Will Manny Machado, Bryce Harper join long list of Yankees' shiny new toys?

ByDavid Schoenfield ESPN logo
Thursday, January 24, 2019

I have a friend who roots for the New York Yankees. I'll call him M.M. It's not Mickey Mantle, but if you want to believe it's Mickey Mantle speaking to me from baseball heaven, that's fine. Anyway, M.M. isn't completely happy about the Yankees' offseason. I mean, I think he's happy about trading Sonny Gray, but after the club recently signed DJ LeMahieu, M.M. sent me the cover of the New York Daily News with the headline "The Snore 4," referring to LeMahieu, James Paxton, Troy Tulowitzki and Zach Britton.

The subhead read, "Yanks introduce another good player, but with big names out there, it's hardly a crew The Boss would brag about." Indeed, that's M.M.'s general reaction, even if he's ignoring that Paxton is arguably the best pitcher to change teams this offseason. "I want a shiny new toy," he told me. Or maybe he yelled. He was very emotional about this. He wants Bryce Harper or Manny Machado.

The Boss, of course, is the late George Steinbrenner, and he loved his shiny new toys. If he made one lasting impact on baseball, it was this: There was never a name too big or a salary too large that it couldn't be shoehorned onto the Yankees' roster. For Yankees fans who grew up in the Steinbrenner era, that became the expectation: an expensive new toy under the Christmas tree every offseason. A broken-down, past-his-prime Troy Tulowitzki doesn't count.

I mean, this is New York. Fans easily can go spend their money on another viewing of "Hamilton."

With that, let's go back to 1975 and the first free agent in major league history and look at what new toys the Yankees brought in each offseason. Does this year's group match up? (With each addition, I'm adding the player's previous season WAR.)

Hunter became the first modern free agent due to a technical snafu: A's owner Charlie Finley didn't make a payment on a life insurance annuity as required in Hunter's contract. An arbitrator declared Hunter a free agent, and two weeks later Steinbrenner made him the highest-paid player in the game with a five-year, $3.35 million contract.

Hunter made $100,000 with the A's in 1974, when he went 25-12 with a league-leading 2.49 ERA, pitched 318 innings and won the Cy Young Award. With the Yankees, his salary jumped to $600,000. A new era in baseball had begun. Hunter had a monster 1975, pitching 328 innings, tossing 30 complete games (!) and finishing second in the Cy Young vote. He went just 40-39 with a 4.07 ERA, however, in his final four seasons. Still, Hunter is one of the most important players in Yankees history: The Boss' lust for winning had been satisfied. All it took was cold, hard cash.

On Dec. 11, 1975, GM Gabe Paul engineered two of the greatest trades in Yankees history. The headliner was trading Bonds after one season: The Yankees acquired a solid starting pitcher in Figueroa and a speedy center fielder in Rivers. It transformed the club. Figueroa won 55 games the next three seasons as the Yankees won three AL pennants and two World Series (though injuries ruined Figueroa's career after that run). Rivers became the team's leadoff hitter and hit .312 in '76 and .326 in '77.

The same day, Paul sent pitcher Doc Medich to the Pirates for Ken Brett, Dock Ellis and a minor league throw-in named Willie Randolph, who was the team's second baseman for the next 13 seasons.

Jackson was already one of the biggest stars in the game when he signed a five-year, $2.96 million contract with the Yankees. That fall, he became Mr. October:

Gossage was coming off a monster season with the Pirates -- 133 innings, 1.62 ERA, 151 strikeouts -- but this signing was especially interesting because the 1977 Cy Young winner was Yankees reliever Sparky Lyle. In an era when starters still ruled the game, Steinbrenner foresaw that a deep bullpen could be a big weapon (though Lyle, unhappy about losing his role as the late-inning stopper, was traded after 1978). Gossage had a 2.14 ERA in seven seasons with the Yankees, cementing his legacy as a Hall of Famer.

After back-to-back World Series titles, the Yankees initiated a long-running philosophy -- for better and often for worse -- of acquiring old starters. El Tiante's 1978 with the Red Sox proved to be his last big season, but John won 43 games the next two seasons. Alas, the offense was bad (10th in runs), and Thurman Munson died. It was not a season to remember.

