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Cubs history: The time the Cubs almost lost Fergie Jenkins... to the White Sox

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It’s a little-known footnote in the Hall of Famer’s career.

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Future Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins was traded away from the Cubs after the 1973 season, and had some good years in Texas and Boston.

When Dallas Green took over as GM of the Cubs, he signed the then 39-year-old Jenkins as a free agent, and Fergie had a fine year in 1982 — 14 wins, a 3.15 ERA and 3.7 bWAR for an 89-loss Cubs team.

Fergie was all set to return to the Cubs in 1983. Here’s a twist on that which I had not seen reported until this Fangraphs article by David Laurila posted Wednesday, which deals mostly with what players and their families go through when they are traded.

Among the current and former players Laurila spoke to was Pat Tabler, who the Cubs had acquired from the Yankees in 1981 in the Rick Reuschel deal. Here’s what Tabler said about being traded away from the Cubs a little over a year later:

When I was traded in 1983, there was a rule at the time where if you lost a free agent, you could claim somebody from another team, off this list. There was this player pool, and the White Sox lost somebody. There was a rumor that they were going to take Ferguson Jenkins off the Cubs roster, but he’d just struck out his 3,000th batter, so the PR would have been really bad. The Cubs said, ‘You can’t pick him; we’ll work out a trade instead.’ Scott Fletcher, Randy Martz, Dick Tidrow, and I went to the White Sox for Steve Trout and somebody else [Warren Brusstar], so that the White Sox wouldn’t pick Ferguson Jenkins.

The “player pool” Tabler is talking about existed from 1982-85, one of the key things that eventually settled the 1981 strike. Teams losing free agents could pick a “compensation” player from a pool set up by all teams, who could protect players in this way:

Free agents were divided into three classes, based on playing time and performance over the previous two seasons: in descending order, these were Type A, Type B and Type C. Only losing a Type A player would activate the compensation draft; Type B players would continue to be compensated with draft choices, and Type C’s would not trigger any compensation.

All teams could protect 26 players in their organization from the draft, except for teams who signed a Type A free agent that year, who would protect 24 players. Teams could opt out of the right to sign Type A free agents and therefore not have to place any names into the pool.

Anyway, the White Sox had lost Steve Kemp, a Type A player, to free agency and thus had a pick in the 1982-83 offseason. As stated by Tabler, they had considered taking Fergie Jenkins, but the Cubs didn’t want that and so worked out the deal that sent Tabler (and others) to the Sox for Steve Trout and Warren Brusstar. That deal worked out reasonably well for both teams; Fletcher became a decent everyday regular and Trout had some good years for the Cubs. And now you know why that trade came about in the first place.

As for Tabler? He never played a single regular-season game for the Sox:

Anyway, I went to spring training with the White Sox, and was with Tony LaRussa, Dave Duncan, and that whole crew. Then they traded me at the end of spring training, on April 1. When they told me, I thought it was an April Fools joke. It wasn’t. They’d traded me to Cleveland.

The Cubs would probably have taken that PR hit if they had lost Fergie Jenkins in the compensation pool. He didn’t have a good year in 1983, though, and after a couple of rough outings in spring training 1984 he was released at age 41, just months short of being part of that year’s Cubs N.L. East championship team.