Sunday, January 01, 2012

World Champions – Best Player = ?

So I wanted to take a quick at World Champion teams that lost their best player in the same off-season.  Seeing Albert Pujols go the Angels makes the fate of the 2012 Cardinals interesting. The team has signed Carlos Beltran to fill in somewhere, and they will also be getting back ace starter Adam Wainwright from Tommy John surgery.  Will this be enough to keep them in contention?

I couldn’t think, off-hand, of any other World Champion teams that lost their best player before they even had a chance to defend their title.

My idea is to look at a team’s best player, as determined by rWAR, (which isn’t perfect, but neither are you), and see if he came back to the team the following year.  If he did not, why not? Free agency? Trade? Injury? And what happened to his old team?  What happened to his new team? All fair questions.

Let’s start asking them, beginning with the first World Champions to lose their best player. But first, a chart showing every World Champion ever to lose its best player in the ensuing offseason:

Year MVP (rWAR) Team How?
1915 Tris Speaker Boston (AL) Trade
1931 Chick Hafey St. Louis (NL) Trade
1942 Enos Slaughter St. Louis (NL) War
1943 Charlie Keller &
Spud Chandler*
New York (AL) War/
1944 Stan Musial St. Louis (NL) War
1997 Kevin Brown Florida Trade
2011 Albert Pujols St. Louis Free

* – The Yankees did lose Keller in ‘44, but while Chandler’s injury was severe, he did manage to make one start during the year.

Quickly, the Almost Department

  • The 1914 Braves’ best player, starter Bill James, made just 13 appearances in 1915 due to injury. James’s career was essentially over, apart from one game pitched in 1919.
  • The 1918 Red Sox’ best player was, not surprisingly, Babe Ruth. Ruth was infamously traded two years after that, after setting a new single-season home run record in 1919.
  • After winning the 1926 World Series, Cardinals GM Branch Rickey finally got his wish (and a few death threats) when he traded franchise icon Rogers Hornsby to the Giants for Frankie Frisch and Jimmy Ring. Hornsby was the only player I KNEW would show up on this list – except that, according to rWAR, Hornsby wasn’t the most valuable Cardinal in ‘26. An off-year (by his standards) put him 0.1 WAR behind third baseman Les Bell.
  • The ‘65 Dodgers’ ace, Sandy Koufax, only pitched one more year before being forced into retirement at age 30. He would have made the list if the Dodgers had won the ‘66 Series (they were swept by Baltimore).

Back to the master list.  '

1915:  Boston Red Sox trade Tris Speaker to Cleveland Indians for Sad Sam Jones, Fred Thomas and $55,000.

Fifty-five grand was a lot of money back then. Almost enough to justify giving up a 27-year-old center fielder with a career batting line of 337/414/482 (in the deadball era!) and defense that ranks somewhere between “elite” and “best-ever.”

To be fair, the Red Sox did get more than just cash.  Sad Sam Jones was a 22-year-old pitching prospect who went on to throw 1000+ innings with a decent 3.39 ERA in six seasons in Boston (a year after the Babe Ruth trade, the Sox sent Jones, Joe Bush and Everett Scott to the Yankees for Jack Quinn, 100 grand and some washed-up players. Ouch, again). 

As for the other guy, Fred Thomas was a middle infielder didn’t make the major leagues until 1918, when he hit .257 with one homer in 44 games.

Why in the world were the Red Sox so eager to get rid of Speaker?  Cash was a factor; as later trades would show, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee, while a wealthy man, had issues with liquidity (and no, he wasn’t trying to fund a Broadway play).

The Red Sox in 1915 were plagued by internal conflict.  It didn’t hurt their winning percentage, but the club was made up of two warring factions trying to get their favorite appointed as manager.

One faction was made up of Catholics, mostly the children of immigrants. This included Heinie Wagner, Duffy Lewis, Bill Carrigan and others. Speaker and Smoky Joe Wood were members of the opposing faction, the Protestant, middle-American freemasons (and, allegedly, KKK members).  It wasn’t exactly unusual for a ballclub to split into two cliques, but the religious and cultural issues made this an especially tricky brand of infighting.

Ownership was helpless to resolve the crisis, and it didn’t help that the manager’s seat was the prize both sides fought for, with the losers then doing their best to undermine the manager. When Carrigan was named manager halfway through the 1913 season, this predictably upset the Protestant wing of the clubhouse.  I can’t say for sure without reading the mind of owner Frazee (or GM Ed Barrow), but this must have played a part in Speaker’s ouster.

Tris Speaker isn’t just a Hall-of-Famer, he’s an inner-circle Hall-of-Famer.  The only comparable center fielders in major league history are guys like Ty Cobb, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio and Ken Griffey, Jr.  None of those players, you will note, were traded away at age 27 for a quick fix of cash and a durable starting pitcher.  Many great players are traded either before, or after, their prime years.  Few are dealt away just as they’re entering their prime. Given Speaker’s sterling performance in Cleveland (which included a World Series victory in 1920 as player-manager), this has to be considered one of the worst trades in baseball history.

