Cooperstown Confidential: MacPhail, Cabrera, Hairston and Gibbons

Lee MacPhail, who died earlier this month at the age of 95, left behind a multi-layered legacy as a talent evaluator, executive and administrator. He’s probably best remembered for serving as the president of the American League, and for ruling against the Yankees in the famed Pine Tar Game decision, but he also worked as the Yankees’ general manager from 1966 to 1973. He had a checkered trading record, with very few deals falling into the middle ground. Most of his significant trades were either truly great or drastically poor.

Here’s my vote for his two worst trades as Yankee GM, and his two best:

Worst: After the 1971 season, MacPhail sent reliable right-hander Stan Bahnsen to the White Sox for infielder Rich “Orbit” McKinney. Bahnsen continued to pitch well for Chicago, winning a career-high 21 games and throwing 252 innings in 1972, while McKinney flopped as the new Yankees third baseman. He committed four errors in one game against the Red Sox, hit a total of one home run, and then received a one-way ticket to Triple-A Syracuse. He perhaps became best known for trying to score marijuana from Yankees public relations director Marty Appel, who informed McKinney that he wasn’t involved in the business of drug acquisitions.

Second worst: In one of his first moves as Yankee GM, MacPhail sent veteran third baseman Clete Boyer to the Braves for outfielder Bill Robinson and journeyman pitcher Chi-Chi Olivo. Boyer still had some productivity left: He hit a career-high 26 home runs in 1967 and won a Gold Glove in 1969. Robinson floundered in his three years in the Bronx before being sent to the White Sox for left-hander Barry Moore, who would never see the light of day in pinstripes. Robinson would eventually become a very good player for the Pirates and Phillies (one of those rare players who blossomed in his 30s), but his failure to develop in New York made this a negative deal for MacPhail.

Best: One year after making the McKinney deal, MacPhail found a real solution to the Yankees’ continuing third base problem. He sent four players (Johnny Ellis, Jerry Kenney, Charlie Spikes and Rusty Torres) to the Indians for Graig Nettles and backup catcher Jerry Moses. Though Ellis and Spikes had a few moments of glory for the Indians, none of the four players that Cleveland acquired panned out long-term.

Nettles became a godsend at third base, an acrobatic fielder with 30-home run power. He would become a mainstay during the championship seasons of 1976-78, and would remain in pinstripes through the 1983 season. (It’s also worth noting that MacPhail’s trading partner in this deal was Cleveland GM Gabe Paul, who would become the Yankees GM after the 1973 season. There have long been whispers that Paul gift-wrapped Nettles for the Yankees because he knew that he would soon be taking over in New York.)

Second best: In the spring of 1972, MacPhail engineered a deal that looked to be a steal at the time, and turned out to be exactly that. In sending singles-hitting first baseman Danny Cater to the Red Sox for Sparky Lyle, MacPhail found himself a relief ace without giving up an everyday player. Cater was a journeyman, a backup player at best, a small price to surrender for a live left-hander with one of the era’s great sliders. Lyle would lock down the late innings for the next six seasons before giving way to Rich Gossage, and even then Lyle would be used as part of a larger trade, which reeled in Dave Righetti from Texas.

Clearly, MacPhail’s trading record for the Yankees produced a mixed bag of results. His deals brought little in terms of immediate improvement to the team; the Yankees failed to sniff the postseason during his seven years in the Bronx. But the Nettles and Lyle deals did bring in some long-term reinforcements that would help the Yankees during their next era of glory. So MacPhail deserves some credit for laying the groundwork that would be inherited by the Gabe Paul and Al Rosen regimes.

The Melk man milks the Jays

No matter what players do to devalue themselves, baseball’s general managers bail them out with unnecessarily extravagant contracts. That thought came to mind when I heard that the Blue Jays had signed Melky Cabrera to a two-year deal worth $18 million.

Only 28 years old and theoretically still in his prime, Cabrera could be a useful player for the Blue Jays. But aren’t the Jays being slightly irresponsible in giving him a two-year contract? Here’s a guy who was banned for 50 games for PEDs, tried to cover it up, and was then held in such little regard by the Giants that they did not reactivate for him the later rounds of the postseason. Why would you give him a two-year deal, especially when we don’t know how well he will play without the benefit of extra testosterone, among other possible PEDs? And why would you give a multi-year contract to a player like Cabrera, who has a reputation for not keeping himself in shape, as the Atlanta Braves know all too well.

