Oakland Athletics: Acquisitions That Built The Pennant Winning 1988-1990 Team


Stew, Eck, Cobra, Hendu, Rickey, et. al.

Since the evolution of baseball free agency in December 1975, ways to build a team, in addition to farm system talent and trades, was to seek out high dollar free agents. Another, a la the Oakland A’s under GM Sandy Alderson in the late 80s, was to invest in certain players via trades or free agency that many in baseball deemed “rehab projects.” This investment brought the Athletics three straight AL pennants with one World Series Championship.

Dave Stewart Signed as a Free Agent
On May 23, 1986, after being released by the Philadelphia Phillies, only pitching in 12 games for parts of the 1985 and 1986 season, and after failing a tryout with the Orioles, GM Alderson took a chance on the homegrown Stewart, who had pitched seven seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Texas Rangers prior to the Phillies.

In 1987, ‘Stew’ took a spot in the Oakland rotation and ran with it, assuming the number one starter role, winning 20 games and becoming the first Oakland hurler to fan 200 hitters in a season since Vida Blue in 1971. The 20-game win season run continued another three years, which included All-Star Game appearances, the World Series MVP in 1989, and a no-hitter in 1990.

Brian Guinn (AAA), Dave Wilder (AAA), and Mark Leonette (AA) to the Cubs for Dennis Eckersley.
On April 3, 1987 the Cubs shipped starter Dennis Eckersley to the A’s for three minor leaguers. First-year Athletics’ manager Tony LaRussa used the “washed up” pitcher in a set-up relief role (though he started two games) until an injury sidelined 1987 closer Jay Howell midseason.

The rest is history as ‘Eck’ became arguably one of the best relief pitchers in baseball history helping the A’s build yet another dynasty, reaching the World Series in three straight years – winning the title in 1989 – as the Oakland Athletics’ most dominant closer. Eckersley won a Cy Young and MVP in 1992 when he went 7-1 with a 1.91 ERA and 51 Saves. Eckersley entered the Hall of Fame in 2004 with 197 career wins and 390 Saves.

Jose Rijo and Tim Birtsas to the Reds for Dave Parker
During the Winter Meetings of 1987, the A’s were in need of some power hitting to bolster the right handed pop of Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco. So, GM Alderson managed to trade Rijo and Bistsas to the Cincinnati Reds for the 37-year-old Parker who was in his 17th Major League season. In four seasons with the Reds, the 7-time All-Star hit .281 with 107 homers, 432 RBI, and 327 runs scored. He won back-to-back Silver Slugger Awards in 1985-86.

Though initially slated as their left fielder for 1988, “The Cobra” moved to become the A’s regular DH where he hit .264 with 22 homers 1989  and his veteran leadership was a significant factor in the A’s consecutive World Series appearances.

Alfredo Griffin and Jay Howell to the Dodgers for Bob Welch
A few days after the Parker trade at the 1987 Winter Meetings, Alderson pulled off another deal on Dec 11, this time grabbing Bob Welch from the Dodgers that in actuality involved the Mets as part of a three-team transaction. Welch, who like Eckersley battled addictions, had become a fine starter for the Dodgers sporting a 115-86 record in his 10 seasons.

With the A’s, Welch went on to become a reliable ace with a 61-23 record during the 88-90 pennant winning years and even winning 27 games in 1990 resulting in the AL Cy Young Award. His 27 wins were the most by any pitcher since Steve Carlton who also won 27 in 1972, and currently stands as the last time a pitcher has won 25 or more games in a season.

Dave Henderson Signed as a Free Agent
After playing for three teams – Seattle Mariners, Boston Red Sox, San Francisco Giants – over the course of seven seasons, the Athletics took a chance on Dec. 21, 1987 on a planned “backup outfielder” scheduled to play behind Dave Parker, Luis Polonia and Stan Javier. “Hendu” would turn out to be one of that season’s biggest surprises, becoming the A’s regular centerfielder for years to come with a .304 BA and 24 HRs scoring 100 times with 154 hits for 1988 (the Athletics were 23–1 when he homered). As the A’s starting center fielder in six seasons, he hit 20 or more HRs in four seaons (one had a significant injury) and had numerous clutch hits. In the 1989 World Series, he hit .308 with two HRs and was considered to be the Series MVP by many voters.

Mike Moore signed as a Free Agent
On Nov. 28, 1988, the A’s solidified an already strong rotation with the signing of Mike Moore. With his seven seasons in Seattle, Moore was 66-96. Moore went on to win 19 games for the Oakland Athletics in 1989 on their way to the World Series Championships, where he won one game in the ALCS and two games in the Series.

Greg Cadaret, Eric Plunk, and Luis Polonia to the Yankees for Rickey Henderson
Far from being washed up or considered a “rehab project,” Rickey Henderson was brought back to Oakland. This trade sent outfielder Luis Polonia and pitchers Greg Caderet and Eric Plunk to the Yankees. The A’s were in the right position as Henderson had publicly expressed a desire to get out of New York.

Current left fielders in the lineup weren’t cutting it with Parker moved to DH due to his lack of mobility and Polonia, at .286, not a typical leadoff hitter. On June 29, 1989, Alderson offered up Eric Plunk, who was no longer considered a starting prospect, along with bullpen relievers Cadaret and Polonia. The trade turned out to be a huge move for the A’s. Henderson was the 1989 ALCS MVP with a 1.609 OPS and eight stolen bases. In the 1989 World Series, that OPS dropped all the way to “just” 1.419.  He had another three stolen bases that series as well. In 1990, Rickey captured the AL MVP award, posted an OPS of 1.016, stole 65 bases in 75 attempts and hit 28 home runs.

Up Next: Free Agent Kelly Johnson A Realistic Option For Second Base

*One Other Notable Acquisition During That Time
One wouldn’t think a guy hitting .247 in 37 games in 1989 would be mentioned, but the Nov. 1988 signing of Billy Beane had a broader significance for the future of the Oakland Athletics. Though he washed out as a player, Beane went on to work in the A’s front office and learned from Alderson to later become the Athletics’ GM after Alderson’s departure.

Look for the next in the series where I will cover the 2000 – 2006 AL West Division winning Athletics.