#RABRetroWeek Mailbag: The Decades Yankees Team

A Daily Digest reader sent in such a phenomenal question that I had to answer it for everyone. It’s the perfect end to Retro Week.

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Jimmy asks: If you had to build a team choosing one player from each decade (e.g. one from the 1920’s, one from the 1930’s, etc.) to fill out all 9 fielding positions plus a DH, who would you pick?

The problem is that there are 10 decades (including the current one, which I’m using) and only 9 starting positions. So I’m going to throw in one starter here.

Let’s start out with the obvious ones, shall we?

1920s

Right Field – Babe Ruth

I don’t have to spend time justifying this one, do I? This and the next one were the slam dunkiest of picks.

1930s

First Base – Lou Gehrig

Gehrig was actually better in the 30s (181 OPS+) than he was in the 20s (174 OPS+). His 1934 through 1937 seasons are one of the most dominant stretches in baseball history (187 OPS+), during which he led the league in OBP all four years, led in OPS three out of the four, led the league in homers twice, and won a batting title. In 1934 he led the league in BA, OBP, SLG, OPS (naturally), HR, and RBI, yet finished fifth in the MVP voting because…no, seriously, someone find the 1934 voters. We need an explanation. Even teammate Lefty Gomez got more first place votes, which is just bizarre.

Anyway, Gehrig was probably the most dominant player of the 1930s. He led the way in Offensive WAR (because there is no way you’re getting me to factor defense into analyzing the 30s), trailed closely by Jimmie Foxx. I suppose you could make an argument that Foxx was the most dominant player, but it’s really him or Gehrig.

1940s

Center Field – Joe DiMaggio

At this point I had to start making a graph of who I was picking where. Do I go with DiMaggio as the CF in the 40s, or Mantle as the CF in the 50s? As it turns out, the 50s was a crowded time. If I wanted to use Mantle in CF, I’d pretty much have to use Charlie Keller as my 40s guy in LF. After mapping it out, I stuck with DiMaggio.

1950s

Pitcher – Whitey Ford

Originally I had Yogi here, and there wasn’t much thought in my mind to change it. Then I realized that pitcher would be the toughest position to fill. Sorry to say, but it was easier to flip out Yogi for Whitey than it was to flip out Ruth, Gehrig, or DiMaggio for Ruffing, Gomez, or Hoyt. I still think it all works out for the better.

1960s

Left Field – Tom Tresh

Probably my weakest pick, but for good reason. For a while I had Roy White as LF in the 70s and Elston Howard as C in the 60s, but the difference in production is just too great. I love Howard, but Thurman Munson just dominated in the 70s. Tresh held his own in the 60s though, so he’s a fine pick, if not the flashiest.

1970s

Catcher – Thurman Munson

I did not know this: White has the most Offensive WAR of any Yankee who has played at least 50 percent of his time in left field. It was tempting to go with him here, but Munson was just a powerhouse in the 70s. He led the team in WAR, and is right with Posada, behind Berra and Dickey, as the one of the greatest catchers in Yankees history.

1980s

DH – Dave Winfield

We now reach the most fudged selection of the group. My initial inclination was to go with Giambi in the 2000s as DH, but then I realized that was stupid. A-Rod is the best-hitting 3B in Yankee history by no small margin. Again, could have gone Nettles in the 70s, but then I have to go with a lesser LF from the 80s. And, well, there were no Yankees with 1,500 PA who got half their time at LF in the 80s. Seriously, zero. Winfield qualified for DH in that he got more than 25 percent of his at-bats there in the 80s. I’m not particularly proud of this pick, but it’s what works.

1990s

Shortstop – Derek Jeter

By this point you can see what positions and decades remain and guess my three picks. So I’ll just list them.

2000s

Third Base – Alex Rodriguez

Hate him? Fine. But he won two MVPs and led the team to its first World Series in nearly a decade. Wah wah Graig Nettles wah wah.

2010s

Second Base – Robinson Cano

Cano took a huge step forward in 2010, which is convenient for this list. He is 10 Offensive WAR against the next-best Yankee hitter from the decade (Curtis Granderson), which makes me really depressed about the 2010s Yankees.

Offensive WAR Ranks

How did I do? Let’s look at the Yankees Offensive WAR leaders by decade to see how many wins they produced. Before looking I’m pretty sure I got near the top guy in each decade.

Note, this is the WAR produced with the Yankees in that decade only.

Decade Player WAR Rank
1920s Ruth 95.7 1
1930s Gehrig 75.0 1
1940s DiMaggio 42.2 1
1950s Ford 26.6 1
1960s Tresh 22.4 3
1970s Munson 42.6 1
1980s Winfield 33.6 1
1990s Jeter 25.9 3
2000s Rodriguez 41.8 2
2010 Cano 25.8 1

Note: Jeter actually produced more WAR, almost double, in the 00s (the most on the Yankees), but that creates a problem in the 90s. Only Bernie and O’Neill ranked ahead of him in Offensive WAR. O’Neill is right out, and to swap out Bernie would be to pick Keller in the 40s. That leaves 3B to the 60s, which means Clete Boyer, which is just not happening. This is a balancing act. Going Bernie-Jeter in 90s-00s makes the team weaker elsewhere.

If you think you can produce more than the 431.6 cumulative Offensive WAR of this squad, be my guest. But I’m pretty sure this is the best team, under the given circumstances, that you could create.

The Fifth Member of the Core Four

(Stephen Dunn/Getty)
(Stephen Dunn/Getty)

For most of the last two decades, the Yankees were led by a collection of four homegrown players, two who became first ballot Hall of Famers and two who became borderline Hall of Famers. Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada were forces at key up the middle positions while Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera dominated at the start and end of games. It ain’t that hard to build a winner when you have elite players at short, catcher, in the rotation, and in the bullpen.

The term Core Four is a bit disingenuous though because there are 25 guys on the roster and Jeter, Posada, Pettitte, and Rivera didn’t do it all by themselves. I know it’s not intentional, but “Core Four” does minimize the contributions of everyone else who played for the Yankees in the late-1990s and 2000s. More than anyone else, the term unfairly disparages the career of Bernie Williams, the fifth member of the Core Four.

In 1991, Bernie became the first member of the Core Four to reach the big leagues, when he was called up to fill in for the injured Roberto Kelly in June. “It’s very different. I’ve been dreaming of this since I signed, six years ago … I was nervous out there at first. I didn’t expect this many fans,” said Williams to Filip Bondy after his MLB debut, in which he went 1-for-3 in drove in two of the team’s three runs in their 5-3 loss to the Orioles.

By August of 1992, Williams a big league regular, hitting leadoff and putting up a .280/.354/.406 (114 OPS+) batting line with five homers, 29 walks, and 36 strikeouts in 62 games as a 23-year-old. The following year he slipped down to a 100 OPS+, but in 1994, Bernie hit his stride and started a nine-year peak in which he hit .319/.404/.525 (140 OPS+) in over 5,500 plate appearances with an average of 23 homers and 12 steals per season. From 1997-2002 — the peak of his peak, shall we say — he hit .326/.411/.538 (146 OPS+).

