Reliving Rickey Henderson Trades With Alderson

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.


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41 Comments on "Reliving Rickey Henderson Trades With Alderson"


Member
$1961279
4 years 3 months ago

Nice piece, but what article about Rickey is complete w/o reading what Rickey has to say about Rickey being traded and that Rickey always did what Rickey did no matter how Rickey was treated wherever Rickey played. 😉

Member
4 years 3 months ago

Nice piece! I’m a huge fan of Rickey. I bet he could still play.

Member
$1961279
4 years 3 months ago

absolutely. For some reason there is not a lot of attention paid to the fact Rickey totally changed the idea of a lead-off hitter. He changed the game bringing clean-up hitter power and elite base stealing all in the same package wrapped with excellent defense.

I might kid about how Rickey always talked about Rickey in the 3rd person but he was and is one of my all time favorite players and I was crushed when the Dodgers did not reach a deal for him when he was first moved.

Still a lot of his SB’s were the more meaningless sort when his teams were losing or leading by a ton. Then again that also put it into the head of the other team the guy could steal whenever he wanted no matter the situation.

He was just fun to watch play the game and I never read a teammate had any probs with him and his effort on the field.

Member
4 years 3 months ago

Rickey is easily one of the ten best hitters of all-time. I mean, just, wow.

And this piece just happens to point out that Alderson is one of the best GMs.

Member
start_wearing_purple
4 years 3 months ago

I think top 10 hitter is a bit of a tough sell for me. In no particular order:
Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, Rogers Hornsby, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Jimmie Foxx, Tris Speaker, Willie Mays, Carl Yastrzemski, and a few others…

I think the man was clearly a legendary player, but I can’t call him a top 10 hitter.

Guest
4 years 3 months ago

If you are looking at stats alone and not personal problem you have to put Barry Bonds and Pete Rose in there too. Also in the next 5 years you may have to put Ichiro and Pujols in that list too.

Member
start_wearing_purple
4 years 3 months ago

Eh, I was just naming a few. Both Rose and Bonds could easily show up in the argument and if you include Ichiro’s Japan numbers then he should show up in the argument. But Pujols, yeah another 5 years at this production and he’ll easily be considered top 10.

Guest
4 years 3 months ago

Absolutely not Pete Rose. He’s not a top 50 hitter of all time.

Member
paulio_male_gigalo
4 years 12 hours ago

Yeah Pete Rose never posted an OPS above 1.000 is his whole career. OPS might not be a fair stat when considering the type of hitter he was but you definitely can’t ignore it. He was definitely a very good hitter but I wouldn’t call him one of the greats. Top 50 isn’t out of the question but it’s kind of a stretch when you start listing the undeniable greats and realizing how many there are.

Member
Hubbs2
4 years 3 months ago

Longevity does not make you an all time great hitter. Rose was barely a .300 hitter, with no power

Member
4 years 3 months ago

I meant top-10 more in the sense that he would be in the all-time greatest lineup ever made, I guess.

Member
PeterJMoss
4 years 3 months ago

Fun article… but considering they got nothing out of either of the guys they got from Toronto in retrospect they lost that deal.

Member
JB3
4 years 3 months ago

What exactly did they lose? They weren’t making the playoffs anyway. It certainly wasn’t a coup, but it wasn’t a loss either…. not sure what you could call it.

Member
mp87
4 years 3 months ago

but the point is, toronto won the deal…any trade you make that leads to a world series is called a win…its a win regardless of who they got in return. Just like how boston won the beckett for hanley ramirez trade the day boston won a world series with him. only thing is of course toronto hardly got a hall of famer in the trade the way he played down the stretch lol

Member
start_wearing_purple
4 years 3 months ago

Even as a Red Sox fan I’d have to argue the Red Sox/Marlins trade was an incredibly even trade.

As for “any trade you make that leads to a world series is called a win,” 2007 Gange traded to the Red Sox. I could probably find more if I looked.

Member
JB3
4 years 3 months ago

I’m really sick of this argument, but the Gagne trade wasn’t nearly as bad as people seem to think. Yes, Gagne was terrible in Boston, but not much was given up for him in hindsight, and we used the draft pick we got from Gagne for Hagadone, who was the high upside piece traded in the VMart deal.

Member
Encarnacion's Parrot
4 years 3 months ago

Toronto didn’t make the playoffs because of Henderson. The guy had a .675 OPS with the Jays, and in the playoffs? .411 OPS in the ALCS, and .711 in the WS [not bad, but not Henderson-ish].

Member
mp87
4 years 3 months ago

i knew it was bad, though i didn’t need to look it up and mentioned he wasn’t hall of fame rickey in my post. so i did look up the team stats. Turner ward became the 4th outfielder. He was starting…he hit 192 with a 287 obp…the trade still resulted in an upgrade despite his poor play and still stole 22 bases on 24 attempts down the stretch. his on base percentage down the stretch was better than most and his speed still played just as much a factor as it always had. they would have walked away with that division even more than they had if he continued hitter 327 with a 469 obp, but i guess they wanted to keep things interesting

Member
JB3
4 years 3 months ago

But you weren’t arguing that Toronto won the deal, only that Oakland lost it, which wasn’t the case.

Member
mp87
4 years 3 months ago

for oakland it was really a nothing deal, it was like it never happened because rickey was back the next season and karsay never contributed…Herrera got into 141 games in the 2 years after the shortened season and thats it

Member
JB3
4 years 3 months ago

Ok….. that still isn’t a loss.

Member
bjsguess
4 years 3 months ago

Both sides can “win” in a transaction. Oakland received salary relief. At that stage of the season salary relief was just fine with them.

Toronto received a stud player, who performed poorly. However, it was still an upgrade that cost them next to nothing.

I call that a win/win for both organizations. They each received value from the transaction.

Member
FowlofCanada
4 years 3 months ago

The fans really like Steve Karsay. He was on the brink of becoming a major league starter. I remember fans on Jays talk were split on whether they gave up too much at the time of the deal. It’s too bad Karsay had injury problems. When you trade for potential, it some times happens that way.

Member
Gumby65
4 years 3 months ago

Untimely card games in Atlanta not withstanding, Rickey being Rickey was nothing short of a good time.