Past Trade Review: Al Leiter for Jesse Barfield

The David Cone Years
David Wells and Immortality
(Credit: New York Daily News)

While the 80s generally get lumped in with the Yankees’ dark years, they really weren’t all that bad. The Yankees did make the World Series in 1981, though they did so in relatively bizarre fashion. After stumbling in 1982 they came back to finish either second or third in the AL East in each of the next four seasons. But as the decade came to a close, the Yankees’ started to fall. One big reason was that their pitching staff grew old, and they had little in the way of young replacements.

The mid- to late-80s were all about trading young pitchers and getting essentially jack squat in return. It started after the 1986 season, when the Yankees traded Doug Drabek after his debut season. In return they got a 34-year-old Rick Rhoden, who actually did help in 1987. But that was his final quality season. It’s a good thing they got it out of him, too. The 1987 team might have been the messiest pitching situation of my lifetime — and that includes 2008.

The Yankees trotted out 14 different starters in 1987. Only four made double-digit starts. Among them was Dennis Rasmussen, the youngest of the double-digit starters, whom the Yankees traded mid-season. The other three regulars were all 34 or older, including a 44-year-old Tommy John and a 36-year-old Ron Guidry, who started only 17 games. The other 10 starters were a mixed bag, but most of them shared one thing in common: they had little future in the league. Only three of those pitchers were younger than 28 years old in 1987. As was their wont, the Yankees ensured that they wouldn’t be in pinstripes much longer.

A 26-year-old Bob Tewksbury started six games for the Yankees in 1987. He might have started more, too, had the Yankees not traded him mid-season for Steve Trout. Tewksbury went on to have a fine career, mostly in St. Louis. The pitching-starved early 90s Yankees could have used him badly. Trout, 29 at the time of the trade and an established mediocrity, completely collapsed. The Yanks traded him after the season, and he lasted just two more in the bigs before calling it quits. Brad Arnsberg, a 23-year-old righty, also made a couple of starts in 87, but the Yankees dished him after the season for Don Slaught. (Who, in all fairness, produced a couple of not-half-bad seasons for the Yanks.)

The clearest indication that the Yankees needed arms that season was Al Leiter’s presence on the roster. He was just 21 years old, and didn’t exactly have a sterling minor league record. While his results in A-ball in 1986 were decent, he still walked nearly 7 per nine. In 87 he advanced to AA, where he cut down on the walks and upped his strikeout rate. That earned him a trip to AAA Columbus, but he got knocked around a bit there (and walked nearly 6 per nine). Still, the Yankees gave him a September call-up. Again he got knocked around, but there was at least some promise there.

The ’87 Yanks finished fourth in the division, and things only got worse from there. Chief among their problems in 1988, when they finished fifth, was pitching. Rhoden and John still took the ball every five days, but they had very poor seasons. New addition John Candalaria pitched well enough, but Richard Dotson balanced him out with 171 horrible innings. The only saving grace in the rotation was the 22-year-old Leiter. He actually pitched fairly well in the first half, a 3.99 ERA with more than a strikeout per inning and a 2:1 K/BB ratio. Unfortunately, his season got cut short by a blister problem that cropped up during a fine start against the Tigers. That put him on the 21-day disabled list (fancy that), though he wouldn’t come back until September. Again injury cut him short, as he experienced back spasms in a start against the Red Sox.

Anyone expecting a bounceback from Leiter in 1989 would be sadly disappointed — and then disappointed again. He opened his season with a 5.1-inning, six-run performance against Cleveland, which he followed with three more unspectacular performances. He did pitch into the ninth inning of his second game, striking out 10. The only problem is that he walked nine, and, more importantly, threw 163 pitches. Maybe the Yankees saw that and thought it could lead to trouble. Maybe they were just obsessed with trading any young pitcher with a lick of talent. Whatever the case, they traded Leiter after just four starts, in return receiving Jesse Barfield from the Toronto Blue Jays.

In 1988 the Yankees got some serious production from right field. Dave Winfield hit .322/.398/.530, a 159 OPS+, but he would not be around for the 1989 season. Back problems in spring training led to season-ending surgery. The Yanks did acquire Mel Hall that spring to help fill the void, but he clearly wasn’t going to provide the kind of production the Yankees needed. The solution, then, was to acquire Barfield to man left field. He certainly stood to put up better numbers than Hall.

