They didn’t know it at the time, but the Braves made a franchise altering move on May 5, 1987. They re-signed veteran starter Doyle Alexander as a free agent. The right-hander, who debuted in 1971, had a solid career but was near the end of the line as a 36-year-old. Still, the Braves – hovering around .500 at the time – liked what they saw from him after acquiring him from the Blue Jays in ’86. In 17 starts, he posted a serviceable 3.84 ERA over 117 1/3 innings.
Alexander made 16 starts for the Braves in ’87, putting up a 4.13 ERA across 117 2/3 innings. On August 12, 1987, they famously dealt him to the Tigers in exchange for pitching prospect John Smoltz. It is a deal the Tigers would have loved to have been able to take back.
To Alexander and the Tigers’ credit, he finished out the ’87 season on fire. He won nine games with two no-decisions in 11 starts through the end of the season, limiting the opposition to 15 earned runs across 88 1/3 innings (1.53 ERA). The Tigers made the playoffs, but lost to the eventual world champion Twins four games to one in the ALCS.
Alexander had only two more years left in his arm. In ’88, he tossed 229 innings with a 4.32 ERA. In ’89, he lost a major league-high 18 games with a 4.44 ERA over 223 innings. He also suffered a broken jaw during the season after being struck with a line drive during batting practice.
Smoltz, as we all know, went on to have a Hall of Fame career almost entirely with the Braves. He debuted in 1988 and became an All-Star in his sophomore season. He would go on to be an eight-time All-Star, the MVP of the 1992 NLCS, the 1996 NL Cy Young Award winner, the 2002 NL Rolaids Relief Man of the Year, and he helped the Braves won the 1995 World Series. Smoltz was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 2015, earning 82.9 percent of the vote.
One wonders how the fate of the two franchises might have been different if this trade never happened. After 1987, the Tigers wouldn’t reach the postseason again until 2006. The Braves, thanks in part to Smoltz’s excellent pitching, became perennial playoff contenders, reaching the postseason every season from 1991 through 2005 (excepting the strike-shortened ’94 season, which did not have a postseason). If the Tigers had an undo button, they certainly would have pushed it on this trade.