Earlier this week, former Yankees farmhand Jorge Mateo was traded from the Oakland Athletics to the San Diego Padres for a player to be named later. It wasn’t exactly an earth-shattering move (though it has the distinction of being the first major league transaction since the coronavirus pandemic shuttered the league back in March). \
But Mateo was once one of Yankees’ most highly touted prospects before being shipped to Oakland in a package for Sonny Gray in 2017, and he’s coming off an excellent season for the Athletics’Triple-A affiliate in the Pacific Coast League. Maybe another change of scenery will help him unlock his potential, and leave Yankees fans wondering, years from now, “What if?” (Okay, probably not, but you never know.)
There are, however, a host of other examples where junior Bombers were cast off from the franchise, only to become – to varying degrees – stars in the sport.
Here’s a look at some of the most notable:
The current Chicago Cubs southpaw signed with the Yankees in 2008 as a 19-year-old minor league free agent. Never a heralded prospect, Quintana moved through the system fairly slowly, playing in the Dominican Summer League for his age 19 and 20 seasons, though his performance was good.
The Yankees eventually moved him stateside in 2010 and and he reached High-A Tampa the following year, tossing 102 innings with a 2.91 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP. But, then as now, he was more of a finesse and control pitcher than the power arm the Yankees traditionally crave, and despite his promising 2011, the club let him walk as a free agent at age 22.
He signed with the Chicago White Sox and reached the majors in 2012 and quickly became a workhorse, throwing at least 200 innings for four straight years beginning in 2013.
Career: 1,485 IP, 83-77 W-L, 3.72 ERA (3.65 FIP), 1.27 WHIP, 25.7 bWAR
Before he became an All-Star with the Florida Marlins and, later, the Boston Red Sox, Lowell was earmarked to become the next great Yankees third baseman. Lowell was drafted by New York in 1995 and by 1997 was demonstrating huge potential, slashing .315/.401/.562 with 30 home runs across Double-A and Triple A. The next season, playing at Triple-A,
Lowell proved he was no fluke, hitting .304/.355/.535 with 26 homers. He even got an eight-game cup off coffee in the Bronx. But by that point, the Yankees had inked Scott Brosius to a four-year deal and he was having his own All-Star campaign. All of a sudden, Lowell was blocked and he was shipped off to Florida for a trio of minor league pitchers: Ed Yarnall, Mark Johnson and Todd Noel, who collectively threw 44 innings in the majors and were worth -0.4 bWAR. Ouch.
Lowell, of course, reached far greater heights, garnering four All-Star nods, winning a Gold Glove and netting a top-five AL MVP finish over the course of his 13-year career.
Career: 1,601 G, .279/.342/.464, 223 HR, 108 OPS+, 24.9 bWAR
Less than a year after the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted Buhner in 1984, they traded him to the Yankees (along with Yogi Berra’s son, Dale.) The power-hitting right fielder progressed quickly through the farm system and made his major league debut in 1987.
The following July, Buhner was hilariously traded to the Seattle Mariners for Ken Phelps and went on to become an All-Star, Gold Glove winner and top-five MVP finisher.
And of course, the trade would inspire this classic Seinfeld moment:
Career: 1,472 G, .254/.359/.494, 310 HR, 124 OPS+, 23.0 bWAR
Not only does Rijo represent a great “what if” for the Yankees, but for all of baseball. The Yankees signed the gifted right-hander out of the Dominican Republic at age 15 and he made his debut less than four years later, still just 18. But it took a while to tap into his incredible potential as he battled injuries and inconsistency, the latter of which should hardly be surprising considering his age.
In December 1984, less than a year after his debut, the Yankees traded him in a five-player package to Oakland for Rickey Henderson. (Ok, at least they got something back). He was moved again, in 1987, to Cincinnati, where he began to flourish. He was a critical part of the Reds’ 1990 championship team and four times exceeded 5.0 bWAR in a season. In 1993, he led all major leaguers with 10.1 bWAR, which included 0.9 bWAR as a hitter (he hit .268, with a .648 OPS in 97 plate appearances that year).
A serious elbow injury in 1995, at age 30, sidelined him for more than five seasons and by the time he returned in 2001, the clock was winding down. He retired following the 2002 season.
Career: 1,880 IP, 116-91 W-L, 3.24 ERA (3.28 FIP), 1.26 WHIP, 36.5 bWAR
Drabek joined the Yankees in 1984 as part of a trade with the Chicago White Sox and he made his big league debut for the Bombers two years later.
He didn’t stick around for very long, as the Yanks traded him to Pittsburgh in a multi-player deal that brought back veteran starter Rick Rhoden. With the Pirates, however, Drabek blossomed into the rotation stalwart the Yankees sorely needed in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. He maintained an ERA under 3.10 in five of his six seasons in Pittsburgh (he signed with Houston as a free agent after 1992). He won 22 games in 1990, which netted him the NL Cy Young Award (when wins usually governed such matters).
Career: 2,535 IP, 155-134, 3.73 ERA (3.82 FIP), 1.24 WHIP, 29.2 bWAR
The Yankees drafted McGriff, who’d go on to be affectionately known in baseball as the “Crime Dog,” in 1981. At the time, of course, they had another pretty good first baseman breaking into the big leagues in Don Mattingly, so perhaps the Yankees brass felt McGriff and his lefty power swing were expendable. They traded him to Toronto after the 1982 season in a package for Tom Dodd and Dale Murray (an interesting aside; the primary position listed on Dodd’s Baseball-Reference page is pinch-hitter. The Yankees’ front office was really humming back then).
McGriff would go on to hit 493 home runs during his 19-year career, winning a World Series with the Atlanta Braves in 1995. I don’t know, maybe the Yanks could’ve used some of that production at DH.
Career: 2,460 G, .284/.377/.509, 493 HR, 134 OPS+, 52.6 bWAR
A year before trading McGriff, the Yankees committed another massive unforced error in trading McGee, a speedy outfield prospect whom they drafted in 1977. In 1981, they sent him to the St. Louis Cardinals for Bob Sykes, a lefty pitcher who threw exactly zero innings for them and was out of baseball within a year.
McGee, meanwhile, embarked on an 18-year career that saw him win the NL MVP in 1985. Even 40 years after the fact, it’s enough to make your blood boil.
Career: 2,201 G, .295/.333/.398, 1,010 R, 352 SB, 100 OPS+, 34.2 bWAR