Revisiting a Blockbuster That Was Actually a Heist

On yesterday’s podcast, Carson and I had a brief conversation about how different history can look with the benefit of hindsight. Or, maybe more accurately, how different baseball history can occasionally look if you apply our current tools and analysis to players and transactions from before the statistical revolution really became popular. That isn’t to say our current tools are perfect — I’m sure in 15 to 20 years, we’ll look back at our current analysis and see a bunch of problems — but I think it’s pretty clear that both the people running baseball teams and watching baseball games understand the relative value of different players better now than they used to. And there’s perhaps no single transaction that better illustrates the stark changes in player valuation we’ve seen over the last 15 years than the trade that sent Ken Griffey Jr to the Reds after the 1999 season.

Griffey was, at that point, one of the game’s true elite. He’d racked up +20 WAR from ages 27 to 29, and that’s with defensive metrics that thought his defense was just average in center field, a sentiment which opposing managers didn’t agree, given that he won a gold glove in each of those three seasons. If he wasn’t the best player in the game, he wasn’t far off from that mark, and because he decided he didn’t want to play in Seattle anymore, the Mariners had to put him on the trade block.

But they only did so after he turned down a would-have-been-a-record eight year, $148 million contract extension. As a percentage of total MLB spending, that’s roughly equivalent to $300 million in today’s dollars. Griffey was certainly great, but he was also on the verge of the kind of paycheck that paid him for being great; even the eventual eight year, $113 million extension he signed with the Reds was the largest ever in baseball history at the time, and his $12.5 million AAV represented 27% of Cincinnati’s payroll.

So, what the Mariners were really trading was the right to pay free agent prices for a player’s decline phase. Essentially, Griffey’s value at the time of the trade was roughly equivalent to the trade value that Robinson Cano had a year ago, when he was entering his walk year and was making rumblings about wanting a $300 million deal to stay in New York. In fact, on a performance basis, 2010-2012 Cano was nearly a dead-on match for 1997-1999 Griffey Jr, as they both put up wRC+ numbers in the 140-145 range while playing solid defense at an up the middle spot, and those seasons cover ages 27-29 for both players.

We don’t know what Cano would have fetched on the trade market a year ago, because the Yankees didn’t trade him, or even try. But I think we can make some assumptions based on other trades that have been completed, and what we’ve seen teams give up for short term rentals with some chance at an extension. Usually, these deals involve a three or four prospects, and if the player is really great, maybe the best prospect in the deal will be one of the better prospects in the game. Cano is really great and a less risky position player, so he probably would have generated a larger return than guys like Roy Halladay or Johan Santana got when they were traded in their walk years, but the recent template for a sign-and-extend deal has been centered around prospects who probably aren’t ready to make a contribution at the big league level.

Now, let’s get back to Griffey, and what the Reds gave up to acquire the rights to make him the highest paid player in the game. They gave up a pretty good prospect in Antonio Perez — following his first season with Seattle, Baseball America ranked him the #16 prospect in baseball — and a former top prospect with some big league experience in Brett Tomko, plus a fringe relief prospect in Jake Meyer, which is the kind of package you might expect a rental/extension candidate to bring back in a trade. Except, those three were the add-ins, because the Mariners also got a big league player back in return, in 27 year old center fielder Mike Cameron.

Cameron wasn’t as good as Griffey, of course, but he was a pretty valuable player in his own right. In fact, in 1999, Cameron had posted a +5.3 WAR season, higher than Griffey’s own +4.9 WAR, and it wasn’t a total fluke; in 1997, Cameron had put up a +4.3 WAR season in just 443 plate appearances. Sandwiched in between those years was a +1 WAR season in which he didn’t hit at all, but Cameron had averaged +3.5 WAR per season over the prior three years leading up to the trade, and was headed into his prime, not out of it.

And maybe more importantly, Cameron was under team control for another four seasons at arbitration prices. In his first year in Seattle, he made $2.25 million, 12% of what Griffey’s salary would have been had he taken the Mariners $148 million extension. In fact, during his four year tenure in Seattle, Cameron made a total of $17.7 million, still less than the $18.5 million AAV that their extension offer would have paid Griffey in one single year.

Even with heavy regression on the defensive valuation, Cameron still graded as out as at least a +3 WAR player at the time of the deal, given where he was on the aging curve, and should have been expected to produce roughly +10 to +15 WAR during the years in which Seattle was acquiring his rights, so even at the low end of that spectrum, he was going to be getting less than $2 million per win. Cameron was, by all rights, one of the most valuable contracts in the game at that point. Four years of team control of a +3 WAR player headed into his prime? A rough equivalent of that in current form would be something like Desmond Jennings. Can you even imagine the Rays (or even a franchise with more money than the Rays) giving up Jennings for a rent-a-player today, even if that rent-a-player was a guy as good as Cano?

Even the much maligned Wil Myers/James Shields trade didn’t involve a player coming off a +5 WAR season, and Shields had two years of team control remaining, not just one. And the Royals got killed for making that trade. The Reds decision to include Cameron in a trade for Griffey was orders of magnitude worse than the Royals decision to include Myers in the Shields trade, especially given that the Reds were acquiring Griffey to bolster their short term chances to win.

And here’s the kicker; this was the trade the Reds made after Griffey had invoked his no-trade clause to block a deal to the Mets, and had publicly declared that he would only agree to go to Cincinnati. The Reds didn’t have to win a bidding war for Griffey; they were the only team allowed to bid. Griffey demanded a trade to one specific franchise, giving them as much leverage as any team can have in trade negotiations, and they still managed to agree to a deal that no one would make today.

This isn’t to lampoon Jim Bowden or the Reds, because at the time, the trade was widely reported as a steal for the Reds. They held the line on not giving up their best young infield prospect, Pokey Reese, and “won” the trade by including Antonio Perez instead. The quality of the shortstop prospect was the sticking point in negotiations, not the inclusion of the younger, All-Star caliber, big league center fielder who had been as good as Griffey in the just concluded season. Pretty much the entirety of the coverage focused on the Reds refusal to include Reese and how the Mariners finally had to cave after Griffey forced them to take a lesser deal by killing their leverage.

And, in reality, the Mariners were making off like bandits. Having Cameron and the extra $10 to $15 million to spend on free agents was far better than having Griffey under contract, and of course, the Mariners were better immediately after trading him than they were with him. Even if Griffey had stayed healthy and played well for the Reds, the Mariners were going to win that trade, because having a cheap, in-his-prime Cameron was simply more valuable than having an expensive, declining Griffey. And that’s not even including the other three players in the deal. As a one for one swap, Griffey for Cameron favored the Mariners, except no one saw it that way.

In 15 years, I’m sure we’ll look back on some of today’s moves with the same astonishment that we all missed the boat entirely. It’s not like player valuation has been solved, and we have nothing else to learn. But looking back at that deal, it’s amazing how different the sport is, and how the valuations of players have changed a relatively short period of time.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Johan Santa
10 years ago

I strike again!

10 years ago
Reply to  Johan Santa

Also, Junior got Johan Santa’ed by his dad.

Playboy TV commercial circa 1994
10 years ago
Reply to  Johan Santa

It’s good to be the Santa!