey did well enough by the trade. If we divide how much observers thought Hornsby and Frisch could bring in the open market by how many wins they went on to produce over the remainder of their career, we get a figure of around $11,000 or $12,000 per win. Ignoring inflation or, by the start of the depression, deflation, at that rate Rickey would have had to get a little more than $100,000 to cover the wins Hafey went on to produce for the Reds. He almost certainly got that—and probably much, much more. In short, Rickey likely did well to trade Hafey when he did and for what he did.

Perhaps the most famous sell-high trade also involved the Reds. Whereas before they bought high on Hafey, this time they sold high—or so they thought—on a star player and thereby completed one of the most infamously lopsided trades in major league history.

In 1965, the Reds won 89 games and still finished fourth in the National League, eight games behind the Sandy Koufax-led Dodgers. Their 29-year-old right fielder, Frank Robinson, had turned in his second straight outstanding year at the plate after what, for him, counted as a subpar year in 1963. In 1965, Robinson hit .296 with 33 home runs, which, in the days of declining offense that began in 1963 and lasted through 1972, was good for five or six wins. To judge from the defensive metrics, Robinson may have lost a step in the outfield, but even so he was among the top 10 players in the game.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

That did not stop Reds owner Bill DeWitt from trading Robinson in the offseason to the Baltimore Orioles for reliever Jack Baldschun, outfielder Dick Simpson and starting pitcher Milt Pappas. From DeWitt’s perspective, Robinson was “a fading talent increasingly hobbled by leg injuries” and, in words that he would soon have to eat, “not a young 30.” Therefore, operating on Rickey’s theory—De Witt even cited it—he sold Robinson a year too early.

Turns out, it was many years too early. As I say, this trade would become legendary. (Rob Neyer includes it in his Big Book of Baseball Blunders, and the Susan Sarandon character in Bull Durham cites it as the quintessential “bad trade.”) In retrospect, the trade looks grotesquely lopsided, but it did not seem so at the time and may not even be as bad as it looks.

A very crude projection system would have expected Robinson to collect five wins in 1966. Assuming he lost half a win each year thereafter, he would have put up 26 or 27 wins for the remainder of his career. In 1966, Pappas would turn 27, and it looked like he would continue to be the three-or-four win pitcher he had been with the Orioles for at least the next three years, losing value after that. At that pace, he would put up 12 wins or so before he retired.

(In their defense, to the Reds Pappas may have looked like a much better pitcher than he was. Thanks to Earl Weaver’s defense, and its death to flying things effect on balls in play, his ERA consistently came in well below his FIP. But back then, no one knew about things like BABIP and FIP.)

A reliever going into his age 29 season, Baldschun, though not without value at the time, in all likelihood was not going to accumulate more than a couple of wins over the remainder of his career. As for Dick Simpson, a highly regarded prospect, just a week before the Robinson-Pappas deal, he had been traded by the California Angels to the Baltimore Orioles for first baseman Norm Siebern. Heading into his age 31 season, Siebern looked like a 2.5 win player, which would add up to about eight wins over the remainder of his career. Assume that is what the Reds thought Simpson would be worth, possibly more.

So Robinson looked like he would be worth 26 or 27 wins. Pappas plus Simpson looked like 20 wins. Baldschun may have added a win or two to that total. That still adds up to a win for the Orioles from the outset, especially given where they were on the win curve, and considering that they had no shortage of pitchers to take Pappas’ place, including a young Jim Palmer. But it did not look like a complete disaster for the Reds. Ideally, Pappas would still be pitching for the Reds in a few years, and Simpson would hold down a spot in the outfield for years to come.

Of course, it did not work out that way. Robinson defied the aging curves, putting up 43.5 wins over the remainder of his career. As it happens, Pappas age well, too; he put up 25 wins for the rest of his career, much of it accomplished in a late career burst with the Cubs. (The Reds would trade him in the midst of a disappointing 1967 campaign.)

If either Baldschun or Simpson had amounted to anything, we might think of this trade far differently than we do. But they decidedly did not. Both players were worse than replacements for the remainder of their careers. Even so, the Orioles and Reds would both thrive in the years ahead, the Orioles with Robinson and the Reds without. Neyer estimates that, given how far the Reds finished out of first place in the years after they traded Robinson for Pappas, in all likelihood the trade cost them only a division title in 1969. That is bad—a team gets only so many shots at the playoffs—but not as bad as the legend of one of the worst trades in major league history would lead you to believe.

In any event, the Robinson trade suggests one of the abiding difficulties of selling high, which is that a player may continue to perform at a high level not for a season or two but, in Robinson’s case, for nearly a decade.

When we think of selling high on a player, we tend to think of players in or approaching their 30s, as with Hafey and Robinson. As this last trade shows, though, general managers could sell high on young players, too.

