Few trades have the long-lasting impact of the Paul Konerko-for-Mike Cameron trade of 1998. The White Sox received a franchise cornerstone in the deal, but at what cost?
Twelve years later, Konerko's future is still in Chicago.
Konerko's whirlwind route to the Windy City began with a trade that sent him and Dennys Reyes from Los Angeles to Cincinnati for reliever Jeff Shaw on July 4, 1998. The deal was a head-scratcher for both teams, as the Dodgers dealt away a top prospect in Konerko for an aging relief pitcher. And the Reds already had a blue-chip corner infield prospect in Sean Casey.
With his days as a catcher behind him and Casey blocking him at first base, Konerko played third base and left field for the Reds. But a demotion to Triple-A a few weeks after coming to Cincinnati disappointed Konerko, and following the conclusion of the 1998 season Konerko and his agent pushed the Reds to make a trade.
The Reds weren't without suitors for the powerful prospect, either (via the Dayton Daily News' archive):
Topping the talks is the report that New York Mets catcher Todd Hundley would like to play for the Reds. With the Mets putting together a seven-year $90 million package for catcher Mike Piazza, Hundley wants out of New York and reportedly told his agent, Seth Levinson, that he'd like to play in Cincinnati. Rodgers said he met Levinson and Hundley informally over the weekend in New York, but wasn't aware of Hundley's desire.
The Mets, as are many teams, are interested in first baseman/outfielder Paul Konerko and the Reds could offer a Konerko/Reggie Sanders package for Hundley.
Konerko's agent, Tom Reich, reportedly is pushing for the Reds to trade his client, who has not established a position with the Reds. Boston and Tampa Bay also have inquired about Konerko, sources told The Dayton Daily News , with the Devil Rays offering Randy Winn, a speedy outfielder. The Reds are more inclined to ask for pitcher Tony Saunders and would add pitcher Mike Remlinger into the deal.
The Reds are seeking a top-line center fielder and pitching and would like to work something out with the Chicago White Sox to obtain center fielder Mike Cameron.
About three weeks after the legendary Hal McCoy penned his article, the Reds and White Sox swapped Konerko for Cameron. But it hardly was as clean and simple as that.
There was speculation Konerko came to Chicago as damaged goods. From an article by Teddy Greenstein in the Chicago Tribune Nov. 16, 1998:
the 22-year-old first baseman, who was obtained by the White Sox last week in a trade with Cincinnati, disputed reports that he has a hip condition that could threaten his career.
"My hips don't hurt at all. It's just the way the bones are structured," Konerko said Sunday. "They're no better or worse than they were four years ago. And they won't be better or worse four years from now.
"Look, if I had perfect hips, I still wouldn't be stealing 20 or 30 bases (a year). The hips are the least of my problems."
Not everyone is so sure. Peter Gammons' weekly column in the Boston Globe stated that "as (Dodgers Vice President) Tommy Lasorda knows, the slow-footed Konerko has a hip problem that may not be curable."
Greenstein reported Schueler wasn't concerned with Konerko's hip, although if he were he could nullify the trade. Twelve years later, Konerko's hip had yet to lead him to miss a game.
To obtain Konerko, the Sox—in theory—sold low on Cameron. After a phenomenal rookie season in 1997 which saw him hit .259/.356/.433 with stellar defense (leading to a 4.5 WAR), Cameron crashed in 1998. He hit a paltry .210/.285/.336, and while his defense didn't regress, his offense was bad enough to produce the lowest full-season WAR (1.1) of Cameron's career.
Jerry Manuel made it clear that Cameron would not be handed the keys to center field again in 1999. On Sept. 25, 1998, Manuel told the Chicago Tribune ($ archive) Cameron would have to compete against Jeff Abbott—who supplanted Cameron as the team's starting center fielder during the season—and Brian Simmons in a three-person competition for center field in 1999's spring training.
Cameron never got that chance. The Sox had obviously soured on the then-25-year-old outfielder—although, to be fair, Abbott was a top 100 prospect and Simmons was coming off an .844 OPS in Triple-A Charlotte. In the face of what appeared to be solid competition, Cameron played his way out of Chicago in 1998.
But the Sox didn't really sell low on Cameron. He was coming off a down year, but his potential was well-known throughout baseball. The same can be said for Konerko—who, like Cameron, was a highly-touted prospect who had a poor showing in 1998, posting a slash line of just .217/.276/.332 in 75 games.
Essentially, the Reds and White Sox swapped two high-potential youngsters who were coming off disappointing seasons. Both teams sold and bought low, but both teams also bought high ceilings.
Schueler, like any general manager acquiring a prized young player, was highly positive in his short assessment of the Konerko trade: (Tribune $ archive)
"We feel strongly Konerko is a player who can solidify our lineup for years," said Sox General Manager Ron Schueler.
"Our scouts feel he has a chance to be a big-time power guy," Schueler said, adding Konerko would compete with 23-year-old Mario Valdez for the first baseman's job next year.
Konerko didn't end up competing with Valdez in 1999's spring training. He found a defined role alongside Frank Thomas splitting time between first base and designated hitter but always starting. And, from there, Konerko's career took off.
But so did the career of Cameron. Check back tomorrow for part two of the Konerko-Cameron trade retrospective for analysis of the careers of both players and whether the Sox actually would've been better off keeping Cameron.