This is tonight’s open thread. The Nets are playing and there’s a whole bunch of college basketball on the schedule, and that’s about it. Talk about any other than politics or religion right here.
To win a championship in any sport, a team is going to need some players to come out of nowhere and be surprise contributors. Very few teams are truly far above everyone else in terms of talent level and very rarely does everything go right. There are injuries and poor performances, especially in baseball. Those unsung heroes are a necessity to win a title, not a luxury.
In 1996, no player made a bigger out of nowhere contribution to the Yankees than Mariano Duncan. Signed to a two-year contract before the season, the team planned to use the then 33-year-old Duncan as a bench player. He spent the first eleven seasons of his career in the NL and had experience at every position other than pitcher and catcher. Duncan was a quality reserve player.
“I’m here for one reason. I signed with the Yankees to do what’s best for the ball club,” said Duncan to Charlie Nobles in Spring Training. The Yankees wanted to break in rookie shortstop Derek Jeter with veteran Tony Fernandez sliding over to second base, but Fernandez broke his elbow diving for a ball late in camp. Duncan suddenly went from backup player to starting second baseman.
“I hate to use the word desperate, but we really need to make a deal,” said Joe Torre following Fernandez’s injury. A deal never came. Jeter started at shortstop, Duncan started at second base, and young Andy Fox made the club as the backup infielder. And it worked perfectly. Jeter was great and Duncan opened the season with an eleven-game hitting streak. He hit .333 and drove in nine runs from the bottom of the lineup during the eleven games.
On July 4th, Duncan’s batting line was sitting at .295/.318/.420, which is better than anything the Yankees could have reasonably expected from their utility player turned started second baseman. This is a guy who hit .272/.297/.407 (90 OPS+) in over 2,000 plate appearances from 1991-95. Duncan went 3-for-4 with a triple and a home run on July 5th. His batting average never dipped below .305 the rest of the season.
From that July 5th game through the end of the season, a span of 80 team games, Duncan hit .382/.383/.575 with 21 doubles in 214 plate appearances. He rarely walked as the on-base percentage suggests, but he was living the good BABIP life (.428) and hit close to .400 for half-a-season. On top of that, Duncan was a Grade-A clubhouse dude.
“He’s been a good pickup for us,” said Torre to Nobles at the end of Spring Training. “Besides being a great utility player, he’s outstanding in the clubhouse with the younger players. When you have a guy like that around, he tells the young players what they need to know before you have to.”
As Duncan tells it, he and Jeter were working out on the field before a game in the middle of the season. Duncan asked Jeter whether he was ready to play that day, but it didn’t come out as intended because English is Duncan’s second language.
“We play today?” asked Duncan.
“We win today,” Jeter replied.
“Das it,” said Duncan.
The slogan for a championship team was born. Duncan had t-shirts made and the Yankees wore them around the clubhouse. Soon fans were bringing banners to the ballpark and hanging them from the facing of the upper deck. “We play today, we win today, das it.”
And the Yankees did a lot of winning that summer. At one point from late-April through late-July they went 51-30 during an 81-game stretch. Duncan was not necessarily a catalyst, but he was one of those surprise contributors. He closed out the season with a .340/.352/.500 (112 OPS+) batting line in 417 plate appearances. It was only the second time in his career that he finished a season as a league-average or better hitter.
In the ALDS against the Rangers, Duncan went 5-for-16 (.313) and drove in three runs in four games. His two-out single in the top of the ninth in Game Three capped off the team’s come from behind rally and gave the Yankees a 3-2 lead in the eventual win.
Instead, the Fernandez injury pushed Duncan into the everyday second base job, and he ran with it. He had an out of nowhere above-average offensive season, he played solid defense on the middle infield, he was a plus in the clubhouse, and he was responsible for the slogan that stuck with the team all season. They played, they won. Das it.
It’s Retro Week here at RAB and the gist is we are looking back at the 1996 season. In this post, we are going to look at how the Yankees did in that year’s MLB Draft.
The 1996 MLB Draft was held from June 4-5, 1996. The first overall pick? RHP Kris Benson out of Clemson University to the Pirates. There were notable ex-Yankees picked throughout the draft (Eric Chavez, Shawn Chacon, Ted Lilly, Chris Capuano, Travis Hafner, for instance) but in this post, we are going to look at the specially notable ones (because it’s only seven players out of literally a hundred) that the Yankees picked. If you would like to see the complete list of picks, here it is.
