Reviewing the Yankees’ 1996 Draft Class

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.

Milton. (Getty)
Milton. (Getty)

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.

(AP)
NJ. (AP)

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.

I really don’t think you could have asked for a better way to introduce yourself in the majors. Big Unit was still more than just downright scary that season and you hit a three-run homer that breaks a 0-0 tie? Awesome. Thames only played seven ML games until he was sent down to Triple-A again. The homer was one of the only three hits he had in 13 plate appearances.

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.

The Near No-No: David Cone’s Return from his Aneurysm

(Getty)
(Getty)

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.

David Cone Athletics 1

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.

David Cone Athletics 2

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).

David Cone Athletics 3

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.'”

David Cone Athletics 4

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.

David Cone Athletics 5

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.

David Cone Athletics 6

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.

David Cone Athletics 7

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.”

Tony Fernandez: The Derek Jeter Insurance The Yankees Never Needed

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(Getty)

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 …

… and made several spectacular defensive plays as well. Jeter went 3-for-3 with a walk the next day. After the first two weeks of the regular season, he was hitting .355 with a .524 OBP and more walks (nine) than strikeouts (five). It was only two weeks, but the Yankees had concerns about handing the shortstop job over to Jeter with no clear backup plan. Derek erased any doubts rather quickly.

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.

The Big Daddy Trade

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(Getty)

Cecil Fielder had a pretty meandering baseball career. He broke in with the Blue Jays in 1985 and went up and down as a spare player from 1985-88. Cecil then played a season in Japan, hitting 38 home runs with the Hanshin Tigers in 1989. Fielder returned to MLB in 1990 and was an instant star with the Tigers, the Detroit version. He led baseball with 51 homers in 1990 and again with 44 homers in 1991.

Fielder was the proverbial star on a bad team in the early-1990s. He mashed 160 home runs from 1990-93 and the Tigers never made it closer than seven games out of a playoff spot. They were bad and getting worst. Detroit went 53-62 in 1994, 60-84 in 1995, and 53-109 in 1996. Fielder was now in his 30s and his game was starting slip, though he still had plenty of power.

The Yankees in 1996 needed more power. They went into the All-Star break with the best record in the AL (52-33) and a six-game lead in the AL East that year. They ranked 11th out of the 14 AL teams with 442 runs though, and their 74 home runs were the fourth fewest in all of MLB. On top of that, their 103 OPS+ against lefties was eighth out of those 14 AL teams. The Yankees went 13-15 against lefty starters in the first half.

Despite having the best record in the league, the Yankees had an obvious need for some more offense, particularly right-handed power. So, at the trade deadline, GM Bob Watson pulled the trigger on a blockbuster, acquiring Fielder from the Tigers for Ruben Sierra and top prospect Matt Drews. The plan was to install Fielder as the regular DH and move Darryl Strawberry to left field. The Yankees had seen Fielder make Yankee Stadium look small. They knew what he could do.

”That’s a big right-handed bat,” said Joe Torre to Jack Curry after the trade. ”All the questions have been about left-handed pitching, left-handed pitching. This should neutralize things to really better our lineup … We think (Strawberry) can handle (left field). Any time you can help yourself, I think you have to do it. I think Cecil Fielder brings a lot to this club.”

Sierra, a switch-hitter, was expected to give the Yankees some lineup balance and power, but it didn’t happen. He hit .258/.327/.403 (83 OPS+) with eleven homers in 96 games with New York before the trade, and he accused Torre of lying about playing time earlier in the season. Torre took the high road, telling reporters, “(Ruben) tried, but he just wasn’t the home run threat we needed.”

Sierra was included in the trade to essentially clear a roster spot and help even out the salary. He was making $6.2M that season while Fielder was making $9.2M. To help facilitate the trade, Fielder agreed to defer $2M of his 1997 salary. The Yankees ended up paying Fielder $7.56M from 1996-97 while the Tigers paid Sierra $7.14M during that same time. New York’s payroll rose ever so slightly.

