The 1995 season was a "comeback year" in all meanings of the phrase for the New York Yankees. In a sense, they were already well on the recovery trail from abysmal 90-loss seasons in the early '90s, since they slightly improved each year since they bottomed out at 95 losses and a last-place finish in '90. Shrewd acquisitions like the trade for right fielder Paul O'Neill and the rise of homegrown talent like center fielder Bernie Williams finally had the Yankees ready to win a division title after a second-place, 88-win season in '93. Unfortunately, the '94 season was shortened by the infamous Players' Strike while the Yankees had the best record in the American League at 70-43, a .619 pace that might have led to a 100-win season and captain Don Mattingly's first playoff appearance. The Yankees had waited since an '81 World Series loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers to return to the playoffs, but they would have to wait another year.
Once the strike was finally resolved and the Yankees opened play on April 26th, they were still considered a legitimate playoff contender in the 144-game season. The year quickly began to sour though, especially when ace Jimmy Key, the runner-up for the AL Cy Young Award in '94, was lost for the season after just five starts due to a torn rotator cuff. Starter Melido Perez was also lost to injury, and the Yankees were scrambling for starters. They even let some kid named Mariano Rivera start 10 games for them while they searched for a solution. The pitching struggles led to team struggles, and the Yankees found themselves at a very disappointing record of 33-40 on the morning of July 19th. A 5-2 win that day keyed by a two-run homer from shortstop Tony Fernandez sent them off on a seven-game winning streak that brought them back to .500. Throughout this period, GM Gene "Stick" Michael pursued the ace of the Toronto Blue Jays, David Cone. With the Kansas City Royals in '94, Cone was the recipient of the AL Cy Young Award over Key, and was traded to Toronto prior to the '95 season. The two-time defending World Series champions never got themselves going, and by mid-July, they were over 10 games under .500. Thus, they sought to deal their ace, who was pitching to a 3.38 ERA and a 140 ERA+, in an effort to acquire prospects for the future. The Yankees had such pitching prospects that the Jays like, and a deal was struck on July 28th. The trade was an absolute steal for the New Yorkers.
Cone had pitched in New York before, with the Mets from '87-'92. He burst onto the baseball scene in as a 25-year-old in '88 by finishing third in the NL Cy Young voting thanks to a 20-3 record, a 2.22 ERA, and a 145 ERA+. He helped the Mets win the '88 NL East, but they fell in the NLCS to the Dodgers. Cone was crushed in his first start after insulting the Dodgers' Jay Howell in the papers, but he threw a five-hitter to help the Mets stave off elimination in Game 6. With the Mets struggling in the early '90s and his reputation falling due to off-the-field incidents, he was traded to the Blue Jays on August 27th for young second baseman Jeff Kent as they chased a title in '92. In his first experience as a "hired gun," Cone dazzled, pitching to a 2.55 ERA and 161 ERA+ in 53 innings. He also added to his postseason reputation with a 3.22 ERA in four starts as both he and the Blue Jays won their first World Series title. He moved back to his hometown Kansas City to pitch with the Royals, who originally drafted him, but by the trade deadline in '95, he was back with the Blue Jays, who were about to send him on another stretch run as a "hired gun."
Toronto traded Cone to the Yankees in exchange for highly-regarded pitching prospect Marty Janzen and fellow minor league pitchers Jason Jarvis and Mike Gordon. None of these players had ever pitched above AA. Janzen was extremely valued by minor league head Bill Livesey, who absolutely did not want to see him moved. Janzen was signed as a 19-year-old amateur in '92, and he gradually moved up in the system from the Gulf Coast League to the AA Norwich Navigators in '95. Throughout his minor league career with the Yankees, he pitched to a 3.02 ERA with decent control (never exceeding a BB/9 of 2.6 until three starts with Norwich in '95) and fine strikeout totals (8.3 K/9).
Jarvis was less heralded, but the 13th round draft pick from '94 certainly showed some promise as well. The righthander from Bellevue University earned a promotion to class A Greensboro after an impressive showing with low-A Oneonta in his minor league debut (2.34 ERA, 10.7 K/9 in 65.1 innings). He continued to impress with Greensboro in '95, pitching to a 3.01 ERA in 110.2 innings, though his strikeout rate dropped to 6.7 K/9. Gordon was an 11th round pick in the '92 draft, and he got off to a similarly good start from '92-'93 in the Gulf Coast League, pitching to a 2.29 ERA and 8.8 K/9 in 118 innings there. He struggled upon moving up to A-ball in Oneonta and Greensboro (6.51 ERA in 121.2 combined innings), but he started '95 with high-A Tampa and had a 3.04 ERA in 124.1 innings there. All three were certainly good pitching prospects, with Janzen the clear prize.