First Round, 20th overall pick: LHP Eric Milton out of University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
The Yankees originally held the 24th overall pick, which they lost to Texas by signing Kenny Rogers. However, they had garnered the 20th pick earlier by losing Randy Velarde to the California Angels. By the way, Texas used the 24th to select RHP Sam Marsonek, who only pitched 1.1 IP in his ML career (with the Yankees, nonetheless).
There’s not a lot of info on Milton from back then but John Sickels of Minor League Ball wrote up his career path. On Milton’s value as an amateur, Sickels wrote “He was considered a completely legitimate mid-first-round pick, on the basis of above average stuff for a lefty, solid command, and some remaining projection.” This January 1998 New York Times article by Buster Olney has some more interesting tidbits. According to Milton’s college coach, the lefty threw about 82-83 mph when he first enrolled and took that up into the 92-93 mph range within two years after using a weightlifting program used by the Terrapins football players.
Not only was Milton a lefty who could sit in low-90’s, but he also had good feel for strike zone. According to Olney, Milton “once pitched 27 1/3 straight innings without a walk.” His junior year stats also highlight it (118 K’s and 17 walks in 90.0 IP). Because he is a lefty with good pitchability and low-90’s heat, Milton was frequently compared to a familiar face.
”The reports we have is he’s another Andy Pettitte,” said George Steinbrenner, the Yankee owner. ”I’ve even heard one of the pitching coaches we listen to say that he’s ahead of Andy Pettitte at this stage in his career.”
One National League executive rated Milton’s skills based on his team’s scouting reports: very good fastball, good changeup, a curveball that needs refining, very good control. ”He has a deceptive pick-off move,” the executive said. ”Like Pettitte.”
After missing pro ball action in 1996 (due to signing late), Milton had a pretty solid 1997 in which he coasted through High-A and AA: 14-6, 3.11 ERA, 28 GS, 171.0 IP with 3.24 SO/W ratio combined in both levels. Before the 1998 season began, he was traded to the Minnesota Twins as the crown jewel piece of the Chuck Knoblauch trade. The Twins apparently decided that the lefty was ML-ready and skipped him over the AAA level.
All in all, Milton enjoyed a nice ML career. He tossed a no-hitter against the Anaheim Angels on September 11, 1999, made the 2001 AL All Star team, and landed a big free agent deal with the Reds (three-year, $25 million signed after the 2004 season). I think a lot of draft prospects would take that outcome. He retired after the 2009 season, leaving behind a 89-85, 4.99 ERA record in his 11 ML season career.
In some ways, the Yankees’ 2015 1st round pick James Kaprielian reminds me of Milton a bit – both college pitchers that aren’t the sexiest but projected to move through the system quickly.
Second Round, 59th overall pick: LHP Jason Coble out of Lincoln County HS (Fayetteville, Tennessee)
Not exactly a household name, it seems. In ESPN’s 2001 article reviewing the 1996 draft, Sickels only had one sentence to say on Coble: “… didn’t develop.”
I wish I could find more info on Coble but it seems pretty sparse throughout the internet. He had a nice pro debut as an 18-year old with the GCL Yankees: 1-1, 2.48 ERA in 32.2 IP with 40 strikeouts. The next season at Low-A Greensboro, however, he completely lost his command, walking 96 batters in 120.1 IP. And, for whatever reason, he never pitched in pros again. (Nope, no record of him playing in the indy ball either.)
Third Round, 89th overall pick: 1B Nick Johnson out of McClatchy HS (Sacramento, California)
Now here’s a pick that turned out much better. Not only did Johnson make it to the majors, he also made one of the biggest lasting impacts in minors on the way. Even if he had a solid ML career, his MiLB numbers are so big that some consider him a flop.
Johnson pretty much rode a bulldozer through Eastern League pitching in 1999. Let’s start with the fact that he hit for a phenomenal .345/.525/.548 line. As a 20-year old, he was four years younger than the average age of the league competition. He also walked considerably more (21.0 BB%) than striking out (15.0 K%). He reached the base 52.5% of the time – think about how insane that figure that is.
