The Best Trades in Astros History

There haven't been a lot of great trades in Astros history, and this article will reflect that. Of the two greatest trades, one was actually a player-for-cash deal.

To be objective in determining which trades were the best, the accumulated, post-trade Total Player Ratings of the affected players were used. For those of you unfamiliar with this stat, it's enough to know that it is measured in "wins" and average players get zero. Note that this statistic rates pitchers by their ERA and innings pitched, not their win total. Below-average players get negative values, and the very best players can often reach 8-10 "wins" in a single, MVP-type season. To avoid having the late-career declines of players affect the ratings, I excluded the below-average seasons.

It's curious to note the incredible drop-off in value between #2 and #3 on this list. And since the Total Player Rating statistic considers the effects of a player's home park, the contributions of pitchers we've traded for is diminished somewhat, In a ranking of "wins" that were gained in trades by the franchise, these are the best trades in franchise history:

The Best Trades:
BenefitDateTrade
+45 winsAug. 31, 1990acquired Jeff Bagwell from the Red Sox
+31 winsOct. 24, 1974acquired Jose Cruz from the Cardinals
+11 winsDec. 10, 1993acquired Mike Hampton from the Mariners
+8 winsDec. 10, 1982acquired Mike Scott from the Mets
+7 winsNov. 11, 1997acquired Moises Alou from the Marlins
+7 winsApr. 1, 1981acquired Dickie Thon from the Angels
+7 winsApr. 6, 1975acquired Joe Niekro from the Braves
+7 winsAug. 30, 1982acquired Kevin Bass from the Brewers


October 24, 1974 - acquired Jose Cruz from the Cardinals for cash

(c) Houston Astros
With Lou Brock, Bake McBride and Reggie Smith manning the St. Louis outfield in 1974, the 27-year-old Jose Cruz had been relegated to part-time duty as the team's fourth outfielder. Houston, on the other hand, essentially had two first-basemen playing everyday with Lee May at first base and Bob Watson in left field. With May (.298 on-base pct) struggling at the plate, GM Spec Richardson determined that a move was in order. After acquiring Cruz in a cash deal, Richardson dealt May to Baltimore for future third baseman Enos Cabell. Although Cruz had shown the ability to hit in the minors, he came to Houston sporting a mediocre .247 average in 1200 major-league at-bats with the Cardinals. That average, combined with his lack of power, did much to temper expectations of his future as an Astro.

After hitting .257 in 350+ AB in 1975, Cruz blossomed when given the everyday left field role in 1976. In a ten-year span from 1976 to 1985, Cruz batted .299 or better seven times. He led the team in batting average six times, in home runs three times, and in runs batted in seven times. He was named the team Most Valuable Player four times, but appeared in the All-Star Game only twice (1980 and 1985). During this span, he was one of the best and most unheralded hitters in the game. This was chiefly due to the effect of playing half of his games in the cavernous Astrodome. In fact, my earliest introduction to the concept of park effects was from an article written by Bill James. In it, he used road/home splits to demonstrate why Cruz was such an underrated star and arguably a better power hitter than Atlanta slugger Bob Horner.

Cruz finished his Astro playing career atop many hitting categories and his jersey number, 25, was officially retired on October 3, 1992. Always a fan favorite, he returned as a coach when the Dierker regime started in 1997.


April 6, 1975 - acquired Joe Niekro from the Braves for $35,000

(c) Houston Astros
This was the other great acquisition by GM Spec Richardson, although I don't think he realized it at the time. Joe Niekro was a 30-year-old knuckleballer who had worked his way down from the Tigers rotation to the Braves bullpen and whose career appeared to be on the decline. Signed as bullpen help, Niekro resurrected his career in Houston and eventually became one of the NL's premier starting pitchers.

In 1975, Niekro worked almost exclusively in relief and posted a very respectable 3.07 ERA. Over the next two seasons, he performed double duty as a starter and reliever, posting good ERAs and displaying his ability to log a lot of quality innings. In 1978, Niekro moved to the rotation permanently and began an 8-year stretch in which he logged over 200 innings in every year except the strike-shortened 1981 season.

In 1979, Niekro established a team record with 21 victories and garnered his only All-Star appearance. Curiously, he and his brother Phil (in Atlanta) tied for the league lead in victories that season. The following year, he recorded 20 victories again and remains the only Astro pitcher to accomplish this feat twice. His 20th victory clinched the first division title for the franchise and, in my opinion, ranks as the greatest game in franchise history (with apologies to Mike Scott).

Although the team failed to return to the post-season before Niekro's departure after the 1985 season, he continued to pitch well, averaging 16 wins from 1982-84. The 1982 campaign was arguably his best, finishing with 17 wins and a 2.47 ERA, second-best in the NL.

Niekro ended his career with the Yankees and Twins, retiring with 221 career victories at the elderly age of 44. He remains the Astro career leader with 144 wins, and is 2nd in most career pitching categories behind Larry Dierker. Not too bad for a $35,000 investment.


