Which Rusty Staub trade was worse?

Rusty Staub played for the Mets from 1972-1975 and again from 1981-1985 and was a very popular player in both stints with the club. While many fans remember him as the team’s plump pinch-hitter in his second go-round, he was the driving offensive force behind the 1973 team that reached the World Series and the Mets might have reached the series the year before if Staub had stayed healthy.

However, Staub was involved in controversial deals both when the Mets first acquired him and when they gave him away. At the time, most Mets fans were okay with both transactions. But with the benefit of hindsight, we know both were bad trades. While everyone thinks immediately that the one that brought him to Shea was the worst of the two, the deal that sent him packing needs to be reviled, too.

After winning the World Series in 1969, the Mets had back-to-back 83-win seasons and third-place finishes. The 1971 squad finished eighth in the 12-team National League with 588 runs scored, 200 behind the league-leading Pirates, who won the National League East. The Mets made two trades to bolster their offense for 1972.

The first was packaging four players to the Angels for Jim Fregosi, who had been a star for a decade in the American League and who was coming into his age 30 season. The other big move sent three players to the Expos for Staub, who like Fregosi had been a very productive player for a number of seasons, but who was even two years younger at age 28.

The story has evolved into Fregosi was a bum who could not handle the move from shortstop to third base. But injuries kept Fregosi from performing as he had in the AL. And what most people forget is that Fregosi actually got off to a hot start that year with the Mets. Through the middle of May, he had an .886 OPS and the Mets had the best record in baseball at 20-7.

The Mets continued to play well until Staub got hit on the hand with a pitch from future teammate George Stone on June 3rd. At the end of that day, the Mets were 31-12. Staub played two more weeks while the doctors tried to figure out what was wrong. The Mets went 5-8 in that span, as Fregosi slumped and Tommie Agee fell off a cliff.

Staub played just one game the next three months and the Mets fell out of the race.

In 1973, Staub got off to a poor start but when the Mets finished by winning 24 of their final 33 games to win the division, Staub batted .321 with an .892 OPS. His heroics in the NLCS and the World Series further cemented his reputation among Mets fans. After a down year in 1974, Staub rebounded with a strong season in 1975 and finished 14th in the MVP race. The Mets traded him to Detroit in the off-season.

When the Mets acquired Staub, they traded three major league-ready players in Tim Foli, Mike Jorgensen and Ken Singleton. Foli, the top overall pick in the 1968 Draft, was a shortstop who wound up playing for 14 years following the trade, as did Jorgensen, a slick fielding first baseman. The real prize was Singleton, a three-time All-Star and a player who received MVP votes in seven seasons., including a second-place finish in 1979.

In Peter Golenbock’s Amazin’: The Miraculous History of New York’s Most Beloved Baseball Team, former Director of Player Development Whitey Herzog said:

“We made a terrible deal with Montreal, giving up three fine players for Rusty Staub.
“Here I was busting my tail to develop young players, and Don Grant says he doesn’t trust minor leaguers, that we need big names. We had guys in our system who could have helped the Mets dominate baseball in the 1970s – players like Foli, Jorgensen and Amos Otis – and we gave them up.”

Singleton alone was more valuable than Staub, as he amassed a 47.0 fWAR after leaving the Mets. By comparison, Staub posted fWAR of 21.2 after the trade, and only 11.3 while with the Mets. Throw in two guys who played 14 years each and it is a no-brainer.

But would Jorgensen and Foli have made a dent with the Mets? In 1971, Ed Kranepool and Bud Harrelson each had perhaps their best season in the majors. The 26-year-old Kranepool hit .280, posted a career-high 124 OPS+ and a 2.5 f WAR. The 27-year-old Harrelson made his second straight All-Star team and set a career-high with a 4.4 fWAR.

Given the state of the Mets, how likely was a team that had just traded Amos Otis and Nolan Ryan give a shot to youngsters with established “stars” like Harrelson and Kranepool already in place? And Jorgensen would have had to battle for playing time with John Milner, too.

