Via Joel Sherman, the Yankees are still diligently working to trade A.J. Burnett for some level of salary relief before the season. We first heard they were shopping him at the winter meetings, but so far interested teams have asked the Yankees to pay pretty much all $33M left on his contract. The Pirates are one of those interested teams, and Ken Rosenthal says they are not one of the ten clubs A.J. can block a trade to with his limited no-trade clause. After losing out on Edwin Jackson despite a substantial three-year offer, Rosenthal opines that the Bucs might reignite talks about Burnett. I don’t expect him to be traded, but you never know.
Everyone wants to make a name for themselves during the course of their lives, creating some kind of legacy that at least friends and family will remember them by. Baseball players are in the public eye and leave much bigger legacies than regular schmucks you like and me, and if they’re lucky enough that legacy will be a positive one. Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Reggie Jackson, Aaron Boone, David Cone, Bernie Williams … we’ll remember those guys for all the good they did in pinstripes for many, many years to come. Chase Wright isn’t so lucky.
Unless you’re a new Yankees fans, I mean you started following the team within the last year or two, there’s only one way to remember Chase Wright. April 27th, 2007, third inning. The Yankees were up three-zip on the Red Sox at Fenway Park thanks to Jason Giambi, who doubled in a pair in the first inning and singled in another run in the third. Wright started the bottom of the inning by getting Kevin Youkilis to fly out to the warning track in right, an ominous sign. David Ortiz then lined out to left for the second out. That’s when it happened.
2-1 pitch to Manny Ramirez: homer to to left-center
1-2 pitch to J.D. Drew: homer to right-center
1-1 pitch to Mike Lowell: homer to left
1-0 pitch to Jason Varitek: homer to left
Within the span of 13 pitches, Wright had surrendered four consecutive homeruns to turn a 3-0 lead into a 4-3 deficit. He struck out Wily Mo Pena to end the inning, then was replaced by Colter Bean (!) to start the fourth. The Yankees went on to lose 7-6. Wright was send back to Double-A Trenton after the game, then threw two innings during his September callup. He spent the next season in the minors, then was traded to the Brewers for Eric Fryer (who was later traded to the Pirates for Eric Hinske) before the 2009 season.
Wright hasn’t been back to the big leagues since that September callup in 2007, instead toiling around in the minors with rather hideous results: 5.39 ERA in 386.2 IP with the Brewers. Today is his 29th birthday, and unless Wright makes some significant adjustments, he’ll never return to the big leagues and those four homers in Fenway will remain his legacy. Harsh.
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Here is your open thread. The only local clubs in action tonight are the Knicks and Nets, but you can use this thread to talk about whatever you want. Go nuts.
Keith Law posted his organizational (a.k.a. farm system) rankings today (Insider req’d), with the Yankees coming in at number ten. That’s down one spot from last year, which isn’t surprising given the Jesus Montero trade. His departure obviously took a big bite out of the system, though I’m glad to see them still in the top ten.
“I might be jumping the gun here, but I see a lot of star potential on their bottom few affiliates, including new acquisition Jose Campos from Seattle, to go with the two power arms from their Scranton club (Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances),” said KLaw with his obvious anti-Yankees bias. “The flaw in the system is the lack of near-in talent, especially position players, who could either help the big club soon or provide more fodder for trades.”
The Padres, Rays, and Blue Jays occupy the top three spots while the Marlins, Indians, and White Sox are the bottom three. The Orioles are 17th and the Red Sox are 18th, so five of the top 18 systems in the game (27.8%) are in the AL East. The Mariners, by the way, are right behind the Yankees at eleven following the addition of Montero.
While the Yankees teams of the 80s weren’t all bad — they did win more games than any other franchise that decade — they were flawed at many positions. One position they continually struggled to fill was catcher. It all started, unsurprisingly, with Thurman Munson’s death during the 1979 season. His replacements, Jerry Narron and Brad Gulden, couldn’t have performed much worse. From there the Yankees did better at the position, but it took nearly two decades to find a stable presence.
