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WHAT IF: The Braves never traded Doyle Alexander for John Smoltz?

Posted by Andy on November 16, 2010

In 1987, the Atlanta Braves made two transactions involving Doyle Alexander:

After pitching the Braves in 1986, Alexander was a free agent in the beginning in 1987. After going 12-13 in the first 25 games, the Braves re-signed him and added him to the roster.

Alexander pitched pretty well for the Braves, registering a 105 ERA+ over 117.2 innings. The Braves turned out to be a pretty bad team that year and Alexander went just 5-10 with them. As the trading deadline neared, the second-place Detroit Tigers traded for Alexander, sending a minor league pitcher named John Smoltz to the Braves in exchange.

Alexander was cash money for the Tigers, going 9-0 in 11 starts with a 279 ERA+. He earned a WAR of 3.9 with Detroit alone in 1987, and the Tigers beat the Blue Jays in a dogfight for the AL East by 2 games.

So, let's say the Braves had refused to pull the trigger on the deal, figuring that Alexander was on of their better pitchers and they were better off keeping him. What if the trade had never happened? What might have been different?

It's a pretty good bet to think that the Tigers wouldn't have won the AL East that year and the Blue Jays instead would have made the playoffs for the second time in franchise history. Would the Jays have knocked off the Twins for the AL crown?

If Smoltz had remained Tigers property, would he have developed into the same pitcher he did with the Braves? Smoltz started off fairly roughly in 1988 with the Braves. Many folks credit Leo Mazzone for turning Smoltz around at the major-league level. How would Smoltz have done still in the Tigers system?

In actual history, after the Tigers made the playoffs in 1987, they didn't make it back until 2006, when they lost the World Series. Maybe instead with Smoltz in the rotation they make it in 1988 or 1991, when they were a decent team.

If Smoltz doesn't go to the Braves, then maybe Maddux never signs there as a free agent. Maybe Glavine doesn't turn out to be the same guy. Maybe the Braves never win a single division championship.

What do you think?

27 Responses to “WHAT IF: The Braves never traded Doyle Alexander for John Smoltz?”

  1. Kenny Says:

    Interesting questions. Thankfully, this wasn't about the tragedy of the Tigers trading away Smoltz's career for Doyle Alexander because the Tigers didn't trade away Smoltz's career - just those years through 1994 that the Braves had club control over him. Smoltz was only 78-75 with a 109 ERA+ in 1358 innings during that period of time, and that's all the Tigers traded away for Alexander.

  2. Marc Says:

    Being a Twins fan and from a selfish point of view we all would have missed out on the greatest World Series game ever if that would have happened. I could care less about what it ment for the Tigers or Braves, but it provided me with one of my greatest sports moment.

  3. Larry R. Says:

    With Sparky Anderson as manager he almost certainly wouldn't have had the opportunity to pitch late into games that he got in Atlanta. I don't think he would have become anything near what he did become if he stayed with the Tigers, all else being equal.

  4. Tmckelv Says:

    #1 great points.

    I think the biggest "What If?" comes from just how much credit Smoltz should get for the Braves turnaround in the ealy 1990's, and could they have done the same thing with Doyle Alexander (and whoever would have replaced him in the future).

    As was mentioned in the post, the Tigers maybe (probably) don't even make the playoffs in 1987.

    I wonder how Smoltz would have progressed with Jack Morris as a tutor.

  5. Joe Block Says:

    Kenny brings up a great point. To add, the Tigers couldn't develop a similar talent, Steve Searcy, around that time, so considering Smoltz's record and how remarkably effective the previously 5-10 Alexander was down the stretch in '87 (9-0, 1.53 ERA - Tigers won all 11 of his starts), the Tigers still couldn't have made a better trade.

  6. TigerBlog » Blog Archive » What if the 1987 Braves Didn’t Trade Doyle Alexander? Says:

    [...] set out to accomplish.  Now the Baseball Reference blog is soliciting answers to the question of “What if the Braves didn’t trade Alexander for Smoltz?”.  There’s some interesting feedback and it’s worth the read. Permalink | Posted in [...]

  7. MarkW Says:

    Also, if a frog had wings, he wouldn't whomp his backside every time he jumped... :-). By the way, #3, you're thinking of Sparky 1.0. The Tigers were 4th in the AL in CG in 1987... ask Jack Morris (154 CG over a span of 12 yrs) whether he ever had the opportunity to pitch late into games.

  8. John Autin Says:

    "Would the Jays have knocked off the Twins for the AL crown?"

