What If: Re-imagining the Yankee Dynasty

A walk down Yankee 'Lane'
Adding a whole new meaning to "Cowboy Up"

Before I begin this exercise in What If? baseball history, let’s just remember that hindsight is always 20/20. When we look back in time and try to evaluate trades that weren’t made, it’s easy to do it sitting here in 2008. The trick is to put our selves in the shoes of those involved in the decision. In this case, that means hoping in a time machine and journeying to July 31, 1998.

It is July 31, 1998, and the Yankees are on a once-in-a-lifetime roll. The Yankees are 76-27 with a 15-game lead over the Red Sox. Since a 1-3 start, the team was a blistering 75-24. That just doesn’t happen.

But despite being prohibitive World Series favorites, the Yankees were always searching for ways to get better, and leading the charge was a rookie. General Manager Brian Cashman was in his first year as Yankee GM, and a series of moves and non-moves, beginning on that fateful night in July — the trade deadline — would impact the Yankees Dynasty up through the present day.

As site commenter Phil reminded us today, the Yankees were in the hunt for Randy Johnson. I had completely forgotten about these behind-the-scenes moves. But as RAB favorite and one-time Yankee beatwriter Buster Olney relates, the Yankees didn’t pull the trigger:

The Yankees could have had Randy Johnson tonight. Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman could have called the Seattle Mariners and agreed to their demands, and Johnson, one of this generation’s best pitchers, would have joined George Steinbrenner’s juggernaut.

Instead, the Yankees decided to pass on Johnson, refusing Seattle’s request for pitcher Hideki Irabu, the minor league infielder Mike Lowell and a second Class A player, and Johnson was traded to the Houston Astros. The Yankees’ last-minute attempt to trade for Los Angeles reliever Antonio Osuna also fell apart. Cashman and the Yankees are betting they can win the World Series with the team that has won 76 of its first 103 games.

”We made a tough decision,” Cashman said, ”and we will live with it.”

“The price,” according to Cashman, “was too high.” The price of Hideki Irabu, Mike Lowell, and a single A pitcher or the price of Ramiro Mendoza and Mike Lowell. It was all too high. Ironically, when Mike Lowell was traded five months later, the returns were meager. I can only wonder what changed — other than one great Scott Brosius season — in the intervening few months.

Now, for all the Cashman haters, this trade serves as the greatest indication of what he did wrong. Imagine Randy Johnson on the Yankees from 1998 through 2004 or 2005. How much would be different? Now, we can play that What If? game.

For starters, with Randy Johnson on board, I can’t envision the Yankees trading for Roger Clemens, and from there, the picture gets murky. I’d guess that the Yankees still win the World Series in 1999 and 2000. The storylines diverge in 2001. With Randy Johnson pitching for them instead of against them, the Yanks win the 2001 World Series. Maybe they get bounced in 2002; maybe they don’t. The 2003 season is hard to imagine also. That year, RJ made only 18 starts with the Diamondbacks.

But then we arrive at the Holy Grail of the What Ifs. In 2004, with Randy Johnson around and all things being equal, it’s hard to see the Yankees going down in seven games. Kevin Brown wouldn’t have been on the team because Hideki Irabu would have been traded to the Mariners instead of the Expos. Remember: The Expos sent Ted Lilly to the Yanks who sent Lilly away for Weaver who was traded for Kevin Brown. Got it?

The storylines merge though when 2005 arrives. We saw Randy Johnson 2005-2006; there’s no need to recount that.

Now, who knows if my rosy scenario is right. Could the Yankees with Randy Johnson really have won World Series from 1998-2001 and then again in 2004? It’s quite possible, but it’s also a challenge to win five World Series in eight seasons. It’s certainly no given.

Meanwhile, as much as we want to harp on this trade as Phil did today, it’s really hard to argue with the way things turned out for Cashman and the Yankees. By not acquiring Randy Johnson in 1998, the Yankees got Clemens for 1999 and shipped off Irabu for a piece — Jake Westbrook — that would eventually land them David Justice, the key to their 2000 World Series championship.