April 1, 1981 - acquired Dickie Thon from the Angels for Ken Forsch

(c) Houston Astros
After the off-season signing of Don Sutton, the Astros had a glut of quality starting pitchers. Ken Forsch was coming off of a disappointing 12-13 season and was sent packing for touted shortstop prospect Dickie Thon. Although this deal worked out in the Astros favor, an off-target fastball from Mike Torrez soon left fans wondering what could have been.

In 1981, Forsch pitched very well and won 11 games for the Angels in the strike-shortened season while Thon accumulated only 95 at-bats as a reserve infielder. In 1982, Thon won the starting shortstop job from Craig Reynolds and flashed his potential with a 21-game hitting streak. The 1983 season, however, is what Thon will always be remembered for. Thon cranked 20 homers, collected 79 RBI, batted .286 and swiped 34 bases. He appeared in the All-Star Game and was voted onto the post-season NL all-star teams by UPI and TSN. By today's standards, this may not seem like a "great" season. But not only were offensive levels not whacked-out in the Eighties, the Astrodome was a notorious pitcher's park. After adusting for the park effects of the dome, Thon is rated by Total Baseball as the second most-valuable player in the NL in 1983, behind only Mike Schmidt. When considering that he played a more difficult position, it's not unreasonable to argue that Thon was actually the most valuable player in the league.

In 1984, however, Thon's career came to a screeching halt. Five games into the season, Mike Torrez gave Astro fans another reason to hate the Mets when he abruptly ended Thon's season with a fastball to Thon's left temple. The injury led to swelling of tissue behind the left eye which required time to heal properly. Unfortunately, Thon continued to have sporadic problems with blurred vision and never approached his 1983 form again. He left the team after 1987 and bounced around the majors, enjoying a brief return to his former glory with the Phillies in 1989 (15 HR, 60 RBI). He retired after the 1993 season.


August 30, 1982 - acquired Kevin Bass and others from the Brewers for Don Sutton

(c) Houston Astros
When the 35-year-old Don Sutton signed with Houston after the 1980 season, he admitted that he thought Houston's spacious Astrodome and their duo of lethal closers (Joe Sambito and Dave Smith) gave him his best chance to reach 300 career victories. By the middle of the 1982 season, however, Smith was spending time on the Disabled List with back problems and Sambito was having surgery to replace his ruptured left medial collateral ligament. With the team struggling at 62-69 and 11 games out, Sutton was suddenly dispatched to the Brewers for young outfielder Kevin Bass, relief pitcher Frank DiPino and minor-league starter Mike Madden.

Sutton finished his career with his typical solid, if not spectacular, performances to retire with 324 victories. I'm sure it was a great publicity draw for the Angels when he won his 300th game, but I was personally glad to see him go.

DiPino served as a capable reliever, compiling a 3.65 ERA in his 5 seasons in Houston. But the real value in the trade came from Kevin Bass. After establishing himself in 1985 as the everyday right fielder, Bass reeled off five solid seasons from 1985 to 1989. His best season came in 1986 and led to his only appearance in the All-Star Game. It was no coincidence that this was the same year that Houston returned to the playoffs with possibly the best team in franchise history. After being named Player of the Month in June, Bass put together a 20-game hitting streak from July to August and finished the season with 20 homers, 79 RBI, 22 steals and a .311 average. Leaving as a free agent after the 1989 season, Bass returned as a fourth outfielder in 1993, adding two more fine seasons to his Astro career with a combined .296 average in 400+ AB during his final stay.


December 10, 1982 - acquired Mike Scott from the Mets for Danny Heep

(c) Houston Astros
When GM Al Rosen traded reserve Danny Heep for a 27-year-old struggling Met starter named Mike Scott, certainly nobody took much notice of the trade. After all, the Astros sported a strong rotation in which Scott was likely pegged as the #5 starter. Heep's career soon foundered in New York and Scott posted a nice 10-6 record in 1983 and followed up with a poor 5-11 showing in 1984.

After his 1984 campaign, Scott met with Roger Craig in the off-season and was taught how to throw a split-finger fastball. After starting the 1985 season with a 5-4 record, Scott mastered his new pitch and won 13 of 15 games to finished the season with an impressive 18-8 record and a 3.29 ERA. But that was just an appetizer for better things to come. In the following year, Scott took his nasty splitter to a new level and finished with an 18-10 record. But that record understates his dominance over the league. Scott led the NL with a 2.22 ERA, 275 IP, 306 K, and lots of other ancillary stats like strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.25), hits/game (5.95) and shutouts (5, tied with teammate Bob Knepper). It goes without saying that he won the Cy Young award and was also named the NL Pitcher of the Year by The Sporting News. Scott pitched well in the All-Star game, but the high point of his season came on September 25, when he no-hit the Giants while simultaneously clinching the division title for the team. The irony was not lost on Roger Craig, who had become the Giants' manager after teaching Scott his new pitch. Scott was also dominant in the post-season, winning both games he pitched against the Mets and becoming the first player from a losing team to win an LCS MVP award.