Johnson’s excellence in minors got the experts raving as well. John Sickels, in a 1999 interview, said that he would choose Nick Johnson as a prospect to build a team around. After the torrid 1999 season, Johnson was named no. 5 prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America, behind Rick Ankiel, Pat Burrell, Corey Patterson and Vernon Wells. His 2000 BA scouting report is just rave after rave. Good approach, quick hands, keen eyes, good defense, etc. – he just seemed like a power boost or two away from being a perennial 1B All Star.
“Tino Martinez’ contract runs out after 2000,” wrote David Rawnsley of BA, “…with Martinez noticeably slipping the past three years, there’s a perfect opportunity to prepare for the transition to Johnson.”
Unfortunately, not everything goes accordingly to the best laid-out plans. Before the 2000 season started, Johnson hurt his wrist and sat out for the year. That was a troubling sign to come for rest of his career. When he was healthy, he was a very productive hitter that any team would love to have. But in ten ML seasons, Johnson only had five with more than 40o plate appearances.
As you may know, Johnson was traded to the Montreal Expos as a part of the Javier Vazquez trade. He pretty much spent his best years with the Expos/Nationals organization, hitting for overall .868 OPS in five seasons. He did sign with the Yankees for a one-year, $5.5 mil contract after the 2009 season. I think the consensus at the time was that if Johnson were to be able to stay healthy, he’d be a substantial help. Unfortunately, he only managed a .693 OPS in 24 games before going down with a season-ending wrist injury. That was pretty much the beginning of the end for Johnson. He got another big league trial with the Orioles in 2012 but went down with another injury after 38 games and never played in MLB again.
Fourth Round, 119th overall pick: C Tito Candelaria out of Fernando Callejo HS (Manati, Puerto Rico)
Ho-hum, another pick that didn’t pan out well. Candelaria did last longer than Coble in minors though, disappearing off the record after hitting for an overall .048/.067/.048 line in 11 games in 2000.
Actually, as a catcher drafted out of high school, it seemed like he wasn’t having a horrible time in minors up to the 1998 season, when he hit for a .306/.475/.361 line in Short-Season A league. Sure, it’s a limited amount of action but I’d say it’s got some promise to it. However, he missed the entire 1999 season (pretty easy to presume that he suffered a substantial injury that impacted his skill set moving forward) and could not get it going in 2000.
Fifth Round, 149th overall pick: RHP Zach Day out of LaSalle HS (Cincinnati, Ohio)
Here’s a guy who had himself an okay ML career. I remember seeing Zach Day’s name on MVP Baseball 2004 once in awhile and … I guess there’s not much else to it. But anyways, like Milton, Day found himself being traded out of Yankee organization before making it to the majors. Day was traded to the Indians along with RHP Jake Westbrook and OF Ricky Ledee for David Justice.
Before the trade, Day was doing quite well in the 2000 season. Starting the season with the Low-A Greensboro, Day flashed a 1.90 ERA in 13 starts (101 K’s in 85.1 IP) before earning a promotion to High-A Tampa, where he had a 4.19 ERA in seven starts before the trade. Indians sent him straight to Double-A Akron after the trade, where he finished the season.
Day ended up getting traded in 2001 to the Montreal Expos for Milton Bradley straight up. He made his ML debut with the Expos in 2002 and stayed in the organization until being traded to Colorado in 2005. He was claimed back on waivers by the Nationals in 2006 but suffered shoulder tendinitis to end the season and, eventually, his ML career.
In his ML career, Day had a 21-27 record with 4.66 ERA in 373 IP. Not really flashy or anything but for a fifth rounder, he could have done a lot worse.
Sixth round, 179th overall pick: RHP Brian Reith out of Concordian Lutheran HS (Fort Wayne, Indiana)
Like Milton and Day, Reith is another pick that later ended up being traded as a chip to acquire a big league player. During the 2000 season, Reith was a part of the package (along with Drew Henson, Ed Yarnell and Jackson Melian) sent to Cincinnati Reds that got Denny Neagle to the Yankees. Of all the four minor leaguers, Reith ended up becoming the only one to make it to the majors with Cincinnati. In three ML seasons with the Reds, Reith compiled -1.4 career fWAR, so take that for what you will. His best season was in 2003, when he pitched for a 4.11 ERA in 61.1 IP as a reliever. Given that his ERA+ was 101, not too shabby.
