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1988 Revisited: Tudor for Guerrero

On this date 31 years ago, the Dodgers and Cardinals completed the type of deal that’s unheard of today.

1985 World Series - St. Louis Cardinals v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images

Today marks the 31st anniversary of a unique trade in Cardinals history. On August 16th, 1988, the Cardinals dealt southpaw John Tudor to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Pedro Guerrero. Tudor fortified the Dodgers for their pennant chase while Guerrero offered the Cardinals some much-needed thump in the middle of the lineup. It’s a fascinating trade in many ways because it’s the kind of deal that rarely happens today.

The Situation

The Cardinals were 18.5 games back of first place in mid-August. Even if the Wild Card had existed at the time, their season would have been over with a disappointing 52-66 record. They decided to sell, seeking players who could help them in 1989. Following their 1987 NL pennant, the Cardinals had allowed their one power hitter, Jack Clark, to leave in free agency. They gambled on Bob Horner as a solution on a one-year deal. Horner injured his shoulder in mid-June and never returned to MLB, leaving behind a hilarious baseball card as his Cardinal legacy. An early season deal for Tom Brunansky helped a little, but not nearly enough. The Herzog-era Cardinals had lost the thumper to drive in the lightning-fast waterbugs who flooded the basepaths. It rendered the offense impotent. They had to address that situation for 1989.

The Dodgers were in a dogfight for the NL West crown. They held a 3.5 game lead over Houston, who had shaved 4.5 games off of their deficit since July 18th. The Dodgers’ rotation in 1988 was their backbone thanks to Orel Hershiser, the two Tims (Belcher and Leary), and Fernando Valenzuela. However, Valenzuela had just gone down with an injury that would rob him of two months. It left a Fernando-sized hole in the rotation in an era when teams regularly handed 34+ starts and 250+ innings to multiple starters. General Manager Fred Claire identified the rotation slot as a critical need to stave off the Astros.

Pedro Guerrero

The Trade

The Cardinals and Dodgers concocted a bold swap of players who were premium performers at the time. The Cardinals dealt John Tudor, the 1985 Cy Young runner-up whose 2.54 ERA from 1985 to 1988 was the best in baseball among starters. The Dodgers traded four-time All-Star and 1981 World Series MVP Pedro Guerrero. It was a daring move for both teams. The Cardinals traded their best pitcher, second most valuable player by fWAR since 1985, and the league leader in ERA when the deal was consummated. He was a wizard who got stellar results employing what can best be described as magical pus that oozed out of his hand, like this:

The Dodgers traded a fan favorite and their second most valuable player by fWAR since 1985, who happened to be one of their few good hitters in 1988. Guerrero fought a neck injury early in 1988, but had successfully returned. He was anything but typical for the 1980s Cardinals. He could generously be considered average on the bases, but had an atrocious reputation afield. The Dodgers used Guerrero at whichever corner suited them best, always hoping that his bat would compensate for the damage he did with the glove in the field. In 1988, he had a 133 wRC+ at the time of the deal, second on the team only to Kirk Gibson. At 32, it was finally time for his permanent move to first base. Despite well above average production at the plate, his baserunning and defense sapped his fWAR to 1.1 at the time of the deal. Of course, nobody knew what WAR was at the time, f or otherwise.

Layers of Complexity

Each player had a unique contract. Per True Blue LA, our SB Nation peer site for the Dodgers:

though signed through 1989, Tudor’s contract allowed him to demand a trade at the end of the year, and become a free agent if that request was not met... Guerrero was a pending free agent himself, although he and the Cardinals agreed to a $6.2 million, three-year extension as the exchange was consummated.

The Dodgers were confident that Tudor would not demand a trade- a right that any player with five years of service time traded mid-season had under the collective bargaining agreement at the time. Claire told the Los Angeles Times, “We’ve had discussions with John and his agent, but I’m confident that John will not want to leave the Dodgers after he has experienced playing here. I’d be very surprised if he asked for a trade after the season.”

The deal appears to have been contingent on Guerrero accepting a three-year contract extension in St. Louis. It was announced at the same time as the trade. Per the same LA Times article, Guerrero wanted a contract extension but the Dodgers refused. The Cardinals’ willingness to meet the request changed the deal. It ceased to be 0.3 seasons of Guerrero for 1.3 seasons of Tudor. Suddenly, it became 1.3 seasons of Tudor at $1.6M in exchange for 3.3 seasons of Petey at $6.7M.

