Plan F: The Jimmy Key Story


Getting spurned by big name free agents isn’t a familiar feeling for Yankees fans, which is why the Cliff Lee decision last winter was so disappointing. We’d grown accustomed to the Yankees just getting whoever they wanted, and that was a shock to the system. Being told no by Lee was nothing compared to what happened two decades ago, however.

The 1992-1993 offseason was highlighted by a pair of in-their-prime superstar free agents: 28-year-old reigning NL MVP Barry Bonds and 26-year-old reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux. The Yankees wanted both, and started the winter by offering Bonds a five-year, $36M contract that would have made him the highest paid player in baseball. Then-GM Gene Michael made the offer the Monday before the winter meetings, but he gave Bonds and agent Dennis Gilbert just two days to accept. When they asked for a sixth guaranteed year, Michael broke off negotiations.

“We wanted him and now it’s off,” said Michael. “We’re going for pitching. Maybe it’s the right thing to do. We will not have Barry Bonds with a sixth year … We have to draw the line somewhere. I have no regrets saying we did not offer him a sixth year. We offered him a fantastic contract for five years. We really went out of our way to make a nice offer.”

The day after making the offer to Bonds, Michael met with Scott Boras about Maddux and presented a standing five-year, $34M contract offer. Maddux was their true number one target that offseason.

“If we are going to step out, we’re going to step out for this guy,” said Michael. “He’s the best pitcher available, and he knows our offer is serious … There is no scare in this kid.”

A few days later, Bonds got his guaranteed sixth year from the Giants and headed to San Francisco for $43.75M. Boras was seeking $7M annually for Maddux, saying “if you’re the Cy Young Award winner and the most durable pitcher in baseball, you deserve the premium salary.” The right-hander had thrown 260+ innings in each of the previous two seasons and 235+ innings in each of the previous five seasons.

Maddux visited the New York area with his wife in early-December, and Michael showed them around New Jersey. The Yankees had acquired Jim Abbott from the Angels for three young players — Russ Springer, J.T. Snow, and Jerry Nielsen — earlier in the week, a move that reportedly impressed Maddux and seemed to boost the Yankees chances of signing him. Ultimately, it did not. A few days later, Greg Maddux was a Brave, taking less money to go to Atlanta and remain in the National League.

“This one hurts,” said Michael. “He’s the best one out there. I never thought I could say this, but he’s a steal at [five years and $28M]. He’s a steal … It’s not over yet for us. We’ll do some things.”

The Yankees had multiple irons in the fire all winter, so Michael turned to Plans C, D, and E after being jilted by his top two free agent targets. He’d offered David Cone a three-year deal worth $17M earlier in the offseason, but the 29-year-old right-hander went home to the Royals for three years and $18M. Doug Drabek and Jose Guzman signed with the Astros and Cubs after being extended offered from the Yankees. Plans C through E were now off the table as well.

While Michael was busy dealing with Bonds, Maddux, Cone, et al., then-managing partner Joe Molloy was serving as the team’s chief negotiator with free agent lefty Jimmy Key. Key was 31 at the time and had a bit of an injury history, but like Cone he had been an All-Star and won a World Series with the Blue Jays the year before. His wife Cindy was his agent, and the two were on vacation when they accepted the Yankees’ four-year, $17M proposal a few days after Maddux headed to Atlanta.

“You can’t dwell on Bonds or Maddux or Cone,” said then-manager Buck Showalter. “I’m excited about getting a player of [Key’s] background and with his track record coming to New York … As important as that is, I’m excited that he wanted to come to play in New York.”

Since the signing was brokered by Molloy, questions about Michael’s job security arose. George Steinbrenner had been banned from the team’s day-to-day management two years earlier by commissioner Fay Vincent for the Dave Winfield fiasco, so Molloy was left to answer questions about who was running the team.

“[Michael is] an excellent general manager … As long as I’m the general partner, Gene should feel confident in his job as the general manager,” said Molloy. “That’s not to say if I get upset with Gene, I won’t fire him either.”

Key joined Abbott in the 1993 rotation, which also included holdovers Melido Perez and Scott Kamieniecki. He was the Yankees best pitcher in 1993 and 1994 (3.11 ERA in 404.2 IP), but he got hurt in 1995 and managed just five starts. Key returned in 1996 and wasn’t as effective as he had been in the past, but he did help the club to the World Series. He got the ball in the deciding Game Six of the Fall Classic, and outpitched Maddux to give the Yankees their first title in 18 years. Not bad for a guy that was Plan F.

Hank doesn’t rule out Bonds

Two weeks ago, Brian Cashman had this to say about Barry Bonds:

“I guess I can say that they have engaged us in the past and Iā€™ve told them that I have too many people, maybe not too many people with the same ability, but too many people at the same spot that you have a lot of dollars committed to.”

However, that was before Matsui faced a setback in his rehab and Jorge realized that the pain in his shoulder is too much. With both offensive cogs likely done for the season, it looks like the Yanks don’t have “too many people at the same slot.” Though they brought in Dicklock Sexy, he seems to be an option only against lefties and as a late-innings defensive replacement.

Could the Yanks work out a system whereby Bonds takes a few days a week from Damon in left, in which Damon would DH, while acting as the primary DH? Could Damon move to center some days and Bonds could play left? Oi, that would be some horrid outfield defense. And where would that leave Jason Giambi? He needs time at DH, too.

It appears the Yanks will be addressing these question, and are probably addressing them as you read this. I’ll offer that there are certainly worse ideas. But the idea of having Bonds in left, Damon in center, and Abreu in right is frightening. Maybe if Wang was on the mound, but we know that’s not happening for a while.

