The 2002 Yankees: A forgotten 103-win season

(Getty)
(Getty)

It’s been 15 years since the 2002 Yankees fell short of a fifth straight American League title and fourth World Series win in five years. Because that was a time of World Series or bust fervor, it’s easy to forget that the ’02 squad won 103 games and arguably had the Yankees’ best rotation of the decade. So let’s take a look back at that team as well as what could have been.

New Faces

Right now, Yankee fans are forced to adjust to a series of bright-eyed young kids coming up to the majors and a few solid veterans. The 2002 Yankees didn’t have a transition anything like the current squad, but they did see a few shifts after the 2001 World Series. They had holes in all four corners as Paul O’Neill and Scott Brosius retired while Tino Martinez and Chuck Knoblauch became free agents.

The Yankees being the Yankees, they filled all four holes within eight days. The first move was to trade David Justice to the Mets, one of the rare times the crosstown rivals would hook up for a trade, for Robin Ventura. Four days later, they’d deal reliever Jay Witasick to the Giants for John Vander Wal, who’d man right field.

That move would get overshadowed because it was on the same day they announced the signing of the reigning American League MVP Jason Giambi as their new first baseman. Rondell White would sign for an ill-fated stint in left field four days after that.

The front office appeared done with all five main starters from ’01 returning and Steve Karsay signed to be the new set-up man. However, this was George Steinbrenner‘s team, so anything can happen. By anything, I mean that a 38-year-old David Wells called up Steinbrenner and unilaterally talked him into a two-year deal … even though he had a verbal agreement to sign with the Diamondbacks already. Seriously. 

A dominant regular season

2002 was the first year of the YES Network and those tuning into YES in the inaugural season saw a juggernaut of a team. They lost their first game before reeling off seven straight wins. They won 13 of 14 in mid-May, a stretch that included two three-game sweeps of a perennial Yankees punching bag, the Minnesota Twins.

The offense is what carried the team. Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams, all those guys were their normal selves for the most part. However, Giambi and a 26-year-old Alfonso Soriano combined for 80 home runs (41 and 39, respectively) and were a force near the top of the lineup. Soriano led the AL with 41 stolen bases and 209 hits., had more home runs than walks (23) and set Yankees records for at-bats (696) and strikeouts (157) in a season. He also had 51 doubles. Ventura was a surprise All-Star with 19 home runs at the All-Star break, so the Yankees literally had an All-Star at every infield position.

The Yankees were certainly based around hitting (they led baseball in runs scored, OBP and SLG and were second in home runs, third in hits), but their pitching staff wasn’t half bad. They had seven pitchers make at least eight starts and all had an above-average ERA+. Orlando Hernandez and Andy Pettitte each had strong years while David Wells rebounded from a bad ’02 to justify his contract.

The bullpen had four key pitchers: Ramiro Mendoza, Mike Stanton, Karsay and, of course, Mariano Rivera. Rivera went on the DL twice in ’02 (was still dominant when he was healthy), leading in part to Stanton and Karsay each pitching at least 78 games. All four relievers had ERAs below 3.44.

2002 was also the first year the Yankees faced the NL West in interleague play, which led to two memorable moments. One was Barry Bonds hitting an absolute bomb to the back of the upper deck at old Yankee Stadium that Giants PBP man Jon Miller would say was “heading for New Jersey”.  The other was Marcus Thames’ MLB debut. He had to face the best pitcher going in Randy Johnson yet found a way to come through with a homer on the first pitch he saw.

Trade Deadline

The Yankees made two big trades in early July. The first was trading non-prospect Scott Wiggins to the Blue Jays to acquire slugger Raul Mondesi to man right field with Vander Wal, Shane Spencer and others not quite cutting it. Mondesi was a Steinbrenner move through and through as George wanted the past-his-prime outfielder and paid most of his remaining money.

