When future generations see the ludicrous offensive numbers Rickey Henderson put up, they are going to be shocked when they see how many times he changed teams during his career. Thirteen times, Rickey Henderson found a new employer (even though, much of the time, he returned to previous employers). Four times, Henderson got traded.
So what exactly can a team expect to give up for the greatest leadoff hitter of all time? Surprisingly little, on balance. Let's travel back to a time when a player of Henderson's caliber made a small fraction of Jayson Werth's annual salary.
Henderson began his career with Oakland, who drafted him in the fourth round of the 1976 draft. He made quick work of the farm system, and debuted at age 20 in 1979. By 1980, he was the player he'd be for essentially the next two decades, with an OPS+ of 134, 100 stolen bases, and 117 walks.
However, the New York Yankees sought Henderson, and were willing to give up a ton of prospects to get their hands on him. On December 5, 1984, New York dealt Tim Birtsas, Jay Howell, Stan Javier, Eric Plunk and Jose Rijo to Oakland for Henderson and pitcher Bert Bradley, who would never appear in a game for the Yankees.
The most valuable pieces in the deal were Howell, who made a pair of All-Star games with Oakland, then helped them land Bob Welch in a trade. Jose Rijo put up some strong seasons, but only after the A's traded him for highly-used Dave Parker. Birtsas and Javier had a few decent years as a reliever and backup outfielder, respectively, while Plunk bided his time as Oakland's swingman, in case his path and Henderson's would cross again.
Five years later, it did. Henderson continued his excellence in New York, though his power seemed to be disappearing as he turned 30. On June 21, 1989, the Yankees traded Henderson and his .349 slugging percentage on the season back to Oakland, receiving Plunk, Greg Cadaret and Luis Polonia in return.
Plunk continued a strong career as a middle reliever that lasted until the end of the decade. Greg Cadaret had middling results in three seasons as a swingman. And Polonia lasted less than a calendar year with the Yankees before they sent him to the Angels. So this one was a heist. Henderson found his power stroke back in Oakland, and had his finest season ever in 1990. He posted a 188 OPS+, hit 28 home runs, stole 65 bases in 75 attempts, and helped the A's to another American League pennant.
Henderson was fantastic in 1991 and 1992 as well, and was en route to a season the equal of 1990 in 1993 when the A's, out of contention, traded the free agent-to-be to the Toronto Blue Jays on July 31, 1993. Toronto sent back top pitching prospect Steve Karsay and toolsy outfielder Jose Herrera. Karsay couldn't overcome numerous injuries and Herrera never put it together. And yet, the trade wasn't the win one would assume. For whatever reason, Henderson completely tanked with Toronto, with a 182 OPS+ prior to the trade in 1993, but just an 83 OPS+ after the deal.
After the season, Henderson signed with the A's, and also stopped in San Diego, where he was traded for the final time on August 13, 1997. This time, San Diego's trade partner was the Calfornia Angels, who were just a half-game out of first. They picked up Henderson, minor leaguers Stevenson Agosto and Ryan Hancock for George Arias. The primary result of this deal is the journeyman Arias can tell his grandchildren he was traded for Rickey Henderson and additional players. Henderson, for his part, completely tanked in Anaheim, putting up an OPS+ of 60. He'd been at 118 for San Diego prior to the trade.
So what have we learned from Henderson's trades? A few things. One is, it is astonishingly hard to get value in prospects, even if the team trading those prospects was the mid-80s New York Yankees. For another, it is probably a bad idea to deal a Rickey Henderson-level player when he is 25 years old. And Henderson's reputation as a player who needs a comfort level to succeed seems reinforced by his performance following two of his deals, both of them in-season. The only time he thrived after being traded mid-year, it was a deal returning him to his original team, the A's.
Most of all, it makes this question worth pondering: if Bill James' argument – that you could divide Henderson's production in half and have two Hall of Famers – had become reality, how many times would those two players have switched teams? Did I just blow your mind?