My favorite thing about peak Bernie was his consistency. From age 28-33, Williams sat between 4.8 and 5.1 WAR each and every season. Check it out:


Source: FanGraphsBernie Williams

WAR is sort of dumb, but I find Bernie’s consistency aesthetically pleasing. The guy was one of the best outfielders in baseball year after year and a lynchpin to the late-1990s dynasty. He hit in the middle of the order every year from 1996 through 2002 and received MVP votes in each of those years except 2001. Williams even won a batting title in 1998, hitting .339.

Although his center field defense left a little something to be desired — especially his arm, I love Bernie, but gosh was his arm bad — Williams did it all offensively, drawing walks and hitting for average and producing power from both sides of the plate. And, of course, the Yankees were always considering trading him, because George Steinbrenner was seemingly always looking to trade his good young players.

During the postseason, Williams put up a .275/.371/.480 batting line in 121 games — 121 postseason games! — including .278/.379/.479 during the club’s title runs in 1996 and 1998-2000. In Game Three of the 1995 ALDS against the Mariners, Bernie became the first player in history to go deep from both sides of the plate in a postseason game:

A year later, in Game Four of the 1996 ALDS against the Rangers, Williams homered from both sides of the plate again. It wasn’t until Chipper Jones in 2003 that someone other than Bernie managed to go deep from both sides of the plate in one postseason game. Williams was named the 1996 ALCS MVP and he still holds the all-time record with 80 RBI in the postseason.

The end of Bernie’s career was pretty ugly — he hit .264/.326/.399 (90 OPS+) with awful defense from 2005-06 — though he is hardly unique in that regard. At his best, Bernie was a high impact hitter at the center of a bonafide dynasty. He’s not the best center fielder in Yankees history because Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio existed, but he is undoubtedly one of the best players in franchise history. So why doesn’t he get recognized for it?

For starters, Core Five just doesn’t sound cool. Let’s not kid ourselves here, “Core Four” became a thing because it rhymes. Michael Kay likes to say Bernie isn’t part of the Core Four because he wasn’t there for all five World Series titles from 1996-2009, but Posada had 15 plate appearances with the Yankees in 1996. He wasn’t exactly a key cog in that machine. It’s lazy reasoning. Core Five doesn’t roll off the tongue easily. It really is that simple.

Secondly, I think Bernie gets overlooked because he was never considered the best player at his position. He was stuck playing in the Ken Griffey Jr. era, not to mention the Andruw Jones and Jim Edmonds and Kenny Lofton era. Stretch it out to all outfielders and Williams also had to compete against Barry Bonds and Larry Walker and Manny Ramirez as well. There were a ton of great outfielders in the 1990s and 2000s, especially center fielders. That made it easy to overlook someone like Bernie.

Third, he wasn’t even the best player or biggest star on his own team. The late-1990s Yankees were Derek Jeter’s team. And if they weren’t Derek Jeter’s team, they were Paul O’Neill’s team. Then there was David Cone and Roger Clemens and all sorts of other players who grabbed more headlines than Williams. Bernie was a quiet, unassuming guy who didn’t have much flash to his game, didn’t smash water coolers, didn’t do anything like that to draw attention to himself. He produced in a boring way.

That all worked against Williams. But make no mistake, he was a great player — an all-time great Yankee, there’s no doubt about that — who was a major factor in the late-1990s dynasty. He was also the first homegrown player from that era to come up and become a regular with the team. Bernie’s place in recent Yankees history has been undersold because of a gimmicky nickname. He belongs in the Core Four every bit as much as Jeter, Posada, Pettitte, and Rivera.

The titanic, but nearly fruitless, 1989 Albany Yankees

ACYStadium

Just as the Yankees entered their darkest period since the mid-60s, they saw a glimmer of hope for the future.

For a few years they’d been a franchise in decline, but 1989 represented the turning point. They’d won just 74 games, finishing fifth in the AL East for the second straight season. Dave Righetti was on his way out. Don Mattingly’s back would start giving him issues the next season. Their best starter in 1989 was Clay Parker.

That is to say, while I wasn’t quite as attuned to the Yankees then as I am now (I was seven in 1989), it seemed easy to predict some lean years ahead.

Yet there was reason in 1989 to believe that the lean years wouldn’t last long, perhaps not longer than the 1990 season. While the major league squad lacked quality young players, the farm system appeared ready to deliver. The AA Albany-Colonie Yankees had just finished one of the most dominant seasons in minor league history.

ACY

The 1989 Albany-Colonie Yankees won 92 games, 18 more than the big league squad in 22 fewer games. Even crazier: at one point in July they were 70-20, 23.5 games ahead of the second place Harrisburg Senators. While they wouldn’t finish at such a torrid pace, they did win the league by 19 games.

Along the way they simply left other teams in the dust. They scored more than a third of a run per game more than the next-closest team, outscoring them by 58 runs in 140 games. On the other side of the ball they were similarly dominant, allowing a half run less per game than the next-closest team, a difference of 59 runs.

Adkins

The pitching side was perhaps more impressive. As Norm Alster notes in his July article for the New York Times, the Albany-Colonie staff didn’t exactly feature heat throwers. Their ace, 6-foot-6 lefty Steve Adkins might not have consistently hit 90 on the gun, but he struck out 10.1 per nine. That led Eastern League starters by a full strikeout per nine. Before that July article they’d promoted four pitchers to AAA Columbus, including Darrin Chapin and Kevin Mmahat, who is said to be a huge inspiration on Ben Kabak’s 2013 season. (Jokes aside, he did make it to the show in ’89, was rocked, and never appeared in the bigs again.)

Also impressive was 22-year-old Rodney Imes, who made 24 starts and produced a 2.73 ERA, his second straight phenomenal season. The 23-year-old Royal Clayton also built off his quality 1988 season to lead the Albany Yankees in innings pitched, producing a 2.98 ERA in 25 starts. (In his 175 innings he struck out just 74, which is pretty absurd.) To close out games the Albany Yankees turned to 25-year-old Tim Layana, who allowed 13 earned runs in 67.2 IP, allowing just two homers all season.

On offense Jim Leyritz led the way. He’d just made the conversion from third base to catcher and took well to his new position, leading the team in OPS while batting .315 with 10 homers. Leading the way with power was first baseman Rob Sepanek, who hit 25 homers after losing most of 1988 to injury.

Bernie

Both Leyritz and Sepanek were older, 25 and 26, and so probably ready to graduate from AA anyway. (Indeed, Leyritz mashed in AAA in 1990 before getting a promotion to the bigs and holding his own; he probably got stuck in AA because of his catching skills.) Most impressive was 20-year-old Bernie Williams, who hit .252/.381/.443 in 91 games before getting the call to Columbus. Hensley Meulens, still with his prospect shine at age 22, led the team with 21 doubles. Sideshow Deion Sanders and the lovable Andy Stankiewicz also produced on both sides of the ball.

One easy to overlook aspect of that team is its manager, Buck Showalter. He’d spent seven seasons toiling in the Yankees minor league system, starting at Class-A Fort Lauderdale in 1977 and topping out at AAA Columbus, bouncing between there and AA Nashville from 1981 through his last season, 1983. In 1985 he started managing at Low-A Oneonta, taking over High-A Fort Lauderdale in 1987 and finally AA Albany in 1989. He’d join the big league squad as their third base coach in 1990.

Even as the Yankees entered the 1990 season with a lean squad, the 1989 Albany team had to give them hope. Combined with a very good 1989 Columbus team that featured Hal Morris, Kevin Maas, and a number of kids promoted from AA (Williams, Meulens, Sanders, Oscar Azocar) it might have appeared as though the Yankees, at least on the offensive side of the ball, could weather a poor 1990 and recover in 1991.

