Passan: Yoan Moncada officially a free agent and able to sign

(Jesse Sanchez)
(Jesse Sanchez)

3:55pm: Kiley McDaniel says MLB will now accept a general license from the OFAC and a “sworn statement [from the player] that the prospect permanently resides outside of Cuba and has no intent to return to Cuba.” McDaniel also says this only applies to players who have already left Cuba, like Moncada, who now resides in Guatemala.

3:43pm: According to Jeff Passan, Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada is now officially free to sign after MLB changes its rules regarding Office of Foreign Assets Control licensing. MLB had required a “specific license” from the OFAC before a player can sign but presumably now only requires a more basic “general license.” MLB used to accept general licenses but changed their policy a few years ago.

Now that Moncada is able to sign, the Yankees are free to pursue him and can offer him any amount. Had MLB not gotten its act together before June 15th, the team would not have been able to offer him more than $300,000 due to the penalties stemming from their international spending spree last summer. Most expect Moncada to receive a bonus in the $30M to $40M range, which would be taxed at 100% no matter who signs him.

By all accounts, the 19-year-old Moncada is a potential switch-hitting star with five tools. The expectation is that he will settle in as a second or third baseman when it’s all said and done, but I expect whoever signs him to at least keep him at shortstop for a little while to see if he improves. The Yankees are considered one of the “heavy favorites” to sign Moncada and have already had him in for a private workout at their complex in Tampa.

I’m guessing Moncada will have a deal in place before Spring Training. He wants to get paid and start his career, not sit around even longer than he already has. Now that MLB stopped dragging its feet, Moncada can begin negotiating with teams in earnest and get the process started. Since we’re talking about a $60M to $80M up front payment (bonus plus tax), the Yankees should have an advantage over smaller market teams. We’ll see.

The thanklessly reliable Ramiro Mendoza

(Getty)
(Getty)

By any measure, Mariano Rivera is the greatest pitcher to ever come out of Panama. Arguably the second best pitcher from the country was Rivera’s teammate from 1996 through 2002, right-hander Ramiro Mendoza. The Yankees signed Mendoza as an amateur free agent in November 1991 — nearly two years after signing Rivera — and he gradually climbed the minor league ladder while receiving little fanfare.

As a 21-year-old, Mendoza posted a 2.78 ERA in 71.1 innings in 1993, most with the team’s rookie ball affiliate in the Gulf Coast League. The Yankees jumped Mendoza to High-A Tampa the next season, where he had a 3.01 ERA in 134.1 innings. One year later, he had a 3.13 ERA in 103.2 innings split between Double-A Norwich and Triple-A Columbus. In just three pro seasons, Mendoza had climbed six levels of minor league ball and put himself on the MLB map.

The Yankees sent Mendoza back to Triple-A Columbus to start the 1996 season but called him up when a starter was needed in May. On May 25th, the then-24-year-old Mendoza made his MLB debut in Seattle, holding the Mariners to three runs in six innings. It all went downhill after that. Mendoza allowed four runs in 3.2 innings against the Angels four days later and 25 runs in 26.1 innings in the month of June overall.

Following a five-run, two-inning disaster against the Red Sox on July 15th, Mendoza was sent back to the minors. “It was tough for him to gain confidence this way. He’s got big league stuff. He will be a big leaguer. It’s just a matter of time,” said manager Joe Torre to reporters after the demotion. Mendoza had an 8.05 ERA in 38 innings at the time. He pitched well in Triple-A (2.51 ERA in 97 innings) before resurfacing as a September call-up.

The Yankees did not carry Mendoza on their postseason roster in 1996 but he did make the Opening Day roster in 1997. Well, sorta. Mendoza won the fifth starter’s job in Spring Training but scheduled off-days allowed the team to skip his first two starts, so he started the year in Triple-A to stay sharp before making his season debut on April 13th, in the team’s 11th game of the year. He allowed six runs in 4.2 innings against the Athletics.

Mendoza had a 7.08 ERA in his first four starts of the season before settling down and firing three straight strong starts in mid-May. More importantly, his teammates were impressed. ”I don’t think anybody’s questioning (if he’s an MLB caliber pitcher),” said Paul O’Neill to Malcolm Moran. ”He had a great Spring Training this year. He’s not a guy that’s going to blow people away or a guy that’s going to be on Rotisserie League teams. He’s going to throw strikes, and he’s not going to be scared. You can see that when he takes the mound.”