The key to the trade was Drews, the Yankees’ first round pick (13th overall) in the 1993 draft. He was a significant prospect. Baseball America ranked Drews as the 12th best prospect in baseball heading into the 1996 season — fifth best pitching prospect behind Paul Wilson, Alan Benes, Livan Hernandez, and Jason Schmidt — and the Yankees skipped the 21-year-old righty over Double-A and had him start 1996 in Triple-A.

Drews struggled big time during that 1996 season though — he had a 6.00 ERA with 72 walks and 56 strikeouts in 84 innings before the trade, including 27 walks and seven strikeouts in 20.1 Triple-A innings — which is why the Yankees were willing to give him up. I wonder how that would have gone over nowadays. Drews went into the season as an elite prospect, struggled, then was traded for an aging one-dimensional slugger. I imagine that deal would have been branded “selling low” and gone over poorly 2016.

Anyway, the trade was made. Big Daddy Cecil Fielder was a Yankee and he couldn’t have been happier. “This is weird, but I’m going to work for the Yankees,” said Fielder to Curry. ”I’m going to enjoy myself. This feels great. I’m relaxed and I want to help the team. This is an opportunity for me to finally get in the hunt … I didn’t think it would be the Yankees. That’s a good place. I’m happy to be getting this opportunity.”

Torre installed Fielder as his regular DH and cleanup hitter immediately. That cleanup spot had been a revolving door much of the season — Strawberry, Sierra, Tino Martinez, and Bernie Williams all took turns hitting fourth behind Paul O’Neill — but Fielder came in and started 28 straight games and 41 of 42 games as the No. 4 hitter following the trade. He gave the Yankees the lineup stability they were lacking.

At the time of the trade Fielder was hitting .248/.354/.478 (109 OPS+) with 26 homers in 107 games for the Tigers. There was some concern he would disrupt the Yankees’ clubhouse chemistry because he was a superstar and one of the highest paid players in baseball, but that never happened. Fielder fit right in. His goal was to win after spending all those years on the non-contending Tigers clubs. It was a seamless integration into the clubhouse.

Of course, it helped that Fielder delivered. The Yankees struggled a bit in the second half and Fielder was their rock offensively, hitting .260/.342/.495 (108 OPS+) with 13 home runs in 52 games. He went deep in his second game in pinstripes, then again in his third, then again in his ninth and 11th. In early-September, when the Yankees were trying to hold off the surging Orioles, Fielder hit .250/.391/.536 with five homers, 12 walks, and ten strikeouts in a 16-game span. He drove in 15 runs.

Once back in the postseason — Fielder got three at-bats in the 1985 ALCS with the Blue Jays — Fielder stepped up his game and became a force. He hit .364 with a home run and drove in four runs in the team’s ALDS win over the Rangers. His seventh inning RBI single in Game Four proved to be the series-clinching run. Fielder had two homers and drove in eight runs in the five ALCS games against the Orioles. He drove in three insurance runs with a dinger in the Game Five clincher.

(Based on that video, it sounds like the #toomanyhomers movement dates back to 1996.)

The World Series potentially posed a challenge to Torre because they weren’t going to have the DH in the NL park, yet they clearly needed Fielder’s bat in the lineup. Tino made that decision easy though — he went 9-for-44 (.205) in the team’s first eleven postseason games, so Torre put Fielder at first base when the series shifted to Atlanta. Martinez came off the bench for defense late.

Big Daddy went 1-for-3 with a walk in the Game Three win in Atlanta. He went 2-for-4 with a walk in Game Four, and started the Yankees’ comeback rally by driving in their first two runs of the game with sixth inning single. The Yankees were down 6-0 at the time. Then, in Game Five, that classic Andy Pettitte-John Smoltz duel, Fielder had three of his club’s four hits, including a fourth inning RBI double that drove in the only run of the game.

Fielder was relatively quiet in the World Series clinching Game Six — he went 1-for-4 at his usual DH position — but he had a big role in getting the Yankees to that point. He drove in huge runs against the Rangers, against the Orioles, and against the Braves. Fielder hit .308/.390/.519 with three home runs, seven walks, and nine strikeouts in 14 postseason games. He drove in 14 runs.

