On December 10, 1975, the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals agreed on a four-player trade that included Al Oliver going to the Royals in exchange for Amos Otis. As most of you probably already know, that trade never happened. Neither team got cold feet and backed out of the deal. Instead, it got held up by a minor snag and the Pirates ended up going in a different direction that turned out much worse.
During the 1975 baseball winter meetings, Pirates General Manager Joe Brown wanted to address the team’s defense. He felt it was the weak point for the club and he intended to fix that issue during the December meetings. Center fielder Amos Otis had three Gold Gloves to his credit and he was going into his age 29 season. Al Oliver was not considered to be the best defensive player. He was considered to be a better hitter though, but the Pirates had plenty of offense at the time and Otis offered both the defense and speed that they needed.
It seemed that the Pirates would be able to address their need with this deal. The negotiations ended up as a four-player deal, with the Pirates sending Oliver and Art Howe to the Royals for Otis and veteran infielder Cookie Rojas. That final piece was the reason that the deal never happened, and because of that, the Pirates ended up making one of their worst trades ever.
Rojas had enough service time in at the big league level and with the Royals that allowed him to veto trades. You needed ten years total and five years with your current team. By the end of the 1975 season, Rojas had 14 seasons total and 5 1/2 years with the Royals. He was actually at the winter meetings and refused to answer any questions from the Pittsburgh press about why he vetoed the deal.
With this deal hitting a snag, the Pirates turned to a different way to improve their defense. They traded for pitcher Doc Medich instead and found their veteran infielder elsewhere. Brown was quoted as saying that better pitching is also a way to improve the defense and they believed that Medich would provide that pitching. The Pirates then took Art Howe and sent him to the Houston Astros for veteran infielder Tommy Helms.
Because of the Rojas veto, the Pirates kept Oliver for two more years, but gave up Willie Randolph, Ken Brett and Doc Ellis for Medich, in a deal that couldn’t have gone any worse. They gave up Howe for Helms in a deal that went awful as well. Howe was younger, better offensively and Helms saw a decline in his defense, so Howe did better on defense too. The Astros got six solid seasons from Howe, while the Pirates got -0.1 WAR in 77 games from Helms.
The resulting trades in place of the Oliver-Otis deal did not help the Pirates at all. That being said, how would the four-player deal with the Royals have worked out if it went through?
Obviously we can’t assume that stats would carry over for everyone from one place to another, but career stats are all we have for this comparison. Here’s what the teams were giving up at the time:
Oliver – 29 years old, hit .280/.309/.454 in 1975, with 39 doubles, eight triples and 18 homers in 155 games. He had a 3.4 WAR, including 0.1 on defense, while mostly playing center field. He had two All-Star appearances at that point and twice finished seventh in NL MVP voting.
Howe – 29 years old, with a .195 career average in 92 big league games. He had a 0.7 dWAR in his limited time at shortstop and third base.
Otis – Turned 29 in April of 1976. Hit .247/.342/.385 in 132 games, with 39 steals. He was a four-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner. He had a 2.7 WAR in 1975. More on him shortly.
Rojas – Turned 37 in March of 1976. Hit .254/.304/.323 in 1975, with a -0.4 WAR in 120 games.
The Pirates were giving up two better players according to WAR and they really weren’t addressing their need at all. Howe was a better defensive player than Rojas at the time and he would remain better in the following years. Otis was a Gold Glove winner, but defensive metrics disagree with those Gold Glove wins. He had a -1.9 career dWAR after the 1975 season, and over the rest of his career (which ended with the 1984 Pirates), he “added” an additional -1.9 dWAR. He had some years that were above average, but he was basically an average at best center fielder during his career.
Oliver remained with the Pirates for two more years and he had an 0.2 dWAR in each of those seasons. His defense really took a hit later in his career when he moved to first base and posted a total of -7.3 dWAR over his last five seasons. As far as improving the defense for 1976, this deal would not have helped.
There was still the offensive part to the deal. Oliver was known for his bat and he had 20.6 WAR on offense in his career up to that point. Howe was slightly below average on offense in his limited big league time.
Otis had a 24.8 WAR on offense in his career, so while he was worse in 1975, he was better over his career than Oliver. Rojas was 0.2 WAR on offense in 1975 and 14.8 in his 14-year career at that point.
After the deal fell through, Rojas was -0.6 WAR on offense in his final two seasons in the majors. He played 127 games total and was a -1.2 WAR. Compared to Howe, who had a 13.7 WAR in seven years with Houston, with 11.1 of that WAR coming from offense.
Oliver would put up another 26.5 WAR on offense in his career, which included 6.5 from the 1976-77 seasons with the Pirates. His best year was 1982 with the Montreal Expos. Otis had 23.3 WAR left in his career on offense, with 16.9 of that coming in the four years following the trade falling through. In 1978, he had a 7.4 WAR season, which was also his best year on defense during his career. Coincidentally, both players had 47.1 WAR on offense in their career.
Assuming the other winter meeting trades in 1975 were chain reactions, then the Pirates would have been much better off if this deal went through. They lost Howe anyway and Rojas and Helms were basically the same player at the time as far as value. Otis and Oliver had similar value, so it was still a loss due to Howe. However, the trade of Randolph/Brett/Ellis was a complete disaster that was turned into another deal with the Oakland A’s a year later that was a loss in value.
The Pirates won the World Series in 1979, so the poor trades in the mid-70s get glossed over because they still reached their ultimate goal. That being said, from the sound of things on December 12, 1975, Cookie Rojas caused the deal to crumble, which in turn led to a series of poor trades.