Big Unit, Go HomeDealing Randy Johnson back to Arizona will help the Yankees long-term
One of the best left-handers of all time, Johnson would have made a great Yankees pitcher in 1990, or 1998 or 2002. By the time the Yankees finally figured out how to get him to the Bronx, he was 41. And despite being unusual in so many ways from his height to his great slider for most pitchers 41 is 41 and 42 is like 41 squared.
Next season will be Johnson's age-43 campaign. There have been 14 seasons in major league history in which a pitcher 43 or older won even 10 games. Five of those seasons belonged to the knuckleballer Phil Niekro; three of them were authored by the spitballer Jack Quinn; one was by Jamie Moyer in 2006; another by Tommy John; one by the ageless Satchel Paige; and one by another spitballer, Gaylord Perry. That leaves two seasons, both by Nolan Ryan, who pitched quite well at ages 43 and 44. Many of the same suspects show up on the list of pitchers to post an above-average ERA in 100 or more innings at that age or older. It's a more extensive list, going all the way up to 18 pitchers in the last 105 years.
Johnson's back surgery may rejuvenate him to some degree, which is what the teams looking to acquire him are banking on, but as the above suggests, the likelihood of a return to form is small. Still, in an offseason in which a dearth of available pitchers has many teams desperate to fill out their rotations, it's obvious why a team might want to gamble on the Old Unit.
Arizona, one of the team's rumored to be considering Johnson, is a case in point. Arizona's player development system has been quite successful at producing position players over the last few years, delivering Chad Tracy, Stephen Drew, Carlos Quentin, and Conor Jackson. Pitching has been a tougher nut to crack. Brandon Webb came up in 2003. He's a great pitcher. He's also the only pitcher. Yet, the NL West is wide open. If the Diamondbacks caught lightning in a bottle with a healthier Johnson, who they're paying anyway thanks to deferred salary, and if he gave them a strong top three along with Webb and Doug Davis... If you squint you can see the logic that's being used.
Johnson's peripheral statistics suggest there may be life in the old boy yet, that if fixing his back allows him to find his slider again, he could pitch effectively. Even if the Yankees could be guaranteed that this would be the case, there would be a good argument for trading him. The move would bring salary relief, which the team could apply to other, needed players either now or at the trading deadline.
It would open up room for one of the younger pitchers to make the team, something that could benefit the Yankees not only now, but for years to come. The Yankees are not going to re-sign Johnson in any case. They have better, cheaper options than playing musical lifespans with an aging hurler. If freeing themselves of Johnson means adding a Barry Zito, that would benefit the team beyond 2006. If it means adding a Phil Hughes, that would benefit the team beyond 2006. If Johnson goes 22-3, maybe the Yankees win the pennant, but the problem of replacing Johnson will merely have been put off by a year.
Of course, he's not going to go 22-3. He's not likely to go 15-10. He's likely to be 43, but that's it. Johnson is an unusual physical specimen, and he may be able to throw 90 MPH when he's 50 years old, but that doesn't mean that he'll still be able to retire major league hitters. Even this year, Johnson struck out a lot of batters. His total of 172 strikeouts was good for seventh in the league, but that doesn't mean he pitched well.
As for what the Yankees might get out of the Diamondbacks or another trading partner, it almost doesn't matter. The teams that have been rumored virtually the whole NL West are largely not dripping in prospects. The Padres and Giants systems are fairly dry at the upper levels. The Dodgers have James Loney, a defensively adept first baseman who might have finally become a hitter last year. He's blocked by Nomar Garciaparra. They have one of the top third base prospects in Andy LaRoche, and several interesting pitchers. Would the Dodgers drop a top prospect for a 43-year-old pitcher with no spinal column? Maybe. This is the team that signed Juan Pierre.
The Diamondbacks have real depth. If the Yankees are shopping for a catcher to follow Jorge Posada, Miguel Montero could back up this year and start the next. They have Alberto Callaspo, who is ready to be a major league utility infielder and won't kill a team if he has to start. They have a handful of young outfielders who could contribute in a few years.
Again, the take really doesn't matter. Moving Johnson is an all-win scenario for the Yankees. As Branch Rickey said, it's better to trade a player a year too early than a year too late. By definition, 43 years old is a year too late. If the Yankees can use the deal to fill outstanding needs like reserve catcher or utility infielder, so much the better. The possibilities created by his absence are almost limitless.