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

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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?

Weekend Open Thread

Only three more weeks until Yankees pitchers and catchers report to Tampa for Spring Training, folks. It’s getting closer and closer. Here are the weekend links:

  • Here’s a must read piece for Jorge Arangure, who recently traveled to Cuba and is writing about the experience. This post is part one of the series. There’s a little bit of baseball in the story, but mostly it is about the living conditions, how the country is changing, and how badly the people want it to change. It’s a really great read. Make sure you check it out.
  • Really interesting post from Ben Lindbergh on how the continually growing strike zone is hurting offense around the league. It’s not just that more low pitches are being called strikes, but now hitters have to protect against those pitches, and they’re very hard to square up.
  • Over at Baseball Prospectus (no subs. req’d), Chris Crawford wrote about the general lack of elite college hitters available in the draft. It comes down to three factors: more top hitters are signing out of high school, the new “deadened” bats they use in college kill power, and college coaches prioritize winning over development.
  • Some quick hit links: Ben Humphrey compiled each team’s payroll obligations from 2015-20, Bill Petti has a two-part series on how teams can get the most out of analytics (part one, part two), Eno Sarris looked at young hitters who see the fewest fastballs, Jeff Sullivan examined baseball’s most and least shiftable teams, and Grant Brisbee explained why you should root for Alex Rodriguez.

Friday: This is your open thread for the night. The Devils and Nets are both playing and there’s one college basketball game on the schedule. Goodnight to get out of the house. I’m going to a monster truck show. Totally not my thing, but a friend had an extra ticket, so I’m going. Talk about whatever you like here.

Saturday: Once again, here is tonight’s open thread. The Rangers and Devils are both in action, plus there’s the usual slate of college hoops as well. Talk about those games or anything else.

Sunday: For the last time, this is your open thread. The Super Bowl starts at 6:30pm ET (on NBC) and my official guess is 27-24 Seahawks on a walk-off field goal. Enjoy the game.

Severino, Judge make MLB.com’s top 100 prospects list

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

It’s prospect season, and on Friday night, the gang at MLB.com released their top 100 prospects list for the 2015 season. Twins OF Byron Buxton sits in the top spot despite his injury plagued 2014 campaign, and is followed by Cubs 3B Kris Bryant and Astros SS Carlos Correa in the top three. The Yankees had two players in the top 100: RHP Luis Severino (No. 23) and OF Aaron Judge (No. 68).

“Severino has a loose, quick arm that makes up for his lack of physicality. It allows him to maintain a mid-90s fastball throughout his starts and reach a peak velocity of 99 mph,” said the write-up. “Severino’s fading changeup gives him a second plus pitch, and he’s not afraid to throw it. His slider is more of a work in progress but should become at least an average third offering.” The MLB.com crew says they believe Severino can remain a starter long-term, for what it’s worth. There’s a healthy debate about that.

MLB.com calls Judge “one of the most physically imposing prospects in baseball” thanks to his 6-foot-7, 230 lb. frame. “He has huge raw power, though he’s content for now to use a shorter stroke and the entire field, working counts and producing line drives,” says the write-up. “A more advanced hitter than expected, he currently projects to bat .275 with 20-25 homers per season but could produce more power (and hit for less average) if he becomes more aggressive and turns on more pitches.” Again, Judge’s biggest flaw is that he hasn’t yet learned how to fully tap into his power potential.

In addition to the top 100, MLB.com also released top ten prospects lists for each position. Severino ranks seventh among right-handed pitchers, 1B Greg Bird ranks third among first basemen, and 2B Rob Refsnyder ranks seventh among second basemen. Judge didn’t make the deep outfield group and C Gary Sanchez fell short on the catcher’s list. Others like C Luis Torrens, 3B Miguel Andujar, 3B Eric Jagielo, RHP Domingo German, and LHP Ian Clarkin are good prospects, but not yet top ten at their position.

As always, MLB.com’s rankings are free, and they include full scouting reports and tools grades on the 20-80 scale. Their rankings are always a little off the beaten path — they seem to be more performance-based than anything — but it’s a great resource either way. Everything’s free and all in one place. In the coming weeks MLB.com will release top 30 prospects lists for each team — their lists used to only run 20 players deep, so they added an extra ten this year — though specific dates are not set yet.