(Mike’s Note: George traded for Mondesi after Tim McCarver said the Yankees needed a right fielder like Raul Mondesi during a nationally broadcast game against the Mets. Enrique Wilson started in right field on June 29th, made a few misplays in the loss, McCarver said they should trade for Mondesi, and a day later the trade was made. Yup.)

They also traded Ted Lilly, who was set to start the following Sunday, and two prospects in a three-team deal with the Athletics and Tigers to acquire 25-year-old righty Jeff Weaver, who they saw as injecting youth into a very old rotation. Weaver would pitch dreadfully in 2003 but was fine as a swingman in ’02 before two bad postseason appearances.

The Loss to the Angels

The Yankees led baseball with 103 wins. They didn’t get possession of first place for good until late June, but eventually won the division by 10.5 games. Ideally, that’d mean they’d face the AL’s worst playoff team (the 94-win Twins) in the ALDS, but instead they got the wild card winners, the 99-win Anaheim Angels. In their four-game set with the Angels, the Yankees led in the 5th inning or later of every single game. Yup. The pitching staff melted down in every game.

Game 1 would be a Yankees classic if it wasn’t for the rest of the series. Roger Clemens, arguably the team’s worst full-time starter, got the ball in Game 1 and was meh. He gave up four runs in 5 2/3 innings and left with the game tied. Ramiro Mendoza gave up a go-ahead home run to Troy Glaus to begin the 8th, but the Yankees rallied. With two outs in the 8th, Soriano and Jeter walked before Giambi tied the game with a single. That set the stage for Williams, who blasted the winning three-run homer.

Pettitte was pulled early in Game 2 and the Yankees came back again, this time with Soriano hitting a two-run homer in the 6th (off rookie Francisco Rodriguez) and the Yanks led, 5-4, until the 8th. Then, El Duque gave up back-to-back homers before Karsay and Weaver gave up two more runs in the 8th and 9th. A late Yankees rally fell short, 8-6, with a Mondesi pop out as the winning run.

The Yankees led 6-1 top 2nd of Game 3, but Mike Mussina was pulled after four innings after giving up four runs. Weaver, Stanton and Karsay combined to give up five runs over the next four innings as the Yankees lost, 9-6. David Wells and Ramiro Mendoza combined to give up eight runs in the 5th inning of Game 4 and the season was over like that.

What may have been the best pitching staff of the decade gave up 31 runs in four games and Mo only pitched one scoreless inning. You can chalk that up to bullpen mismanagement, but Rivera’s injuries that season may have been a reason not to go to him earlier (particularly in Game 2). However, Torre’s regular season bullpen load for Karsay and Stanton may have led to their hiccups in the postseason.

Legacy

There is an alternate universe where the Yankees held off the hot-hitting Angels, beat up on the Twins in the next round like they seemed to do every postseason and then met the Giants in Fall Classic for the first time since a great 1962 series.

The season marked the end of a 31-year-old Giambi’s peak as ’02 was his best year in pinstripes. Williams, then 33, also declined significantly after that year. Mussina and Clemens would rebound in ’03 and Rivera would too with a 1.66 ERA.

Spencer, Stanton and Mendoza moved on from the Yankees (besides one more stint for Mendoza two years later). The Yankees would splurge for Hideki Matsui and Jose Contreras the next offseason and win another 101 games. With the postseason success a year later, it just leaves you wondering what might have been in 2002.

Mailbag: Kimbrel, Robertson, Infield, Key, Wells

Got six questions for you this week. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send us anything and everything throughout the week.

(Mike Zarrilli/Getty)
(Mike Zarrilli/Getty)

Bill asks: Does Craig Kimbrel’s new extension with the Braves give us a better idea at what it would take to lock up David Robertson to an extension?

No, I don’t think so. This is an apples to oranges comparison. The Braves signed Kimbrel to a four-year, $42M deal earlier this week and it is the largest contract ever given to a pitcher in his first year of arbitration eligibility, starter or reliever. Even if they went to an arbitration hearing and Kimbrel had lost, he still would have made more in his first year of arbitration ($6.55M) than Robertson will earn in his final year this season ($5.215M). These two are at very different places in their careers.

