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Yankees Who Got Away

The Yankees Let These Players Get Away

by Richard Cuicchi

April 4, 2024

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NOTE - This is a special article by Richard Cuicchi who occasionally offers his great historial baseball knowledge with us. Richard's contact information can be found at the end of this article. THANK YOU RICHARD!

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Serious New York Yankees baseball fans surely know the names of the best players to ever grace the diamond. Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra, Jeter, and Rivera, just to name a few. They’re also keenly aware of Yankee standouts who didn’t make Baseball’s Hall of Fame, players like Bauer, Martin, Howard, Maris, White, Munson, Guidry and Mattingly.


However, Yankee fans may not be as readily familiar with young players the organization let get away and who went on to have significant careers with other teams as All-Stars and MVP candidates. These players typically started in the Yankees farm system, played briefly for the big-league team, but were ultimately traded by the Yankees to other teams or even released outright.


Of course, hindsight is 20-20. In retrospect, the Yankees shed these players before their full potential was realized. But understandably, they may have been blocked by established Yankees stars and thus became expendable. Or they may have been used in trades to acquire seasoned players who could help the team immediately.


Especially in the cases where the player acquired in a trade for a Yankee prospect didn’t pan out, there may have been remorse by the Yankees’ front office for not having kept the prospect.


Here is a sampling of players the Yankees’ organization may wish they had kept.


The Yankees purchased 20-year old outfielder Dixie Walker from Greenville of the Sally League in 1930. He played parts of four seasons with the Yankees from 1932 to 1936, unable to claim a full-time role in the Yankees outfield that featured Babe Ruth (near the end of his career), Earle Combes, Ben Chapman, George Selkirk, and Joe DiMaggio (at the beginning of his career). The Yankees put him on waivers in May 1936, when the Chicago White Sox claimed him. Walker eventually made his way to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1939. His career took off, becoming one of the Dodgers’ best players through 1947. He received National Legue MVP Award votes in seven of those seasons, finishing as high as second, third and sixth. During his 18-year career, he was a five-time All-Star, finishing with a batting line of .306/.383/.437, 105 home runs, and 1,023 RBIs. He had a career 44.9 WAR and 121 OPS+.


Lew Burdette was a right-handed pitcher who came up through the Yankees farm system, making his major-league debut season in 1950. With the Yankees having a veteran staff at the time, he appeared in only two games before being dealt to the Boston Braves (with $50,000 cash) for pitcher Johnny Sain near the end of the 1951 season. As a full-time starter with the Braves, he proceeded to post a 179-120 record in 13 seasons. Paired with Braves left-handed pitcher Warren Spahn, they formed one of the best top-of-the-rotation staffs in the league. Ironically, he defeated the Yankees in three games of the 1957 World Series, earning him Series MVP honors. He was a two-time All-Star and finished third in the Cy Young Award voting in 1958.


Norm Siebern played three seasons, including two as the primary left-fielder with the Yankees between 1956 and 1959. Yet, with a crowded left field projected for 1960 that included Yogi Berra, Bob Cerv, Hector Lopez, and a part-time Tony Kubek, Siebern became expendable. He was involved in the trade to the Kansas City A’s that brought power-hitter Roger Maris to fill the right-field spot with the Yankees. Siebern became an everyday player in left field and later at first base, earning two All-Star selections with the A’s and one with the Orioles.


Tippy Martinez, a 5-foot-10 left-handed relief pitcher, got his first taste of the big leagues with a late-season callup to the Yankees in 1974, followed by parts of two more seasons with the Yankees. With Sparky Lyle and Dick Tidrow holding down the main reliever jobs, Martinez became nonessential and was included in a huge 10-player trade with the Baltimore Orioles in June 1975. He quickly established himself in the Orioles’ pen and was an underrated reliever for the next seven seasons with the Orioles, although he averaged 129 ERA+. He helped the Orioles win two pennants, in 1979 and 1983, including the World Series title in 1983. Had he remained a Yankee, he might have been an effective setup guy for Lyle and later Goose Gossage.


