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The Ozzie Smith Trade through the Prism of Modern Analysis

Happy 39th anniversary to one of the best trades in Cardinals history

World Series - St. Louis Cardinals v Milwaukee Brewers - Game Two Photo by Rich Pilling/Getty Images

Today marks the 39th anniversary of the St. Louis Cardinals acquiring Ozzie Smith from the San Diego Padres... sort of. The deal was established at the Winter Meetings in December 1981, but it took a few more months for the trade to be completed. This was primarily because of Smith’s contract. Imagine if the recently completed Nolan Arenado deal had originally been pieced together and made public in early December... and the deal wasn’t official until February. That’s how the Ozzie Smith deal shook down. There are a lot of echoes of the Ozzie trade in the Arenado deal. Like Arenado, Ozzie was in a dispute with his team’s owner, he had to first waive a no-trade clause, and his contract had to be reconfigured to make the deal work. Ergo the two month lag. How would this deal look using today’s analytical framework?

The Cardinals sent their own disgruntled shortstop, Garry Templeton, along with outfielder Sixto Lezcano and Luis DeLeon, a reliever prospect, to the Padres. They received Smith, starting pitcher Steve Mura, and minor league pitcher Al Olmsted, a former Cardinal prospect who had been dealt to the Padres just 14 months prior in the Rollie Fingers trade.

Amazingly, Matt Swartz- an expert on these matters- has calculated the cost of a win ($/WAR) on the open market going all the way back to 1985. We can reverse engineer it a bit and, assuming 6% inflation, come up with $540k as the cost of a win on the open market in 1981, the most recently completed season when the Templeton/Smith deal happened. It’s more complicated than just that, of course. For instance, teams losing a free agent received both draft pick compensation and professional players from a free agent compensation pool. The trade also happened on the heels of the 1981 strike. I can’t even begin to untangle how that would alter the cost of a win, and our $/WAR is going to be applied equally to all players, so we’ll ignore the complications. From there, we can determine the surplus value of each of our players.

San Diego Padres v Philadelphia Phillies

Garry Templeton

The Cardinals signed Templeton to a 6 year, $4M contract before the 1980 season. He had four years left at an average annual value of $666,667. We don’t know the specifics per year, so we’ll plug that in for each year. Using a simple but reasonable 3/2/1 method (3 times the most recent season’s fWAR, plus 2 times the previous season, plus the fWAR from two seasons prior, divided by 6), we get a 3.7 fWAR projection for Templeton in 1982. Since he was entering his age 26 season, he wasn’t likely to decline much until the final year remaining on his deal. Add it all up and Templeton represented a $5.1M discounted surplus. That might not sound like much by today’s standards, but bear in mind that 1982’s highest paid player, Mike Schmidt, earned $1.5M.

Ozzie Smith

Smith’s situation was more complicated. He had two more seasons of arbitration before free agency. He ended up in front of an arbitration judge before ever playing with the Cardinals, and the judge ruled in the Cardinals’ favor. Smith was given $450k for 1982. We’ll assume he would’ve gotten the arbitration figure he wanted after 1981 for 1983- $750k. That’s a good cap for what the Cardinals could have expected when the deal was made. Technically the Cardinals gave him a 3 year/$3.6M extension after 1982, but they didn’t know that’s where it was headed at the time. The 3-2-1 method gets Smith a projection of 2.0 fWAR for 1982. He was one year older than Templeton, but it wouldn’t hurt his 1983 projection. His discounted surplus at the time was $976k.

Steve Mura

The Cardinals acquired Mura with three years of control before he would become a free agent. The league minimum at the time was $33,500 for 1982, $35k for 1983, and $40k for 1984. We’ll give him that salary, plus 10, 15, and 20% of those amounts in the three seasons. He was coming off of a 1.8 fWAR season when prorating for the shortened season in 1981, and projected for 1.4 in 1982. Even though he was just 27 at the time of the deal, we’ll project his future value with quicker decline, as Mura’s contact-heavy profile wouldn’t project well. Due to his pre-free agent salary, Mura was worth $1.63M in discounted surplus, oddly more than Smith.

Sixto Lezcano Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Sixto Lezcano

Lezcano’s situation is almost impossible to decipher. We know he signed a three year extension with the Brewers that took him through 1981, and had been traded to the Cardinals prior to 1981. He just completed his age 27 season, but was well past his arbitration years, made moot by the extension. We know he had a contentious relationship with Whitey Herzog, and had asked for a trade after 1981. Given that his last known contract only ran through 1981, I have no idea why he was still a Cardinal after 1981 rather than a free agent. In the least, we can see that he made $400k from 1982 to 1984, with $425k in 1985. Given that it was the same salary each year until a modest $25k bump in 1985, we can probably assume Lezcano was on a four year deal for $1.625M. He also had a 1.7 fWAR projection (using 3/2/1) for 1982, and I’d project a quicker decline given the recent trajectory on his career. In short, the best estimation for his surplus value is $1.38M.

