Earlier this year, Steven Goldman, and my co-host here at Bronx Banter, Cliff Corcoran characterized last off-season as “the worst in Yankee history.” When I later pressed them on their methodology they confessed that they hadn’t actually done a thorough comparison. Now, educated guesses coming from the likes of these two sure ain’t nothing to sneeze at. And while I don’t necessarily doubt that last year could have been the worst Yankee off-season, I want to know exactly how much worse it was than say, the 1981-82 off season, or the ’82-83 debacle, and why. Goldman plans to take up the conversation this winter over at the Pinstriped Bible. (To be reasonable, I think it’s better to ask what has been the worst off-seasons since George Steinbrenner has owned the team; as Goldman has already mentioned, we should not count the Collusion winters of the mid-eighties.)
While I’m not attempting to answer the question myself in this space, perhaps you guys have some suggestions of your own; feel free to leave ‘em in the comments section below. More to the point, this topic brings to mind some of the worst free agent signings in team history. Certainly, Carl Pavano, Jaret Wright and Tony Womack are among the most dubious dealsthe team has ever made–particularly because they prevented the Bombers from inking Carlos Beltran, a move that continues to haunt the organization this winter. (Should Pavano, and Womack go in the “Bad” category, or the flat-out “Ugly” one?)
Anyhow, I thought it might be fun to look back at some of the best and worst Yankee free agent signings. This is an informal list–and I’m going to skip over those free agents like Bernie Williams who were re-signed by the team (as well as all amateur free agent signings). Tell me what you think, and feel free to add to the list. I tried to get all of the contract information right, but if I’ve made any mistakes, please, I’m here to be corrected.
Catfish Hunter (December, 1974: five-years, $3.35 million)
Hunter’s best season for New York came in 1975, which shouldn’t come as a huge surprise because that was the team’s second (and final) year playing home games at Shea Stadium. Man, talk about the Yankeeography we’ll never see. I was too young to remember those years, but heck, I’ve rarely even seen still photographs from that time. If there was enough material, “The Yankees in Queens” would make a good documentary or book, or even just article.
Reggie Jackson (December, 1976: five-years, $3.5 million)
It was sometimes difficult for us to comprehend “the magnitude of me,” that was Reginald Martinez Jackson. Or just vexing. The man whose sole pal on the ’77 team was reserve, reserve catcher Fran Healy, wasn’t ever going to win any popularity contests in the Yankee locker room, but while in New York, he produced. His best season came in 1980.
Dave Winfield (December, 1980: ten-years, $23 million)
Winfield was unfairly dubbed “Mr. May” by George Steinbrenner in 1985. But Winfield was a tremendous player in New York and had the numbers to show for it. He was also just a marvel to watch–those long arms and legs. I remember him making a habit of robbing home runs that were sure to go over the left field fence. It was like he was sitting under the basket waiting to gold tend. His arm wasn’t half bad neither, and man could he ever pick up speed as he rounded first base. Hit more hard line drives than any Yankee right-hander until Gary Sheffield.
Goose Gossage (November, 1977: six-years, $2.75 million)
One of the handful of great relief pitchers of ‘em all, Gossage was a force to be reckoned with during his years in New York. Possibly the best relief pitcher signing in history. Somehow is not a Hall of Famer…yet.
Tommy John (November, 1978: four-years, $1.42 million)
Next to Guidry, my favorite Yankee starting pitcher as a kid. I was right-handed but tried to immitate his laconic delivery all the time during whiffle ball. Won 43 games in his first two seasons in New York (’79, ’80). Sinker, sinker, sinker: slow, slower, slowest.
Don Baylor (December, 1982, four-years, $3.37 million)
The veteran slugger was steady and productive during his years in New York. Loved his imposing stance at the plate. Short, compact swing for a big guy.
