When I heard that Ron Santo had passed away, I was immediately saddened by the loss of a beloved baseball icon who would not live to see his eventual induction into the Hall of Fame. Santo was the kind of hard-nosed all-round player that I wish had played for the Yankees in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He might have made those seasons of mediocrity a bit more tolerable.
Little did I know that the Yankees nearly acquired Santo after the 1971 season. That nugget of information comes courtesy of Bronx Banter posting favorite “Williamnyy23” (whose real name still escapes me). During the 1971 season, Santo and Cubs manager Leo Durocher endured a major falling out. With tensions between the two men raging, the Cubs decided to entertain trade offers after the season. The Yankees, who desperately needed a new third baseman to take over for the overmatched Jerry Kenney (no home runs in 395 plate appearances), came knocking. They offered their two top starting pitchers, Mel Stottlemyre and Fritz Peterson, but rather remarkably, they were turned down by the Cubs. The Yankees apparently thought so highly of Santo that they were willing to surrender 40 per cent of their rotation–the top 40 per cent, no less.
Both Stottlemyre and Peterson were 29 at the time, both in the prime of their careers. Stottlemyre had gone 16-12 with a 2.87 ERA and Peterson had won 15 games with a 3.05 ERA. The pair had combined to give the Yankees over 500 innings in 1971. Their departures would have left the Yankees with three younger starters in their mid-twenties–Stan Bahnsen, Steve Kline and Mike Kekich–followed by two gaping holes in the rotation. But that’s how much the Yankees valued the 31-year-old Santo, even coming off a down season in which his home run total had dropped to 21 and his slugging percentage had fallen to .423, his lowest mark in three years.
As it turns out, none of the principals in the proposed trade had much staying power. Santo put up two more decent seasons before being traded to the White Sox, where he closed out his career rather ungracefully in 1974. Peterson had only more good season in New York before becoming embroiled in the infamous wife swap of 1973 and being traded to the Indians in the Chris Chambliss deal. Stottlemyre pitched well for two seasons before tearing his rotator cuff, an injury that basically ended his career in the spring of 1975.
In retrospect, it’s probably a good thing that the Yankees did not make the Santo trade. With Santo in the fold in 1972 and ‘73, the Yankees never would have made the fruitful trade that brought them Graig Nettles during the winter of ‘72. They would have been stuck with an over-the-hill Santo by 1974, putting them in the position of having to trade for another third baseman. Who knows if Nettles would have still been available? Who would have been a reasonable trade option? Buddy Bell, Darrell Evans, and Bill Madlock were all traded during the 1970s, so it’s possible that the Yankees might have made a deal for one of them. All three were fine players, but none would have performed any better than Nettles did for the Yankees from 1973 to 1983.
Still, it’s interesting to think of what might have been. Ron Santo as a Yankee? The Yankees wanted it to happen, but the Cubs had other thoughts. And the rest is history.
Scouts are the lifeblood of any good organization, but they continue to be overlooked, especially now in the era of Sabermetrics. That’s unfortunate, particularly when it comes to their value in evaluating amateur players. Given the disparity of competition, statistics for high school and college players can be very misleading. A good scout can help a club determine whether a player should be a second-round pick, or someone who should be avoided all together.
One of the most legendary evaluators of amateur talent died earlier this week. He was Herb Stein, who worked for the Twins but was based in Riverdale. Working as a bird dog in the New York metropolitan area and throughout New England, Stein signed a number of players for the Twins, none more notable than Hall of Famer Rod Carew.
Though a native of Panama, Carew and his family moved to the Bronx in the early 1960s. When Carew was declared ineligible to play high school baseball, he took to the playgrounds to play ball. That’s where Stein discovered him in the early 1960s, right under the nose of the Yankees. Since he wasn’t playing against formal high school competition, the Yankees missed out on Carew, but Stein followed him as he played on the Bronx sandlots. One day, Stein watched Carew play a doubleheader in Crotona Park. Carew banged out ten hits that day, spraying the ball successfully from one field to another. From there, Minnesota invited Carew to a workout at the old Yankee Stadium, where the Twins were scheduled to play the Yankees that night. As he took batting practice, Carew hit the 407-foot marker at the old Stadium; that convinced the Twins that they should sign him as soon as his high school class officially graduated.
If not for Stein, the Yankees might have had Carew–and not Horace Clarke–playing second base for them in the late 1960s. Carew could have batted leadoff, setting the table for Roy White, Thurman Munson, and Bobby Murcer. Now that would have been a formidable “front four” at the top of the Yankee lineup.
While Carew was the best player that Stein signed for the Twins, he was hardly the only one. In 1981, Stein convinced the Twins to spend their second-round pick on Frank Viola, the St. John’s standout who would become the anchor of Minnesota’s 1987 world championship team. Several other Stein discoveries also made the major leagues, including infielders Joe Foy and Scott Leius, and outfielder Gene Larkin, who delivered the game-winning single in Game Seven of the 1991 World Series.
Stein died Monday in Riverdale at the age of 92. His passing came 15 years after the Twins unceremoniously dumped him courtesy of a callous mid-day phone call. The Twins never properly explained the dismissal of Stein, but perhaps it’s fitting that they haven’t won a playoff series since ‘91–when Larkin put the finishing touch on the Braves.
If the Hall of Fame ever starts inducting scouts, Herb Stein should be one of the first to have his name called.
The Yankees took a double dip into the Rule V pool on Thursday, taking a pair of pitchers in the first two rounds of the draft. Their first selection was fastballing left-hander Robert Fish, a big kid who throws in the mid-nineties. Now for the bad news. Fish’s ERA at Double-A Arkansas in the Texas League was 8.93, an obscene number that cannot be explained away due to “luck.” Now 22, Fish hasn’t been much more effective over his career; he has a lifetime ERA of 5.05, compiled mostly at the Single-A and Double-A levels. He struggles to throw strikes and has no effective breaking pitch to fall back on nights when his fastball is lacking. I would be shocked to see him make the Opening Day roster, even though the Yankees have a crying need for a second left-hander in the bullpen.
The other Rule V draftee is more promising. Right-hander Daniel Turpen split his season at Double-A between the Giants’ and Red Sox’ organizations, pitching reasonably well for Richmond before struggling with Portland of the Eastern League. The 24-year-old Turpen is a Ron Davis type; he throws a heavy sidearm sinker in the low nineties. When Turpen throws his sinker for strikes, he can be highly effective. With the Yankees possibly needing replacements for both Kerry Wood and Chad Gaudin in the bullpen, Turpen figures to get a long look in Tampa next spring.
According to rumors coming out of the winter meetings, the Yankees decided to draft Turpen from the Red Sox, at least in part, because he was alleged to be one of the players the Padres might take as the “player to be named later” in the Adrian Gonzalez deal. Anything to throw a monkey wrench into the completion of a Red Sox trade! The real satisfaction will come this spring if Turpen can crack his way onto the Yankees’ Opening Day roster.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.