A fire sale occurs when a team dumps payroll by trading away many or all of its expensive players in return for marginal players or prospects. This is usually done when a team feels that it is in a financial crunch, or that it has gone as far as it can with the current group of players and wants to start over with cheaper younger players.
The term comes from the late 19th century when merchants, claiming goods were damaged by fire, would sell them off quickly to raise capital. Now it refers to any sale at a deep discount to raise money.
1933 Philadelphia Athletics
Owner/Manager Connie Mack put the Philadelphia Athletics through a fire sale following the 1933 season. On December 12, he traded Mickey Cochrane to the Detroit Tigers for Johnny Pasek and $100,000 and then traded Pasek and former 20-game winner George Earnshaw to the Chicago White Sox for Charlie Berry and $20,000. On the same day he traded another future Hall of Famer, sending Lefty Grove, Max Bishop and Rube Walberg to the Boston Red Sox for Rabbit Warstler, Bob Kline and $125,000. That fateful day became known as "Black Tuesday" in Philadelphia.
The late 1970s Oakland Athletics
Some consider the 1976 Athletics to have undergone a major fire sale. A big difference, between this and most fire sales was that the A's lost most of their players to free agency rather than trades. After the 1976 season the A's lost Gene Tenace, Rollie Fingers, Sal Bando, Joe Rudi, Don Baylor and Bert Campaneris to free agency. This, combined with the loss of Catfish Hunter two years earlier and the trade of Reggie Jackson and Ken Holtzman to the Baltimore Orioles for Mike Torrez, Paul Mitchell and Baylor, stripped the team of almost all of the talent from the 1972-1974 World Series-winning teams. The final nail in the coffin was the trade of pitcher Vida Blue to the San Francisco Giants for 7 players and $300,000 just before the start of the 1978 season.
The Cincinnati Reds, much like the Oakland Athletics, were a powerhouse in the 1970s. But in the early 1980s GM Dick Wagner decided the team had gotten too old and it was time for some changes. The Reds had the best record in the National League during the strike-shortened 1981 season, but missed the post-season because of the playoff format. After the season, the Reds traded three of their best players as they sent Ray Knight to the Houston Astros for Cesar Cedeno, Ken Griffey to the New York Yankees for Fred Toliver and Brian Ryder, and George Foster to the New York Mets for Alex Trevino, Jim Kern and Greg Harris. Also that winter, outfielder Dave Collins left as a free agent to the Yankees. The following off-season, they completed the fire sale by trading Tom Seaver back to the New York Mets for Charlie Puleo, Lloyd McClendon and Jason Felice. All told, between 1979 and 1982 the Reds lost two Hall of Famers (Seaver & Joe Morgan) and Pete Rose. Following Johnny Bench's retirement after the 1983 season, Dave Concepcion was the last member of the Big Red Machine still in Cincinnati, while the team finished at the bottom of the National League West standings in 1982 and 1983.
1992-1993 San Diego Padres
The San Diego Padres went through a fire sale in the early 1990s. After finishing third in the NL West in 1992, the team decided to start over. They began by allowing Randy Myers to sign with the Chicago Cubs and Benito Santiago to sign with the Florida Marlins. Before spring training, they had traded Tony Fernandez to the New York Mets for Wally Whitehurst, D.J. Dozier and Raul Casanova and Darrin Jackson to the Toronto Blue Jays for Derek Bell and Stoney Briggs. The fire sale was completed during the 1993 season when they made three big in-season trades. First, on June 24, they sent Gary Sheffield and Rich Rodriguez to the Florida Marlins for Trevor Hoffman, Jose Martinez and Andres Berumen. Then on July 18, they traded Fred McGriff to the Atlanta Braves for Melvin Nieves, Donnie Elliott and Vince Moore. Finally on July 26, they moved Bruce Hurst and Greg Harris to the Colorado Rockies for Brad Ausmus, Andy Ashby and Doug Bochtler. Both Hoffman and Ashby would go on to be major contributors for the 1998 National League Champions Padres, but in the meantime, San Diego dropped like a rock in the NL West standings.
