NEW YORK - JANUARY 14: Hideki Matsui of Japan is surrounded by media after being announced as the newest member of the New York Yankees at the Marriott Hotel on January 14, 2003 in New York, New York. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
The Yankees’ major acquisition of flame-thrower Aroldis Chapman this off-season may prove to be one of the all-time great maneuvers in team history. With that in mind, here’s a look at the five best offseason moves made by the Yankees over the last 25 years.
5. Hideki Matsui, Free Agent: No one knew what to expect when “Godzilla”, one of Japan’s all-time great sluggers, put the number 55 on his pinstriped back in 2003. Baseball analyst Bobby Valentine, a one-time manager in Japan, felt confident that Matsui could hit 50 home runs in the Major Leagues, especially with the short porch in Yankee Stadium’s right field. While he never approached the half-century mark, Matsui proved to be one of the most professional and dependable ball players that ever donned the Yankees’ uniform.
Matsui wasn’t the best defensive outfielder, but he played a decent left field and rarely made mistakes. He had tremendous discipline at the plate, kept his strikeout totals relatively low, and in time saw his power numbers grow. Matsui was held to 16 home runs in his rookie season (2003), but drove in 106 runs and played every regular season game, a feat he would accomplish the next two seasons as well.
A year later, Matsui drove in 108 runs and hit a career-high 31 home runs. His .912 OPS was also a career best. In all, Matsui played seven seasons in the Bronx and never slugged lower than .424. Had the Yankees not blown the 2004 ALCS, fans as well as many in the media would still remember that Matsui had a 1.268 OPS with a pair of home runs and 10 RBI in the seven game series with Boston. However, Matsui captured the 2009 World Series MVP Award when, in the Yankees six-game win over the Philadelphia Phillies, he hit.615 (a 2.027 OPS), with three home runs and eight RBI.
Matsui was truly adored by his teammates as displayed on Opening Day, 2010 when Matsui, then a member of the Los Angeles Angels, was presented with his World Series ring by Derek Jeter. The 2010 Yankees team smothered their former teammate with affection. To quote Yankees’ announcer John Sterling, “He’s the Hideki, you know.”
4. Alex Rodriguez for Alfonso Soriano, Joaquin Arias, and lots of cash: When a player of Alex Rodriguez’s caliber is available, you make a deal for that player, especially when the team dealing him, in this case the Texas Rangers, is paying much of his salary. A-Rod was very close to being a member of the Boston Red Sox in a deal that would have sent Manny Ramirez to Texas, but the deal fell through because the monetary issues of the trade couldn’t be resolved. That opened the door, and the Yankees swooped in and slammed it shut in February, 2004.
Soriano went on to have an All-Star career in Washington D.C. and in the north side of Chicago with the Cubs (before ultimately returning to the Yankees, as many players have since George Steinbrenner bought the team). Meanwhile, Rodriguez was arguably the best player in the game at the time of the deal. He could hit for power, average, steal bases, and he was the best defensive shortstop in the game. Even though he had to adjust to a new defensive position at third base, the Yankees knew that they had acquired a huge star that could raise attendance and eventually be a marquee player in the new Yankee Stadium down the block.
However, A-Rod had the misfortune of having his inaugural Yankees season coincide with the blown 3-0 lead to the Red Sox in the ALCS. The fans unfairly made him the scapegoat, and resentment towards him lasted a long time. That didn’t deter him from performing out on the field, especially in the regular season. A-Rod won the AL MVP Award in 2005 and 2007, which gave him three MVP awards in six years. His 2007 numbers were off the chart – .314/.422/.645 slash line with 54 home runs, 156 RBI, and 143 runs scored.
3. Roger Clemens for Homer Bush, Graeme Lloyd, and David Wells: After winning the World Series in 1998, a season in which David Wells threw a perfect game, one would think there would be no reason to upgrade the starting staff in a deal that included Wells. Yet that’s just what the Yankees did following their remarkable 1998 campaign. Wells battled weight issues, bad knees and a bad back, and he allegedly liked the nightlife in NYC a little too much. Clemens, before PED allegations, had a reputation for a tenacious work ethic and he had won five Cy Young Awards during his time in Boston and Toronto.