Although he opened the year as the fifth starter, Mendoza was simply keeping the spot warm all season for Doc Gooden, who was coming back from hernia surgery. Mendoza moved into the bullpen in June and took over as the team’s do everything guy, pitching in short relief, long relief, mop-up situations, high-leverage spots, you name it. He made relief appearances as short as two batters faced and as long as 21 batters faced. Mendoza did it all.

Ramiro finished his first full big league season with a 4.24 ERA (106 ERA+) in 133.2 innings across 15 starts and 24 relief appearances. He earned the win with 3.1 scoreless innings of one-hit ball in Game One of the 1997 ALDS against the Indians and took the loss in Game Four when he allowed a walk-off single to Omar Vizquel. The Yankees dropped the series in five games. It was a disappointing season for the team but a successful one for Mendoza, who established himself as a big leaguer.

Mendoza again worked as a swingman in 1998 — he started the season in the rotation but eventually lost his spot when David Cone got healthy and Orlando Hernandez debuted and dominated — and had his best season, pitching to a 3.25 ERA (137 ERA+) in 130.1 innings. He started 14 games and came out of the bullpen 27 times. In three postseason appearances, he allowed one run in 5.1 relief innings as the Yankees won their second World Series title in three years.

Although he was in role short on glamour, Mendoza had entrenched himself as a valuable piece of the pitching staff and carved out a spot in Torre’s Circle of Trustâ„¢. ”He’s versatile, he throws strikes, he’s durable and he’s never had any arm problems,” said VP of Baseball Ops Mark Newman to Buster Olney in 1998. Other clubs began to notice him too — the Yankees declined to part with Mendoza in trade talks for Randy Johnson and Chuck Knoblauch.

From 1996-98, Mendoza had a 4.26 ERA (107 ERA+) in 317 innings despite striking out only 4.9 batters per nine innings, well short of the league average. If Rivera was a one-trick pony with his cutter, Mendoza was a one-trick pony with his sinker, which he used to get 1.87 ground ball outs for every one fly ball out from 1996-98. Here’s Olney on Mendoza’s sinker:

Mendoza generates sinkers by cocking his wrist, with his index finger and middle finger gripping the ball along the seams, and then snapping his wrist and fingers at the instant of delivery, like a buggy whip, and the ball spins with unusual alacrity.

Cone thinks Mendoza’s relatively long fingers create the additional torque; Newman theorizes that it could be the flexibility of Mendoza’s wrist — ”He has absolutely no stiffness” — or any number of factors.

Mendoza learned the sinker in the minors and initially wanted to scrap the pitch because it moved so much he was unable to control it. His pitching coaches and managers made him stick with the pitch and eventually he was able to locate it properly.

Because the Yankees had a stacked rotation in the late-1990s, Mendoza’s appearances as a starter became more and more limited. He started only six games in 1999 and nine games in 2000, then only two in 2001 and none in 2002. He had a 4.28 ERA (111 ERA+) in 189.1 innings from 1999-2000 and slightly improved his strikeout rate to 5.2 strikeouts per nine innings. From 2001-02, he had a 3.60 ERA (124 ERA+) in 192.1 innings and boosted his strikeout rate to 6.1 per nine.

The Yankees left Mendoza off their ALDS roster in 1999 but added him for the ALCS, in which he retired all seven batters he faced. That included recording the final five outs in the decisive Game Five, which the Yankees won 6-1 to take the series four games to one.

Mendoza was left off the 2000 postseason roster entirely due to a shoulder issue but was the team’s best non-Rivera reliever in the 2001 postseason, allowing one run in 12.1 innings across eight appearances. From 1997-2001, Mendoza had a 2.36 ERA in 26.2 playoff innings, all out of the bullpen. He was a workhorse during the regular season and a bullpen force in October.

At age 30, Mendoza qualified for free agency after the 2002 season, and he made it clear he wanted to return to the Yankees. “I want to die here,” he told Tyler Kepner on locker clean out day. MLB implemented the luxury tax system after the season, however, and the Yankees were being careful with their money during the 2002-03 offseason. They wanted to make sure they had enough payroll space to sign Jose Contreras and Hideki Matsui, specifically.

