The Fifth Member of the Core Four

(Stephen Dunn/Getty)
(Stephen Dunn/Getty)

For most of the last two decades, the Yankees were led by a collection of four homegrown players, two who became first ballot Hall of Famers and two who became borderline Hall of Famers. Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada were forces at key up the middle positions while Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera dominated at the start and end of games. It ain’t that hard to build a winner when you have elite players at short, catcher, in the rotation, and in the bullpen.

The term Core Four is a bit disingenuous though because there are 25 guys on the roster and Jeter, Posada, Pettitte, and Rivera didn’t do it all by themselves. I know it’s not intentional, but “Core Four” does minimize the contributions of everyone else who played for the Yankees in the late-1990s and 2000s. More than anyone else, the term unfairly disparages the career of Bernie Williams, the fifth member of the Core Four.

In 1991, Bernie became the first member of the Core Four to reach the big leagues, when he was called up to fill in for the injured Roberto Kelly in June. “It’s very different. I’ve been dreaming of this since I signed, six years ago … I was nervous out there at first. I didn’t expect this many fans,” said Williams to Filip Bondy after his MLB debut, in which he went 1-for-3 in drove in two of the team’s three runs in their 5-3 loss to the Orioles.

By August of 1992, Williams a big league regular, hitting leadoff and putting up a .280/.354/.406 (114 OPS+) batting line with five homers, 29 walks, and 36 strikeouts in 62 games as a 23-year-old. The following year he slipped down to a 100 OPS+, but in 1994, Bernie hit his stride and started a nine-year peak in which he hit .319/.404/.525 (140 OPS+) in over 5,500 plate appearances with an average of 23 homers and 12 steals per season. From 1997-2002 — the peak of his peak, shall we say — he hit .326/.411/.538 (146 OPS+).

My favorite thing about peak Bernie was his consistency. From age 28-33, Williams sat between 4.8 and 5.1 WAR each and every season. Check it out:


Source: FanGraphsBernie Williams

WAR is sort of dumb, but I find Bernie’s consistency aesthetically pleasing. The guy was one of the best outfielders in baseball year after year and a lynchpin to the late-1990s dynasty. He hit in the middle of the order every year from 1996 through 2002 and received MVP votes in each of those years except 2001. Williams even won a batting title in 1998, hitting .339.

Although his center field defense left a little something to be desired — especially his arm, I love Bernie, but gosh was his arm bad — Williams did it all offensively, drawing walks and hitting for average and producing power from both sides of the plate. And, of course, the Yankees were always considering trading him, because George Steinbrenner was seemingly always looking to trade his good young players.

During the postseason, Williams put up a .275/.371/.480 batting line in 121 games — 121 postseason games! — including .278/.379/.479 during the club’s title runs in 1996 and 1998-2000. In Game Three of the 1995 ALDS against the Mariners, Bernie became the first player in history to go deep from both sides of the plate in a postseason game:

A year later, in Game Four of the 1996 ALDS against the Rangers, Williams homered from both sides of the plate again. It wasn’t until Chipper Jones in 2003 that someone other than Bernie managed to go deep from both sides of the plate in one postseason game. Williams was named the 1996 ALCS MVP and he still holds the all-time record with 80 RBI in the postseason.

The end of Bernie’s career was pretty ugly — he hit .264/.326/.399 (90 OPS+) with awful defense from 2005-06 — though he is hardly unique in that regard. At his best, Bernie was a high impact hitter at the center of a bonafide dynasty. He’s not the best center fielder in Yankees history because Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio existed, but he is undoubtedly one of the best players in franchise history. So why doesn’t he get recognized for it?

For starters, Core Five just doesn’t sound cool. Let’s not kid ourselves here, “Core Four” became a thing because it rhymes. Michael Kay likes to say Bernie isn’t part of the Core Four because he wasn’t there for all five World Series titles from 1996-2009, but Posada had 15 plate appearances with the Yankees in 1996. He wasn’t exactly a key cog in that machine. It’s lazy reasoning. Core Five doesn’t roll off the tongue easily. It really is that simple.

Secondly, I think Bernie gets overlooked because he was never considered the best player at his position. He was stuck playing in the Ken Griffey Jr. era, not to mention the Andruw Jones and Jim Edmonds and Kenny Lofton era. Stretch it out to all outfielders and Williams also had to compete against Barry Bonds and Larry Walker and Manny Ramirez as well. There were a ton of great outfielders in the 1990s and 2000s, especially center fielders. That made it easy to overlook someone like Bernie.