1990s Montreal Expos
The Montreal Expos were in an almost constant fire sale from 1995 to 1998. Following the 1994 strike, owner Claude Brochu decided that the team could not be competitive under Major League Baseball's current financial system and ordered general manager Kevin Malone to cut payroll by not offering salary arbitration to All-Star outfielder Larry Walker, who signed a free agent contract with Colorado without the Expos receiving any compensation, and by trading the team's more expensive players. The fire sale itself started in April of 1995, right after the settlement of the strike. On April 5, Malone traded John Wetteland to the New York Yankees for Fernando Seguignol, and Ken Hill to the St. Louis Cardinals for Kirk Bullinger, Bryan Eversgerd and Da Rond Stovall. The next day the Expos sent outfielder Marquis Grissom to the Atlanta Braves for Tony Tarasco, Roberto Kelly and Esteban Yan.
Before the 1996 season began, the team had moved Sean Berry to the Houston Astros and Wil Cordero to the Boston Red Sox; Rheal Cormier and Dave Veres were the only players of real value acquired in the deals, yet the Expos managed to remain competitive during the season, only dropping out of the wild card race in the last few days of September. After that season, they traded pitcher Jeff Fassero to Seattle, and outfielder Moises Alou left for the Florida Marlins while Mel Rojas joined the Chicago Cubs via free agency.
Finally after the 1997 season, general manager Jim Beattie stripped the cupboard bare by allowing Darrin Fletcher to leave as a free agent and trading Mike Lansing, Henry Rodriguez and Pedro Martinez. They traded their last veterans of value on July 31st 1998, sending Carlos Perez and Mark Grudzielanek to the Los Angeles Dodgers. These trades, though, brought in a signifcant amount of young talent, although much of it was years away from contributing at the major league level. Between November 1997 and July 1998, the Expos acquired Jake Westbrook, Carl Pavano, Tony Armas, Miguel Batista and Ted Lilly who all later found success in the majors. In the meantime, however, the Expos were no longer competitive on the field, and attendance in Montreal fell significantly starting in 1997, never to recover. By 2001, the team was on the block for contraction, and three years later, it moved to Washington, DC, where it became the Washington Nationals.
1997 Chicago White Sox
The Chicago White Sox had a very quick fire sale in 1997. Making four trades in less than a month the team moved six veterans to playoff contenders. This was very controversal as the team was only 3 games out of first place when the trades began. The first move was sending DH Harold Baines to the Baltimore Orioles for minor leaguer Juan Bautista. The next move was the infamous White Flag Trade as the team moved its top three pitchers, Danny Darwin, Wilson Alvarez and Roberto Hernández, to the San Francisco Giants for six prospects: Lorenzo Barcelo, Mike Caruso, Keith Foulke, Bobby Howry, Brian Manning and Ken Vining. In waiver trades, the team then sent Tony Pena to the Houston Astros and Darren Lewis to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Post 1997 Florida Marlins
Before the 1997 season the Florida Marlins spent top dollar to bring in the best free agents in baseball to help the team win a championship. The plan worked as the Marlins beat the Cleveland Indians in 7 games to win the 1997 World Series. But just weeks after securing the title, the team began to move many of its stars in order to cut payroll after claiming it lost money in 1997. Of course, a title normally brings in an attendance and revenue bump the following season, but by acting like they did, the Marlins poisoned the well and ensured that wouldn't happen. In November, the team moved Moises Alou to the Houston Astros, Robb Nen to the San Francisco Giants, Devon White to the Arizona Diamondbacks, Jeff Conine to the Kansas City Royals, and Ed Vosberg to the San Diego Padres. In December, Kevin Brown also went to the Padres, while Dennis Cook was sent to the New York Mets. In February, they sent Al Leiter to the Mets also. Despite the number of trades made, the only prospects of worth acquired were P A.J. Burnett (in the Leiter deal) and 1B Derrek Lee (in the Brown deal).