Mendoza wanted a multi-year contract. Instead, the Yankees declined to offer him arbitration, meaning they were not allowed to negotiate with him until May 1st of the 2003 season. So, rather than die in pinstripes, Mendoza took a two-year contract worth $6.5M from the Red Sox just before the New Year. He had been on the disabled list at least once each year from 2000-02, so Boston made sure to check him out physically before agreeing to the contract.

“We’re very happy to have him in our bullpen,” said Red Sox GM Theo Epstein to the Associated Press. “Before the process even started we gave him a thorough physical in Fort Myers. He had MRIs on his shoulder and his elbow and he checked out extremely well. We had no reservations whatsoever. It was important we made sure he was healthy before making this kind of commitment.”

Mendoza held up physically in year one of his new contract but was a disaster on the mound — he had a 6.75 ERA (69 ERA+) in 66.2 innings spanning five starts and 32 relief appearances. A knee injury sidelined him for a big chunk of time in the middle of the season, and, aside from Game 162 after the team had clinched, manager Terry Francona did not once use Mendoza when the score was separated by fewer than seven runs (!) after July. Understandably, he was left of the postseason roster.

Offseason shoulder surgery and subsequent inflammation kept Mendoza out until mid-July in 2004, and although he put up a strong 3.52 ERA (138 ERA+) that year, he only threw 30.2 innings, easily the fewest of his career. Mendoza appeared in two postseason games for the Red Sox, allowing one run in two innings against the Yankees in the ALCS. Boston let him walk after the season, after Mendoza gave them 97.1 innings with a 5.73 ERA (83 ERA+) during his two-year contract. He was he original Embedded Yankee.

The Yankees gave Mendoza a minor league contract during the 2004-05 offseason but he spent most of the season hurt, appearing in only 17 minor league innings. The team did call him up in September and he made his only big league appearance of the year — and the final appearance of his career — on September 1st, when he allowed two runs in one inning. His MLB career started in Seattle against the Mariners and it ended there as well.

Mendoza did not pitch at all from 2006-08 though he didn’t retire either. He was on Panama’s roster for the 2009 World Baseball Classic and allowed five runs (two earned) in four innings in his only appearance, a start. Mendoza signed a minor league contract with the Brewers after the tournament but failed the physical. He instead spent that summer in independent ball, putting up a 3.83 ERA in 87 innings across 15 starts and two relief appearances for the Newark Bears.

Three years later, Mendoza again pitched for Panama in the World Baseball Classic, throwing 8.2 scoreless innings in three relief appearances in the qualifying round during the 2012-13 offseason. Just three offseasons ago, at age 40 and nearly a decade removed from his last MLB appearance, Mendoza still had his sinker working in the 2013 WBC qualifiers:

Those late-1990s Yankees teams will always be remember for the stars. The stars and winning. Guys like Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, David Cone, Andy Pettitte, and Rivera led the club to tremendous success and a whole lot of World Series titles. It was a great time.

Baseball is a team sport though, and someone has to do the thankless dirty work. Mendoza was a thankless dirty worker from 1996 through 2002. He started, he relieved, he soaked up innings, and he received no accolades for being reliable and trustworthy. By swingman standards, Mendoza was as good as it gets.

Dave Righetti and two important Yankees’ decisions

(Getty)
(Getty)

The Dave Righetti era in the Bronx started because of Goose Gossage. Left-hander Sparky Lyle had been the Yankees’ go-to ninth inning reliever from 1972-77, compiling 132 saves with a 2.23 ERA in 634 innings during that time. He pitched so well in 1977 — 2.17 ERA with 26 saves in 137 innings — that he was named the AL Cy Young award winner, beating out Jim Palmer (2.91 ERA in 319 innings) and Nolan Ryan (2.77 ERA in 299 innings), among others.

Lyle pitched well enough in 1977 to win the Cy Young but not well enough to stop the Yankees from replacing him. The team signed Goose Gossage to a six-year contract worth $2.75M that offseason and gave him the closer’s job. Gossage saved 27 games with a 2.01 ERA in 134.1 innings during his first year in New York while Lyle put up a 3.47 ERA in 111.2 innings as a middle reliever. Both were a big part of the team as they won their second straight World Series title.

At age 27, Gossage was seven years younger than Lyle and flat out better. He made Lyle expendable. So, on November 10th, 1978, the Yankees shipped Lyle to the Rangers in a massive ten-player trade. Lyle went to Texas with four prospects (catcher Mike Heath, shortstop Domingo Ramos, and lefties Larry McCall and Dave Rajsich) for light-hitting veteran outfielder Juan Beniquez and four prospects (outfielder Greg Jemison, righty Mike Griffin, and lefties Paul Mirabella and Righetti).

