July 31, 1995: Traded a player to be named later, Dave Tuttle (minors) and C.J. Nitkowski to the Detroit Tigers. Received David Wells. The Cincinnati Reds sent Mark Lewis (November 16, 1995) to the Detroit Tigers to complete the trade.
The Reds had finished the strike-shortened 1994 with the best record in the Central Division, 66-48, one half game ahead of the Astros. The Reds led the league scoring with 5.30 runs per game, and their pitching staff was third in fewest runs scored, allowing 3.78 runs per game…that’s almost a 1 1/2 run per game differential. The Reds were leading the way in 1995, too, with a 6 1/2 game lead over the Astros on July 21st.
The Reds had taken the lead through a strong offense; they finished second in scoring this season behind the Colorado Rockies, but their pitching was allowing about a half run more than the year before. The Reds had outstanding years from two left handed starters, John Smiley and Pete Schourek, but Jose Rijo made only 14 starts due to injury in the last season before his first retirement, and other starting pitchers had fallen on hard times. The Reds used 13 different starting pitchers during the 1995 season, including an aging Frank Viola, and youngsters John Roper and C.J. Nitkowski.
At the time, the Reds had the second largest payroll in the National League and young General Manager Jim Bowden was authorized by owner Marge Schott to pretty much get whatever talent he needed to win a championship. The Reds, smelling a championship, identified that starting pitching was their weakness and Jim Bowden went about solving it. Bowden decided to trade his two best pitching prospects and one of the most exciting players in baseball to ensure the Reds would win the title.
He turned to the San Francisco Giants. Bowden has said that Deion Sanders was one of his family’s favorite players and an exciting player on the field. However, Bowden also realized that Sanders was not a plus defender in centerfield, and the Giants had someone who could help him there. The Giants’ leadoff hitter and centerfielder was Darren Lewis, who, like Sanders, did not hit for power, but was speedy, and Lewis had won a Gold Glove for his centerfield work in 1994. Bowden asked for Lewis, and starting pitcher Mark Portugal, and relief pitcher Dave Burba. The Reds were willing to part with their best pitching prospect, Roper, two hard throwing relievers (lefty Ricky Pickett and righty Scott Service), a hitting prospect (David McCarty), and centerfielder Sanders.
It was a blockbuster deal full of risk and the potential of high rewards. Roper had made 32 big league starts, and had gone 6-2 the previous year with a 4.50 ERA as a 22 year old, but with a low strikeout rate. Pickett was a young lefty reliever who couldn’t find the strike zone. Service had bounced up and down from the minors for almost seven years, always getting called up, but never quite sticking. McCarty was getting close to being considered a “AAAA” player…he could hit in the minors, but the skill didn’t seem to follow him to the majors. Sanders had led the NL with 14 triples in 1992, while having only six doubles, and was a constant stolen base threat.
The Reds received Lewis, who, in turn, had led the NL in triples with nine in 1994. Portugal had been a slow starter as a major leaguer, having won only 11 games in his first four big league seasons. Then he improved his sinker and went 7-1 for the Astros at age 26 in 1989 and he was off and running. He had improved to the point of going 18-4 for the 1993 Astros with a 2.77 ERA. He had won 15 games for the Giants over 1 1/2 seasons before coming to the Reds. Burba had been used primarily in relief for the Giants having appeared in 199 games in about five major league seasons with only 18 of those games being starts. The Reds decided to work him into the rotation, too, along with Portugal.
Portugal was an average pitcher for the Reds. He went 6-5 with a 3.82 ERA over the balance of 1995 and won eight more games in 1996 before leaving for free agency. Portugal won only win 17 more major league games after leaving the Reds.
Burba made 15 appearances for the Reds that season, starting nine. He responded wonderfully, going 6-2 with a career best 3.27 ERA. He became a rotation starter for the next two seasons for the Reds, and for five more seasons for Cleveland and Texas after the Reds traded him for first base prospect, Sean Casey. Burba won 98 games in the majors after Bowden traded for him in 1995. Darren Lewis played this half season with the Reds, batting .245 with only three extra base hits (doubles) before being released at year’s end. He went on to play seven more years with his best season coming with the Red Sox in 1998 when he batted .268 with eight homers.
