With Trader Jerry entering his second season at the helm, this is the first of what will hopefully be a series of looks throughout this winter at off-season transactions in the past that have had a significant impact on the Mariners. In looking back at these moves, perhaps there will be interesting information on what has led the Mariners to make some of their more ill-fated (or astute) moves. Perhaps there will only be torment. At minimum, it will be a nice/grim reminder about how difficult it is to run a baseball team.
October 23, 1981: INF Manny Castillo traded by the Kansas City Royals to the Seattle Mariners for a player to be named later. The Seattle Mariners sent LHP Bud Black (March 2, 1982) to the Kansas City Royals to complete the trade.
1981 was a season of flux for the entire league. A players’ strike mid-season brought about the first three-round playoffs in the MLB’s long history, as the league chose to declare the division leaders for the first half of the season and the second half of the season to each be playoff teams, and pitted them against one another in a best-of-five round that was a spiritual predecessor to the Wild Card style that would be used from 1995-2011. For Mariners fans, coming off a 59-103 record the year before that was worst in the majors, the most memorable moment of the 1981 campaign being Lenny Randle’s attempt to blow a slow roller foul must have felt appropriate.
The 1981 Mariners were bad. The kind of bad that makes me feel extremely fortunate to have not been alive at the time. The kind of bad that makes a record of 44-65 seem merciful in its brevity. For those of you who remember this team, or know anything about the history of the franchise, this is not a surprise, but the holes are worth poking at nonetheless. No hole was bigger than the one at third base.
Daniel Meyer was the most frequent starter at the hot corner, three years removed from a -2.7 WAR performance. He showed a dramatic improvement all the way up to -0.4 WAR in 1981, with a .262/.291/.345 line, and just three home runs. He would finish his career, bless his heart, as, the 18th worst qualified player in MLB history.
Meyer’s backups were not markedly better. Lenny Randle was by far the best option, but the utility man was aging and spent much of his time filling in other positions. 1981 would be his last ‘full’ season in the MLB, and by the mid-80s Randle was building his legend in Italy’s professional leagues. Dave Edler, a local legend from Yakima who starred at WSU, struggled even more, posting an odorous 24 OPS+. While recording just 11 hits in 78 at-bats, Edler also struggled on defense, and the duo’s collective ineffectiveness led GM Dan O’Brien to make some moves. Unfortunately, the solution O’Brien selected brought more harm to the 1982 team than the initial problem.
Manny Castillo made sense as a trade target. Having been signed by the New York Mets in 1973 as an international free agent listed at the age of 16, Castillo had risen to AAA by the age of 20, playing primarily third base. Castillo was selected in the Rule 5 draft by the Royals before the 1980 season and spent the next two seasons hitting many, many singles in AAA. His peak cale in a ferocious .335/.382/.462 display in AAA-Omaha, winning the American Association MVP in the process.
Given his productivity, it was reasonable to look at the 24 year old switch-hitter from the Dominican Republic and see an everyday 3B. As the Royals were understandably comfortable with their third base situation at the time, they agreed to sling Castillo to the Mariners for a PTBNL, and the M’s shipped Meyer off to Oakland.
The 5’9, 160 lb Castillo would start two seasons as the opening day third baseman. He posted an unacceptable 65 wRC+ in 541 PAs in 1982, spending almost the entirety of the season hitting 2nd in the order. He supplanted that with 20 errors, the second most in team history for a third baseman at the time. One might assume that a third baseman as slight of frame as Castillo would contribute on the base paths, a la Chone Figgins. You would be right to assume that a major league player of unusual dimensions for their position must make up for their obvious deficiencies through an alternative skill. You would be wrong in thinking Castillo was able to do so, unfortunately.
The slight switch-hitter followed a -1.6 WAR season with a year splitting time with Edler and another Yakima product, Jamie Allen, neither of whom could scrounge up even replacement level numbers. Castillo’s second season would be his final with the Mariners, as the team cut him, in a move that would signal the end of his Major League career, nearly mirroring his spiritual successor yet again.
Castillo is probably best remembered, perhaps even fondly, for his lone, unsuccessful appearance as the Mariners’ first ever position-player pitcher, after which he was quoted as saying “I didn’t have my best stuff.” Historical footnote or not, the trade that brought him to Seattle can be looked at as little more than a disaster. The PTBNL he was exchanged for ended up being a 17th round pick by the name of Harry “Bud” Black.
Black was a force in the minor leagues, and in just two years made it from low-A ball in Bellingham to the MLB roster, albeit briefly. The strength of the Mariners’ squad in ‘81, if you could call it that, was their youth and depth at pitcher, so it is understandable that the organization would see another strong young arm as expendable. Jim Beattie and Floyd Bannister would become legitimate all-stars over the next couple seasons, but the rest of the rotation foundered, and could have used a steady force like Black would become for the Royals. Bud averaged just over 173 IP per season over the next five years, including a 4.6 WAR season in 1984 and a World Series victory in 1985.
It feels disingenuous to hold Black’s success after he elected free agency following the 1988 season against the Mariners, since their retention of him going longer than that of the Royals is more speculative than this entire venture already has been. While Black did pitch through the 1995 season, his last few years were poor at best. As a lefty pitcher losing it at the back end of his thirties, Bud still never produced a season as poor as either of Castillo’s ventures with the Mariners. Adding insult to injury, in 1993, a 36 year old Bud Black was a more productive hitter, with a wRC+ of 48, than Castillo was in his final season of 1983.
Both Black and Castillo have gone on to coaching careers in professional baseball, which seems like one of the coolest jobs a person could have, so I feel alright having mildly to majorly insulted them for several paragraphs. Yes, Black clearly had a better career, earning roughly 18-20 WAR in his decade and a half in the MLB to Castillo’s roughly -2.5 in barely two full seasons. Both, however, were 24 year old prospects excelling at the AAA level when the trade was made. There have been deals made in Mariners history that were obviously horrible at the moment of inception. This was not such a trade, and yet it would be difficult to find a worse one-for-one swap in the team’s macabre history, in hindsight. You may trust in or be skeptical of the current front office, but sometimes things just work out oddly. Thankfully, they almost never work out as badly as this trade, but if it’s all the same to you, I’m going to keep my fingers crossed this offseason just to be safe.