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A look at Cubs trades in the expansion era: 1998

There was one really good deal made this calendar year... and at least one terrible trade.

Jon Lieber pitches for the Cubs on Opening Day 1999 in Houston
Getty Images

Few expected the Cubs to contend in 1998 after their 94-loss season in ‘97.

But that became the year of the Sosa/McGwire home run race and a tight race to the finish for the N.L. Wild Card between the Cubs, Mets and Giants, resulting in a tiebreaker game at Wrigley Field.

On the way to that postseason berth, Ed Lynch made one really, REALLY bad deal. After the season was over, he made a good one.

Here’s what happened that year.

January 20: Acquired Ray King from the Braves for Jon Ratliff

Ratliff had been the Cubs’ No. 1 pick in 1993 (24th overall). He never did much in the Cubs minors and never played for the Braves; his only MLB game was in 2000 with the A’s.

Meanwhile, King pitched in 10 games for the Cubs with a 5.28 ERA and they sent him away in a deal we’ll cover later on. King went on to be a quality middle reliever for the Brewers, Braves and Cardinals for the next several years.

The Cubs lost this deal not only because of that, but because they got negative bWAR (-0.2) from King. They should have kept him.

May 5: Acquired Don Wengert from the Padres for Ben Van Ryn

Wengert had been a nothing-special reliever for the A’s for a couple of years, then didn’t do much in San Diego. He didn’t do much for the Cubs, either, posting a 5.07 ERA in 20 games (six starts). Somehow he got a bit of positive bWAR (0.2) out of that.

Van Ryn pitched in just six games for the Padres with a 1.013 ERA and -0.1 bWAR, so this was a small “win” for the Cubs.

More interesting is the fact that Van Ryn claimed to be a distant descendant of the famed Dutch painter Rembrandt Van Rijn. Nothing was ever proven either way.

July 29: Acquired Matt Karchner from the White Sox for Jon Garland

Ed Lynch inscribed himself in the pantheon of Cubs GMs Making Bad Deals with this one.

Even at the time, Cubs fans screamed bloody hell about this. The Cubs were looking for... well, I have no idea what. Karchner was a mediocre middle reliever who had posted a few saves for the Sox when they were searching around for a closer. Even then, he had three blown saves in the very month of this trade and over his most recent 10 appearances before the deal he posted a 10.32 ERA and 1.853 WHIP and...

Garland, meanwhile, had been the Cubs’ No. 1 pick (10th overall) in 1997 — just one year before — and though he’d had a bit of a rough year in ‘98 in the Cubs system, he was just 18 years old! Growing pains!

Karchner spent three years with the Cubs with a 4.60 ERA and 0.1 bWAR in 58 games, and his one postseason appearance for the Cubs wound up with him serving up a grand slam to Ryan Klesko that pretty much put away Game 1 of the 1998 division series against the Braves.

Garland pitched eight years for the White Sox, gave them 18.4 bWAR, made an All-Star team and got some Cy Young votes in 2005, when he also got a World Series ring. He later pitched for the Angels, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Padres and Rockies in a 13-year career.

This was a colossally bad trade for the Cubs.

July 31: Acquired Felix Heredia and Steve Hoff from the Marlins for Kevin Orie, Justin Speier and Todd Noel

Heredia had some good games for the Cubs but overall in four years with the Cubs he posted a 5.01 ERA and -0.5 bWAR in 221 appearances.

Speier pitched only half a year for the Marlins (-0.8 bWAR) but wound up having a 12-year, 7.7 bWAR career for the Braves, Rockies, Indians, Blue Jays and Angels.

Orie gave the Marlins slight positive value (1.7 bWAR) and the Cubs got him back briefly in 2002.

Hoff never played in the majors and neither did Noel and I want to talk about Todd Noel here. He was the Cubs’ No. 1 pick (17th overall) in 1996. They were so high on him that they refused a possible trade for Mike Piazza earlier in 1998 because the Marlins wanted him. From that link, this is a quote from a Paul Sullivan article in the Tribune from 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.

Neither Noel nor Cline ever played in the majors. Yes, it’s likely Piazza was a rental — but with Piazza, maybe the ‘98 Cubs go farther in the postseason.

Instead, they traded Noel anyway, for someone not nearly as good as Piazza.

Ed Lynch was just a bad general manager.

August 25: Acquired Mike Morgan from the Twins for a PTBNL

Morgan had a very good year for the Cubs in 1992, then was traded away in mid-1995 after a couple of mediocre years in ‘93 and ‘94. He made five starts for the Cubs with a 7.15 ERA (-0.5 bWAR) and left after the year as a free agent.

The PTBNL, sent to Minnesota November 3, was lefty reliever Scott Downs.

Lynch does it again. The Cubs actually got Downs back in 1999 — we’ll talk about this later — and then dealt him away again in 2000. In 12 seasons from 2003-14 Downs was a solid middle reliever for the Expos, Blue Jays, Angels, Braves, White Sox and Royals with a total of 11.1 bWAR.

This deal was worthless for the Cubs.

December 14: Acquired Jon Lieber from the Pirates for Brant Brown

This was another salary dump from the Pirates, who didn’t want to pay Lieber. Brown was a popular Cub who’d had a good (.850 OPS, 1.4 bWAR) year as a part-time player (380 PA) in ‘98.

But Lieber had four solid seasons for the Cubs from 1999-2002, receiving Cy Young votes and an All-Star nod in 2001, when he became the first Cubs 20-game winner since Greg Maddux in 1992 — and no Cub would win 20 again until Jake Arrieta in 2015.

The Cubs let Lieber go as a free agent after 2002, but he’d put up 12.6 bWAR in those four years, a big win for the Cubs. He would pitch again for the Cubs briefly in 2008.

The Lieber deal was great. The rest of these: Mostly blech. Grade: D


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