The "Rupe! Rupe! Rupe!" chants that were popular in Seattle never materialized in the Bronx, as Jones hit .223 and was shipped off to San Diego. Watson's biggest mark with the Yankees came when he was the GM of the 1996 World Series champs.

After losing to the Royals in the 1980 ALCS, it was time for a bigger splash than Ruppert Jones. The top free agent was the 29-year-old Winfield, who had a huge 1979 season when he finished third in the MVP voting but dropped to .276 with 20 home runs in 1980. The Yankees signed him to a 10-year, $23 million contract, making Winfield the highest-paid player in the game. "Richest Kid on the Block" read the headline in Sports Illustrated, and the story asked, "Can Winfield really be worth the staggering expenditure? Can anyone?" (The running theme in the early days of free agency was that players were overpaid even as owners kept paying them higher and higher salaries.)

Thus began a tumultuous decade in the Bronx that included the "Mr. May" tag from Steinbrenner after Winfield hit .045 in the 1981 World Series and Steinbrenner spying on Winfield with two-bit crook Howard Spira. Winfield was an RBI machine with the Yankees and had a pair of 5-WAR seasons, and it's fair to say he was worth the contract, but those were his only two seasons with the Yankees above 4.0 WAR.

The Yankees suddenly decided they needed more speed in the lineup. As they say, speed kills. The Yankees had their first losing season since 1973.

Back to brawn! Kemp had been an on-base machine, but he spent most of his time with the Yankees on the DL. Baylor hit 71 home runs in three seasons as the team's DH.

Nothing like a shiny, new, 45-year-old knuckleballer. He actually was the team's best starter in 1984, but Yogi Berra could steer the likes of Bobby Meacham, Omar Moreno and Tim Foli to just 87 wins (only three players hit more than 10 home runs).

Now we're talking. This was a souped-up red Corvette with a V8. Rickey's 1985 was a season for the ages, as he scored 146 runs in 143 games. Who wins this epic MVP race with these numbers in 2018?

Henderson: .314/.419/.516, 28 HR, 74 RBIs, 130 R, 80 SB, 9.9 WAR

Don Mattingly: .324/.371/.567, 35 HR, 145 RBIs, 107 R, 6.5 WAR

George Brett: .335/.436/.585, 30 HR, 112 RBIs, 108 R, 8.3 WAR

In 1985, it went Mattingly-Brett-Henderson. I think in 2018 it would be the opposite: Henderson-Brett-Mattingly.

The Yankees were always looking for starting pitching in this era. Burns won 18 games with the White Sox and was just 26 years old, but he never pitched again in the majors due to a degenerative hip condition.

It was the middle of the collusion era, so the Yankees stayed away from the big-name free agents -- Jack Morris and Tim Raines -- and instead traded for the veteran righty coming off a career season. The cost was Doug Drabek, who became a Cy Young winner with Pittsburgh. Rhoden's biggest claim to fame with the Yankees came in 1988, when Billy Martin started him at DH in one game.

This was a very big deal. Clark led the NL in OBP and slugging in 1987, hitting .286/.459/.597 with the Cardinals. It was the final year of collusion, and when Clark finally signed in January -- a two-year contract for $3 million plus up to $500,000 in performance bonuses -- the New York Times story began, "The Yankees shattered the two-year calm in baseball's free-agent market yesterday when they signed Jack Clark ..." Hmm. Sound familiar?

Alas, Clark struggled with the Yankees and asked for a trade after one season. "I hate that damn league," he said, referring to the American League. "Every games lasts 3 to 4 hours. No wonder the fans are bored over there."

The Yankees and Dodgers essentially traded second basemen in free agency: The Yankees signed Sax, and the Dodgers signed Randolph. It didn't matter. The '89 Yankees were terrible, going 71-91. Andy Hawkins was the staff ace, and he had a 4.80 ERA. Did I mention this was a glorious era in baseball?

See, Yankees fans, this offseason hasn't been that bad. Perez started just 17 games for the Yankees over two seasons, and his career ended after a season-long drug suspension in 1993.

Steinbrenner had been suspended in the summer of 1990 for the Winfield Affair, and the team was terrible, so the front office -- give a lot of credit to Gene Michael -- spent a few years rebuilding the farm system instead of trading away prospects for retreads. This was when the team drafted, signed and developed Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada (and Bernie Williams, who signed in 1985 and reached the majors in 1991).

