Twenty-two years ago this week, the Dodgers sent future Hall of Famer Mike Piazza to the Marlins, along with Todd Zeile, and got back five players, including Gary Sheffield. Piazza would be traded to the Mets eight days later in a four-player swap.
But the first deal stands out because of the caliber of players involved. Sheffield ended his career with 60.5 WAR according to Baseball Reference. Piazza wound up with 59.6. But it wasn’t just those two superstars -- every player in the trade except for one finished his career with at least 10 WAR, and four finished with at least 20.
With that trade in mind, here’s a look at the 10 trades in the Expansion Era (since 1961) involving the most career WAR, not at the time of the deal, but overall. To qualify for the list, a trade had to include at least one player with 50 career WAR.
1. A four-team frenzy: 212.8 WAR (Dec. 8, 1977)
Pirates got: Bert Blyleven (94.5 WAR), John Milner (12.5)
Rangers got: Al Oliver (43.7), Jon Matlack (39.4), Nelson Norman (-0.7)
Braves got: Adrian Devine (2.7), Tommy Boggs (2.4), Eddie Miller (-0.1)
Mets got: Ken Henderson (14.8), Tom Grieve (1.9), Willie Montanez (1.7)
This was a four-team trade that included a future Hall of Famer in Blyleven, so it’s no surprise it leads the list. Blyleven, who went from the Rangers to the Pirates in the deal, had thrown the only no-hitter of his career in 1977, at the Angels on Sept. 22, which would end up being his final start as a Ranger.
The trade was considered an oddity for a number of reasons, including the fact that it involved so many teams and players. Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda was particularly in awe, and weighed in during the Winter Meetings, where the deal was announced.
“It's a blockbuster,” he said at the time. “The thing that surprises me is how four teams could get together and work it out. This thing must have been put together by the teamsters.”
Reporting at the time noted that the Pirates had acquired “one of the best pitchers in baseball.” But Orioles vice president Frank Cashen also speculated another motivation for the trade, based on his own view: “The Pirates are unloading a contract problem in Oliver, who will want a fortune next year.”
Another consequence of this deal? It’s one of the parts of the David Wright trade chain for the Mets. Acquiring Grieve led to further trades which eventually ended up with the Mets getting a compensatory pick for Mike Hampton leaving for the Rockies in free agency -- the pick the Mets would use to select Wright in the 2001 Draft.
2. Frank stays in SoCal: 208.8 WAR (Nov. 28, 1972)
Angels got: Frank Robinson (107.2), Bill Singer (18.7), Billy Grabarkewitz (5.8), Bobby Valentine (2.0), Mike Strahler (0.9)
Dodgers got: Andy Messersmith (40.2), Ken McMullen (34.0)
In a three-year span from 1971-74, Robinson was traded three times in his late 30s. Messersmith was one of the most highly coveted pitchers on the trade market at that year’s Winter Meetings -- one worth giving up a future Hall of Famer for.
“I've been close to Frank Robinson for a long time,” Angels GM Harry Dalton said at the time. “In fact, after I left the Baltimore Orioles a year ago to join the Angels, I made Baltimore an offer for Frank. But he went to the Dodgers instead. To me, he is probably the best professional competitor in baseball. Any time a man takes you to four World Series in six years as he did in Baltimore you get close to him.
“He may not have the same physical range he did now that he's 37. But he hit 19 home runs last summer playing in Dodger Stadium which is wide open. ... We had eight or 10 serious offers for Messersmith, and this one was the best.”
3. Cy Young winner changes teams: 205.7 WAR (Dec. 10, 1969)
Indians got: Graig Nettles (68.0), Dean Chance (29.9), Bob Miller (16.7), Ted Uhlaender (2.8)
Twins got: Luis Tiant (66.1), Stan Williams (22.2)
Nettles had seen limited playing time in three years with the team that drafted him, the Twins -- stuck behind Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew at third base. Tiant had been an All-Star for the Indians in 1968, getting MVP votes, too, before leading the Majors in both homers allowed and walks issued in 1969. Neither would be with his new team for long: Nettles was traded again in 1972, to the Yankees, and Tiant was released by the Twins before the 1971 season.
