Breaking Down the 1990 Blue Jays-Padres Blockbuster Trade

Analysis

In the wake of the recent Blue Jays’ blockbuster trades with the Miami Marlins and the New York Mets, the latter of which we covered, there have been a lot of comparisons made to the historic 1990 swap with the San Diego Padres. In that move, the Blue Jays acquired Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter in exchange for Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez and, in the process, altered the course of the franchise. Unlike this offseason’s moves, which effectively featured established major leaguers being swapped for prospects, the 1990 winter meetings blockbuster was comprised only of major league talent.

According to Stephen Brunt, in his book, Diamond Dreams: 20 Years of Blue Jays Baseball, San Diego GM Joe McIlvaine originally proposed a straight swap of Carter for McGriff, and it was Pat Gillick who astutely pushed to expand the deal to include Alomar and Fernandez. The Blue Jays had depth at first base with John Olerud waiting in the wings, and needed a big bat in the outfield to replace George Bell. While Fernandez was a fan favourite and productive shortstop, the trade would allow Manny Lee to shift back to his natural position on the left side of the infield. In San Diego, the Padres had lost first baseman Jack Clark and needed a replacement. Similarly, shortstop Garry Templeton was near the end of his career and Fernandez fit the bill.

You’d have a hard time finding a Blue Jays fan who regrets the trade, given the subsequent World Series wins in 1992-93 and Alomar’s Hall of Fame career that really took off in Toronto. Almost unanimously, the Blue Jays won the trade, both in terms of team results and individual player performances. However, we now have the tools and data necessary to determine exactly how much value each team derived from the historic trade.

When evaluating this, or any other trade, there are three tenets upon which we’ll rely:

  1. While it’s convenient to think of trades as being swaps of players, it is actually contracts that are being exchanged. This properly accounts for the years of player control a team is acquiring, along with the benefits (performance, potential future compensation should that player leave as a free agent at the end of his contract, etc.) and costs (salary) associated with the contract. For example, Toronto acquired two years of team control of Joe Carter in the initial trade. While he subsequently re-signed with Toronto following the 1992 season, we don’t factor in the value he contributed beyond 1992. Toronto paid for Carter’s post-1992 performance via a new contract at market rate.
  2. It takes many years for us to be able to properly evaluate the true outcome of a trade, especially when young players or prospects are involved. For example, while most of the player contracts involved in this deal expired by 1998, Joe Lawrence, whom Toronto drafted as compensation for Roberto Alomar departing as a free agent, did not debut until 2002, and theoretically would have been under team control through 2008. As you can see, it can take more than a decade for the true effect of a trade to be properly measured.
  3. As written previously, we’ll use Baseball Reference’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR) as the means for evaluating player performance. While not perfect, it has the advantages of being a singular measure of value, one that takes into account such elements as league-wide scoring levels and park factors in the context of an individual player’s performance.

Let’s then start by reviewing what each team acquired, both in the original 1990 trade, as well as subsequent transactions involving the player contracts involved. A comprehensive list of transactions is in order:

Toronto Blue Jays:

  • December 5, 1990: Acquired 2B Roberto Alomar and OF Joe Carter from San Diego in exchange for SS Tony Fernandez and 1B Fred McGriff
  • October 30, 1992: Joe Carter granted Free Agency (re-signed with Toronto Blue Jays)
  • October 30, 1995: Roberto Alomar granted Free Agency (signed with Baltimore Orioles)
  • June 4, 1996: Drafted 2B Joe Lawrence in the 1st round (16th pick) of the 1996 amateur draft (compensation for losing Alomar)
  • June 4, 1996: Drafted OF Pete Tucci in the 1st round (31st pick) f the 1996 amateur draft (compensation for losing Alomar)
San Diego Padres:
  • December 5, 1990: Acquired SS Tony Fernandez and 1B Fred McGriff from Toronto in exchange for 2B Roberto Alomar and OF Joe Carter
  • October 26, 1992: Acquired OF D.J. Dozier, RHP Wally Whitehurst and a player to be named later from New York Mets in exchange for SS Tony Fernandez
  • July 18, 1993: Acquired OF Vince Moore, RHP Donnie Elliott and OF Melvin Nieves from Atlanta in exchange for 1B Fred McGriff
  • March 22, 1996: Acquired RHP Cade Gaspar, RHP Sean Bergman and OF Todd Steverson from Detroit in exchange for C Raul Casanova, RHP Richie Lewis and OF Melvin Nieves
  • January 14, 1998: Acquired OF James Mouton from Houston in exchange for RHP Sean Bergman

As you can see, while the original trade involved just four players, subsequent transactions have greatly widened the scope of performance that needs to be considered when evaluating the trade over the long term.

