No Big Apple for Big Unit

Originally Published: May 26, 2004
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

There's a better chance of Alex Rodriguez getting traded this summer than there is of Randy Johnson getting traded this summer.

Randy Johnson
APRandy Johnson's days with the Diamondbacks could be numbered ... or maybe not.

There's a better chance of Babe Ruth getting traded this summer than there is of Randy Johnson getting traded this summer.

Heck, there's a way better chance of Shaquille O'Neal getting traded this summer than there is of Randy Johnson getting traded this summer.

So in case you're having trouble following our drift here, let's sum this up:

You are not going to look up in August and find any 6-foot-10 left-handers pitching for the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox, Dodgers or even the Nippon Ham Fighters -- not unless Eric Hillman makes a comeback, anyway.

Because, in the words of his own GM, Randy Johnson "isn't going anywhere."

This may be bad news for readers of Rumor Central. But reality is reality. So as convenient as it may have been for New Yorkers and other dreamers to assume that the effect of the Big Unit's amazing perfecto last week was to make him more marketable, the reality was, it just made him more indispensable to his current employers, the Diamondbacks.

Why wouldn't a team that's 11 games under .500 be looking to unload a guy like the Unit? We'll allow his GM, Joe Garagiola Jr., to count the ways.

"One, he's got a complete no-trade clause," Garagiola said. "On top of that, he's a 10-and-five guy, so he couldn't be any more in control of his own fate. And two, he likes Arizona. He likes being a Diamondback. He doesn't want to go anywhere. And we don't want him to go anywhere.

"So add this up: We don't want to trade him. He doesn't want to be traded. And we can't trade him without his consent. So how many more locks do we have to put on this door?"

Short of slapping that announcement on a Phoenix billboard and a message board in Times Square, it would seem tough for Garagiola to say this any more unequivocally. But the fact is, there are still more reasons to pull the plug on the Big Unit rumor assembly line. And here they are:

1) HIS CLOCK ISN'T TICKING

It would be one thing if Johnson were 40 years old, in the last year of his contract and clearly intent on moving on. Those are the kinds of players who get traded by losing teams in July.

But Johnson's contract runs through 2005 (at $16 million a year), includes courtside Phoenix Suns tickets through 2011 and contains a clause kicking in a $1-million personal-services deal in the first year of his retirement. So obviously, there is more than just a monetary connection between these two parties.

2) THIS TEAM ISN'T THAT DESPERATE TO DUMP PAYROLL

True, the Diamondbacks' payroll is a prime candidate for the South Beach Diet. But there are ways to trim payrolls without subtracting players whom people might actually pay to watch.

There's an assumption out there, Garagiola said, that because the Diamondbacks are reducing their payroll, the place they'd start is with their highest-paid player. But like just about every assumption on this front, that one's incorrect.

"We have Randy's contract figured into next year's budget," Garagiola said. "We know how to make the number with Randy."

3) JOHNSON'S ARIZONA ROOTS ARE DEEPENING

The Unit is not a man who just shows up in Arizona to play baseball. He lived there year-round before he signed with the Diamondbacks. And he just bought land to build a new home there.

Is that the profile of a man who would seem anxious to leave? Not on any planet we live in.

4) THE YANKEES DON'T GET EVERYTHING THEY WANT

Much as everyone in baseball sympathizes with the poor Yankees, trying to stagger through a season with no left-handed starter, this is one left-handed starter who won't be the answer to their problems.

Even if Johnson wanted to pitch in New York -- and friends say that's unlikely -- which young, cheap, impact players and prospects would the Yankees have at their disposal to trade for a guy like this, if his salary wasn't just being dumped on them? We can't find any. Or at least we can't find enough of them.

"It sometimes seems," Garagiola said, "as if the thought process is: The Yankees have a need. This is the best way to address the need. So let's just do the paperwork and schedule the press conference. It's like the Yankees are the Globetrotters and the rest of us are the Washington Generals."

We have no doubt that a team as resourceful and wealthy as the Yankees will figure out some pitcher to acquire in June or July. But it won't be this one.

5) HE'S NOT JUST A PITCHER -- HE'S A BRIDGE

Webb
Webb

As the Diamondbacks make the difficult transition from one generation (World Series champs) to another (Brandon Webb, Chad Tracy, Scott Hairston, etc.), they can't just boot all the heroes of yesteryear out the door.

Teams in transition need players who can serve as the bridge between generations. For this team, Luis Gonzalez is one bridge. Johnson is the other.

As bridges go, he isn't quite as long as the Golden Gate. But it's close.

"Our success as a franchise clearly tracks Randy's time here," Garagiola said. "He came here in '99, at a time when the conventional wisdom was: He's 35. He has a bad back. So he's just lending his name and reputation to this poor expansion team -- and in return he'll be extremely well-compensated for it. Of course, as it turns out, he goes on to win four Cy Youngs, and we win three division titles and a World Series. ...

"So in many respects," the GM said, "he's the transcendent figure in our existence."

Not that transcendent figures don't occasionally get traded. Just not this one.

6) WHAT'S IN IT FOR ARIZONA?

So given all that, there's virtually no incentive for this team to trade this player. But there's one more particularly compelling reason they might want to hang onto him:

He's still one of the best pitchers alive.

"Lost in all the background noise," Garagiola said, "is: Randy's still a really good pitcher. What team, with a starting pitcher this good, wouldn't want to keep him? He's a No. 1 starting pitcher. Every team wants to keep them if they have them.

"If we were to trade him, what would we get back? I don't know the answer. But we wouldn't get Randy Johnson back. I can guarantee that."

Easy guarantee. They wouldn't -- because they couldn't. There's only one. So stop that rumor train. It's time to let Randy Johnson off -- for good.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Jayson a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com