Needing a closer, the 1996 Cardinals wanted Dennis Eckersley. What they didn’t want was the obligation to pay his entire salary.
When the Athletics agreed to pay part of the sum and Eckersley agreed to defer much of the rest, the Cardinals agreed to a deal.
Twenty years ago, on Feb. 13, 1996, the Cardinals acquired Eckersley from the Athletics for reliever Steve Montgomery.
Eckerlsey, 41, was under contract to receive $2.2 million in 1996.
To make the trade, all sides agreed to this arrangement: The Athletics would pay him $700,000, the Cardinals would pay him $500,000 and Eckersley would defer $1 million to another year, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
Looking to rebuild after finishing in last place in 1995, the Athletics were eager to grant Eckersley’s request to be traded to St. Louis. Eckersley sought to be reunited with manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan.
Eckersley had been transformed from a starter to a closer by La Russa and Duncan after he was traded to the Athletics by the Cubs in April 1987. With Eckersley reliably sealing wins, the Athletics won three consecutive American League pennants and a World Series title from 1988-90.
Asked about La Russa by Chicago Tribune columnist Jerome Holtzman, Eckersley said, “I respect everything about him.”
Because he had pitched in the big leagues for at least 10 years, including the last five in a row with one club, Eckersley could veto a trade.
“If he goes elsewhere, it’ll be St. Louis,” Athletics general manager Sandy Alderson told columnist Bob Nightengale of The Sporting News. “It won’t be anywhere else.”
La Russa, who left the Athletics after the 1995 season to become manager of the Cardinals, told Rick Hummel of the Post-Dispatch he was “hoping” Eckersley could be acquired by the time training camp opened at St. Petersburg, Fla. Acknowledging that negotiations were held up, La Russa added, “I don’t know if it can happen.”
Eckersley had one of his worst seasons in 1995. Though he earned 29 saves in 38 chances, Eckersley had a 4.83 ERA in 52 appearances. It was his third consecutive season with an ERA above 4.00. From 1988 through 1992, Eckersley had posted ERAs below 3.00 each year.
“Eck has got plenty left physically,” La Russa said. “Mentally and emotionally, he’s still at the top of his game.”
Tom Henke, who had 36 saves and a 1.82 ERA for the 1995 Cardinals, had retired, leaving St. Louis without an established closer.
The Cardinals envisioned Eckersley as a fit for the role while a pair of potential successors, T.J. Mathews and John Frascatore, continued to develop.
After the deal was made, La Russa said, “We’re getting a guy who will be anywhere from good to great as a closer this year.”
Said Eckersley: “To be an effective closer, you have to have a manager who knows how to use you.”
The Athletics reportedly wanted Mathews _ who would be dealt to Oakland a year later for slugger Mark McGwire _ but settled for Montgomery, 25, a prospect who earned 36 saves for manager Mike Ramsey at Class AA Arkansas in 1995.
“This was more to accommodate Dennis than acquire Steve,” Alderson told the San Francisco Chronicle. “… This is what Dennis wanted and, given where we are, this is probably best for us, too.”
Eckersley joined Rick Honeycutt, Mike Gallego and Todd Stottlemyre as the fourth former Athletics player the Cardinals had acquired since La Russa became St. Louis manager.
Eckersley went on to pitch two seasons for the Cardinals. He had 30 saves in 38 chances (0-6 record, 3.30 ERA) in 1996. He followed that with 36 saves in 44 chances (1-5 record, 3.91 ERA) in 1997.
In two years with the Athletics, Montgomery was a combined 1-1 with a 9.45 ERA. He also pitched for the 1999 Phillies and 2000 Padres.