    It's a valid question, but given the epic choke the Jays suffered in the actual pennant race (losing their last 7 games to blow a 3.5-game lead), I find it hard to imagine them coming up big in a hypothetical ALCS.

  9. Nathan Says:

    Keep in mind Smoltz probably doesn't make the 70+ starts he logged before he became a household name in '91. I think it's reasonable to suggest he got a 2-year head start on his career, if nothing else. Atlanta had Glavine, Avery, Liebrandt and Mercker starting games for them so they would have been desperate for a RHP by the time Maddux rolled around; aside from that I don't see anything to remotely suggest them as serious buyers. '91 and '93 NL West races both were won by Atlanta by a single game, even with Smoltz. '92 required a 13-game win streak. Axe the names of Mark Lemke and Frankie Cabrera from history books, and instead of Smoltz vs Morris in a 10-inning classic, the best we'd have gotten was a wrestling match between Kent Hrbek and Mike Lavalliere at 1B.

    And so forth. Leo Mazzone may have helped Smoltz become the cliched "pitcher not thrower", but it had a lot more to do with an INF of Belliard, TP, Lemke, Bream allowing the young guns to challenge batters. Detroit had already begun building around Tettleton/Fryman/Deer/Fielder types by then; an obvious difference in philosophy that matters here. Aside from all that, here are other things to consider:

    -David Neid would not have went to Colorado -- would he have been the Smoltz the Braves were missing?
    -Would Joe Carter still have faced Mitch Williams or would it have been Rod Beck?
    -Ryan Klesko never would have lost his 1B job because Atlanta never would have got it in their heads to pursue that one guy, but would that have been enough to stop Gant from jumping on his dirt-bike?
    -Would the impending rookie class of Klesko, Chipper Jones, Javy Lopez, Tony Tarasco and Mike Kelly have been enough to prompt Ted to spend like a contender?
    -Rewrite the history book to say that Atlanta would have still debuted an astounding rookie class in '94, and the NL East would have been up for grabs in '95 and '96, especially if it changed events to the degree where Chipper and Gant avert year-long injuries in '94. Does Atlanta catch fire and match their 1995 target date for a World Series celebration?

  10. John Autin Says:

    Though not a reply to the "what if?" question, as a Tigers fan, I'm going to say what I always say when the Alexander/Smoltz trade comes up:

    Obviously, the trade turned out horribly in the long run for Detroit, and I don't even buy Kenny's mitigating claim @1 above.

    But you evaluate a trade based on what you know at the time:
    -- Detroit had a legitimate window to win another WS title in '87 (they finished with the best record in baseball that year), but they desperately needed immediate SP help; their #4 and 5 SPs posted ERAs well over 5 that year.
    -- Alexander was a good target. No one anticipated his brilliant stretch run, but over the previous 3 years, Alexander had averaged 250 IP with a 118 ERA+, and was still pitching well at age 36.
    -- Above all, at the time of the trade, Smoltz was 20 years old, in his 2nd pro season; he had done OK in class A, but had a 5.68 ERA in 21 starts at AA, with major control problems. And he'd been drafted in the 22nd round. Anyone who predicted Smoltz's meteoric rise over the next 2 years may be a scouting genius, but more likely a very lucky guesser.

    In sum, it was the kind of trade that contending teams make (and should make) every year. Once in a great while, the young player turns in a Hall of Fame career, as did Smoltz and Jeff Bagwell (who was a much more polished prospect than Smoltz, but was infamously dealt for one month's services of the 37-year-old reliever Larry Andersen). But that's a risk you have to take. Tigers fans should not rue this trade.

  11. Tom Says:

    The Blue Jays win the AL East in 1987 and go on to beat the Twins, then lose in five games to the Cardinals.
    The next spring Sparky Anderson tells reporters, "This Smoltz kid is going to make people forget Denny McLain."
    The pressure is too much for Smoltz, who develops control problems, never makes the big club and leaves baseball to try his hand at pro golf. He has mixed results, finishing second in earnings on Nike Tour to David Duval one year in the early 1990s. Smoltz never wins on the regular tour; his best finish is a tie for eighth in 1997 at the B.C. Open Endicott, N.Y., seven strokes behind winner Gabriel Hjertstedt.
    He retires in 2001 and becomes the head pro at the Thirsty Hills Country Club outside Jackson, Mich. He gives accordion lessons on the side.

  12. John Q Says:

    That's an interesting question, here's a couple of thoughts on the subject:

    1-Alexander was amazing in 1987. He only pitched 88.1 innings for the Tigers yet had a 3.9WAR with an era+ of 279! He actually finished 4th in the AL Cy Young ballot.