So for these What Ifs, you have to believe what you want to believe. Does RJ mean no Clemens? Or is RJ in 1998 just as unhappy in New York as he was in 2005? Does RJ in 1998 mean no David Justice? Does RJ on the Yankees in 2000 mean they don’t need a David Justice? Does RJ in 1998 mean no Javy Vazquez, no Kevin Brown? Does it mean the Red Sox’s futility would survive to this day?

In the end, no one knows. It’s fun to hop on that Wayback Machine and check in with the Yankees circa 1998, but it’s largely futile. Considering the Yanks’ success and the way Brian Cashman went about, in the late 1990s, acquiring just the right pieces at just the right time, I can’t bemoan or criticize Cashman for not making this trade. Others will, but as I said, hindsight is always 20/20.

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A walk down Yankee 'Lane'
Adding a whole new meaning to "Cowboy Up"
  • Hollaforskolla
  • Phil McCracken

    I’ll probably catch a lot of heat for saying this on a site that sells “Save the Big 3″ t-shirts, but I’m going to take my Randy Johnson blunder post one step further and compare it to today’s team.

    What if Santana is the Randy Johnson mistake of 1998? Sure Lowell, Irabu, and Homer Bush wasn’t Phil Hughes, Jeff Marquez, Melky Cabrera, but it is something to think about. With the Yankees thinking about dumping Melky outside of a Santana trade, and Marquez probably never making this rotation, the trade becomes Santana for Hughes as the other 2 are deemed expendable.

    I really like Phil Hughes, but with the core of this team’s offense of ARod, Jeter, Abreu, and Posada in their 30’s the time to strike is now.

    • Rich

      Similarly, what if Santana’s Sept. decline and reluctance to throw his slider are a precursor of a nascent injury that requires surgery and Phil Hughes turns out to be a better pitcher over the next five years?

      Baseball, like life, involves risks.

      That’s why the optimal approach to each fact pattern is have smart baseball people, rather than the owner, make these decisions.

      I think that Cash is smart baseball person, even if he doesn’t bat 1.000.

      Also, if you made a mistake with Santana, you are out upwards of $120 million. If you keep Hughes and he underperforms, you still have that money to spend.

  • E-ROC

    Cool column.

  • Phil McCracken

    Forgot to say good article Ben, and to add that Clemens really was a non factor in the 1999 WS. He was the Game 4 starter in a series we were leading 3-0.

    Imagine the 1998-2001 rotation of:
    Johnson
    Mussina
    Wells
    Pettitte
    Duque
    Cone

  • systemcrash

    I’m moist just thinking about it!

  • snoop dogg resident

    who cares what their pitching would have looked like in 98-2001 – the won 3 rings and were 2 mariano errors and a broken bat looper away frm walking away with 4. as i watch that inning now – i wonder if that was the one time since 1997 that rivera actually seemed to be a little nerousx= oute there. he had great stuff that series/game. people foget that he came in to th game in the 8th and was dominant. could that inning have been 1 of those times when he had some butterfies leading to ill adised and bad fielding

  • Rob

    Very cool indeed. I have to think the circumstances determined that non-move more than anything else. That 98 team was on a roll and Irabu looked like he was going to fulfill his potential:

    April – 11 IP 1.64 ERA
    May – 43.2 IP 1.44 ERA
    June – 29 IP 4.34 ERA

    By contrast, Randy was struggling at the time (106 ERA+).

    I’m not trying to defend Cashman. He has been too reluctant through the years to trade decent young talent. But if that stance saves a potential Hughes just once, then it’s worth it. The price on Santana is way too high – in prospects and dollars. That’s the problem – you have to judge each move uniquely based on circumstance and price.