The 1996 Yankees were a very good team with some flaws. They were not a great offensive club and they lacked power, especially against left-handed pitchers. Watson identified that flaw, recognized his team had a chance to do something special, and went out and acquired Fielder, who delivered in a huge way. He added power, he added balance to the lineup, and he settled the middle of the order. Everything kinda came together once Fielder joined the team.

Fielder remained with the Yankees in 1997 but did not have a great season (13 homers and 101 OPS+ in 98 games). He was let go following the season and spent 1998 with the Angels and Indians before retiring. The 1997 season is almost irrelevant at this point. Fielder was brought in to help put the 1996 Yankees over the top and he did just that, especially once the calendar flipped to October.

Picking Up Kenny Rogers

The following post was originally published on February 9th, 2012, as part of the original Retro Week. It fits nicely with our celebration of the 1996 Yankees, so I’m re-posting it now, unabridged. Enjoy.

(Cataffo/NY Daily News)

The Yankees have had a number of pitching contracts go bad for them over the years, but few went as poorly as Kenny Rogers. They signed the southpaw to a four-year, $20M contract after the 1995 season, pairing him with Jimmy Key, David Cone, and Andy Pettitte. It didn’t work out of course; Rogers pitched to a 5.11 ERA in 52 starts, nine relief appearances, and 324 innings in pinstripes before being traded to the Athletics for Scott Brosius after the 1997 season.

Rogers did get a ring out of his time in New York, though it was no thanks to him. He put 20 men on base in seven playoff innings across three starts in 1996, allowing eleven runs. Despite that, the Yankees won all three of his starts because the rest of the team picked him up. Just how did they do it? Let’s recap…

ALDS Game Four @ Rangers (box)
Although this was Rogers’ first career postseason start, he did make his playoff debut in relief during Game Two a few days earlier. The Yankees and Rangers were tied at four in the 12th inning when Texas put men on the corners with two outs against Graeme Lloyd and Jeff Nelson. Then-manager Joe Torre brought Rogers out of the bullpen to face the lefty swinging Will Clark, and he promptly walked him on four pitches. Brian Boehringer then came in to clean up the mess.

The Yankees were leading the best-of-five ALDS two games to one when Kenny got the ball in Game Four, back home where he started his career in Texas. He managed to pitch around a Pudge Rodriguez single and a Juan Gonzalez walk in the first, but Dean Palmer opened the second with a double to right-center. Mickey Tettleton singled him in, though he was erased at second when Mark McLemore beat out a double play ball. McLemore came around to score on Pudge’s single later in the inning. Rogers needed 40 pitches to put six men on base and allow two runs in the first two innings. Torre had seen enough, and that was the end of his day.

Boehringer replaced Rogers in the third and made things slightly more difficult. Juan Gone led off with a homer, then McLemore singled in another run a few batters later. Down four-zip, the offense started to chip away. Four of the first five batters in the top of the fourth reached base, with Cecil Fielder and Mariano Duncan each singling in a run. Bobby Witt had been chased from the game, but Derek Jeter drove in the third run with a ground ball off Danny Patterson. Boehringer started the fourth, but allowed the first two batters to reach base. David Weathers replaced him, and got out of the jam with a strikeout and a double play.

Bernie Williams tied the game with a leadoff homer in the fifth, and the score stayed that way until the seventh. Weathers had retired eight of the nine men he faced, throwing a full three innings thanks to the double play. Fielder singled in the go ahead run off Roger Pavlik in the top of the seventh, then it was Sandman time. Mariano Rivera threw a perfect seventh and a scoreless eighth (he did walk Warren Newson, however) while Bernie padded the lead with a solo homer in the ninth. John Wetteland slammed the door for the save, giving the Yankees the series win. The bullpen, particularly Weathers, stepped up to keep the Rangers at bay so the offense could mount a comeback after Rogers’ short start.