That simply did not happen. While Williams’s debut was decent enough, Meulens flopped and Leyritz took a huge step back in ’91. Stankiewicz didn’t get the call until 1992. The pitching staff was a tatters. While 19 of 35 players on that AA Albany squad appeared in the majors, and 15 with the Yankees, only two were any good: Leyritz and Williams. The only pitcher to make an even minute impact was Scott Kamienicki, who fell into a swingman role before losing effectiveness by 1996. He earned a ring, but was nowhere near the celebration.

Showalter

“This is a prospect-laden club,” Showalter said of the Albany crew, but that just wasn’t true. On Baseball America’s list of 1989 Yankees prospects (found via The Baseball Cube), only Meulens, Sanders, and Williams were on the prospects list. Showalter wouldn’t have any of them for much longer, as they all made the trip to AAA sometime in late July or early August. The 1990 list reveals just two players, Williams and Meulens, who appeared on the 1989 team.* So even with huge performances, the guys on the ’89 Albany Yankees just weren’t considered impact prospects.

*Which is weird, because I’m pretty sure Sanders didn’t exhaust his rookie service time in 1989, but was off the list.

Adkins, the lefty with the big strikeout numbers, got promoted to AAA in 1990, where he was effective if a bit wild. The Yanks actually let him start five games in the bigs that year, but he stumbled hard, walking 29 in 24 innings. The stumble continued in AAA in 1991, and the Yanks traded him away for a guy who never reached the majors. Adkins didn’t pitch any more innings there either.

In December 1989 the Yankees dished Imes, along with Hal Morris, to the Reds for Tim Leary. The former Met 2nd overall pick was OK in 1990 before completely dropping off a cliff in 1991, while Morris had a few damn fine seasons in ’90 and ’91, when the Yanks probably could have used him.

Clayton started 1990 in AA again, but graduated to AAA, where he toiled from 1991 through 1994. I presume he was a minor league free agent at that point and departed for San Fran’s minor league system (there’s a Brian Sabean tie there) before fizzling out. Mmahat (mmm, a hat) never made it back to the bigs after his cup of coffee in ’89. He hurt his shoulder in 1990 and tried to pitch through it. The result, a torn rotator cuff, effectively ended his career. Chapin was dealt in the first Charlie Hayes deal. Azocar was generally terrible and best known for these two baseball cards.

It seems insane that a team so dominant could produce so few standout major leaguers. We’re not talking a very good farm team, either. Only when Williams, Meulens, and Sanders were promoted did the opposition stand even a chance. While they were on the squad, they were 50 — FIFTY — games over .500 in July. You’d be hard pressed to find a team that so thoroughly trounced opponents.

The best prospect the Yankees ever had … for six weeks

(SI.com)
(SI.com)

These days, everyone with an internet connection is familiar with their favorite team’s prospects. You might not know the full scouting reports and all that, but, if you’re a Yankees fan, chances are you’ve seen the names Aaron Judge and Luis Severino at some point. Cubs fans know who Kris Bryant is. Twins fans are counting down the days until Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano show up.

That wasn’t the case not too long ago. Prospects were unknown to the casual fan as recently as ten years ago, before Baseball America and Twitter put everything at everyone’s finger tips. Twenty years go? Only the hardest of die-hards knew prospects. Thirty years ago? Forget it. No one knew prospects at all. But everyone knew John Elway. You couldn’t follow sports and not know who John Elway was in the early-1980s.

At Stanford, Elway was a star quarterback and a star baseball player. The football team was thoroughly mediocre during his time there (20-23 in four years) but Elway finished his collegiate career with basically every school and conference record possible. Simply put, he was one of the best college football players ever. On the baseball field, he hit .361 with nine homers and 50 RBI in 49 games in 1981 while playing right field. He also had a 4.51 ERA as a pitcher.

The Yankees drafted Elway as an outfielder in the second round of the 1981 draft knowing full well that he could wind up playing football long-term. Not just playing football, but going first overall in the 1983 draft and taking over as the face of a franchise. The Yankees took a shot anyway. If there was any team that could lure Elway away from football, it was the New York Yankees.

The team drafted Elway — their second rounder was their first pick that year after they forfeited their first round selection to sign Dave Winfield — and George Steinbrenner paid him $140,000 to spend six weeks with the team’s NY-Penn League affiliate in 1982. Here’s what Elway did that summer, via Baseball Reference:

Year Age AgeDif Tm Lg Lev G PA R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
1982 22 1.2 Oneonta NYPL A- 42 185 26 48 6 2 4 25 13 3 28 25 .318 .432 .464 .896

That is one hell of a performance, especially for a player who split his time between baseball and football in college. More walks than strikeouts? High average? Power? Elway did it all on the field and scouting reports were glowing.

“If he had devoted himself to baseball instead of football, he’d probably be in the big leagues now,” said player development director Bill Livesey to Baseball America that summer, after the publication named Elway the organization’s top prospect. “Once he got to Oneonta last year and got into it, his progress was in leaps and bounds.”

The football scouting reports were glowing too, however. Elway returned to Stanford in the fall and played football (as planned), then, after the season, he sat down with the Yankees to discuss his future. Steinbrenner brought Elway and his family to New York in early-April 1983, weeks before the NFL draft, and put VP of Baseball Ops Bill Bergesch in charge of wining and dining them.

”The things I’ve talked to (Elway’s father Jack) about are, No. 1. you can get an injury in football, but chances are remote in baseball,” said Bergesch to the New York Times. “No. 2, baseball has the finest pension plan of any sport. And third, any neutral survey will show a top baseball player will make more money — maybe not in the first year, but over the years he will. And the Yankees’ pay is among the highest in baseball.”

On April 26th, two weeks after sitting in front of Steinbrenner and the rest of the Yankees’ brass, Elway was selected first overall in the NFL draft by the Baltimore Colts. Elway was wary of joining the Colts because they stunk and head coach Frank Kush had a reputation for being tough, especially on young players, so he used the Yankees as leverage and forced a trade out of town. On May 2nd, Elway was dealt to the Broncos for two players and a first round pick.

The trade ended Elway’s baseball career. The Yankees were offering him a ton of money, an unprecedented sum of money for an unproven minor leaguer, but it couldn’t compare to the six-year, $12.7M contract he signed with the Broncos after the trade. Elway, as you know, went on to have a Hall of Fame football career and helped Denver to two Super Bowl wins.

By all accounts, Elway was a potential star baseball player, someone who could impact the game both offensively and defensively. “He has a well-above-average major league arm. He runs well, makes contact, and this year he started hitting for power. That’s the big attraction,” said Yankees scout Gary Hughes to Joe Jares after the team drafted him. It was not meant to be though.

As for Elway himself, he admitted to Yankees Magazine in 2011 that he regularly finds himself thinking about how his baseball career would have played out. “I think about that all the time, even though my football career turned out the way it did.”

Reviewing the farm system’s lean years from 2003-06

(Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Wanger. (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Over the last … I don’t know … five or ten years, the Yankees have been criticized quite heavily for their player development failures and deservedly so. They haven’t developed many useful homegrown pieces of late, and I don’t just mean stars. They’ve struggled to produce even average players who could fill in on the cheap. Things have been a little better recently but for a long time there the system was barren.