Third, he wasn’t even the best player or biggest star on his own team. The late-1990s Yankees were Derek Jeter’s team. And if they weren’t Derek Jeter’s team, they were Paul O’Neill’s team. Then there was David Cone and Roger Clemens and all sorts of other players who grabbed more headlines than Williams. Bernie was a quiet, unassuming guy who didn’t have much flash to his game, didn’t smash water coolers, didn’t do anything like that to draw attention to himself. He produced in a boring way.

That all worked against Williams. But make no mistake, he was a great player — an all-time great Yankee, there’s no doubt about that — who was a major factor in the late-1990s dynasty. He was also the first homegrown player from that era to come up and become a regular with the team. Bernie’s place in recent Yankees history has been undersold because of a gimmicky nickname. He belongs in the Core Four every bit as much as Jeter, Posada, Pettitte, and Rivera.

RAB Live Chat

Mailbag: Shields, Moncada, Rotation, O’Brien, Tanaka

I know it’s Retro Week, but nothing gets in the way of the weekly mailbag. I’ve got a dozen questions for you this week. If you want to send us anything, use the “For The Mailbag” form in the sidebar.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Many asked: Is it time for the Yankees to jump in on James Shields?

Yes, I think so. They passed on Max Scherzer because they don’t want another never-ending big money long-term contract, but, at this point, Shields’ market seems to be slow and there’s a chance he’ll come at a relative discount. As I wrote in our Scouting the Market post, the only concern with Shields is his age and workload. His performance continues to be excellent. He had been asking for five years and $110M earlier this offseason, but what if he’s willing to take something like three years and $54M now? Or even one year at $20M so he can try again next offseason? I don’t think that will happen — multiple reports indicate Shields will sign soon and I still think he’s going to get four or maybe even five years — but Spring Training is right around the corner and his agent is presumably feeling the heat. The Yankees have to at least check in. They could end up getting a very good pitcher on very favorable terms.

Mark asks: What are your thoughts on the current and future state of the franchise if the Yanks either elect not to pursue Yoan Moncada or end up losing him to another team? I would also be curious to get your thoughts as to whether this likely means the Yanks are not in on any major free agent for the foreseeable future?

My thoughts on the state of the franchise wouldn’t change all that much regardless of whether the Yankees sign Moncada. It would improve slightly if they sign him but not a substantial amount. We are still talking about a 19-year-old kid here who, in the best case scenario, is two years away from being an impact player. It would be great if the Yankees sign him, but I wouldn’t consider it to be a franchise-altering decision.

Moncada isn’t a major free agent in the traditional sense — he’s going to cost a massive amount of money up front, not some kind of multi-year contract. I do think the Yankees are looking to avoid big money long-term contracts right now, at least until guys like Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran start coming off the books following the 2016 season. That could always change in an instant, plans have to be flexible (e.g. Shields), but I definitely think the team is trying to avoid those pricey contracts that buy decline years in bulk for the time being. It’s about time, really.

Chris asks: Do the Yankees have an advantage in the Moncada situation because they have already burned their next two years of international spending? It would seem like other teams would be hesitant to do so without also having signed a huge IFA class like the Yankees did this past year.

If they do have an advantage, it’s a very small one. Whoever signs Moncada is going to blow through their international spending pool and get stuck with the 100% tax, so it’s an even playing field in that regard. I don’t think many clubs will hesitate to pursue a player of this caliber because international free agency is such a crapshoot each summer. Every MLB club can afford an ~$80M up front payment — say $40M bonus and $40M tax — it’s just a question of which owners are most willing to be aggressive. It’s hard to believe anyone would pass on Moncada based on talent. This feels like something that will come down to ownership’s approval.

Will asks: With regard to the international spending penalties in 2016-2017, is there a hard cap on total spending, or just the $300K player cap?

This is important: the Yankees spending pool for the 2015-16 and 2016-17 signing periods will not change. They’re still going to get the same amount to spend as they normally would — based on last year’s pools the team will have $2.3M or so to spend in 2015-16 — but won’t be able to sign a player for more than $300,000. So, instead of a few big bonuses, they just have to hand out a lot of small bonuses. The Yankees are quite good at finding quality Latin American prospects on the cheap (Luis Severino signed for $225,000, for example), so they’ll still be able to do some damage, they’re just going to have no shot at the top talent.

