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Other Smart Moves from the Past 25 Years: Yankees trade for Roger Clemens

Just as pitchers and catchers were reporting to spring training, the sport’s best team added the sport’s best pitcher to its roster.

Clemens rubs Babe Ruth plaque Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Editor’s note: Our “25 Smartest Moves of the Past 25 Moves” series might have concluded, but with the lockout still in force, we thought that it would be fun to take a week to shout out five other savvy transactions that just barely missed the cut of the top 25 vote. Enjoy!

The only question surrounding the Yankees after the 1998 season was whether or not that Yankees team was the best baseball team of all time. With every key player returning heading into spring training of 1999, whether or not they were the favorites to win the World Series again certainly wasn’t a question.

Meanwhile, Toronto’s Roger Clemens, the game’s best pitcher and one of the best pitchers of all time, made no secret of the fact he wanted a change of scenery. As a long-time admirer of Clemens, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner also had made no secret of the fact he had wanted Roger in pinstripes. Although crossing the tees and dotting the eyes certainly involved overcoming some challenges, the game’s best pitcher joined the game’s best team just as spring training was about to begin, setting off a buzz all around MLB.

Trade Details: Roger Clemens to the Yankees; David Wells, Homer Bush, and Graeme Lloyd to the Toronto Blue Jays.

Transaction Date: 2/18/99

NYY Stats during initial contract (1999-2002): 124 starts, 792.1 IP, .690 percent W/L, 115 ERA+, 3.81 FIP, 16.7 fWAR, 2001 Cy Young Award

Yankees GM Brian Cashman (along with Joe Torre, Gene Michael, and everyone else in the Yankees’ brain trust) agreed with the Boss that Clemens would look great in pinstripes. The issue was that every time the subject was broached with Toronto GM Gord Ash, the conversation ended abruptly when Ash demanded David Wells and Alfonso Soriano in return for Clemens. Cashman became so tired of repeating that Soriano was not going anywhere, he stopped returning Ash’s calls at one point. However, his stubbornness paid off when Ash eventually relented and asked for Graeme Lloyd and Homer Bush to join Wells on a flight to Toronto instead of Soriano.

The Yankees players would have to look past incidents in 1998 when Clemens hit Derek Jeter and Scott Brosius with pitches that didn’t appear to be accidental. Similarly, Steinbrenner would have to prepare himself for the flood of animosity he would surely get from his fellow owners as the issue of big market teams hoarding stars had been quite a contentious one among owners that offseason. Yet it seemed all agreed matters could be figured out when a five-time Cy Young Award winner coming off the best two consecutive season stretch of his career wanted to be a Yankee.

Although Clemens’ first season as a Yankee would be considered pretty good by most pitchers’ standards, it was underwhelming when compared to his lofty expectations. Although he’d finish in the top half of AL pitchers in ERA+, FIP, K percentage, and opponents’ OPS+ for the season, it was clear he wasn’t the dominating pitcher he had been in Toronto. A career high walk rate and the second-worst hits to nine innings ratio of his career led to a deceiving 14-10 won-loss record on the year.

Of course, Clemens didn’t join the Yankees to add to the long list of individual achievements in his career – he joined them to be part of a championship team.

To that end, both he and the team succeeded, as they went an astonishing 11-1 in the postseason on their way to another championship. Clemens certainly did his part, throwing seven innings of three-hit shutout ball in the series clincher of the ALDS against a Texas team that averaged 5.83 runs per game in ’99. Then after a clunker against Boston in the ALCS*, he threw another gem to complete the World Series sweep against the Braves, allowing only one run over 7.2 innings in the Game 4 clincher.

*After the loss in Fenway, Clemens asked Brian Cashman if his trainer, Brian McNamee, could join the team to work with him. Cashman had already denied the request once feeling that McNamee was “trouble” but was overruled by the Boss this time. Thus an ongoing thorn was firmly placed in the team’s side.

Clemens spent the first two and a half months of the 2000 season in a manner similar to 1999. Again, he was far from “bad,” but was not anywhere near the pitcher all had hoped to see. After taking a beating from the Mets on June 9th, Clemens left after one inning in his next start with a chronic groin strain that necessitated a trip to the IL. When he returned on July 2nd it was apparent that perhaps his nagging injury had been more of an issue than reported because the pitcher we had all hoped to see finally showed up.