Although Scott continued to pitch well in the remainder of his career with the Astros, he never again approached the dominance of the 1986 season. He returned to the All-Star game in 1987, and finished the season with a 16-13 record. Scott had a hot start and All-Star appearance in 1989, but developed a tear in his rotator cuff and barely hung on to win 20 games. After a disappointing 1990 season and only two starts in 1991, Scott was faced with a difficult decision: surgery or retirement. Rather than face over a year of rehabilitation, Scott chose to hang up his spikes. His jersey (#33) was officially retired by the team on October 3rd, 1992.


August 31, 1990 - acquired Jeff Bagwell from the Red Sox for Larry Andersen

(c) Houston Astros
When Boston traded AA phenom Jeff Bagwell for star reliever Larry Andersen, it certainly seemed like a good deal at the time. Bagwell played third base and was blocked from advancing by Wade Boggs in the majors and Scott Cooper in AAA. Andersen had a 1.23 ERA for Boston's playoff run and certainly held up his end of the deal. No one expected this trade to become Boston's 1990s version of the Babe Ruth swindle, but it has. The Astros had Ken Caminiti entrenched at third base, but the 1990 departure of Glenn Davis and Franklin Stubbs left a gaping hole at first. In a Spring season tryout, Bagwell was switched to first base and impressed everyone with his torrid pre-season hitting. Instead of starting the season at AAA as expected, Bagwell made the rare jump from AA to the majors and never looked back.

In 1991, Bagwell put up very respectable numbers for that era (15 HR, 82 RBI, .294 AVG) and was the first-ever Astro named as National League Rookie of the Year by the BBWAA. After a slight drop-off in 1992, Bagwell improved considerably in 1993 with 20 HR and a .320 AVG.

The 1994 season, however, is the year for which Bagwell will always be remembered. In just two-thirds of a season, Bagwell racked up 39 HR, 116 RBI, .368 AVG, .461 OBP and .750 SLG. He made his first appearance in the All-Star game and was unanimously voted as the NL MVP at the end of the strike-shortened season. Although he has never duplicated his 1994 performance, Bagwell has consistently been an excellent hitter, baserunner and fielder, and will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the greatest first basemen in the history of the game.


December 10, 1993 - acquired Mike Hampton from the Mariners for Eric Anthony

(c) Houston Astros
Seattle needed a left-handed power hitter, and dealt a young Mike Hampton and reserve outfielder Mike Felder to Houston to get Eric Anthony. It didn't seem to be a big risk, as Hampton had earlier posted a garish 9.53 ERA in a 17-inning trial in Seattle. Anthony was an ineffective hitter for Seattle before moving on to Cincinnati. Hampton, on the other hand, was promoted to the starting rotation after a year in the Astros bullpen and has since become one of the most consistent and dominant starters in the league.

Even after adjusting for playing in the Astrodome, Hampton pitched better than the league average in each of his seven seasons with Houston. Always a respectable performer, Hampton seemed to "turn the corner" as a pitcher after a he began the season with a horrible 3-7 start. After being benched for one start, he went then 12-3 with a 2.74 ERA and was the winning pitcher in the division clincher against the Cubs on September 25, exactly 11 years after Mike Scott's no-hit clincher in 1986. In 1999, Hampton attained true "ace" status with an impressive 22-4 record and 2.90 ERA. With his 22nd victory on the final game of the season, Hampton also became the only Astro pitch to win two division-clinching games.

Despite being the highest-rated pitcher in the National League, the Astros suspected that Hampton would not re-sign with the team and become a free agent. To avoid losing a star pitcher for no gain, Hampton was traded with Derek Bell to the New York Mets for Octavio Dotel and Roger Cedeno. Still in his prime, there is a good chance that this second trade may become one of the one worst trades in the history of the franchise.


November 11, 1997 - acquired Moises Alou from the Marlins for three pitching prospects

(c) Houston Astros
After winning the World Series in 1997, the Florida Marlins decided their payroll was too high and to embark on a rebuilding program. Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker was the first to take advantage of this decision, sending Oscar Henriquez, Manuel Barrios and Mark Johnson to Florida for outfielder Moises Alou. The trade of one of the World Champions' best players shocked the baseball world, and precipitated the worst one-year drop in victory totals in Major League history.

Alou was not initially happy about the trade, but was soothed somewhat when the Marlins started dumping other stars. 1997 had been Alou's best season with 23 homers and 115 RBI, and most pundits expected those numbers to drop somewhat as Alou grew a year older and moved to the spacious Astrodome.

But Alou fooled everyone. In his first season with the Astros, Alou batted .312, swatted 38 homers, and collected 124 RBI despite a drastic September swoon. With the right to demand a trade after the season, Alou settled instead for a $1 million bonus and the addition of a no-trade clause to his contract. Unfortunately, he soon tore his ACL in a freak, off-season treadmill accident and missed the entire 1999 season.

With his recovery in doubt, many expected a poor performance in 2000. But Alou once again silenced his critics, batting an amazing .355 and hitting 30 homers despite missing over 30 games. Alou is still going strong but was not re-signed after the 2001 season due to budgetary constraints. Even though he has played for only three seasons, Moises Alou's incredible hitting has made this trade one of the best in team history.