Shortly after former Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke didn't get traded to the Washington Nationals on Sunday, I wrote a story about the Denny McLain trade back in 1970 and suggested that had Greinke come to Washington, things would have turned out just as bad for the Nationals as it did for the Senators some 40 years earlier.
But reader "Mike K" left a comment on that story yesterday and reminded me that the trade-that-almost-was was less like the Denny Mclain for everyone-good-on-the-Senators-roster and more like a trade from the dark days of the Nationals' former persona.
Back when they were still the Montreal Expos.
Now, I know that some of you will say that this trade occurred because Bud Selig and Major League Baseball—then the owners of the team—told General Manager Omar Minaya to begin the process of contracting the team. The Expos were to just fade away into baseball history along with the Minnesota Twins.
While that is certainly true, the fact is that the Expos were actually in a pennant race in the summer of 2002 and traded three prospects and a major leaguer to the Cleveland Indians for Bartolo Colon. At the time, Colon was 29 and had averaged 15 wins per season since the late '90s. Halfway through the 2002 season, Colon was 10-4 with a 2.55 ERA and seemed headed for the Cy Young Award.
But he never got the chance. He was traded in late June to Montreal for first baseman Lee Stevens, second baseman Brandon Phillips, outfielder Grady Sizemore and pitcher Cliff Lee.
Though Stevens had averaged 21 homers and 75 RBI over the previous seven seasons, he was 34 and was batting just .190 at the time of the trade. he retired after the 2002 season.
It's the other three that make you shake your head.
Brandon Phillips was just 21 when he was traded to Cleveland. He had averaged .286-9-62 with 28 stolen bases in three minor league seasons. He was traded to the Reds in 2006 and has since averaged .275-23-87, won two Gold Gloves and was an All Star last season.
Grady Sizemore was even younger, just 19 when the trade occurred. In three seasons, Sizemore averaged .284-5-60 with a .383 on-base percentage in the Expos farm system. He became a major league regular in 2005 and has since then averaged .276-28-85 with 28 steals and a .368 on-base percent. Like Phillips, Sizemore has won two Gold Gloves and has gone to the All Star game.
Cliff Lee averaged 6-4, 3.89 in two seasons in the Expos minor league system. He averaged 11 strikeouts per nine innings and looked like a future All Star. He joined Cleveland in 2004 and has since averaged 16-9, 3.88 for the Indians, Phillies, Mariners and Rangers, is an All Star and won the Cy Young Award in 2008.
In his half-season with Montreal, Colon went 10-4 with a 3.31 ERA. He was traded to the Chicago White Sox that winter for Rocky Biddle, Jeff Liefer and Orlando Hernandez.
Over the next three seasons, he continued to pitch well, averaging 18-11, 4.09 for the White Sox and Angels. By 2006, injuries took their toll and Colon has won just 14 games over his last four years.
There may have been more lopsided trades in major league history, but I sure can't think of them at the moment. For a total of 10 major league wins, the Expos gave up four Gold Gloves, a Cy Young Award and five All-Star appearances.
So replace Cliff Lee with Jordan Zimmermann. Remove Brandon Phillips and insert Danny Espinosa. Forget Grady Sizemore; now it's Drew Storen. In three or four years, Zack Greinke will be on the downside of his career and those three current Nationals will be solid major league players.
Will they be as good as those three prospects traded by the Expos? It's hard to tell, but certainly each has the potential to be very bit as good. But really, that's not the point. Why trade away so much talent for so much uncertainty?
With Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips and Grady Sizemore, this first chapter of Washington Nationals' history would have been far different.
Let's make sure that the second chapter isn't just a rewrite of the first. Keep the kids, Mike. Keep the kids.