Swapping Stories: The Robb Nen Trade of 1993

July 17, 1993: Texas trades righthanders Robb Nen and Kurt Miller to Florida for righthander Cris Carpenter.

One of the most difficult decisions an organization faces arises when one of its top prospects runs out of options and the club isn’t convinced he’s ready to contribute.

Do you invest all the patience, discipline, and guts you can summon up, keep the player in the big leagues and live with the bumps in the road, because you believe in the player and want to be sure that if it all comes together, your investment rewards you — and not some other team?

Or do you cut bait, trading potential for immediate production — taking on lesser risk in exchange for surrendering greater potential reward?

It was an easy decision for the Florida Marlins to make in 1993, less clear-cut for the Texas Rangers.

In November 1992, the National League conducted an expansion draft to help stock the rosters of the Marlins and Colorado Rockies in advance of their inaugural season. Among the 36 players Florida chose was righthander Cris Carpenter, a 27-year-old middle reliever who had been somewhat of a disappointment since St. Louis drafted him in the first round in 1987 out of the University of Georgia, where he’d been a star closer (not to mention a punter on the Bulldogs football team).

Carpenter went from being the 14th overall pick in the amateur draft — netting what was then the highest signing bonus ($160,000) that St. Louis had ever paid a draft choice — to being the 37th pick in the expansion draft five years later. There were 16 other unprotected pitchers chosen by the Marlins and Rockies before Florida got around to picking Carpenter, who had posted a 3.66 ERA for the Cardinals in five big league seasons, pitching primarily in middle relief.

Eight months after drafting Carpenter, Florida traded him to Texas, for young righthanders Robb Nen and Kurt Miller.

Texas had acquired Miller (along with righty Hector Fajardo) from Pittsburgh two summers earlier for third baseman Steve Buechele, and he was considered the prize in both that deal and the 1993 Marlins trade. Nen was graded by Baseball America as the Rangers’ number two prospect in both 1990 (behind Juan Gonzalez) and 1991 (behind Pudge Rodriguez) but fell off the top 10 altogether in 1992, when the newly acquired Miller (who was the fifth overall pick in the 1990 draft) occupied the top spot. Going into the 1993 season, Miller was number two (behind Benji Gil). Nen was not on the list.

Nen had been one of the greatest enigmas in Rangers player development history to that point. The club’s 32nd-round pick in 1987 out of a California high school, the lanky righthander posted an ERA of 8.09 his first two seasons but went 7-4, 2.41 for Low A Gastonia in 1989, starting 24 games and fanning 9.5 hitters per nine innings, cutting his walk rate from over eight free passes per nine innings to under five. Texas added Nen and his upper-90s fastball to the 40-man roster that winter.

There was no question that Texas needed to protect Nen on the roster after that breakout season, but it meant that the options clock began ticking for the 20-year-old. He had an uneven 1990 season (1-4, 3.69 for High A Charlotte and 0-5, 5.06 for AA Tulsa) and then two injury-marred AA seasons in 1991 (28 innings, elbow problems) and 1992 (25 innings, shoulder problems), and suddenly his three options had been exhausted, without so much as an inning in AAA, or even a full season in AA.

The 1993 Rangers had a rotation fronted by Kevin Brown and Kenny Rogers, a bullpen anchored by Tom Henke, and an offense that featured Gonzalez, Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro, Julio Franco, Dean Palmer, and Jose Canseco. New manager Kevin Kennedy got the club off to a good start. Nen, forced to make the roster since he was out of options, was basically the 25th man, used just twice in April and five times in May before a disastrous outing on May 29.

Having lost four out of five going into a Saturday afternoon game in Boston, Texas fell behind the Red Sox early. Boston scored six times before starter Todd Burns could get out of the fourth. Kennedy called on Nen (to avoid using up his key bullpen parts) and things started off well. Nen finished the fourth and got through the fifth quietly, but the sixth was a different story: Walk. Walk. Wild pitch. Single. Single. Strikeout. Walk. Single. Single.

Dressing down.

