When picturing the 1994 Trade Deadline, it is appropriate to see increasing cloudiness, feel the air become thick with storm, and hear thunder in the distance.
Deadline deals were fewer in 1994, with a strike looming that many felt- correctly, it turned out- would make acquiring players with the postseason in mind an utterly futile exercise. That uncertainty is reflected in the choices teams made.
But with a season on, and no precedent whatsoever for the cancellation of the World Series, there were some low-risk moves that were obviously made with a playoff run in mind. Let's take a look at what might have been:
- The Dodgers released Darryl Strawberry, who failed to live up to the free agent contract he signed after the 1990 season. The Giants signed the 32-year-old on June 19, hoping he had something left. Strawberry hit .239/.363/.424 for the Giants, and in fact, his stats from the moment he signed with San Francisco to the end of his career included four more seasons of part-time work with an OPS above .800.
- Two days later, the Cincinnati Reds signed Ron Gant, who had celebrated the signing of a multi-year deal by breaking his leg in an ATV accident. Gant didn't play in 1994, but in 1995, hit .276/.386/.554 for the Reds with 29 home runs.
- And in the third of the trio of once-great signings, the Phillies picked up Fernando Valenzuela on June 24. He pitched 45 innings of 3.00 ERA baseball, walking just seven and striking out 19 despite the handicap of not looking at the catcher when he pitched.
- The first significant 1994-based trade occurred on July 1, when Boston sent struggling reliever Jeff Russell to Cleveland for pitchers Chris Nabholz and Steve Farr. None of the three pitchers contributed much in 1994. Russell failed to rediscover the form that allowed him to pitch to a 2.70 ERA in 1993- his mark was 5.14 in Boston in 1994, 4.97 in Cleveland. Meanwhile, Nabholz was finished as a useful pitcher and Farr had just 13 innings of 6.23 ERA pitching left.
- Why, you might ask, did the 1994 Seattle Mariners, who finished 49-63, make a July 21 trade to shore up their bullpen? Easy: they acquired Shawn Boskie from the Philadelphia Phillies for minor leaguer Fred McNair because 49-63 meant they were just two games off the lead in the American League West.
- If Matt Williams and Tony Gwynn think the 1994 strike came at an inopportune time, their gripe pales next to Brian R. Hunter, who was traded from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati on July 27 for minor league slugger Micah Franklin. Hunter promptly became one of the best deadline acquisitions ever, hitting .304/.346/.870 with four home runs in 26 at-bats… only to see the strike interrupt his season. Williams and Gwynn had more moments of glory, but Hunter never again approached a 1.216 OPS.
- Finally, on July 31, just one trade occurred. The Phillies traded outfielder Milt Thompson to the Astros for reliever Tom Edens. Both were briefly helpful for their new teams in 1994, but never again. Truly, the strike also deprived both Edens and Thompson of their last hurrahs.
Baseball fans still remember 1994 as the year America was deprived of pennant races, and the Expos were kept from their destiny: finally winning a World Series. (There's a reason Youppi still cries when the strike is brought up.) And for secondary characters throughout baseball, 1994 was a year of 'what could have been.'