Phil Niekro (January, 1984: two-years, $1.1 million)
Won 16 games twice for the Bombers, when he was 45 and 46-years young. (Actually, I was told by an older guy recently that that term is endlessly annoying. “There are three stages in a man’s life,” he told me. “Youth, middle age, and ‘Gee, you look terrific.’”) Niekro won his 300th game on the last day of the 1985 season against the Blue Jays in Toronto. It would be his final game for the Yanks.
El Duque Hernandez (March, 1998: four-years, $6.6 million)
Just as 1998 didn’t seem like it could get any better for the Yanks, in swooped the modern baseball version of Yul Brenner, the Bombers’ International Man of Mystery. Hernandez distinguished himself as a playoff performer, and his Game 4 performance against the Indians in ’98 may well have been the most crucial game of the year for the Yanks.
Mike Stanley (January, 1992: four-years, $2.3 million)
I suppose Joe Girardi, the man who would replace Stanley, could fit nicely here too. Stanley was the superior offensive player, and had some fine seasons in New York, where he was a great fan favorite.
Jimmy Key (December, 1992: four-years, $16.8 million)
A key aquisition–along with trading Roberto Kelly for Paul O’Neill, and signing Wade Boggs–in rebuilding the Yankees. Key had stellar seasons in 1993 (18-6, 3.00 ERA in 236 innings) and ’94 (17-4, 3.27 ERA in 168 innings). Pitched for the World Championshiop team in ’96. Was not re-signed after that, and moved to Baltimore, whose free agent southpaw, David Wells, inked with the Yanks.
Mike Stanton (December, 1996: four-years, $5.5 million)
Solid southpaw out of the bullpen for the Yankees, Stanton had an especially good post-seaason career, with a 2.10 ERA in 55.7 innings (21 walks, 47 Ks).
David Wells (December, 1996: three-years, $13.5 million)
The man who loved the Yankees so much that he actually wore one of Babe Ruth’s old caps (which he had won in an auction) during a live game (at least for an inning or so before a not-so-pleased Joe Torre told him to remove it). Wells loved playing in New York, and the fans loved him back. Pitched very well in 1997 and 1998, especially ’98.
Hideki Matsui (December, 2002: three-years, $21 million)
The most famous athlete in Japan didn’t have too much difficulty adapting to the Major Leagues. While he’s no superstar in the states, he’s been a reliable player in every sense of the word. He’s not spectacular, but he’s durable and solid. His good fundamentals help cover his inadequacies as a fielder. Curiously though, he has the ability to look like a Little Leaguer out there too.
Don Gullett (November, 1976: six-years, $2 million)
Injuries were the key in making Gullett an expensive flop in New York.
Rawly Eastwick (December, 1977: five-years, $1.1 million)
Ah, we hardly knew ye. Lasted less than three months in the Bronx.
Dave Collins (December, 1981: 3-years, $2.475 million) The point man in George’s doomed speed experiment, Collins was lost in New York. According to “Damn Yankees, ” Collins asked reporter Moss Klein, “Why do they want me hear?” There’s no role for me here. This is the craziest team I’ve ever seen.”
Collins urged Klein to ask manager Bob Lemon about what was going on.
“I guess he’s gonna play somewhere,” Lemon said. “Will he be traded? You got me, Meat. They don’t tell me what’s going on here. I’m just the manager.”
Collins was traded in the off-season. Steinbrenner, in his haste to dump him, also included minor league prospect Fred McGriff in the deal. Ouch.
Steve Kemp (December, 1982: five-years, $5.5 million)
An overachieving, huslting kind of ball player, you would have thought Bill Martin would have loved him. But the Yankees had a logjam of talent to play in the outfield in ’83, and when Kemp tried to play through injuries, his performance suffered. He was KO’d by a freak batting practice accident late in the season. 1984 was even worse and he was shipped to the Pirates that winter. He played in only 92 games in ’85, and then a handful more in 86 and then a couple in ’88 for the Rangers before calling it quits.
