Baseball’s 2020 Winter Meetings, originally scheduled to take place this week in Dallas, Texas, are instead taking place in a series of “virtual” meetings. Along with a great deal of business activity, one of the traditional hallmarks of this time has always been the possibility of big trades and free agent signings taking place.
When the meetings have been held “live”, the simple fact that so many decision-makers were together under one roof made such deals more prevalent. In decades long gone, club executives would often hash out trades over drinks at a hotel bar with player names at times exchanged on cocktail napkins.
Those days are long gone. With the growth of the internet and teleconferencing there have been progressively fewer and fewer big deals done at the Winter Meetings in recent years. It still happens, but not usually as big as in those bygone days, and not as frequently.
The Philadelphia Phillies have been involved in a number of big trades and free agent signings over their long history, whether at the Winter Meetings or at the in-season trade deadline, or at other times. Some of those deals have worked out, many have not.
Making a big trade is a pivotal decision for any organization. So is the decision to turn the page on an era. For instance, the Phillies of recent decades have been faced with the difficult decisions of when and how to move on from the 1980 and 2008 championship cores as well as the popular 1993 NL pennant winners.
What happened in the aftermath of that 1980 team makes for a particularly interesting study when looking back. It is well known that the core group of players, winners of three straight NL East Division crowns from 1976-78, were under pressure to finally win a championship or face being broken up. They did indeed win that first-ever franchise World Series title, but were slowly, inevitably broken up anyway.
But was it inevitable? What if the post-1980 Philadelphia Phillies had stayed pat for the most part? What if most of the trades made by general manager Paul Owens had not been considered or consummated? What if the Phillies simply kept most of that team together as the 1980’s dawned, turning over from that older core group with their own organizational prospects as the decade moved along?
When you consider such possibilities you have to look at who would have stayed, but also who would have never come to town. Three position players who would have taken on key roles as the decade moved along would have been Ryne Sandberg, Julio Franco, and Lonnie Smith.
Greg Luzinski had been the starting left fielder for most of the 1970’s and through that 1980 world championship. Despite a prodigious power bat, ‘The Bull’ was severely limited defensively and was becoming a liability. His best position was clearly Designated Hitter, and that meant a move to the American League was inevitable. His contract was sold to the Chicago White Sox at the end of 1981 spring training and he enjoyed a few final strong seasons as the DH in the Windy City.
Smith had been a 24-year-old rookie in 1980. He could have taken over as the everyday left fielder in 1981, bringing an everyday speed element to the ball club. Instead, Smith would be dealt to Saint Louis and become a 1982 NL All-Star as well as runner-up for the NL MVP that year. He would go on to receive MVP votes in both 1983 and 1989 as well.
Further ramifications would have been that Bo Diaz never arrives from Cleveland in the three-team trade sending Smith to the Cardinals. Also, the Phillies perhaps don’t swing the deal in early 1981 to bring Gary Matthews to town, meaning pitcher Bob Walk would have stayed. The Phillies could still have used Matthews in right with Smith in left, but Bake McBride was still around in 1981 and so it doesn’t seem likely that such a deal would have been considered.
As important as Matthews was to the Phillies from 1981-83 it is hard to imagine that Smith would not have been even more important and dynamic as an everyday force in the lineup. And without the Smith deal on November 20, 1981 bringing in Diaz the Phillies would not have dealt away Bob Boone two weeks later. Boone went on to become a 1983 AL All-Star and win five more Gold Gloves during the 1980’s.
Franco was a young shortstop in the organization, breaking in with 16 games as a 23-year-old in 1982. He was traded away to Cleveland as part of the infamous “five-for-one” deal for Von Hayes in December 1982. Had that deal never gone down the Phillies could have used Franco as a 1983 super-sub, moving between shortstop, second base, and first base. Instead he was the AL Rookie of the Year runner-up with the Indians as their starting shortstop.
That could have led to Franco eventually taking over as the Phillies starting shortstop from Larry Bowa as the slick-fielding veteran aged out of an everyday role. It would have been Bowa from who he took over the position, because the next big deal would never have been made either.
Bowa went to the Chicago Cubs in an infamous January 1982 trade along with a prospect by the name of Ryne Sandberg in exchange for shortstop Ivan De Jesus. This unfortunate trade came largely because Bowa was allegedly proving difficult in contract negotiations with Owens. Former Phillies manager Dallas Green then hoodwinked Owens out of Sandberg as a “throw-in” to complete what was originally proposed as a straight swap of the two shortstops in Bowa and De Jesus.