ALCS Game Four @ Orioles (box)
Up two games to one in the best-of-seven series, Rogers got the ball in Baltimore with a chance to give the Yankees a commanding lead or let the Orioles back into the series. Bernie gave him some breathing room with a two-run homer in the top of the first, but Kenny wasn’t having any of that. He walked Brady Anderson to open the bottom of the first, then Todd Zeile singled to put men on the corners. Rafael Palmeiro cut the lead in half with a sac fly.

(AP)

Darryl Strawberry took Rocky Coppinger deep to open the second, and Rogers managed to throw a 1-2-3 inning in the bottom half. The Yankees went down in order in the third, but Chris Hoiles led off the bottom half with a solo shot to make it 3-2. Rogers allowed three of the first four men he faced to reach base in the third, but he danced around trouble with a strikeout and a ground ball. Paul O’Neill’s two-run homer made it 5-2, but Rogers was intent on giving it back. He walked Cal Ripken Jr. to open the fourth, then moved him to second with a wild pitch. Pete Incaviglia singled to put men on the corners with none out, and out of the dugout came Torre with the hook. Rogers put seven men on base and threw 72 pitches in three innings plus two batters.

Weathers came in to clean up the mess, but he didn’t do the job. B.J. Surhoff singled in Ripken, then Hoiles plated a run with a ground ball. Once again, it was a one-run game. Two more ground balls ended the inning. The Yankees and O’s traded zeroes for the next three innings with Weathers, Lloyd, and Rivera each doing the job on the mound. The offense broke it open with a three-run eighth inning thanks to Fielder’s run-scoring ground out and Strawberry’s two-run homer. Rivera loaded the bases on three singles to open the bottom of the inning, but he struck out Hoiles and Anderson before getting Zeile to popup on the infield to dance out of danger. Wetteland again closed the door in the ninth to give New York a 3-1 series lead. The bullpen completely shut the door after Weathers allowed the two inherited runners to score, and the lineup simply out-slugged the O’s the rest of the way.

World Series Game Four @ Braves (box)
Unlike the previous two rounds, the Yankees were down two games to one in the series when Rogers got the ball for Game Four in Atlanta. The Braves blew the Yankees out in Game One and shut them out in Game Two, but David Cone got them back in the series with a big Game Three performance. Rogers was intent on keeping the Yankees out of it, it seemed.

The first inning and top of the second went by without a baserunner, but Fred McGriff changed all that with a homer to lead off the second. Rogers then walked Javy Lopez. And then he walked Andruw Jones. Then Jermaine Dye hit a fly ball to right that moved Lopez to third. Jeff Blauser pushed a run across with a bunt single, then pitcher Denny Neagle sac bunted the runners to second and third. Both came around to score on Marquis Grissom’s double to center. Just like that, it was four-zip Atlanta.

Rogers escaped the inning with a ground ball, but Chipper Jones and McGriff opened the third with singles. That was the end of Kenny’s day. Joe Torre replaced him with Boehringer, after he’d surrender four runs on seven baserunners and 52 pitches in two innings plus two batters. Boehringer allowed one of the runners to score on a sac fly before retiring the next two hitters. Three innings into the game, the Yankees were down 5-0.

Neagle was carving the Yankees up, so the score remained 5-0 into the fifth inning after Boehringer mixed in a perfect bottom of the fourth. Boehringer was pinch-hit for in the top of the fifth, which brought Weathers to mound in the bottom half. He struck out Mark Lemke but walked Chipper and balked him to second. The Crime Dog was put on first base intentionally, but Andruw doubled in a run after Lopez struck out. Down 6-0 in the game and 2-1 in the series, the Yankees had four innings to make a comeback.

It all started in the very next half inning with an innocent little leadoff single to right by Jeter. Bernie followed with a walk to put two men on, then Fielder drove in both guys with a single and some help from Dye’s error. Charlie Hayes followed that with a single to drive in Fielder. Just like that, the Yankees had cut the lead in half and chased Neagle from the game. The Yankees couldn’t do any more damage that inning even though Torre emptied his bench, pinch-hitting Paul O’Neill and Tino Martinez for Joe Girardi and Weathers. That forced Jim Leyritz into the game at catcher.