The trades continued into the 1998 season. In one of the biggest trades in baseball history, on May 14th, the Marlins sent Charles Johnson, Gary Sheffield, Bobby Bonilla, Jim Eisenreich and Manuel Barrios to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile. Just 8 days later, the Marlins sent Piazza to the New York Mets for Preston Wilson, Ed Yarnall and Geoff Goetz. In July, Zeile was in turn sent to the Texas Rangers for two low-level minor leaguers, Jose Santos and Daniel DeYoung, and they sent Felix Heredia to the Chicago Cubs. After the 1998 season, the Marlins sent World Series hero Edgar Renteria to the St. Louis Cardinals for Pablo Ozuna, Braden Looper and Armando Almanza. The result of all the deals was that the Marlins went from 92-70 in 1997 to a horrendous 54-108 in 1998. Things got so ridiculous that on May 18th a group of season ticket holders filed a class action suit against the team for breach of contract and false advertising.
The Marlins were able to make the best out of a bad situation though. They traded three pitchers received in trades, Yarnall, Mark J. Johnson (from the Astros in Alou trade) and Todd Noel (from the Cubs in the Heredia trade) to the New York Yankees for Mike Lowell. They used the #2 overall pick in the 1999 amateur draft, which they got for their horrid 1998 season, on Josh Beckett. Both would be key figures in securing the Marlins' second championship, in 2003. However, the cynical move made it impossible to recapture a fan base that felt burned and abused.
Post 2005 Florida Marlins
Led by stars picked up in 1997 fire sale, Derrek Lee, A.J. Burnett and Braden Looper, and after it - Mike Lowell, Josh Beckett, Juan Pierre (picked up in trade for Preston Wilson) - the Marlins won a second World Series in 2003 by beating the New York Yankees in six games. There were slight tweaks to the team over the next two years as they traded away Lee, Mark Redman and Brad Penny and lost Carl Pavano and Ivan Rodriguez to free agency.
But the team began a full blown fire sale after the 2005 season. They let Burnett, Todd Jones, Antonio Alfonseca, Jeff Conine and Juan Encarnacion leave as free agents. They then traded Carlos Delgado and Paul Lo Duca to the New York Mets in two separate deals that brought in prospects Mike Jacobs and Yusmeiro Petit. On the same day as the Delgado deal, they also sent Lowell, Beckett and Guillermo Mota to the Boston Red Sox for future Rookie of the Year Hanley Ramirez, Anibal Sanchez (who threw a no-hitter in 2006), Harvey Garcia and Jesus Delgado. Just days after that deal, second baseman Luis Castillo was sent to the Minnesota Twins for Travis Bowyer and Scott Tyler. For his part, outfielder Pierre was then sent to the Chicago Cubs for Sergio Mitre, Ricky Nolasco and Renyel Pinto.
Despite these deals, or maybe because of them, the Marlins actually contended for most of the 2006 season before a late slump dropped them below .500. They are the only team in MLB history to have been 20 games under .500 at one point in the season but still finish with a winning record.
2009 Seoul Heroes
The Seoul Heroes had tried trading a couple of star players in 2008 and 2009, but had been banned by the Korea Baseball Organization because they had never paid off their league entry fees. On December 30, 2009, they worked out three deals netting them cash which went to pay off these fees, while robbing the team of its top talent. Going away were star outfielder Taek-keun Lee and hurlers Hyun-seung Lee and Won-sam Jang, all to separate teams.