  • Rob

    Also, not that Unit wasn’t worth having but at age 34 there was absolutely no way of knowing that he was about to run off four straight CYs. His tasty 1997 was sandwiched between an injured 1996 and that LAIMing of early 1998. I can certainly understand the reluctance esp given how well that 1998 team was playing.

  • Steve S

    the other presumption is that RJ stays after the 98 season. He was a free agent and could have signed here in 99 however he had a one track mind of signing in Arizona. Maybe Cashman knew that he couldnt do what Houston did for half a season of Randy.

  • snoop dogg resident

    based on what houstongave up and the fact that RJ bounced after the season – someoneshould post that articleon a houston blog because i am sure they regret that move and in hindsight wished he wouldhave gone to the yankees.

    you never know what is going to happen year to yearand thats why i agree with the saying – i think by pinella that you play to win this year and worry about next year – next year– paraphrased of course

  • Will

    You can’t play “What If” without seriously considering that Randy Johnson would have been a rental. Also, you could also argue that the Unit would have forced El Duque out of the Yankees plans. As we all know, no one was more instrumental to the Yankees in that post season than El Duque. Finally, Mendoza was a huge contributor to the Yankees from 1998-2002. I don’t think anyone should underestimate his contribution.

    No…I don’t think a strong case could be made to suggest RJ was a lost opportunity. I’ll take my 3 rings, 5 pennants and 9 division titles thank you very much.

  • Will

    Also, I think the more interesting notion is that the Yankees could have traded for Clemens IF Irabu didn’t have a no trade clause to Toronto. Not only would that have altered the Yankees future as a team, but it would have also changed the drama unfolding now. If Clemens had been split from McNamee in July of 1998, it is very likely they would have not had any further association.

  • Chofo

    I can only wonder if one day in 2018 I will find myself reading how a non Santana trade this offseason by Cashman led to the greatest Red Sox dynasty

  • marc

    i wonder if our opinions of johan would be different if the fragility of pitchers wasnt at what seems like a record high and he didnt have a poor last 2 months…… if he won a cy young would he then be worth it?

  • Bo

    Forget What If’s. I’ll take the 3 titles won.

    That’s fact.

    What If’s are more for teams like the Braves or Indians.
    What If they had Rivera as the closer?

  • marc

    its as though people have this idea that hes going to break down, or isnt the best pitcher in the world because of a bad 2 months.

  • Bo

    What if the Yanks trade Hughes and he turns out to be a 20 wins a yr guy and wins 3 Cy Youngs?

    And Santana being a pitcher tears up his elbow in yr 2 of a 7 yr deal?

    The game is played both ways.

  • Mike44

    Hey Bo,

    Like I’ve said repeatedly, Hughes has as much, if not better, a chance to blow his arm out as Santanta and I needn’t remind you that Santana has WON TWO CY YOUNGS already! Hughes has yet to pitch a full season.

  • jon

    It’s really hard to play “what-if”.

    What if Johnson, like most pitchers, was not nearly as dominant in the AL? He was having a poor 98 in the AL, then went on to dominate the NL. (Only to return to the AL after perhaps the best season of his career, 2004, and be thourougly mediocre).

    Like others have said, what if he doesn’t sign with the Yankees in 1999?

  • Rob_in_CT

    “I really like Phil Hughes, but with the core of this team’s offense of ARod, Jeter, Abreu, and Posada in their 30’s the time to strike is now.”

    This is a defensible argument. Of all the pro-trade arguments I’ve seen, this is the one that makes sense to me. Ultimately, I remain anti-trade, but I concede the distinct possibility that I’m wrong.

    As for RJ… the non-trade looks bad because Lowell was later given up for peanuts. But the context (Irabu pitching well, RJ being just slightly above-average) at the time of the non-trade is important, and makes the decision look a lot better. I also do think it’s fair to speculate that getting RJ meant not getting Clemens, though that’s not certain. Then does Clemens stay in Toronto? Does he go back to Boston (unlikely)? Does he go to Houston early? Does he end up signing with the Yanks as a FA when his Blue Jay contract was up? Who knows.

