Guest Post: Replacing a Legend: The Story of A Bust Prospect

The following is a guest post from Adam Moss, who you know as Roadgeek Adam in the comments. He’s previously written guest posts on Tim McClelland, Frankie Crosetti, the No. 26, Casey Stengel, Leo Durocher, and Miller Huggins.

(OOTPdevelopments.com)
(OOTPdevelopments.com)

For the 2015 season, the New York Yankees had a tough task to deal with, replacing the legend Derek Jeter. Thankfully, Brian Cashman brought us the answer in Didi Gregorius. That being said, this is far from the only time the Yankees have had to replace a legend. David Robertson did an excellent job replacing Mariano Rivera in 2014 and of course, the late Yogi Berra did a legendary job replacing the legendary Bill Dickey as the Yankees primary catcher. People, however, won’t always handle the job of replacing players well at all. The Yankees attempted to replace Robinson Cano with Brian Roberts and Kelly Johnson, and tried to replace them with Stephen Drew, none of which have worked out thus far. Now sure, Robinson Cano wasn’t a legend, but he was the stalwart of the second base position for the Yankees the last several years.

In 1969, the New York Yankees were facing another less than enviable situation. How the hell do you replace Mickey Mantle, the Yankees’ legendary center fielder? On October 7, 1968, the 36-year old Mantle announced that he wanted to be part of the 1969 pennant race and work with the extremely young team (Tommy Tresh being second-eldest at age 29!). Rumors had been evident in the idea of Mantle wanting to retire at the end of the 1968 season, but Mantle said he felt great and was planning to attend Spring Training in 1969. He even showed concern about the upcoming expansion draft, stating that he will retire as a Yankee when he is hitting only .240 and making $100,000 and with no one else.

However, on March 1, 1969, Mantle announced in Fort Lauderdale that he would retire after talking with Ralph Houk and that for the team it would be best if Mantle stepped away. He also cited that the chain of restaurants he was creating (Mickey Mantle’s Country Cookin’ Restaurants) as well as clothing stores. Mantle admitted that the previous autumn he would play another year if he felt good in Spring Training, but decided as the months went by that it was time to hang up the spikes. Mike Burke, then President of the Yankees, announced on the spot that the Yankees would retire his No. 7 as a result. But with the retirement, a new question was to be asked, who is going to replace him?

The Story of a Man from Wisconsin

Jerry Kenney was born on June 30, 1945 in the city of St. Louis,  Missouri. A three-sport player, Kenney made his prime in basketball in the city of Beloit, Wisconsin, an exurb of Chicago, Illinois. Kenney was named one of the prime eight in the Big Eight Conference’s all-star team for 1962. Sports writers of Racine, Madison, Kenosha and Janes, Wisconsin all represented the Beloit Purple Knights on the crew. Later that March, Kenney had managed to get honorable mentions for his basketball performance at the state level. The next year, the 6ft 0in senior from Beloit High School was chosen on the first team for the state of Wisconsin in 1963. That year, Kenney managed to finish as a top scorer at the 1963 State Basketball Tournament at the fieldhouse for the University of Wisconsin Badgers. In 1963, the Beloit Purple Knights went undefeated in basketball and later on, when Kenney was presented a gift for their performance in 1969, his coach mentioned that he was a baseball and basketball star.

In May 1964, the New York Yankees signed the former high school standout to a contract to play baseball for the Yankees in the brand new Florida Rookie Baseball League, which a year later became the Gulf Coast League. He was signed to the Sarasota team, which was under control of the Yankees. By the beginning of 1967, Kenney was in the International League (AAA) for Columbus. He was the all-Star shortstop in 1966, hitting .292 and kept climbing the ladder in the Yankees organization. Houk believed that Kenney was ready for the big leagues in January, mentioning that the infield could possibly be Mantle at 1B, Horace Clarke at 2B, a mix of Bobby Murcer, Kenney or Ruben Amaro, Sr. at SS and a platoon of Charley Smith & Mike Ferraro at 3B. By February 18, 1967, Kenney re-signed with the Yankees for a major league contract along with Lou Clinton. However, on March 22, Kenney was re-assigned to AAA unlike what Houk had said in January. Kenney would not make his MLB debut until September 5. Wearing No. 14, Kenney appeared in 20 games, batting at a .310/.412/.397 clip with 1 home run and OPS+ of 146 in a small sample size of 74 plate appearances.

