Red Sox set stage for division title by trading for Smith

Part of the INSIDE PITCH series
Written by: Janey Murray

It didn’t take hindsight for anyone to realize that the Red Sox’ trade for Lee Smith was a steal.

When the news broke on Dec. 8, 1987, that Boston had acquired Smith from the Cubs in exchange for right-handers Al Nipper and Calvin Schiraldi, the general reaction was one of disbelief.

“I hear that some people back home thought it was so good that it must be a joke,” Red Sox general manager Lou Gorman told the Boston Globe.

At the time, the 30-year-old Smith was the Cubs’ all-time saves leader with 180. He was coming off an All-Star 1987 campaign during which he recorded 36 saves – just one shy of Bruce Sutter’s then-club record 37. Since debuting for the Cubs in 1980, Smith, who was selected by Chicago in the second round of the 1975 MLB Draft, had assembled four seasons of 30 or more saves, led the league in saves in 1983 with 29 and garnered two All-Star selections.

Schiraldi, meanwhile, had posted a 4.34 ERA with 15 saves in his first four big league seasons with the Mets and Red Sox. Nipper was 42-43 with a 4.62 ERA in his five years with Boston, having worked primarily as a starter.

For a number of reasons, though, both the Cubs and Smith were ready for a change. Smith had reportedly sought to have his contract renegotiated and extended at the end of the 1987 season. When the Cubs declined, he requested a trade, saying that he felt underappreciated in Chicago.

“I never got the respect I thought a guy with those kind of numbers should have gotten,” Smith told the Chicago Tribune. “It had a lot to do with the broadcasters and who they played up. I was low key and I liked it like that."

The Cubs were undergoing transition within the front office at the time, having hired Jim Frey to replace former general manager Dallas Green just weeks prior to the trade.

Speculation was that the deal was made to clear payroll for the Cubs to sign a free agent starter in the offseason.

“We discussed that, and I don’t know to what extent this will allow us to do that,” Frey said. “But if the assumption is that we made this deal to save $300,000 or $400,000, then the assumption is inaccurate.”

For a Boston bullpen that had amassed just 16 total saves in 1987, adding Smith made perfect sense – and having to give up only Nipper and Schiraldi for the future Hall of Famer made the deal a no-brainer.

“We didn’t have a stopper,” Gorman said. “But here’s a guy who’s one of the best in baseball. And the best part is that we didn’t have to give up any of our kids.”

Nipper and Schiraldi would fill out the back end of Chicago’s rotation in 1988, with Nipper going 2-4 with a 3.04 ERA and Schiraldi 9-13 with a 4.38 ERA for a Cubs squad that finished fourth in the NL East.

Smith, meanwhile, still had 10 years of a Hall of Fame career ahead of him. In 1988, he collected 29 saves and posted a 2.80 ERA as the Red Sox won the AL East before getting swept by the Athletics in the ALCS.

Smith would retire after 18 seasons as baseball’s all-time saves leader with 478. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2019.

Janey Murray was the digital content specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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Part of the INSIDE PITCH series