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Let’s Make A Deal – Yankees Retro Edition

The Situation

The 1985 and 1986 editions of the New York Yankees left the fans longing for more. Both squads showed flashes of brilliance, featuring potent offenses, but eventually fell short in the end.

The weak link in both seasons was pitching.

The 1986 mound corps struggles were very acute, as they labored to a 4.11 team ERA – eighth in the American League and featured only one pitcher who won more than ten games – lefty Dennis Rasmussen, who also led the team with 202 innings pitched. Now, a starter who throws 202 innings today is some kind of horse, but in 1986 that was considered pretty weak for a top of the line starter.

An upgrade was sorely needed.

The 1986 Pittsburgh Pirates finished in last place in the NL East. The season was notable in that two future pillars of the franchise – manager Jim Leyland and outfielder Barry Bonds – made their debuts, giving hope to the fanbase. Their time as was not yet at hand though, but they had a very desirable trade asset who may help accelerate the process – 33-year old pitcher Rick Rhoden.

Rhoden’s stellar 1986 season put him on the map of many teams, he was among National League leaders in wins, ERA, innings pitched and complete games -a true ace to put at the top of a rotation

Someone like Rhoden was sorely needed in New York, and the Yanks were interested. Very interested.

The Principals

The Yankees acquired from Pittsburgh:

Rick Rhoden – Rhoden was an All-Star and finished fifth in the National League Cy Young award voting while toiling for the last place Pirates. Rhoden had requested to be traded.

Pat Clements – A 25-year old lefthanded reliever with a 3.20 ERA out of the bullpen for the Angels and the Bucs the previous two seasons.

Cecilio Guante – Another reliever, with a 3.06 ERA in 201 career appearances out of the Pittsburgh bullpen.

The Pirates acquired from New York:

Doug Drabek – In his rookie season, the 23-year old righthander was a humble 7-8, 4.10 ERA. After a rough start, he improved as the summer went on and was 5-4, 3.00 in August and September, adding an exclamation point to his freshman year by holding the AL champion Boston Red Sox to three hits over 8.1 innings in his last start of the year.

Logan Easley – In 1986 Easley was 8-7, 1.51 with 18 saves at AA Albany. Pittsburgh management compared the right-hander to a young Bruce Sutter due to his fastball/split-finger pitch combo.

Brian Fisher – The big right-hander burst on the Yankee scene in as a rookie 1985, saving fourteen games with a 2.38 ERA, forming a potent 1-2 combo with closer Dave Righetti. He came back to earth in 1986 (4.93) but had a live arm and going into his age 26-season.

The Short-Term Verdict:

This trade was a big deal, and Rhoden looked to be destined for a great 1987 season in the Bronx. Through July he was 13-6, 3.44, and the Yankees were atop of the AL East. Unfortunately, both limped home – Rhoden was 3-4, 5.23 ERA the rest of the way and the team crashed from 2.5 games ahead in July to nine games behind at season’s end.

Guante and Clements were non-factors in 1987, combining for a 5.23 ERA in 124 total innings.

Drabek and Fisher showed promise in their Pittsburgh debuts, both winning eleven games. Easley pitched in seventeen games, garnering a 5.47 ERA and one save. The Pirates went 80-82 in 1987, a sixteen game improvement from the previous year.

The Long Term Verdict

Drabek grew to be one of the better pitchers in the National League, averaging fifteen wins a season with a 3.02 ERA in six seasons with the Pirates, with the highlight being a 22-6, 2.76 1990 season, taking home the NL Cy Young award.

Fisher had one more full season in Pittsburgh, where he won eight games with a 4.61 ERA. Easley did not become the next Bruce Sutter, and finished his career in 1989 with a 5.12 ERA in 27 appearances.

Rhoden won 12 games with a 4.29 ERA for the Yankees in 1988, as the Yanks finished in fifth place, another season of trial and turmoil including yet another Billy Martin firing. After the season, the Yankees curiously dealt him to Houston for pitchers Pedro DeLeon and Mike Hook, neither of whom ever advanced past AA, and outfielder John Fishel, who struggled to stay above .200 in two seasons in AAA.

Guante regained his effectiveness in 1988, but was then dealt to Texas in August. Clements appeared in six games for the Yanks the same year, then was traded to San Diego in the offseason as a throw-in part of the deal that sent Jack Clark to the Padres.

Make the deal again?

In hindsight certainly not, but the answer to the question is a bit more nuanced. Parlaying a top veteran for multiple younger pieces is a tactic as old as the game itself.

Rhoden was brought in to put the team over the top and didn’t succeed, though for four months in 1987 it looked like he might just do it. Fans today reasonably question whether the Yankees are going all-in. We didn’t have that worry in 1987. The team took its best shot and came up short. There’s no bitterness over this deal from this Yankee fan.


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