Knowing that their current options would not hack it for a full season, or even part of a season, the Yankees made a move after the ’79 season. They traded ALCS hero Chris Chambliss and two others to the Blue Jays for 26-year-old catcher Rick Cerone. In 1979 Cerone got his first taste of a starting gig, and while he was nothing special, he was light years better than Narron and Gulden. He stepped right in and caught 147 games for the Yanks in 1980, producing a career-best 107 OPS+ in 575 PA. Yet, as with most things Yankees in the 80s, the rest of the journey was downhill.
Injuries and ineffectiveness limited Cerone during the next four seasons, during which he started 278 games and hit .227/.271/.304 (63 OPS+) in 981 PA. That meant the Yankees would have to find other solutions during those years. While they wouldn’t find much in 1981 — their catchers produced a 79 OPS+, which was 12th out of the 14 AL teams — they did swing a trade early in the 1982 season that worked out fairly well. On May 12th they acquired Butch Wynegar from the Twins for three players whose names I do not recognize (Pete Filson, Larry Mulbourne, John Pacella). That’s probably because I was a month old at the time.
Wynegar exploded upon joining the Yankees, hitting .293/.413/.393 in 242 PA. In 1983 he played in 94 games and hit .296/.399/.429 in 357 PA. Injuries cost him some time in May and then again in early September, and those definitely hurt the Yanks. Cerone was still the backup, and he had a putrid season at age 29, a 52 OPS+ in 266 PA. Wynegar started for the Yanks in the next two seasons, and while they were good, especially for a catcher, they weren’t standout. By 1986 his production had faded, and after the season they traded him to the Angels for 20-year-old Alan Mills.
The Yanks didn’t let Wynegar’s fading production get them down in 86, though. The 90-win team also featured a spectacular half-season from the oft-traded Ron Hassey. The Yanks originally acquired him before the 1985 season, but then traded him to the White Sox in December, 1985. Strangely enough, the White Sox traded him back to the Yankees two months later, in February, 1986. After getting a superb half season out of him, the Yanks dished him at the 1986 trade deadline, back to the White Sox. They got in return Joel Skinner, a defensive specialist behind the plate. With the way he hit, he damn well better have been a defensive specialist.
This brings us back to 1987 and the Wynegar-less Yankees. After the 1984 season the Yankees had traded Cerone to the Braves, but in February, 1987, they re-signed him. He was coming off a halfway decent 1986 season for the Brewers, but he wouldn’t be quite so good for the Yankees in 87. He caught 113 games, which made it hurt even more. Still, it didn’t hurt nearly as much as Skinner’s OPS+ of 11 in 154 PA. To stanch the bleeding the Yankees swung a trade that June, sending 42-year-old Joe Niekro to the Twins for Mark Salas. That didn’t help much, as Salas produced a 58 OPS+. The Yanks would then send him to the White Sox after the season. The Yankees, apparently, had become the White Sox catching pipeline.
That was it for Cerone, at least that time around. The Yankees released him after spring training in 1988. Of course, he caught on the with the Red Sox and had two halfway decent seasons for them. At this point we reach my level of Yankees consciousness. I don’t remember the trade wherein the Yankees acquired Don Slaught for Brad Anrsberg, but I sure remember having Slaught’s baseball card that year. For the past few seasons Slaught had produced average numbers behind the plate while catching around 100 games per year. For a catcher that’s pretty solid production. He did pretty much the same for the Yankees in ’88 and ’89, adding offense where Skinner could not. That year we also saw the debut of Bob Geren.
Before the ’89 season the Yankees traded Skinner to the Indians in exchange for Mel Hall. With Slaught producing well behind the plate, the Yanks could afford to ditch their no-hit catcher and give a bigger shot to Geren. The latter responded in 1989, hitting .288/.329/.454 in 225 PA. The Slaught-Geren combo produced the fourth-best offensive numbers for catchers in the AL. Apparently satisfied with the 27-year-old Geren, the Yankees traded Slaught after the season. That might have been a mistake. Slaught went on to produce a string of four more solid seasons for Pittsburgh, while the Yanks were stuck with nothing much at catcher.