Aaron Judge tops Keith Law’s top ten Yankees prospects

Judge in the Arizona Fall League. (Presswire)
Judge in the Arizona Fall League. (Presswire)

One day after releasing his top 100 prospects list, Keith Law published his top ten prospects for each team on Friday. Here is the index and here is the Yankees list. The individual team lists are Insider only. Here is New York’s top ten:

  1. OF Aaron Judge (No. 23 on the top 100)
  2. 1B Greg Bird (No. 80 on the top 100)
  3. C Gary Sanchez
  4. RHP Luis Severino
  5. OF Tyler Austin
  6. SS Jorge Mateo
  7. RHP Domingo German
  8. LHP Ian Clarkin
  9. C Luis Torrens
  10. 3B Eric Jagielo

Also, based on the write-up, we know 2B Rob Refsnyder, 3B Miguel Andujar, LHP Jacob Lindgren, SS Tyler Wade, RHP Brady Lail, and RHP Ty Hensley are prospects 11-16. Law is lower on Severino and higher on Austin than most, but otherwise the top ten (top 16, really) seems pretty straight forward. No major surprises. You could argue someone should be a spot higher or whatever, but it’s not worth it.

With Stephen Drew in Refsnyder’s way at second base, Law lists Lindgren as the mostly likely prospect to have an impact in 2015. OF Mason Williams is the “fallen” prospect, the guy who was once one of the best in the game but is now an afterthought. Law’s sleeper for the Yankees is Mateo, who he says is “so well-regarded in the industry that other teams have already targeted him in trade talks.” He adds that Mateo has “tremendous tools, is an 80 runner and plus fielder who shows above-average raw power in BP.”

The Yankees have a very position player heavy farm system right now — seven of Law’s top ten and nine of his top 12 are position players — and that’s a good thing because quality position players are hard to find these days. Even better, several of those position players will be at Double-A or higher this coming season, including Judge, Bird, Sanchez, Austin, Jagielo, and Refsnyder. There’s a clear path for some of those guys to get MLB at-bats in the next year or two, and the team’s apparent commitment to getting younger means they’re going to get a chance. That’s exciting.

Eddy: Yankees sign Scott Baker to minor league contract

Baker the Home Run Maker. (Leon Halip/Getty)
Baker the Home Run Maker. (Leon Halip/Getty)

5:41pm ET: Baker will earn $1.5M at the big league level, reports Jon Heyman. That’s standard “scrap heap guy who used to be good” pay.

3:00pm ET: According to Matt Eddy, the Yankees have signed veteran right-hander Scott Baker to a minor league contract. I assume he received an invitation to Spring Training. The team should be announcing their Spring Training invitees very soon anyway, possibly later today.

Baker, 33, was the designated “soak up innings and take a beating when we need someone to do it” guy for the injury riddled Rangers last year. He had a 5.47 ERA (4.78 FIP) with a great walk rate (1.56 BB/9 and 4.2 BB%) but a below-average strikeout rate (6.14 K/9 and 16.6 K%) and a microscopic ground ball rate (25.3%) in 80.2 swingman innings for Texas.

At his best with the Twins from 2007-11, Baker had a 3.98 ERA (3.86 FIP) with a few strikeouts (7.41 BB/9 and 19.8 K%) and fewer walks (2.13 BB/9 and 5.7 BB%). He’s always been a big time fly ball pitcher (34.1% grounders from 2007-11) and these last two years he’s been incredibly homer prone (1.69 HR/9 and 25.7 HR/FB%).

Baker had Tommy John surgery in April 2012 and didn’t get back on a mound until July 2013 due to setbacks and complications. Last year he worked with an upper-80s sinker, a low-80s slider, and a low-80s changeup according to PitchFX. He’s definitely not a great fit for Yankee Stadium given his extreme fly ball tendencies and inability to miss bats.

The Yankees obviously need rotation depth because Masahiro Tanaka (elbow), Michael Pineda (shoulder), and CC Sabathia (knee) all carry injury concerns. Baker isn’t very good, but it is only a minor league contract, so there’s no real risk. He’s not even guaranteed to make it through camp and head to Triple-A. Baker might opt to purse an opportunity elsewhere if he doesn’t make the team.

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