Mike Cameron, acquired by the Marlins from the Red Sox for some salary relief this week, will probably be remembered for a trade – and it won't be this one. But a legacy of simply "the guy once traded for Ken Griffey Jr." isn't fair to Cameron.
Cameron's career has been an impressive one – ten seasons with at least 18 home runs, eight seasons with at least 22 steals, and consistently tremendous defense in center field. He's provided a ton of value to his eight teams.
And from a trade perspective, the Griffey swap is one of merely four exchanges involving Cameron. All of them, save the most recent one, had huge impacts on each team involved in every deal. Think of Cameron like a trade Zelig, if Woody Allen could play center field.
The White Sox selected Cameron in the 18th round of the 1991 draft. By 1995, he'd made the major leagues, and by 1997, he'd become the Cameron he'd be for nearly all of the next decade-plus – OPS+ of 109, great defense in center field. But he had his one bad year in 1998, with his OPS+ dropping to 63.
Meanwhile, the Reds had this power-hitting first baseman they'd just acquired that July from the Dodgers for Jeff Shaw: Paul Konerko. On November 11, 1998, the two teams made a one-for-one deal. The White Sox, naturally, have to feel good about the deal – Konerko will represent them in the 2011 All Star game, his fifth such appearance with Chicago. He also won the 2005 ALCS MVP, and yes, a World Series. So, you know, not a bad return.
Interestingly, though, as per Wins Above Replacement, the White Sox lost the deal, if one assumes Cameron would have stayed in Chicago from the deal until today, as Konerko has. While Konerko has posted a WAR of 26.2 with the White Sox – his defense at first base hasn't added much value – Cameron's WAR, due to his defense in center field, checks in at a robust 41.2. Cameron posted a 5.4 WAR in his one season with Cincinnati- roughly a fifth of Konerko's total in the twelve years since the trade.
As to why Cameron played just one year with the Reds, his 1999 was good enough to entice the Seattle Mariners to ask for him as the centerpiece of the Griffey deal. Cincinnati traded Cameron, Brett Tomko, Antonio Perez and minor leaguer Jake Meyer to the Mariners for Griffey. The deal turned out to define the Reds for much of the subsequent decade, with Griffey's injuries keeping him from seriously threatening Hank Aaron's all-time home run mark, as so many expected him to. Both Meyer and Perez were solid prospects, though Perez had the far greater upside, as a power-hitting infielder. Tomko continued to be what he was in all of his many stops – a pitcher with better stuff than results.
Cameron was terrific in his four years with Seattle, hitting home runs, stealing bases, catching everything, and getting underrated by some due to a low batting average and high strikeout total. After the 2003 season, he signed as a free agent with the New York Mets, and had another season-and-a-half of Mike Cameron production, before an ugly head-on collision with Carlos Beltran in San Diego ended his 2005 season.
The Padres were either unfazed or impressed by Cameron's collision, and traded for him that November, giving up Xavier Nady. At first blush, the trade made sense for the Mets, who didn't need Cameron's center field skills with Beltran around. Assuming Nady's bat could make up for his lack of defense, the trade could have been a win-win. But Nady's bat didn't make up for the loss in defense, Cameron won his third Gold Glove in the first of two successful San Diego campaigns and everything that followed for the Mets appears to be retribution for trading Cameron away.
Nady had a solid half-season in New York, but an injury to Duaner Sanchez at the 2006 trading deadline pushed the Mets to deal Nady the the Pirates for Roberto Hernandez and Oliver Perez. While Perez pitched well for the Mets in 2007 and 2008, the team then signed him to a three-year, $36 million contract, which he's still receiving while pitching for Washington's Double-A team in Harrisburg. Nady's replacement in right field, Shawn Green, even dropped the critical fly ball off the bat of Scott Spiezio that lost Game 2 of the NLCS to the Cardinals. Safe to assume Mike Cameron catches that ball. When the Mets traded Cameron, they stepped on a butterfly that really had it in for them.
Will the trade of Cameron to South Florida produce the same kind of results for both teams involved this time around? It seems unlikely, but then again, at one point it seemed unlikely that Ken Griffey Jr. would stop being the consensus best player in baseball, or that Paul Konerko would play for the same team for a dozen seasons, or that Oliver Perez would make $12 million to pitch against minor leaguers. The world around Mike Cameron trades is a crazy place where fever dreams come true.