Willie McGee was a first-round selection out of high school by the Yankees in 1977. He spent five seasons in the Yankees minor-league system, reaching the Double-A level. The outfielder had his best year with Nashville in 1981, but other top prospects on that team included Don Mattingly, Buck Showalter, and Otis Nixon. In need of pitching for the big-league club, the Yankees traded McGee after the 1981 season to the St. Louis Cardinals for pitcher Bob Sykes. McGee went onto become a base-stealing threat and slick-fielding outfielder. He was third in the voting for NL Rookie of the Year in 1982 and an All-Star and Gold Glove winner in 1983. McGee followed in 1984 with All-Star, Gold Glove, and Silver Slugger honors as he was voted the NL MVP. The Cardinals certainly got the best end of the deal because Sykes never pitched for the Yankees.


Fred McGriff was a young first baseman in the Yankees farm system around the same time as Mattingly. But after only a total of 81 minor-league games in 1981 and 1982, the Yankees included McGriff, along with Dave Collins and Mike Morgan, in a trade with the Toronto Blue Jays. Infielder/outfielder Tom Dodd and pitcher Dale Murray were swapped in return. McGriff went on to a Hall of Fame career, primarily with the Blue Jays and Atlanta Braves. He was a five-time All-Star and three-time Silver Slugger winner at first base. He received league MVP consideration in eight seasons. He hit 493 career home runs and 1,550 RBIs during his 19-year career. McGriff was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2023. Murray ended up making only 62 relief appearances for the Yankees, while Dodd never played for them.


Nineteen-year-old pitcher Jose Rijo pitched poorly (2-8, 4.76 ERA, 1.717 WHIP, and 80 ERA+) in his debut season with the Yankees in 1984. His performance prompted the Yankees to include him with four other Yankees in a trade with the Oakland A’s to get Rickey Henderson. Rijo didn’t do much better in three seasons for the A’s. His breakout came in 1988 with the Cincinnati Reds as a 23-year-old. He went on to finish fourth in the NL Cy Young Award voting in 1991 and fifth in 1993. The Yankees could have used his Reds-like results in their lean years in the early 1990s. Stan Javier, another young Yankees prospect who played only seven major-league games in 1984, was included in the trade with Rijo. Javier, the son of former major leaguer Julian Javier, never achieved All-Star status during his next 16 major-league seasons, but he became a valuable platoon outfielder for several major-league teams. In this case, the Yankees’ front office was not disappointed with Henderson’s productivity’ In his four seasons, he averaged 128 runs and 81 stolen bases, while slashing .288/.395/.455.


Jay Buhner was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1984 January secondary draft but was included in an offseason trade to the Yankees that sent Tim Foli and Steve Kemp to the Pirates. Buhner played parts of two seasons with the Yankees in 1987 and 1988, before being traded to the Seattle Mariners. After his slow development into a full-time player, he finally had a breakout season at age 26 with the Mariners in 1991. As the Mariners right-fielder, he matured into a power-hitter, averaging 32 home runs between 1991 and 1997. He received MVP votes in 1995, 1996, and 1997. He was an All-Star and Gold Glove Award winner in 1996. Ken Phelps, who had been the target of the Yankees’ trade with Seattle, played parts of two seasons as DH and pinch-hitter, compiling only 17 home runs and 51 RBIs.


Examples of other Yankee prospects that ended up with substantial careers for other teams include the following (with their last season in the Yankees organization): Gus Triandos (1954), Lee Thomas (1961), Deron Johnson (1961), Otis Nixon (1983), Al Leiter (1989), Hal Morris (1989), and J. T. Snow (1992).


Every major-league team has had its share of players who “got away” over the years. Of course, the Yankees were the beneficiary of the most famous instance, when they purchased 24-year-old Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox after the 1919 season.