Things weren’t going so well the week after the trade. The Reds lost five of their next nine games with Portugal not making it through the fourth inning of either of his first two starts. Lewis was demonstrating that he was a .250 hitter with no power who didn’t draw walks, but Burba was pitching well out of the bullpen. Bowden decided it wasn’t enough.
So, for the second time in less than ten days, the Reds traded their best pitching prospect (now that Roper was gone). On July 31, with their lead having shrunk to 4 1/2 games, the Reds traded their first round draft choice from the previous year, C.J. Nitkowski, and a player to be named later, to the Detroit Tigers for lefty starting pitcher, David Wells. Well was 10-3 with a 3.04 ERA at the time. Wells had started his career as a lefty reliever for the Toronto Blue Jays and entered the rotation in his fourth big league year. He had been steadily building a reputation as a quality starter and he was definitely a boost to the Reds rotation. Wells, too, went 6-5 after the trade for the Reds and he had a 3.59 ERA. Wells only pitched the one half season for the Reds before being traded to the Orioles for the less than memorable Curtis Goodwin who spent parts of two seasons with the Reds making Darren Lewis look like a star.
The three new pitchers went 18-12 over the last half of the season with an ERA near 3.50, nearly 20% percent less than the Reds cumulative ERA for the year. The Reds went on to clinch first place, finishing with an 85-59 record and winning the division by nine games over the Astros. The Reds had the second best record in the National League with the Atlanta Braves winning 90. The Reds swept the Dodgers in three games to win the League Division series with Wells and Burba each getting a win in the series and Darren Lewis contributing a home run. However, the Braves then swept the Reds in the League Championship Series as the Braves famed pitching staff held the mighty Reds’ hitters to only five runs in four games.
Looking back, the Reds didn’t give up much in pursuit of the pennant in the rebuilding of their rotation. Roper pitched one more major league inning for his career; Ricky Pickett pitched 2/3 of one inning for his career total. Scott Service did pitch more than additional 250 games with mixed results as a reliever. His career ERA was 4.99. David McCarty played about 400 more big league games and had a career average of .242 with 36 homers. Deion Sanders played well in his half season with Giants, batting .285 with 19 extra base hits, filed for free agency and rejoined the Reds for the last 1 1/2 seasons of his career. Nitkowski pitched in 336 games over 10 seasons, but with a career ERA of 5.37. He became more famous as a baseball blogger writing about the day to day activities of a baseball player. Dave Tuttle pitched nine years in the minors and never made it to the Show. The “player to be named later” in the deal for Wells turned out to be infielder Mark Lewis, who played six more seasons in the majors and was a starting second baseman for three of those years. His lifetime batting average was .263 with 48 homers in 902 games.
As for whom the Reds received, Lewis was released at season’s end, but did play seven more seasons in the majors as a journeyman outfielder. Burba entered the Reds rotation and had two double digit win seasons, and was named the Opening Day starter for the Reds in 1998, only to find he had been traded to the Cleveland Indians hours before he was to start. Mark Portugal another season for the Reds before filing for free agency. Unfortunately, Portugal’s tenure with the Reds may be best remembered by a Marge Schott quote after he lost Game 2 of the 1995 League Championship series to the Braves, giving up four runs in the top of the 10th in a 6-2 loss. The book “Winners” by Dayn Perry has a quote from Schott that says “Three million dollars, he’s not worth a darn.” Once hearing this, Portugal was said to have remarked, “Tell her it’s four million.” For the record, the Reds’ payroll budget was slashed over the next several years, from the second highest in 1995 to one of the lowest by 1999.
The one player who had the most value after the trade was starting pitcher David Wells. Wells was traded after a half season, but only improved his game after leaving the Reds. Wells went on to play 12 more seasons, winning 160 more games and hurling a perfect game. He finished his career with 239 wins and twice finished in the top five for the Cy Young Award balloting. Wells’s trade for outfielder Curtis Goodwin probably qualifies as one of the worst Reds’ trades ever, but was apparently made for budget restraints…and it was a harbinger of Reds’ payroll budget struggles for the next several seasons. Still, it’s hard to argue with the results. The 1995 team was the only team of Jim Bowden’s tenure with the Reds to play in a postseason championship tournament.