Continuing with the theme of whether bad trades made in assembling the 1979 team crippled the club in the mid-80s.
The subject of today’s post is possibly the worst trade made to acquire a player that played on the 1979 Pirates, the one that brought in Phil Garner.
On March 15, 1977 the Pirates sent Tony Armas, Doug Bair, Dave Giusti, Rick Langford, Doc Medich, and Mitchell Page to the A’s for Chris Batton, Garner and Tommy Helms. (The trade that brought Medich to Pittsburgh was a downright terrible trade for the Bucs. That’s a different post altogether.)
Long time Bucco third sacker Richie Hebner fled across the state to play first for the Phillies. Manager Chuck Tanner, who himself had been acquired by the Pirates from Oakland for Manny Sanguillen and $100,000 in November of 1976, wanted Garner. Tanner was familiar with Garner’s tough nose style. “Scrap Iron” was originally a first round selection of the A’s out of Tennessee and spent his first two full years playing second. With Hebner gone, Garner became the Pirates primary third baseman in 1977. He moved to second base after second baseman Rennie Stennett broke his leg on August 21, an injury from which he never fully recovered. Future skipper Ken Macha played most of rest of 1977 at third. Garner and Stennett split time at second in 1978, with Dale Berra manning third when Garner was playing second. Stennett hit poorly in 1978 and was hitting just .236 in 1979 when the Pirates acquired Bill Madlock. With that trade, Garner moved to second full time. Down the stretch in 1981, the Pirates moved Garner to Houston, essentially in exchange for Johnny Ray.
Helms was basically done, going 0-12 in 1977 for the Pirates. He was released by the Pirates in June and picked up by the Red Sox. He hit a respectable .271 for them in limited duty and was released by Boston the following spring.
Batton never played in the Show for the Bucs.
Armas was a power prospect signed by the Pirates as a free agent out of Venezuela. He had a pretty good five year peak between 1980 and 1984, leading the AL in home runs twice. But he rarely walked, hit for a low average and struck out a lot. Leg injuries robbed him of some of his power and helped curtail his career.
Bair had one very good year and that came in 1978 as a member of the Reds. He pitched in 45 games for Oakland in 1977 and then was part of the wacky trade/non-trade of Vida Blue. After 1977 the Reds agreed to send slugging 1B prospect Dave Revering and $1.75 million to Oakland for Blue. Bowie Kuhn stepped in and voided the deal due to the (at the time) enormous amount of money involved. A few months later, the A’s did get Revering and cash for Bair.
Giusti was originally signed by the Colt 45s, who used him primarily as a starter. He won a career high 15 games in 1966. Houston traded to St. Louis after 1968. Three days later, the Cards lost him to the Padres in the expansion draft and then reacquired him six weeks later. Giusti had been the Pirates closer since a trade from St. Louis after the 1969 season brought him to the Steel City. He remains among the Pirates All-Time leaders in saves with 133. The Pirates went to a closer by committee in 1976 with Giusti, Bob Moose and Kent Tekulve each finishing 20 or more games. But the Buccos had swapped Richie Zisk and Silvio Martinez to the ChiSox for Goose Gossage and reliever Terry Forster, making the aging Giusti expendable. Gossage, who had started in Chicago in 1976, would become the Pirates closer in 1977, his lone season in Pittsburgh. Giusti pitched well in 40 games for the A’s in 1977, contributing a sub 3.00 ERA. The Cubs, locked in a dead heat with the Phillies, acquired him from Oakland for cash early in August. The Cubs went 20-40 the final two plus months of the season and finished 20 games back. Giusti pitched well in August for the Cubs, but the team fell out of contention and Giusti got slammed in September, allowing 13 earned runs in 8 innings pitched. He never pitched in the Majors again.
Langford was an amateur free agent signee of the Pirates in 1973. He pitched impressively in all stops and climbed the ladder quickly, making his ML debut in 1976 after going 9-5 at AAA Charleston. He immediately went into the A’s rotation in 1977 and was hit hard, dropping 19 games. He struggled the next two years but found great success when Billy Martin took over in Oakland in 1980. Langford won 19 games and lost 12. He completed a league leading 28 of his starts in 1980 after completing just 24 in the previous three years combined. He led the league in complete games and won 12 contests in the strike shortened season in 1981. Arm trouble set in and the soft tosser never recovered, going just 4-19 in his final four seasons.
I can’t write or think about Medich without thinking of Willie Randolph. In December 1975, the Bucs traded Randolph, Ken Brett and Dock Ellis to the Yanks for Medich. Bad trade. He was a 30th round pick of the Bombers in 1970, hailing from Aliquippa, PA – the birthplace of Pistol Pete Maravich. Medich won 33 games in his first two years in Pinstripes. After falling to a 16-16 record in 1975, the Yanks traded him. In his only season in Pittsburgh, Medich was a pedestrian 8-11 with a league average ERA. He had a couple of good years in Texas toward the end of his career, but his three best years were the three he spent in NY. Overall, his career winning percentage is better than Nolan Ryan’s. He came about his nickname honestly as he earned a medical degree from Pitt during off seasons from baseball and later practiced sports medicine.
Like Medich, Page began his career quickly and then fizzled out. Page was runner up to Eddie Murray for rookie of the year in 1977, finishing fourth in the AL in OPS and second in steals while hitting better than .300. He also had the most errors of any AL OF. He never duplicated the season he had as a rookie, though 1978 was solid. He earned 50 of his 70 career win shares in his first two seasons. Page has worked as an ML coach in recent years.
Of the trades examined so far, this one by far is the toughest one to justify. I can’t call this a good trade. But it is not nearly as bad as the trade that brought Medich to Pittsburgh in the first place. The following table has the Win Shares for the various players involved in the trade from 1977, the first year after the trade, to 1990, when the last active player from this trade last appeared in the Show. I’m removing Helms and his one Win Share from 1977 for the sake of space.
This is a tough trade to justify. Again, not a terrible trade. But, on paper I think the Pirates gave up too much to get Garner. Part of me wonders what would’ve happened if the Galbreaths had anted up and paid Hebner instead of letting him walk. What if Stennett hadn’t broken his leg? What if the Bucs never acquired Madlock in June 1979? Really, if somebody told me the Pirates would win the World Series in 2009 and then five years later go into a massive three year funk, I would be happy. Winning a World Series does that to you (or so I remember). So, yep, the Pirates overpaid for Garner, but I say it was worth it. Having Langford in the rotation in the early 1980s would’ve been great. Having Armas’ bat in left when Bill Robinson and John Milner went downhill would’ve been nice.
One more thing to look at. Bill James in his most recent Historical Baseball Abstract makes the point that the Pirates went three decades straight with a Top 100 second baseman playing for them. Bill Mazeroski gave way to Dave Cash. Cash was traded to make space for the quick rising Stennett. When he was injured, Garner moved over to 2B. The Bucs got Ray from Houston for Garner and he stayed until 1987 when he was foolishly sent to California. Here’s a Win Share table comparing the production from Garner and Ray in Pittsburgh to Armas’ career. Somewhat surprisingly, the Buccos second baseman out-produced Armas for his career. In 1981 Garner and Ray combined for 9 Win Shares. I’m giving the Pirates seven of them. Ray earned 14 Win Shares in 1987 and I’m crediting Pittsburgh with seven of them. Why am I looking at this? It’s simple: I like Johnny Ray.