(Jason Vargas reacts after the last out of his first major-league shutout against Tampa Bay on June 4. Photo by Associated Press)
When the Mariners acquired Jason Vargas in the blockbuster three-way trade with the Mets and Indians on Dec. 10, 2008, there wasn’t reason to expect much from him. Or, really, anything. Vargas had missed the entire 2008 season following hip surgery. In two stints with the Marlins, he had done nothing much to distinguish himself.
More than two years later, Vargas will walk to the mound tonight at Safeco Field to face the Angels as a valuable member of the Mariners’ rotation. He established himself last year during a season in which he stayed healthy all year, made 31 starts, and deserved a better record than 9-12. This year, Vargas is 4-3 with a 3.94 ERA in 13 starts and has become a guy the Mariners can count on to give them a solid, or better, effort each time out.
I bring this up because I decided to take a fresh look at the trade, which at the time was largely just a bunch of little-known names coming the Mariners’ way, while one well-known name, J.J. Putz, was heading out of town. But as the deal has sorted itself out over time, with many new tentacles developing, it has proven to be the gift that keeps on giving for the Mariners.
Here’s how it went down on Dec. 10, 2008:
The Mariners sent Putz, reliever Sean Green and outfielder Jeremy Reed to the Mets, and infielder Luis Valbuena to the Indians.
The Mets sent RHP Aaron Heilman, LHP Vargas, RHP Maikel Cleto, OF Endy Chavez, OF Ezequel Carrera and 1B Mike Carp to the Mariners, and RHP Joe Smith to the Indians.
The Indians sent OF Franklin Gutierrez to the Mariners.
You’ll remember that Heilman never threw a pitch for the Mariners. He was traded to the Cubs on Jan. 28, 2009 — a few weeks before spring training — for shortstop Ronny Cedeno and LHP Garrett Olson.
On the hauntability scale, the deal really hasn’t bitten the Mariners in any way. The Mets thought that Putz setting up Francisco Rodriguez was going to give them a dream bullpen. But J.J. suffered from injury and ineffectivenesss, appeared in just 29 games with a 5.22 ERA in 2009, and the Mets declined after the season to pick up his option. He rebounded to have a good season with the White Sox in 2010 and is having an excellent season this year with Arizona, but the Mariners have been able to adequately fill the closer’s job in his absence. Meanwhile Reed hit a soft .242 in 126 games with the Mets in 2009, mostly as a defensive replacement, and he’s struggling to keep his career going at age 30. Green was a workhorse for the Mets in ’09, appearing in 79 games, but last year had some injuries and this year is in the minor leagues in the Milwaukee organization. As for Valbuena, in addition to driving Cleveland broadcaster Bruce Drennan to distraction, he hit .193 in 91 games last year for the Indians and now finds himself back in the minors.
The Mariners, of course, got a Gold Glove center fielder in Gutierrez whose progress has been slowed by his stomach problems. He’s still playing great defense but after showing hints in 2009 of developing into a quality offensive player, backslid last year and is hitting just .200 in 22 games this year. Still, the Mariners are happy to have Gutierrez, and Vargas has also become an asset. Mike Carp tore up Tacoma this year and is now getting his best chance to show he’s a major-league player. Endy Chavez was on his way to establishing himself as a useful fourth outfielder and crowd favorite when he blew out his knee in an ugly collision with Yuniesky Betancourt on June 20, 2009. He missed the rest of the season and all of 2010, but is making a great comeback with the Rangers, hitting .386 in 17 games since getting called up from Triple-A.
Then there are the offshoots of the deal. Ronny Cedeno didn’t hit a lick in 59 games (.167) and was traded, along with Jeff Clement and three minor-league pitchers, to the Pirates om July 29, 2009 for Jack Wilson and Ian Snell. Two of those pitchers are still in the minors, while a third, Nathan Adock, was taken by the Royals in the Rule 5 draft and is pitching out of their bullpen. Clement flamed out when given a shot to be the Pirates’ regular first baseman, and has not played this season because of a knee injury. Meanwhile, Snell went 5-2 with a 4.20 ERA in 12 games with Seattle in 2009, but just 0-5, 6.41 in 12 games in 2010 and was not brought back this year. He went to camp with the Cardinals, retired, and is now attempting a comeback in the Dodgers organization. Wilson, re-signed to a two-year, $10-million contract, has suffered from injuries and lack of production. He shifted to second base this season but has lost his starting job to Adam Kennedy. When Dustin Ackley comes up in the next week or so, Wilson will become even more expendable.
Garrett Olson, a former No. 1 draft pick, showed some flashes but was inconsistent. The Pirates claimed him off waivers during spring training, then designated him for assignment on April 15. He’s currently pitching at Triple-A in the Pittsburgh organization.
On June 26 of last year, the Mariners traded Carrera to Cleveland for a second go-round with Russell Branyan, who wound up leading Seattle in home runs despite the late start with 15 in 57 games. He was not re-signed after the season. Carrera made it up to the majors this season for five games with the Indians and is currently hitting .280 at Triple-A.
One other transaction with links to the original trade has worked out nicely for the Mariners: On Dec. 13, 2010, they traded Cleto, one of the pitchers acquired from the Mets, to the Cardinals for Brendan Ryan. Cleto was called up on June 2, gave up five runs in two innings against the Giants in his only appearance, and is back pitching in Double-A.
So this deal directly netted the Mariners their center fielder in Gutierrez, a member of one of the best rotations in the majors in Vargas, and a hot-shot young hitter in Carp. They got varying degrees of contributions from Chavez, Cedeno, Olson, Snell and Branyan, all departed. They still have Jack Wilson, for better or worse. And Brendan Ryan has been a valuable contributor to an over-achieving Mariners’ team as the every-day shortstop. No one they gave up has made them rue the day, at least not yet.
All in all, a pretty good day’s work (and beyond) for Jack Zduriencik