In the mid-90’s the Seattle Mariners core consisted of stars (future hall-of-famers) Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez. We all know the story of what those players ended up doing and where they eventually ended up. But here’s a brief refresher for those who don’t remember:
-At the Trade Deadline in 1998, Seattle traded Johnson to the Houston Astros for Carlos Guillen, Freddy Garcia, and John Halama
-After the 1999 season, the Mariners traded Griffey to the Cincinnati Reds for Mike Cameron, Brett Tomoko, Antonio Perez, and Jake Meyer
-After losing in the 2000 ALCS, A-Rod left Seattle and signed the most lucrative contract in baseball history, up until that point, (10-years $252 million) with the Texas Rangers
The 2001 season brought a new-look Mariners team that lacked the three superstars who had defined them. The M's payroll in 2001 was $74.5 Million dollar (11th highest in baseball); if the entire posting fee for Ichiro Suzuki ($13.125 million) is included into their '01 payroll instead of being pro-rated across the years of his contract then their payroll would be lifted to $87.625 million, 8th highest. In 2001, A-Rod made $22 million, Johnson made $13.35 million and Griffey Jr. made $12.5 million those three players would have made up 54.6% of their payroll (60.6% if the posting fee is pro-rated). Thus, it wasn't feasible for Seattle to keep their three stars, except for possibly in the case of Griffey who was traded because he wanted to return to his hometown. The 01' Mariners lacked the players who had defined them, but that didn't stop them from performing to a level higher than they anyone believed they could possibly achieve. The '01 M's shocked the baseball world, by tying the 1906 Chicago Cubs for the most wins in a Major League season (116). But just how good was that Seattle team, and how did they achieve such an incredible feat without Johnson, A-Rod, or Griffey?
The 1906 Chicago Cubs, 1954 Cleveland Indians and the 2001 Mariners all won over 110 games, yet did not win the World Series. The '54 Indians and '08 Cubs made the World Series, while the Mariners did not. There's a good chance if a future Major League team wins more than 116 games, the Mariners' '01 season will be forgotten in baseball lore, and the epic '01 World Series between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the New York Yankees will be all that's remembered. That Mariners team deserves to be remembered, for many reasons, but most importantly because they were incredibly good. I listed the top-10 teams in terms of WAR (using Baseball-Reference's calculation) during the World Series Era (since 1903) below:
Based on WAR, the '01 Mariners are second greatest team of all-time; ranking ahead of some of baseball's historically great teams. The 1927 Yankees' "Murderers' Row" team ranks behind the '01 Mariners; that team had Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, who hit a combined 107 home runs that season. The '01 Mariners may already be considered one of baseball's greatest all-time teams, because of their tie for the all-time Major League season wins record, before WAR is even taking into consideration. The1906 Cubs team that they tied ranks fifth all-time in terms of WAR (6.3 WAR behind the '01 M's); however, Seattle's '01 team benefitted from the fact that they played 10 more games than the '06 Cubs (as well as 8 more than the '27 Yankees). Thus, you could postulate that those two teams would've finished with a closer (or even higher) WAR to the '01 Mariners if they played 162 games, but that's not the point I'm trying to get at. The '27 Yankees had Gehrig and Ruth, the '49 Dodgers had Jackie Robinson and Duke Snider, the '39 Yankees had Joe DiMaggio and Lefty Gomez, but the '01 Mariners lost Griffey, Johnson and A-Rod. So how did a team that lost a superstar in each of the last three seasons, become the second greatest team in baseball history?
That answer comes down to 5 key additions, a great defense with a pitching staff/ballpark that was perfect for it, and a phenomenal bullpen.
From Johnson trade:
Carlos Guillen: The departure of A-Rod lead to a full-time job at shortstop for the then 25 year-old. Guillen hit only 5 home runs and his .689 OPS in '01 was the second-lowest of his career. His offensive season paled in comparison to Rodriguez's '01 campaign (1.021 OPS and 52 home runs). Despite his below-average bat Guillen was able to post a solid 3.2 WAR due in large part to his 1.0 dWAR (based on total zone), while A-Rod was worth -0.9 dWAR at short in 2001.
Freddy Garcia: In 2001, Garcia won 18 games (not like pitching wins mean anything), had his best season ERA (3.05), pitched more innings than any other season (238.2), had his lowest HR/9 rate (0.6), and was worth 4.0 WAR. Garcia was a bona-fide ace for Seattle. He also made the All-star game and finished third in the AL Cy Young voting.