Although it was a ten-player swap, the principals were Lyle, Mirabella, and Righetti. Lyle was Lyle, a Cy Young award winning veteran reliever, and Mirabella and Righetti were two highly touted young players. Mirabella was the 21st overall pick in the 1976 January draft and Righetti was the tenth overall pick in the 1977 January draft. The Yankees flipped Mirabella to the Blue Jays in the Chris Chambliss/Rick Cerone trade the following offseason but they held on to Righetti.

Righetti was only 20 years old at the time of the trade and he spent most of the 1979 season in the minors, where he had a 2.31 ERA with 122 strikeouts in 109 innings split between Double-A and Triple-A. He made his MLB debut in September and had a 3.63 ERA in 17.1 innings across three starts. Righetti spent the entire 1980 season in Triple-A and was pretty awful — he had a 4.63 ERA with 139 strikeouts and 101 walks in 142 innings. The Yankees declined to call him up in September.

”I don’t mind still being a rookie, but I got tired of being a ‘flame-throwing prospect,”’ said Righetti to Dave Anderson early in the 1981 season. ”Especially when I went home to San Jose, California, last year after the record I had in Columbus last season. All my friends kept asking me, ‘What happened?’ Even people I didn’t know would come up on the street and ask me.”

Righetti had a strong Spring Training in 1981 but the team send him back to Triple-A anyway, where he put up a 1.00 ERA with 50 strikeouts and 26 walks in 45 innings across seven starts. ”At least they told me that if I pitched well (in Triple-A), I’d be back soon,” said Righetti to Anderson. ”I tried to make sure that I pitched well … Getting a taste of the big leagues two years ago made me want to get back here.”

Tommy John’s ailing back helped clear a rotation spot for Righetti, who, at age 22, got his first extended taste of the show. He allowed two runs in seven innings against the Indians in his first start, then held those same Indians to two runs (one earned) in eight innings next time out. Eight shutout innings against the Orioles followed that. In his first eleven starts of the 1981 season Righetti had a 1.59 ERA with 71 strikeouts and 28 walks in 79.1 innings. He finished the regular season with a 2.05 ERA and 89 strikeouts with 38 walks in 15 starts and 105.1 innings, which earned him the AL Rookie of the Year award with ease.

The Yankees won the AL pennant in 1981 thanks in large part to Righetti. He struck out ten in six scoreless innings in Game Two of the ALDS against the Brewers, then came out of the bullpen to throw three innings of one-run ball in the decisive Game Five. In his Game Three start against the Athletics in the ALCS, Righetti threw six more scoreless innings. His worst postseason start came in Game Three of the World Series, when Ron Cey clubbed a three-run homer in the first inning. Righetti allowed three runs in two innings before being replaced.

It was a disappointing end to the season — the Dodgers won the World Series four games to two with Righetti lined up to start Game Seven — but Righetti had established himself as a bonafide big league starter. He spent the 1982 season in New York’s rotation and had a 3.79 ERA with 163 strikeouts in 183 innings spread across 27 starts and six relief appearances. The problem? He led the league with 108 walks. He rebounded during he 1983 season to post a 3.44 ERA with 169 strikeouts in 217 innings while cutting his walk total down to 67. On July 4th of that season, he became the first Yankee to throw a no-hitter since Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series.

Through age 24, Righetti had a 3.29 ERA (117 ERA+) with a well-above-average 7.5 K/9 — the AL average was 4.7 K/9 from 1979-83, if you can believe that — in 522.2 career innings. He also had a Rookie of the Year award and World Series experience to his credit. Righetti wasn’t a star, per se, but he was a damn fine Major League starter and a promising piece of the Yankees rotation going forward. The kind of player every team would love to have. So, naturally, the Yankees took him out of the rotation and moved him to the bullpen full-time for the 1984 season.

Gossage took a five-year contract from the Padres after the 1983 season, leaving New York with a big hole in the bullpen. George Frazier was traded to the Indians that offseason as well, further decimating the reliever corps. ”We’ve talked about all the starters (taking over as closer) at one point or another,” said GM Murray Cook to Murray Chass after the Frazier trade. ”(Manager Yogi Berra) will talk to each one in Spring Training and make a decision. We’re not going to do anything between now and then.”

