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It’s the 20th anniversary of one of the worst trades in baseball history

The Mariners thought they were building a bullpen, but they were helping the Red Sox build a championship team instead.

Heathcliff Slocumb

The Seattle Mariners, bless them, have enough funny trades in their history to do an unbelievable power ranking. There’s the time they gave up Adam Jones and Chris Tillman for Erik Bedard, sure, but I’m not convinced that even rates. Not when you compare it to the time they gave up Asdrubal Cabrera and Shin-soo Choo within four days of each other to build a stunningly mediocre first base platoon.

That introduction was deliberately inserted so that most of the Mariners fans reading would close the tab. We need to talk frankly about an awful Mariners trade, and that was an endurance test. If you’re still here, well, good for you. More punishment lies ahead.

Two decades ago, the Mariners needed relievers. They traded for relievers. It didn’t work out.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to point and laugh at the Heathcliff Slocumb trade because it didn’t work out. The Mariners got an erratic reliever for a season and a half, and the Red Sox got Derek Lowe, Jason Varitek, and two World Series championships. But that’s not entirely fair.

There’s some context to explore. While it seems devastating in retrospect that the Mariners traded a future franchise catcher and a pitcher who made an All-Star team as both a reliever and a starter, and it seems inconceivable that they traded them for a closer with a 5.79 ERA who had allowed 95 baserunners in 46 ⅔ innings, it’s not like ...

Actually, there’s no way to gloss over that part. Literally 95 baserunners in 46 ⅔ innings. Holy moly.

But there’s still context to explore.

The Mariners bullpen really was awful

Just as important: The rest of the team was amazing. This was a roster that had Ken Griffey, Jr. in his prime, Edgar Martinez demolishing the league, a 21-year-old Alex Rodriguez, and Randy Johnson at his best. Those are four Hall of Fame-worthy players in their prime, all doing things together, and that’s before you get to the complementary players like Jay Buhner, Jamie Moyer, and Jeff Fassero. This was a team with one of the best middles of any order you’ll ever see, and they had three postseason-caliber starting pitchers.

And the people watching this team had to sit through blown save after blown save.

Norm Charlton was absolutely dreadful, with a 7.85 ERA just before the trade deadline, and the worst part was that he still hadn’t lost his job as the closer yet. He had allowed runs in seven of the 11 games he pitched in July, with multiple runs allowed in four of them. Behind him was Scott Sanders (bad), Bob Wells (bad), Bobby Ayala (pretty OK, considering!), Greg McCarthy (bad), and Felipe Lira (bad). The Mariners were 60-47 at the deadline and in first place, but they had the worst bullpen in baseball.

There weren’t a lot of relievers traded at the deadline

The Mariners absolutely knew what they needed. They needed to go to the reliever store and fill up the cart like they were on a game show.

The only problem was that there weren’t a lot of relievers traded. Scott Service was traded in a minor deal. Roberto Hernandez was traded in a major deal that involved Wilson Alvarez and six of the Giants’ best prospects, so you can understand how it would have been hard for the Mariners to worm their way into the middle of that.

There should have been a lot more relievers traded. Todd Jones was on a listless Tigers team. Jeff Montgomery wasn’t doing the Royals much good, and you would have figured the Rangers would have been eager to trade John Wetteland and his contract after the season started falling apart. Ugueth Urbina, Ricky Bottalico, Dennis Eckersley, Jeff Shaw, and about a dozen other relievers on bad teams would have been dealt in today’s trade market. The pitchers with team control would have been especially popular.

Back then, though, there were just a couple of relievers traded, and the Mariners got most of them. Which brings us to the next section.

Mariners fans were LIVID ... at a different trade

If you’ve never explored baseball newsgroups from the ‘90s, I heartily encourage it. It’s absolutely necessary perspective to read lengthy missives from people who are absolutely freaking out because their team traded Hancy Drendelaza. You realize that nothing matters, prospects always disappoint you, everyone is wrong, and baseball keeps moving on.

I used to have opinions on Jason Bay, if you can imagine.

And for my money, it’s hard to get a better freakout than Mariners fans had over Jose Cruz, Jr. being traded for Paul Spoljaric and Mike Timlin. Cruz was ranked the top prospect in the Mariners’ system in 1996 and 1997, and he started his MLB career hitting dingers, with a .268/.315/.541 line in his first 198 plate appearances.