To back up Geren in 1990, the Yankees signed — you guessed it — Rick Cerone. This time around it actually worked out decently; he produced a 99 OPS+ in 146 PA as the backup. But he was 36 years old at the time and couldn’t handle more playing time. Meanwhile, Geren was hitting terribly. That prompted a mid-season trade with the Tigers, wherein the Yankees acquired Matt Nokes. While Nokes had shown great promise as a 23-year-old in 1987, producing a 133 OPS+ in 508 PA, he had become a merely average hitter by the time of the trade. But, again, from the catcher position that’s valuable. Nokes hit well enough for the Yanks in 1990, but the best was yet to come.
Nokes took over the starting gig from Geren, and in 1991 he 112 games behind the plate for the Yankees, a big deal at the time. His average and OBP were nothing to write home about, .268 and .308, but he did sock 24 homers, leading to a 113 OPS+. As a 9-year-old Little League catcher, I loved Nokes. It helped that he bashed a long homer to right field, as I was sitting down the first base line, during one of the games I attended with my dad in 1991. Nokes followed up his ’91 performance with an average one in ’92, producing an OPS+ of exactly 100. After another average, if injury plagued, season in ’93, he ended up socking seven homers in 85 PA for the 1994 team. That, however, would end his time in pinstripes.
Nokes was something of a sensation for young Yankees fans at the time. My only memories of Yankees catchers were Slaught, Geren, and a little Cerone, and none of them had any power. Nokes, on the other hand, simply mashed the ball. He hit more homers in 1991 than Geren hit in his entire career. Slaught hit 14 in his two years with the Yankees and topped 10 homer only twice in his career. Nokes? He led the Yankees in homers in 91 and finished just three behind team-leading Danny Tartabull in 92. All told he knocked 71 homers in 1510 PA for the Yanks from 1990 through 94.
In 1992 the Yankees had acquired another big bat catcher. Despite Nokes’ team-leading production, they signed Mike Stanley as a free agent. The two split time at catcher in ’92 — Stanley had never really handled the position full-time, and he responded by producing a 125 OPS+ in 207 PA. His role expanded in 1993, and he hit even better: a 150 OPS+ in 491 PA. That year the Yankees’ catchers were outhit only by Baltimore’s. That’s what happens when your starting catcher puts up a 1.001 OPS. Seriously.
Stanley served as the Yanks’ backstop during the strike-shortened 1994 season, again producing monster numbers. He was less awesome, but still solid, in 1995, his final season with the Yanks (that time around). After the season the Yankees let him go as a free agent, opting to go with a more defensive-minded, at least by reputation, catcher in 1996. Stanley signed on with the Red Sox, though he’d make his way back to New York in 1997. In what seems to be the last trade between the two clubs, the Yankees acquired Stanley from the Sox for Tony Armas. This is somewhat significant, because the Red Sox used Armas that off-season as part of a package to acquire Pedro Martinez.
It’s no surprise that the Yankees had a revolving door at the catcher position throughout the 80s and 90s. Catchers don’t typically last long, and when they do their teams tend to hang onto them. It’s not easy to acquire a good catcher, and even if you do it 1) costs a lot in a trade or free agency, and 2) might not work out, since catchers can break down at any time. Still, the Yanks particularly struggled when seeking stability at the position. They found a few bright spots along the way, but it wasn’t until Jorge Posada started breaking into the league in 1997 that they found their true replacement for Munson. All told, 20 years between star catchers isn’t that long a stretch.
The Yankees are looking for a left-handed DH on the cheap, and they may have found one today. Dan Martin reports that they’ve signed Russell Branyan to a minor league contract with an invite to Spring Training, where he’ll get a chance to make the team. Joel Sherman says he’ll earn $750k plus incentives while on the active roster. Since it’s a non-guaranteed contract, the signing doesn’t necessarily preclude the Yankees from signing someone like Raul Ibanez or Johnny Damon.
Branyan, 36, spent last season with the Diamondbacks and Angels and was pretty awful. He posted a .300 wOBA with five homers in 146 plate appearances, his worst season in about eleven years. He is just a year removed from 25 homers and a .350 wOBA, however. Branyan does three things really, really well. He strikes out a ton (29.7 K% last three years), draws lots of walks (11.3 BB%), and hits for ungodly power (.248 ISO). He has eight homers in 14 career games at the New Yankee Stadium, including some of the longest blasts in the ballpark’s history (like this one off Javy Vazquez and this one off Al Aceves).
