Revisiting the Matt Williams trade

This might seem like a random time for this post, but watching Matt Williams skulk around in a maroon jersey gets a fella to thinkin’.

At the end of 1996, Brian Sabean was hired. He had a good pedigree, coming over from the Yankees, and no one really knew what he was about. So he traded the franchise’s most popular homegrown player since Will Clark, and he traded him for a bunch of no-names. The streets ran white with chardonnay. Oh, and blood. It was ugly. It was a city-wide freakout over a trade that will be hard to replicate.

But with the benefit of hindsight, was it a good trade? Well, of course it was a good trade. Jeff Kent turned into a Hall-of-Famer, while Matt Williams had a career OPS+ of exactly 100 after the trade. But was it a good trade at the time, or did Sabean get lucky?

The overall theory behind trading Williams
It was a bold decision, and Sabean knew it would be unpopular, but he probably didn’t realize how unpopular. Still it was absolutely the right time to trade Williams. He was 30, and he was (for the time) expensive. He was about a four- or five-win player -- a hard thing to find -- but the Giants were absolutely rubbish in 1996. A quality for quantity trade was a pretty good idea.

And, maybe most importantly, Williams was starting to get hurt a lot. He played 76 games in 1995, and 105 in 1996. His value was probably never going to be higher.

Julian Tavarez
The supposed crown jewel of the deal, Tavarez was a 23-year-old pitcher coming off an ugly season, but he did have a great arm. And he had pretty sweet stats coming up through the minors. A low strikeout rate, sure, but he was a sinkerballer. It would have been interesting to see what he could have done as a starter while he was still young, which was still one of the ideas behind acquiring him. This was exactly the kind of piece that should have come back in a Williams trade. He wasn’t the best prospect, but that sinker was hotter than lingerie models.

Jose Vizcaino
I used to think this was easily the worst thing about the trade, and it still probably is, but Vizcaino wasn’t that bad of a hitter in his 20s. He had OBPs of .340, .310, .332, and .341 leading up to the trade. That looks a lot better in 2011 -- it was a much higher run scoring environment back then -- but he wasn’t Neifi Perez.

The part that makes it awful is that Rich Aurilia was ready to start. The Giants had a nice, cheap young shortstop. If Vizcaino weren’t in the trade, maybe the Giants could have scored another prospect. Like Bruce Aven! Man, that guy was going to be good.

Maybe Vizcaino had to be included if Kent was in the trade. Maybe he was like the goat that kept Seabiscuit company in the stables.

Jeff Kent
If you want to deflect the idea that this trade was blind luck for Sabean, you can just mutter, "He didn’t know how good Kent would be! He made the trade for Tavarez!" It’s worked for over a decade, so don’t stop now. But Kent was pretty danged underrated -- a middle infielder with power and a perfectly cromulent glove. By Baseball-Reference’s WAR totals, he wasn’t that far behind Williams at the time of the trade. If you figured that Williams was a little fragile, and Kent wasn’t, they were probably pretty equal in value before Kent exploded into something more.

It was a good trade. It was well-timed, mostly well executed (though blocking Aurilia is pretty inexcusable), and it led to the Bronze Age of Giants baseball. It’s popular to dismiss the trade now -- and yes, maybe Sabean could have pilfered Jeromy Burnitz, Sean Casey, Brian Giles, or Richie Sexson -- but it was a trade that brought in talent for a player who was as valuable as he was going to get.

In conclusion, it’s really annoying to see Matt Williams in a Diamondbacks uniform.

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