The Facts About The Yankees Fred McGriff Trade
by Paul Semendinger
December 5, 2022
NOTE - The original version of this article appeared in my series of 1977 Topps cards in the article highlighting pitcher Dale Murray. This article is adapted from that original one.
CONGRATULATIONS TO NEW HALL OF FAMER FRED MCGRIFF!
On December 9, 1982, the Yankees made a trade with the Toronto Blue Jays that, years later, many years later, was seen as an example of poor decision making by the Yankees. The fact that that trade is so criticized came only in hindsight. It is revisionist history to criticize the Yankees for trading Fred McGriff.
This article sets the facts as they were at the time.
To begin, the Yankees of the 1980s made some terrible trades. Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps was a bad trade. Doug Drabek for Rick Rhoden was a bad trade. Willie McGee for Bob Sykes was a bad trade. There was plenty to criticize in that period...
Trading Fred McGriff was not on that level. It just wasn't. The criticism of the Yankees for that trade only came about in hindsight. Many years later...
The Yankees traded Fred McGriff as part of a trade for relief pitcher Dale Murray of the Toronto Blue Jays. Murray came to the Yankees along with Tom Dodd in exchange for Dave Collins, Mike Morgan, cash, and a minor league first baseman named Fred McGriff.
The Yankees and the Blue Jays made that trade on December 9, 1982.
It turned out to be a Christmas present for the Blue Jays, but one that wouldn't pay dividends for many years. I suspect they were as surprised as anyone that Fred McGriff became a star.
As noted, that trade is now remembered as the one where the Yankees traded superstar (now Hall of Famer) Fred McGriff for Dale Murray, a middling middle inning relief pitcher.
But that's not how it was. When the Yankees traded McGriff, he wasn't the player he became, and, truth be told, he really wasn't on any team's radar.
On December 9, 1982, when he was traded, Fred McGriff had just completed his second season in ROOKIE BALL.
Let’s go over that again.
When the Yankees traded Fred McGriff, he was just a kid. He was a kid with promise, yes, but he was in the lowest levels of the minor leagues.
I love the Yankees and at the same time, I am honestly critical of them. I tell it as it is. When the Yankees make bad moves, I call them out. Time and again. But in this instance, we have to give the Yankees some benefit of the doubt. The Yankees should not be criticized for adding Fred McGriff to that trade package.
The Yankees didn’t trade the Fred McGriff everyone knows now. They traded Fred McGriff, an 18-year-old kid, who had just played his second season of Rookie Ball for the Gulf Coast League Yankees as part of a package for a pitcher who had some upside.
At the time of the trade Fred McGriff had a lifetime batting average of .238 in two seasons of Rookie League ball. That’s who the Yankees traded. They traded a low-level minor league player who hadn't even hit .240. Further, at that point, Fred McGriff had played 91 games and hit just nine homers.
In Rookie Ball.
Fred McGriff finally reached the Major Leagues in 1987. That was five years after the trade. Five years. Fred McGriff was not a can't miss prospect who was traded for an middle reliever. That just wasn't the case. McGriff, at the time, was just a low-level minor leaguer who wasn't even doing particularly well.
It wasn't until 1988, when he hit 34 home runs, or later, that writers started saying, “The Blue Jays got this guy for Dale Murray.” No one criticized the Yankees for getting rid of Fred McGriff in 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, or 1986. They also probably didn’t even notice in 1987.
All the writers who now say, “I knew that McGriff was going to be great” is telling a tall tale. They didn’t know it then. They didn’t know that Fred McGriff was going to be great in 1982.
In 1982, the Yankees had a player named Dan Cox in their system. Dan Cox batted .347 for the 1982 Gulf Coast League Yankees. He looked just as much a future star, if not more so, than Fred McGriff. If it had been Cox in the trade, no one would have noticed today. The fact that Fred McGriff became a superstar is one of those things that sometimes will happen. But it wasn't egregious for the Yankees to have traded him at the time.
In 1982, the Yankees also had two minor leaguers who happened to play first base who they thought higher of. One was Steve Balboni, a player with tremendous power. He had just hit 32 homers in Triple-A. Also at Triple-A was Marshall Brandt who had hit 31 homers. Also on that team was a left fielder (and sometimes first baseman) who had just had his fourth consecutive season hitting over .300 as he rose through the minor leagues. That player hit .349 (1979, Single-A,), .358 (1980, Single-A), ..316 (1981, Double-A), and .315 (1982, Triple-A). That guy's name was Don Mattingly.
Fred McGriff was way down the depth chart behind a collection of players who looked to be pretty good hitters, all in Triple-A. Those players were years ahead of McGriff.
At the time, also ahead of McGriff was the Yankees' Double-A first baseman - a guy who hit .294 named Buck Showalter. In High-A, Todd Demeter, a second round draft pick in 1979, had just had his best season (.284). He had hit 19 homers in 1980 and was seemingly starting to fulfill his promise. Also ahead of Fred McGriff on the depth chart was Orestes Destrade who is largely forgotten now, but at one time was highly regarded.
