The typical baseball trade of the '90s goes like this: A veteran player, often past his prime and invariably lugging a hefty salary, is unloaded for a couple of obscure, low-cost minor leaguers. The trade is rumored for days, and when the deal is finally done, the resultant impact is analyzed in a matter of seconds. Very boring.
Not so the trade made on Nov. 19, when the Montreal Expos sent second baseman Delino DeShields to the Los Angeles Dodgers for pitcher Pedro Martinez. Now that was a trade, as intriguing as it was stunning. Two young, proven talents were swapped even-up. Money was a factor, but the deal of the off-season was a trade of ability, not liability.
As one observer, Philadelphia Phillie general manager Lee Thomas, says, "You have to go back a long way to find a trade like that." At least 25 years, anyway.
Reviewing all trades made in the last quarter century, one finds that there was not a one-for-one deal involving proven major leaguers age 25 and younger rivaling this one in terms of talent and potential. On Dec. 8, 1977, the California Angels dealt second baseman Jerry Remy to the Boston Red Sox for pitcher Don Aase, and on Oct. 18, 1973, the Pittsburgh Pirates sent second baseman Dave Cash to the Phils for pitcher Ken Brett. None was older than 25 and all were good players at the time, but neither deal was on a par with DeShields for Martinez.
"It's the kind of trade you stay up nights thinking about," says former Expo general manager Dan Duquette, who orchestrated the deal for Montreal before becoming G.M. of the Red Sox in late January. At a time when more and more ball clubs are slashing their payrolls and attempting to build a contender through their farm systems rather than the open market, teams have become increasingly reluctant to deal young talent.
"It wasn't a trade for the mild-mannered," says Dodger general manager Fred Claire. "Dan and I talked about how we were going to get killed [in the public forum] on this deal. It was safer not to make the trade. But it made all the sense in the world."
Pedro, the younger brother of L.A. starter Ramon Martinez and still only 22, throws in the mid-90's. Among National League relievers last year, he was tops in victories (10), tied for first in strikeouts (113) and was second in batting average against (.187)—as a rookie. "He had as good an arm as we saw last year," says Pittsburgh Pirate coach Rich Donnelly. "Even if we'd had five strikes against him, we couldn't have hit him." Primarily a starter during his five years in the Dodger farm system, Martinez returns to that role with the Expos this season.
The 25-year-old DeShields is a lifetime .277 hitter with 187 steals over four seasons. A former point guard who accepted a basketball scholarship from Villanova before signing with the Expos, he's one of the best overall athletes in the majors, with tremendous speed and decent power. He'll be the Dodgers' leadoff hitter.
The roots of this trade reach from May 1992 when DeShields was in a batting slump and L.A. prospect Eric Karros wasn't getting much playing time at first base. The Dodgers did some research on DeShields in contemplating a possible-swap, but within a few weeks DeShields got hot while Karros moved into a starting role and was on his way to becoming the National League Rookie of the Year.
Then, at the end of last season, Montreal began looking around. The Expos needed a righthanded starter, and they also had to move a high-salaried player if they wanted to keep their 1994 payroll under $20 million. DeShields was coming off a .295 season, and with Mike Lansing (.287 as a rookie) a suitable replacement, the Montreal brass decided DeShields was their most marketable asset.