Not only do saves pay very well, but Kimbrel is just flat out better than Robertson. Don’t get me wrong, Robertson is awesome, but Kimbrel is in his own little world right now. He’s clearly the best reliever in baseball at the moment. I looked at a potential extension for Robertson months ago and wound up at three years and $21M, which is basically high-end setup man money. Robertson will be a free agent after the season and if he has a typical Robertson year but with say, 35+ saves, then something like three years and $35M (Rafael Soriano money) or four years and $46M (Francisco Cordero money) might more appropriate. I guess that is Kimbrel money, we just got there in a roundabout away.

Anonymous: Let’s say the Yankees sign Stephen Drew and he indeed opts out after the first year. Is there any way they can get a supplemental pick from whoever signs him? Is it guaranteed, a property of the specific contract they agree upon, or impossible?

Yep, they can get definitely get a pick. If they were to sign Drew to a multi-year deal with an opt-out after the first year, they can make him the qualifying offer if he uses the opt out. They’d then get a pick if he declined. It’s exactly what happened with Soriano — when he opted out a year ago, the team made the qualifying offer and received a draft pick when he declined. Because they would only surrender a second rounder to sign him, the Yankees could conceivably “trade” their 2014 second rounder for a 2015 supplemental first rounder by signing Drew.

Dan asks: If I told the Yankees they could get 200 combined games out of Derek Jeter and Brian Roberts, do you think they’d sign up for that? If they’d even think hard about it, they should be calling up Boras right now to sign Drew.

Against my better judgement, I think I would say no to 200 combined games from those two. I think it’s possible they’ll combine for 240-250 games or so — 100 from Roberts, 140-150 from Jeter — but that’s basically the best case scenario. The Yankees haven’t exactly done a good job of keeping people healthy over the alst few years. The thing is that, even if he plays 100+ games, will Roberts even be any good? He’s 36 and has hit .246/.310/.359 (82 OPS+) when healthy over the last four years (192 games).

AJ asks: With the one infield spot open, would their be any thought of keeping three catchers on the roster? Someone will have to backup firstst base and Frankie Cervelli has proven versatile in the past backing up second base. John Ryan Murphy has played third and Brian McCann could backup Mark Teixeira at first.

Well, Cervelli hasn’t really proven himself to be versatile. He’s played five innings at third base and three innings at second base in his career, plus he spent one game in left field in the minors nine years ago. Those are emergency assignments, nothing more. Murphy has only played 14 total games at third base in his career as well, so it’s not like he has a ton of experience at the hot corner either. Both guys are catchers, that’s all. Given their roster, that last bench spot absolutely has to go to a real infielder. Carrying a third catcher rarely makes sense and it certainly doesn’t for this squad.

Jacob asks: Do you think the Yankees will re-sign Brett Gardner and should they?

I think the Jacoby Ellsbury signing pushed Gardner right out the door. I’m not sure how many no power, defense first outfielders one team can carry on expensive free agent contracts. It’s fine now while Gardner is playing for relative peanuts, but he’s looking at $10M+ per year as a free agent. Would they really commit $30M+ annually for the next three or four (or five) years for these two guys? Should they even want to do that? I don’t think so. One such player is enough. Besides, I’m guessing Gardner wants to play center field and bat leadoff, two things that won’t happen with the Yankees now.

(AP Photo/Bill Sikes)
Key. (AP Photo/Bill Sikes)

Anonymous asks: Better FA pickup in your opinion, Jimmy Key or David Wells (first time)?

Without looking, I’m thinking Wells.

The Yankees gave Key a four-year, $17M deal during the 1992-93 offseason and he pitched to a 3.68 ERA (13.5 bWAR) in 604.1 innings during the life of the contract. He was also limited to five starts during the 1995 season due to a torn rotator cuff. Key was a big part of the 1996 team though, including beating Greg Maddux in the deciding Game Six of the World Series.