The next year, however, Kenney along with Murcer were both drafted into the service for the United States Military and missed the 1968 season. The Yankees tried to replace Kenney and Murcer for a year with a couple of newcomers in the form of third baseman Bob Cox (the Bobby Cox) and shortstop Gene Michael. The GM of the Yankees, Lee MacPhail, tried to acquire Luis Aparicio from the Baltimore Orioles, but ended up settling on having Michael play shortstop. Murcer and Kenney were discharged from the Navy and the Army in December 1968.

So, Who is Replacing Mantle?

The decision was made in Spring Training to move Joe Pepitone from center field to 1st base to replace Mantle. As a result, the decision was made by Ralph Houk to have Kenney transition into an outfielder. The 24-year old shortstop was basically making the same transition Mantle had made in 1951. Kenney admitted publicly though that he was not as good as Mantle and that the Yankees knew that. In his minor league career, Kenney had only hit 7 home runs and admitted that he’s a “Punch and Judy Hitter,” meaning he knows he cannot hit home runs, but surprises himself when he does. However, the Yankees saw great value in his ability to reach base, hitting never lower than a .290 batting average in the minors and his speed. The Yankees, who put Murcer at third base were running Tom Tresh at shortstop, who had a rough 1968 as well as Pepitone at 1B, were betting on Murcer and Kenney reproducing at least what they had in the minors.

At the same time, the departing third base coach, Frankie Crosetti, was offered to have his No. 2 retired in his honor for his 37 years of service to the New York Yankees. He ultimately decided against it and asked the Yankees to give the number to the next up and coming player and Kenney was chosen for that regard.

However, there seemed to be a disaster forming coming into the 1969 season. Manager Ralph Houk, having lost Mantle’s bat, also lost the amount of power that was going on in the lineup. The door also opened that the lineup had only one legitimate home run hitter in Joe Pepitone. Houk told the press that without Mantle, it could be a psychological asset for the team. However, Houk was reliant on Kenney, Tresh and Murcer to be the important part of a small ball lineup. The only sure things were really in the pitching with Mel Stottlemyre and Lindy McDaniel. The 1969 season for Kenney was very average, however, and in 130 games, Kenney had only two home runs and 34 RBI. His OBP of .328 and .311 was definitely below the short sample size in 1967 and not like his Minor League numbers. To make things even worse, he managed only an 83 OPS+, which is definitely not the production that a starting player should have. Showing the weaknesses in the 1969 team, he still managed a rate of 3 wins above replacement, which is the only positive of the 1969 season for Kenney when it comes to SABERmetrics. Defensively, despite some promise at the beginning of the season in CF, it was blatant that Kenney was not going to repeat the track of Mantle and become a star in center field. He only played 31 games in the outfield (all center field), and while he committed no errors, he never stayed out there. Kenney managed to play 83 games at 3B and 10 games at SS that season, managing 7 errors when playing at 3B. Contrary to the plans at the beginning of the season, they put Mantle for the most part in the outfield.

A Hitter or Not?

