On March 10, 1966, the Cleveland Indians traded reserve catcher Camilo Carreon to the Baltimore Orioles for a minor league outfielder. Carreon would play only four games for Baltimore in 1966, his final major league season. The minor league outfielder’s contribution to the Indians would be similarly meager. Lou Piniella played six games for Cleveland, all in 1968.
However, Piniella would then play more than 1,700 big league games and become a mainstay of four pennant-winning New York Yankee teams. After that, he managed the Cincinnati Reds to a World Championship (in 1990), the Seattle Mariners to four division crowns, and the Chicago Cubs to two.
Piniella’s road to the major leagues was circuitous. That’s often true, but rarely for players who go on to have a career as substantial as Piniella’s (more than 1,700 hits and a .291 lifetime batting average).
Piniella was signed out of high school by the Indians in 1962. Before the 1963 season, the Washington Senators obtained him in the minor league draft. That year, as a 19 year-old, he batted .310 with 16 home runs in the Carolina League. As a Senators fan, I had high hopes.
But in 1964, Washington sent Piniella to Baltimore as the player to be named later in a deal for pitcher Buster Narum. Narum would go 14-27 in four seasons as a Senator.
Piniella failed to excel in two seasons in the Orioles minor league system. He was then dealt back to the Indians in the Carreon trade.
For the next three years, 1966-68, Piniella played for Portland in the Pacific Coast League, developing into the hitter American League fans would come to know. His 1968 stats were fairly typical of those he would later post in his prime as a Yankee — .317 batting average, 13 home runs, 62 RBIs.
These numbers, though apparently not good enough to cause the Indians to protect Piniella in the 1969 expansion, were sufficient to induce the Seattle Pilots to select him. But, consistent with Piniella’s career path, Seattle sent him to Kansas City, the other American League expansion team, just days before the start of the ’69 season. The Royals gave up outfielder Steve Whitaker and pitcher John Gelnar, neither of whom produced much for the Pilots. Whitaker, a more experienced big-leaguer, had been taken five picks ahead of Piniella in the draft.
Jim Bouton was a teammate of Piniella in the spring of 1969. In his classic book Ball Four, Bouton describes Piniella’s mounting frustration at not being in the plans of Seattle manager Joe Schultz. According to Bouton, Piniella was ready to quit baseball if, as he expected, the Pilots farmed him out.
It’s strange to think that, but for the deal with Kansas City (and, indeed, but for expansion), Piniella might never have become Piniella.
In any event, the trade paid off for Kansas City immediately. In 1969, Piniella batted .282 with 11 home runs and 68 RBIs. He was named rookie-of-the-year. In two of his next three seasons, he batted over .300.
Up until this point, Piniella had been traded for Buster Narum, then for Cam Carreon, and then for Whitaker and Gelnar. Now, after a down year in 1973, he would be dealt (along with pitcher Ken Wright) to the Yankees for Lindy McDaniel, a 38 year-old relief pitcher.
McDaniel went on to win six games and save two in his two years in Kansas City. Piniella batted better than .300 five times in his 11 seasons as a Yankee (though he was a part-time player in some of these years).
Has any baseball player ever been more consistently undervalued in trades than Lou Piniella?
Piniella’s managerial career is worthy of it own post. I’ll conclude this one by noting that just last month, the Cincinnati Reds announced that Piniella, out of baseball since 2011, has been hired as a senior adviser to baseball operations.
All the best, Lou.