As Mick Jagger once said…

Yankees contact Cliff Lee's agent
Fan Confidence Poll: November 8th, 2010
Possibly the only documented instance of Randy Johnson smiling while with the Yankees. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

The Yankees always almost wanted Randy Johnson. They nearly wanted him in 1994 when the Mariners first seemed willing to trade him. They wanted him again in 1997 and 1998 when the Mariners were definitely going to trade him. They kinda, sorta wanted him after 1998 when he hit free agency, and they lusted after him in the wake of the Diamondbacks’ trade of Curt Schilling to the Red Sox.

By the time the Yankees finally landed Johnson, the Big Unit was on the wrong side of 40 and on the wrong end of his career. In 2005, he had a good-for-anyone-else but good-for-him first season in New York, going 17-8 with a 3.79 ERA over 225.2 innings with an 8.4 K/9 IP. In 2006, he had a terrible year. He managed to win 17 games but lost 11 with an ERA of 5.00. He struck out just 172 in 205 innings, and his 7.6 K/9 IP was his lowest mark since his age 25 season. Once the October scourge for the Yanks, he suffered through two, allowing 10 runs in 13 innings over two forgettable Yankees ALDS losses, and today, the Big Unit Era is a dark time for the Yankees and their fans.

I refuse to draw parallels between Randy Johnson and Cliff Lee although they clearly exist. The Yankees tried to land Lee at the deadline and failed, as they did with Randy Johnson, and the Yankees will now try to sign Lee as a free agent, as they may or may not have done with Randy Johnson in 1998. But Lee is a good nine years younger than the Unit was when he finally came to New York, and while Cliff Lee has been very good of late, Randy Johnson 1992-2002 was one of the best pitchers in baseball history. We’ll have our fun with the Randy Johnson saga anyway.

The first time the Yanks and Randy Johnson are linked in a serious rumor, it is 1994, and little do either the Mariners or the Yankees realize what awaits them at the end of the following season. As the Daily News reports a year later, the Mariners tried to rade Randy Johnson to the Yankees for Sterling Hitchcock, Domingo Jean, Mark Hutton and Russ Davis, but the Yankees said no. They had no desire to move Hitchcock — who would eventually go the Mariners with Davis in the Tino Martinez/Jeff Nelson deal.

In 1995, though, the Yanks had a team payroll that year of $58 million, but it was a high enough figure to lead all of baseball. (The Orioles were second at $47 million.) Had the Mariners even been willing to trade Johnson, money, said the Boss, was an obstacle. “Randy Johnson is one of the great pitchers in the game,” Steinbrenner said in April, before that season began. “It would take some very creative stuff to be able to add him, because I’m right at the level that I want to be.”

In 1997, two years after Randy Johnson and the Mariners had stunned the Yanks in the playoffs, Seattle needed to ship out the Big Unit. He was a season away from free agency, and the Mariners wanted to realize his value before they lost him. The winter before the Yanks’ historic run in 1998 featured numerous Johnson rumors. Peter Botte offered up a delectable one: The Braves would send Mark Wohlers and two others to Seattle while the Mariners would ship Randy Johnson to New York and the Yankees would send Bernie Williams to Atlanta. The Cubs could have become involved as well, but Bob Watson shot that one down. “I’ll tell you what, if we can pull those kinds of moves off, we need to go over and negotiate the settlements in Iraq,” the Yanks’ then-GM said. “There’s no truth to it.”

Instead, the more likely rumor had the Mariners asking for Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera. The Yanks had offered up only Rivera for Johnson, and when the Mariners countered by requested Pettitte as well, the Yanks put the kibosh on that deal. The Yankees had no desire to make such a move, even for Randy Johnson, and the Unit himself told the Yanks through the media to wait for him to hit free agency. He wanted the pinstripes; the pinstripes wanted — or at least seem to want — him.

As the 1998 season wore on, so too did the rumors. After the season began, the Mariners came back with a new proposal: Ricky Ledee and Andy Pettitte for Randy Johnson. The Yankees said no, and it looked as though the Dodgers would land Randy in exchange for Hideo Nomo. That deal fell apart too, and talks continued through the trade deadline.

Again on July 31, 1998, the Yankees had their chance. The Mariners asked for Hideki Irabu, Class A pitcher Ryan Bradley and Mike Lowell, but the Yankees did not want to part with Lowell. (That they would do so a few months later and get nothing good in return remains one of Cashman’s worst trades of all time.) The Yankees were left empty-handed at the deadline and went on to win 114 regular season games and the World Series.

