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 year with the Dodgers and thus would be eligible for free agency after the season. Negotiations for a contract extension between Piazza and the Dodgers had become 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 trade him instead of letting general manager Fred Claire try to work out a long-term deal to keep Piazza in Los Angeles.
On May 14, 1998, the Dodgers sent Piazza and Todd Zeile to the Marlins for Gary Sheffield, Charles Johnson, Bobby Bonilla, Jim Eisenreich, and Manuel Barrios. More than $100 million worth of contracts changed hands, a huge number for that era.
The Marlins had already been stripped of many of the players who had won the World Series for them the year before, 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 a major upgrade.
According to this 1998 article by Paul Sullivan in the Tribune, the Cubs could 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.
Oh, man, what a mistake that was. The Tribune-era Cubs were just being cheap. Zeile was never very happy as a Cub — he played just half a season with the team in 1995 before departing as a free agent — but even in that penny-pinching era the Cubs could have afforded the balance of his contract, which called for another $3.2 million in 1999. On the other hand, with Zeile the Cubs would not have needed to acquire Gary Gaetti late in the 1998 season. Gaetti hit .320/.397/.594 with eight home runs in just 37 games for the Cubs, including a big home run in the wild-card tiebreaker game.
General Manager Ed Lynch obviously vastly overrated Cline and Noel. Neither ever played a single big-league game. Cline had a decent year in 1998 in Triple-A (.281/.346/.434, 13 home runs in 122 games) but declined rapidly after that. Noel was the Cubs’ No. 1 pick (17th overall) in 1996. He never did much in the minor leagues, and later in 1998 Lynch traded Noel, Kevin Orie and Justin Speier to the Marlins for Felix Heredia and a minor leaguer you’ve probably never heard of. Neither Noel nor Cline played a game in the minors after 2000. Heredia wasn’t very good on the North Side and was later shipped to the Blue Jays for Alex Gonzalez. That deal worked out all right, but obviously, getting Piazza would have been much, much better.
There’s no doubt that most contending teams would have sent two prospects like that away for the chance to acquire a player like Piazza, who was 29 in 1998 and in the midst of the best five-year stretch of his career. With Piazza, the Cubs surely would have been a much better offensive team 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). Lynch made a big mistake not making this deal, and compounded that by making a horrendous trade later in 1998, acquiring mediocre middle reliever Matt Karchner from the White Sox in exchange for Jon Garland, who went on to more than a decade as a rotation mainstay on the South Side.
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. And if the Cubs do go farther in the 1998 postseason? Well, maybe then they feel they have enough money to keep Piazza long-term. He wound up signing a seven-year, $91 million deal with the Mets after the 1998 season, an AAV of $13 million, somewhat less than the $16 million AAV reported by Sullivan back then. That was money well spent by the Mets and for a future Hall of Famer? The Cubs should have done it.
During his two-trades-in-nine-days odyssey, Piazza racked up quite a few frequent-flyer miles. In switching teams twice during that span, 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.