We all know that the Mariners wound up getting the better of the Griffey deal. While Cammy blossomed in Seattle, Griffey soon began to fight with injuries and he struggled to stay on the field. It was a trade I absolutely loathed at the time, but I look back on it today as one of the best moves the team's ever made. Despite being granted absolutely nothing in the way of leverage, the Mariners were somehow able to dump an icon and come away better because of it.
But was I right to loathe it at the time? Okay, yeah, there were personal reasons - Griffey was everyone's hero - but if you strip all that away, was there actually a reason to be upset with what the trade meant for the team on the field?
Between 1997-1999, Griffey was sustaining his offensive peak. He put up wOBAs of .410, .408, and .404, and stood as one of the most universally feared hitters in the league.
Between 1997-1999, Cammy was just getting his feet wet. He put up wOBAs of .360, .305, and .379, and stood as a guy with some speed, some pop, and a massive hole in his swing.
If you apply a basic 6/3/1 weighting, you get a .406 wOBA for Griffey in 2000, and a .355 wOBA for Cammy. That equates to a difference of about 30 runs over a full season (650 PAs). In other words, at the time of the trade, Griffey looked to be about 30 runs better than Cammy at the plate. Maybe 25 if you figured that Cammy would get better as he entered his peak, and maybe 35 if you figured that Cammy's lackluster 1998 was a concern. But somewhere around there. Offensively, Griffey was the better player by something on the order of ~3 wins.
But that's only half of the picture. According to UZR, Griffey was a -13 run (per season) center fielder between 2000-2003, whereas Cammy was a +23. Now, these figures only include post-trade playing time, but if you extrapolate them back, we can say with reasonable certainty that, at the time of the deal, Cammy was +20 < x < +30 in center, while Griffey was -15 < x < -5. We traded a below-average defensive center fielder and got back one of the elites. I don't know, maybe Griffey was more like a 0 at the time and his injuries unfairly skew the data since we couldn't know those were going to happen, but either way, Cammy was on another level. And just because people weren't really talking about defense back then doesn't mean its relevance was any less significant. According to the best measure we have, Cammy's defense was so good that it negated just about all of Griffey's offensive advantage.
Think about that. At the time of the trade - when we had no choice but to give Griffey to the Reds in exchange for whatever they felt like offering - Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Cameron were roughly equivalent players. And while Griffey was 30 years old, Cammy was 27 and still under team control for three more years. Jim Bowden also gave us three other players, one of whom was a highly regarded young infielder and another of whom was a 27 year old #4 starter also under three more years of team control.
We didn't just rip off the Reds in retrospect. We ripped off the Reds at the time.
Mike Cameron's career is among the most underappreciated in recent baseball history.