Swapping Stories: The Rick Helling Trades of 1996 and 1997

August 8, 1996: Texas trades righthander Ryan Dempster and a player to be named later to Florida for righthander John Burkett; September 3, 1996: Texas sends righthander Rick Helling to Florida to complete the trade; August 12, 1997: Texas trades lefthander Ed Vosberg to Florida for Helling.

When reporters asked Rangers GM Jon Daniels last week if his trades of Kenny Lofton, Mark Teixeira, Ron Mahay, and Eric Gagné signaled a shift into a lengthy rebuilding phase, Daniels rejected the notion, pointing out that fortunes can turn quickly. He offered Cleveland up as an example, noting that in 2006 the Indians were July sellers, sending closer Bob Wickman to Atlanta for Class A catcher Max Ramirez – but just a year later they were contenders, in a position to flip Ramirez to Texas for Lofton.

There are plenty examples of a team trading for a prospect like Ramirez and then moving him elsewhere after a shift in blueprints. There are far fewer instances in which a team has traded a prospect away – and then gone out to reacquire him a year later.

It’s exactly what Texas did with righthander Rick Helling in 1996 and 1997.

The Rangers made Helling their top pick in the 1992 draft, and placed him on a fast track. After three High A appearances the summer in which he signed, he split the 1993 season between AA Tulsa and AAA Oklahoma City.

Helling earned a spot in the Rangers rotation out of camp in 1994, getting chased in the fifth inning of his debut but going 3-0, 2.68 over his next five starts. Three subpar starts followed, however, and Texas optioned him back to AAA in late May, and he struggled the rest of the year, going 4-12, 5.78 for the 89ers.

Texas had a new general manager, Doug Melvin, and a new manager, Johnny Oates, in 1995, but the script was familiar for Helling, who again opened the season in the big league rotation but was back in AAA for good in May, going 4-8, 5.33 for Oklahoma City. The 24-year-old had a big league ERA of 6.01, a AAA ERA of 5.41, and two exhausted options.

Helling turned a corner in 1996. He didn’t break camp with the Rangers, but got off to a good start with the 89ers and was summoned to Texas in mid-April, though this time it was only to serve as a placeholder in middle relief until Jeff Russell was procedurally allowed to return to the big leagues on May 1. Helling was called on again on May 25 to make a spot start for the injured Kevin Gross, and though he held Kansas City to a run on three hits over eight innings, Texas sent him right back down, this time for two months.

When Gross reinjured his back in mid-July, the Rangers brought Helling back for another start. On July 19, he gave up eight Oakland runs in four-plus innings, prompting a return ticket to the Pacific Coast League.

There’s a good reason the Rangers weren’t displaying more patience with Helling that summer. The franchise without a single playoff game in its first 24 seasons was nursing a division lead it had held for all but three days of the season, though what was once a 6.5-game cushion had shrunk to three games.

By August 5, the lead was down to one game, and Melvin couldn’t trust Gross, who had just returned from a rehab assignment, or Helling to hold down a spot every fifth day. Melvin had traded for John Burkett 20 months earlier, sending minor leaguers Rich Aurilia and Desi Wilson to the Giants for the righthander while the players were on strike, only to non-tender the veteran righthander after the strike ended. Florida signed Burkett two days after Texas let him go.

In 1996 Melvin got a second chance to add Burkett, who had won 14 games in 1995 but was just 6-10, 4.32, with one win in his last eight starts, when the Marlins, hopelessly out of contention, placed the 31-year-old on revocable waivers, necessary for any trade since it was after the July 31 trade deadline. The Rangers made the prevailing claim, giving them 48 hours to try and engineer a trade before Florida would have had to pull Burkett back.

On August 8, the two teams agreed in principle on a deal that would send Burkett to Texas for Ryan Dempster, a 19-year-old righthander whom the Rangers had drafted the summer before in the third round, plus a player to be named later from an agreed list of prospects that included Helling. Texas didn’t need to run Dempster – the key to the deal for the Marlins – through revocable waivers since he was not on the 40-man roster.

Helling was having an outstanding AAA season, but Melvin thought Florida was going to choose AAA reliever Danny Patterson as the player to be named. At least until August 13, when Helling threw the first perfect game in Oklahoma City history.

The Rangers couldn’t alter the parameters of the deal. But they were hardly remorseful buyers. Two days earlier, in his Rangers debut, Burkett had authored a complete-game, 6-0 shutout, stretching the Texas division lead back to five games.

The Rangers placed Helling on revocable waivers in early September, when post-season rosters were already set, and he reached the Marlins without being claimed, allowing the teams to complete the trade on September 3. (Presumably, had he been blocked, Texas simply would have pulled him back and conveyed him to Florida after the season.) With the minor league season over, Helling, who had gone 12-4, 2.96 for Oklahoma City, posted a 1.95 ERA in four Marlins starts and a relief appearance, scattering 14 hits and seven walks in 27.2 innings while punching out 26 National Leaguers.

Again, though, Texas had no regrets. Burkett went 5-2, 4.06 in 10 Rangers starts as the club nailed down its first post-season berth, and earned what remains the only playoff win in franchise history with a complete-game gem in Yankee Stadium, a 6-2 victory to kick off the series before it turned sour.

Helling began the 1997 season in Florida’s bullpen, moving into the rotation in May before returning to the pen in June. By August, it was the Marlins who had the playoffs in their sights for the first time ever. But on August 11, left-handed reliever Felix Heredia, after retiring the Braves in order in the eighth inning of a 1-1 tie, issued a leadoff walk in the ninth, followed by a sacrifice bunt and an intentional walk. Marlins manager Jim Leyland took the ball from Heredia, replacing him with Jay Powell, who walked the next hitter and gave up a game-ending sacrifice fly.

Atlanta extended its division lead over Florida to 5.5 games with the walkoff victory, and a Dodgers win brought Los Angeles to within 4.5 games of the Marlins in the Wild Card race. Leyland went into GM Dave Dombrowksi’s office and said he needed another southpaw reliever he could rely on. The next day, Dombrowski called Melvin, whose team was 10.5 games back in the AL West, and asked if he was willing to part with 35-year-old Ed Vosberg.

Melvin wanted Helling back, and he knew that Leyland wasn’t high on the 26-year-old, who was unable to crack a sturdy rotation that included Kevin Brown, Alex Fernandez, Al Leiter, Livan Hernandez, and Tony Saunders. Melvin consented to moving Vosberg, who had already cleared waivers. Dombrowksi agreed to return Helling, who had cleared waivers himself. The trade was consummated that same day.

Vosberg went on to pitch 5.2 post-season innings in the Marlins’ World Series run, but it was Texas who got the better end of the deal. Helling went 20-7, 4.41 in 1998, leading the Rangers to a second playoff appearance in three years, and 13-11, 4.84 in 1999, as Texas reached its third post-season. Helling would win in double digits four straight years, exceeding 215 innings each season and never missing a start.

The Rangers’ two Helling trades offer a perfect, if rare, example of a team moving a young player for a veteran to make a stretch run, and then turning around the next year, in the position of a seller, and getting that young player back. There were more heralded trades during Melvin’s seven years in Texas, but very few that turned out as well.

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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