McGriff finally agrees to join Cubs

By Jim Callis

July 27, 2001

The Devil Rays agreed to deal Fred McGriff to the Cubs for Manny Aybar and minor league shortstop during the all-star break, but it took McGriff nearly three weeks to relax his no-trade clause and accept the move. He did so Friday after Chicago gave him a great deal of freedom to decide his future. Officially, the Cubs gave up Aybar and a player to be named, though reports out of Chicago are that Smith will be that player once he comes off the disabled list at Triple-A Iowa.

A Tampa native and an original Devil Ray, McGriff received a no-trade clause when he signed a two-year extension in September 1999. He was content to stay in his hometown with his family, the reason he originally declined the trade. The Cubs finally changed his mind when they changed his $6.75 million team option for 2002 to a player option, which means McGriff can stay in Chicago or leave as a free agent. His no-trade clause expired at the end of this year, so he now has greater freedom in determining his future. If he remains with the Cubs, Tampa Bay will pick up $1 million of his salary. Furthermore, a mutual option for 2003 was tacked on to McGriff’s contract.

McGriff, 37, could be the power threat that will force pitchers to challenge Sammy Sosa more regularly. Sosa is hitting .303-34-98 in 99 games, but he has drawn a major league-high 27 intentional walks because Cubs cleanup hitters have combined to .240-9-50 behind him. McGriff batted .318-19-61 in 97 games with Tampa Bay and is coming off consecutive 100-RBI seasons for the punchless Devil Rays. One of three players in major league history to hit at least 200 homers in the American and National leagues—Mark McGwire and Frank Robinson are the others—McGriff has career totals of .287-436-1359 in 2,152 games. He also has batted .303-10-37 in 50 postseason contests, winning a World Series in 1995 with the Braves. McGriff will break up the Cubs’ first-base platoon of Matt Stairs and Ron Coomer.

Two days after shedding the salaries of Albie Lopez and Mike DiFelice, Tampa Bay GM Chuck LaMar didn’t try to pass of the McGriff trade as anything but financially motivated. He seemed certain to reach 550 plate appearances, which automatically would have vested the 2002 option, so the Rays will save nearly $9 million. Original reports at the all-star break had second-tier prospects Ruben Quevedo and Julio Zuleta heading to Tampa Bay, but they settled for Aybar and apparently Smith.

The Devil Rays are Aybar’s sixth organization in the last three seasons. The 26-year-old righthander has a resilient and strong arm but little track record of success. He has gone 16-18, 5.14 in 168 big league appearances, including a 2-1, 6.35 mark in 17 games with Chicago this season. He was at Triple-A at the time of the trade, having gone 1-2, 5.02 in eight games at Iowa, including a six-hit shutout in his last start on Thursday. He’ll report to Triple-A Durham.

Smith, 24, was drafted in the 23rd round out of Meridian (Miss.) Community College in 1996 and signed a year later. He’s very athletic but has hit only for brief spurts in the minors. Smith was batting just .233-4-15 with an ugly 71-12 strikeout-walk ratio in 70 games at Iowa. He went 0-for-1 in two games with the Cubs this summer, his first major league experience. Smith was placed on Iowa’s disabled list, retroactive to July 9, with a hamstring injury. He missed all but 39 games in 1999 with hamstring problems.

Besides saving money, the best part of this trade for the Devil Rays is the change to give Steve Cox the everyday job at first base. Cox, 26, was the Triple-A International League MVP in 1999 and hit .283-11-35 in 318 at-bats in 2000, the first year in which he received extended big league playing time. But he had just 177 at-bats thus far in 2001, producing .243-6-27 totals.

August 6 Update: Smith was activated from the Iowa disabled list and officially became part of this trade. Tampa Bay assigned him to Triple-A Durham.