Over his next 16 starts, Clemens would pitch to the tune of a 2.21 ERA with the Yankees winning 12 of those games. He’d finish the season with a 131 ERA+, 4.6 bWAR, and finish sixth in the AL Cy Young Award voting. Most importantly, the Yankees were headed to the postseason once again.

After two not particularly good starts against Oakland in the ALDS in which he only lasted a combined 11 innings, Clemens put on a historic display against Seattle in Game 4 of the ALCS. Facing a Seattle team that averaged 5.60 runs per game during the season, The Rocket threw a complete game one-hit shutout, striking out 15 against only two walks. I try to avoid speaking for other fans, but at the time, I felt I was watching the best postseason pitching performance ever, and with Clemens’ final game score of 98, I may have been correct.

Clemens’ next start would come against the Mets in Game 2 of the World Series, and he was almost as dominant as he’d been in Seattle in his previous start. Despite personally creating an enormous distraction from his performance by throwing a broken bat in the direction of Mike Piazza, Clemens otherwise barely broke a sweat, throwing eight shutout innings, fanning nine, walking none, and finishing with a game score of 87. The win gave the Yankees a 2-0 lead in a series they would go on to win, and although Clemens had many of us questioning his sanity, no one was wondering where the dominating version of The Rocket was anymore.

Clemens kept the momentum he generated over the second half of 2000 through the entire 2001 season. On the year, he’d make 33 starts, throw 220.1 innings, post a 128 ERA+ and finish in the top five among AL pitchers in bWAR, FIP, and K-BB percentage. In addition to earning him his first All-Star appearance as a Yankee, his 20-3 performance wowed the BBWAA electorate of the era, earning him his sixth Cy Young award and an eighth-place finish in the AL MVP balloting.

In the postseason, once again Clemens would stumble somewhat against Oakland in the ALDS before redeeming himself with a Game 4 win against Seattle in the ALCS. Then facing the Diamondbacks in Game 3 of the World Series, with the Yankees already down two games to none, he’d come up huge. Clemens’ seven innings of one-run ball with nine strikeouts led the Yankees to a crucial win that kept them in the series. He’d follow that up with another great performance in Game 7, striking out 10 batters over 6.1 innings while allowing only one run. (I’m honoring the request of family members by not discussing what happened in the game after that point.)

In 2002, Roger missed three weeks with another flare-up of a groin strain, but still, put up a very good season as most of his rate stats were as good as they were in his 2001 Cy Young award-winning campaign. Over 29 starts and 180 innings, he’d post the second best K-BB percentage in the AL, while his 3.30 FIP would be good for the third-best in the league. He’d make the Game 1 start against the Angels in the ALDS, allowing four runs over 5.2 innings in an eventual 8-5 Yankees win, although as it turns out, that would be the last win of the year for the team.

After the 2002 season, Clemens tested the free agent waters and eventually would re-sign with the Yankees on a one-year deal for the 2003 season, which was initially billed as his farewell season en route to passing the 300-win and 4,000-strikeout milestones. He’d spend the next five years signing one-year deals with the Yankees and Astros, with a few temporary retirements thrown in. Yet drama aside, he’d continue to add to what was already one of the best resumes’ a starting pitcher has ever produced.

Clemens’ tenure in New York from 1999 through 2002 after the trade certainly didn’t come without complexities. Only the people in the locker room at the time can say for sure, but the ongoing soap opera with Piazza and the Mets couldn’t have made things easy for them. The reintroduction of McNamee to the team was absolutely problematic for the organization, as David Cone and former strength and conditioning coach Jeff Mangold (among others) have publicly stated.

That said, it’s a trade we’d do again in a heartbeat if given the opportunity. The Yankees got stretches of dominance, a Cy Young award, and a big contributor to four teams that made the postseason, winning two more World Series in the process. Not that we weren’t all a little sad to see Wells — and to a lesser extent Lloyd and Bush — leave, having “The Rocket” on our side for once, was a lot of fun.

(Author’s note: A huge thanks to Jon Pessah’s fantastic “The Game” for much of the background used herein.)