Jeff Nelson came out of the bullpen to replace Weathers and threw a perfect sixth. Mike Bielecki was the third and final pitcher Braves manager Bobby Cox used in the sixth, and he stayed on to throw a scoreless seventh. Nelson went back out for his second inning, and tossed up another zero while pitching around a McGriff walk. Cox went for the kill in the eighth, bringing in hard-throwing closer Mark Wohlers for the two-inning save.

It all started with a swinging bunt, a dinky little chopper from Hayes that hugged to third base line to open the eighth. Strawberry singled into the 5.5-hole to put two men on with none out. Duncan followed up with a ground ball, but Atlanta was only able to get the force at second when Rafael Belliard booted the double play ball. That brought Leyritz to the plate, and that’s when this happened…

Tie game. Rogers was officially off the hook. Rivera, Wohlers, and Lloyd pitched the game into the tenth inning, and the Yankees eventually won when Steve Avery loaded the bases with a walk, a single, and an intentional walk. Pinch-hitter Wade Boggs drove in the go-ahead run when Avery walked his third batter in his last four tries. An error allowed the Yankees to tack on an insurance run, and Wetteland close the door in the bottom half to knot the series up at two. The rest, as they say, is history.

* * *

It took pretty much everything the Yankees had to survive Rogers’ three awful postseason starts (and one awful relief appearance). The offense had to combine timely hits with brute power, the bullpen had to soak up a ton of innings with little wiggle room, and even lady luck had to show her pretty face from time to time. Rogers put the club in some serious holes, but the Yankees always managed to climb out of them. It still blows my mind.

The Home Run That Started A Dynasty

Welcome to Retro Week. Baseball news is slow this time of the offseason, so we’re going to look back at the good ol’ days this week. Since this is the 20th anniversary of the 1996 Yankees, we’re going to focus on them. Hope you enjoy.

(Getty)
(Getty)

The date is October 22nd, 1996. The Yankees are down two games to none in the World Series. The Braves had just marched into Yankee Stadium and outscored the home team 16-1 in Games One and Two. They had 19-year-old Andruw Jones, 24-year-old Chipper Jones, and a rotation led by future Hall of Famers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz. The series was shifting to Atlanta for three games.

And yet, despite having all that stacked against them, the Yankees were about to begin a dynasty. A home run by Bernie Williams, six gutty innings from David Cone, and stellar bullpen work gave the Yankees a much-needed win in Game Three. But, in Game Four, the Yankees were down 4-0 after two innings, 5-0 after three innings, and 6-0 after five innings. It was bad. Real bad.

The Yankees rallied though. The first four batters of the sixth inning reached base to push across three runs and halve the deficit. An error by Jermaine Dye in right field helped spur the rally. With his team holding a 6-3 lead after seven innings, Braves manager Bobby Cox could smell the blood in the water. His Braves were six outs from a commanding three games to one lead in the World Series. Cox went to closer Mark Wohlers for the six-out save.

“I don’t think the (decision) was that difficult,” said Cox after the game. “He was so well-rested, he could go two easy and still be able to come back (in Game Five). I’d have been stupid if I wouldn’t have done that.”

One of the biggest and most important rallies in Yankees history — that’s not hyperbole, right? — started with what amounted to a swinging bunt. Charlie Hayes greeted Wohlers with a first pitch infield single to start the eighth inning. That ball hugged the third base line and stayed fair. Darryl Strawberry, who was playing right field because Paul O’Neill was nursing a hamstring issue, sliced a single to left field to put runners on first and second with no outs.

The Yankees were in business. They also caught a huge break. Mariano Duncan pulled a tailor made double play ball to shortstop Rafael Belliard, who bobbled the grounder and was only able to get the force out at second. Instead of having a runner at third with two outs, the Yankees had runners at corners with one out. The tying run was still at the plate, and up came Jim Leyritz.

