Bobby Abreu once belonged to three MLB teams in four hours

In baseball, fringe players are often deemed fungible. Between the trade block, waiver wire, Rule 5 draft and DFA purgatory, it is not uncommon for average players to represent – or at least be employed by – three or four teams in a single season. However, the record for most teams represented in one day – or, more accurately, in four hours – surely belongs to Bobby Abreu, the mercurial outfielder whose impressive career had a spluttering start.

On the morning of Tuesday 18 November 1997, Abreu woke up a Houston Astro. The Venezuelan prospect was 23 by that point, with 74 major league games – plus three homers, 27 RBI and a .238 batting average – to his credit. Somewhat enigmatic, Abreu found himself on the big league bubble, shuttling back and forth between Houston and Triple-A New Orleans. Prodigiously talented yet frustratingly inconsistent, Abreu perplexed Houston GM Gerry Hunsicker, whose conundrum reached critical mass on that fateful, wintery day.

To wit, that evening, Hunsicker and the Astros had to select 15 players to protect in the first round of MLB’s expansion draft, as the upstart Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks stocked their inaugural rosters from the discarded rubble of big league obsolescence. Most of the Astros’ decisions were relatively automatic, and Hunsicker’s final decision was whether to protect Abreu or Richard Hidalgo, another Venezuelan outfielder. Some said Abreu lacked hustle and seemed cocky, and those assessments weighed heavy as Hunsicker protected Hidalgo. In truth, Abreu was just a misunderstood savant.

Led by Chuck LaMar, founding GM, the Devil Rays seemed to appreciate Abreu’s talent and selected him sixth overall in the expansion draft, at 17:34 ET. However, rather than build an exciting team around such a promising young sparkplug, Tampa Bay had no intention of keeping Abreu, either. Later that evening, in fact, LaMar traded Abreu to the Philadelphia Phillies for shortstop Kevin Stocker, a five-year major league veteran.

According to reports, LaMar felt he needed to put a better defensive team on the field, and the glove-first Stocker helped towards that objective. Indeed, in his Big Book of Baseball Blunders, Rob Neyer says the Abreu-Stocker trade was agreed before the expansion draft. In sum, Bobby Abreu was registered to three different MLB teams – Astros, Devil Rays and Phillies – in a four-hour period. There was not even enough time to take photos of Abreu in Devil Rays regalia, making it something of a seamhead fever dream.

Of course, as is now well known, Abreu spent eight-and-a-half seasons in Philadelphia, topping 20 home runs in seven of those campaigns and garnering MVP votes in five of them. All told, Abreu hit .303 in 1,353 games for the Phillies, along with a .416 OBP. Two All-Star appearances and a Gold Glove award affirmed his status as one of the best outfielders of a generation, and stints with the Yankees, Angels, Dodgers and Mets bookended a fantastic – if chronically overlooked – career.

By contrast, Kevin Stocker was out of baseball by 2000, an anaemic bat unable to carry a proficient glove. Maybe LaMar thought he was getting Reggie Stocker in that ill-fated deal – who knows? Regardless, years later, the beleaguered GM admitted never having watched Abreu take a single at-bat before trading him, in what is now considered one of the worst deals in baseball history.

Neyer offers a succinct summation:

“Could Devil Rays general manager Chuck LaMar have guessed that Stocker would go in the tank immediately after joining the new franchise, batting .208 in 112 games? Hardly. Could LaMar have guessed that Abreu would quickly become one of the top right fielders in the major leagues? No, not really. But should he have known that Abreu might become a star, and Stocker almost certainly would not? Should he have known that it’s almost impossible to win without stars? Yes, and yes. On what was essentially the first meaningful day in franchise history, LaMar made a terrible decision that served as an ill omen for what would follow…It’s fair to castigate the Devil Rays for trading Bobby Abreu before he’d played a game for them. But it’s also fair to nail the Astros for giving Abreu away in the first place.”

Interestingly, after the 2008 season, the Rays – ‘Devil’ freshly exorcised – actually made the most lucrative offer for Abreu in free agency. However, perhaps perturbed by the team’s prior disbelief in his abilities, Abreu spurned Tampa’s two-year offer in favour of a one-year pact with the Angels. Karma can be a bitch, huh?

Nowadays, Bobby Abreu is the quintessential bubble candidate in the eternal debates surrounding baseball’s Hall of Fame. He has more career hits than Mickey Mantle; more stolen bases than Derek Jeter; a better OBP than Honus Wagner; and a higher WAR than Vladimir Guerrero. Still, Abreu garnered only 15.4% of the Hall of Fame vote in 2023, his fourth year on the ballot. He may still get the Cooperstown nod one day, as voting percentages usually trend upwards, but the outlook is not especially rosy. Nevertheless, if Abreu does get enshrined one day, I would love him to wear a Devil Rays hat on his plaque. It would be the ultimate insult to a team that gave up on him before even seeing him play.


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