November 2nd, 1993: Seattle Mariners trade SP Erik Hanson and 2B Bret Boone to the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for C Dan Wilson and RP Bobby Ayala.
The Mariners have, with the potential exception of the 19 year-old Rays, had the worst annual and cumulative production from the catcher position of any team in baseball since 1977. We have been fortunate at some positions, of course, seeing Ken Griffey Jr., Mike Cameron, Ruppert Jones, and Franklin Gutierrez all showed stretches or flashes of brilliance in center field. Every action has a reaction, however, and based on my understanding of science from my high school physics class, the reaction to Seattle’s center fielding brilliance has been a franchise long chasm behind the plate.
These are the bottom seven teams in fWAR at the catcher position since 1977. The bottom five contains four teams that would qualify as millennials having a nice, chill time, and one Gen X-er, who stumbles in and smashes into a lamp like a friend’s drunk, weird, older boyfriend named Lance. Lance buys you beer which is kinda nice, but he has some questionable facial hair and refuses to wear deodorant because he insists it messes with his chi. If you are reading this you probably root for Lance, so congrats, I guess.
There were flashes of competence behind the dish. Bob “Scrap Iron” Stinson, whose name somehow is a conjunction of Gorrell, was the 25th pick in the expansion draft for the Mariners. In 1978, Gorrell C’d the Z for a .258/.346/.404 line that, coupled with solid defense, provided an otherwise listless second-year franchise with an excellent season from the starting catcher. Rick Sweet, a local product, like many early Mariners, came from Longview, Washington and Gonzaga University to start the majority of the games from 1982-83. Alas, he followed up a decent first season with the Mariners with a .528 OPS and -1.2 WAR and tragically his retirement the following season proved you couldn’t get by in the MLB on 80-grade mustache talent alone, even in the 80s.
Not until 1993, Dave Valle’s final year with the club, however would a Mariners starting catcher perform at a starter-worthy level by what we would today determine using advanced statistics, even taking into account the harmful way catchers are viewed by WAR.
Something needed to be done.
Daniel Allen Wilson was the 7th overall pick of the 1990 draft, going to the Cincinnati Reds. A highly regarded defender, Wilson hit decently in his first two years in the minor leagues, and was rapidly promoted up through the minor leagues, rising to be the #41 ranked prospect in the MLB by Baseball America in 1991. He grabbed a few hits in the twilight for the 1992 season for the Reds. At age 24, Wilson began the 1993 season in AAA, but was called up after a couple months to try and invigorate a roster that was getting little production from veterans Joe Oliver and Brian Dorsett. Not only did Wilson struggle offensively, his defense was inconsistent. The collective result was 36 games rough enough to apparently sour the Reds on the highly touted prospect, just three years after his selection, still shy of his 25th birthday. Jim Bowden, at age 32 still the youngest GM in baseball history at the time, made a deal that seemed to be as a strong win-now move for a Reds team in contention. Sports Illustrated described the move without even referencing Wilson by name, but mentioning multiple Boone’s:
It may be blasphemous to say Woody Woodward made a good trade, particularly one involving a catcher, but that’s what this was. The M’s dealt Hanson, a pitcher coming off of a career best season who would likely earn free agency after the following season, as well as a former 5th round pick and solid prospect (#97 overall prospect by Baseball America prior to 1993) in Boone, but who played at a position of relative depth in the organization. Rich Amaral, Félix Fermín, Luis Sojo, and 20 year old Álex Rodríguez weren’t world-beaters, but they were all MLB ready talents that made Booney expendable.
In return, Seattle acquired a well-regarded prospect at the nadir of his value in Wilson, as well as a failed starter in Bobby Ayala who had posted far better numbers as a reliever, which is, for better or worse, what he would remain for the rest of his career.
The strike-shortened season of 1994 hurt the Reds, who lived up to the billing and finished the season leading the NL Central by half a game with a 66-48 record. It’s hard to say if Erik Hanson’s late season injury of a torn knee ligament that required surgery might have loomed larger in the collective psyche relating to the trade had the season continued. Following the strike, Cincinnati lost Hanson to free agency regardless, and essentially only drew a half season out of the 6’6 righty.
Bret Boone would spend five seasons with the Reds, after having spent the second half of 1993 putting up a respectable 95 wRC+ as the starting 2nd baseman for the M’s. While Boone made the All-Star Game in his final year in 1998, looking at his 4.2 fWAR in five seasons as a full-time starter in Cincinnati, relates what is evident to anyone: his best years were still ahead of him, and the trade, in terms of value, was tilting ever further in Seattle’s favor.
The other half of the deal was the infamous Bobby Ayala. He began his time in Seattle with an outrageous K% of 32.2% in 56. IP, putting him in roughly the Cody Allen, Seung Hwan Oh, Jason Grilli realm of pitchers in 2016, but in a time where K’s were much harder to come by. Ayala’s stats slipped in 1995, certainly, and he was understandably replaced in the closer role by Norm Charlton, but his FIP- never once dipped under 97 in his career as a Mariner. I was old enough to know I hated him in 1998, just as much as I loved Dan the Man, and this may be the toughest test of numbers vs. what feels right I’ve ever seen.
WAR is a stat operates free of the trappings of fandom and context, so perhaps it may push the limits of decency for many longtime fans to say that Bobby Ayala was worth 2.7 WAR over four seasons in Seattle. It was easy to blame Ayala as he physically transformed from Sam Rockwell with a remarkably punchable face into Paul Giamotti with a remarkably punchable face, while of course punching himself through a hotel window and onto the DL. Ayala has been dragged in news blurbs, worst player lists, and even heartwarming eulogies. Perhaps this is limit of what science and hard facts can tell us or convince us as fans. Perhaps a -3.87 WPA, the second worst season for a reliever in the history of baseball, is justification enough for rage, it still doesn’t overshadow Dan.
Wilson would struggle in his first season as a Mariner, seeming to carry over his hitting struggles, as well as a .259 BABIP well below his .299 career number. His measly .245 wOBA, matched his 1993 numbers with Cincinnati exactly, however Seattle stuck with their 26 year old catcher, and the next decade was their reward. A wRC+ of 95 in ‘95 wasn’t Pudge-like, but with good enough hitting and average baserunning, Wilson’s defense shone and the Mariners made their first run to the postseason. The next year Wilson became the first, and still only, Mariners catcher to make an All-Star game.
Prior to Dan Wilson’s arrival, the starting catchers for the M’s first 17 seasons, from 1977-1993, tallied a total of 12.3 WAR. Wilson would accrue 13.8 WAR over his 10 seasons as a starter for the Mariners.
Evaluating this deal at the time, both sides met their needs, though the Reds missed their golden chance due to the strike. Looking with hindsight, of course, the Mariners came out on top. They sent a decent second baseman who would only later ascend to elite status and a half season of a decent starting pitcher. They received an infuriating but ultimately average reliever and a franchise catcher who, for someone born after Alvin Davis retired, was as much “Mr. Mariner” as anyone not named Edgar, the only backstop to lead the team in starts at the position for more than five years. Not bad at all.