The Yankees got off to a dreadful start in 1984. The team went 8-17 in its first 25 games and 22-31 in their first 53 games. Righetti was doing his part in the bullpen but the rotation was unimpressive — the starting staff had a 4.03 ERA during those first 53 games, slightly better than the 4.19 ERA league average. ”No one has picked up the slack there. That made it even harder to take. I knew I could do the job as a starter. That made it tougher to make the move,” said Righetti to Chass in early-June.

Righetti was dominant in his first season as a reliever, saving 31 games with a 2.34 ERA and 90 strikeouts in 96.1 innings. The team went 87-75 and finished in third place in the AL East, their third straight postseason-less year after winning four pennants and two World Series titles from 1976-81. Both Berra and GM Clyde King wanted to keep Righetti in the bullpen, and, after a brief dance with free agent closer Bruce Sutter that offseason, the bullpen is where Righetti remained.

Ed Whitson was brought in to solidify the rotation and Righetti again dominated out of the bullpen in 1985, saving 29 games with a 2.78 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 107 innings. The Yankees went 97-64 but missed the postseason for the fourth consecutive year. Righetti was a first-time All-Star and finished fourth in the Cy Young voting the following season — he led MLB with 46 saves and had a 2.45 ERA with 83 strikeouts in 106.2 innings in 1986 — though the Yankees went 90-72 and again missed the postseason.

From 1984-90, Righetti was New York’s ninth inning stopper and one of the best relievers in all of baseball. He ranked second in saves (223, one behind Jeff Reardon), second in innings (614), and third in strikeouts (506) among full-time relievers from 1984-90, and among the 182 pitchers who threw at least 500 innings during those years, only four bested his 137 ERA+. Righetti was dominant. And the Yankees never once made the postseason from 1984-90.

(Getty)
(Getty)

Righetti became a free agent after the 1987 season and returned to the Yankees on a three-year contract worth $4.5M after reportedly spurning a lucrative offer from the Tokyo Giants. Righetti became a free agent again after the 1990 season and, at age 31, winning had become the priority. The Yankees went 67-95 in 1990 and had traded away several big name players in recent years, including Rickey Henderson and Dave Winfield. Righetti’s return to New York was not a given.

“We’re negotiating to the extent we’re still speaking warmly with each other about the length of contract,” said Bill Goodstein, Righetti’s agent, to Michael Martinez in September 1990. “The Yankees have given me parameters of the kind of money they’re willing to pay, but I can tell you that I have absolutely rejected those parameters because they were unacceptably low.”

The Yankees and GM Gene Michael were sticking to a three-year contract offer but Goodstein was looking for five years — “If Bud Black can come up with four years, why shouldn’t Righetti command a five-year contract?” he said to Martinez — and had begun talking to other teams. The Yankees, meanwhile, added some bullpen insurance by signing Steve Farr to a three-year contract worth $6.3M. “I think our bullpen would be okay without Righetti,” said Michael to Jack Curry after the Farr signing.

One week after the Yankees signed Farr, Righetti decided to leave the only big league team he’d ever known — he was the Yankees’ all-time saves leader at the time — and took a four-year contract worth $10M from the Giants, who had just won the NL pennant. The Yankees’ offer reportedly topped out at three years and $9.3M. Righetti, who grew up in San Jose, told Chass he “would have loved to stay in the right circumstances.”

“We had a set policy and we weren’t going to break it,” said Yankees vice president George Bradley to Chass. “It was an organizational decision. We were all in agreement. I think more than three years is a big risk with a pitcher. Three years is a risk, too … Anytime you lose a player of that caliber, it’s a big loss.”

Farr, the new closer, was excellent in both 1991 (2.19 ERA with 23 saves in 70 innings) and 1992 (1.56 ERA and 30 innings in 52 innings) before slipping in 1993 (4.21 ERA and 25 saves in 47 innings), the final year of his contract. The Yankees let him walk as a free agent and used the late Steve Howe as their closer in 1994 before bringing in John Wetteland for 1995.

Righetti, meanwhile, was very good with the Giants in 1991, saving 24 games with a 3.39 ERA in 71.2 innings. He started to fall apart the following season though, pitching to a 5.06 ERA in 78.1 innings in 1992 and a 5.70 ERA in 47.1 innings in 1993. San Francisco released him following the 1993 season. Righetti had a 5.94 ERA in 69.2 innings with the Athletics, Blue Jays, and White Sox from 1994-95 to close out his playing career. He took over as the Giants pitching coach in 2000 and has been there ever since.

