With Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association in the midst of a lockout there likely won’t be a ton of transactions and news coming out anytime soon. With that in mind, I thought it might be fun to take a look back at the trade that brought one of the greatest Mariners to Seattle and the trade that sent him away. This is part 1, the trade that brought Randy Johnson to Seattle. Part 2 will come out soon and focus on the trade that sent him to the Houston Astros nearly a decade later.
The Trade Details
On May 25, 1989 the Mariners and Montreal Expos agreed to a trade that sent Mark Langston and a player to be named later (Mike Campbell) for three pitchers: Randy Johnson, Gene Harris, and Brian Holman. At the time of the trade the Mariners were 23-24, in fifth place in the AL West and 7.5 games out of first place. According to a NY Times article from the day after the trade, the Mariners were rumored to have also been in talks with both the Mets and the Red Sox about Langston. After extension talks failed, the Mariners agreed to trade the soon-to-be free agent for three inexperienced pitchers.
Langston had accumulated a solid resume by the beginning of 1989, leading the league in strikeouts three times and surpassing 200 Ks in 4 of his first 5 seasons. He was runner-up for AL Rookie of the Year in 1984, an all-star and fifth in the Cy Young voting in 1987, and had won a Gold Glove in each of the last two seasons. Along with his strengths as a durable strikeout pitcher, there were some weaknesses to his game as well. Most notably was Langston’s walk rate of 4.5 BB/9 for the first five years of his career.
After two very good seasons in 1987-88, Langston started the 1989 season with arguably his best numbers of his career. His walk rate was a career low (by a wide margin) of 2.3 BB/9 and he had only given up 3 HR in 73.1 IP over his first ten starts. His 3.56 ERA was right in line with what he had produced in 1987-88 when he totaled a 11.5 bWAR for the two seasons. With his impending free agency, Langston was one of the top rental pitchers available on the market.
Mike Campbell was the player to be named later in the deal and Seattle sent him to Montreal two months after the trade. The Mariners had drafted him 7th overall in the 1985 MLB draft and he ascended through the minor leagues quickly. In 1987, at age 23, he started 9 games for the Mariners going 1-4 with a 4.74 ERA. The next season he would start the year in the rotation but struggle throughout the year and finish 6-10 with a 5.89 ERA. 1989 would be an even worse showing for Campbell as he earned a spot in the rotation to start the year only to go 1-2 with a 7.29 ERA in April and be optioned to AAA for the remainder of his time with the Mariners. He would never play for the Montreal Expos, pitching only 9 games for their AAA affiliate before being traded to the White Sox for a career minor leaguer.
Gene Harris was drafted in the 5th round of the 1986 MLB draft by the Montreal Expos. Like Campbell, Harris moved through the minor leagues quickly, posting solid numbers as a starter. He began the 1989 season as a middle reliever for the Expos but after 20 IP and a 4.95 ERA, he was optioned back to Indianapolis. After the trade he would shuttle between Seattle and AAA Calgary, pitching poorly for the Mariners but, again, putting up solid numbers in the minors. 1990 and 1991 would be a similar story for Gene Harris and at the beginning of the 1992 season he was also traded for a career minor leaguer. All in all, Harris’s tenure with the Mariners was forgettable, 2-6, 5.48 ERA, -1.6 bWAR.
The Expos took Brian Holman with the 16th overall pick in 1983, a pick they received from the Giants following Joel Youngblood’s signing. Holman had a good professional career but it would always pale in comparison to the player drafted three picks later, Roger Clemens. Holman steadily made his way through the minor leagues and made his major league debut in 1988, pitching 100.1 IP with a 3.27 ERA. He began the 1989 season as a middle reliever/spot starter for the Expos and, after the trade, primarily served as a starter for the Mariners. He finished the 1989 season with a 3.67 ERA in 191.1 IP. He would go on to be a solid starter for the Mariners in 1990 and 1991 before an arm injury ended his career. As a Mariner he had a 32-35 record with a 3.73 ERA over 544.1 IP, producing 8.0 bWAR over 2.5 seasons.
The Big Unit
As the story goes, The Big Unit’s nickname came from his time as an Expo when he and Tim Raines collided in practice and Raines exclaimed, “You’re a big unit!” In his short time with the Expos, Johnson’s height may have been the most noteworthy thing about his tenure. That and the strikeouts…and the walks. Throughout his career, Johnson was one of the least hittable pitchers in baseball. As a minor leaguer in the Expos system he gave up fewer than 7 H/9 and struckout better than a batter an inning. Those are stellar numbers on their own but when coupled with Johnson’s astronomical walk rates (he issues more walks than hits), wild pitches, and balks he wasn’t exactly a top prospect.
