The A.J. Pierzynski Trade: Ten Years Later

On the morning of November 14, 2003, I vividly remember having to walk roughly twenty minutes through a sudden onslaught of pouring rain in shorts and a t-shirt. It was college, and I had stupidly decided not to wear warm clothes to a gym class that morning. Thus, there I was, walking from class to my car, sopping wet and cursing the god of precipitation, and just generally having a miserable time of it.

Then I got home and saw that the Giants had traded for erstwhile Twins catcher A.J. Pierzynski, one of my favorite players at the time. My day brightened.

Alas, the brightness would prove fleeting. As hard as it is to believe, ten years have passed since that fateful day when the Giants sent Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano, and Boof Bonser to the Minnesota Twins for Pierzynski. At the time of the trade, I was ecstatic. Back then, I followed the then-resurgent Twins very closely, and I loved Pierzynski. He was a hard-nosed player, and a key member on those Twins teams that were marketed back then as small market, low-payroll underdogs (funny how things change). He was one of those guys you loved to root against if he was on the opposing team. A’s fans hated the guy for his various antics in the 2002 NLDS, namely yelling in the face of catcher Greg Myers after hitting a decisive home run in Game Five.

He had also just come off a big year, having hit .312/.360/.464 with the Twins in 2003, and he would be replacing the ancient husk of Benito Santiago. He was a left-handed line drive hitter, fairly rare for a catcher, and he would be entering his age-27 season, which is, of course, largely seen as most players’ peak year. Frankly, for the price of a middle reliever and two wild card minor leaguers, I thought at the time that the Giants had just committed larceny.

Oh, how horribly, horribly wrong I was. As has been documented umpteen times in the past decade, the trade would turn out to be an unmitigated disaster for the Giants. The Pierzynski trade is seen as perhaps the absolute worst trade of Brian Sabean’s long tenure as the Giants’ General Manager, and he’s made some stinkers over the years.

As the Giants’ starting catcher in 2004, Pierzynski had a horrible month of April and immediately chapped some hides in the clubhouse with his rather loud personality. It would only take three weeks before multiple teammates anonymously called out Pierzynski in the press for being a clubhouse cancer, with one pitcher (later revealed to be Brett Tomko) accusing him of opting to play cards at his locker instead of reviewing opposing hitters before one game. Oh, and there was also the notorious crotch-kicking incident involving then-trainer Stan Conte. So his arrival in San Francisco was…issue-laden.

All of this might have been forgiven (even the crotch-kicking, I guess) if Pierzynski had hit, and for a while he did live up to at least that standard. As late as August 18 of that year, he was sitting at .301/.341/.462, making early returns on the trade look fine. Then he went into a miserable slump in September, and finished the year at a less-than-spectacular .272/.319/.410, as the Giants lost the division in the season’s final weekend. The slump in the final month, combined with shaky defense, a league-leading 27 double plays grounded into, and the fact that a lot of teammates still couldn’t stand him, meant that he essentially had worn out his welcome in the Bay Area. He was non-tendered that offseason and later signed by the White Sox. The Giants were all too happy to sign Mike Matheny, a much more amiable player, to catch in 2005.

As for the players the Giants traded for Pierzynski? Bonser, a former top-30 Baseball America prospect, would pitch 100 effective innings in his rookie season, but that was it. He was horrible in 2007 and quickly washed out of the big leagues, ending up, ironically, back in the Giants’ system at one point. That’s where the “good” part of this story ends for the Giants.

Nathan, as we all know, morphed into probably one of the ten best closers of all-time. From 2004 to 2009, Nathan saved 246 games (or 41 per season), with a minuscule 1.87 ERA. Liriano came on like gangbusters in his rookie season, going 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA. While he fell victim almost immediately to arm problems and would never be so good again, he was effective in 2008 (in limited innings) and also in 2010. The Twins won division titles in 2004, 2006, 2009, and 2010, and came darned close in 2008. In the six seasons following the trade, Nathan alone accounted for 18.4 Wins Above Replacement (WAR).

So obviously the trade was a horrible one, but what were the lasting effects? How many division titles did the Pierzynski trade actually cost the Giants, if any at all? Did this trade really have big time ramifications down the road? Now that ten years have gone by, we can now safely look at each year and look at what exactly this trade cost the Giants, and how bad it truly was.

I think it’s clear that the trade absolutely cost the Giants a playoff berth in 2004. That year, the Giants won 91 games and fell short of the division title by two games and the NL Wild Card by one. The sole reason they couldn’t get by the Dodgers or Astros that year was because their bullpen and, specifically, their closer situation, was a nightmare.