Holding firm on a three-year offer and losing Rags as a free agent was an unpopular decision but ultimately the right one for the Yankees, in hindsight. His golden left arm had just one good year left in it and the Yankees replaced him with the cheaper and more effective Farr. The decision to move Righetti into the bullpen in the first place is the one that deserved plenty of second guessing. His potential as a starter is one of the franchise’s great “what if” scenarios.

Monday Night Open Thread

As you probably noticed earlier today, this week is Retro Week here at RAB. Spring Training is still a few weeks away and there’s not a whole lot going on in Yankeeland, so this is the perfect time to turn back the clock and re-live some old stories. We did this a few years ago and people loved it, so what it heck, why not do it again? Hope you enjoy the week.

Here is tonight’s open thread. Both the (hockey) Rangers and Nets are playing, and there are two college basketball games on the schedule as well. Talk about those games, Retro Week, the snow, or anything else right here.

Syd Thrift and the suddenly thrifty George Steinbrenner were an odd fit in 1989

(Getty)
(Getty)

The 1980s were not the best years in Yankees history. Even though New York won more games (854) than any other team during the decade — the Tigers were next with 839 wins, so it wasn’t a small gap between first and second — the club did not go to the postseason from 1982-89 and only three times did they finish higher than third place in the AL East. That came after four pennants and two World Series titles from 1976-1981.

The Yankees went 85-76 in 1988, only the the second time they finished with a sub-.530 winning percentage since 1975. They won 97 games in 1985, 90 games in 1986, 89 games in 1987, and then those 85 games in 1988. It was not a good trend and George Steinbrenner wasn’t happy. The team underwent a bit of a facelift that offseason as Ron Guidry and Willie Randolph were cut loose, Jack Clark and Rick Rhoden were traded away, and Steve Sax and Andy Hawkins were signed as free agents. The club also tried and failed to trade for Dale Murphy and Lenny Dykstra.

Steinbrenner’s most notable move came in the middle of Spring Training in 1989, when he named Syd Thrift the new vice president of baseball operations. Thrift had been the GM of the Pirates from 1985-88, inheriting a team that won 57 games in 1985 and building them into an 85-win contender by 1988. Although he wasn’t around to see it, Thrift laid the foundation for the Pittsburgh clubs that went to three straight NLCSes from 1990-92. Steinbrenner wanted him to work the same sort of magic for the Yankees.

The Yankees started the 1989 season 1-7 and were 11-12 when Thrift made his first major move, trading young left-hander Al Leiter to the Blue Jays on April 30th for Jesse Barfield. Barfield was an impending free agent who was three years removed from his career 40-homer year. The team had refused to trade Leiter all offseason. ”Leiter has a great future, but when you can trade a young unproven pitcher for an everyday player, you do it every time,” said Thrift to Murray Chass.

New York went 11-15 in their next 26 games and were all but out of the race by June 1st. In early-July, in advance of the trade deadline, Steinbrenner decided to cut costs. He didn’t allow Thrift to travel to scout players. “We’re cutting back on expenses,” said the Boss to the New York Daily News. “We’re trying to run this thing like a business. Nobody ever pointed a finger at George Steinbrenner and said he’s cheap. But we have a budget, like any business, and we have to stick to it.”

The Yankees had a $20M payroll at the time, highest in the AL, plus they were spending a healthy amount on scouting and player development. “That’s almost $7.3M for player development and scouting alone,” added Steinbrenner. “I don’t think any other team has that high a budget. And that doesn’t include an $800,000 payroll for scouts, $435,000 in travel and expenses for scouts, the cost of computer hardware. It’s just too much, and we’re going to have to cut back.”

Thrift. (AP)
Thrift. (AP)

It was an odd move, to say the least. One source told the Daily News that Steinbrenner “has the biggest private television contract in the history of professional sports and he’s saving money by keeping Thrift in his office … To keep him in New York is definitely self-defeating.” Another said “Syd’s main strength is that he is an evaluator of talent. He has to see what’s going on. George has even stopped him from going to Columbus overnight to see the farm system. Why did the man even hire him?”