From Griffey trade:
Mike Cameron: 2001 was the best season of Cameron’s career. The 28 year-old CF won his first Gold Glove (he has 3 career GG's), made his only All-star game, and finished 16th in the AL MVP voting. Cameron had the most RBI's in his career (110), posted his highest OPS+ (123), was worth the most WAR in his career (6.4), and also hit 25 home runs while stealing 34 bases. In 2001, the Mariners' former CF, Griffey, was worth -1.0 dWAR (Cameron was worth 1.1 dWAR) and was only worth 1.5 total wins.
Bret Boone: Boone was pretty awful in the four seasons prior to Seattle bringing him back in 2001; posting a -0.2 WAR combined over that time. The Mariners' front office looked past those replacement level seasons and signed Boone to a one-year $3.25 million contract. The 32 year-old second baseman paid them back with an absolutely incredible season. Boone was an All-star, a Silver Slugger, and finished third in the AL MVP voting. He lead the AL in RBI's (141), finished 2nd in WAR (9.3), 3rd in runs (118), and 6th in OPS+ (153). I'm sure the Mariners' front office was hoping Boone would be above replacement level in '01, but over 9 wins above replacement? That's just insane. He was worth more than one win than A-Rod(8.0). Boone's ability to play 2nd also benefitted the team, because t allowed Mark McLemore to shift into a utility role that was more suited for him. The 36 year-old McLemore had a great year posting a WAR of 3.6.
Ichiro Suzuki: Guillen, Garcia, Cameron, Boone, McLemore, Jamie Moyer, and the entire Mariners' bullpen had out-of-this-world seasons in 2001, but the player who defined the team, was none other than the most famous Japanese import of all-time, Ichiro. Ichiro was not only and All-Star, Silver Slugger, and Gold Glover, but he also became the second player in Major League history to win both the ROY and MVP awards in the same season. Ichiro has had a phenomenal MLB career, but 2001 may have been his best season. He posted his second-highest career WAR (7.6), lead the AL in stolen bases (56), hits (242), and batting average (.350). Suzuki also finished second in the league runs with 127. Ichiro was highly-tauted coming out of Japan, but his first season in America was unbelievable and his presence was quite possibly what defined a team that had just lost three superstars.
Another major reason for Seattle's historic 2001 season was their overall team defense. Their defense was worth more wins (9.9) than any team in the MLB since the 1990 Oakland A's defense (10.5). That 9.9 dWAR mark was 3.4 wins higher than any other team in 2001. David Bell (1.9 dWAR), ichiro (1.4), Boone (1.1), and John Olerud (0.7) all had the highest dWAR of any AL player at their respective positions. Cameron, Stan Javier, and Guillen all were worth more than 1-win defensively as well. In 2000, the Mariners were very good, they won 91 games and reached the ALCS, but their defense was only worth 2.8 wins. The over 7-win defensive improvement was a huge boost for the 2001 team.
The Mariners' rotation had the third best ERA (3.77) among '01 MLB staffs. That ERA was boosted greatly by their stellar defense; their starter's FIP was only 10th best (4.29). However, their rotation consisted of pitchers who pitched to contact and didn't strike a lot of batters out (5.59 staff rate). Even their top-two starters, Moyer and Garcia, had a 5.11 and 6.15 K-rate respectively. The combination between defense and solid starters lead to the Mariners having the lowest team BABIP against by over 20 points (.260), which lowered their team ERA.
Not only did Safeco Field host the All-Star game and have the top attendance in the AL in '01, but it also played to the Mariners' advantage. Safeco Field is a pitcher's park in every sense of the definition. In 2001, Safeco was the number 2 pitcher's park in terms of runs (.769), 5th for hits (.887) and 4th in terms of home runs (.742). With a low K-rate pitching staff, an environment that isn't conducive to home runs is vastly important. The hitting atmosphere at Safeco played directly into their phenomenal defense and ultimately their success.
Seattle's bullpen had the lowest ERA (3.04) in baseball by over 20 points in 2001. Arthur Rhodes, Jeff Nelson and Kaz Sasaki were all ridiculously effective. All three pitchers threw in 69+ games with 1.2+ WAR's. Sasaki saved 45 games, while Rhodes and Nelson had K-rates above 10.75. The Mariners' dominant bullpen was the last piece necessary to make them a truly complete baseball team.
The likes of Cameron, Boone, Guillen, Ichiro, Olerud, Edgar Martinez, Moyer, Garcia, Rhodes, and Sasaki should always be remembered in baseball lore. This team is proof that it doesn't take superstar power hitters and pitchers to be dominant, but instead a balanced offensive, great defense, solid starters, and an awesome bullpen make a team truly great.