Building a winner: Yankees 1990-1994

When the Yanks had a mascot
Draft Chats

A comment in Paul’s insightful guest post got me thinking. The idea was comparing the 1990 team to the 2008 team. Clearly, there is a huge flaw in this. The 1990 team wasn’t nearly as talented as its 2008 counterpart. The 1989 team did not win 94 games and make the playoffs. And the 1990 team didn’t have a handful of future Hall of Famers.

But this did get me thinking. How did we go from the bottom of the AL East in 1990 to dominating in the strike-shortened 1994 season?

Now, this is not as deep a look as we can take into this matter. I’m not going to be able to comment on the environment in baseball at the time, because I don’t remember it as vividly as I’d like. But we can at least take the moves as they happened, and show how a last place team became a first place team, in just the fourth year after dwelling in the cellar.

1990 team

Last place. It hurts so bad. But that’s what happens when none of your starting pitchers can get their ERAs under 4.00. It’s also what happens when your best pitcher is Tim Leary, who threw 208 innings that year, over 50 more than the next closest pitcher on the team. Chuck Cary, Dave LaPoint, and Andy Hawkins shouldered most of the load, and didn’t do so impressively. They all — Leary included — finished with ERA+ figures under 100.

We also saw Mattingly’s back problems begin to manifest themselves. After a quality 1989 season, he played in just 102 games in 1990. His replacement, Kevin Maas, filled in admirably, but couldn’t maintain his performance from the month following his call-up.

From Matt Nokes (a sentimental fave) to Oscar Azocar to Alvaro Espinoza to Mel Hall, it was no wonder why they finished in the gutter. But change certainly started during the season. On June 4, Major League Baseball held its annual amateur draft. While the Yankees top picks didn’t exactly work out for the organization — Carl Everett with the 10th overall pick, and Robert Eenhoorn (remember his cups of coffee?) in the second round — the Yankees did make two of the more important picks in franchise history: Andy Pettitte in the 22nd round, whom they would sign a year later as an amateur free agent, and Jorge Posada in the 24th round.

(Before that, actually, in February of 1990, they signed an amateur free agent by the name of Mariano Rivera.)

In that off-season, the Yankees did not do much in the way of acquisitions. It’s tough to do for a basement-dwelling team. They trimmed the fat, releasing Wayne Tolleson, who was absolute crap at age 34. They let Dave Righetti, he of the July 4th no hitter, but at the time a 31-year-old closer, walk. Before the start of the season, they released veterans Rick Cerone, Steve Balboni, and Dave LaPoint.

They did re-sign Tim Leary, though. It’s tough to let your only 200-inning pitcher walk. Strangely, they also brought in Steve Farr to close games. The then-34-year-old was coming off a stellar season, pitching to a 1.98 ERA over 127 innings. He would become the Yankees closer and dominate for the next two years. Strangely, though, this move ended up having little to do with building the team. They also brought in Steve Howe.

1991 season

Perhaps one of the best things to happen to the Yankees in 1991 was Roberto Kelly’s injury. Of course, I was a disappointed lad at the time, seeing as Kelly was a young and exciting player. They did replace him with another young player, though I didn’t find him exciting at the time: one Bernabe Figueroa Williams. The 22-year-old wasn’t terrible in his audition. hitting .238/.336/.350 in 320 AB. Still, I celebrated when Kelly returned.

In 1991, we saw Jesse Barfield, one of their best players from a year prior, befall injury, playing in just 84 games. They also saw Kevin Maas in his true form. While Mattingly played the whole season, the offense was basically a wash.

Pitching-wise, it was the original Big Three: Jeff Johnson, Wade Taylor, and Scott Kamieniecki, though they were a bit older than our current crop of young pitchers. But they were pretty much bust, though Kam was promising in his 55 innings. Too bad he was 27 at the time.

The off-season was a bit of a push. They infamously signed Danny Tartabull, a move that could have set them back years, but thankfully didn’t. They finally cut bait on Steve Sax, getting Melido Perez and Bob Wickman from the White Sox. They cut Chuck Cary, who sucked in his limited innings. Charlie Hayes came our way for just Darrin Chapin. Mike Stanley came our way via free agency, a move that would end up working out rather well. And, on March 17, 1992, the Yankees released Alvaro Espinoza.