These days almost every team has a few relievers who can throw 95-96 mph, maybe even 98-99. Back then it wasn’t nearly as common. Wohlers lived in the 95-99 mph range and he was one of the hardest throwers in baseball. He didn’t pitch to a 2.60 ERA (167 ERA+) with 190 strikeouts in 142 innings from 1995-96 by accident. Wohlers threw serious heat, and Leyritz had his heat timed.

Mark Wohlers Jim Leyritz1

The first pitch was a 98 mph fastball that Leyritz just missed. He fouled it straight back, the universal sign the hitter had the pitch timed, but simply failed square it up. Leyritz knew the scouting report and was newly into the game — it was his first at-bat after entering the game in the sixth, after Tino Martinez pinch-hit for Joe Girardi — so his bat was quick as it was going to get.

Mark Wohlers Jim Leyritz2

Leyritz had just missed the first pitch fastball and both Wohlers and catcher Eddie Perez knew it. Rather than try their luck again, they went to the slider, and Wohlers missed high. It would not be the first time he missed high with a breaking ball in the at-bat. The count was even at one ball and one strike. I remember wanting to puke and thinking this might be the Yankees’ last best chance to tie the game and get back into the series.

Mark Wohlers Jim Leyritz3

Another high slider. Wohlers was arguably the best fastball pitcher in the league at the time, yet with a backup catcher who had an 86 OPS+ during regular season at the plate representing the tying run in the World Series, he threw back-to-back sliders to fall behind in the count 2-1. Perez was on board too. Wohlers did not shake him off. Arguably the best fastball pitcher in the game seemed afraid to throw his fastball.

“I think Wohlers is going to the breaking ball too much,” said FOX announcer Tim McCarver, who was the starting catcher for two World Series winning teams during his playing days. “This situation right here — this is a (game on the line) situation — if you get beat, you get beat on your best pitch. Not your third best pitch.”

Mark Wohlers Jim Leyritz4

Wohlers went back to his No. 1 pitch after falling behind in the count, and Leyritz again fouled it off. He swung like he was cheating fastball, which he was. Leyritz later admitted he was looking fastball the entire at-bat. Had Wohlers thrown either of those two sliders in the zone earlier in the at-bat, Leyritz likely would have taken it for a called strike. He was sitting dead red.

Mark Wohlers Jim Leyritz5

Back to the slider in the two-strike count. This slider was much better than the first two though. It was down and on the outer half. A true strikeout pitch. Leyritz was way out in front but still able to pull it foul to stay alive. He was in protect mode with two strikes. He had to gear up for the high-90s gas but also respect the slider because Wohlers had thrown him two already.

“I called a fastball, but Wohlers said no,” Perez would later say to Joel Sherman, recalling the sixth pitch of the at-bat. “And I was good with that. I really wanted a slider, too, but a good slider. I wanted the slider down and away. Wohlers wanted to throw the slider because he thought he was going to throw a better slider.”

So, for the fourth time in a six-pitch at-bat, Wohlers threw Leyritz a slider. It was not a good slider like Perez wanted. It was not down and away. It up and out over the plate like the first two, except this one hung up long enough for Leyritz to recognize the spin and square it up. The result was a highlight I will never get tired of watching.

“I was looking heater all the way, and he hung a slider. I adjusted,” said Leyritz to reporters after the game. “I was very surprised. Maybe because I fouled two pitches straight back he thought I was right on his fastball. I definitely wasn’t looking slider. I was sitting on a fastball but the pitch hung.”

The three-run home run, which only barely cleared the left field wall at the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, tied Game Four at 6-6. The Yankees battled all the way back thanks to some good luck — Dye’s error in the sixth, Belliard’s bobble on the potential double play — and thanks to Wohlers staying away from his best pitch in a crucial situation. The Yankees would go on to win Game Four in ten innings and knot the series up at two games apiece.

“It was a tough ballgame. The loss should be put on my shoulders. I blew it. I get paid a lot of money to shut them down and I didn’t do it,” Wohlers said to reporters later than night. “This doesn’t surprise me because we’re playing a quality team. It’s a frustrating loss, but I’ve had a few of them in my career. We’ll put this behind us as quickly as possible.”

