Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Historic Hot Stove: Randy Johnson

Last year, the baseball world shook when the Brewers traded one of their top prospects (and change) to the Indians for free-agent-to-be CC Sabathia. CC took the city by storm, carrying the Brewers into the playoffs almost by himself before they finally bowed out in the first round. It was almost the perfect midseason acquisition.

Clubs are hoping to make a similar move this year, by trading for a marquee pitcher like Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee. Both pitchers are apparently on the market but, at this late date, have not yet been picked up. The asking prices are just too steep and don't seem to be dropping. I guess we might have to wait until the trade deadline before we see if either of them get traded.

Whatever moves that do happen, though, are unlikely to match the impact of the CC Sabathia trade of last year. No matter how good of a pitcher you get, it's just asking too much to expect them to dominate the league like he did. After all, it's a rare pitcher who can meet that challenge. The best example of this in recent years happened in 1998, when the Mariners traded Randy Johnson to the Astros at the literal last minute for three minor league pitchers.

The saga began a year before that, when Johnson and his agent asked the club not to pick up his option for the 1998 season. The Mariners went ahead and picked up the option anyway, irking Johnson to no end.
[In 1997], the Mariners talked to Johnson and his agent about the team's 1998 option for the pitcher - and the Mariners insist Johnson made it clear he didn't want them to exercise it.

The Mariners did, however, and the relationship quickly soured. In November, Armstrong announced Johnson would not be offered a contract extension beyond 1998, and the "Big Unit" began sniping and stopped only when he ceased speaking to the press in June.

"They haven't treated me as well as they should have considering what I've done for the team," he said in one spring training interview. "The only option is for them to trade me."

Five frustrating months later, the Mariners did.
As July wore on, it seemed increasingly clear that the Mariners had to trade Johnson. He wasn't talking to the media and his starts never seemed to match the vintage Johnson that everyone knew was there. Teams lined up to take their crack at winning the lefty, but Seattle's GM kept them all at bay. At different times, "marquee teams" like the Dodgers, Padres, Indians, and Yankees were all supposedly front-runners in the sweepstakes.

Nothing ever materialized, though, and as midnight approached on July 31st, Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker started talking to Woody Woodward, Seattle's GM. From this great piece in the August 10, 1998, issue of Sports Illustrated:
At 11:10 p.m. Hunsicker called Woodward "just to satisfy my curiosity and make a last-ditch effort." Woodward said he would call back. The Mariners had spent eight months putting Johnson on and off the trading block. They had turned down deals that would have brought them Mariano Rivera from the Yankees, Chad Ogea from the Indians and Ismael Valdes from the Dodgers. But at 11:20 p.m. last Friday—40 minutes before the trading deadline—it had come to this: Woodward telephoned Hunsicker and indicated he was willing to talk about the Astros' second-tier prospects. Hunsicker offered him three minor leaguers, none of whom satisfied Seattle's demand for a big league pitcher.

Woodward again said he would call back. "I got nervous," Hunsicker says, "because at 11:45, I was still waiting around for him to call." Between calls to Hunsicker, Woodward was making one last fishing trip to the Yankees' talent pool. But New York refused to give up righthander Hideki Irabu and third base prospect Mike Lowell.

At 11:50 p.m. the phone rang in Hunsicker's house. "We have a deal," Woodward said. The Mariners agreed to take Carlos Guillen, a switch-hitting infielder with power; Freddy Garcia, a righthanded power pitcher; and a minor leaguer to be announced later.
The player to be named later turned out to be southpaw John Halama. It wasn't a bad haul, considering the lack of leverage Woodward had with his disgruntled pitcher, and, when compared to the Hideki Irabu-Ricky Ledee-Homer Bush-Mike Lowell package that was the Yankees final offer, it seems the wise choice. Still, the David Wells & Mariano Rivera offer that the M's turned down earlier in the year (as mentioned in this Seattle PI article) does seem to hang over all of this.

On Houston's end, though, it was all roses. Johnson, who had spent a year feuding with Seattle management (and who, up until the last minute, was told that he would be staying with the club), was more than happy to show his best to his new squad. He may have had an ulterior motive for that, though:
Nine months after telling the Seattle Mariners he wanted to be traded, Randy Johnson got his wish last night, but not to an American League powerhouse.

Not even to an American League team.
Johnson reluctantly will join the National League Central Division-leading Astros, who play in Pittsburgh this weekend.

But he won't be an Astro for long.

"We consider this a 60-day job," said Alan Nero, one of Johnson's agents. "We don't want to be in the National League. We would have rather (the trade) been with an American League team, preferably the Yankees."

Nero said Johnson definitely will file for free agency after the season, and wasn't happy with how the trade was handled.
Whatever his motivation was, Johnson really pulled things together in Houston. In eleven starts as an Astro, Johnson was 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA and 116 strikeouts in only 84 innings. He also had four complete game shutouts in that span. On the day of the trade, the Astros were in first place in the Central by 3.5 games. From that day forward, they had the best record in the majors and finished the season 12.5 games ahead of the second-place Cubs. Johnson more than earned the $2 million that the Astros paid him that year.

In the postseason, the Astros hosted the Padres in the Division Series. In his two starts, Johnson pitched 14 innings, striking out 17 batters and giving up a total of three earned runs. His offense failed him in each game, though, supporting him with a total of one run in the innings he pitched. The Astros lost both games he pitched in, and went on to lose the series 3-1.

Once the winter came, Johnson became a free agent and went on to sign with the Arizona Diamondbacks in the offseason, agreeing to a 5-year, $65 million contract. And, despite signing with a one-year old franchise, he would only have to wait three years before he got his World Series ring. His two months with the Houston Astros, though, as they marched towards the playoffs, is certainly a stretch to remember.

Will Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee provide that same kind of heart-stopping performance to whatever club they might get traded to? I have no idea. I do know, though, that every GM who is considering giving up his top-tier prospects for these guys, is hoping for a Randy Johnson-level performance from them in return. It probably won't happen, but there's no doubt that the dream is there (and if they can Halladay or Lee for the 2009 equivalent of Freddy Garcia and Carlos Guillen, all the better!). It should be a fun last couple of days.

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