Houston Astros’ Worst Trades: #1 – The Joe Morgan Trade (1971)
A Look at a Houston Astros Trade Worse Than Carlos Gomez’s.
During his brief tenure with the Astros, Carlos Gomez was a lightning rod for criticism. Whether it was his spinning, helmet-losing, oscillating fan, ball-missing swings at the plate, or his occasional defensive lapses in the outfield or his occasional overhead missile launches for throws, Houston Astros fans have made known their disappointment. He did provide one shining light during his time in Houston, that being the homer in the Wild Card game in 2015, overall. Even management has admitted that the trade did not work.
For fans, the evaluation of the trade has come in two camps. First, the value that Gomez did or didn’t bring to the table. Secondly, the value of what was given up. Mike Fiers remains a piece of value that we received in the trade, as well as the international draft slot. However, time will tell whether the price of outfielders Brett Phillips and Domingo Santana, left-hander Josh Hader and right-hander Adrian Houser was a little, a lot or a whole lot.
This trade has also led to discussions of what are the worst trades in Houston Astros history. Over the next few articles, we will take a look at what are commonly thought of as some of the worst trades in Houston Astros history. We will start with the one that most long-time Astros fans seem to recall as the worst. We will call it “The Joe Morgan Trade.”
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Houston/Cincinnati – November 29, 1971
- Houston trades 2B Joe Morgan, IF Denis Menke, P Jack Billingham and CF Cesar Geronimo
- Houston Receives 1B Lee May, 2B Tommy Helms, and IF Jimmy Stewart
On the surface, when you put it in context, the trade may not seem to be that much of a mismatch. The Astros were struggling for someone to take the reins at 1B and in 1971 Denis Menke hit 1 HR in 146 games and John Mayberry (perhaps another worst trade article coming soon??) hit .182.
May hit 39 HR in 1971 for the Reds, and the Astros likely thought, even though Morgan was already a solid player and a budding star. A right side of the infield with May and Helms would be more productive overall than a right side with Morgan and Menke (with Menke being on the downside of his career anyway).
Looking into the background of the trade, it has been speculated that there were other reasons the club felt it wise to move Morgan. Apparently, he and Jimmy Wynn were good friends and enjoyed partying together. Ironically enough, Wynn was traded away three seasons later himself.
Evaluating the Trade
So in evaluating the trade, let’s start with the obvious. Morgan became a two-time MVP and perhaps the second baseman of the decade in MLB. He also returned to the Astros in 1980, helping them to their first division title toward the end of his storied career. May actually had three very productive seasons with the Astros, hitting 81 HR and 288 RBI in 488 games.
May was eventually traded for Enos Cabell, who manned third base for five solid seasons with the Astros. So, while the Reds did win this side of the trade, at least in the name of longevity, MVP’s, World Series and all-star appearances, why is this considered one of the worst trades in Astros’ history? Joe Morgan didn’t win those World Series’ all by himself, after all.
The rest of the trade just seems to be a piling on. The trade was already tilted toward Cincinnati through the work of the principals in the trade, but the rest of it is what makes the trade seem lopsided in retrospect.
Look at Both Sides
Houston side: Helms had reasonable results in 3 and a half seasons with the Astros, hitting .287 in 1973, but he lost his job to Rob Andrews in the 1975 season. He was traded for a player to be named later late in the 1975 season, who became Art Howe, another long-time solid player for Houston. Jimmy Stewart was a bit-player as a utility man at the end of his career and really provided nothing of substance other than he shares his name with a famous actor.
Cincinnati side: Though Denis Menke played regularly for the Reds for two seasons before returning to Houston for his swan song. He really did nothing offensively of note other than filling a gap at third base until the moving of Pete Rose from left to third early in the 1975 season when Dan Driessen did not do enough to take over the job.
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The Start of the “Big Red Machine”
However, the remaining two pieces of the trade went on to be significant pieces of the “Big Red Machine”, which went to three World Series in five years, winning in 1975 and 1976. Geronimo was an outstanding defensive CF who, while as a speedy player but never flashy offensively, provided steady leadership in the outfield and stabilized the middle of the defense, along with SS Dave Concepcion, 2B Joe Morgan, and gold-glove C Johnny Bench. Billingham, more or less a throw-in for the trade, became a leader of the solid starting rotation for the Big Red Machine.
What could have been: By 1975, May had been traded, and Bob Watson would soon provide the same type of bat that May did at 1B. Just imagine if the Astros had Watson at 1B, Morgan at 2B, Doug Rader at 3B, Cesar Cedeno in CF, 1974 Rookie of the Year Greg Gross in RF and Jack Billingham right behind Larry Dierker in the rotation (with J.R. Richard about to emerge). Could the Astros have competed for the division title by 1974? I guess we will be left to wonder.
What think you?
***Statistics from Baseball Reference***