Socrates, Jhoulys, and Nestor
By Mike Whiteman February 22, 2021
As a baseball fan, I was thrilled to see the opening of Spring Training camps last week. This is the official “light at the end of the tunnel”, for me which is spring. As a Yankee fan, I’m excited by the new offseason additions including Corey Kluber, Jameson Taillon, Darren O’Day, Justin Wilson, Socrates Brito, Nestor Cortes Jr, Jhoulys Chacin…
Wait, you say. Kluber and Taillon are definitely reasons for excitement. O’Day and Wilson are solid additions to the bullpen. But Brito? He has a .179 career batting average. Cortes? He of the 6.72 career ERA? Chacin? He’s had some moments but his 6.06 ERA since 2019 doesn’t look to signal that more of those moments are coming.
As Yankee fans, especially those of us who were fans during the George Steinbrenner heyday, we like the big deals. We like Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield, Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez, Gerrit Cole. An offseason without the headline move can be a huge letdown, and feel like wasted opportunity.
Brito, Chacin, and Cortes are among thirty-two nonroster invitees to Tampa. Seventeen of those players have spent some time in the major leagues, and are looking for another opportunity to reach the Promised Land again. None of these players are in any team’s 2021 plans. .
Sometimes though, chance comes to players with very low expectations, and they take advantage in a big way.
Aaron Small, 2005 – Signed as a free agent before the season, the journeyman had played for six teams since his 1994 debut, with a 5.49 career ERA and negative WAR in 218 innings of primarily relief work.
After starting the year with a 4.89 ERA in the minors, he was called up to a Yankee team that was desperate for pitching. In his first start on 7/20, he gained the win, yielding three runs in 5.1 innings. He pitched effectively as a starter and reliever for the next month. At the end of August, he took a spot in the rotation, and was 6-0, 3.05 the rest of the way, culminating a 10-0, 3.20 season.
For the 33 year old, it was the season of his life. He transformed it into a $1.2 million payday in 2006, the highest of his career. Unfortunately, the 2005 magic was temporary, as he was 0-3, 8.26 in 2006, his final season.
Mike Stanley, 1992 – The signing of a 28-year old career backup with a .251/.348/.352 slash and a reputation for poor/average defense didn’t create a lot of press. In his first season he improved a bit, with a .249/.372/.428 mark while backing up Matt Nokes.
In 1993, he just took off, relegating Nokes to a backup role while hitting .305 with 26 home runs and a .534 slugging percentage, finishing thirteenth in American League MVP voting and taking home a Silver Slugger Award. He almost duplicated the season in the shortened 1994 season, his .929 OPS a few points higher than his 1993 effort.
He came back to earth in 1995, batting .260 with 18 home runs but was an All-Star for the first time.
His defense, while improved, wasn’t to the liking of incoming skipper Joe Torre in 1996, and he was allowed to leave as a free agent. He was soon moved out from behind the plate, spending significant time at first base and at DH. The last five years of his career was spent in four uniforms, including the Yanks as a late summer pickup in 1997, and he was recognized with the desirable label of “professional hitter”.
Bobby Shantz, 1957 – In 1952, the Philadelphia Athletics 5’6” lefthander was on top of the baseball world, winning the American League MVP award for his 24-7, 2.48. It was a fast and hard fall of the mountaintop, as he seriously injured his left shoulder in 1953, an injury that would be with him to some degree the rest of his career. He was 13-26, 4.42 for the remainder of his tenure in Philadelphia/Kansas City, and was dealt to the Yanks in February 1957, seemingly a throw in as part of a thirteen player deal between the Yanks and the A’s.
Casey Stengel’s plan was to make him a full-time reliever in an effort to ease the stress on his fragile shoulder, but ace Whitey Ford had an injured shoulder of his own in early 1957 and Shantz was forced into a semi-regular starting role. Relatively pain free for the first time in years, he responded by leading the AL with a 2.45 ERA and was selected to the All-Star game. In 1958 he had a 3.45 ERA as a swingman, then spend the next six years primarily in the bullpen with multiple teams, pitching to a 2.68 ERA and 141 ERA+.
Luis Arroyo, 1960 – The screwballer was a National League All-Star as a rookie in 1955, but tumbled quickly afterwards, racking up a 4.63 major league ERA while bouncing between Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and the minor leagues.
The Yanks were on the hunt for relief pitching in the summer of 1960 and plucked him out of the Reds’ minor league system in July as the player to be named later in a deal made back in March.
The PTBNL was an immediate boon to the Yanks, as he was 5-1, 2.88, with seven saves in about two months of 1960 work. His 1961 was a season for the ages – 15-5, 2.19 ERA, 29 saves (12 two inning saves), American League All-Star, sixth in MVP voting. Especially thankful for Arroyo’s success was 1961 Cy Young winner Ford, as Arroyo saved thirteen of Whitey’s 25 wins.
Arroyo struggled afterwards with injury and ineffectiveness, and retired at the end of the 1964 season.
Gio Urshela, 2019 – How could I write an article on unheralded acquisitions without mentioning Urshela? We all know the story. He was purchased from Toronto while playing AAA ball, destined there due to his .225/.274/.315 career slash at the time.
Injury to 2018 rookie star Miguel Andujar at the beginning of the 2019 season opened the door a crack for Urshela, and he kicked it in. His 2019 season was All-Star caliber (.314/.355/.534) and the showing in the abbreviated 2020 season (.298/.368/.490) indicated that he’s no fluke. Gio has attained this offensive production while producing seemingly an endless supply if acrobatic plays at third base.
Got a few minutes? Check out this video of some of Urshela’s gems:
Who are some Yankee pickups through the years that have exceeded your expectations?