1992 season

Almost .500! The Yanks finished 80-82, a nine-win improvement over 1991. Replacing Stump Merrill with Buck Showalter sure seemed like a genius move, considering the team’s relative lack of activity in the off-season.

But boy, did that Sax trade look good! Melido Perez tossed nearly 250 innings of 2.87 ERA ball. Unfortunately, the rest of the staff was complete crap, save for 60 decent innings by 1990 draft pick Sam Militello.

Of course, more important things happened in 1992 than the way the team played. With the sixth pick in the amateur draft, the Yankees took a risk. They took a shortstop who was committed to the University of Michigan. Yes, I’m talking about Derek Jeter. Unfortunately, the rest of the draft was crap. But clearly, this move would change the franchise forever.

The off-season would bring more positive change. Mel Hall, a malcontent in the clubhouse, was granted his free agency, never to pick on Bernie Williams again. Jesse Barfield, who played in just 30 games in 1992, was granted his free agency as well. So much for our return on Al Leiter.

However, the real fireworks happened after that. Well, the first actually happened a day before Barfield was granted free agency. The Yankees traded Roberto Kelly for Paul O’Neill, a right fielder who had slugged just .373 the year prior. It was an underrated move at the time, though it immediately paid off. This not only allowed the Yanks to slide Tartabull (whose first year was actually pretty decent) to the DH slot, it moved Bernie Williams, who hit very well once called up in August of 1992, into the permanent center field slot.

Another question persisted: What to do with J.T. Snow? He was the Yanks’ No. 1 prospect at the time, but was blocked by the greatest active Yankee. So they dished him to California for Jim Abbott. He wasn’t great in New York, but he was a great story, and we’ll always remember the no-no. If I remember correctly, the Yankees actually wanted Chuck Finley at the time, even though he was five years Abbott’s senior.

Before the Christmas break, the Yanks made two more important acquisitions: Jimmy Key and Wade Boggs. Key was an absolute stud on Toronto’s two World Series teams, and Boggs, one of the best hitters of his generation, would replace Charlie Hayes, who was snatched up by the Rockies in the expansion draft.

1993 season

The improvements continued, as the Yanks added another seven wins to their total, going 87-75. The offense was powered by Mattingly, O’Neill, Boggs, and a stellar performance by Mike Stanley. Danny Tartabull contributed 34 doubles and 20 homers to the offensive onslaught. And 29-year-old Jim Leyritz hit .302/.410/.525 in his 259 at bats.

But, like the Yankees juggernauts of recent years, the pitching side faltered. Paul Gibson was the only member of the pen with more than 20 innings and an ERA below 4.00. Jimmy Key was the only starter who finished under 4.37 (Abbott’s ERA).

With their second place finish, the Yankees seemed poised to strike. They just needed some pitching. But that’s not so easy to come by, as we’ve learned in recent years.

Actually, they did sign a pitcher in August of 1993 as an amateur free agent. He’d actually go on to have a remarkable major league career — though not for the right reasons. The man’s name: Victor Zambrano.

1993-1994 off-season

For a team with pitching as poor as the ’93 Yanks, you’d think they would have brought some in. But they did not. The only moves they made were two trades, both of which worked out horribly. They got Terry Mulholland from the Phillies, and Xavier Hernandez from the Astros.

On the offensive end, they brought back Luis Polonia, and signed 31-year-old Daryl Boston as a backup. Oh, and they cut bait with Kevin Maas and Hensley Meulens.

Why did I make such a short section for the off-season? Because the Yankees really did nothing. They stood their ground. And sometimes that’s the best thing to do.


So what happened in 1994 that was different from 1993? Well, Wade Boggs and Paul O’Neill knew no mercy, raking their ways to stellar shortened seasons. Bernie Williams, at 25 years of age, continued his breakout. Luis Polonia provided a .384 OBP. Mattingly had a .397 OBP, though his slugging was just .411. And Mike Stanley hit the cover off the ball once again.

