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.

Past Trade Review: Raul Mondesi

(Grainy photo via AP)

The Yankees enjoyed above average production from Paul O’Neill for the better part of a decade, but they had a bit of a hole in right field after his retirement following the 2001 season. They opened 2002 with Shane Spencer getting the majority of the playing time in right while John Vander Wal subbed in against the toughest of right-handers. New additions Jason Giambi and Robin Venture were expected to pick up most of the offensive slack.

Spencer, 29 at the time, was four years removed from his monster September showing in 1998, but he brought a .269/.324/.468 batting line in nearly 800 big league plate appearances into the season. He opened the year with a three-hit game on Opening Day, and finished the month of April with a .311/.403/.508 batting line. Vander Wal had reached base 16 times in his 43 plate appearances that month, a .372 OBP that was more than enough off the bench. He took at-bats away from Spencer in May, and by the end of the month he owned a .290/.369/.449 batting line. Spencer was hitting .256/.341/.388 following his May slump.

The duo didn’t last another month. Vander Wal reached base six times in his next dozen games while Spencer was unable to string together any success. Juan Rivera came up for a few days and Marcus Thames made his big league debut that month, both getting a short-lived crack at the right field job. With Rondell White banged up and the outfield stretched thin, then-manager Joe Torre started utility infielder Enrique Wilson in right against the Mets on June 29th. The Yankees got blown out and Wilson made a fool of himself in the field, the only time in his professional career (majors or minors) he would play the outfield.

During the nationally televised broadcast of the Saturday afternoon game, announcer Tim McCarver proclaimed that the Yankees needed Raul Mondesi to play right field. Mondesi, 32 years old at the time, was a star earlier in his career but he hadn’t aged well. He was hitting just .224/.301/.435 with the Blue Jays, and it was no secret that they were trying to unload him and his massive contract. George Steinbrenner didn’t need to hear anything more than what McCarver said on television. Less than two days after Wilson’s episode in right field, the Yankees acquired Mondesi from Toronto in exchange for non-prospect Scott Wiggins. They assumed the remaining $5.5M of his 2002 salary, and agreed to pay $7M of his $13M salary in 2003.

“Our outfield has been depleted, and when Joe (Torre) needs something, I’m going to do everything I can to get it for him,” said Steinbrenner in a statement after the trade.

As Keith Law explained two years ago (6:00 mark), the deal was made above GM Brian Cashman‘s head. The Yankees team president called the Blue Jays team president and brokered the trade because The Boss thought McCarver had a good idea. Pretty nuts.

(Photo via LIFE.com)

Mondesi stepped right in as the full-time right fielder following the deal, and the start of his Yankees career went pretty well. He reached base four times in his first game with the team and nine times in his first three games without a single strikeout. A little slump followed, but Mondesi produced fairly consistently from the middle of July through the end of the season. In 71 games after the trade, he hit .241/.315/.430 with eleven homers. He had three singles and three walks in the four-game ALDS loss to the Angels.

The outfield picture was shored up the following offseason with the addition of Hideki Matsui, who replaced White in left while Bernie Williams and Mondesi remained in center and right, respectively. Mondesi had a scorching hot April in 2003 — .347/.422/.683 with eight doubles and eight homers in 27 games — but his production gradually declined during the rest of the summer. The Yankees were stuck in a four-game losing streak and mired in a 3-11 skid on May 26th when Mondesi lollygagged on a fly ball that would have ended the inning but instead dunked in for a two-run single, allowing the Red Sox to blow open what turned into the Yankees fifth straight loss. An inning earlier he grounded into a double play with the bases loaded and one out with his team down by two, so the boo birds were out in full force.

With his batting line sitting at .258/.330/.471 in late-July, Mondesi was replaced by a pinch-hitter in the late innings of a game against the Red Sox. He showered and went home while the game was still being played, and a day later he missed the team’s flight to the West Coast. The entire organization — Steinbrenner included — had grown tired of him, and those last two incidents were the straws that broke the camel’s back. The Yankees shipped Mondesi and $2M to the Diamondbacks two days later, receiving outfielder David Dellucci, righty reliever Bret Prinz, and minor leaguer Jon-Mark Sprowl in return.

“To me, discipline is a big part of being a good team,” said Torre after the trade. “And a lot of the discipline has to come from within yourself. I know he was frustrated. He’s not a bad person, and I want to make sure everybody knows that. I just think he got emotional about it, and it’s not good for the club … It’s not acceptable what he did. Brian and I pulled the trigger on this one.”

Mondesi played a little more than a full season with the Yankees, suiting up for 169 games in pinstripes. He hit .250/.323/.453 with 27 homers and 23 steals, but the team grew tired of his antics. They managed to find a buyer in Arizona, and shipped him off at the first opportunity. Wiggins managed to reach the bigs with the Blue Jays in 2002, giving up a run in 2.2 IP, his only big league time. Dellucci didn’t do much in pinstripes (nine hits and four walks in 58 plate appearances), Sprowl never reached the show, and Prinz threw 30.1 ineffective innings (5.08 ERA) for the team from 2003-2004.

Believe it or not, Mondesi is currently the mayor of the San Cristobal province in the Dominican Republic, the largest municipality in the country. He played three more years after the Yankees traded him away, before geting into the politics game. The trade was a classic Steinbrenner impulse buy but it wasn’t a total disaster, since Mondesi was basically league average at the plate and in the field during his time in New York. He was overpaid and kind of a jerk though, which ultimately punched his ticket out of town and is why we don’t remember him all that fondly.