Anyway, here is the open thread for the night. None of the local basketball or hockey teams are playing, but at least there are a few college basketball games. Talk about those games or anything that isn’t politics or religion here.
For a few years in the mid-1990s, the Yankees had a revolving door at second base. Pat Kelly mostly held the position down from 1992-95 before getting hurt and giving way to Mariano Duncan in 1996. Duncan, Kelly, and Luis Sojo took turns at the position in 1997. That’s three primary second basemen in three years.
The Yankees were a good enough team overall to overcome the second base revolving door. They won the World Series in 1996 — thanks in part to Duncan’s inexplicably excellent season — and won 96 games in 1997. And yet, going into the 1997-98 offseason, the Yankees were in obvious need of a second base upgrade. They also wanted a set leadoff hitter so Derek Jeter and his bat control could hit second.
Meanwhile, up in the Minnesota, the Twins were dealing with a second base problem of their own. They had a franchise caliber player at the position in Chuck Knoblauch — Knoblauch hit .319/.413/.468 (127 OPS+) and averaged ten homers and 47 steals per season from 1994-97 — but he wanted out. Bad. He demanded a trade publicly and backed the team into a corner.
Knoblauch signed a five-year extension worth $30M in November 1996, and after the club floundered in 1997 (79-83), he wanted out. “I was just dejected. The losing got to me. I wasn’t handling getting beat up on a pretty consistent basis,” Knoblauch said to Amelia Rayno in 2014. The Yankees needed a second baseman and a pretty great second baseman had just demanded trade. It was a perfect fit.
* * *
“‘Don’t get too excited about Chuck Knoblauch,” said George Steinbrenner to reporters in January 1998. “(The Twins) have to get realistic about what they’re asking for. I’m a great Knoblauch fan, but at what price?”
Knoblauch and the Yankees were a match made in baseball heaven, yet trade talks dragged on for weeks and months, so much so that then GM Bob Watson suggested the Yankees could go into the season with Sojo and Rey Sanchez at second base. The Indians were in on Knoblauch as well, so the Yankees had competition.
The Twins, even though Knoblauch demanded a trade and had long been a clubhouse headache, had a high asking price. Bernie Williams was involved in trade rumors at one point. Mostly though, Minnesota focused on prospects like lefty Eric Milton, catcher Jorge Posada, and outfielder Ricky Ledee. They wanted first baseman Sean Casey from Cleveland.
It wasn’t until February 6th, three days after Brian Cashman replaced Watson as GM and not long before the Yankees opened Spring Training, that the Yankees and Twins came to a trade agreement. Knoblauch went to New York for Milton, shortstop Cristian Guzman, outfielder Brian Buchanan, righty Danny Moto, and $3M in cash. It was a blockbuster. Knoblauch was a star and Milton and Guzman were top prospects.
“I had to do the best I could under the situation. When you go public with a trade demand it’s very difficult to do anything,” said Twins GM Terry Ryan to the Associated Press. “Until you see what these kids do you aren’t going to be able to evaluate this trade. It might be five years. It might be three years. We do know what we traded.”
* * *
With Knoblauch at second base, Joe Torre’s lineup seemed to write itself. Everyone fell right into place.
- 2B Chuck Knoblauch
- SS Derek Jeter
- RF Paul O’Neill
- CF Bernie Williams
- 1B Tino Martinez
- DH Chili Davis/Darryl Strawberry
- LF Chad Curtis
- C Jorge Posada
- 3B Scott Brosius
The pieces just fit. Knoblauch, however, had trouble with the adjustment to New York. He had a four-hit game in the second game of the season, but on May 17th, his batting line was .238/.346/.318. It was .246/.358/.371 on August 1st. Knoblauch was expected to bring a high batting average and on-base percentage, and steals. Instead, his average and on-base percentage sank, and he went from 62 steals in 1997 to 31 steals in 1998.
“‘I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, this is the most positive experience I’ve had in baseball and in my baseball life. Off the field, everything,” said Knoblauch to Jack Curry amid the struggles. “New York is just different from any other city. The people, the city, everything is great.”
