The typical baseball trade of the '90s goes like this: A veteran player, often past his prime and invariably lugging a hefty salary, is unloaded for a couple of obscure, low-cost minor leaguers. The trade is rumored for days, and when the deal is finally done, the resultant impact is analyzed in a matter of seconds. Very boring.
Not so the trade made on Nov. 19, when the Montreal Expos sent second baseman Delino DeShields to the Los Angeles Dodgers for pitcher Pedro Martinez. Now that was a trade, as intriguing as it was stunning. Two young, proven talents were swapped even-up. Money was a factor, but the deal of the off-season was a trade of ability, not liability.
As one observer, Philadelphia Phillie general manager Lee Thomas, says, "You have to go back a long way to find a trade like that." At least 25 years, anyway.
Reviewing all trades made in the last quarter century, one finds that there was not a one-for-one deal involving proven major leaguers age 25 and younger rivaling this one in terms of talent and potential. On Dec. 8, 1977, the California Angels dealt second baseman Jerry Remy to the Boston Red Sox for pitcher Don Aase, and on Oct. 18, 1973, the Pittsburgh Pirates sent second baseman Dave Cash to the Phils for pitcher Ken Brett. None was older than 25 and all were good players at the time, but neither deal was on a par with DeShields for Martinez.
"It's the kind of trade you stay up nights thinking about," says former Expo general manager Dan Duquette, who orchestrated the deal for Montreal before becoming G.M. of the Red Sox in late January. At a time when more and more ball clubs are slashing their payrolls and attempting to build a contender through their farm systems rather than the open market, teams have become increasingly reluctant to deal young talent.
"It wasn't a trade for the mild-mannered," says Dodger general manager Fred Claire. "Dan and I talked about how we were going to get killed [in the public forum] on this deal. It was safer not to make the trade. But it made all the sense in the world."
Pedro, the younger brother of L.A. starter Ramon Martinez and still only 22, throws in the mid-90's. Among National League relievers last year, he was tops in victories (10), tied for first in strikeouts (113) and was second in batting average against (.187)—as a rookie. "He had as good an arm as we saw last year," says Pittsburgh Pirate coach Rich Donnelly. "Even if we'd had five strikes against him, we couldn't have hit him." Primarily a starter during his five years in the Dodger farm system, Martinez returns to that role with the Expos this season.
The 25-year-old DeShields is a lifetime .277 hitter with 187 steals over four seasons. A former point guard who accepted a basketball scholarship from Villanova before signing with the Expos, he's one of the best overall athletes in the majors, with tremendous speed and decent power. He'll be the Dodgers' leadoff hitter.
The roots of this trade reach from May 1992 when DeShields was in a batting slump and L.A. prospect Eric Karros wasn't getting much playing time at first base. The Dodgers did some research on DeShields in contemplating a possible-swap, but within a few weeks DeShields got hot while Karros moved into a starting role and was on his way to becoming the National League Rookie of the Year.
Then, at the end of last season, Montreal began looking around. The Expos needed a righthanded starter, and they also had to move a high-salaried player if they wanted to keep their 1994 payroll under $20 million. DeShields was coming off a .295 season, and with Mike Lansing (.287 as a rookie) a suitable replacement, the Montreal brass decided DeShields was their most marketable asset.
Duquette narrowed his search for an inexpensive starting pitcher to Martinez and Boston's Aaron Sele, who went 7-2 with a 2.74 ERA as a rookie last year. Then Duquette zeroed in on the Dodgers, whose needs were more compatible with what the Expos had to offer. He approached Claire at the World Series last October, and again at a meeting of general managers in November. Soon after, free-agent Jody Reed foolishly turned down a three-year, $7.8 million offer to re-sign with L.A. (he eventually signed a minor league contract with the Milwaukee Brewers for a base salary of $350,000), and Claire suddenly was looking for a second baseman.
Claire was hesitant to part with Martinez at first, offering other players instead. Karros's name even resurfaced, but Duquette wanted Martinez. Figuring there were enough up-and-coming reliever prospects who could replace Martinez, including 1993 first-round draft pick Darren Dreifort, Claire started to come around. After Duquette spoke with L.A. manager Tommy Lasorda at the Gold Glove Award dinner in New York on Nov. 18, the trade was made the next day.
"It broke our hearts to trade Delino," says Duquette, "but we had to get a starter, and there was an economic benefit."
Martinez, who made $119,000 in '93 and signed for $200,000 on March 2, won't be eligible for free agency until after the '98 season. DeShields, who signed a one-year, $2.7 million contract with the Dodgers in January, can become a free agent after the '95 season. In effect, the Expos traded two years of DeShields for five years of Martinez. The Dodgers, with few payroll concerns, figure if DeShields has two good seasons, they can sign him to a multiyear deal when he's in his prime.
"I don't know why I was traded—was it spite, was it money, or was it to improve the club?" DeShields says. "I was prepared in a way because I'd seen other guys traded while I was there. But deep down, I always thought I'd be in Montreal."
Martinez was shocked by the trade at first. "They said I was the future of the Dodgers," he says. "I was the one guy coming out of the minors who could be a starter. I could have been anything they wanted me to be. Look at the pitchers in their rotation [three starters are 32 or older]. How much future do they have?"
Claire was right about one thing: Both general managers, especially Duquette, were publicly blasted after the trade. Losing their most recognizable player was hard on many Expo fans, but Martinez won some of them back during the winter, when he brought his infectious good spirit to the club's caravan tour of Canadian cities. Now he wants so much to remain in Montreal that he says his goal in '94 "is to marry a French Canadian woman."
"His stuff is as good as anyone's," Montreal manager Felipe Alou says of his new hurler, who throws a slider and a change-up in addition to the heat. The Expos aren't as concerned about Martinez's slight 5'11". 160-pound build as the Dodgers were; two years ago he weighed 138 pounds—but still threw 90 mph. The Expos think he can pitch 200 innings.
"Last year had to be more than 200 innings," says Martinez, who pitched 107 innings in 65 appearances but warmed up on numerous other occasions. "Once I pitched three times in four days, then we went to New York, and I thought, Am I going to have to pitch today too? I did. And I threw harder than I did all year."
Dodger fans were upset about losing an enormously popular pitcher who averaged 10 strikeouts per nine innings last year. (No L.A. starter struck out as many as 10 in a game in '93.) But once the fans began hearing good reports on DeShields, the trade became more palatable to them.
In his first two big league seasons DeShields was a moody player who struck out a lot (a league-high 151 times in '91), made stupid errors and spent too much time arguing with umpires. But last year he matured on and off the field, cutting down on his strikeouts (64) and errors (11) and emerging as a team leader.
And so, at this stage, it looks as if the deal is one of those "good for both teams" arrangements. "No one got hooked on that trade," says the Phils' Thomas.
Nevertheless, San Diego Padre coach Merv Rettenmund thinks L.A. got the better end of the deal, saying. "DeShields might be the best second baseman in the league." Yet Toronto Blue Jay general manager Pat Gillick, noting the Dodgers dealt two other young arms, Tim Belcher and John Wetteland, just two years earlier, says, "It's odd from L.A.'s standpoint. They've got a little age on that staff."
Finally, baseball produced a trade that evoked passionate discussion.
"What was so interesting about this deal is that no one knew about it beforehand except Dan and myself," Claire says. "How many trades are rumored about before they're made? As a G.M., this is the way you want it: Boom! It's done."