Remember George Steinbrenner ‘s appearance on the “Seinfeld” episode where George’s father lights into him for trading Jay Buhner to the Seattle Mariners in exchange for Ken Phelps?
For the last 24 hours the ghost of that ill-fated Buhner-for-Phelps trade has cast a pall around the reported most recent Yankees-Mariners swap of mega-prospect Jesus Montero for pitcher Michael Pineda. Yankee fans are unclear how the Yankees would think that trading their best young hitter for a young right-hander with a history of arm trouble and inconsistent mechanics helps the Yankees in the long run.
They are looking at the so-called “Big Picture,” You know that is the vast uncharted future when Robinson Cano is on a downward slide and Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter are living a life of luxury in retirement. Yankee fans saw Montero as the centerpiece of the Yankees’ 2018 world championship team, hitting .330 with 42 home runs and driving in 130 runs batting fourth in pinstripes.
But mean, old general manager Brian Cashman took that comforting pipe dream away by dealing Montero for a pitcher who could blow out his arm in a bar fight tomorrow. (Yep, a Yankee fan never forgets what could have been with Brien Taylor.)
Nevermind that Montero’s career could come to an end with the next horrific home-plate collision. Yankee fans want to vent so let them vent.
But when have the Yankees ever looked way out to 2018?
I do not think they were thinking of 2018 when they made this trade. I think they were looking at 2012.
That is the Yankee tradition after all. You lose in the playoffs and fall short of your goal in 2011 so you immediately look to improving your team in 2012. That is Cashman’s job.
Cashman, along with Hank and Hal Steinbrenner and any scout in baseball will tell you that the magical 97 wins the Yankees got out of a rotation that included 38-year-old Bartolo Colon and 35-year-old Freddy Garcia was seen as a miracle that could not be duplicated.
The fact remains that besides CC Sabathia and his annual flirtation with 20 wins and a Cy Young Award there is not much to distinguish the Yankees’ rotation. That, keep in mind, is aware that Phil Hughes did win 18 games in 2010 and rookie Ivan Nova was 16-4 with a 3.70 ERA last season.
What troubled the Yankees’ front office is that the Tampa Bay Rays made the playoffs in 2011 with a popgun offense and very good rotation of young pitchers behind James Shields, including lefty David Price, Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson and the rookie lefty who blanked the Rangers in the playoffs, Matt Moore.
Despite the fact that the Yankees spent most of Game 5 of the American League Division Series against the Detroit Tigers down one run and their vaunted offense could not produce it, the Yankees felt they had to bolster the starting staff without adding much to their $200 million payroll.
That is a tough task because free agents like C.J. Wilson, Mark Buerhle and Yu Darvish were so tempting. Trade offers for Gio Gonzalez, Jair Jurrgens, John Danks and Matt Garza held promise but proved, in the end, to be pretty pricey. Heck, even the new president of the Cubs, Theo Epstein, thought Garza was worth Montero and left-hander Manny Banuelos and right-hander Dellin Betances!
Epstein may think of himself as the Lord’s holy gift to baseball but mere mortals like Cashman know the First Commandment of the National Pastime: Though shall not deal the best lambs in the stable for a .500 pitcher who is no better than a No. 3 in your rotation.
So give Cashman credit for not allowing Epstein to pull the wool over his eyes. Baaaaaad!!!!
With this trade, however, Cashman has acquired a pitcher who is 22 years old. (OK, he turns 23 on Wednesday if you want to get technical.)
When the Yankees traded for Phelps during the 1988 season he was 34 years old and Buhner was almost exactly 10 years his junior. Of course, history will show that Phelps would hit a whopping 13 home runs for the Yankees from the middle of the 1988 season to the middle of the 1989 season when he was traded away in disgrace to the Oakland Athletics.
Meanwhile, Buhner – beginning in 1991 – started a series of 10 seasons with the Mariners in which in eight of them he hit 21 or more home runs. In fact, from 1995 through 1997, Buhner had three seasons in which he hit 40, 44 and 40 home runs for the Mariners. He ended up with 310 major-league dingers, a total of three came when he was wearing pinstripes.
Now you can understand why Frank Constanza (played by actor Jerry Stiller) was so angry with George in that hilarious “Seinfeld” episode.
It may be why so many Yankee fans might be angry now. It is the ghost of Jay Buhner rearing his ugly head. (Check out Buhner’s baseball card. He was ugly.)
But Pineda is not Ken Phelps. Far from it.
There were times last season that scouts would have told you that Pineda looked better than Felix Hernandez himself. Pineda was rolling through lineups looking like a 6-foot-7, 260-pound Gulliver against a helpless band Lilliputians with matchsticks for bats.
