Whenever a team makes a trade involving a young prospect, there’s always a fear he’ll wind up becoming a superstar. Considering the potential of Jesus Montero, that concern had to be foremost on Brian Cashman’s mind as he agreed to send the young hitter to the Seattle Mariners in exchange for Michael Pineda, a very promising prospect in his own right.
Years ago, before the information age, prospects seemed to magically appear on the doorstep of the major leagues. Nowadays, however, fans have the ability to track a player’s progress from the moment he is drafted until he takes his first pro at bat, so it’s easy to understand why many develop an attachment to homegrown prospects. And yet, in most cases, the pent-up anticipation usually leads to disappointment.
Since 1901, 379 position players (includes actives) have made their major debut in pinstripes, but only 52 ended their careers with a WAR higher than 15. Of that subtotal, all but 13 either spent most of their careers with the Yankees or were traded after establishing themselves in the big leagues, including 20 of the top 21 on the list. So, for the most part, the Yankees have been pretty good at not giving away their best position player prospects.
The only discarded Yankee whose career WAR would rank among the franchise’s best homegrown talents is Dixie Walker. After compiling only 422 plate appearances in five seasons with the Yankees, the 25-year old Walker finally blossomed after being sold to the White Sox for $12,000 in 1936. At the time, the Yankees were a powerhouse team about to embark on a four-year championship run, so there was little room for Walker. However, the move still proved to be short sighted, but not until two other teams also passed him over. Once Walker landed in Brooklyn, his career finally took off. In nine seasons as a Dodger, the outfielder compiled an OPS+ of 128 and received MVP votes in seven years. Admittedly, most of Walker’s success came during the war years, but that makes his loss even more regrettable from the Yankees’ standpoint. Had the team not traded him so many years earlier, perhaps Walker’s presence in the lineup would have helped the Bronx Bombers weather the loss of so many others to military service and avoid what for the Yankees was a long World Series drought from 1944 to 1946.
Mike Lowell’s ranking on the list is perhaps the most relevant in light of recent news because, like Montero, he was traded as part of a prospect swap. At the time, the Yankees had a stacked offensive team and decided to make a new three-year commitment to 3B Scott Brosius, which made Lowell expendable. Unfortunately, Ed Yarnall, the pitcher the Yankees received in return, didn’t exactly pan out. After only 20 innings in the Bronx, the lefty was traded to the Cincinnati Reds before departing forJapan. Needless to say, Cashman is hoping Michael Pineda does a lot better.
Like Lowell, Jackie Jensen is another discarded Yankee who eventually made his bones in Boston. In 1951, Jensen had a very strong campaign in limited duty, which he parlayed into being named Joe DiMaggio’s replacement the following year. Unfortunately for Jenson, that honor was short lived. In fact, it only lasted seven games. After hitting .105 during the first week of 1952, Jensen was traded to the Senators for Irv Noren. In the aftermath of the deal, Casey Stengel admitted that Jensen had talent, but stressed the Yankees’ need for a centerfielder who could “hit, run, field, and throw”. Of course, the irony was the Yankees already had someone on the roster who fit the description. His name was Mickey Mantle.
“We need a centerfielder who can hit, run, field and throw. I tried to give Jensen the job, but he couldn’t hit for me. I couldn’t wait any longer.” – Casey Stengel, quoted by the New York Times, May 4, 1952
Less than a month after the trade was made, Mantle was installed as the new center fielder and Noren was reduced to playing a utility role. Meanwhile, Jensen started to find his swing with the Senators, leading AP to suggest that the Yankees “pulled a whopper” by making a rare bad trade. Despite two solid seasons in Washington, Jensen really made his mark with the Red Sox. In seven seasons with Boston, the outfielder compiled an OPS+ of 123 and punctuated his career with an MVP in 1958.
Although his name appears at the bottom of the list, Jay Buhner probably stand outs to most fans as the best example of the Yankees trading away a promising young hitter. Seinfeld is largely to thank for that, but Buhner’s OPS+ of 125 with the Mariners wasn’t a work of fiction. Adding insult to injury, Buhner also tormented his former team on the field, batting .283/.379/.548 in over 400 regular season plate appearances to go along with a line of .366/.422/.537 in three post season series.
Albeit in only 69 plate appearances, Jesus Montero had the third highest OPS+ among all position players who debuted with the Yankees. That might seem like a bad omen, but he is surrounded on that list by more than a few players whose careers proved to be disappointments. Will Jesus Montero also follow that path, or join (and perhaps top) the list of young players who excelled after being trading by the Yankees? I wonder what Larry David thinks?