Swapping Stories: The Harold Baines Trade of 1989

July 29, 1989: Texas trades shortstop Scott Fletcher, outfielder Sammy Sosa, and lefthander Wilson Alvarez to the Chicago White Sox for designated hitter Harold Baines and utility infielder Fred Manrique.

The Texas Rangers have reached the post-season three times, facing the New York Yankees in 1996, 1998, and 1999 and winning once in 10 tries.

It’s impossible not to wonder whether the results might have been better had the club not made one particular trade a decade earlier.

After launching a pronounced commitment to youth in 1986, which was Bobby Valentine’s first full season as the club’s manager, and winning 87 games that year, Texas lost 87 games in 1987 and 91 games in 1988. But the Rangers went 17-5 in April 1989, owning at least a share of first place in the seven-team AL West for all but three days during the month. Even a 10-17 May didn’t completely kill the buzz. The club’s 27-22 record was their best June 1 mark in eight years.

The Rangers had a budding star in 23-year-old Ruben Sierra, who was on his way to finishing second in the 1989 MVP vote, and a couple 24-year-olds, Rafael Palmeiro and Kevin Brown, growing into core roles. Thirty-year-old Julio Franco was certainly not past his prime, forty-somethings Nolan Ryan and Charlie Hough were still winning games, and the bullpen was anchored by 27-year-old Jeff Russell and 24-year-old Kenny Rogers.

Meanwhile, Sandy Johnson’s player development effort continued to bear fruit, particularly out of Latin America. In the Rangers farm system when the 1989 season began were catcher Ivan Rodriguez, infielders Jose Oliva and Jose Hernandez, and a couple outfielders named Juan Gonzalez and Sammy Sosa, not to mention Wilson Alvarez, a 19-year-old lefthander out of Venezuela.

By mid-July, the Chicago White Sox were buried in last place in the AL West, more than 20 games out of first. Their roster was relatively young, with the exception of 41-year-old catcher Carlton Fisk and designated hitter Harold Baines, who at age 30 was Chicago’s only other regular not in his twenties. General Manager Larry Himes was interested in getting even younger, as his club was bad and his farm system was exceptionally weak.

Texas, on the other hand, was thinking about October. On June 28, the club had gotten back to within two games of the division lead, even though it had three teams to catch. The allure of the franchise’s first post-season led Rangers GM Tom Grieve to take some of the organization’s farm system depth and embark on a mid-summer effort to find a veteran to plug into the middle of the lineup.

Down at AA Tulsa, the Rangers were led offensively by Gonzalez and 20-year-old third baseman Dean Palmer, and two lefthanders who had begun the season with High A Charlotte: 21-year-old Brian Bohanon (the club’s first-round pick in 1987) and Alvarez. Sosa started the season with the Drillers but was summoned to Texas when Pete Incaviglia landed on the disabled list with a neck strain on June 15. Over a five-week stint Sosa hit the first of what would be more than 600 big league home runs, a solo shot off Boston’s Roger Clemens on June 21.

Sosa hit just .238 in his 84 Rangers at-bats before he was returned to the farm, this time to AAA Oklahoma City. Gonzalez, meanwhile, was having a huge year in Tulsa (.293/.342/.506, 21 homers, 85 RBI in 133 games) that led to a big league call-up in September, when he became the youngest Ranger ever to homer. It was easy to imagine that, within a year, Sosa and Gonzalez would join Sierra in an outfield that could do it all, and would do so for years and years. Cecil Espy and Incaviglia were reasonably productive but were hardly in the way. The Rangers had drafted outfielders Donald Harris (first round) and Dan Peltier (third round) that June, but they were years away and far from sure things. Kevin Reimer, Tony Scruggs, and Monty Farris had possibilities. But there was no blueprint that didn’t have Sierra, Gonzalez, and Sosa as the imminent outfield of the future in Texas.

Starting pitching, as it has always been in Texas, was an issue at the big league level, and there was not a lot of hope on the farm. Alvarez had an uninspiring debut season in 1987 and an interesting one in 1988, but in 1989 he broke through in a big way. He went 7-4, 2.11 in 13 starts for Charlotte and then 2-2, 2.06 in seven Tulsa starts before Texas summoned him to make a July 24 start in Arlington against Toronto, in place of the injured Hough.

Why not Bohanon, who was two years older and had been even more dominant in Charlotte and Tulsa that season? Or Mark Petkovsek, who at age 23 was certainly a better bet to survive the experience?

Alvarez’s start came five days before Texas would send him, along with Sosa and shortstop Scott Fletcher, to the White Sox for Baines and infielder Fred Manrique. Alvarez was undoubtedly being showcased.

Rangers fans would look back with favor on that July 24 start had it convinced Himes not to make the deal. Alvarez faced five Blue Jays hitters and retired none of them, giving up a single, followed by back-to-back home runs, and then back-to-back walks. Valentine ended the hazing, taking the ball from Alvarez after he’d delivered it 26 times without recording an out. But Chicago was undeterred.

So was Texas, regretfully. On July 28, the club fell to seven games out of first in the division, the furthest out it had been all year. There’s no question that the Rangers’ DH spot was in need of an upgrade, as Buddy Bell’s ineffectiveness and mid-season retirement resulted in a revolving door of undeserving candidates that had actually begun a year earlier when Larry Parrish was released. To go after a hitter of Baines’s stature was not a mistake. To give up Sosa and Alvarez – who immediately became Chicago’s top two prospects – to do so, when the club was so far back in the standings, was unfortunate.

Baines had no impact on the Rangers’ pennant run, hitting .285/.333/.390 with just three home runs and 16 RBI in 50 games (he’d hit .321/.423/.505 with 13 homers and 56 RBI in 96 White Sox games before the trade). Texas finished 83-79, 16 games out of first. Three clubs in the division won more than 90 games.

Baines was slightly better for Texas in 1990, hitting .290/.377/.449 in 321 at-bats, but on August 29, with the Rangers 14.5 games out of first, they shipped him to Oakland for two players to be named later. The disappointment over the production Baines gave the club in 153 games – only 19 doubles, 16 homers, and 60 RBI – paled in comparison to the disappointment over having given up Sosa and Alvarez to get him and then, 13 months later, moving him for a meager return eventually identified as righthanders Scott Chiamparino and Joe Bitker. It was a classic example of buying high and selling low.

Gonzalez was brought up to Texas the day that Baines was traded to the A’s, and he wouldn’t return to the minor leagues until the end of his career. He would almost instantly become the Rangers’ most feared hitter and among the most feared in baseball, hitting .319 and averaging 43 home runs in the club’s three playoff seasons.

Sosa, who went from the White Sox to the Cubs in a 1992 deal for George Bell, hit .291 in those same three years, with an average of 56 homers. Alvarez averaged 10 wins with a 4.36 ERA for a decent Chicago club and two awful Tampa Bay teams in those three seasons.

Had Texas remained true to its plan to build with youth, the 1989 and 1990 seasons probably wouldn’t have turned out any better than they did with Harold Baines in the lineup.

But had the club held onto Sammy Sosa and Wilson Alvarez in 1989 rather than bank on Baines helping them make up a seven-game deficit, it’s entirely possible that the Rangers’ playoff years of 1996, 1998, and 1999 might have had happier results.

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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