At the turn of the century, the Yankees had a great farm system headlined by Alfonso Soriano and Nick Johnson. Things really started to thin out by 2003, however, mostly because the team was trading away all their good young players and forfeiting first round draft picks to sign free agents. In 2002, Baseball America ranked New York’s farm system as the 5th best in baseball. Then, from 2003 through 2006, they ranked 17th, 27th, 24th, and 17th. That’s bad. The Yankees shot back up to 7th in 2007 thanks to their outstanding 2006 draft class, which produced ten big leaguers overall and five regulars.

So, since we are now nearly a full decade removed from that 2003-06 farm system dry spell, let’s go back and see who the Yankees had in the system back then, and what happened to those players. Because they’re the best in the business, let’s use Baseball America’s annual top ten prospects lists as the basis of our little trip back in time. I’ve cherry-picked a quote from the scouting reports for each player as well. Some are funny, some are serious. Away we go…

Pre-2003

No. 1: OF Juan Rivera
Select Quote: “On his way to his first game at Yankee Stadium, he got lost on the subway. Then he broke his right kneecap when he ran into a golf cart during pregame drills, which knocked him out for two months.”
What Happened: In 2002, a then-23-year-old Rivera hit .325/.355/.502 with 21 doubles and eight homers in only 65 games with Triple-A Columbus before playing almost everyday in the Bronx as a September call-up. Rivera went up and down a bunch of times in 2003 and was then traded to the Expos in the Javy Vazquez deal after the season. He spent one year in Montreal before being traded to the Angels. Rivera played in parts of 12 MLB seasons and hit .274/.323/.443 (102 OPS+) with 132 homers and 9.5 bWAR. Not a bad outcome at all.

No. 2: OF Bronson Sardinha
Select Quote: “Bronson was named for his mother’s favorite actor, Charles Bronson. His brothers Dane (named after a famous Hawaiian surfer) and Duke (named for John Wayne) play in the minors for the Reds and Rockies.”
What Happened: The Yankees bought Sardinha away from Pepperdine with a $1M bonus as the 34th pick in the 2001 draft. He hit .279/.362/.427 with 16 homers and 19 steals in 129 games spit between Short Season Staten Island and Low-A Greensboro in 2002, then he sorta stopped hitting. Sardinha put up a .239/.333/.353 batting line between Low-A Battle Creek and High-A Tampa in 2003 before stagnating in the minors for a few years. He did reach the big leagues though, going 3-for-9 in ten games with the 2007 Yankees. Sardinha has been out of baseball since 2011. Fun fact: His middle name is Kiheimahanaomauiakeo. Seriously.

Claussen. (Getty)
Claussen. (Getty)

No. 3: LHP Brandon Claussen
Select Quote: “Claussen emerged as one of the game’s top lefthanded pitching prospects by leading the minors with 220 strikeouts in 2001. He also topped the organization with 187 innings, and the workload took a toll on his arm in 2002, as he had Tommy John surgery in June.”
What Happened: Ah the good ol’ draft-and-follow system. Back in the day, teams could draft a player, keep tabs on his progress in junior college the following spring, then decide whether to sign him. Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada were both draft-and-follows. The draft-and-follow system died when MLB implemented the signing deadline a few years ago. It was a good run.

Anyway, Claussen returned from Tommy John surgery at midseason in 2003 and was never quite the same, showing less stuff and not missing nearly as many bats (65 strikeouts in 95.2 innings in 2003). The Yankees called him up for a spot start against the Mets in late-June (two runs in 6.1 innings) then traded him to the Reds for Aaron Boone at the deadline the following month. Claussen spent three seasons in Cincinnati (86 ERA+ in 309.2 innings) and bounced around the minors until 2007. Tommy John surgery: not without risk!

No. 4: 3B Drew Henson
Select Quote: “Few prospects can match Henson’s size, strength and athleticism. He can mash fastballs down in the zone and hit mistakes a long way … His take-charge mentality makes him a favorite of Yankees brass.”
What Happened: Henson was my first real head over heels prospect crush. I thought he would be a megastar. He hit .240/.301/.435 with 18 homers in 128 games for Triple-A Columbus in 2002 — the Yankees traded Henson to the Reds for Denny Neagle in July 2000 and reacquired him for Wily Mo Pena in March 2001 — and then hit .234/.291/.412 with 14 homers in 133 games for Columbus in 2003. He went 1-for-9 in two MLB cups of coffee. After the 2003 season, Henson announced his retirement from baseball and decided to go play football, quarterbacking for the Cowboys, Vikings, and Lions from 2004-08. He’s now a hitting coach for one of the Yankees’ two rookie level Gulf Coast League minor league affiliates.

No. 5: RHP Chien-Ming Wang
Select Quote: “There hasn’t been a Taiwanese pitcher who has come to the States and avoided major injury, so his durability remains a question.”
What Happened: Wang missed the entire 2000 season due to a shoulder injury, which prompted that quote in Baseball America’s write-up. He stayed healthy in the minors from 2003-05 and was just okay (4.00 ERA in 308.1 inning) before getting called up to MLB in May 2005. Wang pitched to a 3.79 ERA (117 ERA+) with 15.4 bWAR from 2005-08 for the Yankees. Then he hurt his foot running the bases. Then he blew out his shoulder. CMW is still kicking around in the minors — he signed a minor league deal with the Braves a few weeks ago — but he hasn’t been effective at all since hurting his foot in 2008. For shame.

No. 6: IF Robinson Cano
Select Quote: “He generates plus bat speed and has a knack for making adjustments with his hands to put the barrel of the bat on balls in different zones. He covers the plate well with a good idea of the strike zone, makes consistent hard contact and projects to hit for power.”
What Happened: Cano hit .276/.319/.437 with 15 homers between Short Season Staten Island and Low-A Greensboro in 2002. Then he hit .277/.322/.374 with six homers between High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton in 2003. That’s not very good! Cano improved a bit with Trenton and Triple-A Columbus in 2004 (.283/.339/.457 with 13 homers) and, before you knew it, he was hitting .342 in the big leagues by 2006. Robbie was an MVP candidate with the Yankees from 2010-13 before signing a ten-year, $240M contract with the Mariners last offseason. We know nothing about prospects.

No. 7: LHP Danny Borrell
Select Quote: “His arm has relatively low mileage, and Borrell could throw harder with more innings.”
What Happened: Despite that low mileage, Borrell blew out his shoulder in 2003 and continued to battle injuries until he retired following the 2008 season. He threw only 282.1 ineffective minor league innings (4.53 ERA) the rest of his career after being dubbed the team’s seventh best prospect by Baseball America. Borrell has been working as a pitching coach and pitching coordinator in New York’s farm system for several years now.

No. 8: RHP Jorge DePaula
Select Quote: “DePaula was able to channel his intensity to become more efficient on the mound. He must continue to keep his emotions in check to avoid losing control of the game.”
What Happened: The Yankees acquired DePaula from the Rockies for Craig Dingman (Craig Dingman!) back in 2001 and he developed into a quality pitching prospect from 2001-03. He spent most of the 2013 season in Triple-A (4.35 ERA in 167.2 inning) and got a September call-up, allowing one run on three hits and one walk in 11.1 innings. DePaula made the Opening Day roster in 2004 but blew out his elbow that April and needed Tommy John surgery. He returned in 2005 and just kind of sputtered. The Yankees cut him loose after 2006 and he bounced around the minors until 2009. (DePaula pitched in Mexico as recently as 2012.) DePaula retired with a 4.00 ERA (114 ERA+) in 27 big league innings, all with New York from 2003-05.