In the early 80s Barfield was a rising star. His production increased into his mid-20s; in his age-25 and age-26 seasons he hit .289/.369/.548, 143 OPS+, while playing in at least 155 games each season. Combined with his absolute cannon arm, and Winfield’s near-expiring contract, he seemed a perfect fit. The only problem was that his production had taken a step back in the following two seasons. At ages 27 and 28 he hit just .254/.318/.443, 104 OPS+. If the Yankees were trading for the mid-20s Barfield, it would have been one thing. The late-20s Barfield still had something to prove.

All told, his first season in pinstripes didn’t go so badly. He hit .240/.360/.410, 118 OPS+, for a 74-win team. In 1990 he turned in a better season, hitting .246/.359/.456, 128 OPS+. Of course, there was no OPS+ back then, and few people looked beyond batting average, home runs, and RBI. In that sense, Barfield was .246/25/78 in 1990, hardly the stuff of a superstar. He’d last another two years in pinstripes, though he played only 114 games combined. In his early 30s, his career had crashed.

Leiter, on the other hand, almost immediately succumbed to injuries. He got hurt after his first start in Toronto and didn’t make another start for the big league club that year. In fact, he threw just 8 innings in three rehab starts. In 1990 he spent most of the year in the minors, throwing 24 innings of rehab in A-ball before another 78 in AAA. Again in 1991 he spent most of the season on the shelf, pitching just 10 innings between the majors and the minors. In 1992 the Blue Jays just stuck him in the minors, where he threw 163.1 innings. It wasn’t until 1993 that he finally pitched over 100 innings in the bigs. But it wasn’t until 1995 that he was actually any good. That was his last season before free agency.

It’s easy to look back on the trade and see failure, because Leiter went on to enjoy so much success later in his career. But the reality is that during his team-controlled years, Leiter did little other than walk hitters. Before reaching free agency he threw just 522 innings in the majors, and spent the better parts of four seasons on the disabled list. It was only after he reached free agency, and really after he made his way to the Mets, that he really stood out as a pitcher. We can’t judge the trade based on those performances, because they came long after the Yankees would have retained control of him.

Jesse Barfield was a mostly unremarkable player for the Yankees. He showed that he was not the player he appeared to be in his mid-20s, but was instead a merely above-average hitter. That his career came to a halt just a few years after the trade makes it seem all the worse. But think of it this way: if Barfield had continued performing at slightly above average levels, instead of completely falling off a cliff, do the Yankees trade Roberto Kelly for Paul O’Neill a few years later?

In the mid- to late-80s, the Yankees loved trading young pitching for very little return. Leiter was just another name on that list. It might seem like a terrible trade, because Barfield’s performance didn’t stand out and Leiter went on to win a World Series and then realize a very fine career. But the Yankees weren’t exactly in the wrong here. They had a young, promising pitcher, but they had also worked him hard. He had injury problems the previous year, and then had the infamous 163-pitch start in early April. They ended up dodging a bullet, as Leiter spent much time on the DL after that. At the time it was a short-sighted move, given the team’s lack of young arms, but in terms of results it worked out pretty well. Even a healthy Leiter couldn’t have saved those early 90s pitching staffs.

The David Cone Years
David Wells and Immortality
  • http://none Favrest

    Trade review: It was a bad trade. Really bad.

    • Now Batting

      I don’t know about that. The years the Yankees would have controlled Leiter he stunk. Barfield was at least serviceable.

      • I Live In My Mom’s Basement

        I liked him because I could call him “Barfy.”

      • viridiana

        The reason he stunk, I was told by people in the Yankee organzation, is that he was left in to throw 163 pitches on a cold damp night — I seem to remember 39 degrees — by manager Dallas Green. This was a classic case of mismanaged young pitching dictating a subsequent trade of what had been a prized asset.
        Also worth noting that Leiter is a classic case of why minor league walks by pitchers (unlike strikeouts by hitters) can sometimes be deceiving. The scouting reports on Leiter were always good and these trumped the high early walk totals.
        But you make a great point about Yanks trading young pitching. Drabek went on to be one of best in NL. His pattern in his year with the Yanks was very much like Nova’s first year pattern. Strong early performance followed by fifth or sixth inning breakdown. Hopefully Yanks have learned something from giving up too seoon on Drabek and others.

