The Detroit Tigers have made some good trades over the years. Miguel Cabrera was acquired from the Marlins, Norm Cash from the Indians, and Placido Polanco from the Phillies, just to name a few.
Yet, there is one deal that is hardly ever mentioned when evaluating the best trades in club history.
In 1975, the Tigers drafted a left-handed pitcher out of high school in Brooklyn, NY by the name of John Murphy. Three years later he was sent to the St. Louis Cardinals in a deal that netted a pitcher by the name of Aurelio Lopez.
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Murphy would hang around a few years in the minors before his career ended without a sniff of the big leagues. Lopez meanwhile would become underrated, if not vital, member of the Tigers pitching staff for seven seasons.
In his first year as a Tiger, Lopez threw 127 innings in relief, posting a 2.41 ERA. In his first four seasons in the Old English D, the hard-throwing right-hander would win 31 games with a 3.44 ERA.
The best had yet to come however for Lopez. In the 1983 season, his fifth in Detroit, Lopez earned his first all-star appearance with a 2.81 ERA in 57 games out of the Tigers pen.
Lopez at that point solidified himself as one of the top relievers in the league. Fashioning an arsenal that included a fastball, slider, and screwball, “Señor Smoke” was becoming a vital part of a Tigers team that was trending toward being a World Series contender. In ’83, the Tigers came close, finishing with a 92-70 record, six games behind the division-winning Baltimore Orioles.
1984 would be the Tigers year and Lopez was one of the main reasons why. As spring training was winding down in ’84, the Tigers bolstered their bullpen when they traded for reliever Willie Hernandez in a deal that single-handedly put the Tigers over the hump. Hernandez would win the Cy Young and MVP awards that year, but it was the underappreciated Lopez that was just as much a key to the Tigers fortunes.
It was Lopez that won 10 games that season, appearing in 71 contests out of the Tigers pen. Nine times that year he pitched four or more innings in relief and twice threw six innings out of the pen. He showed his versatility by pitching anywhere from the 3rd inning to the 9th. While Hernandez led the club with 32 saves, Lopez chipped in with 14 of his own and moreover was key in the postseason, throwing six scoreless innings and winning two games.
In Game 2 of the ALCS, Lopez threw three scoreless innings after Hernandez blew a save against the Royals, and in the World Series, he won the deciding 5th game in relief against the Padres.
Hernandez certainly deserved the accolades. He won the Cy Young for a reason. The Tigers may not have taken the next step without him.
However, teams rarely win the World Series without a deep bullpen and it was Lopez that provided Hernandez with a running mate on the road to the title.
Lopez would pitch one more year with the Tigers in 1985, before closing out his career with the Houston Astros. In Tigers history, only John Hiller has thrown more innings in relief than Lopez.
Tragically, Lopez was killed in an auto accident in his native Mexico in 1992. He was 44 years old.
The trade that brought Hernandez to the Tigers in March of 1984 was the key to bringing Detroit at a title, but the deal that brought Lopez to the Tigers five years earlier may have set the groundwork.