Mitchell. (Presswire)
Mitchell. (Presswire)

Dan asks: In your opinion, do the Yankees have enough starting pitching depth to compensate for the major injury risks to their rotation?

Right now, no. I like Bryan Mitchell but I don’t think he’s as ready to step into a big league rotation as Shane Greene was last season. That said, I’m pretty confident — perhaps foolishly confident — the Yankees will be able to patch the rotation in-season. Remember, they were without Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, CC Sabathia, and Ivan Nova for big chunks of last season too, and they still got by. I think Brian Cashman & Co. will be able to cobble things together again if necessary. I’m sure we’ll hear plenty of rumors about impending free agents like Ian Kennedy, Jhoulys Chacin, Trevor Cahill, Bartolo Colon, and Kyle Lohse being rental candidates as the season progresses.

Bill asks: Loved the series “Ranking the 40 man roster,” but it got me thinking … What if you had to rank the 40 most important players in the organization regardless if they are on the 40 man roster or not? What about Moncada?

I’m glad someone liked that series. If we opened it up to every player in the organization, the top of my list wouldn’t have changed all that much. The highest ranked non-40-man player would have been Aaron Judge and I would have had him tenth, behind Chase Headley and ahead of Andrew Miller. Judge is the Yankees’ best prospect, but, at the end of the day, he’s still a prospect who has yet to play above Single-A. Moncada is a different story because he’s supposedly so damn good. I would have had him fourth behind Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Pineda. The back-half of the list, the 20-40 range, is where there would have been a ton of change. Guys like Severino and Greg Bird and Rob Refsnyder all would have ranked ahead of big leaguers like Chris Capuano, David Carpenter, and Justin Wilson.

A.J.R. asks: Not sure if anything is different, but this offseason, the writing has been excellent regarding the historical articles. Has this been a decision bought on by the current state of the Yankees, or have I just underestimated the past few winters’ writing sprees?

Nah, it has nothing to do with the state of the team. We did a Retro Week two or three years ago and people liked it, so we decided to do it again. These last few weeks of the offseason in late-January and early-February really drag and it’s hard to come up with something that hasn’t been written about a bunch of times earlier in the offseason. It’s a good time to do something different and Retro Week is a change of pace from the usual.

Ethan asks: What the heck is Arizona thinking with Peter O’Brien? Do you really think he’ll be on their 25 man on opening day?

The D’Backs traded Miguel Montero to the Cubs earlier this winter and the only catchers on their 40-man roster are journeyman Tuffy Gosewich and Rule 5 Draft pick Oscar Hernandez. They also just signed Gerald Laird to a minor league contract. GM Dave Stewart, manager Chip Hale, and bench coach Glenn Sherlock all mentioned O’Brien as a MLB catcher candidate to Nick Piecoro and that seem so very far-fetched. Basically no one outside the D’Backs organization thinks he can catch. I’m rooting for him, I hope he makes the Opening Day roster, but it’s tough to see him hacking it as a big league catcher. The Yankees seem to know catcher defense as well as any organization in baseball and they were relatively quick to cut him loose.

Pete and the pitch clock. (Presswire)
Pete and the pitch clock. (Presswire)

Anthony asks: Outside of fewer pitching changes or a pitch clock, how else could MLB make the game more appealing to the younger generation?

I think pace of play is incorrectly being blamed for MLB losing out on younger viewers. Shaving 10-15 minutes off the average won’t make much of a difference reeling in young fans. I think the easy answer is better marketing and more outreach programs. MLB finally got around to putting together a player-specific commercial last year (Clayton Kershaw) and needs to do more of that. Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen, Giancarlo Stanton, Felix Hernandez, Tanaka … plaster these guys on billboards and stick them in commercials and internet ads. The stars need to be promoted. More FanFest or caravan events would help too. Maybe mandate that each team has to do at least one event each offseason, and/or that every player on the 40-man has to be available for autographs at some point in the offseason? I’m not sure. The closer the kids get to the players, the more appealing baseball will be to them.

Bobby asks: Is it just me or is the offense and defense bound to be better than last season?