In 1976, the Cleveland Indians won 81 games, offering a glimmer of hope to a franchise—and a city—that had suffered of late. In 1977, however, the year the Bronx burned and the New York Yankees and their new right fielder, Reggie Jackson, won the World Series, the Indians took a step back, losing 90 games. One of the few bright spots was the continued success of a young starting pitcher, Dennis Eckersley, whom the Tribe had selected in the third round of the 1972 amateur draft. Over his first three years, Eckersley won 40 games with a 3.23 ERA, which added up to a shade over 13 wins. Heading into the 1978 season, he would be just 24 years old.

Yet the Cleveland front office looked its gift horse in the mouth. The Indians thought Eckersley gave up too many home runs, struggled against left-handers, and let base runners run wild. They also worried that his unconventional delivery would lead to injury. So, in a classic sell-high trade, on the very eve of the 1978 season, the Indians traded Eckersley and backup catcher Fred Kendall to the Boston Red Sox for a package of four players: third baseman and left fielder Ted Cox, catcher Bo Diaz, pitcher Mike Paxton, and pitcher Rick Wise. With the exception of Wise, who would be 32 in 1978, the rest of the players the Indians received were under 26 years old.

Wise made a couple of all-star teams in his career, but he belonged in the middle of a rotation rather than at the front, and he had missed time to injury in 1977. In any case, he had peaked, and the Indians would do well to get three or four wins out of him before he declined altogether. In the event, Wise would have a mediocre year for the Indians in 1978 and an excellent one in 1979, but they lost him to free agency after that. He put up a hair over five wins for Cleveland, but what a rebuilding team needed with a 32-year-old starting pitcher remains unclear.

The young players the Indians received for Eckersley never amounted to much, either, though the team could not necessarily have known that at the time. Ted Cox, in particular, had an excellent pedigree. He had been the Red Sox first-round pick in the 1973 amateur draft, and he had torn up the International League in 1977, hitting .334 with 14 home runs in just 397 plate appearances—all as a 22-year-old. He never figured out major league pitching, though, and was out of professional baseball in a few years.

To judge from his minor-league performance, Bo Diaz looked like he would never turn into more than a backup catcher, though as it happened he would have a couple of good years as a starter—just not with Cleveland. After four years of having Diaz catch once a week, the Indians traded him to Philadelphia, where he had two good years; and he later had a couple of good years with the Reds.

Paxton lingered in the 1975 amateur draft until the 23rd round, when Boston selected him, but his stock had risen since then. In 1976, he had pitched well enough across the Eastern League and International Leagues, but he did not miss many bats. In 1977, as a 23-year-old, he had a promising debut with the Red Sox, pitching well out of the bullpen and in the rotation. He had a good year for the Indians in 1978, posting 2.8 wins, but he crashed in 1979—or appeared to do so. While his FIP remained respectable, his ERA ballooned to 5.92, and the Indians more or less consigned him to the minors after that.

And how did Dennis Eckersley do? In 1978 and 1979, he put up back-to-back seven-win seasons. Toward the end of the 1979 season, though, Eckersley, as predicted, developed a sore arm, and he was never the same pitcher. Even so, he compiled 21.9 wins for the Red Sox before they traded him in 1984—ill advisedly, it would turn out—to the Chicago Cubs for Bill Buckner.

In a way, the Indians did well to sell high on Eckersley. True, he had two spectacular years for the Red Sox after he left town, but by himself he would not have propelled the Indians out of the cellar of the American League East. The Indians, that is, did not err by selling Eckersley when they did but in selling him for what they did—that is, essentially, for nothing at all.

As each of these trades illustrates, that is one peril of sell-high trades. The decision to sell high is usually a good one—provided you get equal or greater value in return. But the vagaries of baseball make that difficult indeed. If you sell high on your talented player, you presumably either buy high on another player or buy low on a number of prospects. In the former case, the player may also decline (see Milt Pappas) and in the latter case (see Ted Cox) the prospects may never develop. In the end, then, Rickey’s axiom may not help general managers as much as it promises.

John Marsh is Associate Professor of English at The Pennsylvania State University. His most recent book is In Walt We Trust: How a Queer Socialist Poet Can Save America from Itself.
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8 years ago

A couple of minor points regarding the Frank Robinson trade. Earl Weaver was not the manager of the Orioles when Milt Pappas was traded-Hank Bauer was their manager. The Reds didn’t trade Pappas away in the midst of a disappointing 1967 season-Pappas actually had a better season in 1967 than he did in 1966. The Reds traded Pappas during the 1968 season.

8 years ago
Reply to  Randy

And let’s not forget: Robinson went from the National to the American League which, in 1966, was practically a demotion. He got to feast off weaker pitching and put up numbers he wouldn’t have had he stayed put. Same with Dick Allen in 1972.