The point is not that Foli and Jorgensen were not major league quality players, it is just that it was unlikely they would have received much playing time with the 1970s Mets, unless Whitey Herzog was allowed to manage. And while this does not make the first Staub trade a winner, it does lessen some of the impact.

Meanwhile, despite Staub’s strong 1975 season, the Mets finished in third place with an 82-80 record. The big three of Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Jon Matlack went 52-34 (.605) but the next best pitcher on the team was Hank Webb and the rest of the staff went 30-46 (.395). Staub fell out of favor with the organization for not going on a trip to Japan and when a rookie outfielder came up and performed well, it made trading Staub for a pitcher an easier sell to the fan base.

Mike Vail was the rookie who came up and impressed at the end of 1975. During the season, he was frequently mentioned by both the newspapers and the TV broadcasts, something that was a rarity for the time. Vail hit .342 at Triple-A Tidewater, came up and had a 23-game hitting streak and batted .302 in 38 games with the Mets, leaving everyone convinced he was a future star.

Fans were disappointed to see Staub go, but figured that Vail would be an adequate replacement and that veteran Mickey Lolich would give the Mets four top starters. Of course, Lolich was way past his prime and Staub went out and put up three more nice years with Detroit, finishing fifth in the MVP voting in 1978 when he drove in 121 runs.

But to make matters worse, Vail got hurt during the offseason before 1976, breaking his ankle in a basketball game. He played in just 53 games for the 1976 Mets and was just as big of a disappointment as Lolich.

Staub went on to post 10.8 WAR after being traded by the Mets, while Lolich delivered around 1/5 of that value.

Lolich pitched about as well as an out-of-shape 35-year old possibly could have for the Mets in 1976. While he went 8-13, he did have a 3.22 ERA along with 18 Quality Starts and was the #4 pitcher the Mets so desperately needed in 1975. But he was no ace. Lolich sat out the next season before coming back to pitch two more years for the Padres. Not exactly the return the Mets were hoping for from the 1968 World Series hero.

But the Mets traded Staub to create a place for Vail. Yet if we knew then what we know now, there is no way that would have happened, at least not with a competent front office. Vail made headlines with the hitting streak and the sparkling average, but he rarely walked, had little power and even less speed. He was a one-trick pony and even that was a mirage. Vail batted .302 for the Mets in 1975 but he did it with a .377 BABIP.

While Vail had a .326 lifetime BABIP, he was not a good bet to come within 25 points of his debut season BABIP in 1976, even if he did not get injured during the off-season. He was a .275 hitter with no power, not anything to get excited about, much less trade one of your top players to create a spot for him to play.

The first Staub trade is still the worst one, although the Mets got more value out of it than they did the second Staub deal. Both times the Mets gave up the best player in the deal, although with Singleton they gave up a guy at the start of a Hall of Very Good career.

But the second trade deserves more scorn than it gets. It is rightly derided for who they gave up and who they received in return. But the Mets should be docked, too, for thinking that Vail could replace the production of Staub

9 comments for “Which Rusty Staub trade was worse?

  1. FriskiesRevenge
    November 5, 2010 at 8:09 pm

    Nice analysis, but despite the Sabermetrics, Rusty Staub in his first go round was the star of the team. Growing up a Mets fan in the late 60’s, it was the ’73 Mets, led by Staub, that really were a ‘miracle’ team in that they squeaked into the pennant playoff, beat the mighty Big Red Machine in its prime, and force Oakland deep into the World Series, the latter without Staub who separated his shoulder as I remember making a catch. Rusty put people in the seats.

    Ken Singleton had a fine career for Montreal and especially Baltimore. As a rookie with the Mets, he showed very little. Tim Foli was never a great shortstop and Mike Jorgensen was always a part-time player.

    The trade for Lolich, who barely could get his arm around his midriff when he pitched, was the beginning of the slide that really hit rock bottom in the early 80’s and lasted till the team became competitive again in 1984, which if I remember right featured a lot of timely pinch hits by Rusty, with Ron Gardenhire (the Twins manager) his designated pinch runner. I think by ’85 it was spot duty at best for him, but he still was entertaining.

