Over the next two weeks, in conjunction with the run-up to the July 31 trade deadline, Phillies Nation will be presenting the Top 10 Trades in Phillies History. Consideration was given to the performance of the players traded with their new club v. the performance of the players acquired with the Phillies in addition to heavily weighing the success of the Phillies once the trade was completed.
This series will be immediately followed by the Top 10 Worst Trades in Phillies History, starting approximately on July 7.
It’s easy to forget just how good the 1986 Mets were. And it is amazing to think they traded one of their best players to a division rival that helped said division rival net a pennant four years later.
New York sent four players as starters to the 57th All-Star Game, including 21-year old Dwight Gooden, 24-year old Darryl Strawberry, and a pair of 32-year olds in Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez. While the club was known for being youthful, the club had a tremendous mix of both veterans and young talent that carried them through the playoffs and on to the World Series.
Beyond their four All-Star starters, the Mets had a fifth All-Star, Sid Fernandez, former All-Star third baseman Ray Knight, who hit .298 with 11 homers in 1986, a once-in-a-lifetime season from second baseman Wally Backman, .320/.376/.385 with 13 steals, six pitchers that won 10 games or more, including five that won 14 or more, and two relievers that accumulated at least 21 saves. The Phillies had a pretty remarkable season in 1986, also, tallying an unexpected 86 wins, but would be dwarfed by 21.5 games by the 108-win Mets.
Lenny Dykstra was sort of an unsung hero on the late 80’s Mets squad. A fan favorite, Dykstra was frequently overlooked when media discussed the team’s best attributes. The spunky, 5’10” centerfielder won a starting spot in the Mets outfield midway through 1985 through a Mookie Wilson injury and would hit .295/.377/.445 mostly out of the leadoff spot with eight homers and 31 steals in 1986 to cement his starting role. Dykstra finished 19th in MVP voting that year and hit .300/.352/.540 with three homers and one steal in the playoffs.
Throughout most of 1987, 1988, and the early parts of 1989, Dykstra was seen as the stronger half of a platoon with Wilson. As the seasons progressed, Dykstra’s numbers begin to drop and his 1986 at age 23 appeared more like an outlier rather than a sign of things to come. Dykstra finished 1988 with a career-low on-base percentage of .321 and on June 18, 1989, the centerfielder was shipped to Philadelphia with eccentric reliever Roger McDowell and minor leaguer Tom Edens for Juan Samuel.
The June 19, 1989 edition of the New York Times referred to Dykstra and McDowell as blithe spirits, possibly referring to their carefree attitudes but also to the perception that both could be better players with a more pronounced focus on baseball. It is unlikely Joseph Durso, the man who labeled the duo or that, had any insight into what Dykstra could become but Dykstra’s successes sure make you wonder if he was on to something.
Mets manager Davey Johnson told media that losing Dykstra and McDowell would be difficult but he felt the Mets had received an impact player in Samuel. Samuel had converted from second base to center field in 1989 to accommodate All-Star second baseman Tom Herr. Herr, for his part, held up his end of the bargain, hitting .287/.352/.364 with a pair of homers and 10 steals. Samuel did not, hitting .246/.311/.392 for the Phillies before the trade.
While Samuel had a disappointing start to 1989, there was reason to believe the speedy Samuel could put it all back together. Samuel was an All-Star in 1984 as a rookie with the Phillies and again in 1987, leading the league in triples in both seasons while averaging 50 steals a season between and including his All-Star campaigns. Where Samuel would faulter, however, was his ability to draw walks (.309 OBP from 1983 through 1988) and his penchant for striking out, a category he led the National League in each year, and in totality, from 1984 through 1987.
The change of scenery trade looked like a clear victory for the Phillies early on, but it had nothing to do with the successes of Nails or Samuel. McDowell, at age 28, certainly had a lot more left in his tank and posted a rather remarkable 1.11 ERA in 44 appearances with 19 saves after the trade in 1989. Combined with the failures of both Dykstra (a very ugly .222/.297/.330 line with just four homers and 17 steals in 28 attempts) and Samuel (.228/.299/.300 with just three homers and 31 steals in 40 attempts), the trade initially appeared as a loss for the in-the-hunt Mets and a small victory in obtaining a high-performance reliever for the Phillies.
But then 1990 happened.
McDowell was nowhere near as incredible as he was in 1989 but he was certainly solid: McDowell posted a 3.86 ERA with a league-leading 60 games finished and 22 saves in 86.1 innings pitched. With one year remaining on his contract, Samuel was traded by the Mets for veteran first baseman and right fielder Mike Marshall, who was coming off a .260/.325/.408 line in a year of part-time play. But, to be fair, it wouldn’t have mattered what McDowell and Samuel did or where they went because in 1990, The Dude had one of the single-greatest single seasons in Phillies history.
In club history, there have only been four seasons worth nine wins or more in FanGraphs’ version of WAR. Three of them were from Mike Schmidt (1974, 1977, 1980), the other belongs to Nails. Taking a .401 average as far as June 11, Dykstra had a season for the ages, leading the National League in hits and on-base percentage while hitting .325 with nine homers, 33 steals, and his first All-Star appearance to show for it.
Despite finishing second in the NL in fWAR to a man that had an even more insane season, Barry Bonds, Dykstra would finish not second to Bonds in MVP voting but a surprising ninth. The low finish likely had to do with the lack of team success the Phillies saw in 1990, posting just a 77-85 record, finishing fourth in the NL East.
Dykstra would, however, find team success in 1993. In an amazing season where Dykstra led baseball in plate appearances and runs, and led the NL in walks and hits, Nails would lead the Phils to the NL pennant, hitting .313/.450/.729 with six homers and four steals in the playoffs, almost single-handedly willing the ’93 Phils to a very unlikely World Series.
Samuel would bounce around the Majors, spending time in LA, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Detroit, and Toronto, outlasting Dysktra by one year in Major League play, but certainly not outperforming him. Samuel would hit just .259/.326/.407 against Dykstra’s .298/.400/.434. McDowell was more than just a throw-in, too, posting a 2.90 ERA with 44 saves for the Phillies from 1989 through 1991. McDowell would be flipped in a seemingly inconsequential 1991 trade-deadline deal that netted the Phillies Braulio Castillo and Mike Hartley. Hartley would be flipped to Minnesota for David West, a key contributor on the 1993 squad making the Juan Samuel change of scenery trade a gift that kept on giving and helped the Phillies win a pennant.