This article was written by Jerry Swenson
This article was published in Baseball’s Business: The Winter Meetings: 1958-2016
The 2003 Winter Meetings were held from December 12 to 15 at the Marriott Hotel in New Orleans. This was the fifth time the Winter Meetings were held in The Big Easy, with the most recent having been in 1997. Economic conditions in the United States were improving as lower interest rates, the child-tax credit, and lower rates of income-tax withholding provided improved consumer cash flow and enabled a resumption of pre-recession consumption. However, the US-led coalition in Iraq introduced uncertainty about investments and employment.1
Labor-market concerns loomed large despite the improved financial picture, which economists labeled a “jobless recovery.”2 Additional concerns that economic growth might slow were expressed by Arthur Cashin of UBS Securities: “The consumer has carried the economy on his back like Atlas carried the world, and we don’t know if he’s going to shrug it off or he’s going to get tired.”3
There was a parallel concern about the economic direction of the baseball industry. In fact, Houston Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker commented during the meetings, “I think for years we’ve been talking about the dangerous economic direction the industry was headed. No one wanted to believe it, but now we’re at a point where the losses have gotten so large the clubs have no choice [but to cut payroll]. If you look at the trades this winter, most have been motivated by clubs trying to move dollars. If you have cash, you’re in the driver’s seat. Cash is definitely king this winter because most clubs don’t have it. It’s a buyer’s market because of that.”4
The meeting took place without any senior executives of the New York Yankees in attendance. A club official said, “George (Steinbrenner, Yankees owner) doesn’t want us to go there because we would give away our secrets.”5
The major theme of the meeting revolved around player movement. In fact, many teams did not wait for the meetings to begin to work on reshaping their rosters. The new owners and management of the Boston Red Sox, in an effort to rid themselves of a massive contract, placed outfielder Manny Ramirez on irrevocable waivers. No team put in a claim. The Red Sox continued their attempts to move the slugger in a potential Manny Ramirez/Alex Rodriguez trade, but in the end, Ramirez was not traded before the start of the 2004 season.6 Meanwhile, the Red Sox acquired right-hander Curt Schilling from the Arizona Diamondbacks, giving up southpaw Casey Fossum, right-hander Brandon Lyon, and two minor leaguers, left-hander Jorge de la Rosa and outfielder Michael Goss. Schilling had been a second-round pick of the Red Sox in the January 1986 draft but was traded to the Baltimore Orioles in July of 1988. To bring Schilling back, the Red Sox had to get him to agree to remove the no-trade clause in his contract with Arizona, and eventually Epstein persuaded Schilling to agree to the swap and to a contract extension in which Schilling waived the no-trade clause. Epstein was quite effusive in his praise of Schilling: “Curt wasn’t out for every last dollar. Very far from it. He wanted to structure the deal so the Red Sox would be competitive for every year of his contract. He deserves a lot of credit, because that’s a rare request coming from a player.”7
The Houston Astros and Anaheim Angels also acquired pitchers before the meetings. The Astros signed lefty Andy Pettitte, the former New York Yankee, and the Angels remade half their starting rotation by signing right-handers Kelvim Escobar and Bartolo Colon away from the Toronto Blue Jays and Chicago White Sox, respectively. The signing of Pettitte sparked rumors that he might be joined by his New York teammate and good friend Roger Clemens. Clemens, who had announced his retirement in 2003, ultimately changed his mind and, a month after the meetings ended, signed with the Astros. He would win 18 games and his seventh Cy Young Award in 2004, and the team would win 92 games and go to the playoffs as the wild card despite having an injured Pettitte pitch in only 15 games.
Although there were free-agent signings before the meetings and some during the meetings, the free-agent market had changed since the Texas Rangers signed Alex Rodriguez to a $252 million deal in 2000. Small-market clubs maintained their budget discipline by trading star players before the Winter Meetings. Slugging first baseman Richie Sexson of the Milwaukee Brewers and right-hander Javier Vazquez of the Montreal Expos were among stars who were moved primarily because lowering payroll became paramount for their teams. “We were faced with the reality of losing Sexson and probably getting nothing in return except for a few draft choices,” Brewers general manager Doug Melvin stated as the reason for the trade. The Brewers were looking to trim their payroll to about $30 million.8
Likewise, general manager Omar Minaya positioned his Expos to receive high value from the Yankees in the Vazquez deal. “Minaya said, ‘I don’t have to trade Javier Vazquez. If you (Cashman) are interested, be aggressive.’ And to his credit, (Cashman) was aggressive.”9 The Expos were faced with payroll limitations and were willing to trade Vasquez because he was eligible for salary arbitration.10
The World Series champion Florida Marlins traded first baseman Derek Lee in an effort to allocate their payroll to core players. General manager Larry Beinfest acknowledged that the Marlins were also managing payroll in the Lee trade. Beinfest said, “There were two main reasons for the move. One is, obviously, we need to achieve our goal of operating within our payroll. Two, we want to make sure we have the appropriate allocations to retain our core pitching.”11
Trading established stars because of emerging young players was another approach to managing the major-league payroll. The budget-minded Minnesota Twins traded 2002 All-Star catcher A.J. Pierzynski to the San Francisco Giants. “That’s all part of the reasons we decided to make this trade,” GM Terry Ryan said. “We’re dealing from a position of strength. We’ve got some talent at catching come up and some financial concerns, as far as making sure the pieces fit.”12 The Twins received three pitchers for Pierzynski: left-hander Francisco Liriano and right-handers Joe Nathan and Boof Bonser.
