February 18, 1999 is a date familiar to many Toronto Blue Jays fans. It is the day that we let the biggest steal in the history of the club go.
15 years ago today, the Toronto Blue Jays traded back-to-back Cy Young award winner Roger Clemens to the New York Yankees in exchange for David Well, Graeme Lloyd, and Homer Bush. However, before we can look at the trade, we have to have a little bit of perspective on Clemens and what brought him to Toronto in the first place.
Clemens signed with Toronto after the 1996 season in what could only be deemed a move of spite. The one-time future Hall of Famer was bitter toward the team, apparently not happy with the fact that then GM Dan Duquette felt Clemens was in the twilight of his career. In turn, Clemens turned down “by far the most money ever offered to a player in the history of the Red Sox franchise” in order to prove that he had many more miles left on his tires. So in the winter of 1996, Clemens signed a 4-year, $40 million deal with the Toronto Blue Jays.
The first two seasons proved it to be a wise investment for Toronto, as Clemens went a combined 41-13 with a 2.33 ERA, a 10.2 K/9 ratio, and a combined bWAR of 20.0. In return, he took home back-to-back Cy Young Awards, winning the award with 96% of the vote in 1997 and unanimously in 1998.
However, his personal success wasn’t enough. The Blue Jays finished 5th in the American League East in 1997 and then followed that up with a 3rd place finish in 1998. Despite the turnaround, Clemens asked for a trade from the Blue Jays. He wasn’t pleased that Toronto’s ownership group, then Interbrew S.A., stood by and watched other spend to get better while opting not to invest in an improving on-field product.
The Blue Jays obliged his request, flipping him to division rival and defending World Series Champions, the New York Yankees.
The return package was underwhelming to say the least. Despite including David Wells who himself finished 3rd in the Cy Young vote in 1998, the remaining package of Homer Bush and Graeme Lloyd was disappointing.
Wells would pitch two seasons in his second stint with the Blue Jays, going a combined 37-18 in the process with a lackluster 4.47 ERA, a 6.5 K/9 ratio, and a combined 7.8 bWAR. But like Clemens before him, Wells wasn’t satisfied with 3rd place finishes and himself requested a trade from Toronto. But let’s not talk about the infamous David Wells for Mike Sirotka trade.
Lloyd, a 32-year-old at the time, was a reliever the Blue Jays relied heavily on in 1999. The 6’8″ lefty appeared in 74 games in ’99, posting a 5-3 record, a 3.63 ERA, and a 5.9 K/9 ratio. However, he required arthroscopic surgery on his pitching shoulder after the season and never appeared in a Blue Jay uniform again.
Homer Bush was a promising second base prospect, but was blocked by Chuck Knoblauch in New York. In his first season with the Blue Jays, he looked to be a solid acquisition. In 128 games in 1999, Bush slashed an impressive .320/.353/.421 while stealing 32 bases on the season. However, hip issues arose and Bush would only appear in 154 games total over the next two seasons, watching his slash-line drop to .259/.302/.317. He would be released midway through the 2002 season.
Meanwhile, there was Roger Clemens.
With two years remaining on his Toronto deal when he arrived in New York, we’ll only torture ourselves with those seasons. Clemens struggled in his first season with the Yankees, posting a 14-10 record with a career-high 4.60 ERA and watched his K/9 drop to 7.8 on the season. He followed that up in 2001 with another rough season, going 13-8 with a 3.70 ERA. However, both seasons resulted in a World Series title for Clemens and the Yankees, his goal all along.
Of his time in Toronto, Clemens only had this to say (h/t CNN/SI):
“It worked out for me,” he said. “It didn’t work out for the team. We didn’t win. That’s the bottom line.”
I guess the same could be said about the trade that sent him to New York. It worked for Clemens. It didn’t work for the Blue Jay.