Past Trade Review: Al Leiter for Jesse Barfield

(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

(Photo via baseball.wikia.com)

David Cone was no stranger to New York. The Yankees acquired the right-hander from the Blue Jays just before the 1995 trade deadline in exchange for three young pitchers — Jason Jarvis, Mike Gordon, and Marty Janzen — three years after his five-and-a-half year stint with the Mets came to an end. Cone, 32 at the time, was a hired gun. A hired gun that just so happened to be a former World Champion and the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner.

“What’s not to like?” said Don Mattingly after the trade. “I don’t even know the other three guys … It’s kind of like with John Wetteland. We got him for nothing.”

The Yankees were six-and-a-half games behind the division-leading Red Sox at the time of the trade, but they were on a six-game winning streak and had surged from ten-and-a-half back with an 11-4 stretch. Cone went 9-2 with a 3.82 ERA after the trade but the Yankees were unable to move past Boston in the standings. Instead, they were the first AL Wild Card team in baseball history. Cone got the ball in Game One of the ALDS against the Mariners, and led his team to a win by allowing four runs in eight innings. The decisive Game Five did not go as well, as Cone’s 147th and final pitch of the night was ball four to the light hitting Doug Strange, forcing in the tying run in the bottom of the eighth.

The Yankees went on to lose the game and series in extra innings, and Cone became a free agent after the season. Jimmy Key was slated to come back from injury, but they were still in a position to lose both Cone and Jack McDowell that offseason.

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Scouting The Waiver Market: Blake DeWitt

(AP Photo/Brian Kersey)

I should probably preface this post by saying I’m an irrationally big Blake DeWitt fan, and have been for a while. That doesn’t mean he’s a great player or anything, I’m just being up front about my personal biases.

Anyway, the Cubs designated the 26-year-old DeWitt for assignment yesterday, making room on their 40-man roster for infielder Adrian Cardenas. They claimed him off waivers from the Athletics, and if the name sounds familiar, it’s because I wrote about him as a waiver target two weeks ago. The Cubs originally got their hands on DeWitt in the Ted Lilly trade with the Dodgers two years ago, and he spent last year as a spare infielder/bench bat. Let’s see if he has anything to offer the Yankees…

The Pro

  • DeWitt is a classic contact-oriented hitter. He’s struck out in just 15.8% of his 1,213 big league player appearances (12.8% last year) while drawing a walk 8.8% of the time. He’s a bit of a ground ball hitter but nothing insane, and he’s seen an average of 3.84 pitches per plate appearance as a big leaguer, much higher than the league average.
  • Primarily a second and third baseman in the minors, DeWitt spent some time in left field last season and I’m sure he could learn first base over time. The defensive metrics don’t love him, but the sample sizes aren’t large enough to take them to heart.
  • Don’t hold me to this, but it appears as though DeWitt has one minor league option remaining. This stuff is hard to confirm though, so I can’t guarantee it. DeWitt has just over three years of service time, so he’ll remain under team control through 2014 as arbitration-eligible player.

The Cons

  • DeWitt is just a .260/.329/.385 career hitter (.312 wOBA) with a .297 BABIP, and his minor league numbers don’t suggest there’s much more coming: .259/.325/.416 in 830 plate appearances at the Double and Triple-A levels. He’s also struggled against pitchers of the opposite hand, posting a .300 wOBA in nearly 900 plate appearances against big league righties.
  • DeWitt doesn’t have any speed, with just 21 steals in 37 attempts (56.8%) in 981 career games, majors and minors. He’s taken the extra base 41% of the time as a big leaguer, which is pretty much exactly league average. His .125 ISO isn’t anything special either, so you’re getting what amounts to a singles hitter with no speed.
  • He isn’t all that cheap, agreeing to a one-year deal worth $1.1M earlier this offseason to avoid arbitration. That’s not the end of the world, but he’s not a six-figure player anymore.

The Yankees still haven’t settled on a replacement for Eric Chavez, that backup corner infielder role. DeWitt fits in the sense that he’s a left-handed bat and can man the hot corner, though his offensive value comes primarily from his ability to put the ball in play and his willingness to work a walk. His career is theoretically on the upswing at age 26, so he could still add more offense as he approaches his peak years. Yankee Stadium‘s short right field porch will be there to potentially help his power output as well. The recently hired Jim Hendry had DeWitt during the last season-and-a-half with the Cubs, so Brian Cashman will surely ask for him input before pulling the trigger on a move.

Looking over the 40-man roster, the obvious comparison is Corban Joseph, another left-handed, singles hitting second/third baseman. CoJo has yet to advance beyond Double-A though. Since DeWitt can’t play shortstop in anything other than an emergency, Ramiro Pena remains a necessarily evil as the backup backup middle infielder. Given the current roster construction, DeWitt isn’t a great fit unless the Yankees are willing to part with Joseph so soon after adding him to the 40-man roster. He’s an interesting and somewhat useful player, but perhaps it’s simply a case of the right guy at the wrong time.