More than a few times over the years I’ve found myself wondering how things would have turned out had Wohlers not hung that slider and Leyritz not tied the game. Would the Yankees have still won the World Series? Would they still have gone on to win four titles in five years? The Yankees were knocked out of the postseason in soul-crushing fashion in 1995. How would George Steinbrenner have reacted to losing the 1996 World Series too?

I have a hard time believing things would have turned out so well for the Yankees from 1996-2000 had Leyritz not hit that home run. That homer tied the game, helped tie the series, and help start a dynasty. It was, unquestionably, one of the biggest hits in franchise history given everything on the line. It completely changed the course of not one, but two franchises. The Braves were on the verge of a dynasty at that point. Then suddenly, with one swing, the Yankees were poised to dominate baseball.

1996 Mariano Rivera: From Career Crossroads to the Best Relief Season of the Last 30 Years

Welcome to Retro Week. Baseball news is slow this time of the offseason, so we’re going to look back at the good ol’ days this week. Since this is the 20th anniversary of the 1996 Yankees, we’re going to focus on them. Hope you enjoy.

(Getty)
(Getty)

Heading into the 1996 season, the Yankees weren’t quite sure what they had in 26-year-old Mariano Rivera. He had a solid yet generally unspectacular minor league career after signing out of Panama in 1990, and he made his big league debut in 1995 with ten starts and nine relief appearances. Rivera had a 5.51 ERA (84 ERA+) in 67 innings that year.

There was an open spot in the rotation going into the 1996 season, but George Steinbrenner‘s affection for ex-stars and needling the Mets meant Doc Gooden got the job out of Spring Training, not Rivera. Gooden joined the returning David Cone and Jimmy Key, the up-and-coming Andy Pettitte, and the free agent signee Kenny Rogers in the starting staff.

Rivera was good enough for the big league team and, at age 26, another assignment to Triple-A didn’t make sense. Not after he finished the 1995 season with solid work in relief. Rivera was in the bullpen with an undefined role to start that 1996 season, which is often the case for players who are not yet established. John Wetteland was the closer and the setup crew included Jeff Nelson and Bob Wickman.

New manager Joe Torre eased Rivera into action — seven of his first nine appearances came with the Yankees trailing — and it wasn’t until Rivera threw a no-hitter that he began to earn more trust. A no-hitter spread across three appearances, that is. On April 22nd, Mariano entered the sixth inning of a game the Yankees were leading by three, and he threw three perfect innings against the Royals.

Four days later Torre brought Rivera into a game with the Yankees trailing the Twins by four. Three more hitless innings followed and the Yankees came back to win the game thanks to a Bernie Williams grand slam. Torre went to Rivera for three innings again just two days later. Mo again did not allow a hit, enabling the Yankees to come from behind for the 6-3 win.

“Only one day off with three innings the other day, it was big for us. We’re knowing him a little bit more. If we don’t have to use him as many innings, he may be able to work on a regular basis for us,” said Torre to Jack Curry following Rivera’s third straight appearance of three hitless innings. “From last year, I keep a lot of confidence in myself,” said Mo to Curry. “I can throw with no doubts. I just do my job.”

Rivera’s no-hit streak did not stop there. He threw two hitless innings two days later and another two hitless innings three days after that. All told, Rivera went 49 batters and 15 innings between hits early in that 1996 season. Only 13 of those 49 batters hit the ball out of the infield. Thirteen struck out. Just like that, Mariano had entered Torre’s Circle of Trust™.