Because he had been traded in the middle of a multiyear contract, the Collective Bargaining Agreement allowed Knoblauch to request a trade after the 1998 season. The Yankees discussed a contract extension with him earlier in the year to prevent that from happening, but talks were tabled. There were even rumors of a Knoblauch-for-Roberto Alomar trade at midseason.
”The only discussion we had was early and how he doesn’t want to go anywhere and we don’t want him to go anywhere, so let’s not worry about it” said Cashman to Curry. ”I’m not worried about it.”
The Yankees were, of course, completely dominant all summer — at one point they won 91 of 117 games, if you can believe that — so Knoblauch’s less than stellar production wasn’t dragging the team down. Neither was his suddenly shaky throwing. The potential for a trade demand — or the potential to leverage that trade demand into an extension — was a bit of a headache, though not much.
Knoblauch finished the regular season strong, hitting .303/.369/.471 with seven homers in his final 51 games, giving him a .265/.361/.405 (102 OPS+) batting line overall. He set a new career high with 17 homers, walked more than he struck out (76 to 70), and also led the league with 18 hit-by-pitches. Not awful. Not great, not Knoblauch with the Twins, but not awful.
* * *
As the Yankees marched to the 1998 World Series title, they did it in spite of Knoblauch, not with his help. He went 1-for-11 (.091) during the team’s three-game sweep over the Rangers in the ALDS. In the ALCS, Knoblauch made what is one of the most infamous plays in recent Yankee history, as he let two runs score while arguing with the umpire in the 12th inning of Game Two against the Indians.
“I screwed up. I screwed up the play, and I feel terrible about that,” Knoblauch said to Buster Olney after the game. “I should have went and gotten the ball, regardless of what the outcome of the umpire’s call was. I need to apologize to my teammates and my manager and all the Yankees fans.”
The Yankees rallied to win the ALCS and, in the World Series, Knoblauch atoned for the boneheaded mistake against the Indians — I’ll never forget the “BLAUCH HEAD” headlines in the papers the next morning — with a game-tying three-run home in the seventh inning of Game One against Donne Wall and the Padres.
Knoblauch was great in the World Series that year — he went 6-for-16 (.375) with the home run, three walks, and two strikeouts in the four-game sweep — so, in that sense, it was mission accomplished. The Yankees won the World Series! That’s the ultimate goal.
At the same time, my lasting imagine of Knoblauch as a Yankee is him standing and pointing at the basepath in the 12th inning of Game Two of the ALCS. I know I’m not the only one who remembers him this way:
The Yankees acquired Knoblauch to solidify second base and raise hell atop the lineup. He did neither. He had some defensive issues and his offense was not up to his career standards. That was true in 1998 and in subsequent years as well. The throwing issues got worse and the offensive numbers trended down.
Knoblauch had some big moments from 1999-2001 — his game-tying two-run home run in the eighth inning of Game Three of the 1999 World Series comes to mind — but he came to New York as one of the game’s premier second basemen, and left as a left fielder the Yankees tried to unload every winter and every trade deadline.
”Forget the player, I’m a better person having been through all of that and being through it in New York,” said Knoblauch to Rafael Hermoso in Spring Training 2002, after signing with the Royals as a free agent. ”The bottom line is I have three World Series rings, and one or two outs away from a fourth. I had a great time there.”
Welcome to RAB’s Retro Week. Spring Training is two weeks away and there’s not much going on in the hot stove league, so this is as good a time as any to look back at some Yankees stories from yesteryear. Since this year is the 20th anniversary of the 1998 Yankees, this week will be dedicated to that team.
Given how the season played out, it can be easy to forget the 1998 Yankees needed to be saved. Twice.
The first time they had to be saved came early in the summer, on June 3rd, when David Cone was unable to make his scheduled start because his mother’s dog bit him in the hand. True story. Cone talks about it during YES Network broadcasts all the time.
