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Big Unit Trade, Revisited

Randy Johnson, throwing out the first pitch of 2010 M's season
(Dave Sizer, Wikimedia Commons)
Randy Johnson was inducted into the Hall of Fame yesterday, formally recognizing him as one of the greatest pitchers to ever play baseball. He is among a short list of pitchers who might be able to claim they were the best leftie to ever pitch in the Major Leagues. Johnson's best years aren't all that short of Sandy Koufax at his best (if short at all when considering the different eras they played in) while his longevity approaches Warren Spahn's.

In other words, the Big Unit was pretty good. Off the top of my head I would say the title of Best Southpaw Ever boils down to Johnson and Lefty Grove, though I haven't dug into this too deeply. It might be a fun argument to make some day.

Of course, Johnson was a Mariner but (rightfully) went into the Hall of Fame with a Diamondbacks cap on. The Big Unit is also the centerpiece of one of the most significant trade deadline deals the Mariners ever made. He was sent to the Astros in 1998 for Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen, and a player to be named later who turned out to be John Halama.

Obviously, this trade was significant at the time. It might be even more interesting to think about now that we know how everything played out, and interesting to revisit with the 2015 trade deadline only days away.

The Astros rented Randy Johnson for three months - and he was amazing for them, amassing a 10-1 record with a 1.28 ERA in 11 starts, with 4 of those 11 starts being complete games. It's hard to argue Johnson could have pitched any better for Houston. They got exactly what they were hoping to get out of the deal.

The 1998 Astros were very good, maybe even great, even though they have largely been forgotten. They ended up going 102-60 in 1998, winning the NL Central. Their expected win-loss based on run differential was 106-56, so they were hardly a fluke. We also now know that the '98 Astros had two Hall of Famers (Johnson and fellow 2015 enshrinee Craig Biggio), plus Jeff Bagwell has a good chance to get in soon too. If he doesn't, he will be a near-miss. This is all to say that this Astros team was loaded, and capable of winning a World Series.

However, Houston lost in the division series to the Padres in four games. The Padres would end up making it to the World Series, where the Yankees curb-stomped them at the peak of their 1990s dynasty. The 1998 Yankees are the only team in my lifetime (so far) that is in the discussion for greatest team ever...and as much as I grit my teeth as a Yankee hater writing it, I have to admit that they were that good. They had what is now known as "the core four" (Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera) all in their prime, plus Bernie Williams, David Wells, David Cone, Paul O'Neill, Tino Martinez, a revived Darryl Strawberry, and a miraculously good Scott Brosius. This was the first of three consecutive World Champions this group would win, and they also won it all in 1996. The core four will be remembered as the heart and soul of this group, as they probably should be, but the supporting cast was deep and really good - likely more than good enough to propel this juggernaut past the forgotten '98 Astros in an alternate World Series universe.

Houston won the NL Central by 13 games over the Cubs, who ended up getting in the playoffs as the wild card winner. It is pretty clear the Astros could have made the playoffs and lost in the first round without Randy Johnson, so on some level he added nothing. He then signed with the Diamondbacks as a free agent after the 1998 season.

Ultimately, Houston gave up three players who all contributed at the MLB level for several years for three months of Randy Johnson that basically was the difference between them being solid NL Central champs and...more solid NL Central champs. I could bust out some fancier analysis, but it doesn't seem necessary. The Astros got the player they wanted but a useless gain, and gave up noteworthy long-term value in the process. I don't see a reasonable argument to be made that this trade worked out for them even with the Big Unit's phenomenal performance.

However, there's a deeper, more interesting question here: Would the Mariners have been better off holding on to Randy Johnson?

Time has softened the toxic relationship that developed between the Mariners and Johnson. He was clearly irked that the Mariners had not given him a contract extension. This predictably spawned trade rumors throughout the season, which included a rather dramatic and public dance with the Dodgers in June of '98, just a few months before he was traded. Initial reactions to the trade were also stunning - not so much because of the fan reaction, which was predictably harsh, but thanks to current Mariners who were shockingly transparent with their frustration.

The Mariners, looking back, were making a very defensible move. Randy Johnson, at the time, was 34 years old. He was a pure power pitcher with incredible stuff - literally some of the most dominant stuff a pitcher has ever possessed in the history of baseball - but also some control problems. He also missed most of 1996 with back troubles. 34-year-old power pitchers with back problems and somewhere between mediocre and above-average control are not the safest bet to age gracefully. Whether performance concerns were the main reasons the M's held off on a contract extension is debatable, but they were good reasons to hold off, especially when you have a phenomenal young shortstop like Alex Rodriguez who was going to eat up a huge chunk of the payroll in the near future.*

*Of course, A-Rod left for obscene money in Texas after the 2000 season, but you'd have to think that by 1998 the Mariners had an eye towards keeping him and what that might take. They also had Ken Griffey Jr. to worry about, and most certainly wanted to keep him at all costs in 1998. Would you have prioritized a 34-year-old Randy Johnson over Ken Griffey Jr. in his prime and an emerging Alex Rodriguez, before any steroid suspicions? I certainly wouldn't have.

