April 5, 1996: Eduardo Perez is traded by the California Angels to the Cincinnati Reds for Will Pennyfeather.

November 10, 1997: Dmitri Young traded by the St. Louis Cardinals to the Cincinnati Reds for Jeff Brantley.

February 5, 1998: Roberto Petagine is traded by the New York Mets to the Cincinnati Reds for Yuri Sanchez (minors).

March 30, 1998: Sean Casey is traded by the Cleveland Indians to the Cincinnati Reds for Dave Burba.

July 4, 1998: Paul Konerko is traded by the Los Angeles Dodgers with Dennys Reyes to the Cincinnati Reds for Jeff Shaw.

November 11, 1998: Paul Konerko is traded by the Cincinnati Reds to the Chicago White Sox for Mike Cameron

December 2, 1998: Roberto Petagine is purchased by Yakult Swallows (Japan Central) from the Cincinnati Reds.

December 14, 1998: Eduardo Perez released by the Cincinnati Reds

December 11, 2001: Dmitri Young traded by the Cincinnati Reds to the Detroit Tigers for Juan Encarnacion and Luis Pineda.

December 8, 2005: Sean Casey is traded by the Cincinnati Reds with cash to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Dave Williams.

The slashing, line-drive slicing bat that belonged to Hal Morris had reached it’s end. In 1997, at age 32, Morris finished the year batting .276 with one home run. A career .305 hitter with the Reds, with some power, Morris’s 1997 was one of the worst offensive years for a Reds’ first baseman, and possibly the worst since Pete Rose’s last seasons with the Reds in 1985 and 1986.

Morris shared time at first base in 1997 with Eduardo Perez, who provided some of the most pop (.253, 16 home runs in 330 plate appearances) at first base since his father, Hall of Famer Tony Perez manned first base back in the 1970’s. In fact, atypical of most teams’ first basemen, only one Red since Tony Perez’s 1975 had hit as many as 20 home runs, and that was one season from Nick Esasky in 1987, when he hit .272 with 22 home runs in 378 plate appearances. Esasky’s 22 homers marked the only time between 1975 and 1999 that a Reds’ first baseman hit as many as 20 home runs. Sean Casey hit 25 in 1999, 20 in 2004, and 24 in 2004, but he wasn’t known as a power hitting first baseman in the traditional sense either (130 lifetime homers in 12 seasons). Joey Votto hit 24 in 2008, too, and has 17 so far in 2009.

The Reds’ offense had declined nearly a full run per game (127 fewer runs) from 1998 to 1997. Reds’ General Manager Jim Bowden went looking for offense from a new first baseman, and true to Bowden’s form, he found more than one. Just as Bowden became known for trying out lots of pitchers every spring training, he went and collected a bunch of young hitters.

Jeff Brantley had one of the best seasons as a Reds closer in 1996, leading the league with 44 saves, allowing less than 6.8 hits per nine innings and posting a 2.41 ERA. Bowden signed him to an $8.4 million three year contract extension and Brantley got hurt, only pitching in 13 games for 1997. In November he was traded to the Cardinals for 1b Dmitri Young, coming off a 23 year old season batting .258 with five homers and a .698 OPS. The Cardinals had Mark McGwire at 1b and a crowded outfield of Ron Gant, Brian Jordan, and Ray Lankford leaving Young no place to play.

In Februrary, Bowden decided to take a flyer on Roberto Petagine, a Mets minor league first baseman who had twice been named MVP for different minor leagues (1993 for AA Texas League and 1997 AAA International League, the link here is biographical, not statistical information). Petagine was coming off a AAA season where he hit .317 with 31 homers and 100 rbi, and had a .431 OBP and an OPS of 1035. However, Petagine had not hit at the big league level, batting .216 over parts of four seasons and 291 plate appearances. A favorite of the new found voice of the “sabermetric” community, statistical analysts felt that Petagine just needed more of an oppotunity, while many scouts had considered him a “AAAA” player, one who would feast on minor league pitching but could not succeed at the major league level. He was sent to AAA Indianapolis to start the year.

Eduardo Perez was in his third season as a Red, having played part-time the previous two years after being acquired from the California Angels after the 1995 season for Will Pennyfeather. He had put some impressive power numbers the previous year with the Reds, but his highest batting average to date was .253 with .796 being his highest OPS in five seasons. He started eight of the first nine Reds games of 1998 and went 6-35. He played sporadically as a substitute the rest of the year and finished the season batting .238 with four home runs.