The age of both players adds another fun layer of complexity. Guerrero was 32 and Tudor was 34. Both had a bit of an injury history. The Cardinals could have had the age 34 and 35 seasons of Tudor, or the age 34 and 35 seasons of Guerrero plus the rest of his age 32 and 33 seasons.

Did it make sense?

Once you factor in the Guerrero extension, the deficiencies addressed by each team, and the math on the ages of the players, it’s an elegant one-for-one trade. It makes sense all around. The Dodgers got a premium pitcher for 1989 with the added benefit of his very high leverage pennant race innings down the stretch in 1988. The Cardinals got a long-term solution for the middle of their lineup by dealing from an area of depth.

Losing Tudor hurt, but they had Danny Cox, Jose DeLeon, Joe Magrane, Scott Terry, Greg Mathews, and Cris Carpenter all available as starters, all younger than 29. Phenom Ken Hill was on the way. None were Tudor– very few pitchers were– but Guerrero plus any of them or an off-season trade acquisition as Tudor’s replacement offered more in 1989 than Tudor plus the dried husks of Mike Laga or Jim Lindeman.

It worked out for both teams with caveats. Tudor pitched well down the stretch, helping the Dodgers lock down the division. However, he struggled in his lone NLCS start and departed his only World Series start with an injury. That injury would limit him to 14.1 innings in 1989. The Dodgers had given up their final two months of Guerrero for 73 innings of Tudor. Fortunately for them, the first 52.1 of those were a key component in a season that earned them a World Series title, and the 6.1 in the postseason didn’t prevent them from glory.

Guerrero slashed .311/.391/.477 (3.1 fWAR) en route to a 3rd place finish in the MVP voting in 1989. He was a beast in clutch situations, racking up a 1.238 OPS with two outs and runners in scoring position. His most impactful hit that season was a memorable three-run homerun in the 8th inning against the Cubs on September 8th, as clutch as you’ll find in the heat of a pennant race. He was fourth in baseball in Win Probability Added (WPA) that season.

Guerrero’s 1990 was less effective (.281/.334/.426, 0.3 fWAR), 1991 was even worse at the plate (.272/.326/.361, 0.8 fWAR), and the Cardinals inexplicably brought him back for 1992. That’s when it completely fell apart. Shoulder injuries limited him to a .219/.270/.295 slash line and -0.8 fWAR in just 43 games.

All told, the Cardinals had received 4.8 fWAR from Guerrero on his original deal from the end of 1988 through 1991. At least in 1989, he was a crucial piece on a contender. In that same time frame, Tudor had supplied the Dodgers with 0.8 fWAR... and another 2.3 to the Cardinals in 1990 when he returned as a free agent. Both teams got what they wanted for the most part, even if they surely wished they had gotten more.

A Deal from Another Era

Placing this deal under the lens using today’s logic yields fascinating results. Both players were probably overvalued using the metrics du jour of 1988. However, both players were overvalued to equal degrees so the trade balanced out in the end. What I find most fascinating is that it’s the type of deal that’s such a rarity today. Let’s count the ways:

  • Both players dealt were star-quality players, at least by the standards of the day. It’s not often that players of that caliber get dealt for one another mid-season. In this case, each player had at least 29 career bWAR at the time of the trade. There are only a handful of mid-season deals over the last 20 years that are even in the same ballpark. In 2001, the Cardinals traded Ray Lankford (37.3) to San Diego for Woody Williams (16.1); the Troy Tulowitzki (39.4) for Jose Reyes (37.1) trade in 2015 fits, although Reyes was clearly toast and his inclusion was more about clearing salary than addressing on-field needs; Manny Ramirez (63.2) and Jason Bay (15.3) in 2008 is in the ballpark, though multiple prospects and a third team were involved; the Nomar Garciaparra 2003 blockbuster involved multiple MLB players but also four teams, and only one over 15 career fWAR; and that’s it.
  • The team in the seller’s position, the Cardinals, didn’t receive any prospects in return.
  • The team in the buyer’s position traded the expiring contract, the rental in the parlance of deadline deals.
  • Stranger still, the rental player immediately signed an extension, which changed the dynamics of the trade.
  • Both players were into their 30s and- as we now know- either already in or about to begin their decline phases. We see lots of players dealt today in their 20s, maybe even early 30s, but never in a one-for-one deal or absent prospects of any sort. Look to the recent Trevor Bauer, Yasiel Puig, and Franmil Reyes three-team, prospect-laden deal completed a few weeks ago as the closest thing to the Tudor/Guerrero deal today.
  • And most obviously, it was in the August waiver period which no longer exists as of this season.

We may legitimately never see another deal like this one again.