Well, let’s take it back to before he was traded. He was a starting pitching prospect who flashed potential with solid numbers. In the 2000 season, before getting traded, Reith pitched for a 2.18 ERA in 119.2 IP with the High-A Tampa Yankees. According to a 2000 Newsday article, a scout rated Reith’s “fastball, slider, changeup as major-league ready.” I don’t think he was ever touted to be a top prospect but it seemed like he was worthy of taking a flier.
Anyways, after his 2004 stint with the Reds, he bounced around the minors, indy ball, Mexican League, Taiwanese league, etc. Another pick that you can say that reached the Majors.
30th round, 899th overall pick: OF Marcus Thames out of Texas State University (San Marcos, Texas)
From the seventh round and on, there weren’t many players worth writing up. Yankees did draft RHP Matt Ginter in the 17th round but he opted to attend Mississippi State and later was drafted by the White Sox in the first round of 1999 draft. There also was RHP Nick Stocks, who was their 15th rounder. He decided to attend Florida State University and was later drafted by the Cardinals in the first round of the 1999 draft.
Thames not only made it to the bigs but also actually had a worthwhile ten-season ML career. After showing flashes of power for first few pro seasons, Thames broke out with the Double-A Norwich in 2001, hitting for a .321/410/.598 line in 139 games. In 2002, he struggled pretty mightily in Triple-A, hitting for only .207/.297/.378 in 107 games. He did, however, make his ML debut that season with the Yankees (thanks to an injury to Juan Rivera) and hit a home run off of Randy Johnson on the first pitch he saw.
Thames stayed in Triple-A Columbus to begin the 2003 season and was traded to the Rangers for Ruben Sierra. After that season, he was granted free agency and signed with the Detroit Tigers, where he turned into a decent offensive tool for few seasons. For six seasons in Detroit, Thames hit for a .245/.307/.501 line, good for a 108 OPS+. Not so shabby for a former 30th round pick huh? His best season came in 2006, when he hit for a career-best .882 OPS with 26 home runs for the AL Champions Tigers.
After the 2009 season, Thames signed a one-year deal with the Yankees and had a pretty good season as a bench bat. He hit for a .288/.350/.491 line in 237 plate appearances with 12 home runs. Thames spent one more ML season as a Dodger in 2011 (.576 in 70 PA’s) and retired.
Thames was recently in Yankees-related headlines for being promoted as the team’s assistant hitting coach, teaming up with Alan Cockrell. Good for him.
88th round, 1,718th overall pick: 3B Scott Seabol out of West Virginia University (Morgantown, West Virginia)
You read that correctly. Yankees did have an 88th round pick that later made it to the bigs. Scott Seabol, a West Virginia Mountaineer, had slim odds to make it to the big leagues. For a college guy out of the 88th round to have a chance to get to the majors, he’d have to hit darn well to at least get a consideration. In 1999 as a 24-year old in Low-A Greensboro, he hit a .315/.370/.521. Okay, not bad. But then again, he was a 24-year old in Low-A ball, 2.4 years older than average competition. A year after, with the Double-A Greenwich, Seabol hit for a .296/.355/.517 line.
In April 8, 2001, Scott Seabol finally made his ML debut, making himself, at the time, as the lowest draft pick ever to make an ML appearance. He was on the roster very temporarily because of LF Henry Rodriguez’s strained lower back. That day, the Yankees were blowing out the Blue Jays to the tune of 13-5 in the bottom of sixth inning when Seabol came up to bat with two outs and two runners on base. Pinch-hitting for DH David Justice, Seabol lined out softly to second base after battling Dan Plesac to a seven-pitch full-count at-bat. Because he was stepping in as a DH, he didn’t get to field. That was pretty much it for Seabol. He was sent down to the minors on April 20 to make room for relief pitcher Adrian Hernandez. Seabol spent rest of the season in the minors.
After being cut by the Yankees in the 2002-03 offseason, Seabol signed with the Brewers and was cut again only after 25 games. The Cardinals then took a flyer on him and Seabol played in their Triple-A Memphis team for the rest of 2003 and the entirety of 2004. In 2005 however, an injury to Scott Rolen bought Seabol another ML shot. That season, Seabol did have his big moment as a big leaguer, which happened to take place against the Yankees. In the bottom of the seventh on June 12, Seabol took Tanyon Sturtze deep for a go-ahead two-run homer to give St. Louis a 3-2 lead. The Cardinals scored two more later that inning and beat New York 5-3.