No. 9: OF Rudy Guillen
Select Quote: “Guillen might have the highest ceiling in the organization … While Guillen has five-tool potential, his ability to hit for average will be tested against more advanced competition.”
What Happened: After hitting .306/.351/.397 with three homers in 59 games for the rookie GCL Yanks in 2002, Guillen hit .260/.311/.414 with 13 homers in 133 games with Low-A Battle Creek in 2003, which was pretty good for a 19-year-old in full season ball. After that though, Guillen hit .259/.302/.359 with 20 homers from 2004-07 and simply didn’t develop. He played a total of 49 games above Single-A ball, all with Double-A Trenton. Guillen has been out of baseball since 2007. Yet another reminder to not get worked up over rookie ball stats.

No. 10: LHP Sean Henn
Select Quote: “The Yankees drafted Henn twice, but it wasn’t until his velocity jumped two grades that they signed him to a $1.701 million bonus, a record for a draft-and-follow. Henn went down with a sore elbow nine games into his pro debut and needed Tommy John surgery that wiped out his entire 2002 season.”
What Happened: Henn returned from elbow reconstruction in 2003 and was pretty rough, striking out 62 and walking 40 in 80.1 innings. The next season he had a 4.41 ERA with 118 strikeouts and 63 walks in 163.1 innings with Double-A Trenton. Henn got to MLB for the first time in 2005 and allowed 16 runs in 11.1 innings. He walked eleven and struck out three. Three! Henn went up and down in both 2006 and 2007 and wasn’t any good — 37 runs allowed with 35 strikeouts and 32 walks in 46 innings. Eventually the Yankees gave up and put Henn on waivers. The Padres claimed him and he’s been bouncing around since. Henn last played with the Mets in 2013. Like, the big league Mets, not their Triple-A team. Classic case of a guy with a big arm who never figured it out but kept getting chances because he’s a lefty.

Pre-2004

Navarro in Trenton. (Mike Ashmore)
Navarro in Trenton. (Mike Ashmore)

No. 1: C Dioner Navarro
Select Quote: “Nagging injuries — including an inner-thigh infection that led to a sty in his eye, and a hand injury from a home-plate collision — weren’t enough to stop him from raking. His combined .321 average ranked fourth among minor league catchers.”
What Happened: After hitting .321/.376/.469 with seven homers in 110 games as a 19-year-old for High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton in 2003, Navarro slipped down to .263/.341/.366 with four homers in 110 games for Trenton and Triple-A Columbus in 2004. The Yankees called him up in September then traded him to the Diamondbacks for Randy Johnson after the season. Arizona flipped him to the Dodgers for Shawn Green and the Dodgers flipped him to the (Devil) Rays for Toby Hall and Mark Hendrickson. Navarro’s been in the show on and off since 2004 and is a career .255/.313/.375 (85 OPS+) hitter with 7.4 bWAR.

No. 2: 3B Eric Duncan
Select Quote: “Some teams compared Duncan’s lefthanded power potential to Jim Thome’s. As with Thome, Duncan’s defense at third base may force him to move across the diamond to first.”
What Happened: Duncan had a really good year in 2004, hitting .258/.357/.473 with 16 homers in 123 games while climbing from Low-A Battle Creek to Double-A Trenton. He was only 19 too. Duncan hit 19 homers in 2005 but his slash line (.235/.326/.408) was pretty ugly. The Yankees had him in Triple-A by age 21 and he just stopped hitting, putting up a .226/.290/.343 line with in parts of four seasons at the level. Duncan had serious power but not much else. It didn’t help that the team rushed him up the ladder in an effort to boost his trade value.

No. 3: Guillen

No. 4: SS Joaquin Arias
Select Quote: “Nicknamed ‘Spiderman’ because his arms and legs appear to be going in every direction at once, Arias displays good body control in the field.”
What Happened: As you may know, Arias was traded to the Rangers along with Alfonso Soriano for Alex Rodriguez in February 2004. Texas selected him from a pool of prospects that also included Cano. Yankees got lucky there, eh? Arias had some nice upside but didn’t develop as hoped. He bounced from the Rangers to the Mets to the Giants, where he’s been since 2012. Arias is a career .269/.298/.354 (82 OPS+) hitter with 0.9 bWAR. Two World Series rings though.

No. 5: RHP Ramon Ramirez
Select Quote: “Ramirez had Japanese-style mechanics with a hip-turn and hesitations, but pitching instructors Billy Connors and Greg Pavlick converted him to a more conventional over-the-top delivery.”
What Happened: Ramirez has a weird back story. He was originally outfielder but converted to pitcher after signing with the Hiroshima Carp in 2002. The Carp posted him in March 2003 after a strong winter ball showing and the Yankees won his rights with a $350,000 bid. They signed him for $175,000 and he pitched to a 4.83 ERA in 284.2 innings at three minor league levels from 2003-04, then was traded to the Rockies for Shawn Chacon in 2005. Ramirez is still active — he pitched in one game for the Orioles last season but spent most of the summer in the minors — and has a 3.42 ERA (125 ERA+) with 6.9 bWAR in 434.2 career innings, all in relief. Not a bad little career.

No. 6: Cano

No. 7: SS Ferdin Tejeda
Select Quote: “A switch-hitter, Tejeda handles the bat well from both sides and uses quick hands and an efficient line-drive swing. He puts the ball in play, though not with the same authority as Joaquin Arias.”
What Happened: So Arias with less bat, got it? Tejeda had some nice defensive skills but man he didn’t hit at all — .220/.288/.247 in 94 games at High-A and Double-A in 2004 — so much so that the Yankees stuck him on the mound in 2005. He had a 1.80 ERA with 15 strikeouts in 15 innings for the GCL Yankees in 2005 and was lost on waivers to the Padres that summer. Tejeda’s been out of baseball since 2008 and only played 30 games above Single-A ball.

N0. 8: DePaula

No. 9: OF Estee Harris
Select Quote: “The Yankees went against the consensus to snag Harris in the second round, but they love his bat … Harris has drawn comparisons to a young Garret Anderson and could produce 30 home runs annually once he matures.”
What Happened: Shockingly, the Yankees went against the grain in the draft and it didn’t work. Harris hit .221/.306/.368 with ten homers and 153 strikeouts in 113 games split between three levels of Single-A in 2004 and was playing in an independent league by 2007. He’s been out of baseball since 2011 and hit .218/.296/.365 with a 30.7% strikeout rate in 327 games with the Yankees, none above Low Class-A.

No. 10: Sardinha

Pre-2005

No. 1: Duncan
No. 2: Cano

Hughes. (Post and Courier)
Hughes. (Post and Courier)

No. 3: RHP Phil Hughes
Select Quote: “The Angels strongly considered him at No. 12 before deciding to take top-rated pitcher Jered Weaver.”
What Happened: We all know what happened, but man, Hughes was the bomb back in the day. He had a 2.19 ERA with 93 strikeouts and 20 walks in 86.1 innings for Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa as a 19-year-old in 2005 then had a 2.16 ERA with 168 walks and 34 strikeouts in 146 innings for Tampa and Double-A Trenton in 2006. Baseball America ranked him the top pitching prospect in the game before the 2007 season. Well, top non-Daisuke Matsuzaka pitching prospect. Hughes had a (very) up and down tenure in New York but seems to have found himself with the Twins after leaving as a free agent last winter.

