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The Ryne Sandberg Trade: As Bad As You've Always Heard

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If you've been a Phillies fan for any length of time at all, this is already a familiar story to you. In 1976, the Phillies began a glorious eight-season run in which they'd win one World Series, two pennants, and five-and-a-half division titles. By 1981, their core was aging, but the farm system remained strong, and there remained hope for continued success. After that season, they decided to spend some future assets to get immediate major league help. They traded a SS prospect named Ryne Sandberg, along with longtime starting SS Larry Bowa (with whom they were embroiled in a contract dispute), to the Cubs, whose new GM was former Phillies manager Dallas Green. In return, they got Chicago's starting SS, Ivan DeJesus. The Cubs moved Sandberg to 2B and he immediately won the starting job for the big club. Then he won the NL MVP in 1984. He remained a premier 2B for another decade and was eventually inducted into the Hall of Fame. Meanwhile, the Phillies declined and their developmental pipeline ran dry. They'd endure 6 last-place finishes and 13 losing seasons out of 14 from 1987-2000.

So it goes. Everyone in Philadelphia, from the dumbest talk-radio caller on up, agrees that this was a disaster of a trade. Nobody ever tries to justify it, and rightfully so. But occasionally you do hear people attribute this disaster partly to bad luck. "Hindsight is 20/20. Nobody could have known that Sandberg would be so good." I've heard it said that the Cubs actually wanted Luis Aguayo -- that the Phils negotiated them down to Sandberg because they reasonably thought he wasn't as good. Some also claim that the Phils had no choice but to trade Sandberg since he couldn't stay at SS and was blocked at both 2B (by Juan Samuel) and 3B (by Mike Schmidt).

Putting conventional wisdom into perspective is often beneficial for civilization, but here, it's wrong. The Sandberg trade really was every bit as bad as most people think it was. Not because the Phillies should have known that he'd develop into a Hall of Famer. But because the potential risks and benefits were so clearly out of whack that they assumed the responsibility for anything bad that could have resulted. Three points below the jump:

1. Sandberg was a REALLY good prospect in 1982.

Don't believe anyone who tells you that Sandberg was only a middling prospect who surprised everyone with his major league success. His minor league stats make it clear everyone should have seen him as a stud.

The Phillies drafted Sandberg in the 20th round of the 1978 draft, out of high school in Spokane, Washington. He was a two-sport athlete who had signed a letter of intent to play QB at Washington State. The Phillies persuaded him to sign and he gave up football.

In his first full season in the minors (1979), he was assigned to Spartanburg (the predecessor of the Lakewood Blue Claws). He struggled a bit, but he was only 19 years old.

In 1980, he was promoted to Reading, and he tore up the Eastern League at the age of 20. His stats: 129 G, 581 PA, 490 AB, 152 H, 21 2B, 12 3B, 11 HR, 32 SB, 73 BB, 72 K. He placed third in the league in BA (.310), sixth in OBP (.403), and tenth in SLG (.469) and was the third-youngest player in the top ten in OPS -- as a shortstop.

I don't think Baseball America had prospect rankings back in 1980 -- they certainly aren't available online. But if they did, Sandberg should have been pretty high on the list. And he did nothing to dispel that after moving up to AAA Oklahoma City in 1981. While his numbers were a bit less impressive (133 G, 579 PA, 519 AB, 152 H, 17 2B, 9 HR, 32 SB, 48 BB, 94 K, .293/.352/.397), they were still solid and he was only 21. He was 45th in the league in OPS, and of the 44 players ahead of him, only four were 21 and three were 22.

Even though there was apparently a consensus that Sandberg wouldn't be able to stay at SS in the majors, any shortstop who was able to put up offensive stats like that should have been seen as an absolute blue-chipper.

2. Sandberg was not blocked.

Despite what you may have heard, Sandberg wasn't blocked in 1981, either by Schmidt or by Samuel. Explaining why is a little bit complicated, though. Samuel himself (now the Phillies' 3B coach) weighed in with one possible explanation, in an article that schmenkman fanshotted a few days ago. While reminiscing about his days as a Phillies farmhand, Samuel recalled:

From what I understand, the idea was that they wanted an infield of Mike Schmidt at first, Sandberg at third, [Julio] Franco at short and I was going to be the second baseman. That was the idea that was kicked around by some of the coaches and front-office personnel. It obviously did not happen.

