Revisiting best deals of past 40 years

Revisiting best deals of past 40 years

There is one kind of deal every general manager heading to the Winter Meetings this week in Indianapolis wants to make, and that's the best one possible.


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These decision-makers come from all corners of the Major League Baseball world, and they are there to talk trades, contemplate free-agent signings -- and, if it presents itself, make the very best deal for the organization, as the saying goes.

But, let's face it, in a larger sense very few can really make the best trade, or the best signing for that team, because there is a high bar already set for each of the 30 Major League teams. Whether they've been made at the Winter Meetings or during the season, every team has a move that stands out as its best trade or best signing.

So, with the engines revving in Indy, it's a question worth asking about each club:

What's this team's best trade? What's that team's best free-agent signing?

Big questions.

To get answers -- not necessarily the answers, mind you, just a few good answers -- MLB.com's reporters hit up someone from each National League and American League club, from GMs and scouts to historians and other experts, about their clubs, posing those two questions. While it cut out decades of deals from Babe Ruth going to the Yankees to Lou Brock going to the Cardinals, the timeframe for this study of the best deals was set at 1969, in part because of the divisional play milestone and in part because it's close to the advent of free agency as well.

What came out of the highly unscientific query came some of the bigger deals in recent memory, some deals whose significance perhaps only the true fans of a team can completely understand, and some that paint a portrait about how a team has gone about its business, i.e. mostly through drafts and trades, or using free agency at will. NOTE: Each team's best moves can be viewed in American League and National League capsules.

Granted, for some who make those calls, it's a subject better left for others to decide, for one GM's best might be another's worst.

"You know, I've always shied away from answering those kinds of questions," White Sox GM Kenny Williams said. "They are disrespectful to the other general manager involved. I've just not done that when I've been asked.

"People make trades for their own reasons. It could be financial or they really believe in a deal. I just think, for me or anyone else, to say, 'This was my best one,' you don't know what those other guys had to do at a given time."

Fair enough, but this is about the best, no disrespect to the other side involved. And in the search for the best moves, interesting portraits of teams, players and eras emerged.

A few nuggets unearthed:

Nolan Ryan rules. Not only did Ryan stand out as a best move for three teams -- trade for the Angels, signing for the Astros and Rangers -- but he has had his number retired by all three. (That's 30 for the Angels and 34 for the Astros and Rangers, by the way.) He also was the first million-dollar-per-season player, so he had to deliver the goods. He did. Thrice.

Best of all, he came away with the rarity of all rarities: three former teams who all loved him even after he left.

"Nolan became a free agent early in [John] McMullen's ownership and Dick Moss was Nolan's agent and Moss went to McMullen and impressed him with the idea of creating the first million-dollar player," then-Astros GM Tal Smith said. "It sort of shocked the industry what we gave up, but Nolan wanted to come back to Houston."

Eight years later, one of the most dramatic free-agent signings at a Winter Meetings was in 1988 in Atlanta when the Rangers signed Ryan. Tom Grieve, who was the general manager at the time, said signing Ryan gave the Rangers the legitimacy and respect that it sorely lacked.

"Absolutely," Grieve said. "I've said that many times. I felt like we were making progress. I was proud to be a part of the franchise, I felt we were headed in the right direction and we had good people working for us. But signing Nolan gave us respect and legitimacy in the eyes of our fans and fans across baseball. He made us a legitimate baseball franchise."

Roberto Alomar and Pedro Martinez aren't too shabby, either. Alomar showed up with three teams as well, starting with a blockbuster as the Blue Jays took him and Joe Carter to back-to-back World Series after the Fred McGriff-Tony Fernandez trade with the Padres. Alomar then became a best free agent for the Orioles and the Indians after that for the trifecta. Martinez became a best trade with his first, from the Dodgers to the Expos for Delino DeShields, and then again with his second, going to the Red Sox for Carl Pavano and Tony Armas Jr.


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First impressions are the best impressions. Be it a trade or a free-agent signing, that first year can make you an all-timer. Ask Kirk Gibson, with the Dodgers in 1988. Or how about Manny Ramirez with them in 2008? There's also Jack Morris with the Twins in 1991, Frank Thomas with the A's in 2006, Andre Dawson with the Cubs in 1987 and one of the all-time great first-year wonders: Willie Hernandez of the 1984 Tigers. He won the American League Cy Young and MVP awards after being traded, rather anonymously it should be added, to Detroit on March 24 of that year.

Sorry, Kenny, but these were some of the best deals. Some of the great lopsided deals of all time are listed among the selections, with Jeff Bagwell going to the Astros for reliever Larry Andersen, McGriff going to the Braves for a package led by Melvin Nieves, and Ryne Sandberg a throw-in for the big-shortstop swap of Larry Bowa for Ivan DeJesus.

But some interesting and less well-known trades emerged from the query, as well. Case in point: The Royals acquiring Amos Otis, who would become a fixture in center field for years of playoff teams, from the then-World Series champion Mets for third baseman Joe Foy, who was out of the Majors within two years. In fact, the Royals also got a right-hander named Bob Johnson, who was involved in the deal for shortstop Freddy Patek, another benefit of the Otis deal.

"That's got to go down in baseball history as one of the better trades," longtime Royals scout Art Stewart said.

We might have a tie for best free-agent signing ever, and they happened within two days of each other. Barry Bonds signed with his hometown Giants for six years and $43.75 million on Dec. 8, 1992. He transformed a franchise. Greg Maddux moved on from the Cubs and signed with the Braves for five years and $28 million on Dec. 9, 1992. He transformed a franchise. Take your pick, either one brought a huge talent to an organization and a lot of history ensued. Perhaps you might color the Braves' John Schuerholz a little biased, or perhaps perfectly honest.

"There are some that have suggested that Maddux was the best free-agent signing ever. He certainly made life easier for us when he was here," Schuerholz said.

That's all that's being made here: suggestions about the best deals ever, perhaps giving the slight suggestion that one of these will be supplanted this week in Indianapolis.

Whether that happens or not, the Winter Meetings certainly provide the most dramatic backdrop for the moves that make baseball shake every year, even if those moves don't always come to fruition in the four-day confab.

But you can shift an organization's future in the span of one December, the way they did it in Arizona with Luis Gonzalez and Randy Johnson becoming D-backs in 1998. Once Big Unit was in the fold, the D-backs suddenly went from awkward sophomores to varsity playoff contenders.

"It was a huge deal," then-GM Joe Garagiola said of that press conference in December 1998. "I remember literally thinking, 'We got him. We signed Randy Johnson.' It was a tremendous coup. Essentially what he said that day was with the moves this team has made it can win and I want to be with a team that can win."

That transformation may start and end in the Winter Meetings. It might not come to fruition until weeks or months later. But the next best thing might very well might start in Indianapolis this week.

In the simple but wise words of Gene Bennett, a scout and senior special assistant to the GM who has been with the Reds for 58 years: "A lot of trades start at the Winter Meetings but don't get done until later."

Even the best ones.

John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.