1932: St. Louis Cardinals trade Chick Hafey to Cincinnati Reds for Benny Frey, Harvey Hendrick and cash.

Any deal by Branch “The Mahatma” Rickey, then GM of the Cardinals, may be assumed to include the phrase “and cash.”

The 1931 Cardinals went 101-53 and won the World Series.  Most teams would take that opportunity to reward the players who got them there, especially a 29-year-old star outfielder.  Instead, the Cardinals traded batting champion Chick Hafey, who hit 349/404/569 in 1931, to the Reds for two marginal players who would be sold back to the Reds before the year was out.

What was Rickey thinking?  Well, one cornerstone of Rickey’s philosophy was to trade a player a year too early rather than a year too late.  He also preferred to replace players who got too expensive with products of his thriving farm system.

As to the latter point:  In 1932, 20-year-old Joe “Ducky” Medwick made his debut with the Cardinals on the way to a Hall-of-Fame career.  Medwick would eventually be better than Hafey ever was, and at a far cheaper price (until he too was traded; to the Dodgers for four nobodies and $125,000).

But was it the right time to get rid of Hafey?  Absolutely.  Rickey didn’t see Hafey as the defending NL batting champion; he saw a left fielder no longer able to patrol center whose value rested on a high batting average and decent power.  He also saw a less-than-durable player who’d only played more than 120 games three times in his career.  Such players are great to have, but they’re also pretty replaceable – especially in an era when offense is cheap.

Hafey still could have embarrassed RIckey if he’d had three or four All-Star years still left in him, but that was not to be.  He hit well with his new team in ‘32 – but played just 83 games.  Hafey bounced back to have two solid seasons in ‘33 and ‘34, but injury problems limited him to just 114 games after the age of 31.  Hafey’s last year in the majors was 1937, the same year that 25-year-old Joe Medwick won the Triple Crown and the MVP Award.

The Mahatma strikes again.

1942-44: The players go to war.

It’s not a surprise that World War II accounts for most of this list.  War is one of the few things that can take an MVP out of the league overnight.

The default answer for “best player on the Cardinals” during this era is Stan Musial.  But in 1942, as the Cardinals cruised to a World Championship, Musial (still just 21) had a very good year (315/397/490), but one that was still below his lofty standards (career 331/417/559).  Slaughter, meanwhile, was having the best year of his career.  He hit 318/412/494 with a team-leading 13 HR (Musial had just 10).

Defending a World Series title is hard enough without a star like Slaughter, but the Cards also lost center fielder Terry Moore, leaving them with 2/3 of an outfield to come up with for 1943.  The team succeeded by giving a full-time job to bench player Harry “The Hat” Walker and acquiring Danny Litwhiler from the Phillies in a trade.  Neither man was a star, but they were good enough to get the Cards back to the Series, where they lost to the Yankees.

Speaking of those ‘43 Yankees, they had two players tie for the team lead in WAR:  outfielder Charlie “King Kong” Keller and ace pitcher Spud Chandler.  Keller was in the army during the ‘44 season, and Chandler was sidelined with an injury that limited him to just one game.

Chandler’s 1943 – 20-4, 1.64 ERA – was good enough to win the MVP Award.  Keller didn’t any awards, but the underrated, unibrow-sporting outfielder mashed at the plate, to the tune of 271/396/525.  How could the Yankees replace these two?

Well, they are the Yankees.  First of all, Chandler’s MVP season was really just a nice surprise.  He was 35 years old and had only been decent for two seasons in his major league career.  The injury didn’t help things, but it’s doubtful that the Yanks were relying on another MVP season from Chandler.  The ‘43 team’s pitching staff was pretty darn slim to begin with, with Chandler backed up by non-household names such as Tiny Bonham, Butch Wensloff and Atley Donald.  Some of these guys were decent – and would be again in ‘44 – but there’s a reason the Bronx Bombers finished 83-71 and missed the World Series that year.

The Yankees outfield that lost DiMaggio in ‘42 now had another set of Kong-sized shoes to fill.  Hersh Martin – making his first big-league appearance in four years – actually performed well, hitting 302/371/445. But other than stalwart Johnny Lindell, all the Yanks could muster in the outfield was Bud Metheny, who hit 239/316/355. If Ruth hadn’t had lung cancer at this point, he might have been Plan C …

The last player on the war list is Stan Musial.  I mentioned that Musial had an off-year as a 21-year-old in ‘42 (351/397/490).  In 1943, Stan Musial the all-time great showed up, hitting 357/425/562 (all of which led the league) and winning the MVP.  He was the best player in the league by far again in 1944, but the voters decided to go for the “scrappy” guy, and fellow Cardinal Marty Marion won (a gold glover, yes, but the man was 116 points of OBP behind Musial).