So, while stuck in his office, Thrift helped engineer trades that sent Rickey Henderson back to the Athletics — Henderson reported to Spring Training late and was an impending free agent who had been a malcontent for much of the summer — and Mike Pagliarulo to the Padres prior to the trade deadline. Henderson brought back Luis Polonia and two relievers (Eric Plunk and Greg Cadaret), Pags the forgettable right-hander Walt Terrell.

The Yankees went 10-19 from the date of the Henderson trade through August 19th, when Steinbrenner fired manager Dallas Green. Green, like Thrift, wanted to rebuild the team through player development. Thrift refused to publicly support the managerial change, and, less than two weeks later on August 30th, he resigned as senior vice president. He was only five months into his five-year contract.

“He talked to me for a long time earlier today and said that his reasons for leaving the Yankees were personal and as far as I am concerned, they will remain personal,” said Steinbrenner to reporters. The Yankees went on to finish the season at 74-87, their worst record since going 72-90 in 1967.

From the start, Thrift and Steinbrenner were an odd fit. Thrift had the resume and was an old school baseball man who, despite trading Leiter (Leiter almost immediately blew out his shoulder in Toronto), wanted to build the team from within, as he had done with the Pirates. He and Green were on the same page.

Steinbrenner, however, was an instant gratification guy who wanted immediate results. Both he and Thrift also had outsized personalities that clashed and clashed often. Cutting back on the scouting budget was as much about making Thrift’s life miserable as it was cutting costs. It was a relationship that was doomed to fail from the start.

End of an Icon: How the Yankees replaced Don Mattingly before he decided to retire

(Getty)
(Getty)

It’s almost never easy dealing with the end of an iconic player’s career. Mariano Rivera made it very easy for the Yankees two years ago but the end of Derek Jeter‘s career was a bit difficult last season. He was no longer productive at the plate and his defense was a major issue, yet he continued to play shortstop everyday and bat high in the order because he is Derek Jeter. Situations like that are pretty uncomfortable.

Two decades ago, the Yankees were facing the end of another iconic player’s career, this one Don Mattingly’s. Like Jeter last season, Donnie Baseball was beloved by fans but no longer the player he was during his prime. Mattingly was one of the best players in baseball during the 1980s, being named the 1985 AL MVP and finishing the decade with a .323 average and a 144 OPS+ in 1,015 games.

Chronic back problems cut short his peak — Mattingly hit a career worst .256 with an 81 OPS+ in 1990, at age 29 — and Mattingly hit .286 with a 105 OPS+ in 770 games in the 1990s. By 1995, things between the Yankees and their most popular player had grown contentious. After going 3-for-5 with a home run — his first homer in 55 games — against the Royals on July 20th, Mattingly snapped at reporters and told Jack Curry “I’m not willing to share with you all anymore, about the city and about the way I feel. I’m just not willing to share.”

Just days earlier, the New York Daily News ran a scathing article about Mattingly’s performance, an article Mattingly believed had been planted by George Steinbrenner. “I know where it’s coming from and I’m not going to forget it,” he said to Curry. Steinbrenner responded by telling Curry “to say I want to drive Don Mattingly out is crazy. Don Mattingly belongs with the greatest Yankees of all time. Nobody should ever say that I’m trying to get him to go. I hope and pray he doesn’t … When he wants to leave New York, I want him to come down and tell me.”

The season continued and the situation with Mattingly grew more uncomfortable. He suggested he would play in Japan after the season and the Yankees dropped hints that they were planning to pursue Red Sox slugger Mo Vaughn to play first base. “I have total respect for Mo Vaughn and what he does and what kind of person he is,” said Mattingly to Curry. “That’s no problem if they want to go in that direction. You can handle it properly. There are ways to handle things with class and respect. Treat me properly. Treat me with respect. You don’t have to back-stab me to make it look like I can’t play anymore.”

Thanks to an outstanding finish — the Yankees won five straight games and 11 of 12 to close out the regular season — the Yankees claimed the first wildcard spot in the AL history, finishing two games ahead of the Angels. All of the Mattingly nonsense was pushed to the back burner. He was in the postseason for the first time in his career and he delivered, going 10-for-24 (.417) with four doubles and a homer in the five games against the Mariners.

