We review the 1998 trade sending Randy Johnson to the Houston Astros.
One year after winning the NL Central but getting swept out of the division series by the Braves, the Houston Astros were having their best ever season. They were on their way to another division title, but the biggest thing they lacked was a true ace atop their rotation. Enter the future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson.
The Astros had a solid offense with a lineup anchored by Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Moises Alou and Derek Bell, all of whom hit 20-plus homers despite playing half their games in the Astrodome. They had a few guys in their rotation who were having solid seasons, notably Shane Reynolds, Jose Lima and Mike Hampton. But none of them was an ace.
So at the trade deadline on July 31, GM Gerry Hunsicker went bold. He sent pitcher Freddy Garcia, infielder Carlos Guillen and a player to be named later to the Mariners for the 34-year-old Johnson, who was set to hit free agency after the season. The player to be named later turned out to be lefty John Halama.
With Johnson atop the rotation, the Astros won 102 games. But they again failed to advance in the playoffs, losing to the Padres in the division series. With that in mind, we’ll try to figure out which team came out ahead in this trade.
What the Astros Got
The Astros got the best pitcher on the planet, at least for the time he was in Houston. Johnson’s numbers prior to the trade weren’t great, as he had a 4.33 ERA in 23 starts. But he was electric down the stretch, going 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA with 116 strikeouts in 84.1 innings.
In the playoffs, he pitched to a 1.93 ERA in two starts in the division series, but he lost both. The Astros offense scored a grand total of two runs in those two games, and in fact scored just one run in three of the four games in that series. Johnson was one of the least to blame for the disappointing finish.
Unfortunately the Astros did not re-sign The Big Unit after the season. He headed to the Diamondbacks and immediately won four consecutive Cy Young Awards. He continued to pitch until age 46, retiring with 303 wins and 4,875 strikeouts, second only to Nolan Ryan all-time.
What the Astros Gave Up
Garcia became a solid starting pitcher immediately upon entering the majors in 1999. He was the runner-up for the Rookie of the Year award as he won 17 games with a 4.07 ERA. He made two All-Star teams in six seasons with the Mariners, winning 76 games with a 3.89 ERA. The M’s traded him to the White Sox in 2004, and he finished his career with 156 wins and a 4.15 ERA.
Guillen primarily played shortstop, though his best years came after leaving Seattle. He hit .264/.335/.383 with 29 homers in parts of six seasons with the Mariners before being traded to the Tigers prior to the 2004 season. He hit .297/.366/.476 with 95 homers in eight seasons in Detroit, making three All-Star teams.
Halama had made six starts for the 1998 Astros, working to a 5.85 ERA. He spent four seasons in Seattle, going 41-31 with a 4.46 ERA in 81 starts and 49 relief appearances. He bounced around a few more seasons before ending his career with a 4.65 ERA in nine seasons.
The Final Verdict
The Astros got an astounding 4.3 WAR from Johnson in only about two months. He finished seventh in the NL Cy Young voting despite only being in the NL for less than half the season. It’s a shame he didn’t stick around longer, because what he did in Houston was incredible.
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Garcia was worth 18.6 WAR from the Mariners in six seasons and 34.4 for his career. Guillen was worth 9.1 WAR in his six seasons in Seattle, plus another 18.6 in Detroit. Halama was worth 5.4 WAR in his four Mariners seasons.
So all told, the Astros got 4.3 WAR and the Mariners got 33.1 WAR. In a vacuum, one might say the Mariners won since they got significantly more on-field value in the deal. But this isn’t the type of deal to be judged solely on those merits.
This was the type of deal in which the Astros were willingly giving up potential future value in order to receive a great deal of present value. They certainly got about as much present value as one player can give. In other words, they got what they paid for and more. Johnson was incredible.
On the other hand, the Astros failed to advance in the postseason and they failed to re-sign Johnson after the season. He ended up compiling 38 WAR over the next four seasons, which would’ve been really nice to have on the rest of those late ’90s and early 2000’s teams.
From the Mariners standpoint, they were probably going to lose Johnson after the season anyway. This is a trade they would absolutely make again, as it gave them a couple of good young players to have over the next several seasons.
By contrast, the Astros would probably make the trade again, but perhaps to a lesser degree of certainty than Seattle. It wasn’t Johnson’s fault that they didn’t win anything, but one has to wonder if they’d been better off in subsequent seasons with Garcia and Guillen on the team.
This ended up being a good trade for both sides, though I’d give the Mariners the win simply because the Astros couldn’t re-sign Johnson and they failed to advance in the playoffs. But could you imagine Johnson winning those Cy Youngs in Houston? One has to wonder if things would have gone differently in the ensuing seasons if he’d been re-signed.