So why exactly did George Steinbrenner and the 1988 New York Yankees trade their power-hitting outfield prospect Jay Buhner for veteran Seattle Mariners DH Ken Phelps? The Yankees overcame the fifth dismissal of manager Billy Martin, and replacement Lou Piniella had them in second place in the AL East, only a game and a half behind the Detroit Tigers. The Yankees' problem wasn't so much offense as it was pitching. Ron Guidry and Tommy John were no longer the great starters they once were, and they only had one starting pitcher on their staff with an ERA+ greater than 101 (John Candelaria, with a 117). Still, the Yankees always concerned themselves with having big lefthanded power bats to aim for the short porch in right field, and beyond first baseman Don Mattingly (who only had 18 in '88), they did not really have any such hitters. On July 21st, they landed their lefty power hitter, but their target was still a curious choice.
Ken Phelps moved from the Kansas City Royals to the Montreal Expos in the first three years of his big league career, and he was not really given a chance to flourish until the Mariners purchased him prior to his age-28 season of '83. Phelps's lack of a position beyond first base likely contributed to his travels. Even during the '80s, teams were uneasy about giving starting jobs to players who could hit but could not field very well. After playing decently in a part-time role in '83 though, Phelps became the regular DH in '84 and rewarded Seattle by hitting .241/.378/.521 with 24 homers and a 142 wRC+ in 101 games. His production dipped in an injury-plagued '85 (120 wRC+ in 61 games), but he recovered to hit .253/.408/.537 with 51 homers and a 147 wRC+ over the next two seasons, establishing himself as one of the league's premier DHs. Phelps was having his best season thus far in '88 (.432 wOBA and a 170 wRC+ in 72 games) when the Mariners decided to deal their then-franchise leader in homers (105 in the pre-Griffey days). Since the Yankees already had a regular DH in the righthanded Jack Clark though, New York did not appear to be his destination, but that is exactly where he ended up. It was tough for the Mariners to deal Phelps, who was a Seattle native and a popular player, but Phelps was excited for the opportunity to play in a World Series and they were getting a good young hitter in return. All this slugging cueball they got for Phelps would do in Seattle was hit 310 homers with a 125 wRC+ in 14 years that saw the Mariners finally experience both winning baseball and the postseason.
Technically, the trade was not a straight swap of Phelps for Buhner. The Yankees also sent the Mariners their top two picks from the '85 draft, 21-year-old righthanded starter Rick Balabon and 24-year-old righthanded starter Troy Evers. Balabon, a star at Conestoga High School in Philadelphia, found immediate success in low-A Oneonta immediately after the draft (1.74 ERA in 12 starts), but he never achieved the same success in class A over the next couple seasons (4.08 ERA in 58 starts). The change in scenery to the west coast helped him advance to the AA level, but he flamed out of baseball after his first stint in AAA, a 6.41 ERA disaster in 15 starts with Calgary. Balabon was only 24 when he called it quits after the '91 season. The former top pick returned to school at Cabrini College near his home in Philly, where he had been taking college courses part-time during his minor league career, and he later became a trade segment manager (Aside: The Internet is a scary place). The Yankees sent Evers to the Mariners after the season as the player to be named later, and he was no ordinary PTBNL. The second-round pick was more polished, drafted out of Iowa State University rather than high school, but while he rose to AA faster than Balabon, he never got above that level for Seattle. Enough about these guys though--neither was nearly the prospect that Buhner was with AAA Columbus.
Buhner, a Texas boy with prodigious power, was drafted out of Clear Creek High School by the Atlanta Braves in the ninth round of the '83 draft, but did not sign. Rather than accepting the Braves' offer, he attended nearby McLennan Community College for a semester, then accepted an offer made to him by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the '84 January Secondary draft. After a strong .323/.427/.537 season as a 19-year-old in low-A Watertown, Buhner was traded to the Yankees in a five-player swing involving Dale Berra and Steve Kemp. Buhner advanced his way to AAA Columbus in '87, and the 22-year-old had a monster 31-homer campaign with the Yankees' top farm team. The kid was an all-or-nothing kind of hitter and struck out 124 times in in 563 plate appearances, but he impressed the Yankees enough to earn a September call-up. He appeared in seven games and notched his first big-league hit against Toronto's Jimmy Key. Buhner moved back and forth between Columbus and New York for the first half of the '88 season, and he continued to hit AAA pitching (.842 OPS in 38 games), but struggled against big league pitching. In his most recent appearance prior to the trade, he suffered through a 1-for-30 slump with 15 strikeouts. The Yankees still liked his power and it was a tough bullet to bite letting him go to Seattle, but they really wanted Phelps's potent lefthanded bat in their lineup.