Then, a funny thing happened on the way to free agency. The Yanks seemingly grew disinterested in Randy Johnson, and it appears to be over the matter of money. In 1998, the Yanks’ payroll sat at $73 million, but the team knew it would have to re-up with a few key players. Bernie Williams and David Cone were both free agents, and Derek Jeter was set for a significant raise in arbitration. While negotiations with Bernie nearly resulted in the premature end of the Williams Era, the Yankees wanted Randy Johnson in early November but were sidetracked by the Williams negotiations. A few days later, the Diamondbacks nabbed Johnson for four years and $50 million, and the Unit responded by winning the Cy Young in each of those seasons.

If the Yanks felt slighted, they never said so. Johnson cited a desire to play close to home, and the Yankees had to get their own house in order first. They recovered from missing out on Randy Johnson by trading David Wells, Graeme Lloyd and Homer Bush to the Blue Jays for Roger Clemens, won two more World Series and were stymied by Johnson and the Diamondbacks in 2001. They always wanted Randy Johnson, but at least during the late 1990s, they got what they needed instead.

Yankees contact Cliff Lee's agent
Fan Confidence Poll: November 8th, 2010
  • candyforstalin

    for someone who knows shit about yankees history, these tidbits are very satisfying.

  • Dirty Pena

    The image of Randy Johnson that I have ingrained in my head is the back page of (I believe) the Daily News after Game 3 in ’95. The headline was “SWEEPLESS IN SEATTLE” and it was just a typical picture of him with the mullet flying behind him.

  • MikeD

    I don’t know if it’s true or not, but in 1998, the newspapers were reporting that while the Yankees had an interest in Johnson, it wasn’t a strong interest because they had such a great team and could win the World Series without Johnson. Remember what was going on the field at that year? They were right, and were right for several more years. So I do understand why they hesitated. Anyway, the news at the time was the Yankees were involved in the trade negotiations to ensure that Johnson did not go to the Red Sox. Once it was clear he was heading to the NL, they were happy. In retrospect, it would have been great if they took that last offer, and shipped Lowell off.

    • Ed

      My memory was that they were concerned about his history of back problems. I also remember that point being brought up when they finally did get Johnson – why trust his back when he’s in his 40s if you didn’t trust it in his early 30s?

  • kosmo

    Money and the great Sterling Hitchcock was all that stood between Unit and NY in 1994 !

    • MikeD

      More disturbing was it was “only” money that prevented Johnson from coming to NY once he was a free agent. For all the Yankees big free agent moves they’ve made over the years, I’m always surprised by some of the obvious moves they should have made, but didn’t. Johnson would be right at the top of the list. There was something about George Steinbrenner and pitching he never quite understood. He was always fascinated by the everyday players. The power hitters. We lost the entire 1980s because of his approach toward pitching.

    • TopChuckie

      Would they have gotten Tino and Nelson without Hitchcock and would they have won without Tino and Nelson? Let that sooth the pain a little bit.

  • Esteban

    I think I would have done the Pettitte and Ledee for Randy swap. Sorry bex

    • Benjamin Kabak

      In a heartbeat.

      Even if that’s sacrilegious to say today, there’s no denying how much better of a deal the Yanks would have gotten than Seattle.

      • Ed

        I think that’s only true if you assume that Johnson signs an extension and count that as part of the deal. You’re talking about 2.5 seasons of Pettitte for 3 months of Johnson.

        Johnson’s ’98 was amazing during his time in Houston (4.0 bWAR), but his AL performance wasn’t nearly as hot (1.5 bWAR in almost twice the innings). If he moved to the AL East, I think his performance would’ve been closer to his AL West performance than his NL Central performance. In that case, I’d prefer not making the trade.

    • bexarama

      Nope, I’d have done it too. Of course, it’s pretty understandable why the Yankees wanted to keep their own young starter.

      • bexarama

        Also to say the least, the Irabu/Lowell deal was a no-brainer, but I don’t think anyone would say otherwise

      • Esteban

        Haha but then would you have developed your crush on Andy? The Yankees would have robbed you of that.

        • seimiya

          Mo knows who would have been the object of her affections without Andy around.

        • bexarama

          I dunno, Randy Johnson was a pretty distinguished-looking guy!

          (I barfed typing this.)

          • Mister Delaware

            Randy Johnson : Bex :: Wendy : Stan

  • JGS

    he Diamondbacks nabbed Johnson for four years and $50 million, and the Unit responded by winning the Cy Young in each of those seasons.

    In each of those four years, Johnson pitched at least 248.2 innings and struck out at least 334. Since then, no one has struck out more than 290 in a season, and no one other than Johnson himself has even hit 270.

