Swapping Stories: The Steve Buechele Trade of 1991

August 30, 1991: Texas trades third baseman Steve Buechele to Pittsburgh for righthander Kurt Miller and a player to be named later; September 6, 1991: Pittsburgh sends righthander Hector Fajardo to Texas to complete the trade.

This one had the makings of going down as one of the greatest trades in Texas Rangers history.

It set up so perfectly. Texas was out of the race with a month to go in the season and, ready to move a blue-chip prospect into the everyday lineup, not only had an opportunity to trade the veteran who basically stood in his way, but to trade him for one of the top prospects in baseball and another with a huge upside, if less heralded.

But the deal that sent third baseman Steve Buechele to Pittsburgh on August 30, 1991 for minor league righthanders Kurt Miller and, a week later, Hector Fajardo was notable only because of how anticlimactic it turned out to be.

Buechele was among the greatest defensive third basemen in Rangers history, which is interesting in a Mark Teixeira sort of way since Buechele was a second baseman at Stanford University and for the most part in the Rangers farm system until his second AAA season — three months before Texas would trade Buddy Bell and move Buechele in at the hot corner in Arlington.

Seven years later, the Rangers were ready to make a similar transition. There were few power-hitting prospects in baseball with as much promise as 22-year-old Dean Palmer, whose 25 home runs won the Texas League crown in 1989, and whose 22 home runs won the Pacific Coast League title in 1991.

The most remarkable thing about what Palmer did with the 89ers in 1991 is that he was called up to Texas before mid-season. For good. Palmer played only 60 games for Oklahoma City that year, and still led the league in home runs.

When the Rangers placed outfielder Jack Daugherty on the disabled list on June 24 due to an emergency appendectomy, they brought Palmer up and stuck him in left field, a position he hadn’t ever played professionally. The objective was to get Palmer’s bat into the lineup however the club could.

General manager Tom Grieve and manager Bobby Valentine weren’t prepared to unseat Buechele at third base. The 29-year-old was a team leader and he was having a career year in virtually every offensive category. Both Valentine and Grieve knew that Buechele was going to be with a new team the following year, however, as he was in his final season before free agency and Palmer was considered ready to take over at third.

In mid-August, the Rangers briefly moved Buechele back to his college and minor league position, starting him at second base while Palmer played third. That experiment lasted just one week.

Still, because of Buechele’s value to the club, Grieve didn’t feel compelled to trade him. And that’s exactly what he told Pittsburgh general manager Larry Doughty — over and over and over in 1991. Doughty coveted Buechele, a player he felt could be the missing piece to a Pirates club that was on its way to its second of three straight NL East division titles. Pittsburgh was well settled at every position but third base, where Bobby Bonilla led the club in games played even though he appeared more often in the outfield.

“Larry loved Buechele,” Grieve recalls. “He called me several times that year asking for him, and every time I said we didn’t have to trade him, and didn’t really want to trade him.”

As the July non-waiver trade deadline approached, Doughty got desperate. But not desperate enough. Grieve, knowing he had the leverage, relied on his scouts’ assessment that the Pirates had three prospects worth targeting — righthanders Kurt Miller and Hector Fajardo and shortstop Carlos Garcia — and told Doughty it would take two of those players to convince him to part with Buechele. Grieve wasn’t surprised when Doughty said that was too high a price.

A month later, however, Doughty called Grieve back, in the middle of the Rangers’ 6-2 win over Kansas City, a game in which Buechele singled twice in four trips. Doughty was willing to give Miller and Fajardo to the Rangers for Buechele.

“I was never more excited about a trade in my 10 years as GM,” says Grieve. “Dean was going to play third base for us in 1992, whether we traded Buechele or not. We weren’t trying to move him, but it was an easy decision when they offered us both Miller and Fajardo.”

Days before the trade was made, Grieve called Jackie Brown, his former Rangers teammate and the godfather to one of his sons. Grieve wanted to bounce the names of Miller and Fajardo off of Brown, who was the pitching coach for Pittsburgh’s AAA affiliate in Buffalo, to see if the Rangers’ scouts were right about the two righthanders.

“Jackie laughed,” Grieve recalls. “He asked why I wanted to know, and of course I didn’t tell him we’d asked Doughty for both of them already. Jackie assured me that there was no chance that they would trade either one. He not only confirmed for me that our scouts were right about those two guys, he was probably even higher on them than we were.”

Miller was the number five overall pick in the 1990 draft, a 6’5″ horse with mid-90s velocity and a power curve. He was considered a certain future rotation horse, even though he’d only turned 19 a week before the trade.

Fajardo made a meteoric rise in 1991, pitching at five levels in the Pirates system (Low A, High A, AA, AAA, and Pittsburgh) that season.

The deal went down the day before the deadline for Pittsburgh to acquire players and have them eligible for the playoffs. The Pirates had to secure revocable waivers on Fajardo before moving him to the Rangers, and so he wasn’t identified until September 6, completing the deal. He made four appearances with Texas, his unprecedented sixth address in one season.

Grieve believed Miller and Fajardo would both be in the Rangers rotation within two years, a huge return for a veteran player that Texas didn’t plan to keep. While the Rangers made the right decision at third base — Palmer has more Texas home runs (154) than any other player ever developed by the franchise — the impact of the trade on the mound wasn’t what the club expected.

Miller went 12-9, 3.09 between High A Charlotte and AA Tulsa in 1992, but he slipped to 6-8, 5.06 with Tulsa in 1993, and suddenly couldn’t get his curve over the plate. The Rangers sent him to Florida in July 1993, along with righthander Robb Nen, for veteran reliever Cris Carpenter. Miller would make brief big league appearances in five subsequent seasons with the Marlins and Cubs, compiling a lifetime mark of 2-7, 7.48.

Fajardo, whose fascinating rise from Low A to the Major Leagues in 1991 occurred when he was just 20 years old, was out of baseball at age 25. He battled elbow and shoulder injuries in 1992 and 1993, split the 1994 season between AAA Oklahoma City and Texas, and had a 7.80 ERA in five 1995 relief appearances before being outrighted and then traded to Montreal in July for outfielder Lou Frazier. He pitched 11 times for the Expos’ AAA affiliate that summer, never to be heard from again.

Meanwhile, Buechele hit just .246 down the stretch for the Pirates but was solid in the NL Championship Series, hitting .304 in a seven-game battle that Pittsburgh dropped to Atlanta. He resigned with the Pirates that winter but was traded to the Cubs (for lefthander Danny Jackson) the next July, lasting three years with Chicago before he was released midway through the 1995 season.

Texas brought Buechele back on July 12, 1995, a month after Palmer had ruptured a biceps tendon that cut short what was shaping up to be a career year. Buechele appeared in nine games, hitting .125 in what would be the final big league action of a solid 11-year career.

When Buechele returned to the Rangers that July, Fajardo had already been outrighted and was a couple weeks away from being traded, a couple months from the end to his own career. Miller was in the midst of a full season in AAA after having gone 1-3, 8.10 in his four-game big league debut with the Marlins a year earlier.

When Texas made the 1991 trade with Pittsburgh that excited Grieve more than any other deal he ever made, the idea was that by 1995 Miller and Fajardo would be fronting the Rangers’ rotation, supported offensively by an attack featuring Palmer. Instead, when Buechele came back to Texas to end his career that summer, none of the other three were suited up as Rangers.

It’s not at all how this trade was supposed to work out.

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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