The Yankees might have been the winningest franchise in the 1980s, yet they finished the decade with nothing to show for it. They made the postseason in the decade’s first year, but got swept out of the ALCS by the Royals. Then, in the strike-interrupted 1981 season, they managed to make the World Series, though they probably didn’t deserve to even participate in the postseason. From there it was all downhill. Sure, they mixed in a few second place finishes in the middle of the decade, but that was as close as they got.
What hurts most about the Yankees’ poor performances during these years is that they were in many ways the results of a win-now mentality. George Steinbrenner stopped at nothing to field the best team possible in the moment, even if that meant sacrificing players who could help future teams. There was no balance. Predictably, the Yankees went from being a decent team in the early- and mid-80s to a putrid one by the end. It wasn’t until Steinbrenner was away from the everyday team operations that they were able to create a better balance and rebuild a culture of winning.
One of the team’s hallmarks in the 80s was trading young pitchers for veterans. The idea is nothing new; we see it all the time these days. We just don’t see the same team do it over and over and over again. Prospects are valued much differently these days, perhaps because of the Yankees’ mishaps in the 80s (and, to a lesser extent, mid-00s). As we come to the conclusion of retro week here at RAB, I wanted to run down some of the more egregious pitching trades in the 80s.
Note: I’m doing this based mostly on research, seeing as I was born in 1982. My first major Yankees memories came sometime around 1987, though I clearly wasn’t familiar with the team’s culture at the time — despite my father’s constant cursing of Steinbrenner and his meddling. (Those criticisms fell on deaf ears to a kid who just wanted to collect baseball cards and read the box scores.) I might miss what someone else considers a significant trade. But that’s what the comments section is for. So have at it.
March 30, 1982: Traded Andy McGaffigan for Doyle Alexander
We kick this off with a name I’m sure isn’t familiar to many readers. McGaffigan was no superstar, but he pitched 11 seasons in the bigs and turned in fairly good performances. He ended his career with a 3.38 ERA in 833.1 innings, which covered 363 games: 62 starts and 301 relief appearances. For the Yankees he pitched two games in relief in 1981 before they traded him for Alexander just before the 1982 season.
McGaffigan was thrice drafted: first by the Reds in 1974, then by the White Sox in 1976 (in what was called the January Draft-Regular Phase, whatever that was), and finally by the Yankees in 1978. McGaffigan conquered A-ball in 66 innings after signing, and then played in AA for both the 79 and 80 season — though they were different teams, because apparently the Yankees had two AA teams. He then spent most of 1981 in AAA, pitching well there before his eventual call-up.
Alexander, unsurprisingly, had already passed age 30 when he went to New York. Well, in this trade at least. In June of 1976 the Yankees acquired Alexander from the Orioles, only to let him walk as a free agent after the season. Following his stellar 1981 season, in which he pitched to a 2.89 ERA (119 ERA+) in 152 innings, he completely imploded for the Yanks in ’82, reaching a 6.08 ERA in just 66.2 innings. After a similar performance in his first 28.1 innings in 1983, the Yanks cut him. Of course, he went on to pitch much better after that, and ended up playing through 1987.
April 10, 1982: Traded Ron Davis for Roy Smalley
Another seemingly smaller trade, but still involving a young pitcher. Davis came up through the Yankees system, and from 1979 through 1981 he was money, compiling a 2.86 ERA (136 ERA+) in 140 games. He finished 72 games during that span as well. Maybe the Yanks knew something here, because immediately after they traded him to Minnesota, his career imploded. He had a couple decent years, but was mostly terrible and had a hard time finding a job after age 30. (The Yanks traded him at age 25.)
Smalley, on the other hand, hit very well for the Yankees, compiling a 111 OPS+ in 82 and then a 126 OPS+ in 520 PA in 1983. After he started slowly in 1984, the Yankees sent him to the White Sox for players to be named later. One of those players to be named later was a young pitcher by the name of Doug Drabek. We’ll get to him in due time.
December 5, 1984: Traded Tim Birtsas, Jay Howell, Stan Javier, Eric Plunk, and Jose Rijo to the A’s for Rickey Henderson
Mike covered the Henderson trade earlier today, so there’s no need for a full rehash. I just wanted to dwell on Rijo for just a moment. There was really no good reason for him to break camp with the team in 1984. He was just 19, and while he mopped the floor with AA competition in ’83, he had very little professional experience. Of his 302 professional innings to that point, just 40.1 had come above A-ball. But the Mets had a shiny new 19-year-old toy in Dwight Gooden, and so Steinbrenner needed his. Rijo was mediocre in both the Bronx and Columbus in ’84, but he picked up some steam in ’85. It was a shame to see him go, and an even bigger shame when he finally won a World Series with the 1990 Cincinnati Reds. That would coincide with the worst Yankees team of my lifetime.
