A Tough Heathcliff to Climb: One of the Most Lopsided Trades in History (1997)

I’ve said it before in this space but the 1997 trade of Heathcliff Slocumb to the Seattle Mariners for Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe might be the most lopsided trade in the history. I hesitate to say that it definitely is because I’m sure that I’m forgetting an obvious example. In July 1997, Heathcliff Slocumb was the Red Sox closer and he was struggling. The Sox were eager to move him and found a willing team in Seattle, who were willing to depart with two prospects in order to make it happen. Seattle was in the midst of a playoff run and needed an extra arm in the bullpen and Boston was having a bad year and just wanted to move what had become an albatross in their bullpen. Neither side knew what was to come.

Slocumb came to Boston in 1996, hot off an All-Star season for the Philadelphia Phillies after being converted to the closer role for the 1995 season. He was acquired in a trade that sent Glenn Murray, Ken Ryan, and Lee Tinsley to Philadelphia. Philly also sent over minor leaguers Rickey Holifield and Larry Wimberly in the trade but neither player would ever see the inside of Fenway Park. Local media celebrated the trade, crediting Sox GM Dan Duquette with pulling off a trade for a needed key piece that could help elevate the Sox bullpen to one of the best in the game. There was reason to be excited. In his two seasons in Philadelphia, Slocumb had a 2.88 ERA in 113 games. He had also posted 32 saves, all of them coming in the 1995 season. Slocumb looked like a very solid addition to the pen and a good pick to close down games at Fenway Park.

And Slocumb didn’t disappoint in his first season in Boston. In 75 appearances, he recorded 31 saves and a 3.02 ERA. The 1996 Sox were 85-77, good enough for 3rd in the AL East and Slocumb was actually a highlight of that team. He finished the season with an astounding 15 saves in 16 opportunities (in 22 appearances) and a 0.94 ERA. In fact, before the 1997 season, Duquette told The Boston Globe that he would consider multiyear contracts for only three then-arbitration eligible players, Slocumb, John Valentin, and Tim Wakefield. Before the season however, the two sides agreed to a one-year deal worth $2.98 million. It was clear however that the organization was incredibly high on him and saw him as an integral part of the team’s future. As for Slocumb himself, he told the Globe that anything less than 40 saves would be a disappointment for him in 1997. Given how he finished 1996, that didn’t seem entirely unrealistic, just a bit ambitious.

The year started well enough. On Opening Day, he pulled off a save against the Anaheim Angels, which he repeated three years later. By the end of April, he had a respectable 3.27 ERA and 3 saves, significantly off the pace to become the elite closer he predicted at the beginning of the season but not quite an albatross to the team. Within a couple of months however, the Slocumb train has come off the rails in such an epic fashion that it almost defies reality. His ERA at the end of May had ballooned to 6.75. After he gave up a game winning home run to Jeff Cirillo of the Milwaukee Brewers on June 3rd, manager Jimy Williams made the decision to remove Slocumb from the closer position. The Slocumb era was over.

Though Slocumb would later return to the closer position, the Sox began trying to shop in order to try to salvage something for him. The first iteration of a proposed trade with the Mariners was first mentioned in the June 22nd edition Boston Globe when the idea of a Slocumb-Norm Carlton trade was discussed. It was a trade between struggling closers, perhaps with the idea that a change of scenery could be good for both. Jason Varitek’s inclusion in the trade was also mentioned but only as a “nice bonus.” Varitek was also frequently mentioned in Seattle based media as a prospect that the Mariners would have to part with in order to secure talent. The Sox and San Francisco Giants also engaged for trade talks but they would later break down.

If Derek Lowe seems like an afterthought in this trade, it’s because he quite literally was. While Varitek was a former first round pick and standout player from Georgia Tech who was sitting on the cusp of a call up, Lowe had been an eight round pick in 1991 who had piddled around in the minor league for years. He was a solid but unremarkable pitcher who, because of the weakness of the Mariners bullpen, had received a call up earlier in the 1997 season. On July 31st, the literal day of the trade deadline, the Boston Globe reported that the Sox and Mariners were in talks for a Slocumb for Varitek and top pitching prospect Ken Cloude. By the time the trade was finalized later in the day, it had become a Slocumb for Varitek and Lowe trade. By this point in the season, Lowe was 2-4 with a 6.96 ERA with the Mariners. No one could have predicted how unbalanced this trade would become.

Sox fans are undoubtedly familiar with the contributions of Varitek and Lowe, both of whom were key players in the 2004 World Series win. Varitek would also later become the team captain and is still involved with the team to this day. The contributions of these two players will perhaps be covered in a later post.

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