Being trusted by Torre meant working a lot, and Rivera thrived under the big workload. Following the no-hit streak, Rivera threw multiple innings 31 times in 50 appearances the rest of the season, including at least two full innings 26 times. His June workload makes Dellin Betances look babied by comparison:

Date Tm Opp Rslt Inngs Dec IP H R ER BB SO ERA BF W.P.A.
Jun 2 NYY @ OAK W,11-4 7-8 H(7) 1.1 2 2 2 0 1 1.42 7 0.073
Jun 4 NYY TOR W,5-4 7-8 H(8) 2.0 2 0 0 1 2 1.35 9 0.343
Jun 7 NYY @ DET L,5-6 7-8 BS(1) 2.0 2 1 1 0 3 1.50 8 -0.064
Jun 10 NYY @ TOR W,5-3 7-8 H(9) 2.0 2 0 0 0 2 1.43 8 0.158
Jun 16 NYY CLE W,5-4 6-8 H(10) 2.2 3 1 1 1 5 1.54 12 0.104
Jun 21 (2) NYY @ CLE W,9-3 6-8 3.0 3 1 1 0 5 1.63 12 0.074
Jun 25 (2) NYY @ MIN W,6-2 6-8 H(11) 3.0 1 0 0 1 5 1.54 11 0.228
Jun 28 NYY BAL L,4-7 7-9 L(3-1) 2.1 4 3 3 2 2 1.96 12 -0.237

“He’s our most indispensable pitcher,” said Torre to Curry at midseason. “Especially with Cone and Key out and our bullpen the way it is. He gives me protection. I’m not moving him. I can use him three times in five days. I can’t do that if I start him.”

June was not Rivera’s best month so Torre did scale back on his workload a bit. Mo made only six appearances in the span of 18 days from June 28th to July 16th, thanks in part to the All-Star break. He was limited to one inning in four of those six appearances as well. As dominant as he was, Rivera needed a little breather at midseason, and Torre gave it to him.

The Yankees started the second half with a 52-33 record and a six-game lead in the AL East thanks in no small part to Rivera, who emerged as a dominant bullpen force that often single-handedly bridged the gap between the starter and Wetteland. Mariano was not an All-Star but he took a 1.80 ERA and a 0.95 WHIP into the break. He threw 60 innings in the fist half, which is a full season’s workload for relievers these days.

The AL East lead swelled to 12 games by the end of July, but that did not last. The lead dwindled to four games by the end of August and only 2.5 games by September 11th. Rivera was needed more than ever up to that point, and he gave the club 32.2 innings in 21 appearances in the final 52 games of the season. He allowed six runs (1.65 ERA) — four of which were in one game — while striking out 45 and holding opponents to a .179/.232/.214 batting line.

Thanks to a 19-2 rout of the Brewers, the Yankees clinched the AL East on September 25th, in Game 157. Rivera threw nine innings and appeared in seven of the previous 14 games as Torre pushed for the division title. Mariano finished the season with a 2.09 ERA (240 ERA+) in 107.2 innings. His 130 strikeouts were then a franchise record for a reliever. At 5.0 bWAR, it is the most valuable relief season of the last 30 years, since Mark Eichhorn racked up 7.4 WAR in 157 innings in 1986.

As expected, Torre leaned on Rivera heavily in the postseason. Mo threw four hitless innings against the Rangers in the ALDS, four scoreless innings against the Orioles in the ALCS, and he allowed one run in 5.2 innings against the Braves in the World Series. The end result: 14.1 innings, 15 base-runners, ten strikeouts, one run. Opponents hit .196/.268/.235 against him that October. Rivera threw two hitless and scoreless innings in the Game Six win over Atlanta to clinch the World Series title.

Following the season Rivera finished third in the Cy Young voting behind Pat Hentgen and Pettitte. He finished 12th in the MVP voting. The crazy thing? Mariano was not yet throwing his trademark cutter at that point. He was a fastball-slider pitcher in 1996. It wasn’t until the following season that he picked up the cutter. As the story goes, Rivera learned the pitch while playing catch with Ramiro Mendoza.

Rivera was a mystery heading into that 1996 season. He was at a career crossroads at age 26. That’s the age when a lot of guys become afterthoughts if they’re not yet established at the MLB level. The Yankees nearly traded Rivera in Spring Training and even though they held onto him, he did not have a defined role. It took a 15-inning no-hit streak to grab a late-inning role, and once Mo grabbed it, he held on for nearly two decades.

“He basically made my career in ’96 when we came up with the formula of pitching the seventh and eighth inning,” said Torre to David Lennon in 2013. “It was remarkable what we had with him.”