Wells, on the other hand, signed a three-year deal worth $13.5M during the 1996-97 offseason, replacing Key. He pitched to a 3.85 ERA (9.1 bWAR) in 432.1 innings across the first two years of the contract and finished third in the 1998 AL Cy Young voting. Wells helped the team to the 1998 World Series title and was then the center piece of the Roger Clemens trade after the season.

On a rate basis, Key and Wells (first stint) were very similar with the Yankees. Key missed almost an entire season to injury and Wells was traded away mid-contract, plus both guys were key parts of a World Series winner. Without going ridiculously in depth (this is only a mailbag, after all), I’d say Wells was the better pickup because he was more durable and then flipped for arguably the best pitcher in baseball at the time. Not sure there’s a wrong answer here, both were very good in pinstripes.

Clemens & Bonds headline 2013 Hall of Fame ballot

The BBWAA announced the 2013 Hall of Fame ballot today, which is headlined by first-timers Barry Bonds, Mike Piazza, Sammy Sosa, Craig Biggio, and former Yankee Roger Clemens. David Wells and Mike Stanton are also among the first-timers while Don Mattingly is entering his 13th year of eligibility and Bernie Williams is entering his second.

We’ve now entered the PED thunderdome with guys like Bonds, Sosa, and Clemens becoming eligible, and if Mark McGwire’s six years on the ballot are any indication, they’re going to have to wait a while for induction. Hell, there’s zero evidence linking Jeff Bagwell to PEDs and he only received 56% of the vote last year. I count no fewer than eight guys I would definitely vote for plus at least six others I’m on the fence with. The ballots are going to be very crowded the next few years.

David Wells and Immortality

The baseball gods were kind to David Wells. They blessed the burly left-hander with a rubber arm and the ability to roll out of bed and paint the black on both sides of the plate. He didn’t have blow-you-away type stuff, but he did carve out an extremely long and productive big league career by throwing strikes and eating innings. On a Sunday afternoon in 1998, it all came together.

(AP Photo/Lou Requena)

The Yankees were, without question, the best team in baseball in 1998. They won 27 of their first 36 games and were so good that they won eight of their number two starter’s first nine starts even though he had a 5.23 ERA. That number two starter was Wells, who then-manager Joe Torre used to call the “Fourth of July” because his personality was both unpredictable and explosive. The Yankees had split the first two games of a three-game series with the Twins on the weekend of May 15th, and Wells was scheduled to start the rubber game that Sunday.

It was Beanie Baby Day at Yankee Stadium, the plush stuffed animal toys that were near the end of their novelty lifespan. Wells spent the previous night at Saturday Night Live’s season-ending wrap party, he would later admit in his book Perfect, I’m Not. “This party is too much fun to even consider leaving at a reasonable hour,” he wrote, going on to explain how he plopped into bed at 5am and was woken up by his then-six-year-old son Brandon less than four hours later. Wells showed up to the park for the afternoon game hungover, downed some coffee and Tic Tacs, then went out to the bullpen for warm ups.

As he would go on to explain in his book, Wells felt terrible during his pregame routine, and not just from the hangover. He was bouncing curveballs and missing his spots in the bullpen, but then-pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre continued to sing his praises for a strong warm-up. Wells though he was nuts. The Twinkies had won four of their last five games but were without banged up leadoff man Todd Walker, who brought a .382/.420/.551 batting line into the series.

The first batter of the game nearly ended the whole thing before it all started. Matt Lawton swatted a 2-1 pitch to deep left field, but Chad Curtis corralled it for the first of 27 outs. Brent Gates popped out on an 0-2 pitch for the second out, and Paul Molitor grounded the first pitch to second for the third out of the inning. Stottlemyre greeted Wells with a “Way to go, Boom-ER!” in the dugout while opposing starter LaTroy Hawkins danced around a Derek Jeter single for a scoreless first inning.