  • jsbrendog

    “convicted rapist” mel hall

  • steve s

    I agree that the 80’s weren’t as bleak as some may remember. The 85 Yanks were probably the best Yankee team not to make the post-season (other than the 54 Yanks).

    • oscar

      yeah i remember them having a better record than the WS Champion Royals. Started getting me thinking about the need for a “Wild Card” system..

      • peter

        and i think head to head they beat the royals up that year. not that means a whole lot..just sayin

  • Adam

    He did also throw a home run ball onto the subway tracks from right field at a game that I went to (can’t quite remember who it was against, the Orioles perhaps?). It was oddly redeeming in the midst of another Yankee loss.

  • Broll The American

    I remember really liking this trade at the time. Leiter was a walking injury at that point in his career. His problems only got worse after he left. It took him nearly 7 years to become a good pitcher after the trade.

  • Rich in NJ

    I can recall John Sterling calling it “a steal” for the Yankees just a few weeks after the trade.

  • Ken

    Really running out of things to post about, huh?

    • Joe Pawlikowski

      We’re running retro week, which Mike mentioned earlier. I also really enjoyed researching and writing this. So your jackass comment isn’t really appreciated.

      • Bon Scott

        Don’t feed the trolls.

      • Matt DiBari

        I really enjoy these posts, particularly from trades that I’m too young to remember the thought process behind.

    • Robinson Tilapia

      You’re right. Only post about things the readerbase under twelve can remember, guys.

  • Gerry

    I spent a week with Jesse at Yankees Fantasy Camp in January 2011. He is a great guy and a great storyteller. He was also a good hitting coach and very patient with us “rookies”. He let me try on his Home Run King ring. Too bad he wasn’t around to win a WS.

  • Gerry

    If I also remember correctly Al Leiter gave up a homerun to the first batter he faced in the majors.

  • Gerry

    And Joe, this retro series is awesome.

    • Joe Pawlikowski

      Thanks. Mike and I have had a blast coming up with topics, and have had fun reminiscing on our halcyon days as Yankees fans. One thing made clear while researching this post: I definitely wasn’t aware of the Yankees’ culture at the time of the trade.

      • Bon Scott

        Do the Roger Maris trade next!!

  • mike

    with him, Nokes, Balboni…it was truly a few years of feast/famine with the “heart” of the order

  • Robinson Tilapia

    The 80’s weren’t as bad as remembered, but they certainly weren’t great. Some of those mid 80’s teams would have been WC contenders under the current system.

    The pitching, though, WAS as bad as remembered, unless “Dennis Rasmussen, Defacto Ace” is your thing.

    My last YS2 game as a kid before moving out of the area for almost 15 years was a Leiter start.

  • jason

    Don’t have the patience to do any, you know, research or anything, but bewtween Tewksbury, Leiter and Drabek, Yankees traded away about 85 bWAR. Growing up a fan in the 80’s, it was the Drabek deal that hurt most of all (though sometimes I still wear my Cecilio Guante jersey arond the house).

    • viridiana

      And let’s not forget that Yanks also traded Jose Rijo, another top NL pitcher for several years. Of course, they got Ricky Henderson for Rijo. So that was a more than adequate return.

      But Rijo, Drabek, Leiter and Tewksbury would have been dynamite rotation for teams that still had Mattingly and Winfield. Yanks didn’t begin to recover from these trades until they got Bob Wickman and Melido Perez in deal for fading Steve Saxe. Wickman and Perez, pretty much forgotten these days, were corerstones of rebuilding Yankee teams leading up to championship year of 1996.

  • Matt DiBari

    The Yankees pitching staff of the late 80s was a real whos who of the late 70s, huh?

    • Robinson Tilapia

      I somehow cannot recall a single John Candelaria or John “The Count” Montefusco start, yet I know they were on the team.

      • Matt DiBari

        Obviously before my time, but I never even knew they were on the team

  • oscar

    is that Pags in the background?

  • Gerry

    How about Steve Howe, and Pascual and Melido Perez

  • bpdelia

    For some reason it was Tewkesbury that bothered me most. That and howell, rijo and javier all having good career s while we got fucking plunk and polonia back. That might be the worst Yankee trade in history.

