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Trade Tirade: Cubs Help A Dynasty

It's time to jump in the wayback machine, and look at a pair of 40-year-old trades.

The Oakland Coliseum as it appeared before "Mt. Davis" was built in the outfield
The Oakland Coliseum as it appeared before "Mt. Davis" was built in the outfield
Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images

For this assessment of historical Cubs trades, let's head back to the early 1970s.

While I was only six when the 1971 season ended, I played many hours of Sports Illustrated Baseball, based on the 1971 season. I didn't play games with the Athletics that much, but I once had Vida Blue pitch an eight-walk no-hitter. I didn't realize it was one until running the numbers. The 1971 A's were a solid team. They were aided by a comparatively weak division. This "trade tirade" picks up where that season ended. Two Cubs were about ready to contribute to a dynasty.

The 1971 A's finished first in the American League West well in front of a mediocre field. The third-year Kansas City Royals finished second with 85 wins. What the A's needed was one more starting pitcher of note. In a four-man rotation era, they had MVP/Cy Young Winner Vida Blue and Jim Hunter leading the way. To make a dent in the postseason, a third option, better than Diego Segui, Chuck Dobson, or John "Blue Moon" Odom would help. Ken Holtzman fit, though he was never ideal. He walked a few too many, but certainly upgraded the staff.

The 1971 A's were awash in potential outfielders. While Joe Rudi and Reggie Jackson manned the corners, center field was more depth than reliability. Rick Monday, Angel Mangual, and George Hendirck were the main options. Mangual was expected to be the real deal. Even if he wasn't, Monday wasn't that much of a fit in the cavernous Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. His power was in the gaps, and they were very far from the plate. The ball carried poorly at night. Monday was dispensable.

That Monday became the best center fielder for the Cubs in a generation for the Cubs helped Oakland. He covered center in a short-gaps Wrigley better than in Oakland, on offense and defense. Nobody in the Cubs system minded he (likely) had weak splits against lefthanders. He was better than Cleo James. Or Bill North. So he played.

In Oakland, Holtzman won 19 games, back when that mattered. The A's won the World Series in 1972 over the Reds. and none of the center field candidates hit well in Oakland that year. Jackson patrolled center, and Oakland knew what they needed to try to repeat. They needed a center fielder.

At this point in history, the Cubs didn't trust young players. Rightly or wrongly, it seemed to be, trot out your best until they keel. In 1972, Billy Williams was sensational, Monday was solid in center, and Jose Cardenal manned right field with an .810 OPS. The team finished second, 11 games back of Pittsburgh. The elephant in the room was the outfielders all had well over 500 at bats. The most regularly used back-up, on an also-ran second place team, was North. He OPS'd only .509.

Oakland must have seen something in North. They were still the class of the division, and needed a center fielder. North was cheap, which mattered to Oakland, even then. After adding Holtzman, the A's pitching staff was an embarrassment of wealth. They sent the aging, but still productive Bob Locker to the Cubs for Bill North.

The Cubs bullpen has rarely been strong. Since the Cubs had apparently no willingness to play North (the outfield would be largely the same in 1973), they might as well get something for their efforts. In a trade that Billy Beane would have loved, the A's snagged a starting center fielder for a reliever on his last legs.

Make no mistake, Bob Locker was sensational for the 1973 Cubs. In an age when an ace reliever would routinely pitch in innings that weren't the ninth, he posted a WAR of 2.6 over 63 outings, all in relief. While the outfield was still fine, leaks sprung over the rest of the roster, and the Cubs finished fifth. Williams was about finished, as were the Cubs for a stretch.

Meanwhile, North was sensational in Oakland, grabbing a few MVP votes that season. He scored almost 100 runs, stole over 50 bases, and patrolled the vast expanses in center field in Oakland without needing help. The A's won the division by six games, and Oakland had a center fielder better than Monday, and a pitcher better than Locker, who finished his career in 1974.

Either the Cubs had no idea what they had, or the A's scouting department earned their rings. Sometimes, the best way to win a trade is only in hindsight. Both teams got what they wanted in the short term. In the long-term, the A's got three rings. The Cubs had some work to do.