The Reds were set to start the season with Perez/Young at 1B, and an outfield of Reggie Sanders, Jon Nunnally, Chris Stynes, and some other castoffs from which Bowden and manager Jack McKeon were trying to piece together a team. The Reds’ payroll had been drastically cut, going from the second largest in the National League in 1995 to one of the smallest by 1999, with 1998 being a transition year. The Reds needed more offense so they went to the Cleveland Indians and found a young line drive hitting 23 year old first baseman named Sean Casey, who was stuck behind two young power hitters in Jim Thome and Richie Sexson in Cleveland. Thome was 26, Sexson 23, and Russell Branyan, 22, was also coming through the Indians’ system at the time. Bowden pulled a shocker by trading designated opening day starter, Dave Burba, and his $2.8 million salary to the Indians on March 30, the day before opening day. No one was surprised more than Burba, who the Reds had converted to a starting pitcher, had grown up a Reds fan in Dayton, Ohio, was had been named to his first opening day assignment.

Casey had a career minor league batting average of over .340 and was expected to hit, but had an injury filled minor league career. In Casey’s second game he was hit in the face by a ball and went on the DL. Upon his return, he was placed in the starting line up and didn’t hit. After going 3-4 in his first game back, Casey was 2-32 for the rest of May and was sent down to Indianapolis. He batted .326 (only one homer) for AAA Indianapolis and was called back up to stay in June.

Chris Stynes was not hitting well (finished the year .254, six homers, .323 OBP), Casey was in AAA, and McKeon was trying to put together other combinations of lineups to give the Reds some offense (run production improved by 99 over 1997), Bowden pulled another huge, surprising deal, especially surprising to the Reds only named all-star performer of the year, closer Jeff Shaw. Shaw had been signed off the scrap heap in the winter of 1996 and had pitched so well for the Reds, he had been named their closer and led the NL with 42 saves in 1997. Also having grown up near Cincinnati, he signed a “hometown discount” contract with the Reds for $650,000 to play near his home, but did not mandate a no-trade contract. His performance made him high in demand and he was traded during the all-star break to the Los Angeles Dodgers for a young slugging first baseman, Paulk Konerko, and a young left handed pitcher, Dennys Reyes. Shaw’s first appearance in a Dodger uniform was in the all-star game itself (Bret Boone was later named as an injury replacement to the all-star team and represented the Reds.)

Konerko was the traditional “slugging” first baseman and probably the Dodgers’ top prospect at the time. He had been named the 1997 Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year and the Pacific Coast League MVP as 21 year old after batting .323 with 37 homers, 123 rbi, and a 1.028 OPS. It was his second straight minor league season of 30+ homers. Reyes was a promising 21 year old starting lefthander, and it appeared that this was a major trade victory for Bowden and long term Cincinnati Reds plans.

Konerko and Reyes had both started the season poorly for the Dodgers. Reyes was 0-4 in 11 games with a 4.54 ERA and Konerko was hitting .215 with four homers. Konerko, like Casey, was caught in a logjam: the Dodgers had Eric Karros at 1b and he had shared time with 19 year old Adrian Beltre at 3b. With the Reds, Konerko did not fare any better. After being told he would get lots of opportunties to play with the Reds, but not sure whether it would be 1b, 3b, or the OF (Casey had just been recalled, too) he got three hits in his second start as a Red. Konerko then went 6-47 the rest of July and found himself in Indianapolis, and he was none too happy. The Reds and McKeon thought Konerko would get a confidence boost hitting in AAA, since it had seemed to work with Casey. Konerko didn’t think so…in fact, he was quite vocal about his demotion, saying he just needed time and that the hits would come. Reyes was also sent to Indianapolis and was recalled after four starts. Konerko hit .327 for Indianapolis with eight homers (.942 OPS), but would’t come back to the Reds until the September roster expansions. While with the Reds in July, Konerko had played mostly at 3b, replacing Willie Greene and Pokey Reese, with Casey playing 1b. When Konerko was sent down, Aaron Boone had been called up and batted .282 with two homers. When Konerko was recalled in September, McKeon had announced that all September callups would be used sparingly. Konerko had four starts at 1b during September and was traded in the offseason to the Chicago White Sox for a needed centerfielder, Mike Cameron. When asked why Konerko was traded, Bowden announced that Konerko had a degenerative hip condition which had the Reds concerned about how long his career would actually allow him to play.

Petagine was recalled in October, but the career first baseman spent most of his time in RF as the Reds had committed themselves to Casey at 1b. Petagine had had another fantastic AAA season and was again named the International League MVP, this time batting .331 with 24 homers, 109 rbi, a .436 OBP, a .631 SLP, and an OPS of 1.053. With the Reds, Petagine got 79 plate appearances, batting .258 with 3 homers and 16 walks giving him a .405 OBP and an OPS of 873. He was sold to the Japanese Central League Yakult Swallows. The sales contract was so large that Major League Baseball had to approve it and was one of the Reds’ major offseason transactions.