Clemens had a positive effect on the Yankees’ younger pitchers during his five-year stint in the Bronx and also deserves credit for amping up the intensity of an already intense Andy Pettitte. Clemens won 77 of his 113 regular season decisions (.681 winning pct.) with the Yankees, and captured his sixth Cy Young Award in 2001. In 2000, he pitched a masterful two-hit, 15 strikeout game vs. Seattle in the ALCS and blanked the Mets on two hits over eight innings in the World Series, as he captured his second World Series ring with the Yankees.
2. Tino Martinez, Jeff Nelson, Jim Mecir for Russ Davis, Sterling Hitchcock: Following the Yankees’ heart-breaking loss to the Seattle Mariners in the 1995 division round, the Yankees swung a deal that December for two of the Mariners’ main players. Martinez matched new teammate Paul O’Neill’s competitiveness and brought a serious power threat to the short porch in Yankee Stadium’s right field.
It didn’t start off easily for Martinez, however, as he had the unenviable task of replacing the retired Don Mattingly. After a slow start in 1996, he finished with 25 HRs and 117 RBI. A year later, he finished second in the AL MVP voting after he slugged 44 HRs and drove in 141 runs. He also won the home run hitting contest at the 1997 All-Star game.
Martinez hit two of the most famous home runs in Yankees’ history. His grand slam in Game 1 of the 1998 World Series capped a Yankees comeback from a 5-2 deficit and gave them the lead for good. The team went on to complete a four-game sweep of the San Diego Padres. His two-out, two-strike, 9th inning game-tying home run in Game 4 of the 2001 World Series helped even the series against Arizona at two games apiece. Martinez was a slick-fielding first baseman who arguably should have won a Gold Glove Award for his defense.
Nelson could drive a manager crazy (just ask his Seattle skipper Lou Piniella), but his live fastball and hard-breaking off-speed pitches were a nightmare for opposing right-handed hitters. Nelson was a key setup man to closer John Wetteland in 1996 and Mariano Rivera thereafter.
Davis put together a solid three-year stretch as the Mariners’ third baseman, but was out of baseball by the time he was 32. Hitchcock was a middling starter and reliever for 13 seasons that included a second stint with the Yankees.
1. Paul O’Neill, Joe De Berry for Roberto Kelly: The Yankees were in the midst of some of the worst years in team history when they made a deal with the Cincinnati Reds on November 3, 1992 for the then-29-year old O’Neill. The cost wasn’t cheap; Kelly had been the team’s regular center fielder for three seasons and was putting together a nice career. The deal was huge for the Yankees though, as O’Neill was the first of many hard-nosed, competitive players that would help shape the Yankees for years to come.
O’Neill was an All-Star for the Reds in 1991, but followed it up with a season in which he posted a weak .719 OPS and a mere .373 Slugging Pct. The Reds had also soured on the lefty-hitting O’Neill’s ability to hit left-handed pitching and pointed to his 1992 splits against outhpaws – .225/.279/.275 – as proof of his deficiency. Some had described him as selfish, most likely because of his penchant for outward displays of negative emotion even when his team was ahead, but O’Neill was always frustrated at himself not the team or his teammates.
O’Neill was definitely distraught when he was told that he had been traded away from his hometown team, but his father, in a story O’Neill has shared with the public on several occasions, told him, “This will be the best thing that has ever happened to you”. Charles O’Neill was correct. O’Neill’s three years observing team captain Don Mattingly made him a better team leader and helped to improve his game.
O’Neill spent nine years in the Bronx and was one of the key pieces in the four World Series Championships and five pennants the Yankees captured in a six-year period. He won a batting title, drove in more than 100 runs in four straight years, and played superb defense in right field.
Kelly would go on to have a fine 14-year career with eight different teams, and was O’Neill’s teammate when he returned to the Yankees for 10 games in 2000.
There you have it. Agree? Disagree? An honorable mention has to be added for the Scott Brosius – Kenny Rogers deal that turned out well for both players. Next week, I’ll take a look at the five worst off-season moves the Yankees made in the last 25 years. Don’t be surprised if someone on the Best Five list also shows up on the Worst Five.