Orioles Card "O" the Day

An intersection of two of my passions: baseball cards and the Baltimore Orioles. Updated daily?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Vintage Fridays: Billy Smith, 1978 Topps #666

As of midnight this morning, the Major League Baseball free agent signing period has begun. The Orioles have a lot more money available than they have had in previous years, with some real albatross contracts coming off of the books. Even with all of the strides in player development in the past few years, there are a lot of holes left to fill (third base, first base, middle-of-the-order power hitter, veteran starter, several bullpen arms...I think that's all). Naturally, this is the worst-quality free agent market in years. In the end, I just hope the O's have a better Hot Stove season than they did when free agency first hit.

In the winter of 1976-1977, players finally earned the right to test the market for themselves, and the small-market Orioles (led by owner and local brewer Jerry Hoffberger) got hit hard. They lost pitcher Wayne Garland, who had broken through with a 20-7, 2.67 ERA season at age 25, to the Indians on a preposterous 10-year contract. Also gone was homegrown second baseman Bobby Grich, who took four Gold Gloves and three All-Star selections with him to the Angels. The biggest blow of all may have been brash slugger Reggie Jackson, who had cost the Birds budding star outfielder Don Baylor and two pitchers in a blockbuster trade less than a year earlier. Worst of all, Reggie had gone to the hated Yankees, who had recently toppled the Birds from their perch atop the American League East after more than a decade of futility.

As near as I can tell, the O's did not sign a free agent who would make their 1977 roster until February, when they reached an agreement with Billy Smith, a 23-year-old infielder with 72 games of big league experience. In 411 trips to the plate, he hit .215 with a .581 OPS as Grich's primary replacement. He would stay in Baltimore for two more seasons, and in a reduced role he was actually slightly above league average with the bat while playing solid defense. But all things being equal, I'm sure the Orioles would have rather kept his predecessor.

You almost get the sense that the home team wasn't prepared for the onset of free agency.


Orioles Magic said...

Interesting stuff Kevin, I did a post on Billy a few months back but didn't make the connection to free agency.

Kevin said...

Ryan - Thanks! I don't even know that Billy Smith was a free agent in the sense that we think of it, considering how little experience he had. My belief is that the Angels didn't renew his contract. But he (and Ed Farmer, who signed in March) were the only free agents of any kind that the O's signed that year.

Anonymous said...

I just love this sight...

But as an O's fan from back in the day, let me say they WERE totally prepared for the free-agent period, given how little money they could spend...

As 1976 began, they anticipated losing Baylor, Grich, Torrez, Garland, Alexander, Grimsley to free agency...In June of 1976 at the trading deadline (while Finley was trying to sell Vida Blue and Joe Rudi to the Yankees and Red Sox), they sent Torrez and Baylor (and also a well-regarded pitching prospect, Paul Mitchell) out to Oakland for Holtzman and Reggie, then dumped Alexander, Holtzman, and Grant Jackson (with Elrod), for Scott McGregor, Dempsey, Rudy May, and Tippy Martinez (plus Dave Pagan, who then went to Seattle in the expansion draft, and in a way, saved them a player)...So they got back two SPs, effectively replacing Torrez and Alexander, and Tippy (much younger) to replace Grant Jackson...Plus they got a starting catcher...In the spring of 1977, Grich was replaced by a Dauer-Billy Smith platoon...Eddie Murray effectively replaced DonBaylorReggieJackson...And Dennis Martinez arrived...

So of the 6 solid players they would lose/lost to free agency, they did a decent job of replacing them, given no money to spend at all...Plus they got Dempsey, and did a Tippy-Grant jackon flip..

Baylor -- Eddie Murray
Alexander -- Scott McGregor
Grimsley -- Rudy May
Torrez -- Dennis Martinez
Grich -- Dauer/Billy Smith

Remember 1977 was a great year for the Birds, they won 97 games were in the pennant race until the final weekend of the season, which was a truly remarkable accomplishment...An injury to Al Bumbry really, really hurt them in 1978, but then for 5 straight years from 1979-1983 they were hands down the best team in baseball...What killed them in 1977 is that all the players they lost ended up with the Yankees (Jackson, Torrez, etc.)...The Yankees basically raided the two best teams in baseball over the previous decade 1965-76 (the O's and A's)

Now, a couple of things on "Easy" Billy Smith --- he was a lousy fielder, but since he could bat left and play 2b (which got another LH hitter in line-up, which was useful against pitchers who couldn't get lefties out)...

Also, a piece of trivia: in that famous 6-run eighth inning of Game 4 of the 1979 world Series, he, of all people received an intentional walk, right in the middle of the famous pinch-hit doubles by Lowestein and Crowley (the base was open after Lowenstein doubled) --- thus becoming the worst player ever to receive an intentional walk in the Fall Classic...

Fred B