This trade involved a Cy Young winner, too, in Chance, who had won in 1964 with the Angels. He’d just finished up his age-28 season with the Twins in 1969, but never quite returned to his award-winning level. His career ended when he was released in October 1971.
Given where the players were in their careers at this point, Chance and Tiant were considered the centerpieces. Yet Nettles ended up with the most WAR of anyone involved.
“We wanted to trade Chance for Tiant even up,” Twins president Calvin Griffith said at the time. “But Cleveland wouldn’t go one-for-one. They wanted Uhlaender and we wanted Williams, so we kept talking.”
4. Marlins get one HOFer (and maybe more): 205.3 WAR (May 14, 1998)
Dodgers got: Gary Sheffield (60.5), Bobby Bonilla (30.2), Charles Johnson (22.6), Jim Eisenreich (13.2), Manuel Barrios (-0.1)
Marlins got: Mike Piazza (59.6), Todd Zeile (19.3)
As noted above, this one involved a future Hall of Famer in Piazza and another player who has received some consideration for Cooperstown in Sheffield. The total WAR involved here is fourth on our list, but another consideration with this one was the financial commitments involved.
At the time, it was reported that: “Never has there been a trade involving the amount of money covered in the players' contracts, which in total add to $115 million and which have $98 million left to pay, including this season.” Sheffield had a $61 million contract, and Piazza was known to be seeking a $100 million guarantee -- part of the reason the Dodgers traded him.
Of course, the Marlins were not set to offer him that contract either, and turned around and traded him to the Mets on May 22. At the time of the first deal, the expectation was that the Marlins would deal him elsewhere. One initial story on the trade even included a quote from Yankees GM Brian Cashman attempting to gauge his interest.
5. Rickey gets his pinstripes: 202.8 WAR (Dec. 5, 1984)
Yankees got: Rickey Henderson (111.2), Bert Bradley (-0.3)
Athletics got: Jose Rijo (36.5), Stan Javier (25.4), Jay Howell (15.0), Eric Plunk (13.5), Tim Birtsas (0.9)
Henderson was traded four times in his Hall of Fame career, including twice by the Athletics’ Sandy Alderson, who has joked that his hobby was trading the star. This was the first such trade, and it involved players that’d amass the most WAR. This deal was contingent in part on Henderson being able to sign wherever he was traded, and a few days later he inked his deal with the Yankees.
''We felt I would be better off playing in New York for my career. I'm in a position of playing with a lot of great players New York has. It could be a winner,” Henderson said at the time.
6. Clemens to the Bronx: 200.9 WAR (Feb. 18, 1999)
Yankees got: Roger Clemens (139.2)
Blue Jays got: David Wells (53.5), Graeme Lloyd (5.2), Homer Bush (3.0)
In 1998, Wells had thrown a perfect game, been ALCS MVP and won the World Series with the Yankees, but the following February, the team traded him for another ace-level pitcher in Clemens. In December before the Winter Meetings, reports had indicated the Yankees were not interested in trading for Clemens, as the Blue Jays had set the price too high -- though it was clear Toronto would be exploring trade options for him. But by February, things changed, and Wells headed back to the team he’d began his career with, while former Red Sox pitcher Clemens donned pinstripes.
It was no secret that Wells was upset about being traded.
''I'm a little emotional right now,'' he said at the time. ''Just give me a couple of days. It's a little tough to take.''