In his first 11 starts he was 6-2 with a 2.30 ERA and 73 K’s in 70 1/3 innings and batters were hitting a woeful .190 off him and he had a WHIP of 1.00. That was pitching for arguably the weakest offense in baseball in the Mariners.
Granted, in his next six starts, Pineda came back to Earth some. He was 2-3 with 3.10 ERA. But he was chosen to represent the American League in the 2011 All-Star Game and he had earned it.
What many rookie pitchers have to contend with is how to continue to pitch well as the innings mount and your team continues to play poorly. The Mariners were simply awful as they ditched the second half in order to play their young prospects over their overpriced veterans like Chone Figgins.
Pineda won only one game the rest of the season. Of course, that game was against the Rays on July 30. But he ended the season 1-5 in his last 11 starts with an ERA of 5.71. The Mariners, seeing that Pineda was a valuable commodity, did not pitch him much in the month of September to protect his arm.
He finished 9-10 with a 3.74 ERA and 173 strikeouts in 171 innings. Batters hit .211 off him and his WHIP was an amazing 1.10. He was right behind Hellickson as the second-best rookie pitcher in baseball in 2011.
But his second-half slide and the fact that Pineda had to be shut down by the Mariners back in 2009 due forearm and elbow stiffness has Yankee fans concerned about this trade. It is true that while a position player can fashion a long career despite injuries, a starting pitcher can be wrecked for an entire career with a severe elbow or shoulder injury.
But, Pineda seems as if he is a reasonable risk at this point because, Yankee fans, Betances at 6-foot-8 and age 23 is in the same boat as Pineda. The only difference is that Betances has already experienced elbow problems and had surgery to repair the damage. So if you are crying because the Pineda was acquired then, in that same breath, you must have to demand that Cashman get rid of Betances immediately because he is another elbow injury waiting to happen.
I guess the foot is in the other shoe, now, Yankee fans!
All I am saying is that perhaps it is better to allow the careers of Pineda and Montero to play out about five years before we say the Mariners have won this trade. After all, it took Buhner until 1991, three long seasons after the trade, to become the player the Yankees wished they had back.
Pineda will begin the 2012 season as the Yankees’ No. 2 starter behind the equally tall Sabathia. That is about as an imposing pair of starters a team can face to open a series. The Yankees can follow that up with Nova, who was the third best rookie pitcher in 2011 and Hughes, who did win 18 games for the Yankees when he was healthy.
And for good measure, Cashman added 37-year-old right-hander Hiroki Kuroda to the mix and Kuroda was 13-16 with a 3.07 ERA for a very mediocre Dodgers team in 2011.
That is not a bad starting five. It figures to better than the Sabathia, Nova, Colon, Garcia and A.J. Burnett quintet with which the Yankees won 97 games last season. Speaking of Burnett and Garcia, neither figures to make the rotation unless there are a few injuries in the spring.
Burnett figures to be on his way out of town if the Yankees can find a buyer for him and Garcia looks to be simply insurance for the injury-plagued Hughes and the other four starters.
So losing Montero for a significantly better rotation does not seem so bad.
His offense will be missed, for sure. I had no doubt that as a designated hitter and part-time catcher Montero could easily hit 30 home runs and drive in 75 or more runs in 2011. But the Yankees have been either number one or number two in runs scored the past three seasons without Montero. It seems they can manage to make it four in 2012 without Montero.
Also remember this important point. The Yankees got younger in their rotation and still have Banuelos, Betances, Adam Warren, David Phelps and D.J. Mitchell at the Triple-A level. Oh, and reports indicate this 6-foot-4 right-hander Jose Campos thrown into the Montero deal, at age 19, is an excellent pitching prospect with a live arm and great control. They also still have the defensively proficient Austin Romine bidding to be the backup to catcher Russell Martin this spring.
And, lo and behold, the Yankees’ No. 1 catching prospect Gary Sanchez turned 19 in December and he is considered to be every bit as good as Montero as a hitter and he is a defensive gem as well. He was ranked as the third-best catching prospect in 2011. Montero was No. 1.
So while you are crying about what Montero will do for Seattle, Sanchez is getting closer to an arrival date in 2014 and he may be very much the ultimate catcher for which Yankee fans have been waiting. Montero with his defensive deficiencies may eventually be the DH or first baseman for which the Mariners have been waiting.
So dry your eyes and let’s wait to see how Pineda develops before we get too emotional. Somewhere Ken Phelps is thinking you are all acting like idiots.