  2. November 5, 2010 at 11:31 pm

    Thanks for reading and commenting FriskiesRevenge.

    Singleton played parts of two seasons with the Mets before the trade. In 496 ABs, he had 18 HR and 72 RBIs, which I think is a far cry from the “very little” you claim he gave the club. For a comparison, Staub had 15 HR and 76 RBIs in 585 ABs for the Mets in 1973.

  3. Jon B.
    July 5, 2011 at 11:18 pm

    As someone else who “was there” I think your analysis of the Singleton trade being a poor one for the Mets is spot on. The guy who said Singleton showed very little as Met doesn’t know what he’s talking about. You could tell the kid was special, much like Daryl 10 years later. As a Met, Singleton hit a shot to left-center that still hasn’t landed yet, far more impressive than Agee’s historic blast which just happened to hit in the upper deck. The legend of Staub’s tenure as a Met seems to have grown over time, but he was simply a good hitter on a team that had scarcely any, while Singleton was a perennial MVP candidate.

  4. RealityChuck
    November 4, 2012 at 3:27 pm

    Funny, but when, in the offseason, Joe Torre was asked (at a local sporting dinner) why they traded Staub for Lolich, his reply made no mention of Mike Vail. He said that they traded Staub because he was about to become a 5-and-10 man (and then not traceable without his consent), and he was known to be a tough negotiator.

    Reading between the lines, it’s clear that Torre thought Grant made the trade purely to save money the next year. Vail was just an afterthought, and I can’t believe anyone in the Mets organization truly believed he’d be better than Staub.

    • November 4, 2012 at 4:56 pm

      I have no doubt that money was a huge factor – Mets were tightfisted back then and didn’t want to pay anyone.

      I’m not sure if you were around then but the hype around Vail was huge. Not much was made about rookies and prospects back then and we would get updates on Vail in the minors. Then he came up and had the big hitting streak and everyone was convinced he was a future star.

      The 1975 Mets were done in because they only had 3 SP. There was a certain logic to it all – cut payroll, clear room for young stud, get a veteran SP to bolster rotation. But it was a dismal failure.

  5. Dan Spector
    November 9, 2012 at 2:04 am

    Singleton hit two home runs on the last day of the 1971 season. The audio of the end of that broadcast is on YouTube ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t2iCVSW7Igs ) and Lindsey Nelson certainly thought Singleton had claimed the right field job. Plus Kenny was a local kid, from Yonkers; that should have counted for something.

    Jorgy and Foli I don’t mind; the Mets fell apart in 1971 because of clubhouse dissent, with Kranepool’s one-punch knockout of Foli the most famous event, and Foli was a clubhouse cancer in Montreal, too. (He wasn’t called “Crazy Horse” for nothing.) Jorgy was over-rated defensively; he was no Keith Hernandez with the glove and his bat really didn’t justify a full-time first base job. He kept the job in Montreal because they didn’t have anyone better, but basically he was an extra man. That part of the deal was okay, but they gave up the wrong OF prospect; they should have talked the Expos down to Milner, or Leroy Stanton (if they hadn’t traded him away with Ryan).

    The Ryan trade is way more inexcusable. Yes, Garrett had an awful 1971, but he was still young and Fregosi was old and breaking down; he missed half of the 1971 season for the Angels, with Bruce Christensen and Syd O’Brien handling the shortstop duties.

    More to the point, the Angels were a clubhouse disaster in 1971; the first *18* pages of the 44-page year-end wrap-up in the 1972 Sporting News guide are about how the Angels fell apart, with Alex Johnson constantly being suspended, Johnson alleging that Chico Ruiz had threatened him with a gun (“Walsh Says He Found No Gun” was one of the subheads), and Tony Conigliaro slumping, being depressed and quitting the team at 5.15 AM after the 20-inning game where the Angels set the MLB record for most strikeouts by a team (26; Tony was 0-for-8, with 5 Ks). One book did a whole chapter on how those Angels were the most toxic clubhouse in MLB history…and who was their captain? Oh, yeah, Jim Fregosi.