Michael had long coveted Cone, even trying to sign him as a free agent in the '92-'93 off-season. When Toronto asked for a package centered around Janzen though, the Yankees originally felt the price was too much and declined pursuit. Once other targets like Ken Hill and Jim Abbott went off the market, the Yankees decided to try again. Michael emphatically supported the trade, saying, "We're the Yankees. We need Cone, and we should make this deal." Owner George Steinbrenner ruled in Michael's favor over Livesey's preferences of keeping Janzen, and the trade was done.
Another trade was made that day too, as the Yankees dealt disgruntled DH Danny Tartabull, whose once-productive performance (75 homers and a 133 wRC+ from '92-'94) had dipped to six homers and a 91 wRC+ in '95. He was getting booed at home for his poor performance despite a $5 million per year contract and manager Buck Showalter suspected that he was faking injuries to avoid going on the field. Thus, the Yankees sent him to the Oakland Athletics, who gave them their own problem DH, Ruben Sierra. The former All-Star clashed with both GM Sandy Alderson and manager Tony La Russa in Oakland, and the latter referred to Sierra as a "village idiot." Though the switch-hitter's power dipped, he hit seven homers for the Yankees down the stretch and notched four extra-base hits (including this playoff blast, the first of back-to-back shots with Mattingly) in the playoffs to validate the trade. Tartabull's career soon fizzled to a close in '97 and the Yankees turned Sierra, who became a clubhouse pain in '96, into Detroit Tigers DH Cecil Fielder, who helped them win the '96 World Series. Wins all around!
Getting back to the Cone trade though, the veteran righthander proved to be exactly what the Yankees needed. He provided stability to the Yankees' rotation, winning his first start in Minnesota on the 29th with eight innings of six-hit, two-run ball. The Yankees were glad to have him on board, and third baseman Wade Boggs strongly supported the acquisition: "This is a step in the right direction. It's a major move." Though his 9-2 record belied a not-as-good 3.82 ERA and 122 ERA+, Cone was definitely a big asset for a rotation that had been depending far too much on the efforts of off-season trade acquisition Jack "Black Jack" McDowell and young southpaws Andy Pettitte and Sterling Hitchcock. The Yankees now employed the previous two winners of the AL Cy Young Award, and with a stronger team, they stormed to the finish from July 28th onward with a 38-23 record (a .623 pace). They even recovered from a horrible eight-game losing streak on the road from August 19-26 with a 22-6 final month of the season that clinched the first AL Wild Card. The Yankees returned to the playoffs for the first time in 14 years and Mattingly finally had a postseason appearance to add to his storied career.
Cone threw eight innings and 135 pitches in the ALDS opener to win the game 9-6 against the Seattle Mariners despite allowing four runs, but he was not as lucky in the decisive fifth game of the series. The Mariners stormed back from an 0-2 series deficit to force Game 5 at the Kingdome in Seattle. In that game, Cone left his arm on the mound as he tried to carry a 4-2 lead into the ninth, but in the eighth, he surrendered a monster solo homer to Ken Griffey Jr. and a bases-loaded walk to pinch-hitter Doug Strange to tie the game. After 7.2 innings and a ridiculous 147 pitches, Cone's outing was done and the Yankees would go on to lose the game 6-5 in 10 innings. Though the Yankees lost the series, they were able to re-sign Cone, and he would help them win four of the next five World Series titles.
Toronto never got anything out of the three young pitchers they acquired for Cone. Janzen impressed for the remainder of the year in AA Knoxville with a 2.62 ERA, but upon his promotion to AAA Syracuse, he was crushed to the tune of a 7.76 ERA in 10 starts. He was promoted to the big club anyway for 11 starts, but he pitched similarly to a 7.33 ERA and 68 ERA+ at the major league level. After 12 decent relief appearances in '97, he would never make it back to the pros. He continued to struggle in AAA, and though he was claimed by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the expansion draft, he found himself traded back to the Yankees organization for '98. He threw 103.1 innings of 5.14 ERA baseball between AA Norwich and AAA Columbus and was released. He bounced around among various organizations and Independent leagues before finally leaving the game in 2005. Jarvis flamed out of baseball after a horrid '97 season and a 6.04 ERA between high-A Dunedin and AA Knoxville. It took Gordon until '97 to pitch his way out of Dunedin, and he split a shaky 4.98 season in AA between the Toronto and Cleveland Indian organizations. Back with Toronto in '98, he again struggled with a 5.02 ERA, then after a few games the Milwaukee Brewers' AA Huntsville team, he was also gone from baseball.
In short, the Yankees got the ace they needed for the run to the playoffs in '95, and the good feelings between the two parties led to five more years with the team and more pitching excellence. The Blue Jays got three bust pitching prospects. It's hard to think of many other deadline deals that were as successful in both team and baseball history.
Well played, Stick Michael.... well played.
Appel, Marty. Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.
Sherman, Joel. Birth of a Dynasty: Behind the Pinstripes with the 1996 Yankees. New York: Rodale, 2006.