Generally speaking, pitchers as talented as David Cone don't get shopped around much during their prime years. On Baseball-Reference's list of comparables, for instance, Cone is similar to Tommy Bridges (whole career in Detroit), Dwight Gooden, Orel Hershiser (each spent prime years with one team) and Bob Welch (two teams for the duration of his career).
But Cone managed to travel widely over the course of a career that looks just short of being Cooperstown-worthy, with most of the trades coming during his best years. Let's take a look at the deals that sent him from place to place.
The Kansas City Royals drafted Cone in 1981, and he had some early success before missing the entire 1983 season due to torn cartilage in his left knee. He returned in 1984, but his command didn't, and the Royals tried converting him to a reliever before they sent him to the Mets on March 27, 1987, along with Chris Jelic, for Rick Anderson, Mauro Gozzo and Ed Hearn.
To call this a win for the Mets would be a massive understatement. Cone managed a 3.71 ERA in 1987, then put together a 20-3, 2.22 ERA season in 1988. His strikeout rate climbed to 8.3/9, which would ultimately be his career mark. Over the next five years, Cone starred for the Mets, twice leading the National League in strikeouts.
But near the end of the 1992 season, the Mets decided it was time to trade Cone, despite Cone's strong 121 ERA+ and youth (he was still just 29). It is hard to imagine, in retrospect, the kind of timetable for contention that wouldn't include Cone, but on August 27, he headed to Toronto for Ryan Thompson and Jeff Kent.
The trade has to be considered a limited win for both sides. For the Mets, giving away Cone earned them one terrific player in Kent, whom they ultimately traded away before he blasted most of his home runs, and Ryan Thompson, a center fielder whose performance never approached his tools.
The Blue Jays got 53 innings of 2.55 ERA pitching from Cone in the regular season, along with four strong starts in the playoffs, as Toronto won the World Series. Flags fly forever, so there's that. But giving up Kent for such a small amount of Cone is hardly a massive victory.
Cone signed with the Royals following the 1992 season, and provided a pair of strong seasons, including a 16-5, 2.94 ERA campaign as a 31-year-old in the strike-shortened 1994 season.
For his work, he was rewarded by getting traded twice in 1995.
First, the Blue Jays re-acquired Cone on April 6, trading David Sinnes, Tony Medrano and Chris Stynes to Kansas City. Only Stynes reached the big leagues, while Cone pitched to an ERA+ of 140 in 138.1 innings with Toronto.
But teams with 56-88 records don't need Cone-like starters (or rather, they need many more of them), and Toronto shipped Cone to the New York Yankees for Jason Jarvis, Mike Gordon and Marty Janzen. Janzen was supposed to be the big prize for Toronto – he pitched to a 2.87 ERA over a pair of levels in 1995 – but he never reached that level of performance in the minors or the majors.
As for Cone, he continued his excellence for the Yankees. His six seasons in the Bronx included 922 innings and a 3.91 ERA. Fascinatingly, though, he was actually a better pitcher with the Yankees than he was with the Mets once you adjust for park and time period. His raw ERA was 3.13 with the Mets, but Cone checks in with a 112 ERA+ with the Mets and a 119 ERA+ with the Yankees.
Even that understates his Yankee performance, thanks to a nightmarish 4-14, 6.91 ERA year in 2000. From 1996 to 1999, Cone had an ERA+ of 142 with New York.
Ultimately, what is Cone's trade legacy? He failed to disappoint any team that acquired him. The lesson here: for a pitcher of Cone's caliber, get a hefty return.