When Kennedy came out to take the ball from Nen, he screamed at his 24-year-old mop-up man, the kid with the huge arm that, realistically speaking, wasn’t ready to contribute to a contender.

After Boston stretched its lead to 12-1 off of Brian Bohanon, Kennedy entrusted the ball to Canseco to pitch the eighth inning, one of the most embarrassing episodes in franchise history.

Canseco would never pitch again. Nen would pitch only one more time as a Texas Ranger.

Left to atrophy in the bullpen for the next two weeks, Nen pitched a scoreless ninth in an 8-3 loss to Cleveland on June 11. The next day he was placed on the disabled list with what was reported as a right groin injury, dispatched to AAA Oklahoma City on rehab assignment nine days after that. In five starts and a relief appearance, he was awful, going 0-2, 6.67 with 45 hits allowed and 26 walks in 28.1 innings of work.

Meanwhile, the Rangers got extremely hot. Reeling off 15 wins in 18 games, they were within a game of the division lead on July 17.

The expansion Marlins, on the other hand, were hopelessly out of contention, and General Manager Dave Dombrowski was in trading mode. Three weeks earlier, he’d traded shortstop-turned-pitcher Trevor Hoffman to San Diego in a multi-player deal that brought Gary Sheffield to Florida. When Texas showed an interest in Carpenter (2.89 ERA in 29 Marlins appearances) as a set-up man for Henke, Dombrowski asked for Miller, who was struggling in his second run at AA hitters (6-8, 5.06), and Nen, whose rehab assignment would soon expire and who was clearly not going to get much of a chance to redeem himself in Texas as long as Kennedy was managing. A deal was made.

Nen’s options status remained the same, of course, and the Marlins were forced to keep him in the big leagues. Over the season’s final 11 weeks, Nen pitched 15 times (1-0, 7.02), but notably the club’s record in those games was 2-13, suggesting he was used mostly in low-leverage situations. Only three times did he keep the opponent off the scoreboard.

But something clicked for Nen the next spring. After Bryan Harvey and then Jeremy Hernandez suffered season-ending injuries in the 1994 season’s first two months, Nen seized the ninth-inning post, harnessing his high-octane stuff and converting every one of his 15 save opportunities. The man who walked nearly a batter per inning as a minor leaguer and as a rookie in 1993 issued only 17 walks in 58 innings in 1994, punching out 60 and making his lack of options a non-factor going forward. Nen would save 299 more games over the next eight seasons in Florida and San Francisco, making three All-Star teams. He would play in three post-seasons, saving 11 games and winning another.

Carpenter pitched reasonably well for Texas following the trade, going 4-1, 4.22 with a save in 27 appearances in 1993. In late May 1994, Henke landed on the disabled list with a sore lower back, and in the three weeks while he was sidelined, Carpenter assumed closing duties, going 0-1, 2.38 in 10 games and converting three of five save opportunities. He said after one game that he didn’t consider himself a great closer but was simply doing what the team asked of him. The comment was taken out of context, and he was branded by some in the media as a recalcitrant.

Carpenter finished 1994 with a 5.03 ERA, left via free agency after the season, and spent the next two seasons in AAA with St. Louis and Milwaukee (getting 8.1 big league innings with the Brewers in 1996) before retiring.

Miller managed only 80.2 big league innings of his own, seeing time in parts of five seasons with Florida and the Cubs but never pitching a full year in the bigs.

Nen never saw the minor leagues again. He last pitched at age 32, prematurely forced out of the game by a bad shoulder. Still, he earned over $50 million in his career, after a nine-year run as one of the game’s most dominant and dependable closers, a stretch that began just a year after the Rangers decided they couldn’t depend on him at all.

Jamey Newberg is a contributor to MLB.com. A Dallas lawyer, he has been an insane Texas Rangers fan since the days of scheduled doubleheaders, Bat Nights when they actually handed out a piece of lumber instead of a grocery store voucher, and Jim Umbarger. He has covered the Texas Rangers, from the big club down through the entire farm system, since 1998 on his website, NewbergReport.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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