Every Friday I’ve been releasing ‘A Brief History’ podcast about the Yankees. It started as a way to stay sane during quarantine, but evolved into something that I look forward to researching each week.
Yesterday’s episode was about how Gene Michael built the 1990s Yankees dynasty — starting with his early tenure with the Yanks in the 1980s all the way to the key moves he made in the early 1990s that set the building-blocks for a dynasty. One specific move that was a sliding doors moment for the Yankees was in 1995 when Mariano Rivera was nearly traded to Detroit.
Rough Debut for Mariano
Rivera did not debut in the majors as a reliever with a devastating cutter, but rather a starting pitcher who not all scouts were in agreement on would make it in the bigs. His fastball sat in the low 90-mph range and he actually threw more than one pitch (but none stood out). Nevertheless, he was effective enough in the minors to prompt the Yankees, who were in desperate need of starting pitching, to call him up in late May 1995 to start against the Angels. It did not go well.
After 4 starts, Rivera’s ERA was 10.20 and batters were hitting a robust .392 off him. More concerning than his inflated ERA was the radar gun, which clocked his fastball at 88-to-89-mph in a Sunday afternoon start against the Mariners at Yankee Stadium in which he gave up 4 runs in 2-and-a-third innings. Unbeknownst to the Yankees, Rivera was dealing with a sore shoulder that he was hiding from them.
Michael and the Yankees had seen enough. Rivera was sent back to the minors after that start on June 11, coincidentally along with Derek Jeter, who had hit .234 in 13 games in his debut stint in the majors.
Rivera a Tiger?
After being sent to Triple-A Columbus, Mariano was put on the Disabled List to rest his shoulder. Meanwhile, Stick Michael and Tigers’ GM Joe Klein were discussing a trade that would send Rivera to Detroit for David Wells (yes, that David Wells).
Klein, a minor league scout in the early ’90s, was infatuated with Rivera. He loved his smooth delivery and mound presence, and projected him as an effective major league pitcher. “It’s easy to say this now, but back in the mid-1990s I believed he was miscast as a starter and would make a better reliever,” Klein said in 2017.
Klein is right, it is easy to say that now, but the fact he was pursuing a Wells-for-Rivera swap does indicate he saw something the Yankees did not see at the time in Mariano.
As noted before, the Yankees needed starting pitching in the summer of ’95. Wells was having a great season for the Tigers, rocking a 2.99 ERA in 16 starts. Michael also knew Wells had a desire to pitch in New York, and the lefty would be a huge asset to a team that had it’s eyes on October baseball for the first time in over a decade.
The two GMs were in agreement on a framework, there was just one problem — Rivera was currently on the DL and it would not look good for Klein if he announced the acquisition of an injured prospect for a veteran left-handed starter. The deal would wait.
When Rivera returned to action, he felt better. So much better that his previously 91-mph fastball was clocked at 95-96. Stick was so doubtful in the report from Columbus that he called to confirm. He then spoke to a friend in the St. Louis organization who also witnessed Rivera’s start, who confirmed the report. Michael then made two more phone calls: one to Buck Showalter to notify him they were recalling Rivera to the majors and the other to Klein to tell him the trade was off.
“I had not agreed to trade Mariano,” Michael recalled years later, “but we were certainly leaning that way. At that juncture of the season, we certainly needed a proven starter.”
In Rivera’s first start back on July 4, he struck out 11 in 8 scoreless innings. Overall he pitched much better, posting a 4.15 ERA in 6 starts the remainder of the ’95 season.
To this day it is unclear how Rivera gained the extra velocity. He calls it “an act of God.” Michael, Showalter, and others are dumbfounded. Stick chalked it up to inconsistent radar guns in the minor leagues back then.
Wells was traded to Cincinnati at the deadline, and obviously wound up with the Yankees in 1997.
Rivera was safe for now, but it wasn’t the last time he was almost traded.
Bob Watson, GM in 1996, almost sent Rivera to Seattle for shortstop Felix Fermin at the request of George Steinbrenner. Jeter had been struggling in spring training and it was not clear he would be ready for Opening Day. Watson, Cashman, and others spent hours talking Steinbrenner out of making the deal.
Sliding Doors Moment
The greatest relief pitcher in baseball history was almost a Detroit Tiger instead of a New York Yankee. It’s impossible to say exactly how this affects things, but I can say with confidence they do not win 4 out of 5 championships without Rivera.
Rivera, who evolved into the best postseason weapon in the modern era, would not have gotten a chance to show the world his mound presence on the biggest stage. The Tigers never finished better than 3rd in their division from 1995-2005. I don’t care how good of a reliever Rivera was, he cannot turn a 72-win team into a 92-win team.
But let’s play the 1995 trade out. If the deal with Detroit went through and the Yankees acquired Wells, they likely do not trade for David Cone at the July deadline. Maybe Cone still signs with the Yanks in the offseason, but a big reason he stayed is because of their playoff run that fall. Without that experience there is a good chance he signs elsewhere.
If you replace Cone with Wells in 1996 and subtract Rivera, do the Yankees still win a championship? No. Wells-for-Cone is an even swap, but Rivera finished 3rd in Cy Young voting that season and was a massive reason they won the World Series.
A Brief History: How Gene ‘Stick’ Michael Built the Yankees ’90s Dynasty