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This Day in Yankees History: A.J. Burnett becomes a Buc

A.J. Burnett was dealt to Pittsburgh, Lou Gehrig got a raise, and New York began a complicated deal with the Kansas City A’s.

New York Yankees v Detroit Tigers - Game 4 Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Welcome to the relaunched This Day in Yankees History. Now that spring training is officially open, it’s time to get amped for the upcoming season. These daily posts will highlight two or three key moments in Yankees history on a given date, as well as recognize players born on the day. Hope you enjoy this trip down memory lane with us!

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This Day in Yankees History (February 19)

86 Years Ago

By 1935, the Yankees were officially the team of Lou Gehrig. Babe Ruth had only just been released to prolong his career in Boston, but the “Iron Horse” had been a better player for a couple years already. It’s not as though Ruth was struggling; Gehrig was just in the middle of an unreal stretch of production that peaked with one of the greatest seasons ever put together by a first baseman. In 1934, Gehrig won the AL Triple Crown, batting .363/.465/.706 with 49 homers (a career-high), 166 RBI, a 207 OPS+, and 10.2 WAR — all this while, of course, playing every single day.

Although the Tigers beat out the Yankees for the pennant in ‘34, Gehrig was due a raise, and after some haggling, owner Jacob Ruppert obliged. On February 19, 1935, Gehrig signed a contract for $30,000, the highest salary in the game at the time. He was more than worth it, slugging 30 homers with a 175 OPS+ and 8.7 WAR in his Triple Crown follow-up. Gehrig got more help in ‘36 when Joe DiMaggio joined the team, and they never missed winning the World Series again for the rest of his career.

64 Years Ago

The Yankees pulled off a huge 12-player trade on February 19, 1957 with their favorite target, the Kansas City A’s, who were basically operating as a glorified New York farm team at that point. Rip Coleman, Milt Graff, Billy Hunter, Mickey McDermott, Tom Morgan, Irv Noren, and a player to be named later were sent to Kansas City in exchange for Bobby Shantz, Art Ditmar, Jack McMahan, Wayne Belardi, and two players to be named later. As was the norm for the era, basically none of the new A’s ever amounted to anything while the Yankees reaped all the benefits.

Shantz led the AL in ERA in ‘57 with a 2.45 mark that was good for a 148 ERA+ as the Yankees won another pennant. He was also one of the best defensive pitchers of all-time, winning the first four positional AL Gold Gloves in a row. Ditmar also became a Casey Stengel favorite, as he was used as a swingman for a few years before joining the rotation on a more regular basis and pacing the AL in ‘59 with a 1.03 WHIP.

The real prize of the deal turned out to be one of those players to be named later. On June 4th, third baseman Clete Boyer was sent to the Yankees. This was later revealed to be the intention all along, as the Yankees had quietly paid the A’s for Boyer’s $40,000 signing bonus in ‘55 in a quid pro quo arrangement. The rules of the era dictated that Boyer’s contract made him a “Bonus Baby” and he had to spend time on the A’s roster for two years before being sent down.

So the Yankees let Boyer kill time in K.C. before joining the Yankees immediately after those two years were up. He was promptly sent to the minors for seasoning, and when he emerged as the regular third baseman in 1960, he was ready. The Yankees won back-to-back World Series in ‘61 and ‘62 with Boyer manning the hot corner. His bat took some time to develop, but his glove was brilliant enough that he was worth 13.5 WAR from 1960-63.

Nine Years Ago

The A.J. Burnett Era officially came to a close on February 19, 2012, as the Yankees sent him to the Pirates in a salary dump trade for low-minors players Diego Moreno and Exicardo Cayones. After signing a big five-year, $82.5 million contract, Burnett had been integral to the 2009 World Series title, pitching to a 114 ERA+ in 33 starts while recording 4.5 WAR and delivering a clutch start in Game 2 of the Fall Classic.

Burnett’s game could get a little frustrating at times in ‘09, but it was nothing compared to what awaited in 2010-11. His performance fell off a cliff to a combined 83 ERA+ and -0.7 WAR as the Yankees desperately avoided using him in the playoffs. Burnett did turn in a good outing in the win-or-go-home Game 4 of the 2011 ALDS against the Tigers, helping to briefly save the season in what became his last start as a Yankee:

The Yankees shopped Burnett in the offseason, especially after adding Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda to their crowded rotation. They found a taker in the Pirates, and to Burnett’s credit, he revived his career in the Steel City as the Bucs ascended to Wild Card contention for the first time in two decades.

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Happy 39th birthday to Chris Stewart! The journeyman catcher served two stints in pinstripes, first in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, one-game cameo in 2008 before returning to the team just before the start of the 2012 campaign. Backed by his superb pitch framing, Stewart surprisingly usurped Francisco Cervelli as Russell Martin’s backup catcher that year in an AL East-winning season, notching 1.8 fWAR in just 55 games despite his poor 65 wRC+.

Perhaps unwisely, the Yankees let Martin walk in the offseason (joining former batterymate Burnett in Pittsburgh). Cervelli improved enough to earn the starting job, but a broken hand derailed his season entirely at the end of April, forcing Stewart into the starting role for the rest of 2013. His framing helped him reach 2.7 fWAR in 109 games, but his atrocious hitting was thrust even further into the spotlight as almost every other regular on the team suffered injuries around him. A 59 wRC+ is passable as a backup, but not as a starter. Also, he somehow struck out on two strikes one time (as recently chronicled by Jon Bois and Alex Rubenstein).

Impressive. It wasn’t Stewart’s fault that he suddenly had to become the Yankees’ emergency starting catcher in 2013. It might not even have been as noticeable if the offense around him wasn’t also dismal. Since he was a really nice guy, I do feel kind of bad about how much I railed on him in articles and comments. It was just one of the most irritating aspects of an already-frustrating season. (Let’s get a beer in non-COVID times, Stewie.)

After the Yankees missed the playoffs, Stewart became Martin’s backup once again, as he was traded to the Bucs in December shortly after the team signed Brian McCann. He played in the majors until 2018, then hung up his spikes for good after 19 games with Triple-A El Paso in 2019. At least Stewart picked a good time to bow out.

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We thank Baseball Reference, SABR, and for providing background information for these posts.