Deadline Dealing: A Brief History of Brewers Deadline Trades, Part One

Jul. 25, 2016
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sexsonburnitz
Richie Sexson and Jeromy Burnitz, acquired by the Brewers in two of their best trading deadline moves ever.

The trading deadline, as we known it today, is a relatively new phenomenon. The proliferation of free agency, the wide gulf between large and small market team spending, and the expanded playoff format have all heightened the stakes for teams as July turns to August. With the coming week likely to see a number of veteran Brewers shipped out of Milwaukee for prospects, I’ve decided to take a look back at the history of Brewers deadline moves. 

For our sake here, I’m going to stick to the years between 1982 (when the Brewers made their first true deadline deal) and 2007. Many of the trades after the CC Sabathia deal of 2008, clearly the biggest trade ever made by the Brewers during the season, still involve active players, making them a bit harder to assess. I also wanted to limit the scope of the project, as I’ve already had to split in into two posts, and focus on some of the trades that might have faded in the memories of Brewers fans. This week, I’m looking at ’82 through 1999. Next week, I’ll be up with 2000-2007.

1982

Status: Buyers

Season result: 95-67, Won AL Championship

It took a future All Star to land Don Sutton in 1982.

The first Brewers deadline deal of any significance came in 1982, when the Crew shipped Kevin Bass, Frank DiPino, and Mike Madden to Houston for Don Sutton. The deal was typical of modern-day deadline trades – a handful of prospects going from a contender to a cellar-dweller for a veteran stud. The deal was meant to shore up the Brewers’ rotation for a postseason run and they got what they wanted in Sutton, whose WAR of 1.0 was exactly the difference in winning the division over the Orioles (he also happened to win the clinching game for Milwaukee). Sutton hung on with the Brewers for two more years, offering a roughly league average production. As for Houston’s haul, DiPino saved 20 games in 1983 and got Rookie of the Year votes while Bass later emerged as a major cog in the 1986 Astros team that won the NL West, as he batted .311 with 20 homers and placed 7th in the MVP voting.

Verdict: Push. This is one of those trades that neither team would go back on. The Brewers got just enough from Sutton to win their division and the Astros got some useable bullpen parts and over 14 wins above replacement (WAR) from Bass over eight seasons.

1992

Status: Idle

Season result: 92-70, 2nd place

David Cone helped the Blue Jays win the AL East and the World Series in 1992. The Brewers could have prevented the Jays from landing him.

1992 was a watermark season for the Brewers. Until the reemergence of the team as contenders in the late 2000s, it was only winning season in memory for a generation of fans and marked the beginning of a long period of the team playing poorly and blaming finances for their woes. Despite approaching the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline just five games out of first place, the Brewers stood pat while the front-running Blue Jays added Mark Eichhorn to their already solid bullpen. Nearing the August 31 waiver trade deadline, on the cusp of a hot streak that would bring them to within two games of first, they again did nothing as the Jays added Mets ace David Cone. Years later, after he had left the Brewers for the Texas Rangers, outfielder Darryl Hamilton admitted he still felt bitter over the team’s inaction during the 1992 deadline. Other members of the ’92 team also allegedly angered by the situation. As detailed here, the Brewers actually could have blocked Cone from going to the Blue Jays or even made their own play for him, but the “budget conscience” front office declined to act.

Verdict: Loss. It can never be known how the season might have otherwise played out, but allowing one of baseball’s best pitchers to join the team you are chasing for a division title for the stretch run is nearly unforgivable. Cone pitched great for the Jays down the stretch and the Brewers finished just four games out of first. After the season, the team lost Paul Molitor, Chris Bosio, Kevin Seitzer, and Dan Plesac to free agency and would not finish above .500 for another 25 years.

1996

Status: Sellers

Season result: 80-82, 3rd place

Slugger Greg Vaughn was the first Brewer dealt at the deadline because of financial reasons.

At the July 31 deadline, the Brewers shipped slugger Greg Vaughn to the San Diego Padres for Bryce Florie, Marc Newfield, and Ron Villone. Vaughn was one of the best home-grown Brewers players in recent memory and was having a monster year, batting .280 with 31 homers in just 102 games. He was also a pending free agent about to cash in on a huge contract that the Brewers could never afford. Although the Brewers were only three games under .500, they vowed to sell high on their best hitter and dealt him to the Padres, who were in a three-way hunt for the NL West crown. Brewers GM Sal Bando blamed the move on economics. Vaughn had asked the team for a three year extension worth $18 million, a modest raise from his 1996 salary of $5.8 million, but the team pled poor and put him on the trading block. The immediate effects of the trade were somewhat muted. Vaughn struggled in San Diego, his slash line falling from .280/.378/.571 (all career highs) to .206/.329/.454. The Padres won the division, but Vaughn was a mild factor as best. Meanwhile, the Brewers actually played better after the trade than before, with Villone and Newfield combining for a 1.5 WAR to Vaughn’s 0.4.

