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.

41 Responses to Reliving Rickey Henderson Trades With Alderson Leave a Reply

  1. $1961279 4 years 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. 😉

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

    • $1961279 4 years 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.

  3. 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.

    • start_wearing_purple
      start_wearing_purple 4 years 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.

      • 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.

        • start_wearing_purple
          start_wearing_purple 4 years 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.

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

          • paulio_male_gigalo 4 years 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.

        • Hubbs2 4 years ago

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

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

  4. PeterJMoss 4 years ago

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

    • RahZid 4 years 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.

      • mp87 4 years 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

        • start_wearing_purple
          start_wearing_purple 4 years 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.

          • RahZid 4 years 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.

        • Encarnacion's Parrot 4 years 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].

          • mp87 4 years 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

        • RahZid 4 years ago

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

          • mp87 4 years 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

          • RahZid 4 years ago

            Ok….. that still isn’t a loss.

        • bjsguess 4 years 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.

    • FowlofCanada 4 years 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.

  5. Gumby65 4 years ago

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

  6. The rest of this story: If the Mariners GM had answered his phone more quickly, Karsay would have went to Seattle for Randy Johnson. Henderson was Plan B.

  7. Encarnacion's Parrot 4 years ago

    Hard to say who the best shortstop to ever play the game is between Ripken and Henderson, but being in the top 2 ever isn’t so bad.

  8. woadude 4 years ago

    A sacrifice fly will always be known as a Rickey run, Rickey Henderson would steal 2nd and 3rd and a sacrifice fly would score him, he would always end up on 3rd base with no outs or one outs and the shallowest of fly balls would score him.

  9. HerbertAnchovy 4 years ago

    I’m guessing the link to Luis Polonia is incorrect, unless they traded a four-year-old!

    • start_wearing_purple
      start_wearing_purple 4 years ago

      Well teams have been signing younger and younger prospects.

    • AaronAngst 4 years ago

      I saw Luis Polonia play for the Madison Muskies in the mid-80’s before he was even a zygote! Great looking jheri curl on that kid… almost on par with Henderson.

      • HerbertAnchovy 4 years ago

        Ahh, the jheri curl. The most exciting hair in baseball.

  10. Is this an April Fools column?

    I didn’t really see how Alderson came out ahead. He dealt a HOFer and got back serviceable players. Plus, Rijo hit his stride only when he went to Cincinnatti. Also, Alderson dealt Rijo + Birtsas for 37-year old Dave Parker. The net return on Henderson was terrible.

    A heist? Really?

    I remember the Mets traded Seaver for some serviceable players too; Zachary, Henderson, Flynn, and Norman. Did the Mets come out ahead? In my mind to come out ahead on dealing a future HoFer, a team better receive at least 1 impact player in return.

    The author mentions that Alderson dealt Henderson a second time – to Toronto – for highly rated prospects…okay that’s nice. Did they pan out? No.

    I’m not knocking Alderson’s decision on for whom he dealt Henderson – Rijo, Birtsas, Karsey, etc were all well regarded young prospects. I am knocking the author’s thesis that Alderson came out ahead. He did not.

  11. AaronAngst 4 years ago

    I’m with you on your thesis – this seems like a pro-Alderson propaganda hit piece to me.

  12. there is no way that you can spin the trade to Toronto as being a good one for Oakland. Karsay was a great prospect but never panned out. It doesn’t matter in the least that Oakland was going to lose him anyways, or that they were a 7th place team going no where. They had a great asset to trade and in the end they got little in return. Let’s just call it the way it is instead of trying to make a story here.

    • How about this attempt:

      1. No matter how great an asset, it is only so valuable in a trade if the asset can only be utilized for 2 months. So the asset of Henderson had extremely limited rental value…see what the Braves got in return for Texieira, for instance. The fact they got 2 top 100 prospects was a good return at the time of the trade. So when the trade was made, it was a good trade.

      2. Looking down the road, the 2 players didn’t pan out. So does this make it a bad trade? Absolutely not! That season Oakland was going nowhere and they brought Henderson back the next season. So Oakland, even if they did not receive either prospect, came out ahead in the trade because they did not have to pay one of their more expensive contracts when the post season was out of reach. Henderson made about $3.5 million that year, so I’m guessing that Oakland saved a least $1 million (in 1993 baseball dollars), which they were able to invest in future years instead of burn on a lost season. Also, they were able to bring him back for another try the next season. So the trade was still a good trade.

      Look at it this way. Suppose several branches of a sales company compete every year for an awesome prize based on having the highest sales. Your branch, unfortunately, is out of the competition early, but even more unfortunately, still is paying some expensive contracts. Then another branch comes along and says they will pay the rest of the contract for one of your expensive salesmen, plus they will give you two trainees that are cheap and whose contracts are controlled for years who have a potential to be good salesmen, plus you can resign the salesman at the end of the year after his contract is up anyway. I think you would be ecstatic as a a branch manager to make that deal. And if the two trainees don’t work out, you’re still pretty happy with the deal.

  13. The problem with that Ralf is that a few months of a player in the last year of his deal is not a “great asset”, it dimishes there value greatly. That is why Greinke got moved with 2 years left on his deal, dealing him at the deadline next year and they would not get near as much. It makes sense for any team not contending with a star player(if they can’t afford him, or don’t think he will re-sign) to trade him for what they can get. This is interesting though because Rickey re-signed in the off-season, makes me wonder if him and Alderson had a gentlemans agreement to trade him to a contender and then re-sign back in Oakland in the off-season.

  14. Any trade where you lose Rickey is a BAD trade.

    You don’t trade away hall of famers.

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