    He led the league in strikeouts, K/9, and ERA+ all four years, he led the league in ERA in three of them, innings pitched in two, and WHIP once. All four years were in the top ten K/9 seasons ever, and his 13.41 in 2001 is the best ever.

    He accumulated 33 bWAR in those four years (equal to Barry Zito’s entire career) and 38.9 fWAR.

    Best free agent signing ever? The only competitors I can think of are Maddux’s deal with the Braves and Pedro’s with Boston (and that wasn’t necessarily a true FA signing–he was already with the team, they just extended him).

    • Ed

      Johnson’s Arizona contract or Maddux’s Atlanta contract is a tough call.

      Maddux had 3 Cy Youngs, along with a 2nd and a 5th place finish over his 5 years. Johnson had 4 Cy Youngs and a higher average WAR over his 4 years.

      However, Johnson’s contract was market rate. He went to the highest bidder. Maddux turned down $35m/5 from the Yankees to accept $28m/5 from the Braves. It was enough of a difference that the Braves later said they wouldn’t have bothered making an offer if they had known what the Yankees offer was.

      So I think Johnson wins in performance, but Maddux wins in value.

    • pat

      Barry Bonds could be in consideration. 1993-1999. 6 years 43 million. 8.2 bWAR per year.

  • bonestock94

    Wow, I didn’t realize there was that much history. The first trade proposal is far and away my favorite. Wonder why they were attached to Hitchcock, every stat I look at screams mediocrity.

  • Matt DiBari

    “As the Daily News reports a year later, the Mariners tried to rade Randy Johnson to the Yankees for Sterling Hitchcock, Domingo Jean, Mark Hutton and Russ Davis, but the Yankees said no.”

    I think I just had a stroke.

    “Again on July 31, 1998, the Yankees had their chance. The Mariners asked for Hideki Irabu, Class A pitcher Ryan Bradley and Mike Lowell, but the Yankees did not want to part with Lowell.”

    Yep, there it was again.

    But seriously, the biggest parallel between Johnson 05 and Lee 2011 is that regardless of the end result, it was the right move to make. I have absolutely no regrets over trading for Johnson, and even if Lee implodes, I’ll have no regrets over signing him. Sometimes the best laid plans fall apart.

  • harlingtoxad

    I will forever defend trading Lowell for Ed Yarnall.
    In 1998 he was the best pitcher I have ever seen in the Eastern League (AA).

  • Big Stein

    It seems like I’m the only skeptic, so maybe this excellent post will help others, but I repeat it again: beware of coveting Cliff Lee, he’s over rated.

    Lee is a very good pitcher. But a mania has developed which he will not live up to.

    As an aside: remember when Randy got knocked out of the 4th inning in game 3 of the 2005 ALDS — he was mercilessly boooed.

    • FIPster Doofus

      If by “excellent post” you were referring to Ben’s article, it doesn’t make me wary of Lee. Johnson was 10 years older than Lee when the Yankees acquired him. Hence, you can’t really compare the two. I’d liken Lee to Mike Mussina, whom the Yankees signed to a six-year deal at 33 and got some fantastic seasons from, over Johnson.

      Lee is 32 and the best lefty in the game. He will be of tremendous help to whatever team that signs him.

      • Benjamin Kabak

        He will be of tremendous help to whatever team that signs him.

        For how long? For two of the five years? Three? I don’t think you can compare Lee to Johnson for the reasons I said in the post, but Cliff Lee also isn’t nearly as good as Randy Johnson was. I’m not sold on Lee’s longevity over the duration of the deal, and comparing him to Mussina is apt.

        • Clay Bellinger

          Just curious…why don’t you think that Lee will age well? His avg fastball has gone up slightly over the last three years. Although, he relys more on command, control, movement, and deception. Of course, all of these can fade with age as well. I would think that Moose would be a decent comparative to him.

          • Benjamin Kabak

            Mussina’s age 35-38 seasons were not worth the amount of money Cliff Lee will make. More later. I’ll opine on Lee’s decline in a bit.

            • Brien Jackson

              I’ve been saying I’d worry about committing too many years to Lee for a while, but if he signs a 5 year deal, and is “worth” his salary for the first 3, I’d be absolutely tickled. The last 2 years of this hypothetical wouldn’t include Burnett’s salary, so I think they could probably handle overpaying a declining Lee for 2 years if they get 3 very good years out of him.

              • FIPster Doofus


        • FIPster Doofus

          Cliff Lee isn’t as accomplished as Randy Johnson was, but I think 32-year-old Lee > 42-year-old Johnson.

