Before I begin this exercise in What If? baseball history, let’s just remember that hindsight is always 20/20. When we look back in time and try to evaluate trades that weren’t made, it’s easy to do it sitting here in 2008. The trick is to put our selves in the shoes of those involved in the decision. In this case, that means hoping in a time machine and journeying to July 31, 1998.
It is July 31, 1998, and the Yankees are on a once-in-a-lifetime roll. The Yankees are 76-27 with a 15-game lead over the Red Sox. Since a 1-3 start, the team was a blistering 75-24. That just doesn’t happen.
But despite being prohibitive World Series favorites, the Yankees were always searching for ways to get better, and leading the charge was a rookie. General Manager Brian Cashman was in his first year as Yankee GM, and a series of moves and non-moves, beginning on that fateful night in July — the trade deadline — would impact the Yankees Dynasty up through the present day.
As site commenter Phil reminded us today, the Yankees were in the hunt for Randy Johnson. I had completely forgotten about these behind-the-scenes moves. But as RAB favorite and one-time Yankee beatwriter Buster Olney relates, the Yankees didn’t pull the trigger:
The Yankees could have had Randy Johnson tonight. Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman could have called the Seattle Mariners and agreed to their demands, and Johnson, one of this generation’s best pitchers, would have joined George Steinbrenner’s juggernaut.
Instead, the Yankees decided to pass on Johnson, refusing Seattle’s request for pitcher Hideki Irabu, the minor league infielder Mike Lowell and a second Class A player, and Johnson was traded to the Houston Astros. The Yankees’ last-minute attempt to trade for Los Angeles reliever Antonio Osuna also fell apart. Cashman and the Yankees are betting they can win the World Series with the team that has won 76 of its first 103 games.
”We made a tough decision,” Cashman said, ”and we will live with it.”
“The price,” according to Cashman, “was too high.” The price of Hideki Irabu, Mike Lowell, and a single A pitcher or the price of Ramiro Mendoza and Mike Lowell. It was all too high. Ironically, when Mike Lowell was traded five months later, the returns were meager. I can only wonder what changed — other than one great Scott Brosius season — in the intervening few months.
Now, for all the Cashman haters, this trade serves as the greatest indication of what he did wrong. Imagine Randy Johnson on the Yankees from 1998 through 2004 or 2005. How much would be different? Now, we can play that What If? game.
For starters, with Randy Johnson on board, I can’t envision the Yankees trading for Roger Clemens, and from there, the picture gets murky. I’d guess that the Yankees still win the World Series in 1999 and 2000. The storylines diverge in 2001. With Randy Johnson pitching for them instead of against them, the Yanks win the 2001 World Series. Maybe they get bounced in 2002; maybe they don’t. The 2003 season is hard to imagine also. That year, RJ made only 18 starts with the Diamondbacks.
But then we arrive at the Holy Grail of the What Ifs. In 2004, with Randy Johnson around and all things being equal, it’s hard to see the Yankees going down in seven games. Kevin Brown wouldn’t have been on the team because Hideki Irabu would have been traded to the Mariners instead of the Expos. Remember: The Expos sent Ted Lilly to the Yanks who sent Lilly away for Weaver who was traded for Kevin Brown. Got it?
The storylines merge though when 2005 arrives. We saw Randy Johnson 2005-2006; there’s no need to recount that.
Now, who knows if my rosy scenario is right. Could the Yankees with Randy Johnson really have won World Series from 1998-2001 and then again in 2004? It’s quite possible, but it’s also a challenge to win five World Series in eight seasons. It’s certainly no given.
Meanwhile, as much as we want to harp on this trade as Phil did today, it’s really hard to argue with the way things turned out for Cashman and the Yankees. By not acquiring Randy Johnson in 1998, the Yankees got Clemens for 1999 and shipped off Irabu for a piece — Jake Westbrook — that would eventually land them David Justice, the key to their 2000 World Series championship.
So for these What Ifs, you have to believe what you want to believe. Does RJ mean no Clemens? Or is RJ in 1998 just as unhappy in New York as he was in 2005? Does RJ in 1998 mean no David Justice? Does RJ on the Yankees in 2000 mean they don’t need a David Justice? Does RJ in 1998 mean no Javy Vazquez, no Kevin Brown? Does it mean the Red Sox’s futility would survive to this day?
In the end, no one knows. It’s fun to hop on that Wayback Machine and check in with the Yankees circa 1998, but it’s largely futile. Considering the Yanks’ success and the way Brian Cashman went about, in the late 1990s, acquiring just the right pieces at just the right time, I can’t bemoan or criticize Cashman for not making this trade. Others will, but as I said, hindsight is always 20/20.