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Checking in on the Castaways: Forgotten Yankees who look better out of pinstripes

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Over the past decade, the Yankees have had their fair share of hits and misses, but they let all of these steady producers walk for nothing.

Tampa Bay Rays v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

As the Yankees’ lineup continues to thin due to a constant onslaught of nicks and bumps, it’s hard not to think about what could have been if they’d only hung on to a handful of players over the past decade. The most tantalizing of them aren’t those who were swapped for a return of any significance, or signed elsewhere for a bigger payday, but the ones who left for nothing. One of the great aspects about professional baseball that separates it from the other major American sports is the preponderance of underdog stories its player development system is able to produce.

The biggest wins become well-known tales: Randy Dobnak drove an Uber between 2017 and 2019 during his underpaid days in indie ball and the minor leagues, but eventually made the Twins and pitched well enough to merit a $9.25 million deal. David Eckstein, the former infielder and integral cog of two World Series champions, began his collegiate career only after making it through an open tryout as a freshman. The Yankees’ own lifer, Brett Gardner, actually missed the cut as a freshman at the College of Charleston before earning a second chance, and eventually blossomed into a legitimate All-Star caliber player.

Still, so many other bona fide big leaguers producers have bloomed later than expected, sometimes long after their original employer lost interest in their potential for growth. While the Yankees have had quite a few of these slower developing talents become surprising mainstays of their lineup — including Gio Urshela and Luke Voit — they’ve also released a fair share of ballplayers who have exceeded MLB replacement value after reaching the conclusion of their time underneath the Yankees’ umbrella of ballclubs.

José Quintana

Quintana signed with the Mets as a Colombian teenager in 2006, playing within their minor league system until a positive PED test, and subsequent suspension cost him his 2007 season. The Yankees signed him to a minor league deal, where he cruised through the low minors, culminating with a 2010 season in which he posted a 2.91 ERA and almost a strikeout per inning across more than 100 frames in High-A Tampa.

Prior to the following season, the White Sox signed him as a minor league free agent to a major league contract, accelerating his rise through the ranks. It was a much better deal than anything the Yankees had offered Quintana to return. By 2012, he had earned his first taste of big league action, and finished the year with a 3.76 ERA across 22 starts. From then on, the White Sox relied upon his stability as a mainstay of their rotation, as the lefty threw more than 200 innings in each of the following four seasons with a 3.35 ERA.

After making his first and only All-Star Game appearance in 2016, the Sox traded Quintana across town to the Cubs before the 2017 deadline, where he spent the following three seasons. He hasn’t been the same since leaving the South Side and is even more disappointing this year with the Angels (recently hitting the IL). Nonetheless, Quintana has racked up 23.7 WAR in his major league career; far better than the Yankees would have predicted when they let him walk a decade ago.

Steve Pearce

Before he was a Yankee killer, he was a Yankee not once, but twice in the same season. After a handful of replacement level seasons with the Pirates, Pearce signed with the Twins in December of 2011, but was released before the start of the following season in March of 2012. The Yankees signed him for depth, and he hit well in Triple-A Scranton but never got the call until they sold him to the O’s in June. In July, the Astros claimed him off waivers before selling him back to the Yankees in late August. This time around, Pearce actually saw MLB action, even homering once. Ultimately, he only managed a mere 59 OPS+ in 12 games.

In late September, Pearce was again selected off waivers by the O’s, where he spent the bulk of the next four seasons. During his early thirties in Baltimore, Pearce was able to establish himself as a glorified platoon starter as long as he was as far from the ball as possible defensively. In 2014, Pearce’s 5.8 WAR topped all Orioles as they captured the AL East crown. He started more than 100 games for the only time in his career and finished with a .930 OPS, buoyed by a .704 slugging and 1.109 OPS against lefties.

During the following five seasons, Pearce was relegated to a spot starting role, delivering above-average offensive production for literally every team in the AL East other than the Yankees. In 2018, Pearce joined the Red Sox, his fifth and final AL East partnership, and immediately established himself as Yankee Kryptonite, going 2-for-4 against the Bombers in his Sox debut, and smacking three homers against the Yankees a couple of months later at Fenway.

On the very next day, Pearce homered again to make it four against the Yankees in a two-day span.

Still, Pearce saved his best for last. When the Red Sox starting first baseman Mitch Moreland went down with an injury, Pearce stepped in as the full-time starter. He hit a go-ahead homer in the sixth inning of Game 3 of the victorious ALCS, and in the World Series, Pearce continued his hot streak. Pearce went deep thrice along with eight RBI, eventually helping the Sox claim the series in five games and bringing home the World Series MVP trophy. He’s retired now, but the damage has clearly been done.

Tommy Kahnle

Long before he was a Red Bull-chugging, late-inning weapon in the Bronx between 2017 and 2020, Kahnle was a fifth-round draft pick by the Yankees in 2010. The right-hander hung with the club into Double-A, until the Colorado Rockies snatched him away with a Rule 5 Draft selection in the 2013-14 offseason.

Kahnle, like so many other pitchers, wasn’t great in Colorado, despite pitching over 100 innings across his first two big league seasons. After the 2015 campaign, the Rockies traded him to the White Sox, where he really blossomed over the next two campaign, before the Yankees reacquired him along with Todd Frazier and David Robinson for a king’s ransom of Blake Rutherford, Tyler Clippard, Ian Clarkin, and Tito Polo.

After a mostly successful second stint in the organization, Kahnle pitched just one frame in 2020 before requiring Tommy John surgery, effectively ending his season. While he could be ready to pitch in time for the playoffs at the earliest, or more conservatively by 2022 Opening Day, he’ll be wearing Dodger Blue when he does so, having signed a two-year deal worth $4.75 million this offseason.