It seemed like to have that big moment come against the Yankees was pretty significant to Seabol himself.
Seabol said, “To come when it did makes it 10 times better.
“I’ve only been here a month. To have it come against the Yankees may have made it a little nicer, but I just want to help the team win.”
Seabol would stay on the Cardinals ML roster for rest of the season, hitting for a .219/.272/.295 line. After that season, he bounced around minors, Korea and Japan until calling it quits after hitting for only .628 OPS for the Hiroshima Carps of NPB in the 2009 season. Sure, he had a very brief and unspectacular ML career, but for a very unlauded 88th draft pick to accomplish all that is quite amazing to me. Bravo to him.
From 1982-94, the Yankees never once made the postseason. They finished higher than third in the division just twice during that time: second place finishes in 1985, 1986, and 1993, and a first place finish in 1994 before the work stoppage wiped out the postseason. The Yankees were 70-43 at the time of the strike and had a 6.5-game lead in the AL East.
So, when the Yankees were 41-41 and one game back of a postseason spot on the morning on July 28th, 1995, then-GM Gene Michael shipped three prospects to the division rival Blue Jays to rent 32-year-old David Cone for the stretch run. Cone won the 1994 AL Cy Young award and he pitched well down the stretch in 1995, though the Bombers were bounced from the ALDS in soul-crushing fashion by the Mariners.
The Yankees were able to re-sign Cone to a three-year contract after the season — he was reportedly deciding between the Yankees and Orioles before George Steinbrenner offered a no-trade clause — and he was the team’s Opening Day starter in 1996. He allowed two hits in seven shutout innings against the Indians to earn the win in Game One of the new season.
Cone’s first three starts of 1996 were brilliant: seven shutout innings against the Indians, seven innings of one-run ball against the Rangers, and seven innings of one-unearned run ball against the Rangers again. One earned run in his first 21 innings of the season. Pretty awesome. His fourth start didn’t go well (six runs in five innings against the Brewers) but Cone rebounded his fifth (two runs in five innings against the Royals) and sixth (one unearned run in nine innings against the White Sox) times out.
That sixth start on May 2nd would be Cone’s last start for four months. He had been experiencing discomfort and a tingling sensation in his fingers. His index finger turned white. Cone was soon diagnosed with an aneurysm in an artery under his right armpit. He was receiving treatment but surgery was always considered a possibility. When the treatment didn’t work as hoped, Cone underwent surgery in mid-May.
“Everybody wants to know, ‘When is he coming back?'” said team doctor Stuart Hershon to Malcolm Moran. “My concern primarily is his health and well-being. After that, we’ll worry about when he’s going to be a baseball player. That’s why I didn’t go into the issue of coming back. That’s important for me to convey. You worry about a patient’s well-being, then you worry about the occupation.”
The Yankees were not particularly deep with starting pitchers at the time, and now they were going to be without their ace for an unknown amount of time. Young Andy Pettitte stepped into the ace role, Jimmy Key was able to stay healthy after missing most of the 1995 season, and Doc Gooden was surprisingly solid, so the rotation was okay. Scott Kamieniecki, Ramiro Mendoza, Brian Boehringer, and Mark Hutton all made spot starts during Cone’s absence.
Cone had his surgery in May, rehabbed through June and July, and come August, he was in good enough shape physically to begin pitching again. Doctors gave him the okay to start throwing, and the Yankees, who were on top of the AL East and looking ahead to the postseason, were excited about getting their ace back. Cone made two rehab starts with Double-A Norwich before rejoining the big league team on September 2nd, a little less than four months following surgery.
The Yankees were in Oakland on Labor Day and they were in a funk at the time. They had lost six of their last eight games and eleven of their last 17 games. The AL East lead had dwindled from nine games to four games during that 17-game span. The A’s were not very good in 1996, but the Yankees needed to right the ship, and they needed Cone to show he could be effective following surgery. He did exactly that in his first outing off the DL.