    2-It's not likely that the Tigers would have won the Eastern Division in 1987. The Jays were actually up 3.5 games with only 7 games to go and LOST all 7 games including a pivotal game against Alexander & the Tigers with only 3 games to go. Most likely without Alexander, the Jays would have been up 5-6 games with 7 left to go.

    3-Alexander and the other Tiger starting pitchers were terrible in the 1987 ALCS. Alexander lost both of his games and had a 10.00 era. Morris had a 6.75 era, Tanana had 5.06 era, Terrell had a 9.00 era and relief pitcher Mike Henneman had a 10.8 era.

    4-For all the post-season accolades that Morris receives, somehow his 1987 work is conveniently not included. Blyleven on the other hand is bashed as not being a big time pitcher yet Blyleven won BOTH of his games in the 1987 ALCS.

    5-For some reason Captain Hook (Sparky Anderson) actually kept Alexander in game 1 in the bottom of the 8th up 5-4 after Alexander had already surrendered 4 runs.

    6-Alexander actually screwed the Jays twice. Once in the 1987 regular season and another time when he was pitching for the Jays when he pitched to a 8.71 era against the Royals in the 1985 ALCS.

    7-I think the Jays would have beat the Twins because of the Jays' pitching staff. Key had a 164era+, Clancy 128era+, Steib 111era+, Henke 182era+, and Eichhorn 143era+.

    8-The Braves don't win the 1991 Eastern Division let alone get to the World Series without John Smoltz.

    9-The Pirates probably win the 1991 NLCS against the Dodgers and face the Twins in the ALCS.

    10-The 1992 Braves were strong enough to win without Smoltz and the Reds were 8 games back. But the Braves don't beat the Pirates in the 1992 NLCS without Smoltz so the Pirates win and face the Blue Jays in the series.

    11-The 1993 Braves probably lose the division to the Giants without Smoltz.

    12-The Tigers might be competitive in the 1991 season with Smoltz.

    So other than the Tigers, Jays and Braves this trade had an impact on the Pirates, Dodgers, and the Giants and Barry Bonds.

    Smoltz probably cost Bonds 2 trips to the WS and one playoff appearance.

    Smoltz cost the Pirates 2 WS trips.

  13. MikeD Says:

    What would have happened? That's easy. Under the guidance of Leo Mazzone, Doyle Alexander would have pitched another decade, win two Cy Young Awards, and would be in the discussion as a HOFer. Smoltz would have bounced between the minors and the majors, never quite harnassing his great arm, turning eventually into a middle-inning reliever, before drifting out of baseball in his early 30s.

    I mean, how did everyone miss the obvious answer?!

  14. Don S Says:

    Most people forget the Braves previously had Alexander in 1980 (under Bobby Cox's first stint as manager), with similar ERA, ERA+, H/9, and SO/9 and then traded him to the Giants. I'm a Braves fan since 1974 and even I think the Braves got lucky.

  15. Tmckelv Says:


    I see the dripping sarcasm, but I am not 100% sure why.

    I guess you feel like Mazzone gets too much credit for John Smoltz's success. The general tone of the thread does not emphasize Mazzone (he is mentioned in the original post as one of many points and a couple times in subsequent responses.

    Obviously your first scenario with Alexander is a joke (one that noone would ever, but then you "equate it" (in What IF? terms) to the scenario of Smoltz not ever getting his act together at the major league level in the Tigers system. I believe there are many who believe that could have been possible. For many of the reasons John A outlined above, Smoltz may not have received a legitimate shot with the Tigers and probably wasn't on too many teams' RADAR to pick up if he wasn't great with the Tigers. It is very possible that he did need the trade to get to the level he did (maybe with Mazonne's help or maybe just the fact that there was more chance for him to develop in that system).

  16. DavidRF Says:

    Smoltz was pretty wild in Glens Falls in 1987. Youngest guy on the AA team, though. After the trade, Atlanta rushed him to AAA.

    Doyle Alexander was involved in a similar trade a few years earlier. The Braves gave up Duane Ward to get him. Ward didn't amount to much but its hard to see the Smoltz's from the Ward's in real time. Teams generally don't make these types of trades anymore. Normally, they can get away with it, but in these rare instances they look bad for a couple of decades.

    Doyle Alexander was traded for other big names in his career. He was the only useful player that the Orioles ended up getting when they traded Frank Robinson. Then him and Ken Holtzman were traded in mid-season from Baltimore to the Yankees for Rick Dempsey and Scott McGregor. Rare to see a big trade in mid-season like that between two teams that ended up finishing first and second.

