(Photo by Associated Press)
It’s hard not to arrive in Baltimore, see that Chris Tillman is scheduled to pitch tonight against Felix Hernandez, and not reflect on the most controversial Mariners trade of the last decade.
No, I’m not talking about Rafael Soriano for Horacio Ramirez.
You know the one: Bill Bavasi, going all-in for the 2008 season, sent outfielder Adam Jones, and pitchers George Sherrill, Kam Mickolio, Tony Butler and Tillman, to the Orioles for Erik Bedard, a deal announced on Feb. 8, 2008. It was actually Jan. 27 when Jones was sent home from his winter league team in Venezuela and told a reporter there, “[Bavasi] called me [Saturday] and told me the news. I’ve got to go to Baltimore [this] morning and handle things there. I’m the centerpiece of the deal on the Mariners’ side. It’s an honor to get traded for such a highly talented pitcher as Bedard is.”
There ensued a furious debate about the wisdom of the trade, with some people, including myself, believing it was a gamble worth taking (though mindful of the risk), and others — the majority, I’d say — believing Bavasi had given up way, way too much.
The conclusion that has settled in over time and cemented itself in the consciousness of Mariner fans is that Bavasi got hosed, in a massive way, in that trade. For one thing, the Mariners’ pennant aspirations disintegrated, and the team was a dysfunctional disaster in 2008, finishing 61-101 as both Bavasi and manager John McLaren were fired in mid-season.
For another, Bedard was largely a disappointment. He pitched well enough, when he pitched, going 6-4 with a 3.67 ERA in 15 starts in 2008. But he developed the shoulder trouble that would plague him for the next two seasons, not pitching after July 4 of 2008 and ending the year with the first of his three shoulder operations.
Meanwhile, Sherrill became the Orioles’ closer and made the All-Star team, Jones had “future star” written all over him as he became Baltimore’s every-day center fielder, and Tillman emerged as one of the top pitching prospects in the minors.
I’m here to offer a slightly revisionist view of the trade. I’m not going to defend it, because that’s impossible. But I’m going to offer the gentle observation that it might not wind up being the absolute disaster it was headed for.
In talking to some Baltimore people, they’re starting to invoke the b-word — “bust” — with regards to Tillman. They’re not saying he’s there yet, but heading in that direction. In parts of three seasons, he’s made 29 major-league starts and has a combined 5-13 record with a 5.90 ERA. This year, he’s 1-3, 7.16 in six starts. Opponents are hitting .316 off him, and his WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) is 1.66.
Keep in mind that Tillman is just 23. Many pitchers take awhile to find themselves, and his minor-league numbers are too glittering to write him off. But let’s say Tillman never lives up to his potential and is nothing more than a mediocre starter. That has to make the trade a little less detestable, right? The big fear was that Tillman would develop into a frontline, No. 1 ace. But that’s looking less likely than it once did.
Butler, a former third-round pick by the Mariners and a southpaw pitcher some suspected would also haunt them, was hampered by injuries and released by Baltimore last June. He never made it out of A ball. MIlwaukee signed him, but he pitched ineffectively, and as far as I can tell, he’s out of pro ball now.
Mickolio made it up to the majors with the Orioles in 2008, but he was nothing more than a borderline middle reliever in parts of three seasons. He made a combined 23 appearances before getting traded to Arizona this past winter as part of the deal that netted the Orioles Mark Reynolds. He’s currently in Triple-A.
Sherrill was traded to the Dodgers on July 30, 2009 for two prospects, the most promising of whom was Josh Bell, projected as Baltimore’s third baseman of the future. But Bell bombed in a 53-game look in the majors last year, hitting just .214, with 53 strikeouts and just two walks in 161 plate appearances. Back at Class AAA Norfolk this season, he has five homers, but the strikeout-walk ratio is not improving. He’s whiffed 36 times and has just three walks in 111 plate appearances. Bell’s just 24, so you can’t write him off either, but the Orioles went out and got Mark Reynolds to play third, so that tells you something.
That leaves, of course, Jones, who was the player fans most hated to give up. Jones is a very good player, especially defensively. He won a Gold Glove in 2009 and deserved it. Jones is just 25 and is likely going to get better, but it doesn’t look like he’s going to be a superstar. Maybe a star, maybe just an above-average guy. Maybe something less than that. We’ll see. But I think it’s fair to say that he has not haunted the Mariners to the full potential of his hauntability. Not yet, anyway.
Bedard, meanwhile, has re-signed with the Mariners twice as a free agent and is now finally healthy. In his last three starts (1.89 ERA, 15 strikeouts and four walks in 19 innings), he’s finally showing glimpses of being the kind of pitcher the Mariners were seeking way back when, when they made the deal with Baltimore. If Bedard can re-establish himself as a frontline pitcher, either for the Mariners’ future use or as trade bait, he can, belatedly, help even things out a little more when this trade is reviewed for posterity.
My conclusion is that a bad Mariners trade is turning out to be not quite as bad as the worst-case-scenario.