2012 Miami Marlins
The Marlins changed their name and got a new ballpark for the 2012 season, but were unable to change their ways. A free agent spending spree similar to their 1997 offseason had brought in Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell. The club was also in contention for free agents Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder but their policy of not giving no-trade clauses turned both players off. The first basemen would have their doubts about the Marlins ownership and their long term plans confirmed. Despite their new players, name, stadium and look, the team stumbled out of the gate and was in 4th place on July 24th when the first move was made. The Marlins moved pitcher Anibal Sanchez, infielder Omar Infante and a Round A compensation pick in the 2013 Amateur Draft (39th overall used on Corey Knebel) to the Detroit Tigers for minor leaguers Jacob Turner, Brian Flynn, Rob Brantly and a Round B compensation pick the 2013 draft (73rd overall used on Colby Suggs). Two days later, three-time All-Star shortstop Hanley Ramirez (who had been moved to third base to make room for Reyes) and reliever Randy Choate were sent to the Los Angeles Dodgers for pitchers Nathan Eovaldi and Scott McGough. At the July 31st trading deadline the Marlins made two deals sending Edward Mujica to the St. Louis Cardinals for Zack Cox and then trading Gaby Sanchez and Kyle Kaminska to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Gorkys Hernandez and another Round A compensation Pick in 2013 (35th overall used on Matt Krook). Once the offseason began the Marlins kept making moves sending closer Heath Bell to the Arizona Diamondbacks in a three-team deal that netted them Yordy Cabrera from the Oakland Athletics. In November the Fish made their biggest trade sending Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, John Buck and Emilio Bonifacio to the Toronto Blue Jays for Yunel Escobar, Adeiny Hechavarria, Henderson Alvarez, Jeff Mathis, Justin Nicolino, Anthony Desclafani and Jake Marisnick. Escobar wouldn't even last the offseason with Miami before being sent up to the Tampa Bay Rays for Derek Dietrich. The Marlins saw their opening day payroll go from $93.7 million in 2012 to $38.1 million in 2013.
2018 Miami Marlins
Following the sale of the Marlins by Jeffrey Loria to Bruce Sherman and the installation of Derek Jeter as team president, after the 2017 season, there was some hope that the Miami franchise was about to turn a new leaf and make a serious effort at putting a competitive product on the field in order to rebuild its fan base's shattered confidence. Alas, this hope was very short-lived, as the new management team quickly sent out the word that they were looking to cut payroll as the team was supposedly losing money badly. The fire sale started with a trade of 2B Dee Gordon to the Seattle Mariners, which netted a few second-tier prospects, and was followed by a veritable auction for the services of their most valuable asset, OF Giancarlo Stanton, who was coming off winning the 2017 National League Most Valuable Player Award. The New York Yankees and their bottomless pockets came out on top, snagging the slugger in return for 2B Starlin Castro and two prospects in the lower minors. Next to go was Stanton's fellow All-Star in the outfield, Marcell Ozuna, who was sent to the St. Louis Cardinals, who had bid unsuccessfully for Stanton. The deal netted Miami more minor league players of dubious value. They also released P Edinson Volquez, who was expected to miss the first half of the season after Tommy John surgery. Agent Scott Boras compared the team to a "pawn shop", expressing dismay that the sale to Sherman had been allowed by MLB owners with no guarantee that he was willing to invest in the on-field product. After a break over the holidays, the Marlins were back at it on January 25th when they traded the third member of their outstanding outfield, RF Christian Yelich, to the Milwaukee Brewers in return for four prospects. In the meantime, Starlin Castro had made it clear that he wanted out, since joining a rebuilding team likely to struggle badly in 2018 was not part of his career plan. The purge reached another level of absurdity in February, when it was learned that, in another cost-cutting move, the Marlins had fired the person who had been playing the role of mascot Billy the Marlin for the past 14 years. To no one's surprise, the Marlins finished the year in last place with terrible attendance.
2018 Baltimore Orioles
The Orioles headed into the 2018 season uncertain whether they were still a contender, in spite of having finished last in the AL East the previous season. On-field results quickly demonstrated that contention was out of the question, as they were instead threatening the franchise record for most losses in a season. With the trading deadline approaching, the front office decided to clean house. In the span of a few days, they traded veteran SS Manny Machado, their lone All-Star, 2B Jonathan Schoop and Ps Brad Brach, Zach Britton, Kevin Gausman and Darren O'Day, netting a total of 17 players in return with only IF Jonathan Villar having any significant major league experience. They also attempted to trade CF Adam Jones, but he vetoed a deal as was his right as a 10-5 player, i.e. one who had ten years of major league experience, including the past five with the same team. The only veterans which the Orioles retained were those who were basically unmovable because of bad contracts, such as underperforming 1B Chris Davis. To no one's surprise, the Orioles did set a new franchise record for losses, finishing at 47-115, a whopping 61 games behind the first-place Boston Red Sox.
