The New York Yankees are, of course, the most successful franchise in major league history, and none other comes remotely close. They established a dynasty beginning in the early 1920s that effectively stands to this day.
But while over the past 90 years the Bronx Bombers have encountered very few “down” periods, they have had a couple. Since the 1910s, the longest drought between Yankee championships took place in the 1980s and early 1990s. Between their pennant of 1981 and their AL East first-place finish of 1994, the Yankees played 12 seasons without achieving a flag (and technically, they didn’t achieve one in ’94, as in that strike-abbreviated season there were no official champions declared, and no postseason tournament conducted, so the Yankees’ first postseason appearance since 1981 would occur as the result of their Wild Card victory in 1995).
Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was never a patient, “hands off” sort, of course, but it was in the 1980s that his management style was at its most frantic. Not only did Steinbrenner fire his field managers on a constant basis (between 1980 and 1990 the Yankees changed managers 13 times, with Gene Michael and Lou Piniella each receiving two stints, and Billy Martin three), but he also ground through general managers as though they were backup catchers. In that same 1980-90 time frame, Gene Michael, Bill Bergesch, Murray Cook, Clyde King, Woody Woodward, Lou Piniella, Bob Quinn, and Harding Peterson all were granted the title of Yankees GM. Michael, by the way, was granted it twice.
I use the term “granted the title” purposefully, because it seems clear that in such an environment no one was ever genuinely allowed the kind of authority we customarily assume to be the GMs. Certainly in such an environment, no GM was given the opportunity to formulate a strategic plan and even begin to see it through. What such an environment most distinctly indicates is that the Yankees in this era never employed a true general manager, because that role—that power—was never really delegated by Steinbrenner.
Thus in considering the Yankees’ player transactions in that period, it’s probably a fool’s errand to ascribe the credit (or discredit) for any particular deal to any particular titled GM. Yes, each given trade was officially executed on a given GM’s watch, but one would be naïve to conclude that the trade was therefore authentically the work of that GM. For all practical purposes, the Yankees’ GM through this era was George Steinbrenner.
And the Yankees’ transactional record through this period bears all the Steinbrenner hallmarks: It was bold and fearless to a fault, monumentally impatient, not stupid or incompetent by any means (well, OK, maybe once or twice), but failing to adhere to any semblance of a careful and disciplined plan. It was just too, too much.
Thus, as we’ll see, Steinbrenner pretty well traded his way out of an excellent opportunity to capture multiple championships in the late 1980s. A Yankees regime that more reasonably respected the talent that was being produced by its farm system, that erred on the side of allowing the assets already within its possession to be deployed, would likely have enjoyed a run of success in the late 1980s that would be the furthest thing from one of this storied franchise’s “down” periods.
What might have been: Element No. 1
The issue wasn’t so much that the Yankees traded away McGee. The 23-year-old was a fine prospect, but to be frank he was hardly a great one; he hadn’t yet reached Triple-A, and his minor league hitting was all right but nothing special.
But he was a very fine prospect, because those of us who saw the young McGee can recall just what a marvelous defensive center fielder he was, not just with dazzling speed and range, but with a throwing arm that was, despite his slender build, strong as well as accurate. Surely, anyone who watched this kid play as a minor leaguer could tell that, if he could hit at all, he’d be a significant major league contributor in the field and on the basepaths.
Still, the issue wasn’t so much that the Yankees traded away McGee. It was who they received in return. The 27-year-old Bob Sykes was, well, about as much a proven marginality as has ever been proven. In the fall of 1981 there was absolutely no reason to believe that Sykes would ever become a good major league pitcher; he would need to blossom to achieve mediocrity.
Sykes’ uselessness could hardly be better demonstrated by the fact that the Yankees would never actually, you know, use him. He never made the roster, never pitched an inning for New York, and never pitched a major league inning following this trade.
Let’s assume the Yankees had figured that McGee might be of more future service than Sykes.
What might have been: Element No. 1-A
Dec. 23, 1981: The Yankees signed outfielder Dave Collins as a free agent.
Collins wasn’t a bad ballplayer. His sheer speed was in the all-time elite realm, and he was able to leverage it by getting on base a generally good rate. But he certainly had his limitations: zilch power, and for all his speed Collins lacked the defensive aptitude to handle center field on a regular basis.
This package of strengths and weaknesses was simply not worth the investment of a hefty free-agent contract, which by the standards of the day this one was. And in particular, it didn’t make sense for the Yankees to make that investment, given that they had no spot in their outfield for Collins to play, and thus they would wind up deploying him primarily at first base in 1982. And in extra particular, if the Yankees still had Willie McGee on their roster, then there really would be no point in signing Collins.
