The Yankee pitching staff was decimated in the late eighties by the aging and retirement of Ron Guidry and perhaps the worst trade and free agent signing decisions made during the Steinbrenner era. Among the very poorest of these decisions was trading Doug Drabek to the Pirates for Pat Clements, Cecilio Guante and Rick Rhoden. Of the three Pirate pitchers, Rhoden was the most effective in pinstripes, going 16-10 in 1987 and 12-12 the following year. But Rhoden was also 34 years old when New York got him from Pittsburgh while Drabek was just 24 at the time of that trade. Even though he went 7-8 during his 1986 rookie season in the Bronx, I remember he had impressive enough stuff to be excited about his future.
Sure enough, the right-hander quickly became one of the best pitchers in the NL winning the Cy Young Award in 1990 with a 22-6 record. He pitched six seasons for the Pirates before signing a lucrative free agent deal with Houston in 1993. He pitched OK for the Astros but was never the big winner there that they expected him to be. He retired after the 1998 season with a 155-134 record and 21 career shutouts. If he had remained in New York his entire career and the Yankees had also kept young arms like Bob Tewksbury and Al Leiter in their system, who knows? They may have got back to the playoffs a few seasons faster than they did in 1995.
Update: The above post was written in 2010. Here’s an update: The first time I started paying attention to Doug Drabek’s career was back in 1984, when he was pitching for the Glens Falls White Sox in upstate New York, a Chicago affiliate in the AA Eastern League. His team used to play the Yankees’ Albany-Colonie affiliate in the same league and since both ball parks were within an hour’s drive of my home, the local papers covered both teams pretty extensively. Drabek was the ace of the Glens Falls staff, so I was pretty excited when I read the news that the Yank’s had acquired him as the player to be named later in their 1984 mid season deal that sent shortstop Roy Smalley to the White Sox. I then got a chance to see Drabek pitch live a couple of times because the Yanks assigned him to Albany in 1985 and he put together a 13-7 record there with a 2.99 ERA.
After his best years with Pittsburgh, the Yankees tried to bring him back as a free agent when his contract with the Pirates expired after the 1992 season. The New York GM at the time, Gene Michael made offers to Drabek, David Cone and Jose Guzman in an effort to bolster the Yank’s anemic starting rotation, but when none of the three responded fast enough, Michael withdrew the offers and went after Jimmy Key and Jim Abbott instead.
In an interview with a Houston Astros’ fan newsletter after he retired, Drabek said he left the game after the 1998 season because he had completely lost his stuff. It got to the point where the veteran right hander was afraid to pitch and had to literally force himself to take the mound. By then, he had made over $30 million in his career, so he decided to go home and spend time with his very talented children. One of those kids, Drabek’s son Kyle evolved into the highly coveted number 1 overall pick in the 2006 MLB Draft. Unfortunately, the younger Drabek has struggled in his three attempts at the majors and was back in the minors in 2013, still recovering from his second Tommy John surgery.
|PIT (6 yrs)||92||62||.597||3.02||199||196||1||36||16||0||1362.2||1227||506||457||112||337||820||1.148|
|HOU (4 yrs)||38||42||.475||4.00||118||118||0||16||5||0||762.2||787||372||339||71||219||558||1.319|
|NYY (1 yr)||7||8||.467||4.10||27||21||2||0||0||0||131.2||126||64||60||13||50||76||1.337|
|BAL (1 yr)||6||11||.353||7.29||23||21||1||1||0||0||108.2||138||90||88||20||29||55||1.537|
|CHW (1 yr)||12||11||.522||5.74||31||31||0||0||0||0||169.1||170||109||108||30||69||85||1.411|
If I managed a Dick’s Sporting Goods store in an area with a high demographic of Yankee fans, at the end of the aisle in which the store’s baseball equipment was sold, I’d have a life-sized cutout of Yankee first base coach, Mick Kelleher. Why? Yankee hitters use today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant as their on-the-field locker. Excuse me, I need to elaborate on that statement. I should have started it with “Successful Yankee hitters.” In fact, when I tune into a Yankee game in progress now-a-days, I can sometimes tell how the Yankee offense is doing when a camera shot of Kelleher performing his first base coaching duties comes up on my big screen. If things are going good for NY hitters in that particular inning, Kelleher will be adorned with the hitting accessories of those Yankee players who successfully reached base that inning. He might have A-Rod’s or Cano’s elbow pad on one arm and Mark Teixeira’s ankle guard on the other. Or it could be Jeter’s wrap-around hitting gloves coming out of Mick’s back pocket and Curtis Granderson’s sun glasses resting on top of his hat. Its a good thing for Kelleher that Yankee hitters can run the bases with their jock straps on, huh? In any event, if I managed a Dick’s Sporting Goods store, I’d load up my Kelleher cutout display with every piece of hitting accessory we had in stock.
