A Few That Got Away
Mike Whiteman March 8, 2021
The Yankees have a long history of savvy personnel moves – it makes sense as they are the most successful franchise in baseball history. Through smarts, economic strength and the occasional luck, they have made many more good moves than bad ones through the years.
This past offseason, the Yanks traded prospects Miguel Yajure, Roansy Contreras, Maikol Escotto, and Canaan Smith to Pittsburgh for pitcher Jameson Taillon. This deal has been given general approval by Yankee fans and writers, as the team that is built for now dealt long term depth for a player slated to contribute in 2021.
Alas, deals don’t always work out. Of course, a team with more than a century’s of history won’t get it right every time. Will any of the prospect haul sent to the Pirates give the Yanks long term regret?
Here are some of the notable players that got away through the years:
Dazzy Vance – The big right-hander with a big fastball toiled between the Yankees and the minors from 1915-1921, struggling with arm ailments and ineffectiveness. His mediocre Yankee numbers were 0-3, 4.45. The team cut their losses when they sold him to the minor-league Sacramento Senators in 1919.
Vance was purchased by the Dodgers before the 1922 season from the minor league New Orleans Pelicans, an afterthought in a deal to bring the highly regarded catcher Hank DeBerry to Brooklyn. Dazzy quickly became the headliner of the deal when, finally healthy, he won eighteen games and led the National League in strikeouts as a 31-year old rookie. He led the NL in strikeouts each of the next six years while winning 20 or more games three times. He was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1955.
Willie McGee – During the Yankees postseason march of 1981, they were already making a deal for the next season. They acquired left-handed pitcher Bob Sykes from St. Louis for a minor league outfielder. The curious deal for a pitcher with a 23-26, 4.65 career mark didn’t look to register in most fans’ minds.
But it eventually did. It did for the wrong reasons.
The minor league outfielder was Willie McGee, coming off a .322 season at AA Nashville. After starting the season at AAA Louisville, he was promoted to the Cardinals in May, and was the primary center fielder for their 1982 World Series championship team, finishing in third place in Rookie of the Year voting.
During the World Series, the bungled swap was rubbed in as he practically carried the Cardinals to a Game Three win, homering twice, driving in four runs and breaking the Brewers’ hearts by robbing Milwaukee’s Gorman Thomas of a home run on a spectacular catch. See it here:
McGee went on to have a long, productive, career; tallying 2254 career hits and the 1985 NL MVP award.
Sykes never pitched a game in Yankee pinstripes.
Fred McGriff – After the disastrous 1982 season, the Yanks were seeking to find a home, any home for misfit Dave Collins, an inexplicable free agent signing who had no position. The best way to dump his contract was to package him along with some cash and young players to another team. The Toronto Blue Jays were willing, and Collins along with pitcher Mike Morgan and McGriff were dealt for journeymen reliever Dale Murray and prospect Tom Dodd, who never made an appearance in pinstripes.
Upon his promotion to Toronto in 1987, McGriff became one of the premier power hitters in the game, averaging about 30 homers per season, leading his league twice, and finishing his career with 493 dingers while achieving three Silver Slugger awards. In light of the PED era statistical anomalies, his career home run total doesn’t look that great, but in any other era 493 career home runs is pretty impressive. He reached 39.8% of the Hall of Fame voting in his last year of eligibility in 2019.
Jay Buhner – Perhaps the most famous Yankee trade blunder, made famous by Frank Costanza’s rant on Seinfeld. This was another case of the Yankees looking for a boost in the now, dealing the future.
Seeking left-handed batting depth in 1988, the team dealt the 23-year old Buhner for Ken Phelps, a primary DH/occasional first basemen batting .284/.434/.547 at the time. The left-handed Phelps didn’t play bad at all for the Yanks, logging a .890 OPS in part time work the rest of the season. He struggled in 1989, and was dealt to Oakland.
“Bone” went on to have distinguished career, hitting 40+ home runs three times while playing Gold Glove caliber defense; a major cog of the great 1990s Mariners teams.
Doug Drabek – The Achilles heal of the 1980s Yankees was pitching. They would always seem to start well, then fade in the summer heat as the pitchers wilted. After the 1986 season the Yanks trained their eyes on Rick Rhoden, a 6+ WAR starter for Pittsburgh. In true Yankee style, they dealt three young pitchers for the Pirate ace and relievers Cecilio Guante and Pat Clements.
One of those was Doug Drabek, a right-hander who was 7-8, 4.10 ERA as a Yankee rookie. He was a hit when he moved to Steel City, averaging 15-10, 3.02 over his six season in a Pirate uniform. He was the 1990 Cy Young Award winner and the ace of three division winners. Rhoden was basically a league average starter in the 1987 and 1988 seasons.
Lew Burdette – In August on 1951 the Yanks were fighting neck and neck with Cleveland for the AL lead, with Boston not that far behind. They traded Burdette, who had appeared in two games in 1950 and was having a solid year in the Pacific Coast League, to the then Boston Braves for right-handed pitcher Johnny Sain.
Sain was from the famed “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain” 1948 National League pennant winning Braves, and was a four-time twenty game winner. At age 33, he was struggling in 1951, with a 7-14, 4.20 ERA. Sain would serve as a valuable swingman on the 1952 and 1953 World Series champion Yankee teams, and led the American League in saves in 1954.
Burdette would go on to an excellent career with the Braves, slotting in as the number two starter behind Hall of Famer Warren Spahn. From 1956-1961, Burdette averaged 19 wins and 3.47 ERA.
At the time of the trade these deals, and these players, didn’t create much buzz.
They sure did later.