Latest Trade Ever? A Late September Swap Story

It’s trading time in baseball. Even though the deadline for waiver-free deadlines has come and gone, teams can still make deals. Sometimes, they’re made very late in the season, even if a player can’t possibly be on the post season roster.

In 1993, on September 17th, the Mets traded oldie Frank Tanana to the Yankees, getting a fringe player in return. Toronto held a slight lead in the AL East and the Yanks needed help. Tanana made three starts for the Yankees, who slid from three to seven games behind and finished second behind the Blue Jays. That’s a pretty late deal.

Also on September 17th, but in 1976, Ken Sanders was sold by the Mets. The Royals purchased the vet, who had pitched only three times in the previous 30 days, to shore up a bullpen that for the most part had been reduced to Steve Mingori and Mark Littell, in terms of dependability. Even though Sanders pitched in three losses, the Royals survived and won the AL West.

But the latest deal that affected a team that was headed to the playoffs, at least that I could find, happened in 1991.

In 1988, Jody Davis was dealt from the Cubs to the Braves on September 28th. The Cubs got two fringe prospects for Davis, who came on board mainly because Ozzie Virgil caught 16 innings the day before and they needed someone else along with Bruce Benedict. That trade also made room for the Cubs to call up Joe Girardi to the bigs in 1989, who worked in tandem with Damon Berryhill.

The Braves and the Cubs were well out of it in 1988. In 1991, one team was out of it, but one team was not, and that team had a situation come up very late in the season.

The 1991 Braves were batting the Dodgers for the NL West title. Atlanta wasn’t excepted to contend in 1991. They had been awful for most of the past five years, but here they were. On September 29th, they were one game behind the Dodgers after an extra-inning win over the Astros. The Braves started the year with a platoon between Greg Olson and Mike Heath behind the dish. On July 2nd, Heath was lost for the year trying to tag Barry Larkin on a play at the plate. The only backup then was Francisco Cabrera, who started eleven times over the next two months. After September 1st, though, Olson was the only catcher the Braves used. Cabrera and Jerry Willard COULD catch, but they didn’t.

Olson had caught 27 straight games.

The Braves pitching staff had been solid most of the year, especially their young starting pitchers (Liebrandt, Avery, Smoltz, Glavine). Their fifth starter position had been problematic, so Bobby Cox went with a basically four man rotation most of the season, if he could. A late deal brought them Alejandro Pena, who combined with Juan Berenguer and youngsters Mike Stanton and Kent Mercker made the Braves bullpen decent. Again, though, they had a depth problem. Mark Wohlers and Marvin Freeman were green. Randy St. Claire and Jim Clancy were back end fodder at best. Another arm for the last week wouldn’t hurt.

Meanwhile, the Cubs were disappointing fans again in 1991, thanks to bad pitching. Bad pitching that was inconsistent and injury prone. They needed young pitching, and their farm system didn’t have much in the way of major league ready talent.

Also, the Cubs catching situation had changed, again. Now, the duo was Rick Wilkins and the always fun Hector Villanueva. Girardi was hurt, and Berryhill? Damon stopped hitting, and had spent some of the season in Iowa. He wasn’t in the plans anymore.

Due to the pennant race, there was urgency. Atlanta was one game behind with six to play. They could use a catcher who could possibly spell Olson, and they needed an arm. A call was placed to Chicago.

“Do you have any a spare catcher and pitcher?”

“Yes, if you don’t mind them being vets.”
“What would you want?”

“Pitching. Young pitching. You’ve got some good ones, and it looks like tey’re going to be blocked for a couple of years.”

“I don’t know.”

“Where did you finish last year? Did you ever think you’d be in this position? You gotta go for it.”

“OK, let’s make the deal.”

So, on September 29th, the Braves and Cubs made the deal. Damon Berryhill and Mike Bielecki, a vet who had been in and out of the rotation all season, were sent to Atlanta. In exchange, the Cubs got Turk Wendell and Yorkis Perez, a couple of…colorful…pitchers to say the least.

How did it work out?

The Braves won the division, which is all that really mattered. Berryhill caught in one game in relief of Olson, who started all but the final game of the season (Willard started that one). Bielecki pitched in two games, and made an impact in 1992 before being injured. Again, the Braves won the division in 1991, and started their incredible NL East run.

Perez was sold to Japan after the season, while Wendell had a few good years with the Cubs before being part of the Lance Johnson deal.

If you look at the trade just from a zero-sum perspective, the Cubs won the trade. But in reality, that doesn’t matter. The Braves won the division, even if Bielecki and Berryhill didn’t play much. They were depth the Braves needed for peace of mind.

That’s a winning trade, even if it was made at the last possible minute.

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