December 6, 1997 in Sports

Johnson Worth Far More Than Money History Should Tell Mariners Trade Would Be Mistake

Peter Schmuck The Sporting News
 

There is an axiom that warns about the folly of ignoring the lessons of history. Something about being doomed to repeat it. The Seattle Mariners might do well to look it up, because they are flirting with disaster.

The Mariners are entertaining offers for left-handed pitching ace Randy Johnson. They apparently are willing to trade The Big Unit to avoid giving him The Big Contract, which should not come as a huge surprise in this era of The Big Money.

Atlanta Braves pitcher Greg Maddux recently signed for $11.5 million per year. The going rate to keep Johnson beyond the 1998 season undoubtedly will approach that.

The Mariners have been involved in trade talks with the New York Yankees the past few weeks because they are worried they will lose him to free agency next winter and get nothing but a draft choice in return.

That is a legitimate concern, but it is not reason enough to run off one of the most exciting and overpowering pitchers in the history of the game. Johnson already is larger than life, and he is even larger than that in the Pacific Northwest. The Mariners can argue that they have both the best position player (Ken Griffey) and the best pitcher in the game, a distinction that just might be worth the combined $20 million per year it’s going to take to keep both of them in Seattle.

This is where the history comes in. The California Angels were faced with a similar situation after the 1980 season. They had to decide whether future Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan was worth what was then the unthinkable sum of $1 million per year. General manager Buzzie Bavasi, in what is now considered one of the greatest front-office blunders in baseball history, decided he was not.

Bavasi sneered that he could get “two 8-9 pitchers” to replace Ryan for half that price, and the Angels twice fell one game short of the World Series the next six years.

Fast forward to 1997. The Mariners are looking at a revenue crunch, and the acquisition of two younger, cheaper pitchers - reportedly Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera - would solve a lot of problems.

Pettitte is a star-quality left-hander, who would fill the space in the starting rotation left by Johnson. Rivera is a frontline closer who would stabilize the Mariners bullpen. Both are three years away from free-agent eligibility and will earn far less combined than Johnson over that period.

Not a bad deal. Just a bad idea.

Johnson still has some ground to cover to step into the company of Nolan Ryan, but he already has one thing in common with baseball’s all-time strikeout and no-hit leader. He is one of those rare baseball players who is a draw unto himself. Those players don’t come cheap.

The Mariners don’t have to dump Johnson. Chances are, they will think better of it, keep him for the 1998 season and try to convince him to take less to stay in Seattle in 1999. He’s the guy who should throw the first pitch at the new stadium that is rising across the street from the Kingdome.

The Mariners got more victories from their top three starters than any other American League team, but replacing Johnson - even with another premier pitcher - would cost them far more than just the statistical differential.

The front office need only look at the past three seasons to find a clear cause-and-effect relationship between Johnson’s performance and the ultimate success of the club.

Which brings us to the $11 million question: How do you trade a guy who is 43-6 the last three seasons and might be the most talented pitcher of his generation?

The answer is: You don’t.


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