The pitching, though, was in basically the same shape as the year before, though Kamieniecki, then 30, kept his ERA at 3.76 over 117.1 innings. Key was again the ace of the staff. Steve Howe pitched to a 1.80 ERA as the closer, but only locked down 15 games. Something tells me that had plenty to do with the Yankees stellar offense.

What can we learn from this?

Worst to first is always a heartwarming story. But looking back over the story, it seems to be a bit chaotic. There doesn’t seem to be a formula that allowed the Yankees to rise up to the top. But that won’t stop us from guessing.

Here’s my take, and I encourage you guys to put together your thoughts in the comments (not that it needs any prompting).

  • O’Neill was kind of like Boston’s Ortiz signing. Both had been pretty average, putting up OPS+ figures of around 100 for the most part, with a 120 in there for good measure. Both broke out when moving to a new team. There was no real way to predict that Paulie would hit that well, but the Yanks took a gamble on an underperforming player.
  • I’m surprised by how little of this had to do with pitching. Jimmy Key and Jim Abbott were the only starters of note acquired during this period, though Farr and Howe were quality acquisitions as well.
  • They seemed willing to cut players who weren’t producing. This really helped them after the 1990 season. Of course, it’s easier to do that when you’re losing.

In retrospect, 1994 seems like an anomaly. They got huge years out of a few hitters, which masked their poor pitching. The next year, when Jimmy Key was injured most of the year, they found out that yeah, even with a good offense, you need those arms. Boggs and O’Neill still hit well, but regressed from ’94, as did Stanley. Mattingly fell to below average. Polina dropped off. It wasn’t until they brought in David Cone to go with Jack McDowell that they started to turn things around and make a run at the Wild Card.

Of course, this set them up well for 1996. Their earlier draftees, Jeter and Pettitte, would come in to help. The acquisition of Cone proved invaluable, aneurysm or not. The signing of Mariano Rivera paid off. They key off-season trade of Russ Davis for Tino Martinez was huge. But the building blocks of the 96 team were put into place before 1996.

To be clear, I’m not writing this to show what the Yankees can do now to rebuild the team. There’s no way they can pull off such a string of moves. Signings like O’Neill and Ortiz don’t come along often. They’d never be able to get a pitcher like David Cone for Marty Janzen, Jason Jarvis, and Mike Gordon. And you can’t count on a player like Boggs, entering his age 35 season and coming off the worst of his career, to pan out so well.

The truth is, the Yankees got remarkably lucky with a number of these moves. The luck even continued down the road, as they got a career year from Scott Brosius right after trading for him.

Unfortunately, we haven’t been as lucky recently. True, many times we set ourselves up for failure. But in order to achieve the greatness of the late 90s Yankees, you need more than a few lucky breaks.

When the Yanks had a mascot
Draft Chats
  • Matt

    Nice work. A couple small things. The ’92 team finished 76-86. It’s pythagorean W-L was 80-82

    Likewise, the ’93 team 88-74 with a pythagorean of 87-75. That team seemed like it spent all year tied with Toronto for first but was never able to take the lead for themselves. Without a bad September though, it was probably a 90 win team, and would have been the Wild Card had it existed at that time. But after suffering through ’89-’92, ’93 seemed like the best thing since sliced bread.

    Also, I believe Victor Zambrano was actually a SS when he signed.

  • MD

    good writeup…’s Yanks can accelerate the rebound process because of a willingness to spend….the key is spending for the right stuff, and having a good crop of minor leaguers…..if you look at Yankee history, they did this throughout the 40’s and 50’s, stopped building the minors in the early 60’s, started again in the 70’s but then traded most away by the 80’s…..rebuilt the minors in the early 90’s, depleted them again by the late 90’s…..we are rebuilding now, and it should translate into a better future…..this really is the first down year, and with a few breaks we could still compete for a wildcard, so it shouldn’t really be a last to first scenario…..still, we need a good draft tomorrow, particularly position players and left handed pitching….

  • Mike N (Stamford, CT)

    “The signing of Mariano Rivera paid off.”

    That might be the most under-stated reference to Mo written in the last 10 years.

  • Geno

    Nice column. Seems to me one key to that run of success had to do with the prospects we kept, and those we dealt. The farm system was producing quality players, but we also weren’t afraid to trade a few of our lesser prospects to fill holes.