No. 4: RHP Steven White
Select Quote: “White’s development was an important step for the Yankees, who could use an innings-eater as soon as possible. He fits that profile, but needs at least a year to hone his secondary stuff.”
What Happened: White was a four-year college guy with okay stuff who got overrated as a prospect pretty quickly because he dominated Low-A Battle Creek and High-A Tampa as a 23-year-old (!) in 2004 — 2.61 ERA in 117.1 innings. He had a 4.45 ERA with a weak 16.9% strikeout rate from 2005-08, though he did at least reach Triple-A. White’s been out of baseball since 2008. The lesson here: age relative to level is important!

No. 5: Navarro (hadn’t yet been traded when Baseball America released their Yankees top ten)

No. 6: RHP Christian Garcia
Select Quote: “He has easy velocity on his fastball, working at 93-94 mph and topping out at 96 … His curveball, at times a true power hammer, could be a better pitch.”
What Happened: Man, Garcia had nasty, nasty stuff. He just couldn’t stay healthy. Two Tommy John surgeries, an oblique strain, and some other stuff limited him to only 258.1 innings — none above Double-A — from 2005-10 before the Yankees gave up and released him. The Nationals picked him up and he actually made it to the big leagues with them in 2012, allowing three runs with 15 strikeouts in 12.2 relief innings in September 2012. Here’s that “true power hammer” curveball:

Christian Garcia

Garcia got hurt again in 2013 and has thrown only 27.2 innings the last two seasons. Washington released him last June and from what I can tell, he’s still a free agent. Great, great arm. Just couldn’t stay healthy. Pitching prospects, man.

No. 7: 3B Marcos Vechionacci
Select Quote: “Vechionacci can hit. His advanced approach includes plate discipline, smooth swing mechanics and the ability to use the whole field. He shows developing power as well.”
What Happened: Well, no, Vechionacci couldn’t hit. Or at least he didn’t. He followed up his strong 2004 season (.319/.390/.454) with a .252/.314/.348 line and two homers in 128 games for Low-A Charleston in 2005. From 2005-09, Vechionacci put up a .245/.314/.345 batting line before having a nice dead cat bounce season with Double-A Trenton in 2010, hitting .283/.350/.421 with eleven homers in 114 games. People asked if he was regaining prospect status. I said no. They mocked at me. Vechionacci became a minor league free agent after that season, no team bothered to sign him, and he’s been out of baseball since. So no, he didn’t regain prospect status. Jerks.

No. 8: OF Melky Cabrera
Select Quote: “One club official compared his offensive game to Jose Vidro’s.”
What Happened: Melky has turned into a nice little player. His cup of coffee in 2005 was a total disaster, he looked like a deer in the headlights, but in 2006 he hit .280/.360/.391 (95 OPS+) while filling in for the injured Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield. Cabrera hit .267/.323/.385 (84 OPS+) from 2007-09, got traded to the Braves for Javy Vazquez, got fat, got released by Atlanta, signed with the Royals, got less fat, and has hit .309/.351/.458 (124 OPS+) since. Melky is a career .286/.339/.415 (103 OPS+) hitter with 17.7 WAR and just signed a three-year, $42M deal with the White Sox. Too bad he didn’t figure it out while in pinstripes. By the way, when he was Melky’s age, Vidro had 17.0 WAR. Freaky.

No. 9: Sardinha
No. 10: Wang

Pre-2006

No. 1: Hughes
No. 2: Duncan

No. 3: OF Jose Tabata
Select Quote: “His ceiling is as high as any Yankees minor leaguer since Alfonso Soriano.
What Happened: Tabata was peak Yankees Hype Machine. There were Manny Ramirez comps flying around and they were ridiculous. Tabata did hit though, at least at first. He authored a .298/.377/.420 line in 86 games with Low-A Charleston in 2006, his age 17 season, and Baseball America ranked him as the 27th best prospect in the game after the season. Then he hit .307/.371/.392 in 103 games with High-A Tampa the next season.

Tabata was not without his issues, however. He had been insubordinate — he literally left the stadium in the middle of a game while with Double-A Trenton in 2008 because he didn’t like a strike three call — and there were always whispers he was older than believed. Those whispers still exist too. Anyway, the Yankees got fed up with Tabata’s act and traded him to the Pirates in the Damaso Marte/Xavier Nady deal in 2008. He’s a career .275/.336/.379 (99 OPS+) hitter with 2.5 bWAR in part of five seasons. Tabata never developed any power and the off-the-field issues persist. The Yankees did well to cash him in as a trade chip when they did.

No. 4: SS C.J. Henry
Select Quote: “Henry is a premier athlete, already the best in the system. He has well-above-average raw power and is a plus runner.”
What Happened: Henry was a great athlete who split his time between baseball and basketball in high school, and the lack of experience showed in pro ball. He didn’t hit at all. Henry had a .240/.330/.353 line with a 27.2% strikeout rate in 77 games with Low-A Charleston when the Yankees cut bait and sent him to the Phillies as part of the package for Bobby Abreu in 2006, one year after drafting him. Henry briefly returned to the organization in 2008 but never made it out of Single-A ball. He played college hoops from 2009-11 at Kansas and Southern Nazarene University, tried independent ball in 2003 (.332/.410/.523!) and has been out of sight since. I thought Henry was a great pick at the time (17th overall), he was loaded with tools, it’s just didn’t work out.

No. 5: OF Austin Jackson
Select Quote: “Jackson’s basketball jones threw off many area scouts, who doubted his desire to play baseball. But Mark Batchko realized Jackson wanted to be a Yankee, having written his first scouting report on him when Jackson was 12.
What Happened: The 2006 season at Low-A Charleston was a little rough (.260/.340/.346 with 151 strikeouts) but Jackson broke out in 2007 and was one of the team’s very best prospects before being traded to the Tigers for Curtis Granderson during the 2009-10 offseason. Jackson is a career .274/.336/.402 (101 OPS+) hitter with 19.9 bWAR in five MLB seasons. He’s turned into exactly the player he was projected to be. Sometimes it all makes sense.

No. 6: SS Eduardo Nunez
Select Quote: “Nunez had a 70 arm on the 20-80 scouting scale and good hands defensively … Nunez has shaky footwork at shortstop, and some question whether he’ll have the range or mobility to stay there.”
What Happened: Oh Nunie. He didn’t hit at all from 2006-08 (.243/.312/.329), broke out with Double-A Trenton in 2009 (.322/.349/.433), held his own with Triple-A Scranton in 2010 (.289/.340/.381), and saw way too much playing time with the Yankees from 2010-13. With New York, Nunez hit .267/.313/.379 (88 OPS+) with -1.8 bWAR and plenty of hilaribad defense:

Eduardo Nunez

Nunez was traded to the Twins last year and did more of the same in Minnesota (82 OPS+ and 0.3 bWAR) while also playing some outfield. If nothing else, he was a goofy guy good for some comic relief. But geez, Nunie’s defense was gross.