Over the last three seasons, Branyan has hit .250/.347/.507 against right-handed pitchers but only .208/.290/.435 against southpaws, so he’s strictly a platoon bat. Although he has some third base and left field experience under his belt, it’s been a while since he’s played anywhere other than first. Frankly, his best position is DH. Coincidentally, he was part of that 2008 Brewers team with CC Sabathia and the recently signed Bill Hall. If nothing else, Branyan should put on a show in Spring Training.
Among the many wonderful things about being a baseball fan are the bizarre attachments one tends to form — generally as a youngster — toward relatively obscure players who don’t end up doing anything noteworthy. Yet because you were seven years old and had their baseball card, they’re indelibly seared in your mind.
As a young Yankee fan whose earliest memories of the team begin around the 1988 season, I had to not only contend with scores of my Met-fan peers deriding me (it seems crazy now, but the Mets actually did at one time rule the baseball landscape in New York City), but also grow fond of an incredibly uninspiring and lackluster group of players. The franchise’s nadir (the 1990 squad is among the worst in team history, with the third-most losses of any Yankee team; and the 1989 through 1992 seasons represents arguably the worst consecutive four-year stretch in franchise history) coincided with my burgeoning obsession with the team.
Now, not everyone who played for the Yankees during the dark years was terrible. Like most Yankee fans my age, Don Mattingly was my favorite player growing up, and we were also treated to…um…hmm…well, at least we had Donnie Baseball. Rickey Henderson actually posted several incredible years for the Yanks (from 1985-1988 he was actually better than D. Baseball, with a .405 wOBA, 154 wRC+ and 28.4 fWAR across nearly 2,500 plate appearances), though given his non-homegrown-ness I don’t recall ever truly warming up to ol’ Rickey. Willie Randolph showed impressive plate discipline before walks were even in vogue, but no pop at all; while Dave Winfield, though offensively robust, seemed aloof and unrelatable. Outside of these stalwarts, the talent level of the Yankee offensive corps around this time ranged from reasonable (Jack Clark, Andy Stankiewicz, Jesse Barfield) to wholly unacceptable (Alvaro Espinoza, Pat Kelly, Randy Velarde, Bob Geren).
At some point within that 1989-1992 four-year period my dad took me to a Yankees-Mets exhibition game at Yankee Stadium. Back in the day the Yankees and Mets played an annual set of exhibition games under several different banners (among them “Big Apple Series,” “Mayor’s Trophy Game” and “Mayor’s Challenge”), and being that the Mets were the superior team at the time I remember thinking that these contests were a pretty big deal. Given how poor the Yankees’ plight was at the time, something as silly as bragging rights based on the outcome of a couple of exhibition games actually held some meaning. I have tried in vain to locate the actual date and boxscore of the game I attended, but as this was pre-internet there doesn’t seem to be anything definitive regarding the Yankees’ old spring training schedules out there. (Note: The Yankees and Mets are actually playing each other this spring on April 3rd and 4th, marking the first time the teams will have met in spring training since 1996).
The one thing I can tell you is that I distinctly remember being beyond excited to get to see Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens play in person. At the time I seem to recall Meulens — signed by the Yankees as an undrafted free agent in 1985 — was being hyped as the Yankees’ next big homegrown power bat, in case you couldn’t tell by the fact that his nickname was “Bam Bam.” Based on Meulens’ 1990 season, in which he obliterated AAA to the tune of a .285/.376/.510 line over 559 PAs and earned him a September call-up (not to mention the International League MVP) that saw him hit a slightly more modest-but-still-reasonable .241/.337/.434 (115 OPS+) in 95 PAs, I’m almost certain the Yankee-Met game I attended would have been held in the spring of 1991, on the heels of Meulens’ breakout year. Otherwise I have no idea how I’d have even been aware of him.