Al Olmsted and Luis DeLeon

It gets tricky with players like DeLeon and Olmsted since they pre-date prospect rankings. Olmsted, age 25 for the 1982 season, was two years older, but was a starting pitcher. DeLeon was a reliever. Both had pitched briefly in St. Louis- DeLeon in 1981, and Olmsted in 1980 before he was traded to the Padres. DeLeon had a superior K/BB rate in AA and AAA (2.23 to 1.67) but an inferior HR/9 (0.56 to Olmsted’s 0.46). It’s also worth noting that Olmsted had been dreadful in his lone AAA season for the Padres, racking up a 5.95 ERA and a poor 0.92 K/BB. If we only count his time in the Cardinals’ farm system, his K/BB jumps to 2.07 with a 0.47 HR/9 and a 3.46 ERA. In other words, his FIP prior to 1981 was better than DeLeon’s, and he was a starter rather than a reliever. Neither player was likely on anyone’s top 100 radar. Given DeLeon’s younger age and more recent success, we can probably guess that his overall value was worth about $100k more than Olmsted.

The Full Equation

Now that we have surplus values for all of the pieces, here’s how the values work out:

Surplus Value in Millions, Smith-Templeton Trade

Player STL Value SDP Value
Player STL Value SDP Value
O. Smith 0.976 -
Mura 1.630 -
Olmsted - -
Templeton - 5.100
Lezcano - 1.380
DeLeon - 0.100
TOTAL 2.606 6.580

We know in retrospect that this turned out differently. That said, at the time, the Cardinals gave up a lot of value- most of it tied up in Templeton- to get their man. They came out in the negative by $3.98M in surplus value. If we give baseball’s open market a rate of inflation of 5%, that puts the Cardinals as having overpaid $26.8M by today’s value.

It’s hard to ignore Templeton’s massive value at the time. He was just 27, booked at a reasonable price for multiple years, and had been a highly productive player in his career to date. Ozzie was no slouch but was older, had fewer years under contract, and lacked the offensive punch of Templeton. That explains nearly the entire gap between the values the two teams exchanged. The Mura/Olmsted for Lezcano/DeLeon component was almost a wash in terms of surplus value, with the Cardinals coming out a little ahead.

It’s not fair to judge it on modern merits for several reasons. This was an era where batting average and pitcher wins were deemed high impact, after all. The reason it turned out wildly in the Cardinals’ favor was because Herzog saw what others did not. Specifically, Smith’s skills were perfectly tailored to Busch Stadium, less so Jack Murphy Stadium. The fast astroturf at Busch amplified Smith’s legendary defensive skill, and goosed the importance of his speed. The aggressive, smart way the Cardinals played also helped Smith add some value on the bases in ways he hadn’t in San Diego, with improved stolen base success rates and more opportunities to turn singles into doubles in the cavernous gaps. His BABIP increased in St. Louis, as did his ISO. Ozzie was the perfect fit for the Cardinals and the direction Herzog wanted to take.

Smith rode that all the way to a long Hall of Fame career. The value he provided in St. Louis swamped what the Cardinals gave up. It is arguably the best trade in franchise history, which makes the modern take on it look silly. Ironically, Templeton became more of a glove-first player in San Diego, mostly because his bat lagged after the deal. In 10 years as a Padre, his best season by fWAR- 2.5 in 1985- was worse than all but one of his St. Louis years. Even that one- 2.1 in 1981- was a better season after it’s prorated out to a full 162 game schedule. He had one season in San Diego with a wRC+ over 80. His worst in St. Louis was 88.

As for the bonus parts, Olmsted never played again in St. Louis. Lezcano had a monster 1982 (5.3 fWAR) but collapsed in 1983. He was traded mid-season in 1983 to the Phillies. Mura gobbled up 184 average innings for the 1982 World Series winner, but was plucked in the free agent compensation draft by the White Sox after the season. He only threw 60 more innings in his career. DeLeon was a very good reliever as part of a closer-by-committee for the Padres in 1982 and 1983, then struggled for the rest of his career through 1989.

Of the six players in the trade, all but Olmsted was a contributor to a World Series participant over the next three seasons. You obviously know about Smith and Mura in 1982. Lezcano was a contributor to the Phillies’ NL pennant winner in 1983, and Templeton and DeLeon were part of the Padres’ 1984 NL pennant winner.