Sandberg, of course, went on to become a Baseball Hall of Famer. He finished sixth in 1982 NL Rookie of the Year voting as a third baseman, then moved to second base starting in 1983 where he won the first of nine consecutive Gold Glove Awards. Sandberg was the 1984 NL Most Valuable Player, a 10x NL All-Star, and a 7x NL Silver Slugger Award winner. He finished fourth in the NL MVP vote in both 1989 and 1990.
How about a Philadelphia Phillies lineup in the mid-late 1980’s led by Mike Schmidt at either third or first base, Sandberg at second or third, Juan Samuel at second or in center field, Franco at shortstop, with Boone still catching.
Another player the Phillies could have kept was Keith Moreland. Sent to the Cubs in December 1981 with pitchers Dickie Noles and Dan Larson for starter Mike Krukow, Moreland could have been a valuable backup catcher to Boone while also taking depth innings on the outfield corners and at first base.
That would have meant no Krukow, who won 13 games with the 1982 Phillies and would be himself dealt away along with Mark Davis to the Giants for Al Holland and Joe Morgan. No Morgan or Matthews would have meant no “Wheeze Kids” and no ‘Big Red Machine’ reunion in 1983 – but would it have doomed that year’s team to not winning the National League? Not necessarily.
The 1983 Phillies would still have the 40-homer campaign of Schmidt and the big year that the Cards got from Smith. Remaining would be the veteran leadership and strong defense of Pete Rose at first base, Bowa at shortstop, Garry Maddox in center field, and Boone behind the plate. All while breaking in Sandberg, who could have started at second base, with Samuel and Franco joining Moreland and Greg Gross among those coming off the bench.
Not making the Krukow deal, and thus the Morgan-Holland deal with San Francisco, would have meant Davis stayed with the Phillies. The southpaw would enjoy a 15-year big-league career in which he became a 2x NL All-Star 1988-89 and won the 1989 National League Cy Young Award as the San Diego Padres closer.
In September 1982 the Phillies acquired John Denny in a trade for three prospects. None of those was considered nearly at the level of Sandberg, Samuel, or Franco. The team could still have swung the Denny deal to give them a veteran right-hander to go along with the lefty Carlton at the front of their rotation.
The two veterans would have been supported by young arms already present or those coming up through the system. Those would have included Walk, Marty Bystrom, Charles Hudson, and Kevin Gross. Veteran Larry Christenson gave the club a final solid 1982 campaign, while Dick Ruthven did the same in 1983 before being dealt for reliever Willie Hernandez.
One hole in the lineup would have been in right field. McBride opened 1981 still as the starter. But an injury-marred season saw him miss three months, with Gross and Dick Davis taking over from mid-May through mid-August. McBride was dealt away at age 33 after the season, and the position then was juggled in 1982 with George Vukovich getting most of the starts.
The Phillies used stopgap options in right field until Glenn Wilson arrived in a deal that sent Hernandez to Detroit, Wilson then took over in right field from 1985-87. Hernandez would stunningly become the AL MVP and Cy Young winner with the Tigers 1984 World Series championship team in the first of what were three straight American League All-Star appearances.
Wilson handled right field well for the Phillies, especially defensively where he showed off a cannon right arm. However, this was a position where the club could have spent free agent money on a power bat as early as 1982. Or perhaps they could have swung the Matthews deal at a later time. Had they been successful, perhaps the Phillies rather than the Tigers would have benefited from Hernandez’ late-career blossom.
Owens seemed to clearly favor veteran players. Perhaps one of the biggest moves that hurt the Phillies during the 1980’s was allowing Green to leave for Chicago following the 1981 season. Green took with him coaches and talent evaluators in Lee Elia, Gordon Goldsberry, and John Vukovich and would later swipe Sandberg, Moreland, and others from Owens in trades.
Had the 58-year-old Owens been willing to move into an advisory position, allowing the 47-year-old Green to take the executive VP and general manager role given him by the Cubs, the history of the Phillies would likely have been much different. The Phillies former scouting director, Green knew the talent in the farm system much more intimately. He both valued and appreciated the potential in that talent more than did Owens.
I am not one to often play the “what if?” game. And the ‘Wheeze Kids’ pennant-winning season was certainly rewarding and interesting. But I’ve always wondered how the Phillies would have performed throughout the decade had a still superstar-caliber Schmidt been joined by emerging superstar Sandberg and star-caliber youngsters like Smith and Franco. Could a longer-term contender have been built around that group, rather than the short-term rush experienced in 1983?
Change is inevitable in all professional sports organizations. However, there is much to be said for stability as well. During the 1970’s the Phillies built an enviable organization culminating in a 1980 World Series championship. They were able to scratch out contention for a few more years through veteran trades.
However, had they better followed their own example of a decade earlier, simply bringing their best prospects to the big-leagues to take over regular roles, the Phillies might have contended all the way through the 1980’s and beyond.