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A look at Cubs trades in the expansion era: 1976

“Oh, man,” as Jack Brickhouse might have said.

Steve Renko pitching for the Expos at Wrigley Field
Getty Images

John Holland retired as Cubs general manager after 1975, following 20 years in the position.

Imagine that. Brian Cashman has been Yankees GM since 1998, 25 years, but most current baseball operations executives stay in the job for far shorter. Since Holland, the longest-tenured Cubs GMs/Baseball Operations Presidents have been Theo Epstein (nine years) and Jim Hendry (fired during his ninth year).

Holland was replaced by E.R. “Salty” Saltwell, who worked for the Cubs for decades, largely in business management. He lived to be 96 and passed away in 2020.

In past decades, someone like Saltwell could probably have done a good job as baseball GM. The job was far less complicated. But with arbitration and free agency in their infancy, Saltwell was probably not the right choice. He was derided as a “peanut vendor,” referring to him running Cubs concessions, which was a bit unfair and mean-spirited.

A bit over his head, Saltwell lasted just one year in the job before going back to the business side of the team. He made at least one trade that really hurt the team going forward, though.

January 23: Acquired Gerry Pirtle from the Yankees for Rick Stelmaszek

Stelmaszek was covered in the previous installment of this series.

Pirtle had spent nearly a decade in the minor leagues after having been drafted by the Yankees in 1967. His minor-league numbers weren’t terrible, but the Cubs never gave him a chance in the majors. He pitched in Triple-A for the Cubs in 1976, 1977 and early 1978 before they simply released him. Pirtle pitched in 19 games for the Expos in 1978, his only MLB time. One of those games was actually against the Cubs at Wrigley Field, August 4, 1978, but I have zero recollection of Pirtle. Besides Pirtle, three other ex-Cubs pitched for Montreal in that game: Woodie Fryman, Darold Knowles and Mike Garman.

May 17: Acquired Steve Renko and Larry Biittner from the Expos for Andre Thornton

Oh, no, you didn’t.

Oh, yes, Saltwell did make this deal.

Let’s see if we can suss out some context here. The Cubs had gotten off to an okay start, playing .500 ball at the beginning of May (11-11). Then they lost five in a row and seven of nine, and you guessed it, the pitching staff got crushed. In that nine-game span the Cubs were outscored 70-39 and they allowed 14 runs in three of those games.

So get some pitching, Saltwell must have thought.

Renko had been a good, but not great, pitcher for the Expos from 1969-75, compiling a 3.88 ERA in 233 games (191 starts). He put up basically the same numbers for the Cubs in ‘76 — 3.86 ERA in 28 games (27 starts).

Biittner was a useful spare-part outfielder, though he was a terrible defender, posting -2.3 defensive bWAR in his time with the Cubs.

But Thornton should have been the Cubs’ first baseman for a decade or longer. He posted 19 bWAR after he left the Cubs, had three 30-homer seasons, made two All-Star teams and who knows? Maybe with Wrigley as his home park he does a bit better than that.

Renko and Biittner combined for 1.6 bWAR as Cubs. It was one of the team’s worst deals of the 1970s.

Fun fact: Biittner was once traded for Pat Jarvis, the guy who served up Ernie Banks’ 500th home run.

December 8: Acquired Greg Gross from the Astros for Julio Gonzalez

Here’s another deal that would have been really good if the Cubs had just kept Gross.

Gonzalez, an infielder, had been in the Cubs system since 1972 but never played for them in the majors. He was a spare-part infielder in Houston, St. Louis and Detroit from 1978-83 with a .566 OPS.

Gross had a good year as a fourth outfielder for the Cubs in 1977 (.857 OPS, 33 walks and only 19 strikeouts), not so good in 1978 (.672 OPS) and was sent to the Phillies in a deal we’ll cover later in this series. He spent 10 years with the Phillies and retired as one of the best pinch-hitters of all time — 143 pinch hits as well as 117 pinch walks for a .362 career OBP as a PH. Overall his .372 OBP would have looked real good in the Cubs’ leadoff spot, but no one in those days noticed OBP, it was the heyday of the “speedy leadoff guy.” Gross played in two World Series in Philadelphia and got a ring in 1980.

Of 182 players who had at least as many PA as Gross during his 1973-89 playing days, Gross’ .372 career OBP ranked tied for 17th.

Sigh. It should be noted that Bob Kennedy succeeded Saltwell as GM on November 24, 1976, so trades after that were his, including this one:

December 8: As part of a 3-team trade, acquired Jim Dwyer from the New York Mets and sent Pete LaCock to the Royals. The Royals sent Sheldon Mallory to the Mets to complete the trade.

This was another bad deal for the Cubs, as Dwyer never played for them, and that’s yet another failure of Cubs management. Dwyer, who had played 244 games for the Cardinals, Expos and Mets from 1973-76, was sent to Triple-A Wichita by the Cubs in ‘77. There, he batted .332/.459/.582 with 38 doubles, 12 triples and 18 home runs in 130 games. He also walked 108 times and struck out 40.

You’d think that would get a September callup, right? Especially with Bobby Murcer in a horrible slump?

Not only did the Cubs not call Dwyer up, on September 7, 1977 they released him. The Cardinals immediately signed him and while he didn’t do much in St. Louis that year, he spent 13 (!) more years in the major leagues with the Cardinals, Giants, Red Sox, Orioles, Twins and Expos, playing in over 1,000 games, batting .265/.360/.416 with 72 home runs, not bad for that offensively-challenged era. He got a World Series ring with the 1983 Orioles.

Just another example of bad player analysis from Cubs management in that era. Further, LaCock was a decent bench player for the Royals and played in three postseasons for them, getting his World Series ring in Kansas City in 1980.

F marks the spot for the 1976 Cubs trades, though Kennedy did make a shrewd selection in the Rule 5 Draft that year by selecting Willie Hernandez.


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