  17. kenh Says:

    The Jays win the AL east, coast through the ALCS and win the WS in 6 games over the Cards. Thus the Canadian Flag is shown on TV being held upside down 5 years earlier. As a result the US and Canada do not sign the Free Trade Agreement of 1988. Tensions rise between nations. Gretzky is not traded in 1988 to the LA Kings and remains an Oiler. The Oilers win the next 11 Stanley cups in a row. Hockey dies in the US. Winnipeg and Quebec keep their teams. Canadian stars like Paul Schaeffer, Jim Carrey and John Candy have their US visas voided and are deported back to Canada. Hollywood cries in protest, "Well, where the hell do you expect us to get comedians from then?" Eventually the US invades Canada securing land in Ontario and Quebec. The city of Toronto is renamed Old York (its former name is York) by President Bush. The news doesn't spread.

    The Jays, with the monkey of 1985 off their back, continue to be competitive in the AL east. Thus the big trade in 1990 does not happen. Fred McGriff, who remains a Jay, haunts the Yankees for the next 13 years causing George many sleepless nights. The Jays thus trade prospect John Olerud to Seattle, his hometown, for some prospect named E. Martinez. The trade also includes Kelly Gruber. Thus his face first slide into home in the 92 WS does not happen. He has a long and productive career. With Alomar not coming to the Jays, Jeff Kent becomes the Jays regular 2B for the next 15 years. The Jays actually make the playoffs in the Division Series era. George's son purchases the Old York Jays causing a family feud. New and Old York battle for the AL east yearly. Bud Selig has a nervous breakdown moderating regularly between George and his son. In a psychotic moment, he purchases the Milwaukee Brewers.

  18. Johnny Twisto Says:

    Duane Ward didn't amount to much

    ?? He was one of the best relievers in baseball for several years. I don't remember why his career ended so abrupty. I assume he got hurt.

    Teams generally don't make these types of trades anymore.

    What type, are you referring to veterans-for-prospects? Seems to me they still happen all the time.

  19. Paul Drye Says:

    @Johnny T.: Ward's arm fell off after the one great season he had stepping into Tom Henke's shoes. Biceps tendinitis says Wikipedia, and I remember him being unable to bounce back in spring training after a whole year off.

  20. John Rumierz Says:

    I worked with John Smoltz' grandfather at Tiger Stadium in 1971, he continually spoke of his infant grandson who would be a great (HoF?) pitcher.
    Inasmuch as Smoltz success was so preordained, the trade was a long term disaster for the Tigers.

  21. Sid Says:

    Smoltz had Mazzone to thank for some of his success, but in the middle of the 1991 season, he saw a sports psychiatrist (I think Jack Llwellwen was his name) to get over some of his mental hang-ups. Before the All-Star break he was 2-10, after meeting regularly with the shrink he goes 13-4.

  22. J. B. Rainsberger Says:

    The Jays had beat Minnesota 11-1 in 1987 in the regular season. I don't know whether Stieb and Key would have shut down the Cardinals' running game enough to beat them.

  23. MikeD Says:

    @15.Tmckelv Says: I see the dripping sarcasm, but I am not 100% sure why. I guess you feel like Mazzone gets too much credit for John Smoltz's success.

    Actually, it was just meant as a quick joke, nothing more. I did not mean it as a knock on Mazzone. There was a time when Mazzone-love was a little crazy, but I think now it's gone the opposite direction because he didn't turn the Baltimore Orioles pitching staff into five HOFers. His resume speaks for itself.

  24. Larry R. Says:


    The Mets were 10-1, I believe, against the Dodgers in '88 and we all know how that turned out. Preordaining a winner in the postseason based on regular season stats is a dangerous endeavor.

  25. Tom Says:

    Tiger fan's wouldn't have to hear about it every. single. year. especially at the trading deadline. lol Oh, and I don't rue the trade I feel it was 100% correct.

  26. Stats Says:

    @ 24

    The Dodgers were 11-1 versus the Phillies during the 1983 regular season. In 1988 the Dodgers figured "if it happened to us in '83 it can happen to the Mets this year." All post-season series start at 0-0.

    The 1987 late season swoon by the Toronto Blue Jays came about because of injuries to Tony Fernandez and Ernie Whitt. We are still waiting for the first all-birds World Series. One of these Octobers the Cardinals will face off against the Blue Jays or Orioles. It probably will happen sometime this century.

  27. Cam Says:

    WHAT IF:
    Alou had caught the Steve Bartman ball in the 2003 NLCS?