With Cone unavailable, the Yankees turned to maybe 28-year-old but possibly 32-year-old Cuban right-hander Orlando Hernandez, who the team signed in March because pitching depth was in short supply. The expansion draft raided depth charts — the Yankees lost righty Ben Ford to the Diamondbacks and righty Brian Boehringer to the Devil Rays in the November 1997 expansion draft — and left teams hesitant to trade their leftover pitchers.
* * *
“I’m sick of George’s tactics,” said Joe Cubas, Hernandez’s agent, to Murray Chass in March 1998. George being George Steinbrenner, of course. “I’m fed up with it and tired of it and sick of it. My conscience is clean. I can speak about this because I just told the Yankees first … George is leaking (numbers) on purpose to scare others away. If they think they are going to corner me into a deal with those tactics, they’re going to have a rude awakening when they see I’m about to cut a deal with another club.”
Hernandez defected from Cuba in December 1997, two years after his younger brother Livan left the island. As punishment for Livan’s defection, Orlando was left off the 1996 Cuban Olympic team and later banned from playing baseball in Cuba entirely. He defected to Costa Rica, which allowed him to avoid the draft and instead negotiate with any team as a free agent. The Yankees, Indians, Angels, and Mariners all wanted him, and George was driving a hard bargain.
“I’m dealing with four clubs. I’m close with one, and it’s not them,” said Cubas to Chass. “They’re trying to make it look like there’s a deal about to be made. The other clubs are taking it out on me. They’re asking, ‘Are you using us to get a better deal from George?'”
One day after Cubas made those comments — literally the very next day — Hernandez and the Yankees agreed to a four-year contract worth $6.6M. The Indians made a late push, but El Duque wanted to be a Yankee.
“I was about to cut a deal with Cleveland,” said Cubas to Buster Olney. “We were at opposite ends of the spectrum yesterday. The thing that helped was that (Brian) Cashman got directly involved, which he hadn’t been from the very beginning.”
* * *
Hernandez was a bit of a mystery at the time aside from his stellar record in Cuba. He’d starred in the Cuban league and pitched well in the 1992 Olympics, but it was unclear if he’d even start in the big leagues. The Yankees viewed him as a potential back-end starter or relief option. After an abbreviated Spring Training — Hernandez reported late because he signed late — he headed to the club’s High Class-A affiliate in Tampa.
Two starts and nine innings of one earned run ball later, the Yankees moved Hernandez up to Triple-A Columbus, where he pitched to a 3.83 ERA with 59 strikeouts and 17 walks in seven starts and 42.1 innings. The Yankees were preparing Hernandez for a bullpen role — “We’re kind of tossing the idea around,” said former farm system head Mark Newman to Chass — when Cone was bitten.
Hernandez made his big league debut on June 3rd, against the expansion Devil Rays. Against an admittedly thin lineup, El Duque fired seven innings of one-run ball at Yankee Stadium, striking out seven. Most fans hadn’t seen Hernandez prior to that. He was late to Spring Training and had been in the minors. Hernandez wowed with his leg kick and array of arm slots.
“It was very emotional due to the fact so many years had gone by since I pitched in front of so many fans, and it was my first game at the Major League level,” said Hernandez to Olney after the game.
The original plan called for Hernandez to make just the one spot start, then return to Columbus. Steinbrenner instead ordered Hernandez to remain with the big league team. “When you have an organization and an owner who knows what he wants to do, that’s going to happen,” Joe Torre said to Olney. Ramiro Mendoza shifted to the bullpen and Hernandez remained in the rotation.
So, with Cone recovering from his dog bite and David Wells nursing an achy shoulder — Hernandez nearly made his MLB debut one day earlier in place of Wells — El Duque stepped into the rotation and provided the type of stability the club was seeking behind Andy Pettitte. The Yankees were short on pitching depth and short on healthy starters. Hernandez helped save the day.
All told, Hernandez made 21 regular season starts for the Yankees in 1998, throwing 141 innings with a 3.13 ERA (142 ERA+) and a 3.53 FIP. That earned him a fourth place finish in the AL Rookie of the Year voting — Ben Grieve won the award, and was followed in the voting by Rolando Arroyo and Mike Caruso — and also a spot in the postseason rotation behind Pettitte, Wells, and Cone. Hernandez over Hideki Irabu was an easy call.
