Silver anniversary: Smoltz-Alexander trade

A quarter-century ago today, baseball had one of the greatest examples ever of an archetypal trade. It’s possibly the most intriguing win-Now vs. win-later trade of all time.

On Aug. 12, 1987, the Detroit Tigers sent young prospect pitcher John Smoltz to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for veteran arm Doyle Alexander.

On the face of it, the Braves undoubtedly got the better of this one. In Atlanta, Smoltz developed into a star pitcher with a Cy Young Award, two titles for most wins in the league and eight All-Star team selections. He was a key part of the Braves’ 1990s dynasty, and all they had to give up to get him was an aging workhorse in Alexander.

Who was this Doyle Alexander person? He was a late-blooming pitcher in his 17th season of a 19-year career. Aside from leading the league in winning percentage in 1984, he never led in any notable category. He never won more than 17 games in a season, and at the time of the trade he had zero All-Star Game selections. Frankly, he’d never seemed like that great of a pitcher.

But down the stretch in 1987, he was a great pitcher, as fantastic as you could hope a pitcher could be. Though fumbling through the first two thirds of the season with a 5-10 record as a Brave, upon his arrival in Detroit, Alexander turned into a baseball demigod.

While he had a rough go of it in his first start for a no-decision, he pitched eight shutout innings in his second outing for the win. And very quickly, he got in the habit of this winning ballgames things.

He’d start 11 games for the rest of the season with the Tigers, averaging eight innings an outing and posted a 9-0 record. The team won both his no-decisions, too, and Alexander’s perfect winning record wasn’t some fluke of offensive support. His ERA was 1.53. Yeah, that ain’t bad.

The day of the trade, the Tigers were in tight three-way race in the AL East with Toronto and New York. They stood in second place, a game-and-a-half behind the Jays and a game ahead of the Yankees. With Alexander, they didn’t stay in second.

The clubs faced off in two key late-season series, and Alexander played a key role in both. On Sept. 27, Alexander took the hill in the last of a four-game series. Detroit had lost the first three games, pushing them 3.5 games behind Toronto with just eight more left to play. Detroit needed a win, and behind Alexander they did win, 3-2 in 13 innings.

Alexander didn’t actually get the win, but he deserved it. Detroit scored in the top of the 11th for a 2-1 lead, and Alexander would’ve pitched a one-two-three bottom half of the inning for a complete-game win, but there was a defensive error, and the tying run came around to score. Still, Detroit did win, and Alexander’s 32-out performance was part of it.

Five days later, Alexander pitched the first game of a season-ending three-game series. Toronto entered the day up by a game, and thus Detroit had little margin for error. Alexander did what the team needed, and they won to tie up division race. The Tigers wound up winning the division by two games, and Alexander clearly was the difference.

Unfortunately for the Tigers, they lost in the ALCS to an inferior Twins team. (And, to be fair, Alexander was a large part of that loss, as he went 0-2 in an ERA of 10.00). But this trade is the ultimate win-now vs. win-later trade.

As great as Smoltz would be, he wouldn’t help Detroit that year. And frankly, as bad as the Tigers were in the 1990, he wouldn’t have made much difference then, either. But Alexander gave Detroit a division title, and, as they say, flags fly forever.

In terms of overall value, the Tigers lost this trade, but it’s the sort of trade where a team can lose the overall value and still later on argue that it was a good move. That division flag still flies, after all.

Aside from that, many actual incidents today celebrate their anniversary or “day-versary” (which is something that occurred X-thousand days ago) today. Here they are, with the better ones in bold if you’d prefer to just skim over things.


2,000 days since the Nationals sign free agent Tony Batista.

3,000 days since Daryle Ward hits for the cycle.

4,000 days since Bobby Valentine manages his 2,000th game. His record is 1,023-977.

4,000 days since Little League forfeits all games won by the Bronx team because of star pitcher Danny Almonte, who was older than he claimed to be and thus ineligible to play.

5,000 days since the Rangers sign free agent Rafael Palmeiro.

7,000 days since Mike Boddicker plays in his last game.

7,000 days since Everyday Eddie Guardado plays in his first game.


1880 The Cubs lose their first home game of the year after winning their first 21 decisions in Chicago.

1880 Hall of Famer pitcher Christy Mathewson is born.

1890 Farmer Weaver hits for the cycle as part of a six-hit game for him.

1892 Hall of Fame catcher Ray Schalk is born.

1896 Nap Lajoie makes his big league debut.

1899 Eclipse Park in Louisville burns down. It was a major league town back then (but wouldn’t be after the 1899 season).

