In 1989 the Seattle Mariners acquired Randy Johnson and two other players in a deal for star pitcher Mark Langston. In part 1 of this post, I looked at how the Mariners acquired Johnson from the Montreal Expos in 1989. In part 2, we’ll look at the deal that sent him away in 1998 to the Houston Astros.
The Trade Details
On July 31, 1998 the Seattle Mariners traded Randy Johnson to the Houston Astros in exchange for Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen, and a player to be named later. After the season, the trade was completed when John Halama was sent to the Mariners. As discussed in part 1, the Mariners had picked-up Johnson’s $6 million option for the season and extension talks between the team and Johnson had not amounted to anything.
At the time of the trade the Mariners were in 4th place and 10 games out of first place in the AL West. The Astros were in first place and were arguably the best hitting team in the National League. The 34-year-old Johnson was in the midst of his worst season as a Mariner going 9-10 with a 4.33 ERA and 106 ERA+. His career as a Mariner would end with a record of 130-74 (.674 W%), a 3.42 ERA, 1838.1 IP, 2162 SO, and a 128 ERA+, good for top-3 in nearly every important category in team history.
Johnson on the Astros
Randy Johnson put together one of the greatest final two months in baseball history following the trade. Over his 11 starts, he struck out 10 or more batters in 7 of those starts, never allowed more than 3 ER in a game, and tossed four complete game shutouts. All in all, he would go 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA and 116 strikeouts over 84.1 IP and put up a mind blowing 322 ERA+. Despite only playing two months in the NL, Johnson would come in 7th in the Cy Young award voting and even receive MVP votes.
21-year-old Freddy Garcia was one of the top prospects in the Astros system but was not quite ready to compete on a World Series-caliber team. He began the 1998 season in AA and made two starts at AAA before the trade. He would make five starts for AAA Tacoma before the minor season ended. Following the season, he was added to Baseball America’s top-100 prospects list, coming in at 61.
In 1999, Garcia would break camp with the Mariners and have an excellent first season. His 17-9 record, 4.07 ERA, and 5.4 bWAR were the best numbers put up by any rookie pitcher. Garcia would finish as runner-up to Carlos Beltran in the AL Rookie of the Year voting and ninth in the AL Cy Young voting.
The next few seasons were excellent for Garcia. After injuries limited his availability in the 2000 regular season, Garcia gave perhaps the greatest postseason performance in team history in the ALCS, going 2-0 with a 1.54 ERA over two starts. 2001 was arguably Garcia’s best season as a Mariner. He wound up making his first all-star team and coming in third in the Cy Young award voting while leading the AL with a 3.05 ERA in 238.2 IP. He would go on to make another all-star team in 2002 but scuffled in 2003. After a strong start to the 2004 season, Garcia was traded to the Chicago White Sox along with Ben Davis for Mike Morse, Miguel Olivo, and Jeremy Reed.
In five and a half seasons as a Mariner, Garcia went 76-50 with a 3.89 ERA over 1096.1 IP in the regular season. His 3 postseason wins are tied with Jamie Moyer for the team record.
Carlos Guillen would not be a regular contributor to the Mariners until 2000. From 2000-2003 he would serve as a regular player for the Mariners, taking over for Alex Rodriguez as the primary shortstop beginning in 2001. Guillen played good defense and was a decent hitting shortstop as a Mariner. He would hit .264/.335/.383/.718 from 1998-2003. Following the 2003 season, he was traded to the Detroit Tigers (for no one you would remember…) where he would immediately become an all-star caliber player. In his first five seasons in Detroit, he made three all-star teams and hit .308/.377/.493/.870.
John Halama was the PTBNL in the deal. He had made his debut in 1998 with the Astros, starting the season in the rotation, but had not pitched particularly well and was sent to AAA for the rest of the season. His four years in Seattle were mixed between starting and serving as a middle reliever and he produced at about league average (102 ERA+) over that span. After leaving the Mariners he would pitch for five teams in four seasons.
Considering that Randy Johnson was a 34-year-old having his worst season in some time, the Mariners got a pretty good return. Combined, the three players they received for him produced 33.1 WAR over the next few seasons and were key contributors to the 2000 and 2001 teams that made the ALCS.
Houston did not receive any draft compensation for Johnson and he would leave to sign with the Arizona Diamondbacks in what is arguably the greatest free agent signing in baseball history (4 Cy Young Awards in 4 years).
Looking back at both trades, in 1989, the Mariners had a talented pitcher who had struggled with some control issues (Mark Langston) that was about to leave in free agency as one of the most coveted pitchers in baseball. He was traded for three players with minimal experience in MLB. One of those pitchers turned out to be a future all-star and Cy Young winner. In 1998, the Mariners had a talented pitcher who had struggled with some control issues early on (Randy Johnson) that was about to leave in free agency as one of the most coveted pitchers in baseball. He was traded for three players with minimal experience. One of those pitchers turned out to be a future all-star. Unfortunately, the cycle ended there as, when Freddy Garcia was eventually traded, the return did not amount to much.
When a team knows that it is quite unlikely that they will be able to extend a top player before they enter free agency, trading them mid-season is about the only option they have left. In this case, never letting Johnson reach free agency was probably the best option. How great would the 2000 and 2001 teams have been with him starting instead of Garcia? Would they have won 120 games in 2001? Could they have won the first World Series in franchise history?
The truth is Randy Johnson’s career arc is a bit unexpected. Most players peak in their early 30s and the mid-to-late 30s are a time of regression. In his case, he put together one of the greatest runs in baseball history of any pitcher at any age after turning 35. Hindsight is 20-20 and, at the time, my guess is most people thought his best days were behind him.