Plunk counts as a young pitcher, too. While he didn’t come with Rijo’s hype, he did perform well for a few years. He was decently effective, if way too wild, pitching out of the Yanks’ pen and making spot starts from ’89 through’ 91, and then found success pitching out of Cleveland’s pen in the mid-90s.
September 15, 1985: Traded Jim Deshaies for Joe Niekro
Again, Deshaies wasn’t the biggest name. But he was only 25 and had just seven innings of big league experience under his belt when the Yanks traded him for the 40-year-old Niekro. As a 41-year-old in ’86, Niekro was pretty horrible, posting a 4.87 ERA (84 ERA+) in 125.2 innings. The Yanks got eight good starts out of him in ’87 before dishing him to Minnesota, where he collapsed. His career would end a year later.
Deshaies produced a 3.67 ERA (97 ERA+) in 1102 innings for the Astros before reaching free agency. Considering some of the pitchers who took the ball for the Yankees during those years, 1985 through 1991, they could have used his services.
November 26, 1986: Traded Doug Drabek for Rick Rhoden
Just two years earlier the Yankees had received Drabek in return for a fading hitter. He came in and trashed AA competition immediately, pitching to a 2.32 ERA in ’84 and then a 2.99 ERA in ’85. While AAA was less kind to him in ’86, he threw just 42 innings there. Most of his work came in the majors, a 4.10 ERA (100 ERA+) in 131.2 innings. That’s a quality performance there for a 23-year-old rookie. But Steinbrenner was not about to change his impatient ways. The Yankees won 90 games in ’86, but finished 5.5 behind the Red Sox. And so they traded Drabek for Proven Veteran™ Rick Rhoden. It wasn’t all bad at first, as Rhoden pitched well enough in ’87, compiling a 3.86 ERA (115 ERA+) in 181.2 innings. But at age 34 he was on the downswing. He lasted just two more seasons, a below average one for the Yankees before finishing his career in Houston.
Drabek, on the other hand, had a nearly identical ERA in 87 (lower ERA+, because of the difference in leagues), but went on to post much better numbers in the coming years. Before he reached free agency after the 92 season, Drabek threw 1362.2 innings, compiling a 3.02 ERA (118 ERA+). He’s yet another guy who would have helped incredibly during those dark years in the late-80s and early-90s.
July 13, 1987: Traded Bob Tewksbury for Steve Trout
At 26 years old Tewks wasn’t that young when this trade happened. But he was still young and serviceable: he had pitched to a 3.31 ERA (124 ERA+) in 130 innings in ’86. But a slow start was apparently his undoing. Again the Yankees went for the Proven Veteran™ in Trout. To say it backfired is an understatement. Trout wasn’t all that good to begin with, though he did have a pair of good years in ’84 and ’85. He lasted just 46.1 innings with the Yankees, pitching to a 6.60 ERA (68 ERA+). The Yanks did get a couple of real, live pitchers in exchange for him. You might recognize some of the names: Lee Guetterman, Clay Parker, and Wade Taylor.
After spending time on the DL and in the minors in the last few years of the 80s, Tewks figured out something. He dominated AAA in ’89, and then tossed some solid years for St. Louis in the early-90s. That, however, came after he hit free agency. Still, the numbers speak for themselves: 968 innings, 3.48 ERA (109 ERA+) from ’89 through ’94 with the Cards. That includes a third-place finish in the Cy Young voting in 1992; some guys named Maddux and Glavine finished ahead of him.
April 30, 1989: Traded Al Leiter for Jesse Barfield
There’s no need, really, to reiterate this past trade review.
February 29, 1992: Traded Alan Mills for basically nothing
In early 1992 the Yanks had an issue. They had just traded for a third baseman, but had no room for him on the 40-man roster. They delayed announcing the move until late February. You can read more about this in The Ballad of Charlie Hayes. The Yanks ended up trading Mills to the Orioles to create room for Hayes.
It’s not as though the Yanks lost some huge contributor in Mills. He hadn’t been very good for the Yanks, and while he had a few good seasons for the Orioles, he was by no means a standout — though his 2.61 ERA (153 ERA+) in 92, just after the trade, definitely stung. But Mills was twice a first-round draft pick. The Yankees acquired him for the cheap price of a fading and discontent Butch Wynegar. Yet at age 25 they could only get two players who never played a live inning at Yankee Stadium. For shame.
Again, there might be trades that I haven’t included. You might also disagree with some of these selections. But the Yankees definitely dealt far too many young pitchers in the 80s. Some of them came back to bite big time. Some of them went onto be solid contributors when the Yankees needed just that. Seeing this list makes me appreciate how the Yankees are currently treating their pitching prospects. They’re not going to trade them away in just any deal, and especially in just any deal for veterans. After their previous experiences doing that, I think they’ve learned their lessons.