No. 7: Vechionacci
No. 8: Garcia

No. 9 : RHP Jeff Marquez
Select Quote: “Marquez shows three pitches that could be 55 or 60 offerings on the 20-80 scouting scale … If his control and command improve to be major league average, Marquez could top out as a No. 2 or 3 starter.”
What Happened: Marquez was a pretty good pitching prospect who had solid yet unspectacular years in 2006 (3.58 ERA in 98 innings) and 2007 (3.65 ERA in 155.1 innings) while climbing from High-A Tampa to Triple-A Scranton. He struggled in 2008 (4.47 ERA in 102.2 innings) and the team sent him to the White Sox as part of the package for Nick Swisher after the season. Marquez returned to New York on waivers in 2011 and allowed one run in five innings for the team that summer. He’s been out of baseball since 2012.

No. 10: RHP Tyler Clippard
Select Quote: “Clippard combines a knack for pitching with solid-average stuff and a strikeout pitch. He profiles as a No. 3 starter and could move quickly.”
What Happened: Clippard was a pretty polarizing prospect back in the day because he had gaudy minor league numbers but the scouting report was just meh. He manhandled Double-A in 2006, posting a 3.35 ERA with 175 strikeouts in 166.1 innings, and although he sorta stunk with Trenton and Triple-A Scranton the following year (4.50 ERA with 83 strikeouts in 96 innings), the Yankees called Clippard up and he beat the Mets in his MLB debut.

Yankee Clippard

The Yankees traded Clippard to the Nationals for Jonathan Albaladejo after the season and that trade has been a disaster. Albaladejo mostly stunk in pinstripes and Clippard took off when Washington moved him into the bullpen full-time in 2009. He’s been one of baseball’s elite relievers ever since, pitching to a 2.64 ERA (150 ERA+) with 10.1 bWAR in an absurd 453.2 innings from 2009-14. Quite the blunder by the Yankees. Oh well. You win some and you lose some.

* * *

Baseball America ranked 27 different players among New York’s top ten prospects from 2003-06, and, of those 27, there is one superstar (Cano), two above-average players (Wang and Clippard), five solid big leaguers (Jackson, Melky, Rivera, Navarro, Hughes), four spare part big leaguers (Arias, Ramirez, Nunez, Tabata), and 15 others who either flamed out or got hurt or turned into up-and-down guys. Other players ranked among the team’s top 30 prospects in Baseball America’s Prospect Handbook from 2003-06 were IF Andy Phillips, OF Marcus Thames, RHP Scott Proctor, OF Brett Gardner, RHP Jeff Karstens, and the late LHP Brad Halsey. Gardner’s the prize there.

More than anything, I think this little exercise shows just how ridiculously difficult it is to project future MLB success. Ranking prospects is a fool’s errand but hey, it’s fun and people love rankings, so everyone does it anyway. Quality MLB players come in all shapes and sizes and have all sorts of different backgrounds. Jackson was a basketball prospect who became a big league center fielder. Arias was a stud shortstop prospect who now can’t hit his weight. Navarro looked like a monster who turned into a fringe regular. Cano was an okay prospect before turning into a star. Go back and look through the worst ranked farm systems in history and, inevitably, they produced some decent big league ballplayers.

A decade of bad shortstops before Derek Jeter

Rickey and Alvaro. (Getty)
Rickey and Alvaro. (Getty)

You can disparage his defense all you want, there is still no argument to be made that anyone other than Derek Jeter is the best shortstop in Yankees history. It’s not even close. Jeter was excellent for two decades in pinstripes, both on the field and the way he represented the organization off the field, and now the Yankees are set to move forward without him.

In the decade before Jeter, the Yankees went through some really terrible starting shortstops. Bad shortstops are not the only reason the team didn’t go to the postseason from 1982-95, but geez, they didn’t exactly help either. Here’s a look back at the guys who manned the shortstop position in the Bronx the decade before Jeter arrived.

1986: The Five-Headed Monster

Bobby Meacham, who put up a 59 OPS+ as the starting shortstop in 1985 and was in the conversation for the worst everyday player in baseball, started at short on Opening Day in 1986, but Wayne Tolleson started the most games at the position that season (53) after coming over from the White Sox at the trade deadline. Mike Fischlin, Paul Zuvella, and Dale Berra all started 15+ games at short as well. Tolleson had an 85 OPS+ and was the best of the lot. Overall, the Yankees got a .227/.295/.283 (75 OPS+) batting line with zero homers and more caught stealings (eleven) than stolen bases (six) out of their shortstops in ’86.

1987: Tolleson, then Meacham

Tolleson started the year as the everyday shortstop but eventually lost the job to Meacham because he hit .236/.318/.261 (58 OPS+) with one homer in the first half. Meacham put up a very nice .275/.351/.423 (109 OPS+) line with five homers as the everyday guy after the All-Star break. Smash them (and some others) together and the Yankees still received a woeful .229/.306/.277 (72 OPS+) batting line from their shortstops that year.

1988: Rafael Santana

Man, I completely forgot about Santana. He originally came up through the minors with the Yankees, was traded to the Cardinals for reliever George Frazier in 1981, then wound up with the Mets from 1984-87. The Yankees got him from the Mets in a totally forgettable five-player trade in December 1987. Anyway, Santana was the team’s regular shortstop in 1988 and he hit .240/.289/.294 (65 OPS+) with four homers in 148 games. The downward trend continues.

1989-91: The Alvaro Espinoza Era

Following the 1987 season, the Yankees signed Espinoza as a minor league free agent, and he spent just about the entire 1988 season with Triple-A Columbus, where he hit .246/.262/.306 in 119 games. But, because he could play the hell out of the position, the Yankees entrusted him as their starting shortstop in 1989. And again in 1990. Also in 1991 as well. During those three seasons, Espinoza hit .255/.281/.318 (68 OPS+) with seven homers in over 1,500 plate appearances spanning 444 games. His defense was good! But my gosh, that’s 1,500 plate appearances the club just threw away those years.

1992: Andy Stankiewicz

Randy Velarde started the year at shortstop but Stankiewicz, who spent the 1990-91 seasons with Triple-A Columbus, got the job in early-June and hit .268/.338/.348 (94 OPS+) with two homers in 116 games. It was by far the best stretch of his career. Velarde, Mike Gallego, and Dave Silvestri also saw time at short in 1992. The amalgam of shortstops hit .248/.317/.331 (99 OPS+) on the season. Compared to 1986-91, this was like getting All-Star production at short for New York.

1993: Spike Owen

Spike. (Getty)
Air Spike. (Getty)

I remember thinking Owen was a baddest mofo around when I was kid because his name was Spike. The Yankees signed him as a free agent during the 1992-93 offseason because he’d just hit .269/.348/.381 (107 OPS+) with the Expos, then Owen hit .234/.294/.311 (66 OPS+) in pinstripes, which was much more in line with the rest of his career. The Yankees traded Spike to the Angels after the season and he put up a 118 OPS+ with the Halos. Go figure. Gallego and Velarde also saw a decent amount of playing time at short in 1993 and they all somehow combined to hit .268/.330/.372 (103 OPS+). That’s good!

1994: You Say Gallego, I Say Gallago

Gallego was the primary shortstop during the strike-shortened 1994 season with Velarde and Kevin Elster — Elster managed to go 0-for-20 on the year — also seeing time at the position. Gallego hit .239/.327/.359 (81 OPS+) with six homers and the Yankees received a .231/.308/.367 (91 OPS+) line out of their shortstops overall. At least Gallego could play defense. Not too many of these pre-Jeter shortstops could say that.