Fun fact: Tartabull is the only player in Royals history with two 30-homer seasons.

Steinbrenner returned from his suspension on March 1. Curious twist of history: Barry Bonds and Greg Maddux were the big free agents that winter. Would The Boss have signed either one if he had gained control of the franchise earlier in the offseason?

Still, it was a fruitful winter for Michael. Key, Boggs and O'Neill -- acquired for Roberto Kelly -- became fixtures and helped the Yankees become a force again. They won 88 games in 1993, and those three were on the 1996 World Series champs.

Mulholland was a bust, going 6-7 with a 6.49 ERA. The Yankees, however, had the best record in the AL when the strike hit in August.

After the strike, some teams were dumping players. The Yankees jumped on McDowell, who won the Cy Young Award in 1993. He went 15-10 in his one season in New York, and of course I'm going to show you the final pitch of his Yankees tenure:

No, Yankees fans don't have fond memories of Rogers. But it was a big signing at the time! Look at that WAR! Meanwhile, they stole Martinez and Jeff Nelson from the Mariners for Russ Davis and Sterling Hitchcock. Dear lord, imagine if the Mariners had had a good GM in the 1990s.

The big deal actually came in May, when the Yankees acquired Hideki Irabu from the Padres. The Padres had purchased "the Japanese Nolan Ryan" from the Chiba Lotte Marines, but Irabu didn't want to play for San Diego. He signed a four-year, $12.8 million contract and threw a pitch to Mayor Rudy Giuliani on the steps of City Hall as Giuliani presented him with a Tiffany crystal apple. I wonder where that thing is now.

I remember predicting that Knoblauch would win MVP honors in 1998. Not that we had WAR in 1998, but from 1995 to 1997, Knoblauch had 22.1 WAR -- tied with Ken Griffey Jr. for second most in the majors behind Barry Bonds. This was a super-duper mega-deal. Knoblauch was OK for two seasons but not great. Most importantly, he nearly cost the '98 Yankees their spot as one of the greatest teams in history:

After winning 114 games and the World Series, the Yankees played it quiet in free agency, other than re-signing Williams, David Cone and Scott Brosius (passing on Kevin Brown and Randy Johnson). Anyhoo ... the Clemens blockbuster deal for Wells, Homer Bush and Graeme Lloyd came on Feb. 18.

In other words, M.M.: Don't give up signing Harper or Machado just yet.

That's right, Yankees fans, just a lump of coal in your Christmas stocking in this offseason. Of course, you sneaked into the playoffs with 87 wins and then won the World Series. $)*#@!@!

People point out that Mussina never won a World Series ring: I point out that if Rivera hadn't blown Game 7 in 2001, Mussina would have a ring. (I kid, I kid! Blame Brosius for not throwing the ball to first base!)

Based on previous season WAR, Giambi ranks as the second-biggest offseason acquisition in Yankees history. The biggest: Babe Ruth, who had 9.9 WAR with the Red Sox in 1919. Giambi's Yankees career was better than people give him credit for, including 82 home runs and a .987 OPS in his first two seasons. Don't forget the two home runs he hit off Pedro Martinez in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS:

Two big international signings: One worked, and one didn't. How popular was Matsui in Japan? A parade was held in Tokyo for him when he signed with the Yankees.

Now this is an offseason! God, I miss when the Yankees actually wanted to win. That's 29.3 WAR added in one offseason. Here's a 2018 equivalent list of players: Jose Ramirez, Christian Yelich, Trevor Bauer, German Marquez and Michael Brantley.

The Yankees went from 101 wins to ... 101. And this:

I'm not sure the Randy Johnson years in the Bronx actually happened.

He was what we thought he was: He averaged 3.6 WAR per season in the four-year deal and was still around for the 2009 World Series team.

You remember Igawa, right? The shiniest toy, however, arrived in May:

The Yankees re-signed A-Rod after he opted out of his contract, but they were saving up for the following offseason.

After missing the playoffs in 2008 for the first time since 1993, the Yankees essentially bought their 2009 championship. There's no other way to put it. Don't be ashamed, Yankees fans. Flags fly forever. Teixeira signed for $180 million, Sabathia for $161 million and Burnett for $82.5 million. Basically, the Yankees got just that one great season from all three, however, and some of the bad money in these deals haunted the Yankees down the road.