7. Marlins’ big contracts head north: 186.9 WAR (Nov. 19, 2012)
Marlins got: Yunel Escobar (26.7), Jake Marisnick (10.7), Henderson Alvarez (8.5), Anthony DeSclafani (6.6), Adeiny Hechavarría (5.6), Jeff Mathis (0.0), Justin Nicolino (-0.7)
Blue Jays got: Mark Buehrle (59.1), José Reyes (37.0), Josh Johnson (24.3), John Buck (5.8), Emilio Bonifacio (3.3)
In December 2011, the Marlins had given Buehrle a four-year, $58 million contract and Reyes a six-year, $106 million deal, which were at the time the two largest free-agent contracts by total value in franchise history. The team was headed to a new ballpark, had a new city designation with Miami, new logos and a home run sculpture. Things were changing for the Marlins, and they brought in two high-priced free agents to cap it all off.
Less than a year later, in November 2012, the team found itself in a different spot, and chose to trade both of those rich contracts away to the Blue Jays, along with a handful of other players.
“This is serious stuff now,” newly rehired manager John Gibbons said soon after of the team’s offseason acquisitions. “Who wouldn’t want to be here?”
8. Blue Jays set up title runs: 184.5 WAR (Dec. 5, 1990)
Padres got: Fred McGriff (52.6), Tony Fernandez (45.3)
Blue Jays got: Roberto Alomar (67.0), Joe Carter (19.6)
The implications of this trade were further reaching than anyone could have even begun to expect, as Joe Carter -- the player who’d amass the least WAR of anyone in the trade -- went on to hit the walk-off homer to give the Blue Jays a second straight World Series title in 1993. At the time of the trade, both Alomar and Fernandez had been All-Stars at least once, and by the end of all four players’ careers, each would be at least a five-time All-Star.
“You can debate that one for hours and hours, who got the better of it,” Joe McIlvaine, the Padres’ GM in 1990, said in 2010. “It might be as big a baseball trade as there’s been, in retrospect, when you think about trading four All-Stars.”
Fernandez was subsequently traded to the Mets in October 1992, then back to the Blue Jays in June '93, in time to help the club that signed him as an amateur free agent in 1979 win its second straight World Series.
9. Reds acquire future 2-time MVP: 183.1 WAR (Nov. 29, 1971)
Astros got: Lee May (27.2), Tommy Helms (8.3), Jimmy Stewart (-1.2)
Reds got: Joe Morgan (100.5), Denis Menke (28.1), Cesar Geronimo (12.9), Jack Billingham (7.4), Ed Armbrister (-0.1)
The Reds had already made a World Series appearance in 1970, but lost to the Orioles. This trade helped beef up the team known as The Big Red Machine even more, carrying them to another World Series appearance in 1972 and then two straight titles in 1975-76. Menke, May and Geronimo all were solid players who helped this deal crack the 180-WAR mark.
There’s no question, though, that Morgan had the biggest impact in this one. The Hall of Famer and two-time NL MVP improved the team’s speed and defense -- issues that had been magnified in the team’s new stadium.
“We went after Morgan because he was a base stealer and because we thought he would team with David Concepcion to give us a better double‐play combination that would help our pitching,” Reds GM Bob Howsam said in 1975, in an article that heralded it as the trade that “stabilized” the team. “I had learned the value of speed and defense in working with Mr. [Branch] Rickey and Mr. [George] Weiss when I was learning the baseball business with Denver in the minor leagues.”
10. Three-team doozy: 181.9 WAR (Jan. 20, 1965)
Indians got: Camilo Carreon (2.8), Rocky Colavito (44.9)
White Sox got: Tommy John (61.6), Tommie Agee (25.4), John Romano (20.9)
Athletics got: Mike Hershberger (2.4), Jim Landis (20.6), Fred Talbot (3.3)
John, who’d end up with the most WAR of the group -- and notoriety, with the Tommy John surgery naming, too -- was just 21 at the time.
When the trade happened, the headliner was Colavito, who was returning to the Indians in the trade. The other main name used in articles at the time was pitcher Romano, who went to the White Sox. The team was excited to be receiving him in the deal, based on reports.
“We have been trying to get Romano for two years,” Chicago manager Al Lopez said at the time.
Sarah Langs is a reporter/editor for MLB.com based in New York. Follow her on Twitter @SlangsOnSports.