1995: Tony Fernandez

Finally, a brand name. Fernandez made a name for himself as a slick fielder/just good enough hitter with the Blue Jays in the 1980s. He bounced around a bit in the early-1990s before landing with the Yankees as a free agent. Fernandez was 33 at the time and coming off a 106 OPS+ with the Reds in 1994, then, in 1995, he hit .245/.322/.346 (75 OPS+) with five homers in 108 games in pinstripes. Velarde played a bunch of shortstop while Fernandez was hurt in May — that’s when Jeter got his first taste of the show — and overall these guys hit .246/.321/.352 (95 OPS+) with seven homers on the year.

* * *

From 1986-95, the decade before Jeter, Yankees shortstops combined to hit .241/.296/.314 (80 OPS+) with 37 homers in nearly 6,000 plate appearances. That’s a decade of futility. In fact, you can go back even further than that. Before Jeter in 1996, the last Yankees shortstop to qualify for the batting title with even a 100 OPS+ was Roy Smalley in 1983 (126 OPS+). The pre-Jeter years were ugly at shortstop, folks. Let’s hope the post-Jeter years are better.

Prime Time: The Deion Sanders Sideshow

(Getty)
(Getty)

Few athletes in recent history were as physically gifted as Deion Sanders. He was an All-State performer in baseball, football, and basketball in high school, and a two-time All-American football player at Florida State while also running track and playing baseball. Playing one sport at the collegiate level is hard. Sanders played three and was excellent at all of them.

Sanders hit .281 with 38 stolen bases in 76 games for the Seminoles from 1986-87 before the Yankees selected him in the 30th round of the 1988 MLB draft. His football potential was no secret, the Yankees knew keeping him away from the gridiron would be tough, but Sanders agreed to play baseball and the team agreed to let him continue playing football. His first pro contract paid him upwards of $10,000 per week in the minors and included an insurance policy in case he suffered an injury that ruined his football career.

“He’s a good major league prospect, and by that I mean automatically that he could be a starter,” said team executive Syd Thrift to the New York Times that summer. “His greatest asset is his speed, and his fielding is above average. He will learn to be a good hitter; he’s already improved so much in a short period of time. His weakness is only a lack of playing time. I’d hate to see anyone with that talent walk away from the game.”

After signing, Sanders played 28 minor league games in 1988, most in rookie ball but he did climb as high as Triple-A. At age 20, he hit .284/.323/.379 with 14 steals. Sanders returned to Florida State in the fall to play football before reporting to Spring Training with the Yankees. The team assigned him No. 71 in camp — minor leaguers always get high numbers — but Deion’s agent made a big stink, and eventually the team issued Sanders No. 44. ”You don’t have to tell me that,” he said to reporters when asked if he knew who had previously worn No. 44. “He was the man around here for a long time.”

The Yankees sent Sanders to Double-A Albany out of Spring Training in 1989 and, in late-April, the Atlanta Falcons selected him fifth overall in the NFL draft. Sanders hit .286/.380/.361 with 17 steals in 33 games with Albany — his manager: Buck Showalter — and leveraged his NFL career into a big league promotion. ”Football is number one with me,” he said to the Albany Times Union just before the draft. ”This would be a different conversation if we were sitting in Yankee Stadium right now. But to miss half the NFL season for this, that’s crazy.”

So the Yankees called Sanders up at the end of May. He went 7-for-33 (.212) in nine games with the team before being sent down to Triple-A Columbus, where he played 70 games before being called back in September. Sanders was stuck in a contract dispute with the Falcons — he was using the Yankees as leverage in contract talks — and continued to play baseball rather than report to training camp with Atlanta. ”Some interesting things have been going on,” said attorney Eugene Parker to reporters. ”I think it’s fair to say the Yankees have made a serious move on Deion and Deion is listening.”

Sanders played five games in September, including going 3-for-5 with a homer in a game against the Mariners, before reaching a contract agreement with the Falcons and reporting to training camp. The Yankees finished the year 74-87, well out of the postseason race, so it’s not like he abandoned the team in a pennant race. The Yankees outrighted Sanders off the 40-man roster in December just so he could continue playing in Triple-A during the 1990 season should their be a work stoppage. (There was, but it ended in early-April.)

The Yankees and Sanders had a bit of a contract dispute that offseason — once again, he was using his NFL as leverage — but he eventually signed and made the 1990 Opening Day roster as the fourth outfielder. He played very sparingly in April, getting seven plate appearances in eight games before being sent to Triple-A. The Yankees called Sanders back up in late-May, and, on May 22nd, he had a run-in with Carlton Fisk during a game against the White Sox because he didn’t run out an infield pop-up. Fisk cursed at him and told him to run the ball out and Sanders responded by saying “the days of slavery are over.”

Sanders remained with the Yankees through the end of July and was just awful — he hit .158/.236/.271 (42 OPS+) with eight steals in 57 games, mostly as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement. He did, however, manage to hit an inside the park home run against the Royals when Bo Jackson, the other two-sport star, missed a diving catch in center field. That was pretty awesome:

Questions about whether Sanders would report to training camp with the Falcons in July persisted all summer. ”I can’t see myself swinging a bat here on Friday night, jumping on Delta, suiting up on Sunday, jumping back on Delta and getting here on Monday,” said Sanders to Michael Martinez in July when asked about playing both sports at the same time. ”I haven’t ruled that out. It would probably be if worse comes to worse.”

Sanders, once again, was using his NFL career as leverage against the Yankees, this time to get a contract extension. The Falcons threatened to reduce his pay and take back part of his signing bonus if he continued his baseball career, but that never happened. In late-July, the Yankees officially cut off contract talks with Sanders, partly because the Falcons were in position to take legal action against them. Sanders the baseball player simply wasn’t worth it, especially since he made it clear football was his top priority.

”Under no circumstances could we offer Deion that kind of salary for the 1991 season. Even so, we still would like Deion to continue with the Yankees and wish him well in whatever he chooses to do,” said George Steinbrenner to Malcolm Moran. Sanders reported to the Falcons and resumed his football career, and, in September, New York placed him on release waivers. The Yankees no longer wanted the distraction. ”It’s just better we part because of the atmosphere here,” said GM Gene Michael to Jack Curry.

All told, Sanders hit a weak .178/.247/.306 (55 OPS+) with five homers and nine stolen bases in 71 games with the Yankees from 1989-90. He was a major distraction off the field in addition to being unproductive on it. Sanders was arrested for assault while in Triple-A in 1989 because he got into a fight with two fans who heckled him, he had the incident with Fisk, he literally drew dollar signs in the dirt in the batter’s box before at-bats, and he was constantly using the Yankees as leverage against the Falcons and vice versa. Deion was so not worth the trouble.

Sanders continued the two-sport thing for a few years, suiting up with the Braves, Reds, and Giants after leaving the Yankees. His baseball career was more or less over by 1997 — he attempted a comeback in 2001 but that wasn’t happening — and to date he is still the only person in history to play in both a Super Bowl (1994 49ers and 1995 Cowboys) and a World Series (1992 Braves). Sanders was an incredible and unforgettable athlete, but he was an awful Yankee.