    Another difference as I see it is the type of free agents we would sign. We seemed to make a conscience shift away from big strike-out sluggers (Nokes, Barfield, Tartabull, Hall), and more towards high-character, high-contact guys who would pop one over the fence every now and then (Stanley, Bernie, O’Neil, Tino).

    Finally, I see it as a matter of balance. Who would have made those dynasty teams from today’s squad? Cano, Abreu, Rodriguez, Wang, Joba… maybe a few arms in the pen.

  • Pete

    Thanks, this post was fantastic. Brought back a lot of memories, albeit those of complete frustration.

    Helps to put our current situation in perspective. When we’re watching them hoist another trophy, all this crap will seem so utterly marginal.

  • Z1m

    For as good as the superstars are they had players that filled a role much better then other teams. These role players were willing to fill their role. Since 04 it seems like the Yankees are just collecting big name after big name. The role players I’m talking about are Brosius, Tino, Raines, Knoblock, Chille Davis nelson and stanton The real superstars have a way of making everyone around them better. When everyone thinks they’re a superstar then they’ll become to big for the team concept. You need to find intangible guys that can mix well with the stars. Then the Yankees will get back over the hump and win a few playoff series.
    Take other teams the last few years who have tried to get as many big names as possible…Detriot this year…the Mets a few years ago….It doesn’t work.

    That’s why the Lakers will win the NBA finals this year. Kobe is the best player around. Mainly because he is making his supporting cast much better. Meaning he doesn’t have to score to take over a game. This year he really learned how to play at a championship level.

    • whozat

      “Since 04 it seems like the Yankees are just collecting big name after big name.”

      Since 01, you mean. George wanted Giambi and got him. And then the big names kept coming, but the internal replacements never did.

      • Pete

        How about since 1973. It just happen to work a few times in the late 70’s and then of course George was on leave for a few years in the early 90’s. :)

  • Z1m

    My fault. I mean 01. Thanks for pointing that out.

  • Bo

    Basically the key is to get better players. Especially better pitchers. And dont neglect the system and the draft.

  • brad k

    I have to laugh as I read this. RAB has clearly been one of the most vocal supporters of the current plan to rebuild while still winning. Of course now that seems a lot less likely then it did in the spring. I also know that we have sparred in the past over what different Yankee fan contingents wanted for the team but after watching the last 3 games (really all season) it has become painfully clear where we stand. The master architect of this debacle is Brian Cashman and it is obvious that his plan was severely flawed. Hughes, Kennedy, and Cabrera aren’t Jeter, Williams, and Rivera. These were the prime suspects in any trade for Santana and to here RAB tell the story the Yanks would have been insane to ship out the next great generation of home grown talent. Of course this flew in the face of history and to your credit you seem to realize that this isn’t 1990 and we aren’t that lucky. Once the decision was made and the course was set Cashman set out to fill the few holes that we seemed to have. This led to Hawkins, and Ensberg as our to main off season additions. We resigned an old and very average or below Andy Pettite and continued to pay Mussina $11 million dollars. This was the grand plan. The rest of the bull pen would be made up of stellar young talent like Ohlendorf, Ramirez, Patterson, Giese (not so young) and so on.

    I have no doubt that Joba will be a stud at the top of the rotation for some time to come. I also believe that Hughes and or IPK will someday be effective, although probably not for the Yankees. Next year will bring a new GM and a new plan and with that new hope. Maybe this is 1989 all over again.

    • Geno

      Ugh. Dude. One word, bro: paragraphs.

      • brad k

        Ugh. Who really cares? Your command of grammar is impressive. Too bad you couldn’t offer any insightful and interesting commentary on the subject of baseball.

        • Geno

          Something about glass houses and stones…

    • Joseph P.

      Your shortsightedness is laughable at best.

      • brad k


        • Joseph P.

          You don’t know what Hughes and Kennedy are going to be. You don’t know what Alan Horne and Austin Jackson and Jose Tabata are going to be. Bernie and Mo weren’t that good in the early going. It took them a while to become the greats they are/were.

