There’s never this much buzz around the MLB Winter Meetings. As much as everyone wants it to, because it sure was nice back when half the winter’s player movement packed itself into three or four days, most winters find little left to do when team representatives descend on some Southern city to drink in hotel bars. This week, though, starting today, Monday, Dec. 8, there’s a huge volume of trade rumors and free-agent maneuvering out there. The feeling is that, if Jon Lester would just pick a damn team already, transactions would suddenly cascade down, one upon another, and that we could see some sort of record for impact players moved in just 72 hours.
Maybe we will, but I guarantee you this: We will not see a trade as interesting or compelling as the four-team deal that took place 37 years ago today, in Honolulu, when an owner found a way to reel in his white whale—or rather, black corner outfielder.
It all began with Al Oliver. Brad Corbett, the owner of the 98-64 1977 Texas Rangers, wanted Al Oliver in the worst way. Oliver was the left fielder for the 1977 Pittsburgh Pirates, who had won 96 games in their own right, and had been their center fielder for several years before that. In nine full seasons, the left-handed hitter had batted .296/.335/.454, about 20 percent better than an average hitter, with gap power (sometimes more) and a terrific strikeout rate. His defense had declined in center field to the point that he moved to left in ’77, but he kept hitting. He’d been worth an average of 3.0 WAR in his nine seasons. He was a star, if only a fringe-level star. Corbett wanted to replace Claudell Washington, who had struggled in his rookie season as the Rangers’ left-hitting left fielder, and Oliver was Corbett’s biggest target.
Understandably, the Pirates weren’t eager to part with Oliver. They demanded Bert Blyleven and more in return, and Blyleven, the Rangers’ 26-year-old ace, was too big a part of the pitching staff to let go. Early in the day when they first talked, and among rumors circulating in the hotel lobby, both Corbett and Pirates GM Pete Peterson declared the deal dead.
Later, though, Corbett was engaged in a separate discussion with the New York Mets, and heard that they were smitten with Braves first baseman Willie Montanez. A poor man’s Oliver, Montanez was a left-handed hitter who had entered the league as a center fielder, but had moved to first by his mid-20s. He could hit, and had a little more power potential than Oliver, but he also struck out more. He’d been traded twice in the past few seasons, but had managed to survive the whole 1977 season on the roster of the last-place Atlanta team, even while hitting 20 home runs for the first time in years, and making the All-Star team. Corbett, to his credit, had the vision to dig deeper into the Mets’ interest.
Helpfully, Corbett had a strong working relationship with the Braves. A year earlier, he had traded them star right fielder and former first overall draft pick Jeff Burroughs. Atlanta had sent him a package containing two young arms with some upside left, three players nearer the end of their careers, and $250,000 cash. The trade left some egg on Corbett’s face, as the Rangers got virtually nothing from the likes of Dave May, Roger Moret and Carl Morton, but the monetary relief mattered. Now, Corbett went back to the Braves with one of the pieces Burroughs had returned (Adrian Devine, 26, the Rangers’ relief ace in his only season with them), and tossed in two prospects (or projects), 22-year-old pitcher Tommy Boggs and 20-year-old outfielder Eddie Miller. The trio was enough to pry Montanez loose, so Corbett moved on to find a deal with the Mets that suited his ultimate ends. He had to toss in Tom Grieve and agree to a player to be named later, but he extracted two 27-year-olds from New York, in John Milner and Jon Matlack. The latter, Corbett kept for himself. Matlack was once considered the heir to the Mets’ pitching lineage, which ran Seaver-Ryan-Koosman to that point. He’d had a rough season in 1977, with a career-worst 3.54 FIP and both an ERA and a record that painted an even uglier picture. The skill set was still there, though, and of course, Corbett was going to need a solid arm to help balance out his rotation.
All that was left was to level the ledger with Pittsburgh. Milner, formerly of the Mets, was a first baseman, mostly, though he’d also played some corner outfield. He was a fine, patient hitter, with a modicum of power, but had a few things working against him. He’d never played a full season, never hit more than 23 home runs (and that was in 1973) and never had a higher batting average than .271. The Pirates took him on, though, as a supplement to Blyleven and as Oliver’s replacement in the lineup against right-handed pitchers. They sent back Oliver, plus Nelson Norman, a total lost cause at bat but a shortstop so slick-fielding that he split his age-19 season between Double- and Triple-A. Corbett had his man. The Mets had theirs. The Braves got a chance to cash in a player just exiting his prime for a few young players, to aid in their rebuild from a 101-loss 1977 season.
The Pirates, though. The Pirates made out like bandits. Blyleven is a Hall of Famer, of course. That wasn’t known at the time, but he was considered a true ace, nonetheless. He would throw 281 strong innings for the Pirates over the next two seasons, plus 19 in October 1979—during the Pirates’ World Series title run. Blyleven allowed just two runs and had a 13-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in three appearances that postseason. Milner was a fine platoon player for them, helping keep Willie Stargell fresh. Pittsburgh won the deal, stealing the show from Corbett, even though Oliver was an absolute monster for the next few seasons in Texas.
Imagine Cole Hamels being dealt in the same deal as Matt Kemp, and imagine 10 other players changing places in order to make that deal work out. That’s what we saw 37 years ago. Twelve players ended up being dealt, and only Oliver and eventual PTBNL Ken Henderson were 30 years or older. The deal totally reshaped four teams, even without forcing any of them to reconsider or change their previous direction. I’m sure this trade will one day be topped, but it hasn’t happened yet.Trading Moss: The Quest to get Less Sexy
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