Musial was 24 when he sat out the 1945 season in the service, and there’s simply no replacement for a 24-year-old Stan Musial.  The Cardinals improvised pretty well, though, bringing up rookie infielder Red Schoendienst and putting him in the outfield to fill the void.  The Cards still managed to win 95 games in 1945, but they finished second to the Cubs.

1997: Florida Marlins trade Kevin Brown to San Diego Padres for Derrek Lee, Rafael Medina and Steve Hoff

The champagne on the clubhouse floor was barely dry when the 1997 World Champion Florida Marlins began gutting their team.  I’ve spilled a lot of ink megabytes over the destruction of the ‘97 Marlins in the past, most notably here.  So I won’t recap that dark era of baseball history again.

Brown had one year left on his contract, and the Marlins sure as hell weren’t paying him, so they traded him to someone who wanted to win in 1998 (as the Padres did, taking the NL Pennant).  In return, they did get a serviceable first baseman who turned out to be a good deal better than that.  Lee was a good glove man with solid secondary skills who only became a star after he was traded to the Cubs (in a deal that netted the Marlins Hee-Seop Choi. Oops.) That’s still not enough for an elite pitcher in his prime, even for one year, but it’s one of the more balanced trades the Fish made during the purge.

2011:  Albert Pujols leaves the St. Louis Cardinals to sign a 10-year, $254 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels.

Obviously I can’t say how this one will turn out.  From the Angels’ point of view, I was hesitant at first, but I’ve largely come around to it.  It’s not a bargain by any means, and it relies on the fact that a) Pujols really is 31 and b) 2011 was just a bump in the road, and he has a pleasant, Musial-esque aging curve ahead of him.  Since the deal is heavily back-loaded, the aging curve is important.

Still, as Joe Sheehan has pointed out, Albert Pujols is the reason you spend big bucks on the free agent market.  The truly elite players are not, generally, overpaid on the free agent market. The real lost money is in paying big bucks to mid-level talent.  Compare:  the contract that the Rangers signed A-Rod to in 2001 would have ended prior to this season, had A-Rod not opted out and negotiated a new deal with the Yankees.  That deal, very nearly identical to the contract Pujols signed, was a blockbuster – and a bargain. A-Rod won multiple MVP Awards, and he even brought home a World Series win.  Of course, A-Rod was just 25 when that deal was signed and a shortstop. For the Angels, you have to be prepared to pay a 41-year-old (DH?) a ghastly amount of money.

But if the Angels win a World Series during the life of the contract, that heals wounds AND brings in cash, so everybody’s happy.  Plus, as Sheehan pointed out, Albert will be chasing a number of records during the life of the contract.  He’s already got 2000 hits, so it’s only going to be about six years before he gets to 3,000, and after that he’s likely going to end up with more hits than anyone since Pete Rose.  He’s also got a realistic shot at becoming the all-time home run king, challenging the record held by Barry Bonds (or, in a few years, perhaps Alex Rodriguez).

From the Cardinals’ point of view this is bad news.  No, I don’t charge money for such insights.

Since he’s gone, let’s not talk about what the Cardinals could have done and instead stress what they will do.  Not having to pay Pujols means they can easily bring back Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter without really feeling it in the pocketbook.  Lance Berkman, who “played” right field last year, moves back to his best position the position where he can do the least damage, first base. The Cards signed Carlos Beltran to a reasonable two-year deal to replace Berkman in right field.  Along with Matt Holliday*, Jon Jay, and Allen Craig, the Cardinals have plenty of guys to fill the corner outfield spots – and no true center fielder.  But I digress …

* – If I may borrow the “Pozterisk” from Joe Posnanski, do you remember a few years ago when everyone was debating who the better free agent was:  Matt Holliday or Jason Bay?  That seems like a LONG time ago.

The Cardinals are lucky to play in the NL Central, where no team looks like a favorite right now.  They’re stuck there with the Reds and Brewers somewhere between 85 and 90 wins, and it may just be up to chance who wins the division.  The Cardinals would be advised to take steps to remedy this, but even if they don’t, they’ve still got a fighter’s chance to repeat as division champions.


If there’s anything to be learned from this exercise, it’s this:

A) Good teams get over the loss of a superstar surprisingly well.  They’re typically good at finding undervalued replacements (either through the draft or through trades) and can also improvise and patch up holes in the short-term, as the Cardinals did in the 1940’s when their Hall-of-Famers were called overseas.

B)  Teams don’t let their superstars get away easily.  I really expected three or four more names to pop up in the free agency era, but to my immense surprise, Albert Pujols was the first World Series team MVP (as determined by WAR) to leave his team via free agency.  I’m sure I could get more results if I broadened the parameters – as I noted in the “almost division” – but I think great players tend to stay with teams for quite a while, in spite of the common view of free agency.

So take heart, Cardinal fans; the Yankees lost DiMaggio to the army in 1942 and won the World Series in 1943.

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