          We at RAB also weren’t dead set on “rebuilding while winning.” The three of us have constantly said that if we don’t make the playoffs this year, no biggie. It’s about amassing talent and figuring out what you can do with that talent. We thought it wiser to hold onto our young players than trade then for a $130 million contract. Two months of poor play doesn’t change that stance, nor should it. Long term goals are not failures because we’re losing in the short term.

          • mike

            Yet isn’t the key “scouting your own team”? it seems that in the early 90’s , the Yanks were very impressive in scouting their own young talent ( i.e trading Hitchcock instead of Pettite) and major league talent ( who was happy Stanley was let go in favor of Girardi at the time??) along with being lucky and good.

            Its that confluence of events which cannot be replicated, because the same team of people who brought us the Pettite, Rivera Bernie Jeter drafts etc had previously AND subsequently failed miserably at drafting well or finding young talent worthy of a spot on the roster. This shows how hard it is to draft successfully, and the hurdles even quality picks have in making an impact on the major league roster.

            Also, it seems that the Yanks have been unable to re-tool at midseason as they had in the past ( with the exception of Abreu a few years ago) because the wild card, revenue growth/sharing and parity have left fewer sellers in the market – gone are the days of Cone/Justice/Fielder/Neagle/Weaver/Hill/Polonia/Lloyd/ coming over in July to re-vamp the roster.

            While the Yanks did get a burst from Joba/Cano/Wang in the last few years, its basically impossible to get a front-line starter now from another team, where just a few years back it was an All-Star pitcher moving (Colon, 2x, Johnson etc to name a few) each summer, and the Yanks were in on all of them!

    • dan

      You’re absolutely right. We should abandon the farm in favor of proven team players and winners like J.D. Drew and Andruw Jones.

      I urge you to take a look at the early careers of Rivera, Posada and Bernie before telling us what’s in store for Hughes and the others.

      • brad k

        I never said sell the farm. There is more than one way to skin that cat. considering that the championship teams of the late ’90’s were made up of about 30% home grown talent and 70% free agents/trade. You don’t rebuild with $200 million in payroll while your donating another $100 million in revenue and luxury tax money to your in division rivals like then Ray’s. It’s a bad plan.

        • mustang

          ” championship teams of the late ’90’s were made up of about 30% home grown talent and 70% free agents/trade. ”

          I’m so glad that someone finally made this point because I was looking at those championship teams the other day searching for that giant youth movement. I mean most of the key guys were either free agents or trades.
          Excellent comments from start to end you can always tell that here when the first thing they do is attack you personally instead of your facts.

  • question mark

    I’ve often made the comparison between the two eras. Both were coming off of a period of ridiculous, bloated Yankee teams getting too old, too expensive, and not producing.

    I also agree our cupboard was a bit more bare in the 90’s than it is now.

    Don’t panic, folks. Like the only good thing to come out of Boston once said, “life’s a journey. not a destination.”

  • BigBlueAL

    Its funny because one person in an earlier comment talked about who on the current Yankees team wouldve started for the dynasty Late 90’s Yankees. The fact is actually almost everybody from the regular lineup would!!! Only Bernie and Tino (mostly due to his defense) were clearly better than the current Yankees at their positions. When you consider the Yankees never had a true full-time LF/DH back then, any combo of Matsui/Damon/Abreu is WAY better than guys like Ledee, Curtis, Spencer and the older versions of Chilli and Straw. Although id take Justice in 2000 over any of the current outfielders if anything because he played pretty good D in LF to go along with his power/patience.

    The main point is how HORRIBLE the current pitching staff is compared to the champion Yanks of that time. Its laughable. Mo is obviously the same, but besides him, there is not 1 other member of this current disgrace of a bullpen who would come close to making the bullpen back then, especially from the 1998 season. Except for Wang, who might be the 5th starter on that group (but certainly 3rd or 4th from 2000 on), the older versions of Moose and Pettitte plus Rasner, please. The rotation in 1998-1999 was great, hell the rotation in 2003, though old, mightve been even better.

    Ive written earlier about this since those teams i consider part of my golden era (high-school to beginning of college, which i never finished, but thats another story!!) and to me nobody will ever stack up to them, but the fact is the main differences have clearly been the pitching, and ill be totally honest, ALOT of good/bad luck.