When a team loses 98 games it’s hard to hone in on one or two moves and say they were difference between a division champion and the division cellar. For the 1992 Seattle Mariners, who would ultimately finish 32 games out of first in the American League West, the season was, in hindsight, doomed from the start. But, what if instead of pairing Kevin Mitchell in the heart of the batting order with Ken Griffey Jr., the team had instead signed future Hall-of-Famer Dave Winfield, who had been interested in coming to Seattle?
Heading in to the 1992 season, the Mariners were coming off a then-franchise best 83 wins, but the team looked far different than the one that won 89 games after starting the year 0-6. Gone was manager Jim Lefebvre, oft-injured starter Scott Bankhead, Mr. Mariner Alvin Davis, outfielder Tracy Jones, and catcher Scott Bradley. Rob Murphy, Bill Krueger, Bill Swift, and Mike Jackson, who had combined to post 5.6 WAR out the bullpen the previous year, had also departed.
The then-40 year old Winfield was coming off his two least productive seasons, posting a WAR of 0.2 in 1990, and 0.8 in 1991. On December 3, the Seattle Times’ Bob Sherwin reported Winfield was interested in playing alongside Junior in the Emerald City.
“We’ve been looking at the Seattle situation and even with the uncertainties about the franchise, Dave is intrigued,” said Geoff Klein, Winfield’s agent. “And he is not put off by those uncertainties. He regards overcoming those as a challenge. At this stage in his career, Dave is looking for challenge as much as anything.”
While General Manager Woody Woodward downplayed the team’s interest in Winfield, Klein said that not only did Winfield want to help the team on the field, but help the franchise succeed as a whole.
“Anaheim was a pretty laid-back town, too,” Klein said. “When Dave went there from New York, because of his involvement with keeping kids free from drugs, he brought a corporate sponsor to the Angels. We’d expect the same contribution in Seattle … Dave knows Jeff Smulyan … When he became a free agent, he didn’t wait for the Mariners to call. He told me to call them. He likes the city and the team and the idea of working with the younger players. He is interested there … seriously.”
If we’re being honest, this was not an era when free agents were clammoring to wear a Mariners jersey, unless you believe Jeffrey Leonard and Pete O’Brien were big-time signings. Of course, this was also a time where the ownership situation was tenuous, and while the team had drawn over 2 million fans to the Kingdome for the first time in franchise history, revenue lagged behind the rest of the league (the Mariners didn’t even have a cable-tv deal until May of 1994).
That being said, then-owner Jeff Smulyan plead poverty, saying the team couldn’t afford Winfield. Rather than adding payroll, the Mariners made what was at that time the biggest blockbuster in team history, acquiring former National League MVP Kevin Mitchell (and $500,000 towards his contract) on December 11 in exchange for relievers Bill Swift, Mark Jackson, and Dave Burba. Owner Jeff Smulyan said at the time that salary exchange would be close to a wash (Mitchell had three years remaining on a four-year, $15 million contract, and was scheduled to make $3 million in 1992).
Ultimately, Winfield would end up signing a 1-year, $2.3 million deal with the Blue Jays on December 19.
The paths Mitchell, Winfield, and their teams would take in the 1992 season could not have diverged further.
The 30-35 home run power expected from Mitchell never showed up, plagued by an injured right wrist throughout the season before going on the Disabled List for good on September 3 with a broken foot. The two-time All-Star posted a triple slash of .286/.351/.428 in 99 games, but hit just 9 home runs with 24 doubles and 67 RBIs.
Meanwhile, attempts to reconstruct what had been a strong bullpen with Swift and Jackson, by adding veterans Jim Acker, Mark Grant, Dennis Powell and rookie Jeff Nelson, fell flat, with a disastrous opening night, where four relievers combined to give up nine runs in the top of the eighth in a 12-10 loss to Texas, just the start of their struggles. For a team that lost 26 one-run games, and another three extra-inning games by more than one-run, Swift and Jackson could have been difference makers.
In Toronto, Winfield made everyone forget about the infamous seagull incident nine years earlier, becoming a fan favorite on the eventual World Series champion. Experiencing a career revival, Winfield hit .290 with 26 home runs, 86 RBIs, improving his walk rate to 12.2 percent (his highest since 1981), while lowering his strikeout rate to 13 percent (his lowest since 1984), en route to posting 3.8 WAR on the season. That would have been good enough for third among Mariners hitters, behind only Edgar Martinez (6.0 WAR) and Griffey (5.3 WAR), and just ahead of Omar Vizquel (3.4 WAR).
Would signing Dave Winfield, and therefore not trading Bill Swift and Mike Jackson, been the difference between 98 losses, and the playoffs? No. But, it would have been much more palatable to watch, and had he signed a two-year deal, Mariners fans would have had the opportunity to see someone notch their 3,000 hit in a Seattle uniform. For that matter, who knows what Winfield could have done in 1993 instead of Mike Felder in left field (or at designated hitter with Martinez missing most of the season).
Yes, there would have been one major repercussion if the Mariners had been better in 1992. If the team hadn’t suffered through that terrible season, there would be no first pick in the 1993 Draft, which the Mariners would use to select Florida high-schooler Alex Rodriguez. Say what you will about the way he left, and his alleged steroid use, but there’s no denying his performance in Seattle from 1996 to 2000.
All in all, the decision to not bring Winfield into the fold may not have brought Seattle postseason glory, but it goes to show how a decision to sign (or not sign) one player can have major ramifications.