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Richard Cuicchi can be contacted at richard@thetenthinning.com. A SABR member since 1983, he has written extensively for SABR's BioProject and Games Project.



22 Comments


Jeff Korell
Jeff Korell
Apr 05

Some of these players who "got away" may never had realized their stardom had they stayed with their original team. I always bring up Nolan Ryan in this regard. Many people regard the Mets trading Nolan Ryan to the California Angels for "no hit", "no field" shortstop Jim Fregosi as one of the worst, most lopsided trades in history. But honestly, Nolan Ryan would not have been the Nolan Ryan we knew if he had stayed with the Mets his whole career. As a Met, he was WILD. One columnist said, "We've got to trade this guy before he walks the Statue Of Liberty". Nolan Ryan was one of those players, like Sonny Gray and Ed Whitson, who just co…

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mikemarinelli54
Apr 04

Dixie Walker went on to lead a players rebellion protesting the Dodgers signing Jackie Robinson.

Guess why? Branch Rickey was none too happy. Told the team that he would accommodate anyone who did not like it with a trade. Walker, being one of the Dodgers better players, called his bluff.

Mr Rickey wasn’t bluffing. Walker was shipped off to the Pirates. So, maybe no great loss.

The huge 10 player Yankee-Oriole deal was made only after the Yanks acquired Vida Blue earlier that day. The idea was to reunite Blue, Hunter, already on the team, and Ken Holtzman who was in the deal. Two days later, commissioner Bowie Kuhn voided the sale of Blue along with sales that sent …

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Jeff Korell
Jeff Korell
Apr 05
Replying to

With Dixie Walker being such a racist, I am amazed that he was referred to as "the people's cherce". He is certainly not MY "cherce". And he never will be.

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Lincoln Mitchell
Lincoln Mitchell
Apr 04

Midway through the 1989 season, the Yankees traded Rickey Henderson back to the A's. He remained in the big leagues through 2003 and accumulated 49.6 WAR in his post-Yankees career.

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Lincoln Mitchell
Lincoln Mitchell
Apr 05
Replying to

I was at a game at Candlestick Park when they announced it on the scoreboard. The Giants were having a great season and went on to win the pennant, but when I saw the news I felt like I'd been punched in my stomach as both a Yankees and a Giants fan and knew A's would win it all that year.

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Jeff Korell
Jeff Korell
Apr 04

It's for this reason that I am very hesitant to see the Yankees give up top prospects for veterans. If it is for a guy like Juan Soto, I make an exception, but otherwise, I prefer to keep the prospect. To this day, I am still unhappy with Fred McGriff being included as a minor league "throw in" in that trade for the likes of mediocre reliever Dale Murray. I am also mad that they traded budding star Jay Buhner for the "ancient Mariner" Ken Phelps, who was the "Joey Gallo" of his time. Phelps was pretty much exactly the same type of player as Gallo was for the Yankees, only older. Speaking of the Joey Gallo trade, Ezequiel …

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Jeff Korell
Jeff Korell
Apr 05
Replying to

I agree. I didn't mind the Yankees surrendering top prospects for Henderson. Acquiring Henderson at that time, at that point in his career, was the equivalent of acquiring Juan Soto right now, at this point in HIS career.


I remember McGriff in a Toronto uniform being very tough against the Yankees, and feeling bewildered at the time that the return for him was mediocre reliever Dale Murray. That was why I became part of the masses who was mad about that trade. But what a great article you wrote and what excellent points you made in it. In his case, there was a surplus of 1B and 1B prospects in the minor league system and a newly minted home gr…


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Melfman1
Melfman1
Apr 04

Some more guys that had decent to solid careers:

Doug Drabek

Al Leiter

Tyler Clippard

Mike Lowell

Mark Melancon

Jose Quintana


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Jeff Korell
Jeff Korell
Apr 05
Replying to

Just read it. Great read. And so true.

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