By Dave Wright
(Note: Howard's away from the computer for a few more days. Today's guest post is from St. Paul author Dave Wright. Dave will be signing copes of his new Twins book, "162-0," at Midway Stadium on Friday prior to the St. Paul Saints game.)
It is the cause célèbre of the week for Twins fans – the team needs to figure out a way to pry Cliff Lee loose from the underachieving Seattle Mariners. In a nutshell, the theory of many of the folks who have jammed their way into Target Field this summer goes like this: Give up what you must from your farm system but get Lee here. Otherwise, the team is going nowhere fast.
In time, we will find out if this will happen. However, while the rampant speculation continues, Twins’ fans would be well reminded of what happened years ago when another team in similar straits faced a similar situation.
That club went out and got the veteran arm they thought would carry them to the Promised Land of the World Series. Although the arm they purchased performed well, the price they paid for that arm would haunt them for years to overcome.
The date was August 12, 1987. The Detroit Tigers were involved in a testy three-way fight for the AL East lead. At the time, Toronto led the Tigers and the Yankees by a game and a half. The veteran Tigers felt they needed one more starter to get over the top. So, they called up the Atlanta Braves, who were nine games out of first and going nowhere in the NL West.
Shortly thereafter, Detroit had acquired Doyle Alexander, a veteran with 165 MLB wins and a lifetime ERA of around 3.50 for a minor leaguer who had been a 22nd round draft choice a couple of years before. Sure, the guy was only 20 and showed promise. But the race was afoot and Detroit needed a pitcher.
Four days later, Alexander made his debut with a so-so no-decision effort against the Royals. On August 20, he did a little better, tossing eight shutout, five-hit innings in an 8-0 win over, of all the people, the Twins.
After that, Alexander quickly became Detroit’s best pitcher. By the end of the regular season, he stood 9-0 with three shutouts and a 1.53 ERA. The Tigers rallied past the Blue Jays on the last day of the season to win the East.
The fairy tale ended there, though.
The Twins earned more than revenge against Alexander in the AL playoffs. They beat him twice, pounding him for 10 runs in nine innings worked. The second start resulted in Minnesota’s first pennant in 22 years.
Alexander stuck around for a second season in Detroit, going 14-11 as the club began a gradual decline. After signing with the team as a free agent in 1989, he led the AL in losses with 18.
His career was over.
As for the prospect Detroit gave up, well, he went on a to a 21-year career that could very well end up with a trip to the Hall of Fame. His name? John Smoltz.
One suspects that if you called up Sparky Anderson, Detroit’s manager in 1987, that he would still say getting Alexander was worth it because his team couldn’t have won the division without him. But if you pressed ol’ Sparky a bit further, he might also allow that perhaps it would have been best if Smoltz had stayed in the Tiger system.
Thus, the conundrum that now faces the Twins. Lee seems to be in the prime of his career. He is a proven success in the American League. But pitchers in the prime of their career who are playing on teams that are not in the pennant race don’t come cheaply. To get him, the Twins will likely have to part with one of their top prospects. That would be for a player who may only be here for a couple of months at best.
Furthermore, as Doyle Alexander found out, regular season success doesn’t necessarily translate into post-season happiness.
Making a trade just to say you made one sounds good on paper. But it doesn’t necessarily translate to success in the locker room.
As the July 31 trade deadline approaches, the price for Lee is likely to increase. The Twins may find themselves in the same predicament the Tigers were in.
It bears noting that, after that 1987 East title, the Tigers spent the next 19 seasons watching the post-season on television. In 10 of those seasons, they could see their old farmhand pitching for the Braves.
But is the future now? If so, find a prospect the Mariners like and make the deal. A reminder, though to Twins’ fans. If, say, in 2013, Wilson Ramos, Ben Revere or Liam Hendriks or somebody of that ilk helps the M’s to the postseason, remember you were warned.
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