1902 Giants owner Andrew Freedman announces that Reds owner John Brush is taking over the New York ball club.

1912 Harlond Clift, star Browns third baseman, is born.

1912 On this day, Ty Cobb supposedly killed a man who attacked him. That was the story Al Stump told the world in his biography of Cobb, though research since then refutes the claim. While a group of men did accost Cobb, they left and he didn’t chase any of them down, let alone kill someone.

1916 The Sporting News announces that Cubs owner Charles Weegham will allow fans to keep balls hit into the stands.

1919 Pitcher and manager Fred Hutchinson is born.

1922 John McGraw becomes the first manager to win 2,000 games. His record is 2,000-1,358.

1925 200-game winner Fat Freddie Fitzsimmons makes his big league debut.

1928 Bob Buhl, pitcher, is born.

1930 Hall of Famer Earle Combs gets his 100th career triple.

1931 Tony Lazzeri endures maybe his worst game ever at the plate, going 0-for-6 with four whiffs. His teammates manage to win anyway in an 18-1 Yankee win over Cleveland.

1934 Babe Ruth, in his last game at Fenway Park, gets his 500th career double. He leaves the game in the sixth inning, tipping his cap to the fans as he goes.

1934 The Dean brothers rebel. After they lose both ends of a doubleheader, they refuse to travel to Detroit for an exhibition game. Dizzy Dean destroys his uniform. He’ll be suspended for 10 games for this rebellion (though it’ll be reduced to seven games).

1938 Connie Mack becomes the first (and still only) manager to win 3,000 games. His record: 3,000-2,871.

1938 Al Simmons hits his 500th career double.

1938 Washington releases veteran catcher Wes Ferrell.

1940 Ernest Lawrence Thayer, author of Casey at the Bat, dies at age 77.

1941 For Cedar Rapids in the Three-I League, Allie Reynolds fans 17 batters.

1945 Jim Tobin becomes one of the few pitchers ever to hit a walk-off home run.

1946 With a 4-for-4 performance today, Stan Musial is now 12-for-13 over the last three games.

1952 Baseball reliever Stu Miller makes his big league debut.

1952 A Texas League game between Ft. Worth and Beaumont is stopped for several minutes by seagulls landing on the field.

1956 The White Sox’s all-time cumulative franchise record reaches .500 (4,210-4,210) and has been over it ever since.

1963 Stan Musial announces that he’ll retire at the end of the season.

1964 Mel Stottlemyre makes his big league debut on the mound.

1966 Art Shamsky has one of the greatest games of all time. In fact, according to WPA, it’s the greatest one-game performance any batter has ever had. The Reds batter enters the game against the Pirates midway through and hits a home run to send the game into extra innings. Shamsky then homers twice in extra innings to tie the game. However, his team loses anyway, 14-11. He’s 3-for-3 with five RBIs, three homers, and a 1.503 WPA. The game features 11 homers in all.

1966 The Angels purchase Mexican League infielder Aurelio Rodriguez.

1966 The Giants top Houston, 1-0, on a walk-off home run by Willie Mays against Mike Cuellar.

1969 Yankee player Joe Pepitone goes AWOL, citing personal problems.

1970 Bob Gibson has his longest career start: 14 innings. He allows four runs (all earned) on 13 hits and two walks while fanning 13 in the complete-game win. The entire game takes three hours and 16 minutes.

1970 Houston releases relief pitcher Jim Bouton.

1970 Judge Irving Ben Cooper rules against Curt Flood in his suit against Bowie Kuhn.

1970 Charlie Hough makes his big league debut pitching with the Dodgers.

1974 For the second of three times on the year, Nolan Ryan fans 19 in a game. It’s the only time all year he does it in nine innings.

1974 Frank Robinson, now on the Angels, walks four times, the only time he ever does it in any game.

1974 Matt Clement, pitcher, is born.

1977 The all-time cumulative record for the Senators/Twins franchise reaches 474 games under .500, which is as close as they’ve ever been to .500 since coming to Minnesota.