If this is true, then obviously the Phillies screwed up mightily by deciding not to put this plan into action. I tend to doubt Samuel's recollections, though, basically because in 1981, Samuel wasn't that good of a prospect yet. He'd played in Spartanburg that year at age 20 and posted a .693 OPS. It wasn't until 1982, after Sandberg left, that Samuel broke out. So I doubt that the Phillies were already making elaborate plans in 1981 that included Sammy.

Still, his statement shows that the Phillies could have moved Schmidt to 1B if they really had to. Schmidt was great in 1981 (arguably it was his best year ever) but he was getting a little older and the Phillies had room at 1B, which was manned by a 40-year-old Pete Rose. In any event, they didn't have to move Schmidt -- Samuel hadn't broken out yet, so they could have just moved Sandberg to 2B and left it at that.

The real reason why they didn't wasn't because of Samuel, but because of Manny Trillo. Basically, the Phillies thought they had 2B covered with Trillo, so when they decided to dump Bowa, they said to themselves, "Hey we have two 2B and no SS. Let's trade our 2B prospect for a SS!" But that was foolish. Trillo was good, but he wasn't that good, and he was 30. But the Phillies decided that their "window" was closing, so they stuck with their 30-year-old 2B and their 40-year-old 1B, and traded their 22-year-old stud prospect. They'd eventually trade Trillo to Cleveland one season later, along with Franco (another SS prospect), for Von Hayes.

There were so many better ways for the Phils to solve their positional logjam if they'd just used a little creativity. For instance: (1) Trading Trillo for the shortstop. (2) Letting Sandberg play shortstop temporarily until a better solution emerged. (3) Giving a slightly premature promotion to SS Franco, who'd just posted a .754 OPS at Reading at age 22. (4) Giving in to Bowa's contract demands. (5) Trading Rose and playing Sandberg or Schmidt at 1B temporarily. "Solving" it the way they did was inexcusable, hindsight or no hindsight.

3. Ivan DeJesus was a terrible baseball player.

This is the real kicker. Wow, was DeJesus ever terrible. The Phillies basically traded Sandberg for nothing.

According to fWAR, DeJesus actually had two pretty decent seasons, but they were in 1977 and 1978. But by the time of the trade, DeJesus was coming off three seasons (at ages 26, 27, and 28) in which he'd averaged 0.5 fWAR/162 G. He could neither hit nor field. His wRC+ was in the 70s, and in 1981, it had hit rock bottom at 44 (!) -- that's a triple slash of .194/.276/.233 in 460 PAs. His TZ (which admittedly needs to be taken with a grain of salt for seasons this far back) was a combined -23. He was like the prequel to Yuniesky Betancourt.

DeJesus would remain the Phillies' starting SS for the next three years. Very predictably, his wRC+ remained in the 70s and his TZ remained negative in all three of those years. He totaled 2.4 fWAR in 463 games. And his presence as a fixture in the lineup made Bill Giles & co. feel comfortable including Franco (who'd OPS .856 in 1982 at age 23 in AAA) in the Von Hayes trade. Hayes was a good player who was unfairly maligned by the fans during his time here, but that trade was also a disaster, as Franco would amass 12.6 fWAR over the next five seasons as the Indians' starting SS. (He later became a second baseman and peaked at 6.4 fWAR for the Rangers in 1991, when he won the AL batting title.)

Maybe the Phillies couldn't have known that Ryne Sandberg would be a Hall of Famer, but they had every reason to know that Ivan DeJesus would be a bum. And nobody forced their hand to trade Sandberg -- they just gave him away needlessly. They deserved exactly what they got as a result.

* * * *

In a way, analyzing the Sandberg trade is comforting, just because it was so singularly dumb of a mistake that it seems almost impossible to repeat (or at least I hope so). Apart from the Ferguson Jenkins catastrophe, no other trade in modern Phillies history is even close to being this terrible. Not the Franco trade: Hayes was a good young talent, albeit was less valuable than Franco for positional reasons. Not the Freddy Garcia trade: Garcia was good until 2006, at least. Not the Hunter Pence trade either: I'm very critical of it, but Pence is at least a good player in his prime.

Still, "avoiding decisions as bad as the Ryne Sandberg trade" isn't really an acceptable minimum standard for a GM to shoot for. I think the right lessons to draw here are: (1) If your team's aging, that's a good time to hold onto your prospects, not trade them. (2) If a top prospect seems positionally blocked, don't overreact -- with a little patience and creativity, you might still be able to find room for him. (3) Don't trade for guys who suck, just because they have a familiar name or play a position of need. At times in recent years, the Phillies have behaved as if they never learned these lessons despite their past experiences. Hopefully they'll remember them going forward.