* * *
The second time the Yankees had to be saved came in October. The 114-win juggernaut Yankees swept the Rangers in the ALDS — the Yankees held Texas, a team that scored 64 more runs than any non-Yankees team during the regular season, to one run in the three-game sweep — before running into a very deep and very dangerous Indians team in the ALCS. Cleveland’s lineup for Game One that series:
- CF Kenny Lofton
- 2B Joey Cora
- LF David Justice
- RF Manny Ramirez
- 3B Travis Fryman
- DH Jim Thome
- 1B Richie Sexson
- C Sandy Alomar
- SS Omar Vizquel
The Yankees scored five runs against Jaret Wright in the first inning of Game One and eventually held on for the win. The Indians rebounded with a 12-inning win in Game Two and put a hurting on Pettitte in Game Three (six runs in 4.2 innings) to take a two games to one series lead. The only thing standing between the Yankees and a three games to one series deficit was the Cuban veteran and big league rookie Hernandez.
To make the situation even more dire — Game Four was in Cleveland, which was not an easy place to play in the late-1990s — Hernandez was going to pitch in cold weather, something he never did in Cuba, and pitch in general for the first time in 15 days. He wasn’t needed during the ALDS sweep of the Rangers and had a long layoff since his final regular season start. And it was the powerhouse Indians. And it was cold.
“When I was pitching with the Cuban national team, we played in Italy and Ireland, and other countries in Europe, and it was pretty cold. I’m not sure what the temperatures were, but it was pretty cold,” said Hernandez to Olney. “I’ve been through some cold times. I don’t feel that the cold on the field will affect my pitching tomorrow.”
El Duque was right. Seven innings, three hits, two walks, no runs. He struck out seven and retired 14 of the final 16 batters he faced. Paul O’Neill smacked a first inning solo home run to give the Yankees the only run they’d need on the night — they did add three insurance runs later in the game, and those are always appreciated — and Hernandez pitched the series back even at two games apiece.
“I’ve watched him pitch all year, and I’ve never seen him tense,” said Chili Davis to Mike DiGiovanna after the game. “With the rest he had, you knew he’d have a good fastball. When you’ve thrown a fastball by Thome, you’ve accomplished something.”
Hernandez started Game Two of the World Series against the Padres and was again magnificent, holding San Diego to one run in seven innings. The Yankees swept the series for their second championship in three years and the first of what would eventually be three consecutive World Series titles. El Duque allowed one run in 14 postseason innings in his two starts. He saved the Yankees when their rotation was falling apart in June, and he saved them again in the ALCS.
* * *
Going from leaving Cuba on a fishing boat to signing a $6.6M contract to pitching at Yankee Stadium in the World Series surely made for a whirlwind year for El Duque. The best part was saved for last though, and it wasn’t the World Series title.
John Cardinal O’Connor, the late Archbishop of New York, sent an emissary to Cuba and convinced Fidel Castro to allow Hernandez’s family to leave the island so they could reunite in the United States. Castro allowed Orlando’s family to leave, just as he allowed Livan’s family to leave a year earlier, after he pitched the Marlins to a World Series title.
On October 22nd, the day after the Yankees won the World Series, Hernandez’s mother, his two daughters, and his ex-wife were chartered from Havana to Miami. George Steinbrenner then flew them up to New York on his private plane. Hernandez and his family reunited at Teterboro Airport. The next day, they paraded down the Canyon of Heroes together as a family.
“He was just totally overwhelmed with joy,” said Rene Guim, a spokesman for Hernandez’s agent, to Andy Newman and Charlie Nobles. ”He cried like a little baby.”
2017 Regular Season Record: 91-71 (858 RS, 660 RA, 100-62 pythag. record), second in ALE
2017 Postseason Record: 7-6 (51 RS, 42 RA), won AL WC Game, won ALDS, lost ALCS
Top stories from last week:
- The Yankees ranked second in Keith Law’s farm system rankings and had five players on his top 100 prospects list, including Gleyber Torres at No. 5. Baseball America had six Yankees on their top 100 prospects list. Torres was sixth.
