I mentioned this briefly in the recent prospect busts article, but I thought this was worth a full article.
In early 1998, when Mike Piazza was taking a tour around the National League, he nearly wound up wearing blue pinstripes as a Chicago Cub.
Here’s how that almost came down. In 1998, Piazza was entering his sixth full season with the Dodgers and would be eligible for free agency after the season. Negotiations between Piazza and the Dodgers became contentious, and with ownership having just transitioned from the longtime O’Malley family group to Fox, the TV network executives decided to play hardball and deal him instead of letting general manager Fred Claire try to work out a long-term deal to keep Piazza in Los Angeles.
So on May 16, 1998, the Dodgers sent Piazza and Todd Zeile to the Marlins for Gary Sheffield, Bobby Bonilla, Jim Eisenreich, Charles Johnson and Manuel Barrios. More than $100 million worth of contracts changed hands, a huge number for that day.
The Marlins had already been stripped of many of the players who had won the World Series for them the year before, and were 14-29 at the time of the trade and 17 games out of first place. They weren’t going anywhere and they knew it, and the addition of Piazza wasn’t going to change anything. The All-Star catcher was clearly going to be shopped around.
The Cubs were 24-18 at that time, surprisingly in contention after a 94-loss 1997 season. A catching triad of Scott Servais, Tyler Houston and Sandy Martinez was serviceable, but clearly, Piazza would have been an upgrade.
Teams made offers, and according to Paul Sullivan in the Tribune, the Cubs could probably have had Piazza if they had been willing to give up two guys who were considered top prospects at the time:
Sources in Miami said the Marlins tried to package both Piazza and third baseman Todd Zeile for the Cubs, but the Cubs had no interest in reacquiring Zeile with his $3.2 million salary, even with Kevin Orie struggling at third.
Though they were very interested in Piazza, the Cubs were looking only to "rent" him for the '98 season and didn't believe they could re-sign him beyond this year because he wants a six-to-seven-year deal worth around $16 million a season.
Because Piazza would have been a quick-fix solution, they were reluctant to part with their top catching prospect, Pat Cline, and their top pitching prospect, Todd Noel. Without either of those two in the mix, the Cubs couldn't match the Mets' offer of outfielder Preston Wilson, pitching prospect Ed Yarnall and, reportedly, pitcher Geoff Goetz.
I wrote about Cline in the busted-prospects article; he had a very good year in 1998 but never even got a September callup. Todd Noel was the Cubs’ No. 1 pick (17th overall) in 1996. He never did much in the minor leagues, and later in 1998 GM Ed Lynch traded Noel, Justin Speier and Kevin Orie to the Marlins for Felix Heredia (and a minor leaguer you’ve never heard of).
Well. Heredia was decent, for a short time, then became one of the favorite targets of the fanbase when he was awful for most of the next three years. Eventually the Cubs dumped him on the Blue Jays for Alex Gonzalez. That worked out all right, mostly.
For sure, Lynch overrated Cline and Noel, and could have traded them for something better than Felix Heredia. Theo Epstein certainly would have made a deal like that, if he thought it would help the Cubs win; he did, in fact, give up a really good prospect in Gleyber Torres to get Aroldis Chapman. But the Cubs won the World Series. That, in my opinion, was worth trading Torres.
And the Cubs surely would have been a much better offensive team with Piazza in 1998. He hit .328/.390/.570 with 32 home runs and 6.2 total bWAR between the Dodgers, Mets and Marlins (for the latter, he played just five games). The Cubs won the N.L. wild card without Piazza in 1998, but were dispatched quickly by the Braves in the division series. With Piazza, even as a rental? Maybe they go farther in that year’s postseason.
For his part, Piazza racked up the frequent-flyer miles, because in being traded twice in a week, he had to fly from Los Angeles to St. Louis to Miami to Milwaukee — and then back to Miami, where the Mets were playing the Marlins just a few days after they acquired Piazza from them.