The MLB Trade Deadline is a harbinger of both hope and despair. Contenders celebrate the players added to their roster for the playoff push, sadly wave goodbye to the prospects they shipped out, and fret over the acquisitions of their rivals. Rebuilding teams look with hope towards a better tomorrow while sadly mourning the trading away of longtime fan favorites. It is not just a business deadline, but a highly emotional period for players and for fans.
Both the importance to the team and the high emotions involved are why we here at Pinstripe Alley put such an immense focus on the trade deadline. If you’ve been following along the site, you’ve seen us profile pretty much every single player who might hypothetically be available for trade over the past few weeks. And when the Yankees — or their rivals — do make a trade, we try to break down its significance. Needless to say, when the deadline is busy, as it has been over the past two seasons, it’s a crazy time here at the site for everybody.
Looking back, it’s a shame that Pinstripe Alley did not exist in 1998. As the Yankees headed into deadline day, they were 75-27 — almost 50 games above .500! — and held a 15-game lead over the second-place Red Sox. Only the Braves had a record within spitting distance of the Yankees, and even then, rainouts and scheduling quirks meant that they had ten more losses than the Yankees despite having just three fewer wins. They had a deep lineup that contained just one below-average bat (Chad Curtis), a deep rotation, and a bullpen headlined by the man who would become the greatest closer of all-time: Mariano Rivera. They were exactly what we thought the 2022 team was before their second-half collapse: an overwhelmingly dominant team with no real weaknesses in any phase of the game. This 1998 edition was a ballclub that, no matter how you slice it, should have been going all-in at the deadline to maximize their chances of making noise.
And yet, the Yankees’ biggest acquisition in the entire month of July was purchasing the contract of Joe Grahe from an independent league team — and he didn’t even make an appearance for the Yankees in ‘98! It wasn’t through lack of trying, however: for the first time, and certainly not for the last, the Yankees really tried to swing a deal for future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson.
To most Yankees fans, The Big Unit doesn’t exactly bring out happy memories. After helping bring down Don Mattingly and company in the heartbreaking 1995 ALDS with Seattle, Johnson later became a critical part of the Arizona Diamondbacks team that ended the Yankees’ dynasty in 2001. When he finally did find himself in pinstripes, he was 41 years old and nowhere near the dominant ace fans had expected him to be. Johnson was solid in ‘05, bad and injured in ‘06, and sent back to Arizona prior to ‘07 with disappointment shrouding his tenure.
But in 1998, Johnson was exactly what the Yankees were missing. Don’t get me wrong, the Yankees had a strong pitching staff: David Wells, David Cone, and Orlando Hernandez gave the team three quality starters, Andy Pettitte had struggled at times but was a good young pitcher, and Hideki Irabu was one of the better No. 5 starters in the league. Johnson, however, was in a league of his own; while his four consecutive NL Cy Young Awards were still in the future, he already had an AL Cy Young sitting on his shelf (1995) and had been the runner-up for the award in ‘97. Although he had gotten off to a rough start in ‘98, he had righted the ship as the season went on, and would clearly make an impact wherever he went. Adding him to an already-strong rotation would have potentially made it historic.
Not surprisingly, Jack Curry goes into extensive detail on the potential move in his recent book, The 1998 Yankees. While general manager Brian Cashman looked into adding Johnson for its sake — after all, who wouldn’t inquire into a future Hall of Famer in their prime? — a major driving factor in the negotiation was to keep him away from Cleveland, their eventual ALCS opponent. But Cashman balked at the price that the Mariners were demanding — starting pitcher Hideki Irabu, top prospect Mike Lowell, and another minor leaguer — even before learning from Lou Piniella that the Bombers were fortunate to avoid Johnson when Seattle came to the Bronx because “Randy doesn’t like pitching at Yankee Stadium.”*
*Evidently, George Steinbrenner did not heed this advice when he had Cashman trade for Johnson after the 2004 season.
With the team rolling through its competition and question marks about The Big Unit’s fit both in the locker room and in the Bronx, Cashman opted to stand pat. It would indeed be another seven years before Johnson donned the pinstripes.
Ultimately, the Seattle Mariners ended up flipping Johnson to the Houston Astros, a last-second deal consummated minutes before the deadline that sent future contributors Freddy Garcia, John Halama, and Carlos Guillén back the other way. With the Astros, Johnson would arguably go down as the greatest rental of all time. He struck out 116 and allowed just 12 runs in 84.1 innings across 11 starts, including four complete-game shutouts. Despite spending only two months with the team, he accrued the second-most WAR among Astros pitchers (4.0 bWAR, 3.3 fWAR). He helped the Astros, who at the deadline had a 64-44 record and just a 3.5-game lead over the Cubs, pull away in the AL Central; they finished the year 102-60 and a 12.5 game lead, although the eventual pennant-winning Padres would go on and knock them out in the NLDS.
Hindsight being 20/20, it’s clear that the Yankees did not need Randy Johnson. They finished the year with the best ERA in the American League, both Wells and Cone each received Cy Young votes, and they lost just two games in the entire postseason. And yet, it’s fair to wonder what would have happened if The Big Unit came to the Bronx and pitched like he did in Houston. Would they have unseated the 1906 Chicago Cubs and seize the MLB record for both wins in a season (116, which the 2001 Seattle Mariners tied) and winning percentage (.763, almost 50 points higher than the 2001 M’s .716)? Would they have gone undefeated in the postseason, a feat not yet achieved in the Wild Card Era?
It’s impossible to say, but it’s fun to dream.