 

Toronto Blue Jays: Value From Trade (WAR)

19911992199319941995199619971998TOTAL
TOTAL8.98.65.82.02.40.00.00.026.6
Roberto Alomar4.46.45.82.02.421.0
Joe Lawrence*(1.1)*
Pete Tucci**0.0
Joe Carter4.52.26.7

* Joe Lawrence played in only one MLB season, accumulating negative 1.1 WAR in 55 games for Toronto in 2002
** Pete Tucci never reached the major leagues

 

San Diego Padres: Value From Trade (WAR)

19911992199319941995199619971998TOTAL
TOTAL5.05.93.11.7(1.1)0.4(0.8)(1.0)13.2
Tony Fernandez1.91.02.9
D.J. Dozier*
Wally Whitehurst2.60.73.3
Sean Bergman0.4(0.8)(0.4)
James Mouton(1.0)(1.0)
Todd Steverson0.00.0
Fred McGriff3.14.90.88.8
Vince Moore**0.0
Donnie Elliott1.00.11.1
Melvin Nieves(0.3)0.0(1.2)(1.5)

* D.J. Dozier never played for San Diego
** Vince Moore never reached the major leagues

In total, Toronto received 26.6 wins above replacement (WAR), while San Diego got just 13.2 WAR, or roughly half the value, as a result of the landmark 1990 trade. If we expand our analysis to factor in major league salaries paid, we see that Toronto not only benefited from twice the value in player performance, but they did so more cost effectively than San Diego, paying $1.0M per win, while San Diego spent $1.4M per win.

WARSalary$ / Win
Toronto26.627.8M1.0M
San Diego13.218.1M1.4M

All of which is to say, as Toronto fans believe, the Blue Jays clearly won the 1990 trade with San Diego. Let’s hope the trades of the 2012 offseason produce similar results. Although, given the number of young prospects included in the deals, as well as Alex Anthopoulos’ willingness to make deals, it may take another twenty years before we’ll know definitively. In the meantime, Blue Jays fans would be happy with another pair of championships.

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Comments
11 Responses to “Breaking Down the 1990 Blue Jays-Padres Blockbuster Trade”
  1. Scott says:

    Great breakdown. Brings me to my point of how people were so quick to judge the RA Dickey deal. Whether you think we gave up too much or paid a fair price, it’s impossible to make an informed conclusion the day of the trade! All I know is that our current roster (starting rotation specifically) got much better and that works for me right now!

  2. Alan says:

    Nice work guys! Though I might say that the Blue Jays got some Joe Carter value in 1993, even though it was a new contract, Carter may not have signed if he hadn’t won a World Series the year before. But that makes the comparison even more complicated and not purely mathematical-based. It’s a solid comparison. Have others compared historical trades this way?

    • Kieran Roy says:

      Alan – I think Carter’s contributions beyond those of his contract-controlled period must be excluded, given that he had the opportunity to sign with another team. The fact that he chose Toronto was not guaranteed. In fact, looking back, I am reminded just how many players left after ’92, despite the championship.

      Gone were Dave Winfield, Kelly Gruber, Candy Maldonado, Manny Lee, Jack Morris, Jimmy Key, Dave Stieb, David Cone and Tom Henke. The two teams were far from identical.

      I think the takeaway is that getting a true sense of the impact of a trade takes many years, especially when young players are involved, and when subsequent trades extend the through-line of the original transaction.

  3. Shrike says:

    Just as an aside, before the trade, the Jays had been considering putting John Olerud in left field

  4. Tyler says:

    Say in 20 years that there is an evaluation that evaluates the RA Dickey trade. Would you consider the extension that Dickey signed in the analysis? Its an interesting question since Toronto probably would never have made the trade without the extension signed. But having said that, we only really traded for one year of control of Dickey.

    • Kieran Roy says:

      Tyler,

      In this case, I’m apt to say the extension *should* be considered, to the effect that Toronto made the trade contingent on its ability to lock in Dickey beyond the one year left on his contract.

      I know from his writing that Keith Law holds the opposite opinion. He’s basing his position on the fact that the Mets didn’t have this asset to trade (the extension contract) so in some senses, the inputs and outputs of the trade don’t match up as one would normally expect.

  5. Jack says:

    Great template for trade evaluation. Nice work.

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