No, it’s not just you. I’m apparently one of the few people who think the Yankees are better than last season. The left side of the infield has been upgraded tremendously, on both sides of the ball too. (I love Derek Jeter, but c’mon, he was pretty terrible last year.) The worst case scenario at second base is what, that Stephen Drew repeats what Brian Roberts did last season? In that case he’d be cast aside and Refsnyder would get a chance. The bullpen is much better and deeper as well. I also think the farm system is in much better position to provide help, both in terms of calling guys up and using them as trade chips. Are the Yankees substantially better than they were in 2014? No, but I do think they’re a handful of wins better, mostly because the run prevention is improved.

Doge asks: So I get that four doctors told Tanaka to hold off on getting surgery. But do you think there’s a risk to him staying healthy for a year or so, only to fully tear the ligament when the team is finally in as spot to make a WS run and needs him the most? Would it have made sense for the team to get the surgery out of the way now, when they don’t have the best shot at making the playoffs? Conversely, do you think that the timing of his inevitable surgery could have an impact on whether or not he exercises his opt out clause?

Oh sure, I totally get it. There’s a very good chance Tanaka will need Tommy John surgery at some point in the future, and he could need it at a very inopportune time. Right before the postseason, after all the top free agent pitchers sign next offseason, right before his opt-out clause, something like that. If he blows out his elbow and is unable to show he’s back to being the awesome version of Tanaka before the opt-out, I think he’d stay with the Yankees and take the guaranteed money.

That said, what are the Yankees supposed to do? When four world-renowned doctors tell you to rehab your $175M investment, you rehab him. Surgery is always a last resort, remember. There’s always a chance Tanaka will come back like, say, Ryan Madson, which is to say he wouldn’t come back at all. This is a really sucky and unfortunate situation. There’s really nothing more we or the Yankees can do other than hope for the best.

Stan asks: Who are your choices for greatest Yankees at their positions ever, and that you have seen play?

What better way to close out the Retro Week mailbag post than with this question? Here are my picks:

Position Best Ever Best I’ve Seen
C Yogi Berra Jorge Posada
1B Lou Gehrig Don Mattingly
2B Robinson Cano Robinson Cano
SS Derek Jeter Derek Jeter
3B Alex Rodriguez Alex Rodriguez
OF Babe Ruth Bernie Williams
OF Mickey Mantle Rickey Henderson
OF Joe DiMaggio Dave Winfield
RHSP Red Ruffing Mike Mussina
LHSP Whitey Ford Andy Pettitte
RHRP Mariano Rivera Mariano Rivera
LHRP Dave Righetti Dave Righetti

I skipped DH because it’s just a weird position. (The team’s all-time WAR leader at DH is Danny Tartabull with 7.9.) Otherwise most of this is straight forward, yes? You could nitpick a few spots — Dave Winfield over Hideki Matsui, etc. — but I think this is in the right ballpark. I suppose you could argue Graig Nettles was the best third baseman in franchise history if you really detest A-Rod for the off-field stuff, but in terms of on-field production, it’s not close. And I know I just wrote about Willie Randolph’s awesomeness, but Cano is far and away the best hitting second baseman in franchise history, so I’m going with him. So what do you think?

Thursday Night Open Thread

This is your open thread for the evening. The Islanders are the only local team in action tonight, and there are only two games on the college hoops schedule as well. Good night to fire up Netflix, I guess. You know how these things work, so have at it.

Judge, Severino, Bird, Lindgren, Refsnyder headline Spring Training invitees list

Refsnyder. (MiLB.com)
Refsnyder. (MiLB.com)

Two weeks from tomorrow, pitchers and catchers will report to Tampa for the start of Spring Training 2015. Baseball’s getting closer, folks. On Thursday, the Yankees officially announced their list of Spring Training invitees, a list that runs 66 (!) players deep.

