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Revisiting the Bret Saberhagen trade

What was Herk Robinson thinking?

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Kansas City Royals Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

In 1991, the Royals finished in sixth place, only the second time in franchise history they had finished that low in the standings, with the only other time happening in the previous season. They weren't a terrible team - they were still above .500 at 82-80. But the disappointing season had cost manager John Wathan his job at midseason, and it took a hot streak under new manager Hal McRae to finish with a winning record.

The Royals still had pitching as a strength, finishing fourth in the league in ERA from the starting rotation. Former two-time Cy Young winner Bret Saberhagen anchored a rotation with veterans Mike Boddicker and Mark Gubicza, with up-and-coming Kevin Appier and Tom Gordon entering their prime. But the lineup was in disarray. They finished eighth in runs scored, but mostly on the back of a monster season from right-fielder Danny Tartabull, who was a free agent likely to be out of Kansas City's price range. Young players like catcher Brent Mayne and second baseman Terry Shumpert were proving to be disappointing busts and the team was ready to move on from declining veterans like shortrstop Kurt Stillwell and third baseman Kevin Seitzer. Designated hitter George Brett was 38 years old, first baseman Todd Benzinger hit just two home runs in 1991 and free agent left fielder Kirk Gibson proved to be a flop.

General Manager Herk Robinson had taken over in 1990 when John Schuerholz had bolted for Atlanta. His background was in business operations for the club, a role he had done for a decade, although he did have some experience as an assistant scouting director. He got right to work that winter, taking advantage of a rift between the Angels and All-Star first baseman Wally Joyner. Joyner, angered by treatment by ownership for years, turned down a multi-year deal from the Halos and signed a one-year, $4.2 million deal with Kansas City.

At the Winter Meetings, Robinson was able to get rid of some unwanted players, sending Benzinger to the Dodgers for reserve outfielder Chis Gwynn, and unloading free agent bust Storm Davis on the Orioles for backup catcher Bob Melvin. But the biggest move was yet to come.

According to John Feinstein in Play Ball: The Life and Troubled Times of Major League Baseball, Herk Robinson was looking to revamp his lineup, and was willing to use his pitching to do it. Feinstein recounts the discussions between Robinson and Mets General Manager Al Harazin.

"I just wanted to tell you that I'm willing to talk about any pitcher on our staff," Robinson told Harazin.

Harazin took a deep breath. "That includes Saberhagen?"

"Any pitcher on our staff," the K.C. GM repeated.

Saberhagen was the jewel of the Royals roster at the time. He was a two-time Cy Young winner, a World Series MVP, and he was still in his prime at age 27. He had two years left on a contract that would pay him $5.5 million, and although he was coming off two consecutive years in which he had battled injuries, he was still one of the best pitchers in baseball.

Best pitchers 1988-1991 rWAR Age W-L ERA FIP IP
Roger Clemens 31.3 25-28 74-39 2.67 2.53 1017.0
Bret Saberhagen 22.1 24-27 55-39 3.04 2.88 854.1
Frank Viola 20.9 28-31 70-51 3.22 3.18 997.1
Mark Langston 20.7 27-30 60-50 3.34 3.61 980.2
Tom Candiotti 20.2 30-33 55-42 3.15 3.31 862.2

Robinson initially tried to get the Mets interested in Appier, who at 23, was much younger with much more potential. But the Mets wanted a proven ace, and Saberhagen was their man. Robinson's intial asking price was not prospects, but three Major League starting-caliber players.

The centerpiece would be Gregg Jefferies. One of the most highly touted prospects in baseball as a minor leaguer, Jefferies had been a bit underwhelming in his first three full Major League seasons. He put up a pedestrian .272/.336/.374 with nine home runs in 1991, and his defense at second base was poor enough the team was looking to move him to another position. Still, he was just 24 years old and many thought a move away from the glare (and boos) of New York City could get him back to winning batting titles as he did in the minors.

Outfielder Kevin McReynolds was expendable in New York once the Mets landed big time free agent Bobby Bonilla. The 32-year old had put up big power numbers in his younger days, but his numbers were declining and he was criticized for his lack of interest in playing baseball. Still, he hit .259/.322/.416 with 16 home runs in 1991 and his 109 OPS+ would have finished third on the Royals that year.

The part the Mets had the most trouble parting with was utility infielder Keith Miller. Known as a high-motor, versatile player, Miller had trouble staying on the field due to injuries. He had hit .280/.345/.411 in 304 plate appearances that season, and the Royals envisioned him starting at second base. To appease the Mets, the Royals were willing to throw in their utility player, Bill Pecota, who was coming off a career year in 1991.

Still, Robinson was losing his nerve at making such a blockbuster deal. He was known in baseball as a General Manager who would talk big, but never close a big deal. At the last second, he insisted on the Mets throwing in a young pitcher - Anthony Young or Pete Schourek. Harazin said "absolutely not." Robinson folded. The five-player deal was done. Bret Saberhagen was headed for New York.