Not the best start! Cone walked the first batter in his first game back on four pitches. He did rebound to strike out the next batter, and Joe Girardi did Cone a solid by throwing out Jose Herrera trying to steal second. That probably would have driven me nuts if I were an A’s fan at the time. You’ve got a pitcher coming back from a four-month layoff and he just walked the first batter of the game on four pitches. Why risk it? It looked worse when Cone walked Jason Giambi, the No. 3 hitter, on five pitches. A Mark McGwire pop-up ended the inning.
Much better second inning for Cone, who got three quick outs on eleven total pitches. He needed that after throwing 19 pitches in the first inning and putting himself in the stretch right away. The A’s weren’t any good, but Giambi and McGwire were hardly easy outs. Oakland scored runs 5.31 runs per game in 1996, not too far behind the eventual World Series champion Yankees (5.38).
Another quick inning in the third. Cone needed only eight pitches to get two fly balls and a strikeout. I remember watching the game live and thinking it looked like he was starting to get settled down and find his rhythm. I’m sure he was amped up after missing so much time and also a little nervous given the severity of the injury.
“I struggled in the first. I didn’t have a feel for anything,” said Cone to Jack Curry after the game. “The first five pitches weren’t close. I was just thinking, ‘Don’t let them get anything.'”
Giambi was 25 at the time and in his first full season, and he had yet to emerge as the offensive force he was in the late-1990s and early-2000s. He was still a very good hitter though, and in the fourth inning he worked another five-pitch watch to snap Cone’s string of eight straight retired. Giambi saw five pitches in the fourth inning. The other three batters saw seven pitches total.
Eleven pitches. The Athletics had drawn three walks on the afternoon but they did not yet have a hit through five innings against Cone in his first start off the DL. He had only thrown 61 pitches as well, so he was efficient. The Yankees had him on a pitch count — Joe Torre said Cone was good for 100 pitches before the game but indicated he didn’t want to push it — and he was giving them length. It was everything the Yankees wanted to see from him.
Three up, three down once again. Two fly balls and a strikeout. That seemed to be Cone’s formula for the afternoon. Fly balls and strikeouts. The Yankees finally broke through and scored a run in the top of the sixth — Cecil Fielder was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded — so Cone had a little bit of support. He was through six hitless innings.
Another three up, three down frame, though this one came with some warning signs. Giambi hit a line drive to Derek Jeter at shortstop. Charlie Hayes made a diving stop and threw McGwire out at first base, robbing him of a base hit. Berroa crushed a ball to dead center that Bernie Williams caught right at the top of the wall. All three batters made loud contact.
Hayes hit a home run to help break the game open in the top of the seventh and give Cone some breathing room. His pitch count was at 85 after the seventh inning and he had retired eleven straight and 19 of the last 20 batters he faced. Torre could have easily sent him back out for the eighth with the no-hitter intact, but that’s not what happened. Cone’s afternoon was done after seven hitless innings in his first start off the DL.
”If I would have left him in to throw 105 or 106 pitches and his shoulder would have been achy tomorrow or down the road, I never would have been able to live with myself. I would have always regretted it,” said Torre to Curry, keeping the big picture in mind. Girardi added, “He’s one of the best pitchers in the league. That’s why everyone wants him in September for the pennant run.”
Did Cone want to go back out for the eighth inning? Of course. “I was ready to go back out. I was ready to throw caution to the wind. Joe did the right thing,” he said. The aneurysm was a scary, career-threatening thing. Cone couldn’t have possibly known he still had several years left in the tank and would later throw a perfect game.
Fielder hit a home run in the top of the eighth to give the Yankees a 5-0 lead. Torre went to ace reliever Mariano Rivera to close out the no-hitter, and after a clean eighth, Rivera allowed a ground ball single to the speedy Herrera with one out in the ninth. Jeter almost threw him out from deep in the hole but couldn’t get the out. Torre argued to no avail. The Yankees settled for the one-hitter and a 5-0 win.
The Yankees needed the win given their slide in the standings, and they needed Cone to show he could be effective following the aneurysm. He did that and then some. Cone continued to shake off the rust in September before helping the Yankees win the World Series in October. He came close to a no-hitter that afternoon in Oakland. More importantly, the Yankees had their ace back.
“I’ll never wonder if this could have been my last opportunity to throw (a no-hitter),” said Cone to Curry after the game. ”I wouldn’t think that way. I appreciate that they took me out of the game. It’s more important for us to get to the playoffs and the World Series.”
