What Could Have Been: The Kiki Cuyler Trade That Didn’t Happen

After the 1927, the Pittsburgh Pirates traded star outfielder Kiki Cuyler to the Chicago Cubs for outfielder Pete Scott and infielder Sparky Adams. The team was unhappy with Cuyler and decided to move on with him, eventually taking a package of players that amounted to a scrappy middle infielder and a fourth outfielder. Cuyler had just turned 29 years old and he put up 17.7 WAR worth of value during his four full seasons with the team, which most certainly would have been higher if he wasn’t benched for two months. Cuyler was benched and fined by the Pirates after an August 6th game in which he was said to have displayed “listless play” for not sliding into second base. There was more to it than that, but that was the breaking point. Despite the team fighting for the NL pennant at the time, Cuyler played just ten games and had 13 plate appearances over the rest of the season.

In my opinion, this very well could be the worst trade in team history. That’s factoring in a few things that matter here. He was a star player in his prime. This was before big salaries and free agency, so they had no idea how many top seasons that they were trading away. He wanted to remain with the club, so he wasn’t requesting a trade. That would matter back then because players had no problem sitting out to force trades. Their return had no potential upside. Scott could hit for average, but he wasn’t young and didn’t add anything else, such as the speed that Cuyler brought to the bases. Adams was a solid player, but he was also 33 years old and far from a superstar quality player. He had a total of 5.0 WAR in the last eight seasons of his career. The Pirates also played Adams over Joe Cronin, who went on to become a Hall of Famer elsewhere. The Pirates with Cuyler/Cronin added to Arky Vaughan, Pie Traynor and the Waner brothers, all playing well at the same time in the early 1930s, would have been an epic lineup. Freddie Lindstrom was there too for two years. Throw him at first base and you could have had seven Hall of Famers in your lineup just by not making bad choices.

As I said, it didn’t look good on paper, didn’t have potential upside and the third thing that went wrong was that it worked out as expected.  Adams had 0.7 WAR in two seasons with the Pirates and then got sold to the St Louis Cardinals. Scott ran into an outfield wall, missed some time, didn’t play well when he returned, then was shipped to the minors to finish out his pro career. He hit well in the minors, but that didn’t help the Pirates. He gave them 0.9 WAR. They had 1.6 WAR for three seasons of playing time. Cuyler had 3.1 WAR in his first season with the Cubs. That was his sixth best season after the trade. He had eight seasons after the trade where he matched or bettered the return value, and 12 seasons in his career that were worth as much or more. He won the trade for the Cubs in 1928 alone, then kept making it worse and worse for the Pirates. The Cubs went to the World Series three times during his time there. The Pirates went 33 years before they played a meaningful October game.

That’s a lot of words to say that things were almost not as disastrous for the Pirates. They were set on trading Cuyler, so if we can learn to live with that part of the equation (I can’t, but maybe you can), then they almost got a better return. In fact, the headline in the November 28, 1927 edition of The Pittsburgh Press said that they were getting a better return:

“Corsairs to Get Thompson-Rhem: Cuyler and Yde headed for St Louis”

That was the headline, with full details of a three-team trade that would send Cuyler and pitcher Emil Yde to the St Louis Cardinals for Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Fresco Thompson and Cardinals pitcher Flint Rhem. So let’s look at that trade and see if it would have made things better.

The Cuyler part of the deal obviously doesn’t change. The trade would still be a loss, but that’s not the point here. It would be a matter of temporarily softening the blow, until you snap back into reality and realize that it just adds to the disappointment.

Let’s get the pitchers out of the way first, because Thompson was the bigger piece. Yde had a very rough 1927 season, but he could be considered to be a bounce back candidate at this time. Just 18 days after this trade didn’t happen, he was sold to the minors. He pitched poorly for the 1929 Detroit Tigers, then never played in the majors again. The Pirates in the almost trade were giving up someone who apparently had no trade value. Coming back in the almost deal was Flint Rhem, who put up a decent season for the 1928 Cardinals, going 11-8, 4.14 in 169.2 innings. He was in the minors in 1929, but returned for three more seasons of solid pitching, before hanging on for three years. If the Pirates cut ties with him after 1932, they would have got some good value in the deal.

In all honesty, Cuyler and Yde for Rhem would have been a better deal than the one they actually made. It would have also looked horrible on paper, but it would have worked out better.

Fresco Thompson didn’t want to play for Philadelphia and everyone knew it. He threatened to retire, so he would have been a great buy low candidate. He was also a pretty good player and four years younger than Cuyler. In 1927, he put up a .752 OPS in 153 games and stole 19 bases. He was 25 years old, and oh by the way, the Pirates gave him up for nothing (well, cash) after the 1925 season, when they gave him a 14-game trial. The 1927 season was his first full year in the majors.