The small-market Oakland A’s were hard hit by free agency as they lost two significant contributors from their 96-win team: right-hander Keith Foulke, who had led the league with 43 saves in his only season in the East Bay; and shortstop Miguel Tejada, the 2002 American League Most Valuable Player. The Red Sox signed Foulke to be their closer, and the Orioles signed Tejada to the richest contract (at the time) in Orioles history. 13 He chose Baltimore over the Detroit Tigers and the Seattle Mariners.
The St. Louis Cardinals traded outfielder J.D. Drew and utilityman Eli Marrero to the Atlanta Braves. The Braves were looking to replace free agents Gary Sheffield and Javy Lopez and felt that this trade with the Cardinals was their best available option. “We have great regard for J.D. Drew and of course the versatility that Eli Marrero brings to Bobby (Braves manager Bobby Cox) and his roster,” said general manager John Schuerholz. “(This) really helped us in one fell swoop fill several needs that we have on our club. Having said that, we gave up some fine young players to acquire these guys.”14 Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa mentioned the importance of acquiring pitching in the deal: “We felt that without pitching, we weren’t going to have a chance to improve in the standings next year.”15 The cost in pitching was quite steep for the Braves, who surrendered two former first-round draft picks, right-handers Adam Wainwright and Jason Marquis, along with southpaw reliever Ray King. “As tough as it is to trade pitching, our scouting and player-development guys keep finding and developing them and filling the pipeline with them,” Schuerholz said. “We’re blessed to have that kind of talent. Adam was our No. 1 pitching prospect, and that makes this tough to do. But under the circumstances we had no choice.”16
The New York Yankees, seeking to replace Pettitte and Clemens in their starting rotation, swapped right-handers with the Los Angeles Dodgers, sending Jeff Weaver west in exchange for six-time All-Star Kevin Brown.
Despite all this activity, the rumored Ramirez-Rodriguez trade did not occur during the meetings. The Red Sox and Rangers continued to work on the proposed deal after departing New Orleans, but ultimately no agreement came from these discussions.
The free-agent landscape showed signs of change from just a few years earlier as big-name stars like Vladimir Guerrero, Ivan Rodriguez, Greg Maddux, and Javy Lopez left the meetings without signed contracts. Each would eventually find employment for 2004, with catcher Lopez signing on with Orioles shortly after the meetings and outfielder Guerrero signing with the Angels in early January. (Guerrero would become the 2004 American League Most Valuable Player.) However, two future Hall of Famers had a longer wait. Rodriguez did not land a deal with the Detroit Tigers until February, while the Chicago Cubs did not sign Maddux until late in spring training, thus giving him the opportunity to continue his pursuit of 300 career victories with the team for which he made his debut in 1986.
The Pittsburgh and Cleveland organizations each lost five players in the major-league portion of the Rule 5 draft. A future Blue Jays slugger, third baseman Jose Bautista, was one of the players lost by the Pirates, as well as two other future major leaguers, first baseman Chris Shelton (to the Tigers) and right-hander Jeff Bennett (to the Brewers).17 The Indians’ most notable loss was outfielder Willy Taveras to the Astros.
The Business Side
The proposed trade of Alex Rodriguez from the Rangers to the Red Sox generated much interest from the Major League Baseball Players Association. Rodriguez agreed to restructure his original deal, signed at the 2000 Winter Meetings,18 but the Players Association objected, taking the position that a restructured contract would result in a decreased value of the pact. Rodriguez issued a statement in support of the union’s decision:
“In the spirit of cooperation, I advised the Red Sox I am willing to restructure my contract, but only within the guidelines prescribed by union officials,” Rodriguez said in a statement to the Associated Press. “I recognize the principle involved, and fully support the need to protect the interests of my fellow players.
