It might be hard to believe for some younger fans, but there was a time when the Yankees didn’t have Mariano Rivera around to close things out in the ninth. Righty Steve Farr saved 78 games in three years as the Yanks’ closer, but the 36-year-old was allowed to walk as a free agent following the 1993 season, the worst of his career (4.21 ERA, 1.53 WHIP). He was out of the game less than 12 months later. Farr was replaced by another Steve, lefty Steve Howe. Howe picked up 15 saves for the 1994 Yankees, though he was always a question mark because of an off-the-field life plagued by cocaine addition.
With some of his best young players approaching the majors, then-GM Stick Michael went looking for an upgrade at the back end of his bullpen. As luck would have it, the Expos were looking to sell off their closer, 28-year-old John Wetteland, because of financial reasons. Wetteland had racked up 105 saves with a 2.32 ERA and 10.8 K/9 from 1992-1994, and was slated to earn $7.375M over the next two seasons, absurd money for a reliever at the time.
Three days after the strike was officially over, the Yankees sent outfield prospect Fernando Seguignol to Montreal in exchange for Wetteland. The Yanks got their end-game ace, and the Expos got a little breathing room under the budget. At the time of the trade, Seguignol had yet to appear in a full season minor league, and had just hit .289-.335-.432 in 73 games for Short Season Oneonta of the NY-Penn League. The switch hitter had big time power potential, but defensive concerns meant he was probably going to have to move to first base eventually.
Seguignol certainly fulfilled that power potential, clubbing 69 homers in the next four seasons before making his big league debut in 1998. Unfortunately for him and the Expos, all that power came with the big caveat of high strikeouts and low walk totals. He would bounce back and forth between the minors and the majors for the next three years, ultimately hitting .251-.305-.451 with 17 homers in 366 at-bats in a Montreal uniform. He became a free agent after the 2001 season, and ended up re-signing with the Yankees. Seguignol spent the next few years as a Triple-A masher, though he made an eight plate appearance cameo in the Bronx during the 2003 season.
Now 35-years-old, Seguignol spent some time in the Tigers’ system and in Japan after leaving the Yanks’ organization for a second time. Although he was on Panama’s provisional roster for the 2009 World Baseball Classic, he did not play and has been out of baseball for over a year now. Surely, the Expos would have liked a little more of a return for their star closer.
The Yankees, meanwhile, got exactly what they wanted. Wetteland owned the ninth inning in the Bronx during the 1995 season, saving 31 games with a 2.93 ERA and a 9.7 K/9. Unfortunately the postseason wasn’t as kind to him as the regular season was. After allowing three runs in 4.1 innings during Games One and Two of the ALDS against the Mariners (both Yankee wins), Wetteland entered the eighth inning of Game Four with the score tied at six. Nine pitches later, the bases were loaded following a walk, a single, and a hit batter. The dangerous Edgar Martinez – .327-.464-.595 that year – stepped to plate and worked the count like he always did before giving the Mariners the lead with a grand slam. The Yankees lost the game and eventually the series, and then-manager Buck Showalter didn’t even bother to use Wetteland in the deciding Game Five despite there being obvious situations to use him.
With his Game Four collapse still on everyone’s mind, Wetteland again dominated as the Yanks’ closer in 1996. He saved 43 games with a 2.83 ERA and a 9.8 K/9, earning his first All Star Game berth in the process. Of course, no one cared about the regular season, everyone wanted to see him do it in October. He saved three games in seven appearances during the ALDS and ALCS, though his five walks in nine innings were a bit worrisome.
After the Yankees fell behind the Braves 2-0 in the World Series, Wetteland threw a scoreless ninth to preserve the win for David Cone in Game Three, and he again shut the door in Game Four after the rest of his bullpen mates bailed out the awful Kenny Rogers. His two out save in Game Five was an afterthought following the epic Andy Pettitte-John Smoltz matchup, but the Yankees returned to New York a game away from their 23rd World Championship thanks to three saves in three days from their All Star closer.
Wetteland entered the ninth inning of Gave Six with a two run lead to protect, though the inning was a little more stressful than most cared for it to be. He struck out 19-year-old phenom Andruw Jones to start the frame, but Ryan Klesko and Terry Pendleton put a pair of runners on with back-to-back singles. Former Yankee Luis Polonia struck out for the second out of the inning, but Marquis Grisson singled in a run and put the tying run in scoring position with one swing of the bat. With the lead down to just one run, Wetteland ran the count full against Mark Lemke, and on the seventh pitch of the at-bat he got him to pop-up harmlessly to third baseman Charlie Hayes in foul territory. The Yankees were World Champs, and the big-time closer they traded for just two seasons earlier had been named World Series MVP thanks to his four saves in five days.
Montreal needed to move Wetteland because they couldn’t afford him, and the Yankees were happy to take him in exchange for an A-ball prospect. Although his Game Four meltdown during the 1995 ALDS left a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth, Wetteland delivered in Year Two of his Yankee tenure. He would sign a four year, $23M contract with Texas prior to the 1997 season, allowing a young setup man named Mariano Rivera to take over the closer’s role. This deal was a clear win-win, except both wins went to the Yankees. Sorry, Expos fans.
Photo Credit: Roberto Borea, AP