Current New York Mets General Manager Sandy Alderson described Rickey Henderson as the best player he's ever had in any of his organizations. And yet, Alderson managed to trade Henderson not once, but twice. In between, Alderson re-acquired him and won a World Series with him. Arguably, Alderson managed to come out on top in all three trades.
So during a one-on-one discussion with MLB Trade Rumors this past weekend, Alderson was happy to reminisce about the finest leadoff hitter in baseball history, and his many transactions.
When Alderson first traded Henderson in December 1984, Rickey had completed five-and-a-half seasons as a major leaguer. His career line at that point was .291/.400/.408, good for an OPS+ of 131, and he'd hit more than 10 home runs just once in any season. He was entering his age-26 season.
"Well, probably in 1985, we didn't have a full appreciation of all his talents," Alderson said as we spoke just outside the Mets' spring clubhouse in Port St. Lucie, Florida. "We were a team in need of additional strength at a variety of positions. The players we got for Rickey actually turned out pretty well. And it was one of those things where the contract may have had something to do with it as well."
Indeed, while the Yankees signed Henderson to a five-year, $8.6MM deal after acquiring him, they gave up a ton of talent for the right to do so. New York sent Tim Birtsas, Jay Howell, Stan Javier, Eric Plunk and Jose Rijo to Oakland for Henderson, minor league pitcher Bert Bradley and cash.
Oakland didn't have the resources to re-sign Henderson or the surrounding talent to justify an extension, yet the haul Alderson got for the soon-to-be-free agent was substantial. In Howell, the Athletics added a reliever coming off of a dominant season, just turning 29, who would go on to make the All-Star team in three of his next five seasons. Jose Rijo was one of the finest pitching prospects in the game, though injuries kept him from reaching his potential until he arrived in Cincinnati. Javier was a useful outfield piece, while Birtsas and Plunk were both big, strong pitchers who'd been drafted high by the Yankees – Plunk in the fourth round of the 1981 draft, Birtsas in the second round of the 1982 draft.
"I don't think we knew exactly who would be the centerpiece of that deal,' Alderson recalled. "Jay Howell was an All Star reliever. Jose Rijo beat us up pretty badly in the 1990 World Series. Stan Javier was a good player. Eric Plunk pitched in the major leagues for quite a while. Tim Birtsas had a short career. I don't think we knew, but Rijo was more highly touted than some of the others."
But as Alderson acknowledged, it is uncommon to receive contributions from all five players in a five-for-two deal.
"Sometimes you get a little bit lucky," Alderson said. "You try and identify players in a trade, but these days, even for a quality player, it's tough to get four or five players, and certainly four or five top prospects."
Alderson wasn't ready to take credit for his heist resulting in that reluctance, the way many believe the Herschel Walker deal affected NFL transactions.
"No, I think it's the money now being paid to more experienced players. The fact that a 25-year-old who's controllable is worth a lot more to a team, but also, teams are far less willing to move a player like that."
Fast forward to the summer of 1989, and the Athletics were in a far different place when Henderson publicly expressed a desire to get out of New York. Oakland won the American League pennant in 1988, but lost to the Dodgers in the World Series. So to Alderson, bringing Henderson back had everything to do with finding that final piece, rather than making a move to please the Oakland fans by reuniting them with an Oakland native. Paying the price of Plunk, no longer a prospect, pitcher Greg Cadaret and outfielder Luis Polonia turned out to be a huge move for Oakland in June 1989.
"I don't think it had anything to do with the fans. I think it was about improving the team from '88 to '89", Alderson said. "I don't think there's any doubt that Rickey Henderson was a huge difference between our success in '89 and our loss to the Dodgers in '88. He made us a much better team."
The numbers back up Alderson's contention. Henderson was the 1989 ALCS MVP, putting up a 1.609 OPS and stealing eight bases. In the 1989 World Series, that OPS dropped all the way to… 1.419. He had another three stolen bases, too.
That dominance carried right into the 1990 season, when Henderson captured the AL MVP award, posted an OPS of 1.016 (good for an OPS+ of 188), stole 65 bases in 75 attempts and hit 28 home runs. It might be the finest all-around season any hitter ever enjoyed. As Alderson pointed out, the Reds stymied the Athletics in the 1990 World Series, led by former Oakland pitcher and Henderson transaction veteran Jose Rijo.
Though the Reds denied the A's back-to-back titles, Henderson did his part. Alderson says the A's were ready for him again by 1989.
"I think so, yes, and also taking advantage of an opportunity that presented itself. I don't recall whether they reached out to me, or I read about it and called them. But definitely something we were interested in – we thought he could make a difference. There was a little bit of disagreement in the organization about bringing him back, but I'm glad we did."
Perhaps Alderson's most inventive swapping of Henderson came in July of 1993. The once-great Athletics had fallen on hard times. Henderson had an OPS+ of 182, but his fellow stars on the three-time pennant winners had fallen prey to age and injury. With Oakland headed for a seventh-place finish, and Henderson to free agency, Alderson traded him on July 31, 1993 to Toronto for pitcher Steve Karsay and outfielder Jose Herrera. After Henderson led Toronto to the World Series, he re-signed with Oakland that winter.
"They had an interest in him," Alderson said of Toronto and Henderson. "I think, from our standpoint, we were looking at beginning to rebuild that team. We got a couple of players that we liked – Steve Karsay was one of them."
In other words, Alderson got two of Baseball America's Top 100 prospects in exchange for a few months of Henderson that wouldn't have helped the Athletics, anyway. The deal seems less one-sided because of the World Series title and Karsay's subsequent injuries (Baseball America rated him 12th among MLB prospects). And Herrera, seldom discussed, never broke through in the major leagues, but as recently as 2010, hit .337/.389/.468 for the York Revolution of the Atlantic League.
Alderson added, joking, "I'm not sure if we brought Rickey back again after that," but he did talk about reaching out to Larry Lucchino when he ran the San Diego Padres to recommend that he sign Henderson. In other words, he may have traded him twice, but Alderson did so without malice. And for Mets fans worried that Alderson is about to deal a player many have compared to Henderson – Jose Reyes - it should be reassuring that no matter what side of a Henderson deal Alderson was on, he came out ahead.