One-sided trade in '97 a boon for 'Tek, Lowe
Seattle sent catcher, hurler to Boston in exchange for Slocumb
As the Red Sox prepare to celebrate the career of one of their modern-day greats, spare a thought for Mariners fans. The recognition of Jason Varitek's exemplary career in Boston also serves to rub a little more salt in an old wound for Seattle.
That's because Varitek, along with Derek Lowe, might well have spent that excellent career in the Pacific Northwest. But for a classic prospects-for-veteran trade that turned out to be incredibly one-sided, the two men might never have been cornerstones of the 21st-century Red Sox resurgence.
On July 31, 1997, right at the non-waiver Trade Deadline, Seattle sent Varitek and Lowe to Boston for established (but not especially effective) reliever Heathcliff Slocumb. The right-hander went on to pitch 96 innings for the Mariners. Varitek received more than 5,000 at-bats with the Red Sox, and Lowe tossed 1,000 innings for them.
However it may have seemed at the time (and there was criticism in Seattle even then), the deal surely did not turn out well for the Mariners.
It was a game-changer for the Sox.
"In terms of stabilizing a team, look what Jason did for the Red Sox," said Orioles general manager Dan Duquette, who made the deal for the Red Sox in 1997. "He stabilized the team for over 10 years, and the team won two championships. So he's a building block."
Varitek goes into retirement as a franchise great. He spent his entire big league career in Boston, including a lengthy tenure as captain, and played on two World Series champion teams. Lowe's tenure was shorter but nonetheless highly successful, including a 100-inning season in relief, a 42-save season and a 21-win campaign. The two combined for five All-Star selections with Boston.
Deals like this are why general managers are often loath to deal prospects for veterans. Often they work out, but the one-sided ones hurt forever.
It's not that there wasn't logic to the deal. Seattle's bullpen at the time was a massive problem. The Varitek/Lowe trade was not the only move for relief help that then-GM Woody Woodward made at the '97 deadline. His other move, sending away Jose Cruz Jr. for Mike Timlin and Paul Spoljaric, was at least arguably more controversial.
Still, Slocumb, coming off back-to-back 30-save seasons, was having a rough year. He had walked very nearly as many batters as he'd struck out and had a pedestrian 77 percent conversion rate on save chances. But he was coming on strong, going most of July without allowing a run. So Seattle took a flyer on him.
Except that by giving up two quality prospects, the deal counted as much more than taking a flyer. Varitek was a two-time first-round Draft pick who had been rated a top-100 prospect just a year and a half before. Lowe had been rated a top-100 prospect twice in his Minor League career, though he'd found the going somewhat tough in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.
So although neither was a once-in-a-lifetime type of prospect, both had real value. To get one for Slocumb would have been nice work. To get both was a coup.
It's only fair to note that for the specific job the Mariners asked him to do -- closing out games for a team trying to make the 1997 playoffs -- Slocumb was basically effective. His strikeout rate spiked and his walk rate dropped after his rough start with Boston, and he converted 10 out of 11 save chances. It wasn't always pretty -- there's a reason he was called Heathcliff "Fasten Your Seatbelts" Slocumb -- but it was success.
In fact, this whole story might look a lot different if only October had gone differently. Had the Mariners advanced a couple of rounds, won the franchise's first pennant, the memory wouldn't sting nearly so much. Instead, Seattle gave away Varitek and Lowe for a player it might not even have needed, since it won the division by six games.
Slocumb played 1 1/2 seasons with the Mariners, departing as a free agent after the 1998 season. He was absolutely pounded in early '98, carrying a double-digit ERA into late May before settling in to have a passable final four months. He was worth 0.4 wins above replacement (using BaseballReference.com's formulation of that stat) over the eight baseball months he was a Mariner.
By comparison, Varitek and Lowe were worth a combined 41.5 wins for the Red Sox. That's a landslide. The problem is that it wasn't nearly so obvious at the time. Seattle knew it was dealing players with some value, and it knew it was addressing a need. Sometimes prospects, especially pitching and catching prospects, don't turn out at all. These two just happened to.
"The point is, our trade happens all the time," Lowe said. "[Woodward], he didn't do anything wrong. He just maybe got bad information. But that's why you have so many scouts. I think it just happened to work out so one-sided in hindsight, but at the time Lou Piniella was the manager in Seattle and he loved veteran pitchers, not so much young pitchers."
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. MLB.com beat reporters Jordan Bastian and Brittany Ghiroli contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.