As a reminder, everyone on the 40-man roster automatically goes to big league Spring Training, because duh. Here’s the 40-man roster and here are the 26 non-40-man roster players who have been invited to big league camp, which include some of the Yankees’ top prospects:

POSITION PLAYERS
C Francisco Arcia
C Trent Garrison
C Juan Graterol
C Kyle Higashioka
C Eddy Rodriguez
1B Greg Bird
1B Kyle Roller
IF Cito Culver
IF Cole Figueroa
IF Jonathan Galvez
IF Nick Noonan
IF Rob Refsnyder
OF Jake Cave
OF Slade Heathcott
OF Aaron Judge

PITCHERS
RHP Andrew Bailey
RHP Scott Baker
RHP Jose Campos
RHP Nick Goody
LHP Jacob Lindgren
RHP Diego Moreno
LHP James Pazos
RHP Wilking Rodriguez
RHP Nick Rumbelow
RHP Luis Severino
LHP Tyler Webb

Obviously the biggest names here are Judge, Bird, Severino, Refsnyder, and Lindgren, five of the team’s very best prospects. Lindgren, the Yankees’ top pick in last year’s draft, has a legitimate chance to make the Opening Day roster. So does Refsnyder, but he has more bodies ahead of him on the depth chart. I can’t see any scenario in which Judge, Severino, or Bird make the roster out of camp.

Bailey has been rehabbing from shoulder capsule surgery for nearly two years now and appears to finally be healthy. Could he step in and close with Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller working as setup men? Bailey has closer experience, you know. Graterol, Figueroa, Galvez, Noonan, Baker, and the two Rodriguezes were added a minor league free agents for depth this winter. The rest are farm system products. Guys looking to put themselves on the map for a midseason call-up.

Teams always need extra catchers to help catch all those early-Spring Training bullpen sessions, which is why the Yankees are bringing five non-roster backstops to camp in addition to the four catchers already on the 40-man roster. The last bullpen spot is up for grabs — it could be more than one if Adam Warren and/or Esmil Rogers are needed to help the rotation — so camp is a big opportunity for these pitchers, especially guys like Rumbelow, Webb, Goody, and Pazos, who aren’t top prospects.

The titanic, but nearly fruitless, 1989 Albany Yankees

ACYStadium

Just as the Yankees entered their darkest period since the mid-60s, they saw a glimmer of hope for the future.

For a few years they’d been a franchise in decline, but 1989 represented the turning point. They’d won just 74 games, finishing fifth in the AL East for the second straight season. Dave Righetti was on his way out. Don Mattingly’s back would start giving him issues the next season. Their best starter in 1989 was Clay Parker.

That is to say, while I wasn’t quite as attuned to the Yankees then as I am now (I was seven in 1989), it seemed easy to predict some lean years ahead.

Yet there was reason in 1989 to believe that the lean years wouldn’t last long, perhaps not longer than the 1990 season. While the major league squad lacked quality young players, the farm system appeared ready to deliver. The AA Albany-Colonie Yankees had just finished one of the most dominant seasons in minor league history.

ACY

The 1989 Albany-Colonie Yankees won 92 games, 18 more than the big league squad in 22 fewer games. Even crazier: at one point in July they were 70-20, 23.5 games ahead of the second place Harrisburg Senators. While they wouldn’t finish at such a torrid pace, they did win the league by 19 games.

Along the way they simply left other teams in the dust. They scored more than a third of a run per game more than the next-closest team, outscoring them by 58 runs in 140 games. On the other side of the ball they were similarly dominant, allowing a half run less per game than the next-closest team, a difference of 59 runs.

Adkins

The pitching side was perhaps more impressive. As Norm Alster notes in his July article for the New York Times, the Albany-Colonie staff didn’t exactly feature heat throwers. Their ace, 6-foot-6 lefty Steve Adkins might not have consistently hit 90 on the gun, but he struck out 10.1 per nine. That led Eastern League starters by a full strikeout per nine. Before that July article they’d promoted four pitchers to AAA Columbus, including Darrin Chapin and Kevin Mmahat, who is said to be a huge inspiration on Ben Kabak’s 2013 season. (Jokes aside, he did make it to the show in ’89, was rocked, and never appeared in the bigs again.)

Also impressive was 22-year-old Rodney Imes, who made 24 starts and produced a 2.73 ERA, his second straight phenomenal season. The 23-year-old Royal Clayton also built off his quality 1988 season to lead the Albany Yankees in innings pitched, producing a 2.98 ERA in 25 starts. (In his 175 innings he struck out just 74, which is pretty absurd.) To close out games the Albany Yankees turned to 25-year-old Tim Layana, who allowed 13 earned runs in 67.2 IP, allowing just two homers all season.