What might have been: Element No. 1-B
Well, if we don’t have Collins, we can’t make this fateful trade, given that he was at the time the most prominent figure involved. And while, in all fairness, it’s only with the benefit of hindsight that the Yankees’ inclusion of the then-obscure bush leaguer McGriff in the deal appears plainly foolish, in equal fairness it must be pointed out that McGriff had just led the Gulf Coast League in home runs and walks as an 18-year-old—this was no run-of-the-mill bush leaguer.
And anyway, all of this for Dale Freaking Murray, an average-at-best right-handed middle reliever, who was about to turn 33? Seriously?
What might have been: Element No. 2
If Dave Collins was a guy the Yankees didn’t need, then Omar Moreno was a guy they really didn’t need. Collins presented a skill package that included world-class wheels and little else; in the case of Moreno it was world-class wheels and very close to nothing else. Unlike Collins, Moreno didn’t present the capacity to reliably get himself on base and make use of those wheels, and moreover despite his blazing speed Moreno was a remarkably poor percentage base stealer.
To acquire such a player in direct exchange for Jerry Mumphrey was mind-boggling. Mumphrey was one of those guys who wasn’t great at any particular thing, but he was just a splendidly well-rounded good baseball player: He was a switch-hitter who delivered a consistently fine average, with some pop, and drew his share of walks, and ran quite well, and was a sound defensive center fielder.
The lone positive Moreno brought that Collins didn’t was the ability to play a decent center field. But one certainly didn’t need to trade Mumphrey to get that, and besides our Yankees also still have young Mr. McGee to patrol that position.
Let’s assume the Yankees had kept Mumphrey in preference to Moreno.
What might have been: Element No. 3
Let’s be realistic: Nobody paid any attention to this deal at the time. Burke and Rooney were both obscure, unexciting minor leaguers, neither projecting as anything resembling a star.
But not every non-star-projecting minor leaguer is equal to every other. Burke’s fastball dazzled no one, but he was a 24-year-old who had just gone 12-4 with a 3.21 ERA as a starter in Double-A. That isn’t Swiss cheese. Rooney, meanwhile, was a 25-year-old right-handed-batting corner outfielder who’d spent two-and-a-half seasons in Triple-A, holding his own but failing to advance, delivering decent power but little speed, and poor on-base ability. Which guy would you rather see in your organization?
Let’s assume the Yankees had decided that Burke offered more upside than Rooney.
What might have been: Element No. 4
Feb. 27, 1985: The Yankees traded infielder Toby Harrah to the Texas Rangers for outfielder Billy Sample and a player to be named later. (On July 14, 1985, the Rangers sent pitcher Eric Dersin to the Yankees, completing the deal.)
This wasn’t a significant trade in any regard. But the fact is that our Yankees, with both McGee and Mumphrey still on hand, simply wouldn’t have space on the roster to allow bringing in any new outfielders. So this one won’t go.
What might have been: Element No. 5
Sept. 15, 1985: The Yankees traded pitcher Jim Deshaies and players to be named later to the Houston Astros for pitcher Joe Niekro. (On Sept. 24, 1985, the Yankees sent infielder Neder Horta to the Astros, and on Jan. 11, 1986, the Yankees sent pitcher Dody Rather to the Astros, completing the deal.)
Pay particular attention to the (initial) date of this transaction: the 15th of September. That meant that the Yankees were expending one very good prospect (Deshaies), plus two others, in order to obtain the services of a starting pitcher who would be deployed in just three games over the remainder of the season before becoming a free agent. Three starts from Niekro; that’s all this trade netted the Yankees.
Now, it was the case that as of that 15th of September, the Yankees had a chance at winning the division: They were in second place, four-and-a-half games behind the Blue Jays, with 19 left to play. That wasn’t a great chance, but it was a chance, and adding a good starting pitcher to the rotation could only improve their odds, even though by adding him to the roster at this late date, he wouldn’t be eligible for any postseason play.
You have your reward, and you have your risk, and the two must always be balanced. Niekro was a good starting pitcher, but he’d never been a great one, and at this point, at the age of 40 and chugging along at a 9-12, 93 ERA+ pace with the Astros, he hardly presented himself as an ace, the kind of guy who could seriously swing the balance of the race with a three-start contribution. And he didn’t: Niekro got shelled out early in his first Yankee start, then did so-so in the next two, and the Yankees finished in second. So while one can understand the Yankees’ temptation to pull the trigger on this deal, one can also make the case that their risk/reward calculation didn’t add up.
And with our version of the Yankees—trust me on this—we won’t be desperately seeking help to win the division in mid-September of 1985. So we can confidently assume that our Yankees would pass on this offer, and hang on to young Jim Deshaies.