The ball didn’t leave the infield in the second inning, as Marty Cordova grounded out back to Wells, Ron Coomer struck out, and Alex Ochoa popped out into foul territory behind the plate. Another 13 pitches, another “Way to go, Boom-ER!” in the dugout. Bernie Williams created a run in the bottom half of the second, scoring on a wild pitch after he’d doubled to lead off the frame and gone to third on a passed ball. Wells struck out Jon Shave to open the third, but catcher Javier Valentin worked the count full and started fouling off pitches. The ninth pitch of the at-bat froze him for called strike three, and Boomer followed that up by whiffing Pat Meares to strike out the side. “Way to go, Boom-ER!”

Hawkins tossed a 1-2-3 inning, then Wells sat down Lawton, Gates, and Molitor on an infield pop-up, a strikeout, and a fly ball to left. Bernie added a second run on a solo homer in the bottom of the fourth while Wells needed just a dozen pitches in the top of the fifth; two strikeouts and a ground ball. Hawkins followed up with another perfect frame, as did Wells in the top of the sixth with another dozen pitches, another two strikeouts, and another fly ball. Another “Way to go, Boom-ER!” greeted him in the dugout.

The Yankees were up two-zip but Hawkins had settled into a groove, throwing another 1-2-3 inning in the bottom of the sixth. He’d retired 12 of the last 13 men he faced, the one exception being Bernie’s homer. Wells had thrown 80 pitches in the first six innings, and he started to labor in the seventh. He fell behind in the count to Lawton 2-0 before the Twins’ leadoff hitter flew out to center. He ran the count full on Gates before getting a ground out to first, then fell behind in the count to Molitor 3-1 before running the count full and getting a strikeout. Stottlemyre greeted him with another “Way to go, Boom-ER!” in the dugout, but Wells knew what was going on and he started to feel the butterflies. Plus he was still hungover.

Superstition is a serious thing during perfect games, hence the “Way to go, Boom-ER!” welcome after every inning. Wells sat alone at the end of the bench while his teammates were at the plate each inning, per tradition. ”Here the guy has a no-hitter going and he looks like he has no friends,” said television broadcaster Jim Kaat. The Yankees broke things open and scored a pair of runs thanks to a Darryl Strawberry triple and a Curtis single, all while Wells sat in the dugout with those butterflies in his stomach. His teammate and good friend David Cone then broke the cardinal rule of perfect games: He spoke to him.

”I think it’s time,” said Cone, ”to break out the knuckleball.” Wells burst out laughing.

The comic relief seemed to settle him down. The Twins didn’t hit the ball out of the infield in the eighth inning — ground ball, ground ball, infield popup — and the crowd greeted Wells with monstrous standing ovation to start the ninth. Shave fouled off three pitches as part of a seven-pitch at-bat before popping out to shallow right for the 25th out. Valentin struck out on four pitches for the 26th out, his third strikeout of the game. Meares was the final batter of the game, and Wells got ahead of him 0-1 after a foul ball.

(AP)

In his book, Boomer said his 120th and final pitch seemed to last a baseball lifetime. “The ball leaves my hand, heavy, and I swear to God, it takes forever to reach the plate,” he wrote. “I’m watching the pitch in slow motion.” Meares swings underneath the pitch and popped it up skyward, toward the right field foul line. Paul O’Neill runs over to make the catch — one-handed! — for the 27th and final out.

“David Wells has pitched a perfect game!” yelled John Sterling during the radio call. “Twenty-seven up, twenty-seven down! Baseball immortality for David Wells, and thaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa Yankees win! Thaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa Yankees win!”

It was the 15th perfect game in baseball history, and only the second thrown in Yankee Stadium. Don Larsen, who threw the other Yankee Stadium perfect game during the 1956 World Series, called Wells after the game to congratulate him. Coincidentally — or maybe not — both men are graduates of Point Loma High School in San Diego.

