MLB's No. 3 Worst Trade In History: Mr. Sandberg, Bring Me A Dream!

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MLB's No. 3 Worst Trade In History: Mr. Sandberg, Bring Me A Dream!
Prior to his days in a Cubs uniform, Ryne Sandberg was a Phillies prospect that most scouts never thought would have much lineup presence

As I mentioned in yesterday’s article, an all too common trait in baseball is teams trading a promising rookie for over-the-hill veterans.  More often than not, a team will sacrifice its potential future in order to win immediately.

Sometimes these trades will ultimately turn out to be worthwhile transactions that make the team trading the prospect better.  In some cases, these trades turn out to be horrible mistakes that are discussed decades later.  This is the story of such a trade.

Prior to the start of the 1982 season, the Philadelphia Phillies were just one season removed from their first World Series championship.  They still had most of their core players, from pesky-hitting Pete Rose to the power bat of Mike Schmidt.

Yet, there was trouble in the clubhouse.  Shortstop Larry Bowa and General Manager Paul Owens were unable to come to an agreement on a new contract and it appeared that the only option left was a trade.  One team that showed an interest in Bowa was the Chicago Cubs.

At the time, the Cubs’ General Manager was former Phillies skipper Dallas Green, who had been at the helm for the team’s World Series run in 1980.  With the Cubs in the hunt for a solid defensive infielder, he wanted Bowa.  Yet, as Bowa was already in his mid-30s, Green also wanted a young infield prospect that could be groomed as Bowa’s successor.  In fact, he had his eye on one particular player in the Phillies’ system: a young shortstop named Ryne Sandberg.

Larry Bowa and Sandberg were traded to the Cubs when contract negotiations between Bowa and the Phillies' front office came to a standstill

While fans might best remember him for his years spent in a Chicago Cubs uniform, Ryne Sandberg actually made his major league debut in 1981 as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies.  His first appearance in the major leagues was less than impressive. 

In thirteen games, he hit .167, no home runs or RBI.  Team scouts had written him off as someone who would be a career utility infielder without any power (despite his hitting .290 at the minor league level the previous two seasons). 

Despite these factors, Dallas Green insisted that Sandberg be included in the Larry Bowa trade.  In return, the Phillies received infielder Ivan DeJesus.  In the years that followed, the evidence really piled up regarding the one-sidedness of this deal.

The best way to analyze this trade is to look at the career statistics of the players involved.  Let’s start with Larry Bowa.

In terms of offense, Bowa’s career stats are underwhelming and unimpressive.  He never hit more than four home runs in one season, and his career batting average is a respectable, yet less than average .260.   That being said, what was it that kept him in the starting lineup for so many years?  That would be his defense and speed.  In a 16-year career, Bowa won two Gold Gloves (at shortstop) and stole 318 bases.  Yet, because he was 36 at the time of the trade and on the decline (not to mention the fact that I wasn’t even born yet and thus couldn’t witness him play), we can’t really say whether or not the Phillies giving him up was a good or bad move.

In return for Bowa and Sandberg, the Phillies received Ivan DeJesus, a glorified role player by today's standards

Now let’s take a look at the man Chicago sent to the Phillies, Ivan DeJesus.  Much like Bowa, his career stats leave something to be desired.  Over the course of 15 seasons, DeJesus never hit more than five home runs.  His career batting average is a mediocre .254.  He never won any major awards.  The one attribute that kept him in the starting lineup, much like Bowa, was his speed, but even his career stats in that regard aren’t much to write home about (194 steals in 15 seasons).  Long story short, if using today’s standards, Ivan DeJesus is a glorified role player traded for an aging veteran and an unproven prospect.  Yet, as happens in some cases, this prospect turned out to be a diamond in the rough.

Finally, let’s take a look at what happened to Ryne Sandberg, the man Paul Owens and his scouts wrote off as a career utility infielder.  In 1982, the year of the trade, he was immediately placed into the starting lineup (as a second baseman).  It was the first of many impressive seasons for the young man from Spokane, Washington.  He batted a respectable .271, hit 7 home runs with 54 RBI and stole 32 bases on his way to finishing sixth in the NL Rookie of the Year vote.  

Two years later, he made the Phillies regret trading him.  In his breakout season of 1984, Sandberg batted a very impressive .314, hit 19 home runs with 84 RBI to go with 32 stolen bases.  These numbers earned him his first (and only) National League MVP Award. 

After being traded, Sandberg went on to have a Hall-of-Fame career with the Cubs and almost became their manager this offseason

The rest of his career was just as impressive.  His 282 career home runs at the time of his retirement were the most by a second baseman, later surpassed by Jeff Kent.  His career batting average was a solid .285.

On top of these impressive offensive stats, Sandberg also won nine Gold Glove awards for his defense.  His efforts on the field were more than recognized as he played his way to 10 All-Star Games.  In 2005, he received the greatest award of all as he was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

That all being said, it’s time to truly break down this trade and how bad it was for the Phillies.  In a sense, they traded away a player who had been a constant presence in their clubhouse and lineup (Larry Bowa) simply because they would not change their position in contract negotiations. 

In return, they got someone (Ivan DeJesus) who if on a team today, would probably not be more than a pinch runner.  To get this underwhelming player, as well as to just get Bowa off of their hands, the Phillies traded a minor league prospect who they didn’t even give a legitimate chance.  Call me crazy, but I don’t think it’s possible to genuinely assess a player’s talent based on thirteen career games.

In fact, let’s take a look at the word “prospect.”  The dictionary definition states it as, “an apparent probability of advancement, success, profit, etc.”

Would Ryne Sandberg have had a Hall-of-Fame career as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies?

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In the baseball sense, that’s exactly what a prospect is: a young player that the organization feels has a bright future with the team.  Ryne Sandberg, despite scouts’ opinions, was a bright prospect in the Philadelphia system and today, ironically, he is the manager of the team's Triple-A affiliate, the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs. 

Yes, readers, you read correctly.  He is now helping mold the young talent of the very team that refused to give him a long term shot at the major league level.  Had Paul Owens not been so desperate to unload Larry Bowa, perhaps Philadelphia would not have had such a rough period for the rest of the 1980s, and maybe Ryne Sandberg would be wearing a different team’s hat upon his election to the Hall of Fame.

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