- The Yankees reportedly want to set aside $10M for midseason call-ups and additions. That leaves them approximately $12M to spend under the $197M luxury tax threshold.
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 Features tab in nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.
Friday: Here’s an open thread for the night. The NHL starts their All-Star break today, but the Knicks and Nets are playing tonight, and there’s one (1) college basketball game on as well. Talk about anything that isn’t religion or politics here.
Saturday: This is the open thread again. MLB.com’s top 100 prospects list will be revealed during an MLB Network special tonight (8pm), if you’re interested in such things. The Yankees will surely be well-represented. The NHL Skills Competition is on tonight (7pm ET on NBCSN) as part of their All-Star weekend, plus the Nets are playing and there’s a ton of college basketball on throughout the day. Have at it.
Sunday: This is the open thread for the final time. The NHL All-Star Game is on this afternoon (2:30pm ET on NBC) as is the Pro Bowl (3pm ET on ABC). MLB has the best All-Star Game of the four major sports and it isn’t even close. Anyway, there’s also some college hoops on the schedule. Enjoy the rest of the weekend.
Happy Sunday once again, all; I hope you’re doing well as we inch closer and closer to the start of Spring Training. The weather’s not quite as cold as the last time I did one of these, but here’s another mailbag to keep you warm. Additionally, if you haven’t already, go listen to the most recent episode of the RAB podcast, which features a great conversation between Joe and ESPN’s Keith Law about the Yankee’s farm system and top prospects. Onto your questions.
Nick asks: I know Sonny Gray wasn’t the ace some Yankee fans wanted after his acquisition, but he also wasn’t nearly as bad as some would lead you to believe. What are your realistic expectations for a guy who’s all of a sudden (I believe incorrectly) being viewed by some as a back end arm.
I touched on Sonny Gray last week and my thoughts are definitely similar to Nick’s. Did you realize that with the Yankees last year, in his 65.1 regular season innings, Gray had a 122 ERA+? In fact, the only season in which he’s failed to record and ERA+ lower than 120 was 2016 (72) when he was injured (only 22 starts). Sonny Gray is a really good pitcher. He suffered a rash of home runs last year (and who didn’t?), especially when he moved to the Bronx, so as long as he brings that down, I think he’ll be more than fine. ZiPS projects a 3.80/3.83 ERA/FIP split for Gray, good for an 86 ERA- and an 85 FIP-, both of which would be great (remember, minus stats mean lower than 100 = better than average) for the team’s third starter. I’m more optimistic, though, and think he can do a little better than that, with maybe an 80 ERA-.
Clay (a former baseball + softball teammate) asks: Do you think the Yankees will strike out too often to win a playoffs series?
Nope. Strikeouts are frustrating, but fans may overblow them at times and commentators certainly do. The Yankees ranked towards the back of the AL pack in strikeouts last year–10th out of 15–; it may seem like the Yankees strike out a lot, but, relative the competition, they definitely don’t. They return mostly the same team this year, too. Giancarlo Stanton strikes out at a high rate, but he’s dropped it recently and he, like the other Yankee hitters with high strikeout totals, brings lots of walks and power to mitigate the strikeouts. We should also note that the Yankees won a playoff series and took another to the seventh game against Cleveland and Houston, both high strikeout pitching staffs.
Sherri asks: What will be the Opening Day lineup?
My preference would be:
- LF: Brett Gardner
- RF: Aaron Judge
- DH: Giancarlo Stanton
- C: Gary Sanchez
- 1B: Greg Bird
- CF: Aaron Hicks
- SS: Didi Gregorius
- 3B: Miguel Andujar
- 2B: Tyler Wade
If the lineup doesn’t spit out exactly that way, I’m at least sure it’ll have that collection of players.
Ben asks: If you had to pick one Yankee player to babysit your son, who would you choose?