Seemingly out of the blue on Monday afternoon, Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported that promising youngster Greg Bird is going to miss all of the 2016 season following shoulder surgery, which the 23-year-old will undergo today at The Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.
Bird suffered a right shoulder labrum tear and the issue is a reoccurrence of an injury sustained in May, when Bird spent approximately a month on the disabled list with Double-A Trenton. He returned to the field after following a rest and rehab program, but Bird informed the team after the season that the shoulder was again bothering him. The news is a big blow for both the Yankees and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders.
Bird made a big splash after being called up to the Yankees last year, slashing .261/.343/.529 with 11 homers and 31 RBIs over the course of 46 games. He was slated to start the season at Triple-A Scranton, but the young lefty was almost certainly going to see a good chunk of playing time in 2016 if — or more likely when — either Mark Teixeira or DH Alex Rodriguez hit the disabled list, which is a fairly safe bet at some point.
Even though Teixeira missed nearly all of the final quarter of the 2015 season, it’s fair to say that he rebounded in a big way last year to produce his best numbers in at least five years. Teixeira hit 31 home runs — his highest total in four years, but there are still concerns about him staying on the field.
Teixeira, 36 in April, is about to enter the final season of his eight-year, $180 million contract and he’s become porcelain fragile. He hasn’t played more than 123 games since 2011, however, general manager Brian Cashman informed reporters yesterday that the team would look for insurance at Triple-A rather than a major league first baseman such as Pedro Alvarez or Justin Morneau. In fact, the Yankees are allergic to giving out major league contracts this winter – they are the only team in the baseball to not spend a wooden nickel in free agency.
Cashman believes that the team is set for now at first with Teixeira and Dustin Ackley. Brian McCann could possibly spend some time at first if needed. But he and Ackley can’t play the position everyday. The Yankees can offer a minor league deal to the 34-year old Morneau, who has been battling a recurring concussion issue and only played in 49 games with the Rockies a season ago. But the 2006 MVP is far from a guarantee to stay healthy himself.
Alvarez, who grew up a few miles from Yankee Stadium in Washington Heights, is the best first baseman still available despite his subpar 2015 season. The lefty slugger probably wouldn’t end up settling for a minor league contract, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility, as 28-year old outfielder Travis Snider just signed a minor league pact with the Royals. Alvarez also grew up a Yankee fan and who knows how many homers he could hit at Yankee Stadium.
Perhaps, though, the Yankees should give former Met top prospect Ike Davis a call. Some scouts still think there’s something left in 28-year-old’s tank and he’s gettable for a minor league contract with an invitation to Spring Training. Davis, the son of former Yankee reliever Ron Davis, has played for three teams over the last two seasons with exactly zero WAR in 666 at-bats.
Davis earned $3.8 million in 2015 while batting just .229/.301/.350 with three home runs and 21 RBI over 239 plate appearances for the Oakland Athletics. He underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn hip labrum in August and A’s understandably didn’t think that level of production was worth keeping him around for a raise, non-tendering Davis in December.
In 2012, Davis was struck with Valley Fever early in the year but he went on to hit 32 homers. It’s been all downhill since. He’s played at the major league level every year since but the most home runs he hit after that were 11. Davis is just the kind of bounce-back candidate and undervalued commodity that the Yankees are looking for. Plus, there may not be a better place than the short porch at Yankee Stadium to revive the career of the 18th overall pick of the 2008 draft.
With Davis you’re mostly hoping he can tap into some of the skills he’s shown in the past. He has always been known to be a patient hitter with a double-digit walk rate, but he has trouble making contact and he typically has very low batting averages. There’s potential for big power and decent defense, but with no guarantees he’ll be good in any aspects.
Not that long ago, Yankee pinstripes turned beleaguered Met Chris Young – the outfielder — back into a major leaguer and maybe the uniform can work the same magic for Davis.
Here is tonight’s open thread. The Knicks and all three local hockey teams are in action, and there’s some college hoops on the schedule as well. Talk about those games or anything else here.
The Yankees had an awful lot bad shortstops from 1986-95. A total of 23 different players played at least one game at short during that time — seven played at least 100 games at shortstop — and they combined to hit .242/.299/.317 in nearly 6,000 plate appearances. That’s roughly 25% below league average. Only the Mariners (26%) and Pirates (28%) received worst production from shortstop from 1986-95.