    If they don’t get Clemens, they keep Wells (who was pretty good). Do they get Justice in 2000? If not, do they make the playoffs? If so, do they win the WS?

    Ultimately, it does look like an oops. But not so big an oops as it sounds like at first blush.

  • Ben B.

    Wow, Ben. Probably not your intent, but you just convinced me that we HAVE to make the Santana trade. I think Hughes is going to be very good. He may even be great. But Santana IS great, now. Even last year, when his wins were down and his ERA was up a bit, his peripherals were still excellent. He should be a terrific pitcher through the life of his five-year extension. If we go past 2013, that’s probably just a price that has to be paid.

  • Rob

    Nah, the price on Santana is still too high. Look what the Mets are close to giving up. The Hughes+Melky isn’t enough any more.

  • Raf

    Wasn’t it rumored that RJ was interested in playing with the D-Backs, as they were close to home?

  • steve (different one)

    i view the Mike Lowell situation in 1999 kindof like, well, the Mike Lowell situation in 2007.

    Brosius was a fan favorite and coming off a WS MVP. the Yankees had his younger, cheaper replacement, but getting rid of Brosius would have been a very unpopular decision. so they kept Brosius and traded Lowell for what was considered at the time, GOOD pitching prospects.

    it seemed somewhat defensible at the time. Lowell was blocked, the Yankee pitching wasn’t exactly young, so they tried to set themselves up for the next few years by getting good pitching prospects. Remember, Yarnall was a big part of the Mets’ package for Mike Piazza less than 7 months earlier. He was very highly thought of.

    back to my point, i see some similarities with the Red Sox decision on Lowell this year. he is probably going to regress somewhat in 2007. he’ll be 34. but when there were talks about A-Rod coming to Boston, there was a great fan outcry to keep their WS MVP, so i am sure Boston felt a little pressure to bring him back.

    now, this isn’t a perfect analogy as the Sox don’t have a prospect as good as young Lowell ready to take over for, well, old Mike Lowell. but you get the point.

    anyway, cool column. trades are really easy to make in hindsight. really easy. also keep in mind that cashman had been the GM for what, 6 months? he may have been a little gunshy being a 30 year old GM.

    easy to say with hindsight. hard to argue with winning the next 3 titles and coming 2 outs from a 4th.

  • Spike

    Let’s look forward, not backward.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Ben K.

      Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

  • Bo

    Basically Mike by your theory every pitcher has a chance to throw his arm out.

    Wouldnt you want the guy who makes the major league min than the guy making 160 mill over 7 yrs then???

    Especially if the min guy has comparable talent and could be as good as the max guy?

  • Bo

    Mike Lowell is head and shoulders above Ferocious Brosius as a player. its not even comparable.

    Lowell is an impact middle of the order hitter. brosius was a 9th hitter.

  • Rob_in_CT

    We know this now, yeah. In 1998, was it clear what Mike Lowell would become? It certainly is clear that Brosius’ 1998 was a fluke, and he was actually a major offensive liability, and I think it’s fair to criticize the Yankees for (apparently) not realizing that. But Lowell? Less clear to me. I haven’t looked up his minor league record, so it’s possible that it should have been blindingly obvious.

  • Chip

    Bo, Brosius was probably the best number 9 hitter in the league in 1998 and a huge fan favorite. Not only that, he was also the perfect hitter in that Yankee lineup. He took a lot of pitches and got on base a lot so the top of the order could hit him in. I believe he had something like 100 rbi out of the 9 hole that year too. That’s just impressive

  • ceciguante

    this is way too much “what if” for my blood. you simply can’t forecast what would have happened outside of maybe the immediate future of any deal, b/c what every MLB team would have done after such a huge trade would have changed. to try to envision RJ on the yanks in ’98 is one thing, but predicting the subsequent MLB climate over following seasons is pure fantasy. fun to dream, tho.

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