That part up there, where there weren’t a lot of relievers on the market? It totally hosed the Mariners, who walked into a shady reliever bazaar wearing a sandwich board that read, “WE NEED RELIEVERS. PLEASE, HELP US.” The Blue Jays kept pushing and pushing and pushing, and the Mariners didn’t have a lot of alternatives. Waste the prime of Griffey, A-Rod, Martinez, and Johnson, or give up one young outfielder? Who would even notice?

Mariners fans noticed. And they were too busy freaking out about the Cruz deal to notice. Look at them tearing each other apart! There were a few posts about Slocumb (with cameo appearances from a teenaged Dave Cameron sprinkled throughout), but everyone was mostly concerned with the top prospect in the system being traded for two middle relievers.

They weren’t wrong. While Cruz was more mercurial than expected, he was still a solid player for years. Timlin and Spoljaric left in free agency after the 1998 season, and only Timlin was above-average, so it wasn’t exactly a good trade. It just wasn’t one of the worst in history like the other one.

Jason Varitek’s stock was down, and so was Derek Lowe’s

Varitek was a hyped college prospect who was drafted in the first round in two straight years, and his agent was Scott Boras, who made life difficult for the drafting teams. That means he came into the minors with a reputation and lofty expectations, but he didn’t hit a whole lot.

Because of the holdouts and chicanery, he was 23 when he started his pro career, hitting for a .701 OPS in Double-A. He was only incrementally better the season after that, and by the time he was in Triple-A, he was 25 and an average hitter for the league. He was still a prospect, but he wasn’t good enough to supplant Dan Wilson, who was still in his 20s and an All-Star the year before.

Lowe was a top-100 prospect before the 1993 and 1994 seasons, but he stalled in Double-A in 1995, and he wasn’t much better the following season in Triple-A. He made nine starts for the Mariners in 1997, and he was absolutely pounded, allowing 11 home runs in 53 innings, good for a 6.96 ERA. He was 24, and the prospect sheen was wearing off quickly.

They were still young, and there were still reasons to hold out hope for them. But they weren’t Jose Cruz, Jr.

In 1997, people didn’t freak out about strikeout-to-walk ratios like they do now

Front offices were still looking at ERAs, even for relievers, and Slocumb was generally solid in that department. He walked a lot of guys — his career BB/9 was 5.1 — but he had a fastball of note, and he had a lot of saves. He was a widely respected closer. Why would anyone care that he had 36 strikeouts to 34 walks in 46 ⅔ innings right before he was traded? He was excellent in 1996, after all.

And it was easy to wave his bad outings away because they were mostly concentrated in one stretch. He had a 3.00 ERA in his first 12 outings with the Red Sox (not a bad ERA in 1997), and he had a 2.41 ERA in his final 20. In between, there was a mess, but it looked like a since-fixed mechanical glitch

Heathcliff Slocumb really is a badass name

People don’t talk about that anymore.

This is all the context for a trade that set the Red Sox up for years, and it makes the deal slightly more understandable. On the other hand, Slocumb had ...

  • a 5.79 ERA
  • allowed 95 baserunners in 46 ⅔ innings
  • allowed 95 baserunners in 46 ⅔ innings
  • allowed 95 baserunners in 46 ⅔ innings
  • and he had allowed 95 baserunners in 46 ⅔ innings

If there was a scout who signed off on Slocumb’s arm, he should have felt bad relatively soon after. While he wasn’t too bad for the Mariners for the rest of the season (4.13 ERA, and just 41 runners allowed in 28 innings), there were still dozens and dozens of red flags, even if the prospects they traded away never panned out.

That they both panned out was especially cruel. When the trade was made, the Mariners franchise was about the same age as the Rockies are now, so it wasn’t that big of a deal that they hadn’t won a pennant yet. The sympathies of the baseball world were with the historically cursed franchises, like the White Sox, Cubs, and Red Sox.

Twenty years later, after helping one of those teams get over the hump, the Mariners are still waiting for their first pennant. And while there are a lot of reasons for that, here’s hoping you’ll take a moment to remember them making one of the worst trades in baseball history. It didn’t make that much sense at the time, and it doesn’t make that much sense now, even if you spend a thousand words or so trying to make sense of it. Did you know that Slocumb had allowed 95 baserunners in 46 ⅔ innings before the trade?

Seems like that’s an overlooked part of a deal that was overlooked at the time, but certainly isn’t 20 years later.