    So Fregosi was

    a) old
    b) overpaid
    c) coming off a foot injury
    d) changing positions and didn’t have the arm for 3B (he’d never been known for his arm as a SS)
    e) changing leagues
    f) having had his previous team explode on his captaincy, and coming to a team that had been a clubhouse mess itself in July/August of ’71, falling out of the race, and
    g) probably not too thrilled at going from being the Angels’ captain/face of the franchise/resident hunky Italian sex god to being about 7th on the Mets’ totem pole, if that.

    Trading LeRoy Stanton even up for this guy would have been a bad deal. Throwing in Ryan just made it epically horrible.

    A couple of other bad 1971-1972 offseason deals should be mentioned: the trade of Jim Bibby, Art Shamsky and others to the Cardinals for Harry Parker, Jim Beauchamp and others (yes, the Cards also dealt Bibby away [to Texas] too soon and Parker was an unsung hero in 1973, but the talent exchange was just bad) and the Mets’ *first* four-for-one deal of that off-season, sending Arsenio Diaz, Curtis Brown, Don Koonce and Bill Carthel to the Expos to bring Jim Gosger back for a second Mets tenure. Now given that the four guys sent to Montreal played a combined total of ONE major league game (Brown in 1973), that doesn’t seem so bad, but Diaz had had a big year as the Tidewater thirdbaseman in 1971; give him a shot at platooning with Garrett, and you don’t need to go chasing Fregosi. Brown was also one of the IL’s top hitters that year (although not in Stanton’s class) and could have been useful for depth.

    I hate to say it, but one thing I realize as I look things over is that Cleon Jones, Tommie Agee, Singleton, Milner, Stanton, and Brown were all black. Perhaps Don Grant (who would have the Mets down to John Milner and 24 white guys later in the decade) thought an all-black outfield (including the reserves, not counting Don Hahn) wouldn’t sell tickets? The Mets also kept their long-developing white pitching prospect (Jon Matlack) and ditched their slow-developing black prospect (Bibby) that off-season. I hope this isn’t part of the answer…but I wonder.

    Oh and the WORST Rusty Staub trade ever was the one where the Astros sent a 24-year-old two-time All-Star semi-local hero (Rusty’s from New Orleans, which is closer to Houston than any other big league city) who had gotten MVP votes in both ’66 and ’67 to Montreal for…Jesus Alou and Donn Clendenon? (Changed to Alou, Jack Billingham, Skip Guinn and $100,000 when Clink wouldn’t play for Harry Walker again.) Explain the logic there, please. Spec Richardson had some ‘splaining to do.

  6. February 2, 2014 at 2:28 am

    What we forget : Why did the Expos trade Rusty, given his remarkable popularity in Quebec & franchise player status with the fledgling team? Rusty,as pointed out, has been on one end of numerous “bad” trades. But there was a method to the madness,which is why I quote the adjective. While always popular with fans, his employers would begin to notice his quirks & anomalies on-&-off the field, causing them to worry that the unthinkable was true : they were carrying a homosexual player.A player as steady as Rusty should have had a more stable residency. Though the 1972 trade appeared to be good for the Mets,.the final result was : Ken Singleton AND Rusty for Mickey Lolich. Having a racist who was also anti-gay like M. Donald Grant factored into the poor judgement calls that hastened the demise of the franchise by the end of the decade,but mercifully its sale to Wilpon-Doubleday.

  7. Richard
    February 4, 2019 at 10:38 am

    I just remember my father saying his favorite phrase “Jesus Christ”! As a youngster I thought Jesus played baseball, football, etc. and always on the opposing team. He threw the paper and he blamed the trade on the reason Staub was gay. Yelling bigoted Mets staff.

    Anyway I came of age in the 80’s and I knew Singleton as he was from my hometown of Mount Vernon (along with Dick Clark, BigESmalls, Grand Master Flash, Michael Imbrollio (Sapranos & Good Fellas), etc). I do remember the plump pinch hitter whom I thought was a master as a PH.

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