Still, for the sake of this argument, let's suppose the Mariners hold on to Randy Johnson, and that they would have been able to sign him to the same deal he got with the Diamondbacks. His initial contract in the 1998 offseason was for four years with an option for a fifth year. He would subsequently sign an extension, but I think that's getting too hypothetical to throw future contract moves in. The first contract gives us something to go with.

Randy Johnson was worth 4.3 bWAR for the Astros in those insane 11 starts I already mentioned. Over the next five years with the Diamondbacks he was worth 39.8 bWAR while also collecting four Cy Young awards (all consecutive, by the way). He was extraordinary, and frankly, much better than anyone could have reasonably expected. He somehow became more dominant and powerful in his late 30s, which is somewhere between unusual and unprecedented.** But that's what he did, so that's what we will give him credit for.

**I take time to point this out because it's easy to be a jaded Mariner fan and say, "well of COURSE Johnson was amazing. That's what former Mariners do and Woody Woodward was an idiot to ditch him when he did." I was among those M's fans with a torch and a pitchfork in the late '90s. In retrospect though, this outcome was historic, and far from guaranteed.

So, the Mariners would have kept about 44.1 bWAR of value if they had held on to Randy Johnson and signed him to a contract extension instead of trading him away. This is an over-simplification that doesn't take into account park effects or the level of competition (particularly the league switch, meaning Johnson faced pitchers instead of DHs), but it gives us some idea of the value the Mariners would have gained with Johnson around.

In that same time frame (August 1998 through the 2003 season), Carlos Guillen was worth 9.1 bWAR, Freddy Garcia 15.6 bWAR, and John Halama 5.2 bWAR.*** That's a total of 29.9 bWAR.

***I was just as surprised as you probably are that Halama was that valuable. He had some clunkers for seasons with the Mariners, but a few bright spots that ultimately provided some forgotten value.

No surprise here in the numbers: Randy Johnson, in five years where he won four Cy Youngs, was more valuable than Guillen, Garcia, and Halama. Still, those three combined produced about 68% of the bWAR that Johnson amassed in that time frame, which suggests they were roughly worth two-thirds of the Big Unit. This is despite Johnson, in my opinion, being much better than what would have been reasonable to predict at the time. Translation: the M's return for Randy Johnson was good, certainly far from the fleecing described in the immediate moments after the deal went down.

Moreover, Johnson cost $64.75 million over the course of the deal while the trio of Guillen, Garcia, and Halama cost only $19.45 million combined through 2003 - less than one third of the Big Unit's price tag. This is especially worth noting given the glut of free agents the Mariners signed in the late 1990s and early 2000s - guys like John Olerud, Bret Boone, Mark McLemore, Aaron Sele, Jeff Nelson, Arthur Rhodes, Kazuhiro Sasaki, and even Ichiro. It's ridiculous to suggest none of these players would have joined the team with Randy Johnson around, but it's equally absurd to suggest all of them would have become Mariners with Johnson's contract on the books. Then again, the Mariners might not have needed all this talent with Randy Johnson - but they also would have had a few more holes to fill, given that they plugged a couple holes by trading Johnson.

The hypothetical can go even farther too: Ken Griffey Jr. was clearly miffed when the Mariners traded Randy Johnson. Does he ask out of Seattle if the Mariners hold on to Johnson? Maybe so, maybe not. The ironic thing is that the M's clearly won the Griffey trade in retrospect, thanks to Griffey's injuries. Not only was Mike Cameron cheaper than Griffey, he was worth more WAR in his four seasons in Seattle than Griffey was for his eight-plus seasons in Cincinnati.

Does A-Rod leave if both Randy Johnson and Ken Griffey Jr. stay? Personally, I think A-Rod still takes the money in Texas, no matter who the Mariners had on their roster. However, Rodriguez was also at least confused by the Johnson trade, if not disappointed and/or angry.

In the end, I am not sure the Mariners would have been better off holding on to Randy Johnson. I am still not sure if they won or lost in the deal, even with almost 20 years of perspective and finished careers to look at.

In my eyes, the trade has become more compelling with time. It is fairly clear that the Johnson deal began the unraveling of the mid-'90s Mariners, but interestingly enough the team the M's wove together in the immediate wake of the Refuse to Lose darlings was at least as successful, if not more successful.

The Mariners have no championships, or even World Series appearances, to show for all the gyrations set off by the Johnson trade, so the next best thing are Hall of Fame players. By that standard, looking back, the Mariners lost out. The Big Unit would obviously go in the hall with a Mariners cap on if he had stayed in Seattle. Still, the odds of the Big Unit going on such an amazing run so late in his career had to be pretty slim, and the odds of the Mariners faring so well in the trade were also slim. The whole sequence of events is quite remarkable.