Hawk Harrelson’s brief tenure as General Manager of the White Sox is considered by many to be a classic case of a mouth writing checks that can’t be cashed. But it is not as disastrous as you might think.
A couple of years ago, I looked back at Hawk Harrelson's brief time as GM. At the time, my conclusion was that he was a good baseball man but a terrible politician. He was empowered by Reinsdorf and Einhorn to make radical changes, but the rest of the organization wasn’t ready for Hawk and his hand grenade approach to management.
Hawk Harrelson the GM will forever be known for three things. Firing Tony LaRussa, trading Bobby Bonilla to the Pirates for Jose DeLeon, and trading for Ivan Calderon.
The Bobby Bonilla deal was a loss for the White Sox, obviously. But it wasn’t as lopsided as you might think.
Bobby Bonilla’s WAR during the time he would have been under White Sox control (1986-1993): 27.7.
Bonilla certainly would have been a much better sight in the Comiskey Park outfield than Gary Redus, Dan Pasqua, Kenny Williams, and Dave Gallagher. But his talents would have pushed the late 80’s White Sox from bad to ... meh.
Plus, there are no guarantees he would put up the same numbers in cavernous Comiskey. Three Rivers Stadium was a much smaller ballpark.
Bonilla was traded to the Pirates for Jose DeLeon. DeLeon was on the South Side for a year and a half. He was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for Lance Johnson and pitcher Ricky Horton. Over the course of their White Sox careers, DeLeon, Horton, and One Dog generated 23.6 WAR.
Yes, the balance is tilted in the favor of the Pirates. But it wasn’t an out-and-out steal.
Speaking of steals, let’s talk about the deal that brought Ivan Calderon to Chicago. The Mariners sent Calderon to Chicago FOR A PLAYER TO BE NAMED LATER!!!!
That player turned out to be Scott Bradley, who was slightly below league average throughout his career.
Calderon, meantime, generated 9.1 WAR for the White Sox between 1986 and 1990. He was traded to the Montreal Expos for Tim Raines…who rolled up an additional 16.4 wins. Hawk was able to generate 25.5 wins for nothing at all.
Let’s revisit the Bobby Bonilla deal for a second. If Bonilla was worth 5 extra wins in 1988, the White Sox would have lost out on history.
The Sox won 71 games in 1988, which meant they got the seventh pick in the 1989 amateur draft. If the Sox won 76 games in ’88, they would have had the ninth or 10th pick the following year ... and they would have missed Frank Thomas. Sure, they could have picked up Chuck Knoblauch or Mo Vaughn, but they would have missed out on a player who will more than likely be voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame as early as next year.
The Thomas selection didn’t set the world on fire in June of ’89. The Baltimore Orioles had the first pick, and they selected Ben McDonald, a pitcher out of LSU. The Tribune was more interested in Simeon High School center fielder Jeffrey Jackson, who was picked fourth by the Philadelphia Phillies.
"The White Sox, choosing seventh, chose Auburn first baseman Frank Thomas."
Scouting director Al Goldis said "He’s strong, with outstanding power, and not that bad defensively."
By September, Thomas was mashing in A-ball in Sarasota. A Tribune rundown of the Sox minor league prospects (which included Robin Ventura, Wilson Alvarez, and Sammy Sosa) noted that Thomas "could use a bit more bat speed."
By July of 1990, Thomas was the hottest player in the Southern League. He was killing the ball in Birmingham, so much so that pitchers refused to pitch to him. From the July 21, 1990 edition of the Tribune:
"….few pitchers at the Double-A level are foolhardy enough to risk their earned-run averages (and subsequently, their chances of being promoted) by giving the former Auburn slugger anything decent to swing at. Thus, the 22-year-old Thomas has accumulated an astounding 104 walks-28 more than major-league leader Randy Milligan of Baltimore, and by far the highest walk total of anyone in the minors."
At the time, there was no doubt he would be called up when rosters expanded in September.
Thomas made his Major League on August 2nd in Milwaukee. He went 0-4, but he drove in the winning run with a fielder’s choice groundout.
He stuck with the Sox, of course. If the Baseball Writers Association of America has any sense, he will be wearing a Sox cap in Cooperstown in the summer of 2014.
Frank Thomas will get to the Hall thanks to his natural (emphasis on natural) baseball talent. But he will go in as a member of the White Sox thanks, in part, to a trade made by Hawk Harrelson three years before.