2019 Seattle Mariners
Following a disappointing 2018 season that saw the Mariners extend their major-league longest run of seasons without a postseason appearance, after wasting a good start, the Mariners decided to change tack in the off-season. In the span of a couple of weeks in November and December 2018, they unloaded a bunch of veterans, the most prominent of which were Ps James Paxton, Alex Colome, Edwin Diaz, James Pazos and Juan Nicasio, C Mike Zunino, 2B Robinson Cano and SS Jean Segura. The return consisted largely of prospects, although in order to move Cano and his huge contract, Seattle was forced to also take on a couple of unwanted bad contracts from the New York Mets in OF Jay Bruce and P Anthony Swarzak and the Philadelphia Phillies in Carlos Santana. Santana was himself traded a few days later for Edwin Encarnacion, who was unlikely to gather much moss in Seattle either. But it was clear these players were only there for the short term too. Once the dust had settled, it was apparent to everyone that the playoff drought was going to last a few more seasons. At least, the incoming talent included some promising young players, such as Justus Sheffield, Jarred Kelenic, Justin Dunn and J.P. Crawford, thus distinguishing the M's from the 2018 Orioles (see above), who had not really acquired any youngsters considered to be top-notch prospects when they had proceeded with a similar dismantling a few months earlier. Somehow, the Mariners managed to start the 2019 season strong, but it was just a blip, and soon they were busy trading some of the veterans that had landed on their lap during the off-season, with Swarzak, Bruce and Encarnacion all being traded to contenders before mid-June.
2021 Chicago Cubs
Heading into the season, it was clear that this would be the last chance for the Cubs to recapture the magic of their historic World Series victory in 2016, as many of their key players were set to become free agents after the season, and would cost too much to be retained. Early on, it looked like the Cubs might pull off a final hurrah - they were the defending NL Central champions after all - but things started to tumble out of control with a protracted losing streak in mid-June and by the All-Star break, it was clear that they would not contend. They then began a massive offload of experienced players, in return for a load of prospects to patch up a farm system that had been neglected in recent years. LF Joc Pederson was sent away to Atlanta just after the All-Star Game, then things got rolling in earnest a week later. Relievers Andrew Chafin and Ryan Tepera were next to go, followed on July 29th by 1B Anthony Rizzo, who headed to the Yankees, and on July 30th, the trading deadline that year, they were joined by 3B Kris Bryant, SS Javier Baez, OF Jake Marisnick, P Trevor Williams and closer Craig Kimbrel, while the Cubs were left with a shell of a team at the major league level for the final two months. The most recognizable name coming back in these deals was 2B Nick Madrigal, from the Chicago White Sox in the Kimbrel deal - but he was out for the year with an injury.
2021 Washington Nationals
At the same time as the Cubs were busy clearing house, the Nationals, just a year and half removed from winning the 2019 World Series, were doing the same. They became the first team to trade three players who were All-Stars before the end of the season. In their case, it was P Max Scherzer and SS Trea Turner, who were sent to the Dodgers in a trade netting four prospects, and OF Kyle Schwarber, who went to Boston Red Sox. They completed the housecleaning by dealing various and sundry veterans, including C Yan Gomes and 2B Josh Harrison, who went to Oakland, closer Brad Hand, set-up man Daniel Hudson and SP Jon Lester. In contrast with the Cubs, there was a bit more return in terms of prospects, as the objective was to build around the few remaining pieces - mainly OFs Juan Soto and Victor Robles.
- Zach Crizer: "Why the Cubs and Nationals fire sales are signs of a new type of rebuild in MLB", Yahoo! Sports, August 2, 2021.