Posted by Jonah Gardner on July 21, 2016
With the announcement of Mike Piazza's induction to the Baseball Hall of Fame, everyone's attention turned to one question: What logo would appear on Piazza's cap on his plaque? Would he select the team that famously drafted him in the 62nd round, the Los Angeles Dodgers? Or would it be the team he went to in 1998 and led to the 2000 World Series, the New York Mets?
One team that likely did not receive consideration: the then-Florida Marlins. While the idea of Piazza wearing a Marlins logo in the Hall may seem as outlandish as him in a Braves or Phillies cap, it wasn't totally out of the realm of possibility. That's because, for eight glorious days in 1998, Mike Piazza was a member of the Marlins, playing 5 games before moving on to the Mets. Though it's now a largely forgotten mini-chapter in his Hall of Fame career, Piazza may never have been a Met were it not for the Marlins.
So why did Piazza end up taking his talents to South Beach? For starters, he wanted to get paid. Entering the 1998 MLB season, Piazza was on the cusp of free agency and ready for a salary commensurate with his superstar play. Excluding his 1992 cup of coffee, Piazza had made the All-Star game every year he was in the majors, up to 1998. In 1997, he posted 8.7 Wins Above Replacement and hit 40 Home Runs, marks which still stand as the 5th best by a Dodgers' position player and 2nd most by a Dodgers' catcher, respectively.
Although he finished 2nd in the 1997 MVP voting, largely because Larry Walker put up the kind of numbers you usually only see when MLB The Show is in Very Easy mode, it was clear that Piazza was one of the premiere players in the game. Unfortunately, it was also clear that he was about to be paid like it. The negotiations between Piazza and the Dodgers didn't go well (even causing Vin Scully to "crush" him in an interview, according to Piazza, although the video doesn't quite back up Piazza's version of events) and it became clear that Piazza was going to hit the open market and the Dodgers might lose their superstar catcher with nothing to show for it.
So, they set about trading him. When a superstar gets traded, it's usually to a team positioned to win immediately. So, normally, it would have made sense for the reigning World Series champions to be in on the bidding for Piazza. But the 1998 Florida Marlins weren't an average World Series champion. Following their 1997 title, Marlins' owner Wayne Huizenga began looking to sell the team and, as part of the effort, sought to "slash the team's $53 million payroll in a bid to turn a profit and gather money for a new baseball stadium."
The Marlins proceeded to trade away anyone remotely involved in helping them win a World Series. Team WAR leader Kevin Brown went to the San Diego Padres, team HR leader Moises Alou joined the Houston Astros, and even Jay Powell, the reliever who picked up the Win in the title-clinching Game 7, ended up being shipped out.
The Marlins could offer the Dodgers quality major leaguers who could keep the team afloat, post-Piazza, and the Dodgers could offer them salary relief and a player who would be in demand for a subsequent trade. That's how, on May 14, 1998, the Dodgers ended up trading one of the best players in baseball, along with Todd Zeile, to a rebuilding team with no intention of keeping him. In exchange, the Marlins sent Gary Sheffield, Bobby Bonilla, Charles Johnson, Manuel Barrios, and Jim Eisenreich to Los Angeles.
This trade is understandably a sore point for Dodgers' fans. Gary Sheffield had a solid run in LA, posting 17 WAR over three and a half seasons with the Dodgers, but he was the only player who stuck around through the end of 1998. Bonilla posted -1.2 WAR and got traded back to New York, Eisenreich posted -1.0 WAR before retiring, and Barrios pitched a grand total of one inning and never played in the majors again. Perhaps most disappointingly, Piazza's direct replacement, Charles Johnson, regressed from the All-Star level he played at in 1997, posting a -0.5 WAR in LA, and getting traded away the following offseason.
In exchange for 14.3 WAR, the Dodgers gave up Piazza, who would go on to have 24.4 WAR over the course of the rest of 1998 and the subsequent 7 years of his next contract. In contrast, when this year's other Hall of Famer was traded from the team that drafted him, Ken Griffey Jr. fetched the Seattle Mariners 18.3 WAR (thanks to Mike Cameron) and a player who would be used to acquire Randy Winn (and an extra 8.8 WAR). Meanwhile, the Reds ended up paying The Kid over $80 million for 12.7 WAR.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. For now, Mike Piazza had found himself in Miami and he looks psyched about it:
The Marlins had their payroll down to $24 million, but it needed to go lower and the next logical move was obvious to everyone: trade Piazza. According to then-GM Dave Dombrowski, at least a third of the league called to check on Piazza, a list that the New York Times said included "the Yankees, the Baltimore Orioles, [and] the Anaheim Angels."