The team had banked on Robb Nen coming back for the 2004 season (he had missed all of 2003 after shagging his arm in the 2002 postseason), but he suffered setback after setback and would eventually have to call it a career. The Giants were forced to make do with Matt Herges, who was lit up for a 5.23 ERA. He was replaced after the All-Star Break by Dustin Hermanson, who was marginally better in the role, but still not all that good. In fact, Hermanson’s ninth-inning meltdown (with an assist by a Cody Ransom error) in the season’s penultimate game against the Dodgers gave the Dodgers the division. The ninth inning was a mess all season, and it was likely the single reason the Giants weren’t playing in October in 2004.

If the Giants had kept Nathan, installed him in the closer role, and settled with Yorvit Torrealba or something at catcher, I have no doubt that they would have made the playoffs. The Herges/Hermanson tandem, not to mention the miserable bullpen as a whole, cost the Giants a few games that season. Nathan’s dominant ninth-inning work (he had a 1.62 ERA in 2004) probably would have stabilized the late innings enough for the Giants to at least outlast the Astros and get the Wild Card. He contributed 3.9 WAR out of the bullpen in ’04, as opposed to Pierzynski’s 0.3 as the Giants’ catcher. We shouldn’t take that statistic as the final word on the subject, but still…

In 2005, the Giants lost Barry Bonds to injury for most of the year and finished at 75-87, remarkably only seven games back in what was a really horrible NL West that season. Nathan wasn’t as brilliant in ’05, but it wouldn’t have mattered to the Giants as they would have fallen short regardless. However, keeping Nathan would have meant that Giants fans would have been spared the insufferable Armando Benitez, who usurped even Pierzynski in sheer magnitude of fan hatred for almost three years.

In 2006, the Giants were pretty bad, losing 85 games and finishing eleven-and-a-half games back, but the three players they traded for Pierzynski might have made a difference that year. Nathan, Liriano, and Bonser accumulated a total of 9.1 WAR in 2006 for the Twins. Let’s say we do some back-of-napkin math and substitute Nathan for the execrable Benitez, and Liriano and Bonser for the Giants’ two worst starters that year, Matt Morris and Jamey Wright (the three Giants accounted for 1.4 WAR). Being charitable and rounding up because of the Benitez clubhouse cancer factor, that’s a gain of about 8 wins. That would give the Giants 84 wins, which still would have placed them four-and-a-half games out of the division lead. However, with a few lucky breaks, it’s possible that they could have challenged the Dodgers and Padres for division supremacy and stumbled their way into the playoffs with Nathan, Liriano, and Bonser in tow. It’s possible.

In 2007 and 2008, the Giants were just plain bad and had no chance of making the playoffs even with Nathan. Liriano missed all of 2007 rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, and he only pitched 76 innings in ’08, so he wouldn’t have been a factor. In 2009, the Giants missed the Wild Card by four games, but by that point they already had an effective closer in Brian Wilson and didn’t need Nathan, and Liriano was awful that year. Plus, the Giants’ problem that season was a truly rotten offense; their pitching staff was more or less great.

In 2010, Liriano was good, but Nathan missed the whole year with Tommy John surgery of his own, and of course the Giants won the World Series, so it’s all basically moot. In 2011 the Giants missed the playoffs, but it wasn’t because of their closer, and Liriano was horrible with the Twins. In 2012, the Giants won the Series again, so none of it really mattered, and now we’re past the point where the Giants would have realistically kept any of these guys, anyway.

So the Pierzynski trade definitely cost the Giants one playoff berth, possibly one more if we squint long enough, and that’s about it. If you want to be contrarian, you could even go through some circuitous thinking and argue that keeping Nathan would have meant that the Giants would have been just good enough in 2004-2006 that the Lincecum-era rebuild would never have occurred, and thus no World Series rings. That’s possible. We could go on and on all day with what-ifs.

I guess the point is that the Pierzynski trade was bad, but not franchise-shattering, and not the killer it could have been. Some franchises make trades that take years and years to recover from. Like the Angels trading Mike Napoli for Vernon Wells and his contract. Do you think the Pierzynski trade rivals that in terms of pure awful when all is said and done? No, and it’s not even close.

So Giants fans lost a great closer and a couple of good seasons from Liriano for the right to tolerate a belligerent catcher who they get to boo from now to eternity, and two World Championships later, they hardly care anymore. I know that’s basically the “flags fly forever” argument, but a couple of years ago it looked like this trade was going to go down as one of the biggest blunders in history. It’s clear now that it really wasn’t.