The poor 1969 season didn’t bode well at the beginning of 1970, when the Yankees offered him a total of $18,000 for a salary for 1970, a raise from $12,000 in 1969. However, Kenney wanted more from the front office, asking for $30,000. He ended up signing for an undisclosed amount in early March. Let’s put it this way, if 1969 was bad, 1970 was even worse. Now permanently an infielder, Kenney played 140 games, managing 4 of his 7 major league home runs in that season: April 26 (off Blue Moon Odom of the Oakland As), June 12 (off Aurelio Monteagudo of the Kansas City Royals), July 1 (off Denny McLain of the Detroit Tigers) and July 26 (off future Yankee Catfish Hunter!). The homer off Catfish would be Kenney’s final MLB home run, and the 25 year old Kenney managed a whopping .193 batting average! Repeat, .193! Stephen Drew, eat your heart out. The final slash line for the 1970 season was .193/.284/.282, propelled by 52 walks to 44 strikeouts and 7 triples of his 78 hits. To make things even worse, he had an OPS+ of a mere 61. SABERmetrics rips this season to shreds: -17 Rbat! -17! Even his lackluster 1969 season was only good for -9. If you thought it could get any possibly worse, let’s look at his defense: 17 ERRORS AT THIRD BASE in 135 games. We rip Chase Headley’s head off for his errors in the 2015 season and lackluster offense, but holy hell, this takes the cake.

Credit to Kenney, his 1971 season was definitely a turnaround after the disastrous 1970, at least offensively. In 120 games, Kenney ran up his slash line to .262/.368/.311. Credit to him because he reduced his strikeouts even further and raised his walk rate, something he was always good at doing. For the first time in a legit sample size, Kenney managed a 100 OPS+ (exactly 100; he had a 146 in 1967 in a small sample size). However, his defense was not an improvement whatsoever. Still a primary third baseman, Kenney managed 15 errors and a .953 fielding percentage at third base. (You’d think Houk and company would have pulled him by this point!) However, an interesting note courtesy of Retrosheets: On July 18, 1971, Kenney started the bottom of the 6th  with a single, followed by a Bobby Murcer walk and Roy White being hit by a pitch from Tom Bradley of the Chicago White Sox. The unusual part, 2 innings later: Kenney led off the inning with a single, Murcer drew yet another walk and reliever Terry Forster nailed Roy White. You know things went well in a game when déjà vu becomes involved.

The End

Well, 1971, while a much better season offensively, proved to be another flash in the pan. In 1972, Kenney (who was paid $32,000) only appeared in 50 games. The Yankees had seen enough of Kenney at 3rd base finally, playing only 1 game at the position that year and 45 at shortstop. His hitting did not improve whatsoever. In fact, it went backwards again. Kenney only managed a .210/.304/.227 slash line and a 62 OPS+. His walks and strikeouts evened out and there was just no ability to hit whatsoever in that short sample size. Playing shortstop for his time on the season, Kenney managed only 6 errors, but that still was basically 6 errors too many, because his career with the Yankees was basically toast.

On November 27, 1972, the Yankees closed the door on Kenney in Honolulu, Hawaii when Lee MacPhail turned Kenney, along with catcher John Ellis and outfielders Charlie Spikes & Rusty Torres to the Cleveland Indians for their star third baseman, Graig Nettles. (The Yankees also received catcher Jerry Moses in the deal.) This was the last deal that was made under the CBS ownership, as on January 3, 1973, it was announced at a press conference that a ship-builder named George M. Steinbrenner, car manufacturer John DeLorean and a group of investors would buy the New York Yankees from CBS. That said, the 1973 Cleveland Indians marked the end for the 28-year old Kenney, who only appeared in five games for the team. While he made a nice short impression: batting .250 in those 5 games, Kenney was released by the Indians on May 4. After sitting out for a while, Kenney was re-signed by the Yankees on July 30, but never returned to the big league club to play for Houk. His career was over.

When he played for the Yankees, he played in 460 games, hitting a meager .237/.326/.299 for being one of the big name players who was supposed to help the Yankees get through the post-Mantle era. However, it was not to be, as he managed only an 81 OPS+ in his tenure with the Yankees. Kenney was a backdoor prospect who the Yankees liked when they signed him in 1964 out of Wisconsin, but never lived up to the true potential he had as an on-base player who could be an offensive improvement for a power-drained team. His defense was never strong at 3rd base despite being an infielder and by 1972, all the lust was gone. I hate to say this, but I think the best thing he did was get us Graig Nettles, who would go on to have a storied Yankee career as their third baseman.