Mariners would be wise to avoid Big Unit redux
It's an alluring notion: Randy Johnson once again draped in Mariners colors, bent forward on the mound, those fierce, focused eyes peeking...
Seattle Times baseball reporter
It's an alluring notion: Randy Johnson once again draped in Mariners colors, bent forward on the mound, those fierce, focused eyes peeking over the top of his glove to inspire fear and loathing in opposing hitters.
The power of nostalgia can not be overestimated. It helps explain the annual "Junior's coming back to the Mariners" speculation, and it excited the local sensibilities this week, inevitably, when word leaked from New York that the Big Unit is back on the trade market.
But Mariners fans would be wise not to pin their hopes on a triumphant return by Johnson, whose departure to Houston in July 1998 was anything but a triumph.
It was the denouement of a messy melodrama that led an estrangement between the best pitcher in Mariners history and the organization that rode him to two division titles.
There's no need to rehash the gory details of a 9-year-old contract dispute, which at times denigrated into he-said, she-said accusations. Ultimately, the Mariners guessed wrong on Johnson's ability to come back from back surgery, and watched him win four straight Cy Young awards and a World Series title in Arizona.
But they also watched pitcher Freddy Garcia and shortstop Carlos Guillen blossom, and the team prosper in the absence of Johnson (and, incongruously, Ken Griffey Jr., and Alex Rodriguez as well).
Time heals wounds, and the enmity that marked the dispute has waned. Johnson told me in 2001 that he held no hard feelings toward the Mariners. Fans at Safeco Field have greeted Johnson warmly in each of his return appearances.
Now that Johnson apparently is open to leaving the Yankees and moving back west, it's natural to imagine a glorious reconciliation. Johnson, grieving the recent death of his older brother, would return to his nurturing roots and nearer his Phoenix-area home, and the pitching-hungry Mariners would get one of the all-time greats.
Yet sources both within and outside the Mariners organization indicate there has been no movement toward such a transaction, and that there is unlikely to be. The Yankees appear to be focused most intently on the Diamondbacks and San Diego Padres to satisfy Johnson's wishes (which were never expressed in the form of a trade demand), and their own requirements for compensation.
Thus, if the Mariners are going to add an impact left-hander this offseason, it still stands to be free agent Barry Zito, whose status has suddenly become intertwined with that of Johnson.
The spin by some media outlets is that the Yankees are looking to dump Johnson in order to free payroll for a full-bore Zito pursuit.
Zito's agent, Scott Boras, would be ecstatic if the Yankees joined the fray. Boras' idea of heaven is pitting the Yankees against the New York Mets for a superstar client — and if Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks is also involved, nirvana.
Yet the spin coming from the Yankees' camp is quite the opposite — that they have no stomach for a Zito bidding war. Their motivation for pursuing a Johnson trade is — hold your guffaws — to provide organizational depth and payroll flexibility. Granted, those have never been a Yankees priority before, but general manager Brian Cashman seems intent on changing the team's game plan after six years with no title.
In exchange for Johnson, the Yankees are looking for young talent, lots of it. They also wouldn't mind an established reliever — Scott Linebrink is the Padres player being mentioned most prominently, while Mariners lefty George Sherrill is said to intrigue them. But Sherrill wouldn't fetch Johnson without a couple of top prospects to sweeten the deal.
The notion of a Richie Sexson-for-Johnson salary swap, speculated in some circles, does not reconcile with either Yankees scenario — a chance to stock up the organizational talent pool, or clearing payroll for a Zito run.
The Mariners would be wise, if the opportunity presents itself, to restrain from depleting their already thin farm system for Johnson, who turns 44 next September. The Yankees would no doubt seek the likes of Adam Jones and Jeff Clement, not to mention coveted young arms like Ryan Feierabend and Chris Tillman.
Nostalgic memories aside, the modern-day Big Unit doesn't warrant such a return. Not for the $16 million he would be owed in 2007, the final year of his contract. The Yankees may be willing to take care of a couple of those millions with the right return, but no more.
Johnson is coming off his second back surgery for a herniated disc this past October. The first operation in 1996, despite Mariners concerns, worked out beautifully, but who knows how he will respond at his advanced age?
Though Johnson won 17 games in each of his two seasons in the Bronx, he had a 5.00 earned-run average last season and dropped precipitously in virtually every statistical category.
Johnson was also aided by 7.51 runs per nine innings — by far the most run support in the American League. The Mariners, you might have noticed, don't have the Yankees' offense.
One Mariners source said that when it comes to Boras' response to their Zito proposal, "the silence is deafening." No doubt, the uber-agent is preoccupied trying to facilitate a nuclear confrontation between the New York superpowers.
If the Mariners wind up getting shoved out of the Zito market, it might turn out to be a blessing in disguise, saving them from making a near$100 million commitment to a pitcher who some analysts predict is at the precipice of a decline.
Of course, the Mariners thought the same thing about another left-hander nearly a decade ago.
About Larry Stone
Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.
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