Johnson would make his debut at the end of the 1988 season with excellent results over four starts. His walk rate was down (2.4 BB/9) as he put together a 3-0 record with a 2.42 ERA. The beginning of 1989 would prove that the results of the previous season were an aberration. Johnson would walk 26 batters over his 29.2 IP as an Expo on his way to a winless 0-4 record and a 6.67 ERA. At the time of the trade, Johnson was back in AAA Indianapolis making an effort to regain his control. Once traded, he would join the Mariners’ rotation and finish the season with an unremarkable 7-9 record, 4.40 ERA and only 104 strikeouts in 131 IP as a Mariner.
1990 was Johnson’s first full season as a big leaguer and the 26-year-old made the American League All-Star team. He led the league in walks with 120 but limited hits and provided a useful 14-11 record with a 3.65 ERA, good for 2.2 bWAR. He again led the league in walks in 1991 and 1992, averaging more than 6 BB/9 in both seasons but adding elite strikeout numbers with over 10 K/9 in each season. For his first three and a half years as a Mariner, Johnson was good but not great and his walk rate was concerning to say the least. To that point he had amassed a 46-44 record, 3.90 ERA, 5.7 BB/9, 9.1 K/9 and 7.7 bWAR. By comparison, Brian Holman had a better ERA and produced more bWAR in 200 fewer IP through 1992.
1993 would be the first year that the Big Unit would be a truly great pitcher. For the first time in his career he would eclipse 300 strikeouts in a season and he would do it while walking under 100 batters, also a first in his career as a qualified starter. His 6.5 H/9 and 10.9 K/9 would both lead the league and his 19 wins were tied for second. Johnson finished 2nd in the Cy Young Award and would relieve AL starter Mark Langston in the all-star game. Following the season, the Mariners signed Johnson to a 4 year/$20.25 million contract with a $6 club option for the fifth year.
Over the next four seasons, Johnson would be an all-star and finish top-3 in the AL Cy Young Award in all but his injury shortened 1996 season, winning the award in 1995. He would lead the league in nearly every major pitching category at least once during that span and do it all while posting a very reasonable BB/9. From 1994-97, Johnson had a 56-12 record, 2.71 ERA, 1.097 WHIP, 6.6 H/9, 3.3 BB/9, 11.9 K/9, a 174 ERA+, and 23.2 bWAR.
His greatest moment may have come in 1995 when the Mariners and the California Angels played a one-game playoff to name the division winner. Johnson paired up against Langston and absolutely dominated in a complete game victory as the Mariners won 9-1. He would continue his dominance into the playoffs, leading the Mariners to the ALCS and pitching to a 2.49 ERA over 25 playoff innings.
The Mariners picked-up Johnson’s $6 million option for 1998 but reportedly would not engage in extension talks. Johnson struggled the first four months of the season and was traded to the Houston Astros at the deadline that season (more on this in part 2), ending his tenure in Seattle. All told, Johnson’s ten seasons in Seattle are some of the greatest seasons in franchise history. He ranks in the top-3 in nearly every important category in the franchise including wins, complete games, shutouts W-L%, innings pitched, strikeouts, ERA+, and pitcher WAR.
In the end, Langston played great for the Expos and put up perhaps his best season in MLB, finishing with a 2.74 ERA in 250 IP and totaling 6.4 bWAR. At the time of the trade the Expos record was 23-23. They soon went on a run and were 63-44 with a 3 game lead in the NL East before faltering down the stretch and finishing in fourth place with an 81-81 record. Langston would enter free agency and sign a five-year/$16 million contract with the California Angels, the largest free agent contract ever signed at that point in terms of total amount and average annual value.
As far as a rental trade goes, the Langston deal worked out fairly well for the Expos. When Langston signed his record setting deal with the Angels, the Expos were awarded a compensatory draft pick and eventually selected Rondell White 24th overall. White would turn out to be a very good player and played for the Expos from 1993-2000 with a .293/.348/.480 batting line, excellent defense, and 19.3 bWAR over that span.
For the Mariners, this is obviously one of the greatest trades in franchise history, but it didn’t necessarily look that way at the time of the trade or even 3.5 years later. Fast forward to 1992 and Holman was out of baseball with injuries and Johnson had promise but was still walking better than 6 batters per 9 innings. Rumors were that the Mets were willing to part with both Howard Johnson and Lenny Dykstra for Langston. By 1992, both had been all-stars and top-10 MVP candidates. Rondell White wasn’t yet an MLB player, but he was quickly ascending through the minors and was a top-15 prospect in all of baseball. If someone were looking back at this trade before the 1993 season, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the Mariners were the loser in this deal. Thankfully, for the Mariners and then General Manager Woody Woodward, Johnson became arguably the best pitcher on the planet from 1993-1997.