Meanwhile, Casey had started to hit. He batted .316 (.915 OPS) for July, .305 for August and then .275 for September. He hit seven home runs over this time, finished the season batting .272, and “the Mayor” had already began endearing himself to everyone. Aaron Boone’s hustling style at 3B made him a fan favorite, and Dmitri Young hit consistently all year long, finding a home in the Reds’ outfield. Young finished the season batting .310 with 14 homers.

So, did McKeon make the right choice? Casey became a local hero; everybody loves him and he’s quite the hitter. His best season came in 1999 when the Reds came within one game of the postseason, losing the season tie-breaker to Mets. That year Casey batted .332 with 25 homers, 99 rbi, and an OPS of .938. He batted over .300 five different seasons with the Reds, hit 20 or more homers three times with the Reds, and drove in 99 runs twice (never making it to 100). He was named to three all-star teams. He was traded to the Pirates for lefty pitcher David Williams after the 2005 season (age 30), and then traded to the Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox from which he retired following the 2008 season. He finished his career with a .302 batting average, 130 home runs, 735 rbi.

Dmitri Young remained with the Reds for four years, all in the outfield. Young hit over .300 in each of his four seasons with the Reds, and was traded after his 21 home run season in 2001, his first season to surpass 20 homers. He was traded to the Detroit Tigers for outfielder Juan Encarnacion and relief pitcher, Luis Pineda. Young spent five seasons with the Tigers before being released amidst some personal issues. He spent the 2007 and 2008 with the Washington Nationals, batting .320 and being named to the all-star team in 2007. He has not played in 2009.

Eduardo Perez ended up playing 13 years in the big leagues compiling a .247 batting average with 79 home runs and 294 rbi. He played for six different major league teams. His best season was 2003 when he batted .285 with 11 homers for the Cardinals putting up an .843 OPS. He had signed with the Cardinals after the Reds allowed him to file free agency after the 1998 season.

Roberto Petagine went to Japan and became of their biggest stars. He won three Gold Gloves for his fielding prowess at 1b, won two home run titles, and yet another MVP award. In 2003-04, Petagine was Japan’s highest paid player and was acquired by the Yomiuri Giants to take the place of Hideki Matsui who had signed with the New York Yankees. He had to learn the outfield while with Yomiuri due to the presence of another Japanese League legend, Kazuhiro Kiyohara, who retired after the 2008 season with a career total of 525 home runs. As for Petagine, he hit .317 with 223 home runs and 594 rbi in 756 games.

Petagine made one more attempt to play in the United States. Before the 2005 season, he left his status in Japan to sign a minor league contract with the Boston Red Sox. He underwent knee surgery in spring training and missed the opening of the season. He again tore up the International League, batting .327 with 20 home runs and 69 rbi in 74 games and a 1.088 OPS before being recalled in August by the Red Sox. He batted .281 with one homer and nine rbi in 36 plate appearances. Released by the Red Sox, he signed with the Seattle Mariners, but only hit .185 in 32 plate appearances before being released, his final major league average being .227 with 12 homers, and a .345 OBP in 438 plate appearances. He played 38 games in the Mexican League in 2008 and batted .372. a .488 OBP, .605 SLP, and a 1.092 OPS.

Konerko is the only one still playing at this time. As the “captain” of the Chicago White Sox, at age 33, he’s currently batting .288 with 21 homers and 70 rbi. For the White Sox, he’s hit 20 or more homers in 10 of his 11 seasons (one year he had 18), with a high of 41 in 2004, followed by 40 in 2003. He’s hit over .300 twice in his career, has had 100 or more rbi four times and 99 one other year. He’s been named to three all-star teams, and finished sixth in the MVP balloting in 2005. He has a career batting average of .278 with 319 career home runs, and 1027 rbi.

All four players have been stars in their own right. Konerko, Casey, and Young were all named to more than one all-star team; Petagine has been a star and MVP nearly everywhere he’s played…except for the American Major Leagues (fyi….baseball historian Bill James says that the quality of baseball in Japan is now near Major League level). Casey, Young, and Petagine were all line drive hitters, Konerko is more of the traditional slugger. Konerko, he of the “degenerative hip condition,” is the only one still playing…probably due to his “old player” home run skills. Casey and Konerko have both been instrumental in quality Major League baseball teams.

There was a lot of talent built into one position for those 1998 Reds. Petagine cost the Reds a minor leaguer to acquire and they sold him for a substantial amount of cash. Young cost the Reds Brantley, who was about done, and netted them Juan Encarnacion, Pineda, and four quality years of play. Konerko (and Reyes) cost the Reds four quality years of Jeff Shaw, netted them Ken Griffey, Jr., (through Mike Cameron), but he’s still playing. Aaron Boone, Konerko’s other competition at 3b, played through last year and finished his career batting .264 with 126 home runs. Casey cost them a starting pitcher (Burba), netted them a minor league starter (Williams), but gave the Reds eight years of solid baseball.

It’s hard to say what would have happened had other decisions been made and it all played out differently.