Reports that Jason Varitek will shortly announce his retirement mean different things to different people. For Red Sox fans, Varitek's retirement marks the end of an era. For fans, Varitek's retirement is another change to the nature of the rivalry. For fans, Varitek's retirement means pretty much nothing. And for fans, Varitek's retirement means we're one step closer to not hearing more than once in a blue moon about that f***ing Heathcliff Slocumb trade.
It's become so well-known that the Mariners traded Varitek and Derek Lowe for Slocumb that whenever I see something like this I just assume it's a troll looking to open old wounds. Based on results, it stands as one of the more lopsided trades ever made, and any list of baseball's worst trades worth its salt would be remiss for not including it. The Red Sox got a solid everyday catcher and a guy who worked well as both a closer and a starter. The Mariners got a year and a half of a pile of crap.
Given Varitek's impending announcement, I thought it'd be worth taking a look back at the circumstances under which he was traded to Boston. After all, were it not for that trade at the 1997 deadline, it's impossible to say how Varitek's career might'kve gone, and word of his retirement might not mean what it does.
The first thing to understand about Varitek back then is that, while he was pretty good, he was not a top prospect. The Mariners took him in the first round in 1994, and he made his professional debut in 1995, posting a .701 OPS in double-A. After the year, Baseball America ranked him the second-best prospect in the system, and the 51st prospect overall.
But Varitek didn't improve by leaps and bounds in 1996. He repeated at double-A and posted a .756 OPS, but the league OPS also shot up by 30 points so Varitek's final numbers were barely above average. Baseball America dropped him off the top-100 prospect list, and he fell to fifth in the Mariners' system, between Raul Ibañez and Greg Wooten. John Sickels gave him a C grade.
In 1997, Varitek moved up to triple-A Tacoma. In the 87 games he played there before getting dealt to the Red Sox, he posted a .772 OPS, which sounds pretty good. But as a whole, the 1997 Pacific Coast League posted an .830 OPS, and it's within that context that Varitek's numbers look unremarkable. Tacoma had an .824 team OPS. The worst team OPS in the PCL was .770.
So now think about Varitek at the time. He was a catcher at the highest level of the minors, and he was holding his own. He wasn't wowing anybody, though, and he was already 25 years old. The Mariners were content with 28-year-old Dan Wilson, who was hitting and receiving pretty well. Jason Varitek was expendable. He wasn't a guy the Mariners would just give away*, but he wasn't a guy they'd try to protect at all costs.
That's what Jason Varitek was. Now let's talk more about the trade. Through July, the Mariners were fighting with the Angels for the AL West lead. The Mariners could hit the crap out of the ball and the front of their starting rotation was strong with Randy Johnson, Jamie Moyer and Jeff Fassero, but the bullpen was a nightmare. Here's where the Mariner bullpen ranked in the league in ERA:
Say what you will about ERA -- there's a lot to be said about ERA -- but imperfect metric aside, there's no denying that the Mariners needed relief help if they wanted to make a title run. And the Mariners sure as hell knew it.
The Mariners actually swung two trades on deadline day to address the bullpen issue. In one, they sent promising young outfielder Jose Cruz Jr. to the Blue Jays for Mike Timlin and Paul Spoljaric. Both of those guys brought solid numbers. In the other, they moved Varitek and Lowe for Slocumb. Perhaps the most puzzling thing here isn't that the Mariners moved Varitek and Lowe; it's that they targeted Slocumb. At the time of the trade, Slocumb had a 5.79 ERA and two fewer walks than strikeouts.
But anyway, Slocumb had a track record, which mattered, I guess. Here's a funny part, from an article titled Seattle hopes to overhaul bullpen soon, published in the Herald-Journal on July 23:
[Mariners GM Woody] Woodward is reluctant to deal a front-line player and has just what Toronto general manager Gord Ash is looking for - catcher Jason Varitek and second baseman Brian Raabe, both at Class AAA Tacoma.
Woodward also has talked to the Boston Red Sox about Heathcliff Slocumb.
A Seattle source said a trade for the veteran right-hander is remote.
Eight days later, Woodward struck a deal with Ash, giving up Cruz Jr. even though up until that point he had steadfastly refused to do so. And on the same day, he struck a deal with the Red Sox, applying egg to the Seattle source's face.
And that trade with the Red Sox very nearly didn't happen. From the Seattle Times:
Waiting until the final minutes before the midnight (EDT) trade deadline, [the Mariners] picked up another short reliever, Boston's Heathcliff Slocumb.
The deal with the Red Sox, which Woodward actually expected to make first, nearly died as well. "We had several discussions with Dan Duquette (Boston GM)," Woodward said. "I thought the deal was not going to come down. At the very end, he called back."
In 1997, Mariners general manager Woody Woodward offered Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe to Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette in exchange for Heathcliff Slocumb. Duquette had to give it a lot of thought before agreeing right in front of the deadline. As much as the deal looks like a no-brainer now, Duquette reportedly hesitated.
To review, because I know this has gotten long: Jason Varitek is soon to be a former Red Sox great, and a former Red Sox captain. He joined the Red Sox because of a deadline trade with the Mariners in 1997. At that point, Varitek was a decent-but-by-no-means-a-can't-miss prospect, and he nearly didn't get moved to Boston, for a few reasons. Jason Varitek built something so robust coming out of a situation so delicate.
The Jason Varitek trade was not good for the Mariners. Time has only made it look worse, so you could say that the Mariners were unlucky in that regard, but they were lucky that Jose Cruz Jr. didn't become what he could've become, so it kind of evens out. And the Red Sox were very lucky -- to get Varitek, and to have Varitek develop as he did. He had a better career in the majors than he had in the minors.
Congratulations to Jason Varitek and the Red Sox for their success, and for building a hell of a relationship that is changing, not ending.