Marc Schneider
8 years ago

There may have been a subtext to the Robinson trade besides trying to sell high. Robinson, at the time, was considered a somewhat controversial, “militant” African-American player. This may not have sat well with Reds management, especially in a conservative city like Cincinnati. From the Reds’ standpoint, they may have thought that, regardless of the baseball merits of the trade, they were getting rid of a “troublemaker.” None of the later African-American players on the Big Red Machine had Robinson’s reputation. (And, of course, society had changed by that time.) It’s pretty ironic considering that Robinson became sort of the ultimate old-school baseball insider later.

8 years ago
Reply to  Marc Schneider

Also Robinson and DeWitt never got along. First time they met, DeWitt got after Robinson for alleged lack of hustle. It was downhill from there until the day he was traded.

Tramps Like Us
8 years ago
Reply to  Marc Schneider

You don’t consider Alex Johnson a “troublemaker?” He was acquired from the Cardinals after the 1967 season, and the Reds were his 3rd team in his first 5 seasons. Terrific talent…..really horrible attitude. And Robinson spent 9 seasons with the Reds. They weren’t in too big of a hurry to ship him out.

8 years ago

The 3rd paragraph is the overall key one. A GM had better have the solid and complete backing of his owner before ‘selling high’. Cuz the fans and media will give him holy hell for selling away a star, especially for parts that won’t pay off until the future. Darn good chance he’s fired by then.

Marc Schneider
8 years ago
Reply to  Richie

I don’t know. It seems to me that fans-at least in the smaller markets-are more accepting today of trading guys early while there is still value, especially if they are about to hit free agency and won’t come back anyway. Two of the trades discussed took place long before free agency. If anything, they will blame the player for being “greedy” and making it necessary to trade him.

Dennis Bedard
8 years ago

Marc Schneider’s comment about Robinson’s “militancy” is news to me. I recall that he was a union supporter but if that is true, Cincinnati’s unloading him for that reason would make sense. The Reds were a very conservative organization. I recall that they forbade players from having long hair or facial hair of any kind. But the flip side of that coin is that they had one of the most racial/ethnic diverse teams in the league and were in the forefront of signing black players in the late 50’s and 60’s. As I am writing this, I now recall Alex Johnson playing for them in the late 60’s. Not exactly a team player as that term was understood back then.

Marc Schneider
8 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Bedard

Perhaps militant wasn’t the right word, but I think, by some accounts, that he was considered too outspoken for Cincinnati. I’m not implying the Reds were racist, but there was some thought the Robinson was a bit too strong a personality for the organization.

Cliff Blau
8 years ago

I think $300,000 for Chick Hafey is completely unrealistic. In 1932 the Athletics sold Al Simmons, a better player, plus Mule Haas and Jimmy Dykes for $100,000. The next year, they traded Lefty Grove, the best pitcher in the game, plus two other players for two lesser players plus $125,000. Also, where would the Reds come up with $300,000? They went into receivership the next year. I’d guess the Cardinals didn’t get any more than $50,000 for Hafey.

Mr Punch
8 years ago

Interesting piece. Of course, free agency has entirely transformed the dynamics of handling aging players. The Cards’ decision not to re-sign Pujols may be the closest parallel to the Robinson deal.

8 years ago
Reply to  Mr Punch

This has become Internet myth. Cards made every attempt to resign Pujols including offering him a 10 yr/>$200M deal with a ton of goodies.

Angels just offered more money and less of it was deferred. Pujols simply took the bigger pile of money despite what his wife and Pujols tried to state after that fact.

Bottom line is, he jumped to the Angels for about an average of $3 million per year even though it meant (A) leaving the great baseball situation he had in St. Louis (B) spending most of the baseball season away from his family; (C) doing at least some damage to his national image; (D) and getting a lot of that extra salary eaten up by higher taxes and cost of living.

Marc Schneider
8 years ago
Reply to  MG

Ironically, it worked out better for the Cardinals.

8 years ago

…and everything old is new again. Enter the Rent-A-Player era (usually Rent-A-Pitcher) for teams wanting to make a late season pennant push, usually for good old fashioned cash — which never goes out of style — I might add.

As a Cheesehead, my most vivid recollection was CC Sabathia coming over to the Brewers from Cleveland in 2008. In exchange for services rendered from July forward, he was instrumental in pushing the Crew to the Central Division pennant with 11-2 in 130 IP, and 1.65 ERA / 2.44 FIP –both career lows to date.

Of course, the Brewers knew they had no realistic chance of retaining Sabathia after the 2008 season, and saw him for what he was: valuable, if temporary, help. MKE made a token bid for Sabathia, somewhere in the $105M neighborhood, but he predictably signed with the Yankees for 8/185. No regrets.