A one-year deal, with an opportunity to prove that he’s more than just a steroid-inflated fake, should have been sufficient. If Cabrera absolutely had to have a two-year deal, the Jays should have said, “Pass, and we’ll let someone else make that mistake.” From a financial standpoint, it’s a bad move. It’s also a strange move from an ethical standpoint, an ill-advised decision to reward a player who was caught cheating this past summer.

Hairston moving from Mets to Yankees?

Now that the Yankees have lost out on their first choice of Torii Hunter, I’d expect them to sign Scott Hairston to be part of their right field replacement plan for free agent Nick Swisher. Though Hairston is not exactly young at age 32, he is five years Hunter’s junior. He also put up a .504 slugging percentage last season despite playing half of his games at pitcher-preferable Citi Field, and that’s an achievement worth some recognition.

Hairston, who’s never been a regular in the major leagues, wouldn’t play every day with the Yankees, but would likely be spotted against some right-handers in favor of either Raul Ibanez or Chris Dickerson or perhaps fellow free agent Ichiro Suzuki.

Like Hairston and Ichiro, Ibanez is a free agent. He’s already said that he would like to return to New York, but the question bears asking: Can the 41-year-old hold down regular duty in right field next season? Probably not. In an ideal world, Ibanez should play only two to three times a week, only against right-handed pitching, and only as a designated hitter. And in today’s game, where platoon players have lost roster spots to 11th and 12th pitchers, it’s becoming harder and harder to keep that kind of role player, a player like Ibanez, on the 25-man roster.

Giving Gibbons a chance

I have mixed feelings about the Blue Jays’ surprising hiring of John Gibbons. On the one hand, he’s a retread manager, one who did not have much prolonged success during his first go-round with Toronto. He’s also had his share of difficulty with players—including confrontations with Shea Hillenbrand, Ted Lilly,and David Bush—an indication that he might not have the ability to relate to the modern day player.

Yet there are those in Toronto who say that Gibbons has good attributes, that he knows how to run a bullpen and a bench, knows when to platoon players, and has a streak of old-school Billy Martin feistiness in him. They say Gibbons won’t tolerate the kinds of baserunning mistakes that never seemed to faze his passive predecessor, John Farrell. Gibbons will represent a needed turnaround from Farrell and his staff, who were unwilling to confront players about repeated mistakes.

In parts or all of five seasons with the Blue Jays, Gibbons’ record was exactly .500. If we throw out his partial seasons, his Jays won a high of 87 games for him and a low of 80. The Jays were never considered a favorite to win the AL East during his tenure, so perhaps he did as well as could be expected.

The key to Gibbons may be his willingness to adapt. If he wants to be tough and no-nonsense, that’s fine, but he will need to be less confrontational, and more selective in picking his battles. He doesn’t need to challenge players to fistfights, as he once did with the difficult Hillenbrand. Perhaps if Gibbons follows the lead of Terry Collins, who has eliminated much of his prior abrasiveness during his current stint with the Mets, he might be the right man to lead the resurgent Jays in 2013.

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Comments

  1. Dennis Bedard said...

    Another point.  Kudos for bringing up one of my all time favorite Yankee trivia answers:  The New London Strongboy, a/k/a John Ellis (I never heard him called “Johnny”) With that nickname and physique, I always associated him with a professional wrestler.

  2. Dennis Bedard said...

    I dissent on Danny Cater.  He may have been a journeyman player in the sense that he played for many different teams.  But caling him a “backup player at best” is not accurate and really unfair.  Cater was a consistent .260 + hitter for a five year period in the mid to later 60’s when such an average was, well, better than average.  His best year was 1970 when he played full time and hit .301with the Yankees.  And let us not forget that his .290 average in 1968 with the A’s was second in the AL to Yaz’s .301.  Are these the numbers of a “backup player at best”?

  3. Steve Millburg said...

    Danny Cater didn’t walk much (career on-base percentage: .316) and didn’t hit for power (career slugging percentage: .377). So his career .276 batting average was pretty empty, even in the 1960s and early ’70s—especially for someone who was primarily a first baseman. By the time of the 1972 trade mentioned here, Cater was 32. He would play that season and three more, never topping 92 games or 343 plate appearances. At that point in his career, he was definitely a “backup player at best.”

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