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A look at Cubs trades in the expansion era: 1987

There were a couple of truly bad deals in this calendar year.

Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The Cubs’ biggest move in 1987 was, of course, the signing of Andre Dawson. Famously, Dawson presented a blank contract to Dallas Green in Mesa and essentially dared Green to sign him. The Cubs got a bargain for that era, an MVP season from Dawson for $500,000.

Green was fired at the end of the season, but before that he made one truly bad trade. And his replacement, former manager Jim Frey, made another one after the season ended.

January 30: Acquired Luis Quinones from the Athletics for Ron Cey

Cey had actually had a decent year as a part-time player in ‘86 (.273./384/.508, 13 home runs in 97 games, 1.8 bWAR) but at 38 he was considered done. He played 45 games for the A’s, then retired.

Quinones was a typical good-field, no-hit infielder of the time, he played one mediocre year for the Cubs (.566 OPS) and then was traded in a deal we’ll cover in the next installment.

February 17: Acquired Wade Rowdon from the Reds for Guy Hoffman

Hoffman had pitched in parts of three years for the White Sox before the Cubs signed him as a free agent before the ‘86 season. He had a decent year for the Cubs (1.5 bWAR, 3.86 ERA in 23 games) and had about the same year in Cincinnati in ‘87.

Rowdon, an infielder (mainly a third baseman) was also an original White Sox draft pick who the Reds had acquired in a 1982 trade. He spent most of ‘87 at Triple-A Iowa and had a really good year there: .338/.404/.555 with 35 doubles and 18 home runs. All that got him was an 11-game callup in September. Eventually he played two years in Japan.

This was kind of a nothing deal for both teams.

March 30: Acquired Jim Sundberg from the Royals for Thad Bosley and Dave Gumpert

This might have been a good deal if it had been made a couple of years earlier. By 1987 Sundberg was 36 and way past his prime. What I remember him most for is pitching an inning, back when position players only did that rarely, in the 15th inning of an exhibition game at Wrigley Field against the White Sox on May 26, 1988. (No one would ever play that many innings in a game that didn’t count today, of course.) Sundberg’s reward for that was being released about six weeks later. He had 0.5 bWAR as a Cub.

Bosley, who had been a really good pinch-hitter for the Cubs in ‘85 (.333/.379/.550, 20-for-80, three HR as a PH), was a typical spare-part outfielder of the time. He didn’t play much for the Royals, but was still hanging around in 1990.

Gumpert pitched in eight games for Kansas City with a 6.05 ERA and was done.

A small win for the Cubs, if for nothing else but the entertainment value of Sundberg pitching.

April 3: Acquired Brian Guinn, David Wilder and Mark Leonette from the Athletics for Dennis Eckersley and Dan Rohn

Few people list this in the pantheon of bad Cubs trades but indeed, it was one of the worst in recent memory. Eckersley had a drinking problem that was exacerbated by the Cubs’ all day game schedule of the time. His performance, good in ‘84 and ‘85, declined in ‘86 and he was finally encouraged to go to rehab by his family, who recorded him on video near his daughter while drunk at a Christmas party in 1986. I’m not inventing all this, it was well documented here:

Eckersley mentioned how another instance of family intervention in 1986 helped him finally beat the alcohol habit that defeated his brother, when his wife and daughter showed him a videotape of himself drunk the night before.

“I was blown away. If you ever see yourself in that state of mind, it’s the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen,” he said. “My daughter said she didn’t even know her dad. That got me to the core.”

“I started rehab in 1987, and I started getting better,” he said. “I started liking myself again.”

There’s more in this Sports Illustrated article from 1988.

The thing is, there were attempts by Dallas Green to try to make Eckersley into a reliever with the Cubs, as noted here, quoting former Cubs media relations man Bob Ibach:

While Frey was still manager, Ibach recalled how he and Green showed him statistics about Eckersley’s velocity dropping after the fourth inning. The brass suggested Frey make Eckersley a relief pitcher to take advantage of short-outing prowess. “There’s no (bleepin’) way he’ll ever be a (bleepin’) relief pitcher,” Frey replied.

Well, Frey was bleepin’ wrong. If the Cubs had done that, perhaps they would have reaped the rewards that the A’s did when Tony La Russa made him into the first modern closer — a guy who would only throw the ninth inning when the team was ahead.

Eckersley produced 16.8 bWAR after the trade (and that would have been more if not for a couple of bad years at the end of his career past age 40), won a Cy Young award and MVP (both in the same year, 1992), had three other top-six Cy Young and MVP finishes, pitched in three World Series in Oakland and got a WS ring in 1989, and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2004.

Sure, there’s the famous Kirk Gibson homer off him in the ‘88 World Series, but overall Eckersley’s career after the trade was pretty darn good.

So yeah. That would have looked pretty good in a Cubs uniform.

And this was made even worse because none of the three minor leaguers the Cubs got ever played in the major leagues. Famously, Leonette was called up once, in early July 1987, and actually warmed up in the bullpen, but never got into a game, possibly the only Cub to ever be on the active 25-man roster but never play in the majors.

Wilder later became a White Sox executive, but wound up serving prison time after being convicted of skimming prospect bonuses.