Anyway, the only thing I remember from the game is that Meulens did in fact hit a home run (I think the Yankees won, but again, we’re talking over 20 years ago), seemingly cementing his status — along with, of course, Kevin Maas, who also broke out in the latter half of 1990 — as the next big homegrown Yankee player.
Unfortunately for Meulens (and Yankee fans), his first full season in pinstripes was a disaster. After breaking camp with the team, Meulens stayed in the bigs the entire year, but his wretched .222/.276/.319 (65 OPS+) line across 313 PAs limited him to action in only 96 team games (in a move right out of the Joe Torre managing handbook, the right-handed Meulens’ struggles against right-handed pitching — which apparently dominated the American League in 1991 — opened the door for more playing time for veteran Mel Hall). Meulens was demoted to Columbus for the 1992 season and, despite hitting .275/.352/.481 in 603 AAA plate appearances, stayed in the minors the entire year save two late September games in the Bronx. I suppose the team was pleased with Charlie Hayes’ .257/.297/.409 line (97 OPS+) at the hot corner that season, although Meulens must have really fallen out of favor to have languished in AAA the entire year.
Meulens never recovered. In 1993 he again began the year at AAA, got called to the Bronx in late May, hit .170/.279/.340 over 61 PAs, and was demoted again two months later. Meulens finished the 1993 season at AAA Columbus, ultimately posting the weakest line of his min0r-league career. The Yankees released him in November of 1993, and he played in Japan from 1994-1996. Meulens headed back to the U.S. prior to the 1997 season, signing with the Braves, who released him during spring training, and then latching on with the Expos.
Meulens again spent most of the 1997 season at AAA, putting up a fine .274/.369/.501 line, and did the most he could with very limited playing time in another September call-up (.292/.379/.583 in 29 PAs), but was released at the end of the year. He spent most of the 1998 season with the Diamondbacks’ AAA squad before being traded to the White Sox at the 1998 trade deadline. However, for reasons I can’t sort out, he only played in two games for Chicago’s AAA affiliate after the trade, so presumably he was injured for the majority of the remainder of the season.
Hensley Meulens never stepped to the plate in the Major Leagues again after May 14, 1998, thus closing the book on the MLB career of a man whose power was supposed to have been legend but who ultimately only swatted 15 big league home runs. Per Wikipedia, Meulens subsequently spent time with the Newark Bears of the independent Atlantic League in 1999; made one last stop in Asia, playing 14 games with the SK Wyverns of the Korea Baseball Organization and batting only .196; then headed to the Mexican League with the Saraperos de Saltillo in 2001; and finally retired, in 2002, after a mid-season injury while playing with the Pericos de Puebla. In the ensuing years Meulens has since carved out a successful career as a Minor and Major League coach, and currently serves as the hitting coach for the San Francisco Giants, with whom he won a ring in 2010.
Happily, Meulens seems to be at peace with his place as a hitter in a baseball history. Last July he was quoted in the aforelinked Wall Street Journal story:
Meulens, meanwhile, met a similar fate. A native of Curacao, he was nicknamed “Bam Bam” for the staggering power that produced—legend has it—500-foot home runs in varied minor-league towns. “That’s no exaggeration,” says Ralph Kraus, Meulens’s teammate at Class A Prince William in 1987. “I’d never seen anyone hit balls as far as he did.”
Yet for all his oomph, Meulens never adjusted to major-league pitching. In 288 at-bats in 1991, he hit six home runs while striking out 97 times. “It was my fault,” says Meulens, who now works—somewhat ironically—as the San Francisco Giants’ hitting coach. “I was a highly touted prospect who never figured it all out. That’s on me.” Like (Kevin) Maas, he was eventually released.
Not that you ever want to see anyone fail, but it’s refreshing to see Meulens own up to his struggles, and I’m glad he’s found his calling back in the big leagues.
Getting spurned by big name free agents isn’t a familiar feeling for Yankees fans, which is why the Cliff Lee decision last winter was so disappointing. We’d grown accustomed to the Yankees just getting whoever they wanted, and that was a shock to the system. Being told no by Lee was nothing compared to what happened two decades ago, however.
