On August 12, 1987, the Detroit Tigers, hunting an American League East title, made a trade with the Atlanta Braves. The Tigers received veteran right-hander Doyle Alexander. Going back to the Braves, was a 20-year-old pitcher named John Smoltz. I think you may have heard of him.
At the time of the trade, Smoltz was a former 22nd round pick laboring through his second season of professional baseball. He would wrap up the 1987 season with a 5.73 ERA in 24 games. He allowed over a hit per inning that year, and walked 5.7 per nine. The Michigan native could not have been too high on the Tigers’ list of prospects. Alexander, a steady, pitch-to-contact guy (career 4.1 K/9), came over to Detroit and went 9-0 with a 1.53 ERA in 11 games. The Tigers ended up winning the division by just 2.0 games over the Toronto Blue Jays. It’s very doubtful they would have done so without the help of Alexander.
Doyle Alexander pitched two more seasons with Detroit following the ’87 season, never quite duplicating the flash he brought that year. He did make an All-Star team in ’88, and helped the Tigers finish just a game out of the playoffs. Following 1988, the Tigers began a stretch of mostly pitiful baseball that did not end until 2006. Alexander finished his career with a 194-174 record and a 3.76 ERA across 19 seasons. He was a perfectly average mid-rotation pitcher.
Smoltz, on the other hand, just entered the Hall of Fame. Over his 21-year career, Smoltz won 213 games and saved 154. It’s easy to pile on the Tigers for parting with Smoltz to acquire Alexander, but that’s unfair. At the time of the trade, the Tigers needed an established Major League pitcher to help push them into the playoffs. That’s exactly what Alexander did. While Smoltz ultimately went on to reach the Hall, he was a struggling late round pick at the time of the trade. The trade still would not have looked all that bad until 1995 when his career finally started to take off. Over the first seven Major League seasons for Smoltz, he went just 78-75 with an ERA often closer to 4.00 than 3.00. No one would have predicted Smoltz was destined for Cooperstown.
Smoltz emerged as a frontline starter following a National League Cy Young win in 1996. Over the years, the backlash against the Tigers for trading Smoltz has continued to grow, and this trade is often cited as one of the worst in the history of baseball. To that, I say ease up on the Tigers. They got exactly what they needed in 1987 from Alexander. It’s doubtful many Tigers fans were bemoaning the loss of Smoltz at the time. Most had probably never heard of him.
A trade like this one can only be viewed in one way. Was its real purpose served? In the case of the Alexander-Smoltz trade, the answer is yes. Alexander gave the Tigers exactly what they needed in 1987. Trying to look back on it in hindsight does not allow you to see that fact. In 1987, the Tigers had one of the best lineups ever — Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Kirk Gibson, Darrell Evans, Matt Nokes — that combined for 225 home runs and 896 runs. What they did not have was a fourth and fifth starter. Jeff Robinson and Dan Petry were both well on their way to posting ERA’s well north of 5.00 (both did post winning records thanks to the offense, however). Alexander filled that role, and the team held off the Jays to make the playoffs. Maybe Detroit would have made the playoffs without him, maybe they wouldn’t have. It’s impossible to say.
This trade has gone down in history as one of the most one-sided deals of all time, but it’s not. At the time it was made, the Tigers were making the right move. Smoltz ended up in the perfect setting to blossom into an ace in Atlanta. There’s no way of predicting how he would have fared in Detroit, especially as the Tigers went through their bleak 1990’s years. The trade looks bad 28 years later, but it’s time to stop piling on Detroit. This wasn’t the first trade to turn out lopsided in the long run, and it won’t be the last.