The good feelings for the Brewers on the Vaughn trade, however, stopped dead after 1996. Villone had a solid 1997 season, but Newfield and Florie were virtually valueless for the rest of their time in Milwaukee. Meanwhile, Vaughn signed a three-year, $15 million extension with the Padres (making less each year than he had during his last in Milwaukee) and proceeded to turn into a beast, hitting 113 homers (including 50 in 1998) while making two All Star teams, placing 4th in the MVP voting twice and leading the Padres to a World Series.

The Brewers were not done dealing in 1996 after the Vaughn deal. During the waive-wire trade period, they managed two pretty significant swaps. The first sent Graeme Lloyd and Pat Listach to the Yankees for Bob Wickman and Gerald Williams. The second dealt Kevin Seitzer to the Indians for Jeromy Burnitz. Although the two trades sent some notable names out of the Milwaukee (former Rookie of the Year Listach was actually sent back to the Brewers because of an injury, the team sent Ricky Bones to New York in his place), the Brewers gave up nothing much of long-term value and managed to add a future All Star in Wickman and one of their most recognizable stars of the late 90’s in Burnitz.

Verdict: Technical push, spiritual loss. Greg Vaughn was the first big name Brewer to be dealt at the deadline because of financial reasons. The fact that the Brewers would not be able to compete with the big spenders had been apparent for several years at this time, but the Vaughn deal took the most valuable piece from a club that was not terribly far away from contender status in the heart of the stretch run. The Listach and Seitzer deals similarly sent high-profile (for Milwaukee, anyway) veterans to larger-market teams for financial reasons and gave fans the impression that without a new stadium, the Brewers would never be able to attract or retain established star players. However, the late-season additions of Wickman and Burnitz proved to be shrewd baseball moves, their value essentially offsetting the one-sided Vaughn deal.

1999

Status: Idle

Season Result: 74-87, 5th place        

Hideo Nomo (L) and Dave Nilsson (C) drew interest from other teams at the 1999 deadline, but the Brewers held on to both in a misguided attempt to make a run at the wild card spot.

The 1999 Brewers were an odd bunch. At .500 as late as July 20, the club featured four legit mashers in their starting lineup (Jeff Cirillo, Dave Nilsson, Geoff Jenkins, and Burnitz), but had a dreadful rotation and horrifying bullpen. Perhaps the lone bright spot among Brewers pitchers was Hideo Nomo, the former Dodgers sensation who had nearly washed out of the big leagues when the Brewers signed him to a one-year deal in late April and inserted him into their rotation. By late July, Nomo was sporting a 9-2 record and a 3.66 ERA. After a contract extension from the Brewers was rebuffed by Nomo (the team offered a single year with an option for a second at less than $3 million per year, Nomo was seeking 3-4 years for $15-20 million total), logic had it that the Brewers would flip the reclaimed ace to a contender. But Brewers GM Sal Bando was still convinced that the team had a shot at the postseason. Despite the fact that the Brewers were a marginally competitive team – they were 11.5 games out of the wild card spot at the deadline – so hard up for pitchers that they had given 15 starts to Jim Abbott and his 6.91 ERA, Bando insisted he had no desire to trade Nomo and would only move the pitcher if someone “knock[ed] our socks off.” He took a similar stance on catcher Dave Nilsson, who was in the midst of a career year but had already told the team that he was retiring at the end of the season. Bando’s socks remained in place, as did Nilsson and Nomo, as the deadline passed. Then the Brewers lost eight of their next 11 games and both Bando and manager Phil Garner were fired. The team finished the year 21 games out of the wild card.

Verdict: Huge Loss. The way the Brewers were run in the 1990s, it is no wonder the team went over twenty years between winning seasons. Both Nomo and Nilsson left the team after the season, Nilsson to his promised retirement and Nomo to the Detroit Tigers as a free agent.

Check back next week for a review of Brewers deadline action between 2000 and 2007. 

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