Cashman: No on Bonds

It seems like 60 percent of our commenters will be pissed at this, while another 40 percent will jump for joy. According to a quote in Newsday, Barry Bonds is not a consideration for the Bombers: “I guess I can say that they have engaged us in the past and I’ve told them that I have too many people, maybe not too many people with the same ability, but too many people at the same spot that you have a lot of dollars committed to.”

MLBPA won’t find collusion in Bonds case

As you might have heard by now, MLBPA plans to investigate the lack of offers over the winter for 43-year-old Barry Bonds. While this might seem like big news, it’s really little more than routine. Don Fehr, head of the player’s association, tells us that his organization looks into free-agent issues every day. Only if they “come to the conclusion with respect to any player that there’s a matter worth pursuing, [they’ll] pursue it.”

So, under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be news. However, we’re talking about a guy who hit .276/.480/.565 in 477 plate appearance last year. A guy who hasn’t had an OPS+ below 150 since 1989. A guy who, by all anecdotal evidence, has kept in shape this winter and could conceivably give your team another 450 or so plate appearances at a well above average clip.

Still, it’s easy to ascertain why he hasn’t landed a gig anywhere. An entire book is dedicated to proving that he abused PEDs willingly. The Mitchell Report, while not harping on Bonds like it did Roger Clemens, didn’t help the former’s case much. Why bring in a publicly-assumed PED user when there are younger, more flexible players on the market to fill your roster?

Before I go any further, I’d like to mention the definition of collusion: “secret agreement or cooperation especially for an illegal or deceitful purpose.” I’ll revisit this later. But for now, let’s move on.

For some teams, this was an easy decision. Bonds can DH and play some kind of role in left field, but that’s about it. So right then he’s limited in a way that has nothing to do with steroids. The Yankees, for example, already have two players slotted for DH duty, Jason Giambi and Hideki Matsui. And beyond that, they already have a lefty-heavy lineup. So you can strike him off at least one team’s list, two if you count the Giants, who publicly told him he wasn’t welcome back, three if you count the Red Sox, who have Ortiz hogging the DH spot, four if you count the Indians, who have Travis Hafner doing the same. And let us not forget Frank Thomas in Toronto, Gary Sheffield in Detroit, and Jim Thome in Chicago.

What’s holding the other teams back? Well, you first have to consider that Bonds only fits on contenders. So beyond the seven teams we just named, we can strike out the Marlins, Nationals, Astros, Pirates, and Orioles. So that’s 12 teams out of 30 who right off the bat should have no interest in Bonds. And that’s before we get a bit deeper into the matter.

[Read more…]

From the mailbag: the Barry Bonds question

Earlier this week, RAB reader Justin sent me the following e-mail:

My question is …why not add Bonds? Nobody wants him. We could have him for cheap and he would GREATLY improve our offense…I think it would make ours the best in the baseball (I think we’re probably a step behind Detroit). Bonds as a full time DH (so able to handle 600 AB’s without breaking down) and batting in front of Arod in Yankee Stadium is likely to put up a 300 avg 40HR and 500OBP season. He’s still one of the best hitters in baseball and he’s an OBP machine. Yes I know we have Giambi and Matsui but both those guys are inferior to Bonds (especially Giambi). This would also allow us to trade Matsui for prospects…I know Bonds is supposed to be a horrible guy and all but there were many teammates of his who enjoyed playing with him. Plus, bringing him to the Yanks takes the spotlight off Pettitte and Arod (who we really need to just focus on hitting) and all the other nonsense. I would also LOVE for Bonds to take Cano aside and teach him pitch selection. What do you think? I understand its a dangerous PR move but Yankee fans love winners and after about 3 home runs the fans in the bronx will embrace him…

Oh, Barry Bonds. Ever the tempting target. Imagining a player of Bonds’ caliber filling the DH role in the Bronx is enough to make any Yankee fan salivate. The only problem is that Barry Bonds comes with, well, Barry Bonds. He comes with a surly personality. He comes with baggage. And, oh, yeah, he comes with a federal investigation. The Yanks have enough of those right now, thank you very much.

It’s not so hard to believe that Bonds remains unemployed. Jeff Borris, Bonds’ agent, claims that the slugger is in great shape and is just waiting for a team to call. “He was an All-Star last year. His numbers were still off the charts, and for any team committed to winning, there’s no reason they wouldn’t want him on their roster,” Borris said.

Yet, the response to Bonds has been nothing but deafening silence. No one is talking about collusion because no team is going to offer Bonds a deal. Notably, this spring, his former Giants teammates have been rather outspoken about how much of a negative presence Bonds was in the San Francisco clubhouse. And there’s no love lost between Bonds and Giants owner Peter Magowan. “He has the statistics that would indicate he can still play,” Magowan said. “[But] it’s not up to me to get him hired someplace. It’s not my job.”

And then there is, of course, this matter of an ongoing legal battle. With the echo of the explosion from the Mitchell Report still ringing in baseball’s ears, it’s hard to envision a team willfully taking on Barry Bonds.

Finally, Bonds’ health is a question mark. He’ll be 44 in July, and he’s reached the 600-plate appearance plateau just once in the last five seasons and not at all over the last three. To expect him to reach that level, even as a full-time DH, is a gamble.

It sure is hard to ignore an OPS of 1.045 even in 500 at bats. The Yanks don’t really have spare parts that can put up those numbers sitting around. But I think the negatives of a Bonds signing far outweigh the positives, and at this point, Bonds is a gamble that the Yanks ā€” and 29 other teams ā€” are not willing to take.