Bronx Parking default could spike stadium parking prices

For the past few years, the news from the Bronx concerning parking rates has not been good for Yankee fans who drive to games. Despite opposition from neighborhood groups and urban planning advocates, the city’s Economic Development Corporation opted to build 9,000 parking spots around the nation’s most transit-accessible baseball stadium. With high vacancy rates, the company operating the parking lots cannot pay back money on its tax-exempt bonds and owes the city $25 million in back taxes. Without some relief, stadium-goers could pay even more in parking, and an eventual default seems likely.

When last we checked in on this story in March of 2011, the Bronx Parking Development Company had just announced a $35-per-car rate for 2011. While that rate is due to remain the same this year, it is likely to jump to $42 next year and $55 the year after, if the company is still in business. Juan Gonzalez isn’t so sure that will happen. He writes:

Bronx Parking Development Company LLC is running perilously low on cash reserves and faces a looming default by the end of the year, according to a report filed Friday by a trustee for the firm’s bondholders. Time is running out, in other words, to avoid one of the biggest failures in decades of bonds issued by a New York City agency.

The simple fact is that Bloomberg and his aides made a costly mistake when they succumbed back in 2005 to the Yankees’ demand for a 9,000-space garage system. It was all part of the deal for the team to build a new stadium in the Bronx. But Yankees fans have shunned the garages, where gameday self-parking rates soared last year to $35 — up from $23 previously and more than double the original $14 charge. Valet parking now goes for $48.

So many fans are staying away, in part due to the lure of cheaper local competition, that Bronx Parking Development now projects only 3,500 paying customers per game for the upcoming season. And that occupancy rate — a measly 38% — will exist only on days when the Bronx Bombers take the field. For the rest of the year, the garages will remain a ghost town, since a mere 70 South Bronx residents currently park there each day.

To make matters worse, the company owes $25 million in taxes as well and does not believe revenue from the looming baseball season will be sufficient to cover expenses, let alone bond payments and tax bills. The city agencies responsible for issuing the bonds has said it will not provide financial cover, and a plan to develop a hotel on the site of some of the unused parking lots went nowhere when potential bidders asked for significant city subsidies. South Bronx residents who long opposed the garages are hoping that the city will simply knock them down and build affordable housing instead. Right now, that’s besides the point.

As the Yanks gear up for another season, those coming to the game are wondering what this news means for them. While a majority of fans take the city’s buses or subway or Metro-North to the stadium, some are not near enough to transit to do so. Many of those who eschewed $35-per-car parking for on-street space or a spot at the nearby Gateway Center lots.

It is likely then that prices will continue to climb, and spaces will go unused. If Bronx Parking goes belly up, the city will try to find another operator, but the economics of the spaces will remain the same. There are, simply put, too many parking spots around Yankee Stadium. The city may have to admit defeat and return the new empty lots to better uses. No matter what though, the fans who drive will be paying for this costly mistake for years to come.

New Feature: Amateur Signing Bonuses Page

Bumping up for those who missed it on Saturday: Got a new toy for you folks to play with: the Amateur Signing Bonuses page. It’s a list of signing bonuses the Yankees have paid out to amateur players (draftees and international free agents) in the recent and not-so-recent past. It is in no way complete and it never ever will be because some signing bonus information just isn’t available publicly. The page is under the resources tab in the nav bar above, just under “AVE BLUES” in the street sign. Enjoy.

Report: Yankees in serious talks with Raul Ibanez

Via Ken Rosenthal, the Yankees are in serious talks with Raul Ibanez after showing interest in him last month. He’s willing to take less money to wear pinstripes. Joe looked at him as a DH option a few weeks ago, and his analysis still stands. Buster Olney says the Yankees could have a new left-handed DH within a week, whether it be Ibanez or someone like Johnny Damon or Hideki Matsui.

Open Thread: Bob Wickman

It’s easy to remember Bob Wickman for his days as a hefty closer with the Indians and Braves, but once upon a time he was a skinny little setup man in the Bronx. The Yankees drafted Wickman in the second round of the 1990 draft acquired Wickman from the White Sox in the Steve Sax trade, and a few months later he was part of their second half rotation. He flopped as a starter in the first half of 1993, prompting a move to the bullpen.

Wickman never looked back after that, and in 1994 he was Buck Showalter’s workhorse setup man. He threw 70 innings in relief and led the league with 53 appearances (remember, they only played 113 games because of the strike), pitching to a 3.09 ERA. Wickman struggled a bit in 1996 — 4.67 ERA in 79 IP across 58 appearances — before being traded to the Brewers for Graeme Lloyd. Lloyd helped the Yankees to the World Series later that year while Wickman settled in and had a long, productive career as a late-inning reliever.

Today is Wickman’s 43rd birthday, and I’m going to use this as an opportunity to tell you about our plans for Old School Week. Joe kicked things off with his Charlie Hayes post this morning, and during the rest of the week we’re going to focus the majority of our content on the good ol’ days, meaning the 80’s and 90’s. Maybe the 70’s and early-2000’s as well, who knows. I figure we’ve sufficiently covered the pitching staff, the DH candidates, all the important stuff with the current team, so this was a good week to get nostalgic. Hope you enjoy.

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Here is tonight’s open thread. The Knicks and Nets are playing tonight, plus there’s a Caribbean Series game on ESPN Deportes/ESPN3.com. Talk about whatever you like here.