"Any time an organization gives up a player of Bret Saberhagen's caliber, it's a hard thing to do. But we had to take a risk and do some things that you don't always want to do. But we feel we're a better ball club because of it. We were able to fill three holes. The Mets probably were the only club in baseball talent-rich enough to do something like this."

-Herk Robinson

The move was a shock, not only to Saberhagen, who had expressed a desire to finish his career in Kansas City, but to Royals fans. The Kansas City Star was flooded with angry letters to the sports page calling for Robinson to be fired. Even around baseball, many were puzzled at what exactly the Royals were trying to do.

The consensus among the baseball minds at Miami Beach was that the Mets had committed a blatant robbery. One veteran official observed: "Ah, Kansas City to New York. It reminded me of the early '60s when the Kansas City Athletics were like a farm team for the Yanks."

-Dave Nightengale, The Sporting News

If you squint, you could kind of see Robinson's rationale however. The organization was a bit thin - the minor leagues were not pumping out the kind of talent they had in the 70s and 80s. They had added Joyner, but they knew they couldn't keep dipping into free agency to fill holes, even with the generous resources owner Ewing Kaufffman was providing to the team. Cashing in Saberhagen for three Major League starters seemed like a good way to address some needs quickly.

In a way, it paralleled a trade that would happen decades later, when the Royals would trade two years of ace pitcher Zack Greinke to the Brewers for three near-Major League ready starters - Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain, and Jake Odorizzi (as well as Jeremy Jeffress). But in that deal, the Royals were banking on more upside - particularly from Odorizzi, who did become a solid Major League starting pitcher. Alcides Escobar proved to be a Gold Glove winner and ALCS MVP. And Lorenzo Cain proved to have the highest upside of all, finishing third in MVP voting in 2015 with 7.2 WAR.

While Herk Robinson acquired three Major League starters, they weren't good Major League starters. Gregg Jefferies had been a bit better than a league-average hitter with serious defensive issues. Kevin McReynolds was in serious decline. Miller was a utility player with injury risk. Jefferies had some upside, but he already had 1,881 Major League plate appearances showing he wasn't an All-Star-caliber player.

The trade proved to be a pretty big flop for both teams. Both the Royals and Mets would lose 90 games that year, a feat so embarrassing in New York that it inspired the book "The Worst Team Money Could Buy." In Kansas City, the three new players performed adequately, all posting an OPS+ over 100. But that wasn't enough to make up for the loss of Tartabull, and the offense fell to third-worst in the league in runs scored. And with Saberhagen gone, the rotation fell to fifth-worst in the league in starting pitching ERA.

Jefferies struggled at third base, committing 26 errors, so the Royals shipped him to St. Louis after just one year for right fielder Felix Jose and utility infielder Craig Wilson. Jose was largely a flop in Kansas City, and was let go after just two seasons. McReynolds was solid, but unspectacular in two seasons in Kansas City, and they shipped him back to the Mets for speedy, but troubled left fielder Vince Coleman. Coleman stole 50 bases in 1994 and was credited for sparking the team, but his poor hitting and defense actually made him a well below replacement-level player in Kansas City before he was traded to the Mariners for pitcher Jim Converse. Keith Miller had one very productive season in 1992 before spending most of the rest of his career on the disabled list.

In New York, Saberhagen would make just 34 starts from 1992-1993 before he re-signed a very lucrative deal with them in which they continue to make deferred payments to him on an annual basis through 2028. He would post just a pair of 3+ WAR seasons after leaving Kansas City, averaging just 14 starts a year over the rest of his injury-filled career. Trading Saberhagen may have hurt for Royals fans, but the ace was never quite the same pitcher after that.

Mets received Seasons rWAR Royals received Seasons rWAR
Bret Saberhagen 2 4.2 Gregg Jefferies 1 2.2
Bill Pecota 1 0.4 Kevin McReynolds 2 1.9
4.6 Keith Miller 2 1.3
Felix Jose 2 0.2
Craig Wilson 1 0.4
Vince Coleman 2 -1.6
Jim Converse 2 0.0

The Bret Saberhagen trade is still a puzzling trade, but perhaps one borne out of necessity by an organization whose minor league pipeline had gone dry. Perhaps instead of insisting on three low-ceiling Major League starters, Herk Robinson should have looked to the future and asked for prospects. The Mets had the sixth-best minor league system, according to Baseball America, with future Major Leaguers like Todd Hundley, Jeromy Burnitz, and Preston Wilson, as well as young pitchers like Anthony Youny and Pete Schourek.

But with owner Ewing Kauffman looking to win one more championship, that likely wasn't an option. Instead, Robinson probably should have just held onto Saberhagen and tried to fix the lineup through alternate means, like giving young prospect Jeff Conine a chance, or looking for lower cost free agents to plug holes. Instead, the organization floundered around for most of two decades, always looking for "Major League-ready talent" because they didn't have any of their own.