    • Robinson Tilapia

      I think it’s OK to get over Jay Howell and Stan Javier at this point, really.

      Tewksbury bugged me as, even as a kid, I realized the franchise couldn’t rely on what they seemed to do year after year, and my recollection is that he looked decent in a VERY small sample. I do feel that, like Leiter, it was a few years before he actually became anything at the MLB level.

      Drabek and Rijo did piss me the hell off.

      • bpdelia

        Yeah the thing is you give ip a closer s legit ml outfielder and a guy EVRRYONE knew would be an absolute ace for rivkey Henderson. Great awesome trade. Dickey comes here plays fucking unbelievably well but dogs it on a flyball so everyone goes nuts and the Yankees have ni leverage. Everybody ones at the time we got shatter in that deal. Plunks became pretty good after Ny but for the Yankees he couldn’t throw strikes. And while i liked popinjay and hr had a nice long career…..this was ticket effin Henderson!!!! I remember tewk looking real good in his brief time and it did take awhile but i loved him in his career. Ive always loved watching guys with pinpoint control because it absolutely amazes me. Sadly at the time i was PSYCHED about rick rhoden. Dude could hit and play the OF too!

  • Kevin Ocala, Fl

    To this day I can remember being in my car, and hearing the news. I’m glad nobody was around to hear my cursing! I’ve thought long about this trade, and suppose that it was a “break-even” due to all the blister problems that Leiter had. And the Tewksbury trade was infuriating as well. I hope this article doesn’t give me any anxiety dreams tonight, “Now batting clean-up, Mel Hall…”

  • bonestock94

    Wow, never knew Leiter’s career had such a weird trajectory. I don’t really think that’s a dumb trade anymore.

  • dc1874

    those days were so screwed up that I remember Rhoden was actually a DH in one game!!!!

  • Urban

    I understand the Leiter-for-Barfield trade. For years, I used to lump it into the many stupid deals the Yankees made during the 80s, yet I now put it in a different category. One that just didn’t work out, but it wasn’t stupid.

    A power hitter still in his 20s, who turned out to be the best defensive RFer the Yankees have had in my lifetime. Greg Golson has a girl’s arm compared to Barfield. Hard to predict how players will age. Including his defense, Barfield was approaching an 8 fWAR player at his best in Toronto, and was a 5 fWAR for the Yankees, then he just collapsed. Leiter, on the other hand, was basically 30 before he became a quality pitcher.

    The deals that were just bad were the Drabek, McGee, Buhner, Tewks, McGriff, etc. deals. Players given away too early, or for nothing. They were bad from the start.

  • Urban

    Who oversaw the Yankees talent/farm system back in the 80s? Considering they won more games than any team in the 80s, and had been a high-win team again since the mid-70s, they were always drafting late every June and had no access to the top players, yet they compiled some very high-end talent, either by draft and some trades, that could have formed the core of some championship teams. Mattingly, McGee, Rijo, Drabek, Burke, Tewksbury, McGriff, Righetti, Leiter, Buhner, etc.

    I’m not saying they should have kept all of them, but they basically traded away all of them, save Mattingly and Righetti, and not getting proper value in most cases in return.

    I suppose if if they Yankees had properly managed all that talent, they never would have collapsed in the early 90s, and that collapse was important to building the dynasty teams of the later 90s. I guess you can’t have it all!

  • matt s

    I remember being happy with this trade, but I was just a kid and all I knew was that Leiter had a high ERA and Barfield hit a lot of HR’s. But even after Leiter became good I wasn’t too angry because I realized that he just took too long to develop and the yankees never would’ve had the patience for that. So I guess its good they dealt him when he still had value as a prospect.

    Of course the yanks made many horrible trades back then and hopefully Mike and the guys will continue to review them. In the end it would be cool to see what the roster would look like w/o those bad deals ala hardball times does from time to time. Although without those trades which led to the darkest of days in the early 90’s we wouldn’t have drafted jeter..

    Also, thankfully Hank and Hal also realize those deals stank and have said they hated seeing our prospects become stars on other teams, so maybe they won’t make the same mistakes that their father made.

  • RhetoricalQuestioner

    Q: Which major league team won more games in the 1980’s than the NY Yankees?

    It’s easy to look back on this period and see the failures without noting that the opposition, too, was inept.