Chaz Roe

Despite being a former first-round pick of the Colorado Rockies, Roe had lost most of his luster as a prospect before reaching his mid-20s. Undercutting his electric stuff, struggles with command limited his viability as a reliever in the major leagues, causing his rise up the minor league ladder to halt at Triple-A. Eventually in 2014, Roe made his way to the Yankees, but pitched just two innings in pinstripes before being DFA’d yet again.

Somehow, at the ripe age of 29, Roe was able to turn things around a tad with Baltimore, finally reigning in the walks and pitching almost double the innings he garnered as a member of the Diamondbacks. From then on, he’s only gotten better, increasing his strikeout rate to elite levels while (mostly) keeping his erratic accuracy in check.

Over the previous six seasons since his call-up with the O’s, he’s been one of the better relievers in baseball, posting an ERA+ of 113 and striking out 10.1 batters per nine innings. Most annoyingly for Yankees, his best work has come out of the rival Rays bullpen. He’s no Mariano Rivera, but his wipeout slider would make him a welcome addition to any bullpen.

Unfortunately, Roe is currently on the shelf for a 12-week stint, having strained his shoulder before completing his first whole inning in 2021. This comes after he finished the 2020 campaign on the IL with an elbow injury.

Rich Hill

Before his late-career breakout as a member of the A’s in 2016, Hill bounced around the baseball universe. After a decent start to his career with the Cubs, the southpaw battled injuries and became a vagabond. Hill pitched for nine different franchises, including three separate stints with the Red Sox and two starts with the Long Island Ducks of the Atlantic League.

In July of 2014, the Yankees became the seventh club to employ Hill, signing him to a minor league deal. They called him up for a grand total of 5.1 relief innings across 14 games with a 1.69 ERA.

That feels like a lifetime ago, as since then, Hill’s career found a second wind — first in Oakland and then in Los Angeles, where he helped the Dodgers to back-to-back NL pennants.

Now, as the Rays’ fifth starter at 41 years old, Hill is currently the second-oldest active major leaguer (only Albert Pujols is older). Nonetheless, Dick Mountain’s been better than the bulk of his younger peers, pitching his way to an xwOBA and xERA in baseball’s 51st percentile this season. To date, Hill’s played for 13 of the 30 major league franchises, and pitched in the bigs for 10 of them.

Hill’s major league tally is four off of Edwin Jackson’s record of pitching for 14 different major league teams, but he could match Jackson in terms of total franchises by signing on for one more year somewhere else this offseason.

Nathan Eovaldi

In December of 2014, the Yankees traded Martín Prado and David Phelps for Eovaldi, Garrett Jones, and Domingo Germán. A winner of 14 games in his first season with the Yankees, Eovaldi pitched his way to a 4.20 ERA and a 3.42 FIP across 154.1 innings before developing soreness in his elbow that ended his season in September. The next season in New York, Eovaldi regressed slightly, recording a 4.76 ERA on a 4.97 FIP through 124.2 innings before that elbow soreness became a torn flexor tendon and a partially torn UCL.

Eovaldi underwent Tommy John surgery for the second time in his career, having already gone under the knife before he was even drafted by a big league team out of high school, and was simply released by the Yanks in November of 2016.

However, Eovaldi bounced back with the Rays after a season spent rehabbing, eventually earning himself a four-year deal and a spot towards the top of the Red Sox rotation in reward of his epic, 97-pitch relief appearance in the 2018 World Series despite the losing effort.

Still only 31 with a 3.29 xERA this season and an average fastball velocity of 97.0 mph, it seems as though Eovaldi has plenty left in the tank so long as his elbow holds up.

Kirby Yates

Although his past two campaigns have been cut short by season-ending surgeries, Yates was one of the best relievers in baseball not too long ago. He steadily climbed the minor league ladder following his undrafted signing by the Rays in 2009, eventually making the show in 2014.

However, they traded Yates to Cleveland, who sent him to the Yankees for cash. He appeared in 41.1 innings across 41 games for the 2016 Yankees, recording a 5.23 ERA with 50 strikeouts.

Prior to 2017, the Angels claimed him off of waivers, for whom he appeared in just one major league game, and was then claimed off of waivers by the Padres.

At age 31, Yates taught himself a new trick—a split-fingered fastball—and blossomed into one of the best relievers in baseball, before his recent string of injuries. If he can get healthy by the end of the 2022 campaign, he could easily become one of the best relievers in baseball yet again on the back of his wipeout splitter.

Ji-Man Choi

After signing with the Seattle Mariners as a 19-year-old in 2010, Choi spent five years in their minor league system before they designated him for assignment. Then the Orioles signed him to a minor league deal, but was chosen by the Angels in the 2015 Rule 5 Draft. Choi played in 54 games in 2016 with the Angels before again being designated for assignment and subsequently released when the Yankees picked him up.

Choi was called up to the major leagues after starting the season in Triple-A, and hit a 457-foot bomb in his first game in pinstripes on July 4, 2017. However, he lasted just five more contests until they sent him down, and was eventually signed to a minor league deal by the Brewers.

Choi appeared in 12 games for Milwaukee in 2018, concluding in a pinch-hit grand slam, after which the Rays traded Brad Miller and cash for his services. He played in 49 more games that season for the Rays, and has played in an additional 180 over the past three seasons since then. With an .823 OPS and 125 OPS+, Choi has proven to be a solidly above average hitter at the major league level, especially due to his elite walk rate over 13 percent in each of the past three campaigns.

While he’s been good versus the majors in recent memory, he’s been virtually unstoppable against Gerrit Cole. In 25 regular and postseason plate appearances, Choi has 10 hits, four homers, three doubles, and four walks, good for an outrageous .476/.560/1.190 triple slash. If Choi’s figured something out about Cole, hopefully for the Yankees he keeps it to himself.