Despite Mattingly’s offensive dominance, the Yankees lost the series in heartbreaking walk-off fashion in the decisive Game Five. Suddenly the issue of the star first baseman’s future was once again front and center. In early November, Curry reported Steinbrenner called Mattingly’s agent Jim Krivacs and told him retaining his client was very important to him. It was the first time Steinbrenner or the Yankees in general showed any interest in bringing Mattingly back for the 1996 season.

And yet, while all of that was going on, the team was pursuing other first base options. Vaughn was named the 1995 AL MVP and Boston wasn’t interested in trading him, especially to a division rival. Fred McGriff and Mark Grace were both free agents that offseason, as were other first base candidates like B.J. Surhoff and Mickey Tettleton. The Yankees focused on Mariners first baseman Tino Martinez, who crushed New York during the regular season and was available because Seattle was slicing payroll. Tino had just turned 28 and was coming off a season in which he hit .293 with 31 homers and a 135 OPS+.

“The opportunity to play in New York would be pretty special,” said Martinez to Curry in the middle of all the trade rumors. “Either way, I’m going to be in a great situation because I think the Mariners are going to have a great team and I think the Yankees are going to have a great team, too. Seattle is special to me, and every kid dreams about playing for the Yankees.”

Trade talks started in November and carried into December, and the deal went through many iterations. At first it was Martinez for left-hander Sterling Hitchcock and third base prospect Russ Davis. At another point it was Martinez, righty Jeff Nelson, and a prospect for Hitchcock, Davis, and minor league catcher Jorge Posada. GM Bob Watson, who replaced Gene Michael in October after Michael stepped down, tried to get Davis out of that deal. “I didn’t like the idea that was proposed,” Mariners GM Woody Woodward told the Associated Press.

(Getty)
(Getty)

McGriff signed with the Braves on December 2nd and Tettleton signed with the Rangers a few days later. The Yankees badly wanted Martinez and their first base options were dwindling, but before they could part with Davis — Baseball America ranked Davis as the 78th best prospect in baseball prior to the 1995 season — they needed to re-sign Wade Boggs to play third. Boggs agreed to a new two-year contract on December 5th, and, two days later, the Yankees and Mariners were in agreement on the Martinez trade. It was Martinez, Nelson, and righty Jim Mecir for Hitchcock and Davis.

The trade was not done, however. Martinez was eligible for salary arbitration that offseason and was set to become a free agent after the 1997 season. The Yankees didn’t want to give up two highly touted young players in Hitchcock and Davis for a player who could leave town in two years. Seattle granted New York a 48-hour window to negotiate a contract extension with Martinez and the two sides eventually came to terms on a five-year, $20.25M contract. “It’s a great day. I mean, my head is spinning. It’s probably one of the greatest days of my life,” said Tino to Curry after signing.

The Yankees had their new first baseman, but what about their old first baseman? Mattingly was going through his usual offseason workout routine and the only team he’d ever known had just traded for his replacement. They didn’t even bother to check in to see whether he’d made a decision about his future. Mattingly sat out the 1996 season and, on January 23rd, 1997, Mattingly stood alongside Steinbrenner at Yankee Stadium and announced his retirement from baseball.

”I wasn’t willing to pay the price it was going to take to be able to succeed. At that point, I knew it was time to step away,” said Mattingly to Curry while explaining that his back, wrist, elbow, and knees were giving him too much trouble during his workouts to continue playing. Four months shy of his 36th birthday, his body had had enough. Steinbrenner announced at the retirement press conference that Mattingly’s No. 23 would be retired.

”I don’t believe any player on the New York Yankees was ever as great as Don Mattingly in every way during my years as an owner,” said Steinbrenner at the press conference. ”He was a great athlete and a great player. Some great athletes are not great human beings and vice versa. This man combined all of that.”

Mattingly revealed the Orioles made him a contract offer to play in 1996, and while it did get his attention and make him wonder which other clubs could be interested, he ultimately decided to hang up his spikes. After 14 years in pinstripes, several months of trading barbs through the media, Mattingly’s career was officially over.

”To come from where I came from to this point is a long road for the guy who couldn’t run, who couldn’t throw and who didn’t hit for power,” said Mattingly to Curry. ”It’s a long ride. It’s been a great ride.”

Fan Confidence Poll: February 2nd, 2015

2014 Record: 84-78 (633 RS, 664 RA, 77-85 pythag. record), did not qualify for postseason

Top stories from last week:

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the interactive Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.

Given the team's current roster construction, farm system, management, etc., how confident are you in the Yankees' overall future?