Kenny Rogers (December, 1995: 4-years, $20 million)
Rogers pitched like a head case in New York, and lost the faith of manager Joe Torre. By the time the team won the World Series in ’96, Rogers had been buried. I’ll never forget watching the victory parade and seeing Rogers on top of one of the floats, waving his cowboy hat like Slim Pickens about to ride the Bomb into oblivion. That cracked me up. I thought that it was cool that he was enjoying himself so thoroughly considering how little he had contributed.
Hideki Irabu (May, 1997: four-years, $12.8 million, plus $8.5 million signing bonus–not to mention the $3 million they paid the Padres for the rights to negotiate with Irabu in the first place)
One of my favorite Yankee misfits of ‘em all. The Golden Boy team of the Joe Torre era needed at least one screwjob and “Boo Boo” Irabu fit the bill. He looked like a combination of Jackie Gleason and a Japanese Elvis impersonator. Had a horrible disposition on the mound. If he would miss with his pitches in the first inning or so, he’d get so upset with the umpires, that he’d act like a spoiled kid and say, “Fine, if that’s how you are going to call them, I’m going to keep pitching just off the plate.” Best Yankee moment came against the Blue Jays at the stadium. After a Yankee batter had been plunked, Irabu retaliated and hit a Toronto batter. When the hitter didn’t make a move to the mound, Irabu charged the plate, and the benches cleared. All I can remember is Mike Stanton holding Irabu back around home plate. Stanton couldn’t help but smile.
Jose Contreras (December, 2002: four-years, $32 million)
Pitched unevenly for a year-and-a-half in New York. Would vary between unhittable and unbearable. The Red Sox just feasted on him during this period. Traded for a half a season of Esteban Loiza. Of course, Contreras finally got his act together in the second half of this season, and was the ace pitcher for the World Champion Chicago White Sox. He pitched brilliantly in the post-season.
Jack Clark (January, 1988: 3-years, $5.5 million)
Ding-Dong, Collusion’s Dead, says George. Clark, a big lug if there ever was one, thought he’d have a better time of it in the Bronx than in St. Louis. He didn’t. Probably a huge mistake to leave Whitey Herog so soon. Clark did hit 27 dingers for the Bombers in ’88 but was traded in the fall to the Padres.
Ed Whitson (Fall, 1984: 5-years, $4.4 million)
Famous for hating pitching in New York. Actually, really famous for getting into a brawl (which was really two seperate fights) with manager Billy Martin. Whitson was declared the winner by TKO.
Steve Karsay (Fall, 2001: four-years, $22.25 milion)
A high-priced set-up man, Karsay had a good season for New York in 2002. After that, the Queens-native was ravaged by injuries and amounted to an expensive bust.
Pascual Perez (November, 1989: 3-years, $5.7 million)
A fitting symbol of the Yankees’ bottoming-out in the late eighties, early nineties. Perez, who came with a big mouth and lots of controversy, wound up pitching less than 90 innings over two years before it was all over for him.
Danny Tartabull (January, 1992: five-years, $25.5 million)
A relatively erodite player who enjoyed Broadway shows, it might be unfair to categorize Tartabull as a disaster. His numbers were decent for the Yanks, but they weren’t superstar stats. He was the last of the Jesse Barfield/Mel Hall era, as the Yankees moved into the Buck Showalter/Stick Michael/Joe Torre era.
Of course there are other notable signings that didn’t make the cut, but maybe you’d have ‘em up there. I didn’t include Mike Mussina or Jason Giambi. Perhaps that is unfair to Mussina who has been excellent if expensive for New York. When healthy, Giambi has been pretty good too. But oh, you remember some of these other cats: Mike Gallego, Joe Girardi, Steve Sax, Rudy May, Luis Tiant, John Candelaria, Tony Fernandez, Bob Shirley, Ken Griffey Sr., Wade Boggs, Steve Farr, Gary Ward, Mariano Duncan, Steve Howe, Jon Lieber, Rondell White, Dave LaRoche, and Al Holland.