”Yeah, it was tough. From the seventh on, it was ridiculous,” said Wells after the game. Given his rock star persona, it’s not surprising that he made the rounds after the game, appearing on Howard Stern, Regis & Kathie Lee, and David Letterman in the following days. Mayor Giuliani gave him the key to the city, and endorsement offers rolled in. ”He’ll think about it every day of his life, just like I do,” said Larsen.

Wells spent two stints and four years in pinstripes, helping the team to the World Series in that 1998 season. His career is probably underrated historically, but he gained baseball immortality during that Sunday afternoon in the Bronx. Wells is part of the game’s most exclusive club, one of only 18 men to throw a perfect game and one of only three to do so for the Yankees.

Quick hits: Wells, toilets and YES

No, this isn’t some odd Sesame Street style game of “One of These Doesn’t Belong.” It is, instead, three short stories all rolled into one post.

David Wells to join TBS broadcast

Outspoken former Yankee David Wells has signed a multiyear deal to join the TBS baseball crew. He’ll be serving as an in-game analysts for TBS’ baseball broadcasts throughout the year. We’ll have to see if he can announce with a hangover as well as he can pitch with one. Ostensibly, he’s replacing Harold Reynolds in the booth, but those are big shoes to fill. I’m going to judge him based on whether or not he thinks Joba should be in the starting rotation.

YES, on FiOS, to be available nationally

Good news with a bad twist for Yankee fans living outside of the New York area: The YES Network has become the first regional sports network to earn national distribution of sorts. As Maury Brown reported earlier today, the HD version of the Yankees Entertainment and Sports Network will be available nationally on Verizon FiOS’ Extreme HD packages. That does not, however, include game broadcasts for either the Yankees or Nets. Baseball’s territorial rules do not permit it.

Toilets for Everyone and an Accessible Stadium

With New York City officially opening two new baseball stadiums this week, the local papers are going all out in their coverage. Yesterday, The Times covered the topic of toilets. New Yankee Stadium will have 30 percent more toilet fixtures than the old park, with the following breakdown: 369 women’s toilets; 98 toilets and 298 urinals for men; and 78 unisex bathrooms for families and luxury suite patrons. I can personally attest to the bathrooms at the new stadium. They’re clean, roomy and much, much nicer than those at the old park.

In other stadium news, Yanks’ COO Lonn Trost and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York touted the accessibility of the new stadium this afternoon. While the new park had to be ADA-compliant, the federal government has praised the new stadium as going above and beyond the call of duty. Most notable is the accessible paths to the field. Fans in wheelchairs can now enter the field during stadium tours.

Go away, fat man. We don’t want you here

MLB Trade Rumors (where you can catch me every Saturday morning from 10 ’til 2) has an interesting note this morning: David Wells wants to come back to the Yankees. What’s worse, there are indications — whatever the hell that means — that Hank Steinbrenner is interested as well. Despite the Yankees troubles with starting pitching to this point, I can only hope this is a rumor started by a rogue publication just to stir up the fan base.

But stirred we will not be! Why not? Because we know the Yankees are smarter than this. Wells threw 157.1 innings last year, all for NL West teams, and finished with a 5.43 ERA. He’s 45 years old. In other words, he’s cooked. There’s no way around it. In fact, I can give you a list of pitchers within our organization that I’d rather give a shot than David Wells (in no particular order):

Kei Igawa
Jeff Karstens
Alan Horne
Brett Smith
Steven White
Jeff Marquez
Carl Pavano
Dan McCutchen
Ross Ohlendorf
Humberto Sanchez
Chase Wright
Dan Giese
Steven Jackson
Phil Coke
Jason Jones
George Kontos
Ian Nova
Michael Dunn
Zach McAllister
Ryan Pope

If every one of these pitchers failed, yeah, then I’d give Wells a call.

Portrait of Wells from Frank Galasso.