The 1993 Phillies are one of the most revered iterations of the team in their checkered history. Starved for not just playoff baseball, but even decent baseball, for nearly a decade after their surprise 1983 World Series run, the city embraced this band of misfits in a way we really haven’t seen since. Sure, the recent(ish) run of success has left us with many more players worthy of Wall of Fame enshrinement, they still haven’t left a collective mark on the city like the 1993 team has. Why that is is a mystery since the 2008 team actually finished the job and won the championship, but that’s another story for another day.
In 1993, the Phillies were comfortably leading their division in mid-July and were looking to bolster their team for the inevitable championship series showdown with whatever team was left standing in the NL West, San Francisco or Atlanta. Of all the things the team needed to improve on, the rotation was the one that was the consensus top choice for improvement. So when you’re leading the division and you like the look of your future, what would be the best thing?
Why, trade for the best pitcher in the game of course.
The first mention of Randy Johnson getting traded to the Phillies was one made in jest. In February 1992, Frank Fitzpatrick mentioned how much then manager Jim Fregosi loved having tall pitchers. Running down the list of pitchers that were in camp that spring, one had to notice that a trend was emerging since most of the names that would end up making the team were all 6’4” or taller. Fitzpatrick then said:
“...if GM Lee Thomas could swing a deal for Seattle’s 6’9” Randy Johnson, the Phils would have a legitmate center.”
To anyone reading that at the time, you could see the joke. “Add another tall guy and you have a basketball team! Hahahahaha”. However, the idea of Seattle even considering trading Johnson first started to gain some smoke when arbitration numbers were submitted early in the 1993 season. Johnson filed at $3 million coming off a season in which he threw 210 1⁄3 innings, striking out 241 batters, but also walking 144 of them, all while compiling a 105 ERA+. Remember, this version of Randy Johnson was not the Randy Johnson that we all remember, but he was still so good with so much potential that asking for that much money wasn’t really all that unheard of. So when he filed at that number, Seattle GM Woody Woodward was sort of taken aback.
“I’ve been in the game too long to be too surprised by arbitration numbers...but this year a few took me back.”
Perhaps because of this, Johnson was being shopped around in spring training.Bbut with the team getting new ownership from Japan, it would have taken a haul to pry Johnson loose. Multiple reports said how the new owners were not crazy about angering the fanbase with a Johnson trade, but still, from years of watching how teams operate, you can already see that Johnson’s arbitration number meant the team was looking to move him.
Those talks about moving Johnson were moving fast, with his name starting to pop up in rumors as early as January of 1993. According Jayson Stark, Johnson’s name had been bandied about as being on the move to either Philadelphia or Cincinnati, but in order to obtain his services, teams would have to part with:
“young (meaning cheap) pitchers in return. And that translates to either Ben Rivera or Curt Schilling, neither of whom the Phillies would move.”
Once Johnson accepted the Mariners’ offer of $2.625 million for the 1993 season, it appeared that that was over. Seattle would be keeping him and, at least according to the papers at the time, were still interested in keeping him long-term. The year prior, they had signed Ken Griffey, Jr. to an extension, so maybe the new owners were looking at trying to hang on to their core as best they could and weren’t crazy after all.
As the All-Star game came around, so too did the rumors of the Phillies looking to improve their team. At first, it was the usual desires of a manager: left-handed relief pitching to help the bullpen, the same thing each manager wants at every trade deadline. But as July 31 drew nearer, there started to turn up some more chatter regarding Johnson and his unhappiness in Seattle. One deal that was openly discussed was a deal that would send Johnson to the Yankees for outfielder Gerald Williams, pitcher Bob Wickman and pitching prospect Dave Silvestri. The Phillies were still interested in getting Johnson, but could not agree on what to give up in return. As the trade deadline came and went, the Phillies, as we know did end up with Johnson and Seattle would hang onto him, ultimately saving a marriage that would result in their miraculous run to the 1995 divisional series win against the Yankees that possibly saved baseball in the Pacific northwest.
But how close did the Phillies come to getting Johnson?
Well, without any official notice from anyone involved with the team, we’re left to words of local beat writers. According to one, the Phillies could have had Johnson had they been willing to give up Schilling plus a little more, a move that in hindsight was the correct one not to make. But are there other reasons why the team didn’t take him?
Again, according to one of the beats at the time, the team didn’t think Johnson would fit in well with the “raucous” crowd the team had assembled. There was a source from Seattle that was quoted as saying Johnson was “very emotional...very moody...and very, very sensitive.” Other names used in the article were, and I’m just quoting here, “weird” and “prissy”.
Johnson would eventually agree to an extension, as mentioned earlier, that was beneficial for both sides as he blossomed in ‘93 into one of the most dominant starters in the game. Staying in Seattle turned out to be good for him, for the team and for baseball in general.
But what if?
What if Johnson had somehow been traded to the Phillies during the 1993 season? Jayson Stark wrote a piece in 1995 that said that the Mariners had placed a high asking price on the Big Unit that would have demanded a big return.
The deal that was discussed by Phillies general manager Lee Thomas and Mariners general manager Woody Woodward was this: Johnson for Curt Schilling, Ben Rivera, and a top prospect that was never settled on, but was believed to be Mike Lieberthal.
A steep price indeed.
Thomas goes on to say that Rivera was “throwing the hell out of the ball” at the time and would have been tough to include. He tried to make different iterations of this deal work, but nothing could be finalized. Thomas doubts that even had he agreed to a group of players to head back to Seattle that the Mariners would have indeed finished the deal.
Had they actually been swapped, seeing Johnson in Phillies pinstripes might have been jarring, but the team would have had one of the most dominant left-handers in history in their organization. Rivera eventually flamed out, so he wouldn’t have been missed too much, but losing Lieberthal would have hurt.
We don’t know how things would have turned out for them since in the playoffs that year, Johnson would have essentially been taking Schilling’s starts and he was quite good that year. It’s the years down the road that would have been altered and honestly, I’m not sure what would have changed. Lieberthal has always been underrated outside of Philadelphia as a player, so the team may not have had a solid catcher for quite a few years. The owner’s penny pinching ways probably decreased the likelihood of extending Johnson, so they might have had to deal him off in the future anyway. So would history have looked different? Maybe, but the answer will always be a mystery.