For those of you who don’t know, I have an 18 month old son. He’s awesome. Anyway, the cool thing about this question is that there almost isn’t a wrong answer. A lot of guys on the team are dads, all the way from CC and David Robertson to the younger guys like Gary Sanchez, Luis Severino, and Miguel Andujar. Selfishly, I dream of my son being a left handed pitcher. So, with that in mind, and the fact that he has more dad experience than everyone else, I’m going with CC. Maybe some of the lefty magic wears off on my little guy. Plus, he might make an appearance on R2C2, and that would be pretty dope.
Matt, a Mets fan, asks: Will the Yankees ever stink to the point where they’ll be as bad as the Mets?
Less than four weeks until the start of the Grapefruit League season. The Yankees will play their first spring game in three weeks and six days. I can’t wait. I’m getting really antsy for baseball, especially after this mostly lame offseason. Anywhere, here are some bits of news to check out.
Yankees second in Law’s farm system rankings
A few days after posting his top 100 prospects list, Keith Law (subs. req’d) released his annual farm system rankings. The Braves, who have been tanking pretty hard for a few years now, claim the top spot. The Yankees are second. They’re just ahead of the Padres, who are also tanking pretty hard. Being a World Series contender with a great farm system is better than tanking to have a great farm system, if you ask me. Anyway, here is Law’s write-up:
The brilliance of Brian Cashman has been in how he has deployed the products of his farm system to bolster the big league club while holding on to the core guys. In another era, Aaron Judge or Gary Sanchez or Luis Severino would have been used to trade for established veterans, but Cashman has held on to the right guys — you might even argue he has been too conservative in trading prospects, but I doubt Yankees fans would complain right now. Even in trades for Giancarlo Stanton and three players from the White Sox at the deadline, the Yankees have kept their top tier of prospects intact. The result is a system with five guys in the top 100, three more with strong cases and continued depth for future acquisitions.
Keep in mind the Yankees rank second despite losing a lot of talent within the last 18 months or so. Judge, Sanchez, Clint Frazier, and Jordan Montgomery all graduated to the big leagues since August 2016. Jorge Mateo, James Kaprielian, Dustin Fowler, and Blake Rutherford were all traded away. That’s a lot of good prospects leaving the farm system! But they left for good reasons — they’re contributing to the MLB team either directly (on the roster) or indirectly (as trade chips) — and the Yankees still have a very good farm system. Pretty rad.
Captain’s Camp is underway (I think)
It appears this year’s edition of Captain’s Camp is now underway. The Yankees haven’t officially announced the start of Captain’s Camp — that’s not unusual, they’ve never announced anything about it — but several prospects have been in Tampa for a few weeks now based on their Twitter feeds, including Gleyber Torres and Justus Sheffield. Even guys who report to Spring Training early don’t show up that early, and this is the time of year the Yankees have held Captain’s Camp in the past, so yeah.
“Last season, we really started to see production from a lot of different guys that came through the system and had success. Now we have to keep it going,” said new farm director Kevin Reese to Dan Martin, who confirmed a bunch of prospects are already in Tampa. Captain’s Camp was a Gary Denbo creation designed to not only help prospects work on their game, but also bring them together to build relationships and foster leadership. I’m glad to see the Yankees are still doing it even after Denbo left, assuming they are actually doing it and not simply bringing guys to Tampa for super early work.
A-Rod joining Sunday Night Baseball
Once again, Alex Rodriguez is replacing Aaron Boone. Earlier this week ESPN announced A-Rod is joining their new Sunday Night Baseball booth. It’ll be A-Rod, Jessica Mendoza, and Matt Vasgersian. Rodriguez will also do some special event work with ESPN, and continue his postseason work with FOX. (Vasgersian will continue his MLB Network work as well.)
“I’m looking forward to this new chapter in my broadcasting career. It’s an exciting time in baseball and now I get that front row seat to tell that story every Sunday night on ESPN,” said A-Rod in a statement. Kinda remarkable how Alex has gone from hated player to beloved broadcaster, isn’t it? Watch, A-Rod won’t get into the Hall of Fame as a player because of the performance-enhancing drug stuff, but will one day win the Hall of Fame’s Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasting excellence. That’d be a hoot.