It's worth pausing here to consider the possibility of a world where Piazza was a Yankee, Oriole, or Angel. While it's difficult to imagine the 1998 New York Yankees getting any better, their catcher that year was a 26-year-old who had played a total of 69 games going into the season.
But the Yankees dodged a bullet by not trading away Jorge Posada for Piazza. While they would have gotten a short-term gain (Posada's WAR was 2.8 in 1998 and 1.1 in 1999 vs 6.2 and 4.3 for Piazza), it would have cost them in the long, and even medium, term. Over Piazza's time as a Met, Posada was actually the better player, outpacing his NYC rival by 5 wins. And that's without counting the additional 12.1 WAR that Posada accumulated after Piazza left Shea Stadium.
What about Baltimore? This time, it's Piazza who probably dodged a bullet. It made sense that the Orioles, coming off back-to-back ALCS appearances, would want to acquire Piazza. But their slow start (20-19 at the time of the first Piazza trade) ended up presaging a mediocre season. The 1998 Orioles finished four games under .500, and that was the best record the Os posted for the rest of Mike Piazza's career.
Even if you swap out starting catcher Lenny Webster's 1.2 WAR in 1998 (some of which was accumulated before the trades) for Piazza's 5.4 that year, the Orioles would still only finish 83-79. But the Os underperformed that year; their pythagorean record was actually 84-78. So what if acquiring Piazza reinvigorated the team, causing them to play up to their potential. Let's even say they outperformed their projected record by 2 games, thanks to Piazza's grit and leadership.
Assuming all of that, with Piazza's WAR added in, you'd get a record of 90-72, which still wasn't enough to win the Wild Card in 1998. As an Oriole, Piazza would probably have toiled away on some of the least memorable teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s without ever making the postseason.
So that leaves the Angels. In 1998, the Angels were 12 years into what would wind up being a 16-year postseason drought, but there were reasons for hope. Young players like Troy Glaus and Darin Erstad were breaking through to the majors (even though Glaus wasn't very good in 1998) and the team was on its way to it's second straight winning season.
Could the Angels have gotten Piazza without giving up any key players from their 2002 title-winning team? The three prospects the Mets sent to Miami were in the Top 100, but none was in the Top 60. The Angels had two prospects in that range: Jarrod Washburn and Ramon Ortiz, who happened to be the top two pitchers on the 2002 team by WAR. Both players, as well as Glaus, had a higher WAR individually in 2002 than Piazza.
So while Piazza would have been an improvement over the Angels' 2002 catcher, Bengie Molina, there's no guarantee that the team would have made the World Series or even the postseason, given the giant holes they'd have created in their roster by dealing away some of their prospects.
Of course, while all of this was going on, there was still baseball to play. Piazza made his Marlins debut on May 16 as a pinch hitter. Piazza hit a sacrifice fly in his first PA, getting an RBI. In the next four games, he would start at catcher, bat 4th, and get a hit in every game, including the fourth triple of his career. In 19 plate appearances with the Marlins, Piazza had 5 hits, 0 home runs, and a WAR of -0.1, which ranks 388th in franchise history. The team went 1-4.
Meanwhile, the New York Mets were not one of the teams originally mentioned as a potential destination for Piazza, because they already had an All-Star catcher in Todd Hundley. ''I'd have the best platoon catching tandem in the history of baseball," their GM, Steve Phillips, told the New York Times. Hundley was legitimately good in 1996 and 1997, posting 4.9 and 3.8 WAR and making the All-Star team in both years. But, as surprised as you'll be to hear that Steve Phillips was wrong about something, things would go bad for Hundley very quickly.
After those two All-Star seasons, Hundley went on to produce 0.3 WAR in total over the next six years. He would go on to have one more above-average season, a 2.5 WAR year in 2000. His team that year? The Dodgers, where he was traded for Johnson after the 1998 season, marking the first time that year the Dodgers directly traded their starting catcher to the Mets.
What changed Phillips' mind? Maybe it was nerves over Hundley's recovery from elbow surgery or an understanding that opportunities to get a player like Piazza don't come around very often. The juiciest possibility, as some have speculated, is that the rabid campaigning on WFAN for Piazza actually swayed the front office into making the trade. Whatever the reason, the Mets traded for Piazza on May 22, giving up Preston Wilson (6.1 WAR in Florida), Ed Yarnall (who would go to the Bronx in the Mike Lowell trade), and Geoff Goetz (who never made it out of the minors).
He could have been a one-club player in LA, or starting catcher for the defending World Series champions, or even a Yankee. Instead, in 1998, Mike Piazza became a Met.