The 1992-1993 offseason was highlighted by a pair of in-their-prime superstar free agents: 28-year-old reigning NL MVP Barry Bonds and 26-year-old reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux. The Yankees wanted both, and started the winter by offering Bonds a five-year, $36M contract that would have made him the highest paid player in baseball. Then-GM Gene Michael made the offer the Monday before the winter meetings, but he gave Bonds and agent Dennis Gilbert just two days to accept. When they asked for a sixth guaranteed year, Michael broke off negotiations.
“We wanted him and now it’s off,” said Michael. “We’re going for pitching. Maybe it’s the right thing to do. We will not have Barry Bonds with a sixth year … We have to draw the line somewhere. I have no regrets saying we did not offer him a sixth year. We offered him a fantastic contract for five years. We really went out of our way to make a nice offer.”
The day after making the offer to Bonds, Michael met with Scott Boras about Maddux and presented a standing five-year, $34M contract offer. Maddux was their true number one target that offseason.
“If we are going to step out, we’re going to step out for this guy,” said Michael. “He’s the best pitcher available, and he knows our offer is serious … There is no scare in this kid.”
A few days later, Bonds got his guaranteed sixth year from the Giants and headed to San Francisco for $43.75M. Boras was seeking $7M annually for Maddux, saying “if you’re the Cy Young Award winner and the most durable pitcher in baseball, you deserve the premium salary.” The right-hander had thrown 260+ innings in each of the previous two seasons and 235+ innings in each of the previous five seasons.
Maddux visited the New York area with his wife in early-December, and Michael showed them around New Jersey. The Yankees had acquired Jim Abbott from the Angels for three young players — Russ Springer, J.T. Snow, and Jerry Nielsen — earlier in the week, a move that reportedly impressed Maddux and seemed to boost the Yankees chances of signing him. Ultimately, it did not. A few days later, Greg Maddux was a Brave, taking less money to go to Atlanta and remain in the National League.
“This one hurts,” said Michael. “He’s the best one out there. I never thought I could say this, but he’s a steal at [five years and $28M]. He’s a steal … It’s not over yet for us. We’ll do some things.”
The Yankees had multiple irons in the fire all winter, so Michael turned to Plans C, D, and E after being jilted by his top two free agent targets. He’d offered David Cone a three-year deal worth $17M earlier in the offseason, but the 29-year-old right-hander went home to the Royals for three years and $18M. Doug Drabek and Jose Guzman signed with the Astros and Cubs after being extended offered from the Yankees. Plans C through E were now off the table as well.
While Michael was busy dealing with Bonds, Maddux, Cone, et al., then-managing partner Joe Molloy was serving as the team’s chief negotiator with free agent lefty Jimmy Key. Key was 31 at the time and had a bit of an injury history, but like Cone he had been an All-Star and won a World Series with the Blue Jays the year before. His wife Cindy was his agent, and the two were on vacation when they accepted the Yankees’ four-year, $17M proposal a few days after Maddux headed to Atlanta.
“You can’t dwell on Bonds or Maddux or Cone,” said then-manager Buck Showalter. “I’m excited about getting a player of [Key’s] background and with his track record coming to New York … As important as that is, I’m excited that he wanted to come to play in New York.”
Since the signing was brokered by Molloy, questions about Michael’s job security arose. George Steinbrenner had been banned from the team’s day-to-day management two years earlier by commissioner Fay Vincent for the Dave Winfield fiasco, so Molloy was left to answer questions about who was running the team.
“[Michael is] an excellent general manager … As long as I’m the general partner, Gene should feel confident in his job as the general manager,” said Molloy. “That’s not to say if I get upset with Gene, I won’t fire him either.”
Key joined Abbott in the 1993 rotation, which also included holdovers Melido Perez and Scott Kamieniecki. He was the Yankees best pitcher in 1993 and 1994 (3.11 ERA in 404.2 IP), but he got hurt in 1995 and managed just five starts. Key returned in 1996 and wasn’t as effective as he had been in the past, but he did help the club to the World Series. He got the ball in the deciding Game Six of the Fall Classic, and outpitched Maddux to give the Yankees their first title in 18 years. Not bad for a guy that was Plan F.