What might have been: Element No. 5-A
Jan. 8, 1986: The Yankees signed pitcher Joe Niekro as a free agent.
And since we’ve hung on to young Jim Deshaies, there’s no need to be investing in old Joe Niekro as a free agent, either. Is there?
What might have been: Element No. 6
Dec. 12, 1985: The Yankees traded pitcher Rich Bordi and infielder Rex Hudler to the Baltimore Orioles for outfielder Gary Roenicke and a player to be named later. (On Dec. 16, 1985, the Orioles sent third baseman Leo Hernandez to the Yankees, completing the deal.)
As with the Harrah-for-Sample deal above, this one was neither unreasonable nor particularly impactful. But, as then, our Yankees still have no room to be adding utility outfielders. So it’s a no-go.
What might have been: Element No. 7
By this point, the real-life Yankees were frustrated. That’s understandable. In the preceding four years, they’d racked up 91, 87, 97, and 90 wins, but had nothing to show for it but two second-place and two third-place finishes. They were tired of being almost good enough, and were eager to do whatever it might take to get over that last hump.
Thus this trade. Its purpose was obvious: to provide an immediate-term upgrade in both the starting rotation (Rhoden replacing Drabek) and the bullpen (Guante and Clements replacing Fisher).
Even if the deal had worked out as hoped, and yielded dividends in the short run, that’s all it could ever do, as the likelihood was obviously low that the 34-year-old, solid-but-never-special Rhoden would remain better than than the 24-year-old, highly regarded Drabek for very long.
And the deal wouldn’t work out as hoped. In 1987, the rapidly improving Drabek would perform just about exactly as well as the beginning-to-decline Rhoden, and Guante/Clements would prove no better than the so-so Fisher. So while one can empathize with the Yankees’ desire to execute such a maneuver, one can criticize their adeptness at pulling it off. And one can also suggest that there is a danger in allowing the frustration over a circumstance to cloud the judgment of the objective merits of the talent in a transaction.
At any rate, our version of the Yankees wouldn’t be carrying such pent-up frustration in the fall of 1986, so we can assume that our Yankees would be able to exercise the patience to allow Doug Drabek to develop.
What might have been: Element No. 8
Dec. 24, 1986: The Yankees signed outfielder Gary Ward as a free agent.
There would be no room in our Yankee outfield for an over-30 journeyman. We’ll have to pass.
What might have been: Element No. 8-A
Nor will we be having any need to import a declining veteran bat into the designated hitter role. Thanks, but no thanks.
What might have been: Element No. 8-B
July 21, 1988: The Yankees traded outfielder Jay Buhner, pitcher Rick Balabon, and a player to be named later to the Seattle Mariners for designated hitter Ken Phelps. (On Oct. 12, 1988, the Yankees sent pitcher Troy Evers to the Mariners, completing the deal).
Another year, and still no need for our Yankees to be importing a veteran bat (even if this one wasn’t yet declining) into the DH slot. And being able to hang on to Jay Buhner is a nice bonus.
What might have been: Element No. 9
The frantic revolving-door nature of the Yankee operation in this period is dramatically illustrated by the team’s handling of Jack Clark. They’d signed the burly free agent slugger to a ballyhooed three-year contract prior to the 1988 season, and he’d delivered just about exactly the performance they should have been expecting: robust three-true-outcomes productivity. Yet they somehow managed to find fault with it, and almost immediately upon the season’s conclusion the Yankees were, well, not exactly dumping Clark, but certainly cashing him in for less than his worth.
Let’s assume our Yankees would think better of that.
What might have been: Element No. 10
Well, especially with Jack the Ripper still around, our Yankees would have no need to be trafficking in the journeyman DH market.
What might have been: Element No. 10-A
Nor is there any room on our Yankee roster to be importing once-outstanding-but-now-nothing-special corner outfielders. And being able to hang on to Al Leiter is a nice bonus.
What might have been: Element No. 11
This is what we had to say a few years ago about this intriguing transaction:
Here’s a vivid demonstration of just how different things were in the baseball world of 1989 than they would soon become. Though the Yankees were just 5 games out of first place when this deal was made, clearly they didn’t have much confidence in their capacity to win it, as they dumped off the superstar Henderson for three mid-tier commodities rather than play out the season with him and run the risk of losing him to free agency that fall. They would play poorly the rest of the way and finish in fifth place, and in fact be a bad team for a few more years. The A’s, meanwhile, already the defending AL champs, with Henderson on board would cruise to the division, league, and World Series titles.
Suffice to say that our Yankees will be occupying a very different posture in mid-1989. We’ll be undertaking no fire sales, thanks.
We’ll see just how the Bronx might have been burning in the late 1980s.