The Mariners’ first bold trade-deadline move in franchise history occurred on July 31, 1995, when they dealt two of their top prospects, left-hander Ron Villone and outfielder Marc Newfield to the Padres for Andy Benes.
To put that into perspective, keep in mind that Villone and Newfield were both recent No. 1 draft picks of whom big things were expected. Neither would become stars, but no one knew that yet. The Mariners dealt two guys that were thought at the time to be a big part of their future for a big-name pitcher in Benes. He had hit some hard times, going 6-14 with a 3.86 ERA in 1994, and carrying a 4-7 record and 4.17 ERA in 19 starts in 1995 for a mediocre Padres team. But Benes had struck out 126 in 118 2/3 innings and wasn’t very far removed from an All-Star appearance in 1993 and seasons of 15, 13, 15 and 10 wins. The name Andy Benes still had some heft to it in July of 1995.
The Mariners were 43-44 at the time, third in the AL West, 11 games behind the Angels and one game behind the Rangers. But this new-fangled thing called the wild card was in play for the first time (it had actually been instituted in 1994, but the strike wiped out the season in August). Here were the wild-card standings on the day the Mariners acquired Andy Benes:
The M’s were right in the thick of it, for the first time ever. Normally, they were the ones dumping players at the deadline, but the M’s had already dealt two other former first-round picks earlier that season — Roger Sakeld (for Tim Belcher) and Shawn Estes (for Salomon Torres). The point is, they were going for it, and in taking on Benes’s salary, ownership was adding $1.2 million in payroll, according to reports at the time. That seems petty by today’s standards, but in 1995, it was some serious money, particularly with Seattle history of parsimony.
There was an ulterior motive, of course: The team was battling for its Seattle life, with a Sept. 19 election looming for stadium funding that would prevent them from moving to Tampa Bay. The team decided their only chance was to go all in to build a contending club that would prove to fans they meant business. They lost the election, but as we know, it all worked out in the end, with Benes making a significant contribution by going 7-2 (while the team was 10-2 in his 12 starts).
In 1991, the one previous time that the M’s were borderline contenders, manager Jim Lefebvre had lobbied for a power hitter at the deadline but was rebuffed by ownership, which was unwilling to add payroll. But by 1995, with new ownership replacing Jeff Smulyan (the same ownership group, more or less, that is in place today), they realized that what the Mariners needed above all was credibility. And trading for Andy Benes went a long way toward establishing that.
I bring up that history lesson because of the current debate over whether the Mariners should make a move at (or before) the trading deadline, even if it means adding payroll. Yesterday, Geoff gave a passionate point of view advocating that the Mariners don’t let money keep them from squandering a rare chance to make a playoff run — and even make their first-ever World Series.
What I would add is this: The Mariners also have a golden opportunity to win back some credibility by making such a move. The M’s attendance has plunged from 3.5 million in 2001 to 2,085,63 last year, with 2011 attendance on track to finish below that. That’s what five last-place finishes in seven years, with seasons of 99, 101 and 101 losses, does to fan base: It sucks the belief system right out of them. The ten lowest crowds in Safeco history have all occurred this year. Through 41 dates, they are down 149,695 fans from last year — roughly 3,600 per game. They’re currently on an upswing in attendance, and fans are excited right now by an over-achieving Mariners’ team; but a second-half collapse would cause a lot of that excitement to evaporate, and the same old cynicism would re-emerge.
The term “penny wise, pound foolish” comes to mind if the Mariners let payroll deter them from getting a bat that could invigorate their lineup, and fan base. Just imagine the excitement that would be generated if a Carlos Beltran or Michael Cuddyer or some other available player is added to the Mariners’ anemic offense, even if it requires a payroll boost. Even with today’s injury to Erik Bedard, the Mariners have the pitching to stay in the race until the end if they can kick-start their offense. But I have become convinced that they aren’t likely to carry this through with the players they have on board now. Eric Wedge can talk all he wants about his hitters somehow willing themselves to “square up the ball.” But they simply don’t have enough offensive talent. You can’t make yourself into something you’re not.
I’m not saying the Mariners should go wild and abandon their rebuilding plan and start shipping out top prospects willy-nilly. The job of GM Jack Zduriencik is to identify the prospects that won’t come back and burn them, as so many have in the past. And if ownership gives him permission to add payroll, that becomes an easier task, because it’s standard trade-deadline protocol that the more money a team takes on, the lower the quality of prospect they have to give up.
I believe that the goodwill earned by such a move would pay off big-time for the Mariners in attendance and credibility, especially if it’s the impetus to their continued presence in the pennant race — and right now, they’re on a very slippery slope with absolutely no margin for error. Fans are hungry for a winner, and an exciting pennant race through September would bring back many of those who have abandoned the Mariners during this dark seven- or eight-year stretch.
Conversely, if they stand pat or make a marginal move, and it’s believed by the fan base that the reason is because ownership refused to boost the payroll, it would merely add to the cynicism toward upper management that now runs rampant. If the Mariners subsequently fizzle out of the race, there could be a big price to pay when it comes time for season-ticket renewals.
The Mariners have a rare and totally unexpected chance to seize the moment this summer, just like they did in 1995. They should go for it again.