Here’s the tricky part. Thompson really didn’t do so great after the phantom trade, and he remained in Philadelphia. However, he was basically Sparky Adams for the next three years as a full-time player. He actually hit decent/well, but his defense wasn’t great. Maybe Honus Wagner could have given him some pointers if he came to Pittsburgh. In 1928, he had a .722 OPS in 152 games and stole 19 bases again. A solid season, nothing spectacular. He batted .324 with 48 extra-base hits and 115 runs scored in 1929, which would have looked nice in the Pirates lineup, but with the mediocre defense and a large uptick in offense around baseball, it was just a 1.2 WAR season. His stats dropped a bit in 1930, which is surprising when you factor in that offense took another leap forward around baseball.

So if we look at the phantom trade with Yde doing nothing and Thompson playing like Adams, then the real difference here is that the Pirates would have received a solid league-average starting pitcher for 4-5 years, compared to a fourth outfielder for half of a season.

This all assumes that all participants would have been similar players in their new homes, but that’s all that we can do here. Thompson had a .728 OPS at Forbes Field and a .751 mark in his career, so the results probably would have been similar. Rhem pitched similar at home and on the road, so that should have held up. He wouldn’t have had to face those strong lineups the Pirates were throwing out with 4-5 Hall of Famers.

The difference here is that the Cubs trade had no room for upside, while this trade had plenty of room with the younger Thompson coming back. He wasn’t as good as Cuyler, but Cuyler didn’t break out until he was 25 years old, which is exactly what Thompson did, just not to the same extent.

The Pirates would have received a better return off initial impressions and they would have received a better return in the trade. It’s still a losing situation, but you wouldn’t have the bad taste in your mouth from the start, which just got worse as the seasons went along. If this trade actually happened, it would have just been a deal that didn’t work out well, but you could understand why they made the trade.

The reason the deal never happened was reportedly that the Phillies were planning on flipping Cuyler to the New York Giants in a deal that included Freddie Lindstrom. Those rumors were denied, but we will never know if that was true. The real reason may have been that the Pirates got who they wanted from the Cubs. As one report suggested, they wanted Sparky Adams to play second base bad enough that he was the main part of the deal, but they also demanded that Scott was thrown in. If the Cubs saw the rumors about the Thompson deal, then maybe that convinced them to agree to the deal.

Believe it or not, some people back then thought that the Pirates got the better of the deal. A lot of the complaints about Cuyler were fed to the media and proven to be untrue later. He preferred to bat third in the lineup and he liked playing left field because of the sun in Forbes Field made it much easier to play than right field. However, he batted 1-5 at various points for the Cubs and switched between the three outfield spots without complaint in Chicago, so it was probably blown out of proportion in Pittsburgh. The Pirates in 1927 decided to run a much more disciplined team with new manager Donie Bush after some major player issues during the 1926 season. Bush was heavy-handed with the discipline and owner Barney Dreyfuss fully backed him, so it’s much more likely that Cuyler was made an example, rather than his issues being so big that he had to leave. As I said up top, Cuyler didn’t have a great desire to leave, which doesn’t seem to fit the spin given to the media to try to soften his departure.

Adams was thought to be exactly what the Pirates needed, giving them a strong second baseman and allowing George Grantham to play first base instead. By the sound of some papers from right after the trade was completed, they believed that the Pirates won the deal based on Adams alone, and Scott was just a throw in who might be traded or sold for a small return. The problem was that the Pirates already had what they needed at second base with Joe Cronin, they just wouldn’t give him enough of a chance to prove that to them. By 1929, Cronin was a 3.7 WAR player, or 3.0 better than Adams in his two years in Pittsburgh. In 1930, he put up 8.5 WAR.

The other part of the Cuyler trade being better for the Pirates was that some people were convinced that the league found his weakness by pitching inside. Part of the proof was his drop in stats from the 1925 season. That would be one of the best hitting seasons in Pirates franchise history, when he set the single season record with 369 total bases, a mark that still stands. Not many players can live up to a record breaking season. They pointed to his 1926 season being a down year when he led the NL in runs and stolen bases, while putting up a .321 average, which at that time, was the most quoted stat for players. The Cubs received 25.9 WAR from Cuyler in 7 1/2 seasons, then he split another 3 1/2 years between the Cincinnati Reds and Brooklyn Dodgers and he was above average during that time. Whatever weakness they thought they found, Cuyler quickly dispelled those rumors.

I’ll add in one extra note and that was a rumored deal that was quickly shot down by the Pirates. Shortly after Cuyler was benched, the local papers printed a rumor that Cuyler could go to the Brooklyn Dodgers for Max Carey. That would have been a Hall of Famer for a Hall of Famer deal, but it would have been just as bad as the Cubs trade. Carey was 8 1/2 years older and in the middle of his 18th season, putting up 1.9 WAR. He was basically done as a star at that point, going on to put up 0.2 WAR over his last two seasons combined (1928-29). The only benefit here would have been getting Carey in the lineup for the last 45 games of 1927, but then the deal would have gone downhill quickly after that.