Heading into the 1996 season, the Yankees had two options at shortstop: the incumbent Tony Fernandez and a young rookie named Derek Jeter. “What we’re looking to do is give Jeter a chance to play shortstop,” said GM Bob Watson to Jack Curry before Spring Training. “(But) we don’t know if the kid can play yet.” New manager Joe Torre also indicated the plan was to play Jeter at short during his introductory press conference before backing off in the spring.
Jeter, then 22, hit .250 in 15 big league games in 1995, his MLB debut. Baseball America ranked him as the No. 6 prospect in baseball prior to that 1996 season. Fernandez, meanwhile, hit .245/.322/.346 (75 OPS+) in 1995 and was 33 years old. The Yankees had sketched out a plan where Jeter played shortstop, Fernandez slid over to second base, and the newly signed Mariano Duncan served as a utility player.
“As far as I know, there’s no competition. Maybe you know more than I do. About the only thing I know is they want to go with (Jeter),” said Fernandez to Curry. “Obviously, they don’t feel like I can play (shortstop) every day. If you were in my position in the last year of your contract, what would you do? I want to play every day.”
Fernandez did not outright request a trade that spring, but he did say enough to suggest that if he wasn’t the starting shortstop, he’d rather play for another team. “Right now, in my mind, I can still play every day. If I don’t play here, I’d like to play someplace else. I don’t want to cause any trouble,” he said. Watson was having none of that. He wanted Fernandez around as insurance at shortstop.
The Yankees did want Jeter to win the shortstop job in Spring Training. That was clear. They weren’t going to give it to him though. Fernandez was the established big leaguer and the rookie had to wrestle the job from him. “I’m comfortable with Duncan playing second base,” said Torre to Curry in Spring Training, further hedging against Jeter. “But it takes away another pawn from me because of his ability to play everywhere.”
The shortstop decision was made for the Yankees in Spring Training. On March 24th, near the end of camp, Fernandez fractured his right elbow diving for a ball. It was the same elbow Fernandez fractured on the Bill Madlock play in 1987. Doctors said the 1987 fracture did not heal properly, so Fernandez’s elbow was “soft,” leading to the 1996 fracture on the dive. The expectation was he’d miss the season.
“This is a major thing. It’s Tony Fernandez. He’s a regular player,” said Torre after the injury. Ironically, Fernandez suffered the injury after Jeter botched a potential inning-ending double play when his flip to second was wide of the bag. “Nobody knows what the future holds. We can’t say that if we didn’t turn the double play, it wouldn’t have happened,” said Fernandez afterwards.
With Fernandez out and Pat Kelly set to start the season on the DL, the Yankees were looking at a double play combination of Jeter and Duncan to start the season. Watson did not sit tight though. He did his GM thing and looked around for infield help, and at one point the club was considering trading the unproven Mariano Rivera to the Mariners for Felix Fermin. That didn’t happen, thankfully.
Jeter had an underwhelming Grapefruit League showing but got the job anyway. The Yankees had no other options. He was at short, Duncan was at second, and the rookie Andy Fox made the club as the utility infielder. Jeter rewarded the Yankees right away. He hit a home run on Opening Day …
Jeter hit .314/.370/.430 (101 OPS+) with ten homers and 14 steals during that 1996 season, earning him AL Rookie of the Year honors unanimously. He helped them win the 1996 World Series by hitting .361/.409/.459 in the club’s 15 postseason games that October. The shortstop job was unquestionably Jeter’s by the end of the season, and he kept that job for nearly two decades.
Fernandez never did return to the Yankees during that 1996 season. There was some thought he could be ready by September, but it didn’t happen. Fernandez was not thrilled there was talk Jeter would take over as shortstop going into the 1996 season, and now, with Jeter excelling at the position, his time in New York was over. Fernandez became a free agent after the season and signed with the Indians.
The Yankees got what they wanted. They wanted Jeter to be their starting shortstop in 1996. Jeter felt ready — “I think I’m ready. I’ve waited my whole life to play for the Yankees,” he said to Curry — but the team did want to have a backup plan just in case things didn’t work out. Fernandez was that backup plan. Once he fractured his elbow in Spring Training, the Yankees did not have a safety net at short. As it turned out, they wouldn’t need one for nearly 20 years.