1978 Tony Perez has his first sacrifice bunt since 1969. He’ll never have another one.

1981 Dick Williams manages his 2,000 career game. His record: 1,063-937.

1981 Fergie Jenkins suffers his 200th loss for a 263-200 career record. He’ll be 21-26 over the rest of his career.

1984 It’s one of the ugliest games ever as the Braves and Padres get in the mother of all beanball wars. Ejections reach double digits, and there are so many brawls that the game ends with cops standing atop both dugouts.

1986 The White Sox sign free agent Steve Carlton.

1988 Boston wins its 23rd straight home game.

1990 Alan Trammell has four extra-base hits in one game, three doubles and a homer, for one of the best games of his life.

1991 Barry Bonds belts the second of 10 walk-off home runs. It’s his best WPA homer (0.805) and his best overall one-game WPA total: 1.119. He’s 2-for-4 with two homers, a walk, and a stolen base. He drives in all four Pirate runs in their 4-3 win over the Braves.

1993 Tim Raines gets his 2,000th career hit.

1995 LA tops Pittsburgh, 11-10 in 11 innings, when the game ends in a bizarre way. The Pittsburgh catcher goes to pick up a ball rolling away from the plate with his mask, and that’s a no-no. In fact, it allows baserunners to automatically advance, and that allows LA to win with a one-of-a-kind walk-off win.

1995 Johnny Damon makes his big league debut.

1996 Oakland’s Geronimo Berroa hits three homers in one game. It’s the second time this season he’s done that.

1997 Florida trades Rick Helling to Texas.

1998 Alex Rodriguez gets his 100th home run.

1998 The Yankees top the Twins, 11-2, which pushes Joe Torre’s career record over .500 (1,169-1,168). It’s been over .500 ever since.

1999 The Brewers fire longtime manager Phil Garner.

2001 Greg Maddux allows a walk after 72.1 innings without one. It’s an intentional walk to Arizona’s Steve Finley.

2001 The Yankees all-time cumulative franchise record hits 2,000 games over .500 (8,758-6,758). They’ve been more than 2,000 games over ever since.

2001 Jason Giambi joins the 1,000-hit club with his first career walk-off home run. It’s the only one he ever hits for the A’s and gives them a 4-2 win over the Yankees.

2002 Hall of Famer Enos Slaughter dies.

2003 Atlanta unveils a statue of Warren Spahn outside its ballpark.

2003 Hall of Fame executive Pat Gillick resigns as Mariners GM.

2006 The longest hitting streak of Manny Ramirez’s career peaks at 27 games.

2007 Curt Schilling has his longest outing without a strikeout: six innings.

2007 Tiger slugger Magglio Ordonez homers twice in one inning.

2008 Cleveland trades Paul Byrd to the Red Sox.

2008 Boston defeats Texas in a massive slugfest, 19-17. Texas pitcher Scott Feldman becomes the first pitcher in 90 years and nine days to allow 12 runs and not get stuck with the loss.

2009 Some jerk at Wrigley Field throws his drink on Philadelphia outfielder Shane Victorino. The game is also Pedro Martinez’s debut with the Phillies, and he leads them to a 12-5 Phillies victory.

2010 The Dodgers blow a seven-run lead in the eighth inning, losing 10-9 to the Phillies.

2010 MLB owners unanimously approve the sale of the Rangers to the Chuck Greenberg/Nolan Ryan group.

2011 Carlos Zambrano has one final meltdown in Chicago. After allowing five homers in 4.1 frames, he’s ejected for throwing at the head of Atlanta star Chipper Jones. Zambrano then cleans out his locker, claiming his retiring.

2011 Former Braves announcer Ernie Johnson dies at age 87.

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Jim C
Jim C

Nicely written. How about Larry Christensen for Jeff Bagwell? Boston gave up a hall of fame player for a pitcher who was barely a factor in their pennant drive in 1990.

Jim G.
Jim G.

At the time of the trade Smoltz was in Double-A and not considered a blue chip prospect. Any team in the same situation would make that trade every time. The Braves were just dumping a veteran and stocking an arm in their system. They had little idea what Smoltz would develop into, either.

Jim G.
Jim G.

One clarification on Alexander – he was selected as a reserve for the 1988 ASG, obviously based on his ‘87 performance, but he did not pitch.
And another interesting point – early in DA’s career he was in the trade that brought Frank Robinson from the Orioles to the Dodgers. How many marginal players can say they were traded for HOF’ers twice? (Even if Robinson was nearing the end and Smoltz had barely started.)