The ironic thing about that would be that when Kelleher was a big league player himself, he was a horrible hitter. In fact, during his 11-season big league playing career that began in 1972 with the Cardinals and ended in 1982 with the Angels, this native of Seattle averaged just .213 and remains the last big league player who had over 1,000 career at bats without ever hitting a home run. Kelleher made it to the Majors because he was an exceptional defensive infielder, who could play a solid second, short or third. It was also those same defensive skills and Kelleher’s ability to help others learn them that first got Kelleher hired as the Yankees roving minor league infielders coach. His job was to help Yankee prospects like Robbie Cano, Ramiro Pena and Eduardo Nunez become better defensive infielders. His ability to teach defense was also the primary reason the Yankees hired him to replace Tony Pena as the Yankee first base coach in 2009. Its Kelleher who runs all Yankee infield drills for New York including hitting thousands of practice ground balls to Jeter and Cano when the two superstars feel they need the extra work.
I do sort of feel sorry for Javier Vazquez. He had developed into a very good Major League pitcher during his first six big league seasons with the Montreal Expos, when he was traded to the Yankees for Nick Johnson, Randy Choate and Juan Rivera after the 2003 season. At first, he seemed to thrive pitching on baseball’s biggest stage, making the 2004 AL All Star team with an 11-6 record during his first season in pinstripes. It seemed as if he was following the path of pitchers like David Cone and David Wells, guys who had come up with and pitched well for other organizations and then been traded to the Yankees and performed even better. Like Sinatra sings in that song, “If you can make it there you’ll make it anywhere.”
But Vazquez’s Yankee career turned after that All Star selection. He won just three more times during the 2004 regular season and then gave up that grand slam home run to Johnny Damon in the second inning of Game 7 of the ALCS against the Red Sox. That heart wrenching playoff series against Boston was one of the most disappointing events in Yankee franchise history and Vazquez’s gopher ball has come to symbolize the depths of despair Yankee fans felt as we watched New York turn a three game lead into an agonizing seven game nightmare. Instead of becoming the next Cone or Wells, he was instantly turned into the next Eddie Whitson.
I feel sorry for Vazquez because blaming him for the loss against the Red Sox ignores the fact that plenty of his teammates were responsible as well. After that loss, it seemed as if the Yankee brass decided that they no longer felt they could afford to trade for a pitcher they expected would do well in pinstripes. They needed to get guys they knew would do well. At the time, that meant Randy Johnson, Arizona’s five-time Cy Young Award winner. So in January of 2005, Brian Cashman sent Vazquez and two prospects to the Diamondbacks for the “Big Unit.” Me and every other Yankee fan thought we had seen the last of Javier in pinstripes. But Brian Cashman had other ideas. The GM always felt that New York put too much pressure on Vazquez during his first go-round with the team, sort of setting him up for failure. He waited five years and after the Yankees had signed both Sabathia and Burnett to anchor their starting rotation and then beat the Phillies in the 2009 World Series, Cashman felt bold enough to reacquire Vazquez from the Braves for the popular Melky Cabrera. He was certain Vazquez would thrive as the Yankee’s number four starter and I agreed with him at the time.
Unfortunately, as we all now know, that’s not what happened. Vazquez got off to a slow start in his second tenure with the team, losing four of his first five decisions and raising the ire of the Yankees’ most fickle fans. Even though he then won eight of his next eleven decisions, it seemed as if everyone was waiting for him to fail. The wheels came off for Vazquez in August, when he gave up seven home runs in his next four starts and was demoted to the bullpen. He finished 2010 with a 10-10 record and an ERA of 5.32. Since it was his option year, Cashman was spared the task of trying to trade him and simply let Javier become a free agent.
I’m pretty certain Javier won’t be putting on the pinstripes again but I’m one Yankee fan who doesn’t pin the team’s failures in 2004 or 2010 on his right arm. He was 24-20 as a Yankee and he’s had winning seasons with four different big league teams.
|MON (6 yrs)||64||68||.485||4.16||192||191||1||16||6||0||1229.1||1235||619||568||155||331||1076||1.274|
|CHW (3 yrs)||38||36||.514||4.40||98||97||0||4||0||0||627.2||617||324||307||77||167||597||1.249|
|NYY (2 yrs)||24||20||.545||5.09||63||58||4||0||0||0||355.1||350||210||201||65||125||271||1.337|
|ARI (1 yr)||11||15||.423||4.42||33||33||0||3||1||0||215.2||223||112||106||35||46||192||1.247|
|ATL (1 yr)||15||10||.600||2.87||32||32||0||3||0||0||219.1||181||75||70||20||44||238||1.026|
|FLA (1 yr)||13||11||.542||3.69||32||32||0||2||1||0||192.2||178||91||79||21||50||162||1.183|