      • kosmo

        Lee is not the best lefty .You can say he´s one of the best lefties but not thee best.

        • FIPster Doofus

          Then who is? It’s either Lee, Sabathia, Lester or Liriano. I choose Lee.

  • Wil Nieves #1 Fan

    This was an interesting and refreshing article. Nicely put together. Though I must ask, what was it that Mick Jagger once said…?

    • yungsta

      You can’t always get what you want.

      You can’t get no satisfaction.

      Wild horses we’ll ride them someday.

      You’re a pretty pretty pretty pretty girl.

      …and a whole bunch of other things.

      • Nostra-Artist

        That, and “Fuck you, Keith”.

    • nsalem

      You can’t always get what you want,
      but if you try sometime you find
      you get what you need.

    • Benjamin Kabak

      I was thinking “You can’t always get what you want.” Hence the final line of the post!

  • Nostra-Artist

    It’s easy to kick ourselves over not wanting to include Lowell in 1998, but Johnson was so unhappy here I wonder if he would have ever had the same career in pinstripes, even in his prime. Maybe as a younger pitcher he would have been less set in his ways, and maybe as a 6’10” lefty being set in his ways was the key to his success. In retrospect NY was just such a bad fit for Randy, the big city, the annual and daily expectations, the media, etc. Beat reporters will tell you he was one of the most unhappy Yankees they’ve ever covered. I can’t beat myself up over it too much if I’m Cashman.

    • The Honorable Congressman Mondesi

      “It’s easy to kick ourselves over not wanting to include Lowell in 1998, but Johnson was so unhappy here I wonder if he would have ever had the same career in pinstripes, even in his prime.”

      Clearly Johnson was a… unique personality. On the other hand, though, put a younger version of Johnson on the dynasty teams, while he was dominant on the mound, with mostly fawning media coverage for the team, and I think he would have had a very different experience as a Yankee than he had during his actual tenure. I don’t think the circumstances between the hypothetical and the actual could be much different.

  • nsalem

    I see know connection between Johnson and Lee save for the
    bad back and their left handedness. While Johnson seemed to
    lack confidence on the mound as a Yankee, Lee always appears to
    be brimming with confidence and in total control on the mound.

  • OldYanksFan

    Very, very interesting stuff. It tells a little bit about trades not made, and how difficult it is to predict how things would turn out. We now know Andy and Mo for RJ was not a good idea, but Andy and Leedee may well have been.

    We know that Cano was offered in a number of deals. At the time, who knew what Cano would become. The more I read about these ‘almost’ trades, the more I realize how hard it is to be a GM, and be the guy that makes the final decision, and takes the heat.

    I may be wrong (only time will tell, right), but I’m really glad we didn’t trade Montero for Cliff. Will Montero be our best hitter since Mattingly… or since Mantle? Will he even be playing baseball in 3 years? Or maybe he ends up as one of those one-dimensional, true-outcome guys.

    Who knows, eh?

  • Nogomo

    Wow, they were ready to give up Mo for the Unit! I wonder who they’re ready to deal now for Lee. And, if Lee comes to NY, I wonder how long it’ll be till he becomes AJ v.2?! God forbid.

    I just wanna know why can’t we have better pitching? Why?

    • AJ

      For some reason when starting pitchers come here they usually get worse. With the exception of CC, so many great SPs come here and fall apart. Randy Johnson (who wasn’t awful but wasn’t what he was in Arizona), Vasquez, Pavano, Burnett, Kevin Brown, Jaret Wright (not great but he was solid before), Irabu, Igawa, Kenny Rogers, the list goes on.

      • Tim

        I agree, like those bums Jimmy Key, David Cone, David Wells, Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, Orlando Hernandez (I’ll include him because you included Igawa and Irabu). Bums, all of ’em.

        Maybe it isn’t that starters get worse when the come to NY. Maybe it’s that the wrong kind of starters fail to perform up to their expectations when acquired by NY, but the right kind of starters do.

        I am willing to bet that Cliff Lee is more Jimmy Key and David Cone than Jaret Wright.

  • mike

    I dont remember too many people at the time upset with dealing Lowell – Brosious had a great year, there was really no place for him, and the Yanks got back a bunch of young pitchers ( as i recall), and Yarnall was a dominant-type guy

    i recall during 1998 the big reason for looking at Johnson was to keep him from Boston/AL teams, and once he was traded to Houston it was a sigh of relief – although the whole world expected him to be a Yankee when he was a free agent after that year.

    I suppose the love affair with Clemens would put an end to that once the deal was made, but i recall Johnson was seen as the one Yankee-killer in the mix if Boston or another team got him