Ever since George Steinbrenner took control of the Yankees in the mid 1970's, the franchise has earned the reputation of making a big splash in the offseason whether through free agency or a blockbuster trade. Over the past year or so the team has eschewed acquiring marquee players at a high price and instead has pulled the trigger on less star-studded trades to improve the roster. Truth is, they've been supplementing their roster with trades of this type for a long time with a fair amount of success. Now they're just doing it more often. Here's a look back at some offseason trades in recent history that seemed innocuous or even crazy at first but paid off in a big way for the Yankees.
The Yankees sent their lone All-Star in 1992, Roberto Kelly, to Cincinnati for Paul O'Neill following the season. At the time, Kelly seemed to have a long, bright future ahead of him and O'Neill was a 30-year old whose apparent ceiling was as a platoon outfielder. Well, you know how this one ended up. O'Neill spent nine seasons in pinstripes, four of them ending with a World Series ring, as he averaged a .302/.378/.491 slash line with 21 home runs per year and became a fan favorite in the process. Kelly struggled to find his footing as a player after the trade. He bounced around the MLB playing for seven different franchises before winding up back with the Yankees for a cup of coffee in 2000. This trade is certainly in the running for best in Yankees history.
When Don Mattingly retired following the 1995 season, the Yankees immediately set their sights on replacing him with a man that helped break their hearts that postseason. Playing first base for the Mariners, Tino Martinez hit .409 with a home run and 5 RBI's in that division series win over the Yankees. They must have liked what they saw because he was shipped to the Bronx that December along with Jeff Nelson and Jim Mecir for promising lefty starter Sterling Hitchcock and third baseman Russ Davis, the Yankees' top prospect just a season prior. The gamble was a good one. Martinez earned four championship rings along with O'Neill as a reliable run producer in the middle of the lineup. From 1996 through 2001 he averaged 29 home runs and 115 RBI's and was named runner-up for the 1997 AL MVP. Nelson was also a part of all four of those World Series teams, serving as a key setup man in the Yankees' dominant bullpen. Hitchcock and Davis never saw any such success in the big leagues.
Scott Brosius became a cult hero in Yankees Universe thanks mainly to the four pennants and three World Series' the team won in his four years in pinstripes. When he retired following the 2001 season the Yankees were in need of a third baseman and found one via a rare intra-city swap. For the modest asking price of David Justice, who was a major disappointment in 2001, 34 year-old Robin Ventura was shipped from Flushing to the Bronx. Ventura was tailor-made for the powerful and savvy Yankee teams of the late 90's and early 00's. In 2002 he drew a ton of walks, slugged 27 home runs, and lived up to his reputation as an excellent fielder at the hot corner. Along the way he was named to the AL All-Star team as the Yankees racked up a staggering 103 wins and a division crown. He didn't last long with the team and ended up being collateral damage as a result of the Aaron Boone trade. Still, in his season and half with the Yankees, Ventura provided plenty of value on both sides of the ball.
In a deal that can be considered nothing short of highway robbery, the Yankees acquired Nick Swisher from the White Sox for career bench-warmer Wilson Betemit and two minor league relievers prior to the 2009 season. Swisher stepped right in as the team's everyday right fielder and on-base specialist at the bottom of the lineup as the Yankees' took home their 27th World Series title. He remained a consistent force the Bombers and over his four years with the team he averaged 26 home runs, 82 walks, and a 124 OPS+ per year. That's quite a return on investment that solely consisted of spare parts. Since his departure, the Yankees have struggled to get anywhere close to that kind of production out of their right fielders, even after spending a hefty sum to lure in Carlos Beltran a season ago.
Curtis Granderson (Honorable Mention)
This wasn't exactly a slick or under the radar trade as Granderson was an established star and the Yankees paid a hefty price for him. Austin Jackson was the most coveted prospect in the Yankees' system and went on to have several All-Star caliber years with the Tigers. Phil Coke was a reliable reliever and Ian Kennedy became a viable middle of the rotation starter. Yet the Yankees got some decent value out of the trade. In his four year Yankee career, Granderson had a pair of 40 home run seasons that coincided with two All-Star appearances and he even led the AL in RBI's during his 2011 campaign.
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