clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The right Yankees players on the wrong Yankees teams

New, 2 comments

These Bombers were a perfect fit in the Bronx— except for their timing.

Don Mattingly Photo by Ronald C. Modra/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images

Timing is everything — it’s true in baseball as in life. For all the retired numbers and all the October (and November) heroes in Yankees history, there is still a host of players whose brilliant performances in pinstripes fell victim to bad luck, bad rosters, and generally bad timing.

Even in the team’s most disappointing seasons, the team fielded special talents who were a joy to watch. In honor of these unlucky contributors, here are a few former Yankees who were the right men for the job, but who entered the club’s lore at precisely the wrong moment.

Hiroki Kuroda

Relative to some of the other Japanese stars who have joined the team, Kuroda flew under the radar as a Yankee. A quiet personality in the clubhouse, he didn’t boast the legendary status of Ichiro Suzuki or the postseason glory of Hideki Matsui, both of whom are Hall-of-Famers in Japan.

Kuroda pitched during an awkward, transitional time for the franchise — 2012 to 2014 — and arrived in the Bronx at age 37, much older than Masahiro Tanaka, who has spent his prime with the team.

But Kuroda was really good during his three years in New York. Showcasing a nasty splitter and durability that belied his years, he posted a 3.44 ERA and tossed 620 innings in 97 starts.

He pitched well in his sole postseason run with the Yankees, too. After an excellent 8.1 innings versus Baltimore in the divisional round, he started Game Two of the ALCS against Detroit.

He struck out 11 before conceding three runs late, yet the Yankees offense was shut out, mustering a measly four hits against the duo of Anibal Sanchez and Phil Coke. Kuroda took the loss, and the Tigers went on to sweep.

After their defeat, the Yankees missed the playoffs in consecutive years, and Kuroda’s continued quality was squandered. It’s a shame fans never got to see Kuroda prove his mettle in the crucible of a World Series run. He was prepared for the pressure cooker of Yankees postseason baseball; unfortunately, the roster wasn’t prepared to compete.

Bobby Abreu

Acquired midseason in 2006, Abreu was superb down the stretch for the Yankees, slashing .330/.419/.507 with a 143 wRC+. From that campaign through 2008, he was part of an on-base machine that finished first, first, and third in OBP in the American League in successive seasons.

Abreu was consistent and professional, missing only 10 games in his two full years in the Bronx. He would have been an ideal complementary cog in a championship-caliber Yankees squad, but the team was ousted in the divisional round of the playoffs in 2006 and 2007, and missed the tournament altogether in 2008.

Alas, by the time of Rodriguez’s redemption during the Yankees’ October breakthrough in 2009, Abreu had moved on in free agency to the Angels — the very team the Bombers conquered in the ALCS en route to their title.

Don Mattingly

Mattingly presents a different kind of case of the right player on the wrong team.

Rather than a seasoned veteran who joined the club at an inopportune time, Mattingly was a beloved Yankees lifer whose elite years coincided with a frustrating playoff drought. His career was sandwiched heartbreakingly between two World Series appearances in 1981 and 1996, the latter of which yielded a title.

In his peak from 1984 to 1987, Mattingly was, simply put, awesome. During that stretch he earned an MVP, a batting title, three Gold Gloves, and three Silver Sluggers, and in various years led the league in hits, doubles, RBI, slugging, and total bases.

It’s easy to envision Mattingly anchoring a World Series lineup; he captained the team from 1991 through his final season in 1995. In his lone postseason appearance that last year, he gave fans a taste of what might have been.

In a losing five-game effort against the Mariners, Mattingly lashed 10 hits in 24 at-bats, including this goosebump-inducing go-ahead home run:

Mel Stottlemyre

Similar to Mattingly, Stottlemyre was a loyal and longtime member of the club whose career blossomed at the tail end of a successful run.

He was a five-time All-Star and rotation stalwart. For his career, Stottlemyre compiled a 2.97 ERA, and started at least 35 games in nine consecutive seasons. But he excelled during what turned out to be one of the team’s bleakest stretches.

As a 22-year-old rookie, Stottlemyre started three games in the 1964 World Series against the Cardinals, losing game seven to Bob Gibson. There isn’t even the slightest whiff of shame in being bested by Gibson. But the aftermath of the defeat was particularly cruel; Stottlemyre wouldn’t make another postseason appearance in his career in pinstripes, which lasted through 1974.

Had the righty risen to prominence during Mickey Mantle’s prime rather than his decline, or had he pitched deeper into his thirties with the late-1970s Yankees, he might have been known as a rotation linchpin of multiple title teams. Thankfully, his timing as Yankees pitching coach was perfect. He joined the team with Joe Torre in 1996, and remained on the bench through 2005, contributing at long last to four World Series victories.