In June 2000, the Yankees were sputtering. Sure, they still had high-level bats like Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, and Bernie Williams, but some of the other pieces, who had been big parts of the three previous titles, were starting to show their age. The likes of Tino Martinez, Scott Brosius, Chuck Knoblauch, and Paul O’Neill — all over 30 — ended up putting up below-average seasons. Shane Spencer hadn’t managed to duplicate his 1998 heroics, and Ricky Ledee hadn’t quite developed into a reliable middle of the lineup bat.
The Yankees needed some sort of bat to help their lineup, or their dynastic run might be over. They eventually landed on veteran outfielder David Justice, and it paid off perfectly.
Trade Details: David Justice to Yankees; Zach Day, Ricky Ledee, and Jake Westbrook to Cleveland
Transaction Date: June 29, 2000
Career NYY Stats (2000-01): 189 games, 757 PA, .268/.357/.495, 38 HR, 111 RBI, 3.8 fWAR; 2000 ALCS MVP
A 23-28 stretch over the course of May and June left the Yankees mostly just treading water in the AL East. A June 28th loss to the Tigers left them at just two games over .500. They found themselves in a three-way race in the division, three games back of an upstart Blue Jays team, and a game ahead of the Red Sox.
Looking to add an impact bat to the lineup, the Yankees and Sammy Sosa had some public flirtations. The outfielder, two years off his 1998 home run record chase and a combined 129 home runs over the previous two seasons, was pressuring the struggling Cubs to get a deal done, but nothing came to pass. There had been similar rumors around Juan González, but those talks fell through when the Yankees reportedly wouldn’t agree to a contract extension with him.
Eventually, the focus turned to Justice, an established slugger who had belted 234 homers throughout the ‘90s for Atlanta and Cleveland as each advanced to the World Series. On June 29th, Brian Cashman and Cleveland GM John Hart agreed to a deal. The three-time All-Star outfielder came to New York in exchange for Ledee and prospects Zach Day and Jake Westbrook. It wasn’t a low price, as both Ledee and Westbrook had top-100 prospect pedigree. However, it was also clear that the Yankees needed to do something if they wanted to keep their dynastic run going.
Justice made a fairly immediate impact, hitting .369/.465/.655 with six home runs in his first month with the team. In 62 games after joining the team through September 13th, he continued to put up an OPS over 1.000. Over that time, the Yankees went from a tight AL East race, to comfortably in front. He, along with the rest of the team, sputtered over the final weeks of the season, as the team went 3-15 down the stretch. However, the lead they had built up ended up holding strong, and Justice revitalizing the lineup helped quite a bit.
In the ALDS against Oakland, Justice didn’t have the best series, but did hit a home run in the do-or-die Game 5 that gave the Yankees some breathing room in an eventual 7-5 win. His solo shot added a crucial insurance run as the Yankees’ bullpen stemmed the tide.
The Yankees and Mariners split the first two games of the ALCS, with Justice going 1-for-8. However, in Seattle for Game 3, he went 2-for-5, driving home three runs in a crucial win. He was good again in Game 4, hitting a two-run home run as the Yankees went up 3-1. However, his biggest heroics were still yet to come.
In Game 6, the Yankees went into the seventh inning, trailing 4-3, with the Mariners looking to force a winner take all Game 7. With two on and one out in the seventh, Justice came to the plate. After getting ahead in the count, he took a 3-1 Arthur Rhodes pitch into the third deck in right field.
The home run gave the Yankees a 6-4 lead. They added a couple more before holding on for a 9-7, series-clinching win. For his heroics and a .824 OPS, Justice was named ALCS MVP.
The next season, Justice saw his production drop, as he dealt with a groin injury. He was limited to just 111 games and a 99 OPS+. The Yankees returned to the playoffs, and Justice had a strong ALDS and solid ALCS, before OPSing just .397 in the World Series.
After the 2001 campaign, the Yankees traded him to the Mets for Robin Ventura to replace the retiring Brosius at third base. In turn, the Mets traded him to Oakland, where he had a solid bounce-back year in what ended up being his final season.
As for what the Yankees sent away, Ledee, Day, and Westbrook all had MLB careers after the deal, with Westbrook even making an All-Star team in 2004. Ledee was never quite that good, though he had a decent 92 OPS+ for a number of teams between 2001-07. However, none were good enough to remotely make the trade regrettable.
There are undoubtedly trades you could argue are better than the Yankees’ acquisition of David Justice. However, it was an absolutely perfect mid-season acquisition and there are few that have gone as well as this one did.