The trade went through on July 21, 1988, and the results were actually pretty even in the short-term. Although Phelps's batting average with the Yankees of .224 was hindered by a quite-low .194 BABIP in 45 games, he still slugged 10 homers and notched a 141 wRC+. Unfortunately, the Yankees struggled and missed the playoffs, largely due to their pitching problems that they perhaps should have addressed at the trade deadline rather than acquiring another bat. Meanwhile, Buhner immediately joined the big club in Seattle and put up a 112 wRC+ in 60 games with the Mariners, including a 3-for-4 "stick it to them" performance against the Yankees on August 20th. He bounced back and forth between AAA Calgary and Seattle during the next couple years despite good offensive numbers (.275/.348/.485 with a 127 wRC+ in 107 games from '89-'90), but he finally stuck with Seattle thanks to a 27-homer season in '91. By this time, Phelps was not only gone from the Yankees, but out of baseball entirely.
Phelps was traded to Oakland in a late-season deal in '89 after a disappointing follow-up to his strong '88 season. His slugging percentage dipped from .549 in '88 to a paltry .371 in '89, a fall unacceptable for a lefthanded DH in Yankee Stadium. The trade to the Athletics did bring him to the World Series he wanted reach so badly, but he only had two plate appearances in the entire postseason as Tony La Russa's squad won it all. He got his World Series ring, but his offense plummeted further to a .186/.319/.271 showing in 32 games of the '90 season before being purchased by the Cleveland Indians. His lone highlight in the '90 campaign was his final career homer--a solo blast against his former team in Seattle that abruptly ended Brian Holman's perfect game bid with two outs in the ninth inning. In 24 games with the Tribe, he managed a wRC+ of 1 (yes, you read that correctly). In '91, Phelps played a handful of games with the Phoenix Firebirds, the AAA affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, before his career officially ended in April. Coincidentally, Phelps's career fizzled just as Buhner's was about to take off.
The '91 campaign was the first of seven consecutive 20-homer seasons for Buhner with the Mariners, highlighted by three straight 40-homer seasons from '95-'97. Buhner also had one of his finest career games on the five-year anniversary of the trade, a five-hit performance on July 21, 1993. He also hit for the cycle earlier in the year, finishing the feat with one of only 19 career triples. Now reunited with his former manager Piniella, who the Mariners hired in '93, he finished fifth in the AL MVP voting in '95 thanks to a 40-homer campaign in Seattle's first ever division-winning season. "Bone" crushed his former team in the memorable five-game ALDS with a .458/.500/.625 series. He was also one of the few Mariners to bother showing up to the six-game ALCS loss to the Cleveland Indians, a series in which he hit .304/.360/.783 with three homers against the American League champions. In '96, he was named an All-Star as he hit a career-high 44 homers and won a Gold Glove for the "rocket of an arm" that Frank Costanza alluded to in the Seinfeld clip (he also flew over the right-field fence in Fenway to rob a homer the next year). Although Seattle missed the playoffs, another 40-homer season in '97 led the Mariners to their second AL West division title. They fell in a four-game ALDS loss to the Baltimore Orioles despite a pair of homers from Buhner, then missed the playoffs in each of the next couple seasons as Buhner's offense declined due to injuries.
He came back with 26 homers as Seattle's starting right fielder in 2000, helping the Mariners to 91 victories and a playoff berth as the Wild Card. The Mariners trounced the AL Central champion Chicago White Sox in a three-game ALDS sweep before falling in the ALCS in six games to the Yankees. New York's pitching was finally able to silence Buhner in the playoffs, holding him to two hits in 12 plate appearances. In '01, Buhner was displaced in right field by the Mariners' new phenomenal Japanese player, Ichiro Suzuki. A chronic foot injury prevented him from appearing in games until September, but his Mariners teammates gave him one last playoff appearance thanks to a tremendous AL-record setting season of 116 victories. Buhner gave his fans in Seattle a few final highlights: his only two homers of the year in a season-ending three-game series with the Texas Rangers, and his final career home run, a pinch-hit solo blast in the Mariners' lone ALCS win over the Yankees. Of course his final homer came against the Yankees--Buhner always hit well against them, batting .283/.379/.578 with 28 homers against them (including a monster blast past the left-field bullpen in '91 that went 479 feet). Buhner retired after the season with a fine Mariners career that put him in the team's hall of fame. His number 19 has not been issued since his retirement. Who knows how Buhner's career would have gone had he kept the pinstripes? Considering the fact that the Yankees had the terrific Paul O'Neill manning right field for them from '93-'01, they certainly came out of it fine, if not better:
Although I don't think many Yankee fans look back on the Phelps for Buhner trade with glee, I think you'd be hard pressed to find a Yankee fan who preferred Buhner to O'Neill and a Mariner fan who preferred O'Neill to Buhner.
Ken Phelps was traded to the Seattle Mariners for Jay Buhner, Rick Balabon, and a player to be named later (Troy Evers in October) 24 years ago today.