This was the three-way deal in which the Tigers got Max Scherzer from the Diamondbacks. The Yankees gave up Austin Jackson, Ian Kennedy and Phil Coke in the trade. Two of three teams were happy with the eventual results of the trade.

The Yankees also re-signed Jeter and Rivera but passed on the biggest free agents: Cliff Lee, Adrian Beltre, Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth.

The Yankees were really starting to get old and had to patch some holes in the rotation. Pineda for Jesus Montero was one of the best challenge trades in recent memory -- except Pineda immediately got hurt and missed two full seasons while Montero couldn't catch ... or hit.

The Yankees did nothing significant except re-sign their players, and they ended up missing the playoffs and getting outscored on the season. I believe M.M. refers to 2013 and 2014 as the seasons that didn't happen.

Given the money spent here on all these new toys -- including $155 million on Tanaka and $153 million on Ellsbury -- it seems the Yankees were trying to win in 2014. They didn't. They missed the playoffs and were outscored again. The average age of their lineup: an astounding 32.9 years.

The Yankees signed Miller for four years and $36 million -- at the time, the most ever given to a setup guy. He was later flipped to Cleveland in a trade that brought over Justus Sheffield ... who was the main player in the James Paxton trade. In other words: A couple of good little moves here by Brian Cashman.

The Yankees reached the wild-card game (and lost) in 2015, but the focus remained on building up the farm system. Chapman was simply an ends to that mean: The Reds wanted to trade him, but Chapman became persona non grata after his domestic violence incident (which led to a 30-game suspension). The Yankees gave up four marginal prospects to get him and flipped him later that summer for Gleyber Torres.

Then they re-signed him!

He didn't hit 59 home runs again, so I guess it was the worst 38-homer, 100-RBI, 4.0-WAR season in Yankees history.

In terms of previous season WAR, the 10 shiniest new toys acquired during the Steinbrenner(s) era:

1. Jason Giambi (2002): 9.2

2. Alex Rodriguez (2004): 8.4

3. Randy Johnson (2005): 8.4

4. Roger Clemens (1999): 8.1

5. Mark Teixeira (2009): 7.8

6. Giancarlo Stanton (2018): 7.6

7. Catfish Hunter (1975): 6.9

8. Chuck Knoblauch (1998): 6.8

9. Gary Sheffield (2004): 6.8

10. Rick Rhoden (1987): 6.6

OK, no offense to Rick Rhoden, but he isn'treally one of the shiniest new toys. My personal "Holy $#!%" top 10, factoring in the place, time and money, would be more like this:

1. A-Rod: best player in the AL, maybe best in the game and still young

2. Clemens: coming off two monster seasons and joining a 114-win team

3. Rickey Henderson: He's Rickey!

4. Reggie Jackson: the straw that stirs the drink

5. Stanton: dreams of hitting 60 at Yankee Stadium

6. Catfish: unreal money at the time

7. Masahiro Tanaka: Everybody wanted him.

8. Dave Winfield: The money and length seemed crazy.

9. Giambi: MVP in 2000, runner-up in 2001

10. Jack Clark: He was arguably the best hitter in the game in '87.

Now, back to the current offseason. I didn't consider the Yankees re-signing their own free agents as shiny new toys -- that's like getting an old pack of baseball cards in your Christmas stocking and then you realize it's a 1988 Donruss pack. So Britton and J.A. Happ don't count. The new additions are Paxton (2.9 WAR), LeMahieu (3.0), Adam Ottavino (2.6) and Tulowitzki (didn't even play in 2018). Maybe five years from now we'll be talking about how the Yankees stole Josh Stowers from the Mariners in the Sonny Gray trade.

Machado is coming off a 5.7-WAR season, with a career high of 7.1 in 2015. Harper is coming off a 1.3-WAR season (3.5 on FanGraphs), with a career high of 10.0 in his MVP season of 2015. Would either crack the top 10? I think so, and especially given their ages I could see moving them up higher than Giambi or Clark in the rankings, maybe even as high as No. 7 ahead of Tanaka (especially if the money ends up in the $300 million range).

Will either one actually end up in the Bronx? Well, as Alexander Hamilton raps, "I'm past patiently waitin'" ...