On offense Jim Leyritz led the way. He’d just made the conversion from third base to catcher and took well to his new position, leading the team in OPS while batting .315 with 10 homers. Leading the way with power was first baseman Rob Sepanek, who hit 25 homers after losing most of 1988 to injury.

Bernie

Both Leyritz and Sepanek were older, 25 and 26, and so probably ready to graduate from AA anyway. (Indeed, Leyritz mashed in AAA in 1990 before getting a promotion to the bigs and holding his own; he probably got stuck in AA because of his catching skills.) Most impressive was 20-year-old Bernie Williams, who hit .252/.381/.443 in 91 games before getting the call to Columbus. Hensley Meulens, still with his prospect shine at age 22, led the team with 21 doubles. Sideshow Deion Sanders and the lovable Andy Stankiewicz also produced on both sides of the ball.

One easy to overlook aspect of that team is its manager, Buck Showalter. He’d spent seven seasons toiling in the Yankees minor league system, starting at Class-A Fort Lauderdale in 1977 and topping out at AAA Columbus, bouncing between there and AA Nashville from 1981 through his last season, 1983. In 1985 he started managing at Low-A Oneonta, taking over High-A Fort Lauderdale in 1987 and finally AA Albany in 1989. He’d join the big league squad as their third base coach in 1990.

Even as the Yankees entered the 1990 season with a lean squad, the 1989 Albany team had to give them hope. Combined with a very good 1989 Columbus team that featured Hal Morris, Kevin Maas, and a number of kids promoted from AA (Williams, Meulens, Sanders, Oscar Azocar) it might have appeared as though the Yankees, at least on the offensive side of the ball, could weather a poor 1990 and recover in 1991.

That simply did not happen. While Williams’s debut was decent enough, Meulens flopped and Leyritz took a huge step back in ’91. Stankiewicz didn’t get the call until 1992. The pitching staff was a tatters. While 19 of 35 players on that AA Albany squad appeared in the majors, and 15 with the Yankees, only two were any good: Leyritz and Williams. The only pitcher to make an even minute impact was Scott Kamienicki, who fell into a swingman role before losing effectiveness by 1996. He earned a ring, but was nowhere near the celebration.

Showalter

“This is a prospect-laden club,” Showalter said of the Albany crew, but that just wasn’t true. On Baseball America’s list of 1989 Yankees prospects (found via The Baseball Cube), only Meulens, Sanders, and Williams were on the prospects list. Showalter wouldn’t have any of them for much longer, as they all made the trip to AAA sometime in late July or early August. The 1990 list reveals just two players, Williams and Meulens, who appeared on the 1989 team.* So even with huge performances, the guys on the ’89 Albany Yankees just weren’t considered impact prospects.

*Which is weird, because I’m pretty sure Sanders didn’t exhaust his rookie service time in 1989, but was off the list.

Adkins, the lefty with the big strikeout numbers, got promoted to AAA in 1990, where he was effective if a bit wild. The Yanks actually let him start five games in the bigs that year, but he stumbled hard, walking 29 in 24 innings. The stumble continued in AAA in 1991, and the Yanks traded him away for a guy who never reached the majors. Adkins didn’t pitch any more innings there either.

In December 1989 the Yankees dished Imes, along with Hal Morris, to the Reds for Tim Leary. The former Met 2nd overall pick was OK in 1990 before completely dropping off a cliff in 1991, while Morris had a few damn fine seasons in ’90 and ’91, when the Yanks probably could have used him.

Clayton started 1990 in AA again, but graduated to AAA, where he toiled from 1991 through 1994. I presume he was a minor league free agent at that point and departed for San Fran’s minor league system (there’s a Brian Sabean tie there) before fizzling out. Mmahat (mmm, a hat) never made it back to the bigs after his cup of coffee in ’89. He hurt his shoulder in 1990 and tried to pitch through it. The result, a torn rotator cuff, effectively ended his career. Chapin was dealt in the first Charlie Hayes deal. Azocar was generally terrible and best known for these two baseball cards.

It seems insane that a team so dominant could produce so few standout major leaguers. We’re not talking a very good farm team, either. Only when Williams, Meulens, and Sanders were promoted did the opposition stand even a chance. While they were on the squad, they were 50 — FIFTY — games over .500 in July. You’d be hard pressed to find a team that so thoroughly trounced opponents.