“If my transfer to the Red Sox is to occur, it must be done with consideration of the interests of all major-league players, not just one. Any statements by club officials suggesting my position is different than stated is inaccurate and unfortunate.”19
Mike Moore was re-elected to his fourth four-year term as president of the National Association, the minor-league umbrella group.20
Speaking at the opening session of the Winter Meetings, Moore announced that the minor leagues had established a Charity Partners Program with Big Brothers and Big Sisters, the YMCA and the ALS Association.21
The Baseball Writers Association of America honored longtime New York Times sportswriter Murray Chass with the J.G. Taylor Spink Award.22
Small and mid-market teams managed their payrolls and traded players with an eye toward maintaining their budgets and providing opportunities for prospects. The larger-market clubs, especially the Red Sox, were active before and during the meetings. The Oakland A’s would win 91 games in 2004 with their excellent starting pitching and the ability of their front office to find productive offensive players despite continuing to lose players to free agency. Although not based upon the 2004 season, their approach to utilizing ballplayers whose characteristics were not properly valued was later documented in the book and film Moneyball.
Manager Lou Piniella expressed concern about the inability of the smaller-market teams to compete with the larger-market teams in pursuing free agents. He specifically addressed the situation for his Tampa Bay Devil Rays when he said, “We’re improved, but it’s disheartening when you look at the improvements of the other teams in this division. … Invariably, baseball has to do something about this. I don’t know what the answer is. The luxury tax hasn’t stopped it. It’s the same thing as when they put an extra tax on yachts. If you have the money to buy the yacht, you pay the tax. What’s the difference?”23
The inability to bring the Ramirez-Rodriguez trade to fruition proved to be fortunate, as Ramirez led a potent Boston offense. His league-leading 43 home runs and .613 slugging percentage, in combination with an improved pitching staff, anchored by Schilling’s 21 wins and Foulke’s 32 saves, brought the first World Series championship to Fenway Park since Babe Ruth was a pitcher and outfielder for the 1918 Red Sox. Ramirez was named MVP of the World Series. Alex Rodriguez was eventually traded to the Yankees, in a blockbuster deal for infielder-outfielder Alfonso Soriano and infielder Joaquin Arias.
1 United States Economy — 2003. Geographic.org. https://theodora.com/wfb2003/united_states/united_states_economy.html
3 Economy 2003: Anxious And Waiting.. CBSNews.com. cbsnews.com/news/economy-2003-anxious-and-waiting/.
4 Elliott Teaford and Ross Newhan, “End of an Era as Dodgers Trade Brown to Yankees,” Los Angeles Times, December 12, 2003. Accessed January 2, 2012. articles.latimes.com/2003/dec/12/sports/sp-brown12.
5 Jack Curry, “Baseball Analysis; What’s Up With the Boss?” New York Times, December 13, 2003. Accessed January 2, 2012. nytimes.com/2003/12/13/sports/baseball-analysis-what-s-up-with-the-boss.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm.
6 Gordon Edes and Bob Hohler, “Rodriguez Deal Gaining Momentum,” boston.com/sports/baseball/redsox/articles/2003/12/16/rodriguez_deal_gaining_momentum.
13 Gary Washburn, “Tejada Excited About Joining O’s,” MLB.com, December 14, 2003. Accessed January 2, 2012.mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20031214&content_id=618126&vkey=news_mlb&fext=.jsp&c_id=mlb.
14 Mark Bowman, “Braves Trade for Drew, Marrero,” MLB.com, December 13, 2003.Accessed January 2, 2012. atlanta.braves.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20031213&content_id=617176&vkey=news_atl&fext=.jsp&c_id=atl
16 Washburn, “Tejada Excited About Joining O’s.”
17 Bautista had an interesting few months. The Orioles selected him in the Rule 5 draft in December, but in early June he was picked up by Tampa Bay in a waiver deal. Before the month was out the Rays sold him to the Royals, who a month later traded him to the Mets for infielder-outfielder Justin Huber. The Mets then flipped Bautista, along with infielder Ty Wigginton and minor-league righty Matt Peterson, to the Pirates. Pittsburgh gave up right-handed pitcher Kris Benson (the number-one pick in the 1996 draft) and infielder Jeff Keppinger. Four years later the Pirates sent him to the Blue Jays, where he would blossomed into one of the game’s premier sluggers.
22 “BASEBALL: Chass to Enter Hall of Fame,” New York Times, December 15, 2003. Accessed January 2, 2012. nytimes.com/2003/12/15/sports/baseball-chass-to-enter-hall-of-fame.html.
23 Bill Madden, “Proof in the Payrolls for Some, Price of Dealing Too High,” NYDailyNews.com, December 14, 2003. Accessed January 2, 2012. nydailynews.com/archives/sports/proof-payrolls-price-dealing-high-article-1.519153