All of that to say that not only wasn't Fred McGriff seen as a sure-thing future star, he was low on a list of players who all played first base and who seemed to have a ton of upside.
By the time he reached the Major Leagues, Don Mattingly was secure at first base for the Yankees. He had won an MVP. He was the game's biggest superstar. By that time, Steve Balboni had been traded to the Kansas City Royals and had enjoyed seasons with 28, 36, and 29 home runs. Yeah, some of the players ahead of McGriff, at the time, also had success at the big league level. The fact is, Fred McGriff had no path to the majors as a first baseman on the Yankees. His path was blocked by a host of players with potential and by the time he made the big leagues, he was blocked by one of the most iconic Yankees of all-time.
After the trade, Fred McGriff played most of his 1983 season a Single-A Kinston. He blasted 21 homers. Things were looking good for him – in the low levels of the minors. But that Kinston team was so far from the Major Leagues that they had another player on that team who people thought he might have a good future in sports. On that team was a catcher/third baseman who hit only .206 in what was his last year in professional baseball. A few years later that player, Jay Schroeder, led his team, The Washington Redskins, to a 42-10 thrashing of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XX.
Sure, Fred McGriff had promise and protentional, but he was a long way away, in minor league levels, and in years, from the Major Leagues.
Quick Quiz – Who is Anthony Garcia?
Now, I didn’t like the fact that the Yankees traded for Dale Murray at the time because… and this sounds unkind… I didn’t think he was very good. But I can’t say it was because I was upset that the Yankees included Fred McGriff in that trade. I don’t think most people back then paid much attention to the low levels of the minor leagues. Most people had never even heard of Fred McGriff, and it wasn't like he was setting the lowest levels of the minor leagues on fire.
In the 1982 Yankees Yearbook, there is no mention of Fred McGriff as a future star. None. He was getting no attention. The attention was on the players ahead of him.
Quick Quiz Answer – Anthony Garcia led the 2018 Gulf Coast Yankees in home runs with 10.
If the Yankees traded him for a middle innings relief pitcher, how many writers and fans would have been outraged?
Let's be honest, the writers and fans would only be outraged if Garcia starts to hit 30+ homers for many seasons in a row beginning in 2025, or so.
That's who Fred McGriff was at the time of the trade.
Second Quick Quiz – Name the players the Yankees drafted in the 1981 draft before they picked Fred McGriff.
Second Quick Quiz Answer – John Elway, Scott Bradley, Phil Lombardi, Eric Plunk, Dennis Lubert, Mike Pagliarulo, Andy Swope, and John Fishel.
The year before he was traded, in 1981, Fred McGriff was picked in the 9th round of the Amateur Draft. He was the 233rd player chosen in the draft.
Stop and consider that for a moment. 232 players were chosen in the draft BEFORE Fred McGriff.
It wasn't just the Yankees who didn't see "Hall of Fame" all over Fred McGriff. No team did.
And, to be fair, the Yankees weren't the only team that traded Fred McGriff. He was a great player, but he was also traded time and time again:
In December 1990, the Blue Jays traded McGriff (and Tony Fernandez) to the San Diego Padres for Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter in a huge blockbuster. That trade gave the Blue Jays two pieces that would play significant roles in them winning two World Series. Yes, the Blue Jays got better after trading Fred McGriff.
In 1993, the Padres traded McGriff for Vince Moore, Donnie Elliott, and Melvin Nieves. If we're going to criticize a trade, the team that made the worst Fred McGriff trade was the Padres, not the Yankees. McGriff was a proven Major Leaguer when the Padres traded him for very little return.
McGriff signed with the Atlanta Braves as a free agent in 1995, but in 1997, he was sold by the Braves to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
In 2001, the Devil Rays traded McGriff to the Chicago Cubs for Manny Aybar and Jason Smith. Yeah, again, it wasn't as if Fred McGriff was traded for superstars or even good big leaguers.
The Yankees were not the only team to send Fred McGriff packing for very little in return.
Fred McGriff is a Hall of Famer, but he wasn't a player that stuck with any team for any significant time. Here are the facts:
1986-1990: Toronto Blue Jays (5 years)
1991-92: San Diego Padres (2+ years)
1993: Padres and Atlanta Braves
1993-1997: Braves (4+ years)
1998-2000: Tampa Bay Devil Rays (3+ years)
2001- Rays and Chicago Cubs
2002 - Cubs
2003 - Los Angeles Dodgers
2004 - Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Why are the Yankees the team that gets criticized over and over as the one who let Fred McGriff get away? It's because it's an easy story and one that seems to fit a (false) narrative that the Yankees always traded away their great young talent. Remember the player blocking McGriff in the Majors when he was ready to be there in 1987 was... a young talent the Yankees drafted, developed, and brought up from the minor leagues - Don Mattingly, the 1985 MVP and the 1986 MVP runner-up.
It's easy to write the "Here's another bad Yankees trade" story regarding Fred McGriff only the Fred McGriff trade isn't a trade that fits that category.