The best prospect the Yankees ever had … for six weeks

(SI.com)
(SI.com)

These days, everyone with an internet connection is familiar with their favorite team’s prospects. You might not know the full scouting reports and all that, but, if you’re a Yankees fan, chances are you’ve seen the names Aaron Judge and Luis Severino at some point. Cubs fans know who Kris Bryant is. Twins fans are counting down the days until Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano show up.

That wasn’t the case not too long ago. Prospects were unknown to the casual fan as recently as ten years ago, before Baseball America and Twitter put everything at everyone’s finger tips. Twenty years go? Only the hardest of die-hards knew prospects. Thirty years ago? Forget it. No one knew prospects at all. But everyone knew John Elway. You couldn’t follow sports and not know who John Elway was in the early-1980s.

At Stanford, Elway was a star quarterback and a star baseball player. The football team was thoroughly mediocre during his time there (20-23 in four years) but Elway finished his collegiate career with basically every school and conference record possible. Simply put, he was one of the best college football players ever. On the baseball field, he hit .361 with nine homers and 50 RBI in 49 games in 1981 while playing right field. He also had a 4.51 ERA as a pitcher.

The Yankees drafted Elway as an outfielder in the second round of the 1981 draft knowing full well that he could wind up playing football long-term. Not just playing football, but going first overall in the 1983 draft and taking over as the face of a franchise. The Yankees took a shot anyway. If there was any team that could lure Elway away from football, it was the New York Yankees.

The team drafted Elway — their second rounder was their first pick that year after they forfeited their first round selection to sign Dave Winfield — and George Steinbrenner paid him $140,000 to spend six weeks with the team’s NY-Penn League affiliate in 1982. Here’s what Elway did that summer, via Baseball Reference:

Year Age AgeDif Tm Lg Lev G PA R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
1982 22 1.2 Oneonta NYPL A- 42 185 26 48 6 2 4 25 13 3 28 25 .318 .432 .464 .896

That is one hell of a performance, especially for a player who split his time between baseball and football in college. More walks than strikeouts? High average? Power? Elway did it all on the field and scouting reports were glowing.

“If he had devoted himself to baseball instead of football, he’d probably be in the big leagues now,” said player development director Bill Livesey to Baseball America that summer, after the publication named Elway the organization’s top prospect. “Once he got to Oneonta last year and got into it, his progress was in leaps and bounds.”

The football scouting reports were glowing too, however. Elway returned to Stanford in the fall and played football (as planned), then, after the season, he sat down with the Yankees to discuss his future. Steinbrenner brought Elway and his family to New York in early-April 1983, weeks before the NFL draft, and put VP of Baseball Ops Bill Bergesch in charge of wining and dining them.

”The things I’ve talked to (Elway’s father Jack) about are, No. 1. you can get an injury in football, but chances are remote in baseball,” said Bergesch to the New York Times. “No. 2, baseball has the finest pension plan of any sport. And third, any neutral survey will show a top baseball player will make more money — maybe not in the first year, but over the years he will. And the Yankees’ pay is among the highest in baseball.”

On April 26th, two weeks after sitting in front of Steinbrenner and the rest of the Yankees’ brass, Elway was selected first overall in the NFL draft by the Baltimore Colts. Elway was wary of joining the Colts because they stunk and head coach Frank Kush had a reputation for being tough, especially on young players, so he used the Yankees as leverage and forced a trade out of town. On May 2nd, Elway was dealt to the Broncos for two players and a first round pick.

The trade ended Elway’s baseball career. The Yankees were offering him a ton of money, an unprecedented sum of money for an unproven minor leaguer, but it couldn’t compare to the six-year, $12.7M contract he signed with the Broncos after the trade. Elway, as you know, went on to have a Hall of Fame football career and helped Denver to two Super Bowl wins.

By all accounts, Elway was a potential star baseball player, someone who could impact the game both offensively and defensively. “He has a well-above-average major league arm. He runs well, makes contact, and this year he started hitting for power. That’s the big attraction,” said Yankees scout Gary Hughes to Joe Jares after the team drafted him. It was not meant to be though.

As for Elway himself, he admitted to Yankees Magazine in 2011 that he regularly finds himself thinking about how his baseball career would have played out. “I think about that all the time, even though my football career turned out the way it did.”