Footnote: Rohn, who the Cubs had traded to Cleveland in 1985, had re-signed with the Cubs before the ‘87 season as a free agent. He never played a game for the A’s.

This is one of the worst trades in Cubs history, and it doesn’t get enough notice for being that.

May 15: Acquired Mike Mason from the Rangers for Dave Pavlas

Mason had a couple of good years as a starter for the Rangers and the Cubs hoped they could resurrect him. They could not. He pitched in just 17 games for the Cubs with a 5.68 ERA and was released during Spring Training in ‘88.

Pavlas never pitched for the Rangers and the Cubs got him back in 1990 for cash considerations. He threw well in 13 games for the Cubs that year (2.11 ERA, 0.6 bWAR), not so well in ‘91 and was released.

But the Cubs got all the MLB value from both players in this deal, so I suppose it’s a win.

July 11: Traded Gary Matthews to the Mariners for a PTBNL

“Sarge” had played well for the Cubs in ‘86 (.259/.361/.478 with 21 HR in 123 games, 2.4 bWAR) but by ‘87, at age 36, it was clear he was done. He played 45 games for the Mariners, then retired.

The PTBNL was a minor league pitcher named Dave Hartnett who never played in the majors.

July 13: Acquired Bob Tewksbury, Dean Wilkins and Rich Scheid from the Yankees for Steve Trout

There’s no question the Cubs traded Trout at the right time. He’d pitched pretty well in ‘87, including throwing back-to-back complete game shutouts right before the trade. After the deal he posted a 7.12 ERA for the Yankees and Mariners in 48 games (25 starts) in ‘87 through ‘89, then retired. That was worth -3.3 bWAR.

So the Cubs won this deal, right?

Uh... well, they would have if they had just kept Tewksbury. He pitched in eight games for the Cubs (four starts) in ‘87 and ‘88 and they let him go to free agency. Either he was injured or the Cubs had no idea what they had, because Tewksbury went on to have five really good years for the Cardinals, posting a 3.49 ERA in 147 games (138 starts) and making the All-Star team in 1992, while finishing third in Cy Young voting. He pitched 10 total seasons after the Cubs let him go.

Dean Wilkins pitched in 18 games for the Cubs in 1989 and 1990 with a 6.26 ERA. Scheid never pitched for the Cubs and was sent to the White Sox in a minor league deal a couple years later.

September 21: Traded Dickie Noles to the Tigers

The reason this listing doesn’t have an “acquired” player is that the acquired player was... Noles, who came back to the Cubs a month later.

All the details are in this BCB article from two years ago.

December 8: Acquired Al Nipper and Calvin Schiraldi from the Red Sox for Lee Smith

Jim Frey was truly unqualified to be a baseball executive. He’d never done any off-field baseball front office work previously, and Tribune executives made a giant mistake by dumping Dallas Green and replacing him with Frey. Green wasn’t fired, but resigned after Tribune Co. refused to make him team president. They should have done it.

Anyway, Frey, who had also done another job after being fired as Cubs manager he wasn’t qualified for or good at (WGN radio analyst, he was so clueless about this job that he had to be taught how to keep a scorecard, as he had never done it), made this deal as his first as Cubs GM.

Now, let’s be clear. Smith had a terrible year in 1987, by far his worst as a Cub. Peripherals were good as well as his basic numbers, but he blew 12 save opportunities and the Cubs, who had scrambled to marginal contention at 62-60 on August 21, went 14-25 the rest of the way. Smith was being roundly booed at Wrigley. That’s not a reason to trade anyone, but Frey seemed determined to move on.

It wasn’t a bad idea, but... I have heard over the years that Frey turned down other offers for Smith. The Dodgers reportedly offered Bob Welch for him. That would have been an excellent trade. The Braves supposedly wanted Smith and Shawon Dunston and offered two young players: Jeff Blauser and John Smoltz.

Sigh. The Cubs eventually got Blauser, after all his good years were done (and in the meantime he tormented Cubs pitching, batting .351/.413/.611 with 15 home runs in 78 career games vs. the Cubs). Smoltz was a 21-year-old kid who’d just been acquired by Atlanta and had yet to throw a MLB pitch. Obviously, that would have been a much better deal than the one the Cubs did make.

Nipper had just posted two years in which he’d been a rotation starter in Boston and had an ERA over 5. What the Cubs saw in that is beyond me. Schiraldi, a No. 1 pick of the Mets in ‘83 (and a college teammate of Roger Clemens), was traded to Boston in ‘85 and had a good year and a bad year there, the bad year (‘87) supposedly because his poor performance in the ‘86 World Series had messed with his head.

The Cubs, inexplicably, made Schiraldi a starter in 1988 and he was mediocre at that (4.38 ERA, 0.7 bWAR in 27 starts). Relieving in ‘89 didn’t help and the Cubs dumped him on the Padres before that year even ended.

Smith, meanwhile, pitched 10 more seasons after he left the Cubs, for a bunch of different teams, and posted 298 saves after the trade, good for 10.3 bWAR, and included four seasons of 40+ saves. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2019 and has a Cubs cap on his plaque. He now makes many appearances at Wrigley Field as a beloved elder statesman. His 180 saves as a Cub remain the franchise record.

Gonna give the Cubs’ 1987 deals an F.


Give the Cubs a grade for their 1987 trades.

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