Over the last few weeks at Pinstripe Alley, we have been diving into the history of the transaction wire and breaking down the 25 Smartest Moves of the Past 25 Years. Ranging from the decision to extend a young, homegrown shortstop to a blockbuster trade that brought the best player in baseball to the Bronx, these articles have served as a reminder that building a strong roster capable of competing year in and year out happens in many different ways.
Sometimes, however, the smart move is to know when to cut bait, to recognize that it is time to move on from a player rather than picking up a team option or signing him to an extension. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the best so-called “non-moves” of the last 25 years; just like the main series, we will not be ranking them, but instead going in chronological order.
Note: For a player to be considered for this list, they must have been performing reasonably well at the end of their Yankees tenure; no credit is given for letting Chien-Ming Wang or Ichiro Suzuki walk, for example. Additionally, their career must not end when they left the Yankees, so you won’t see a Paul O’Neill or Bernie Williams here, either.
Jason Giambi — 2008-09 offseason
Signed away from the Oakland Athletics following the 2001 season, Jason Giambi was the first major addition to a lineup that would, in subsequent years, add Hideki Matsui, Gary Sheffield, and Alex Rodriguez to a lineup that already contained Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, and an aging Bernie Williams. And although his Yankees tenure was mired in controversy, the Giambino can in truth only be described as a slam-dunk signing: despite lackluster performance in 2004 and 2007, he slashed .260/.404/.521 and mashed 209 home runs across those seven seasons (good for a 143 OPS+). Additionally, he was remarkably consistent, as he hit more than 32 home runs in every season he played at least 139 games, and he had an OPS+ below 148 just once across the first five years of the deal — in his injury-riddled 2004 campaign that saw him battle a benign tumor.
At the age of 37 in 2008, Giambi was a solid bat in the middle of the lineup, slashing .247/.373/.502 (128 OPS+), primarily batting fifth behind A-Rod and ahead of Xavier Nady. However, defense had never been his strong suit, and with Mark Teixeira on the free agent market — a switch-hitting version of Giambi with a better glove who was entering his age-29 season — the Yankees decided to move on. It was certainly the right choice, for while Giambi would play for five more seasons, he was primarily kept around for his influence as a “second hitting coach” who provided power as a pinch hitter for the Colorado Rockies. By the time he retired after the 2014 season, he had not had sustained success in a starting role since his time with the Yankees.
Nick Swisher — 2012-13 offseason
When the Yankees acquired Nick Swisher on November 13th, 2008, they were certainly buying low on the 28-year-old first baseman/outfielder, after he posted just a .219/.332/.410 slash line with the Chicago White Sox. Originally intended to be the first baseman, he lost that job when the Yankees signed Teixeira — he instead reverted to a bench role as the backup first baseman and corner outfielder. When Nady hit the injured list, Swisher seized the right field job, one that he would hold for four seasons.
Quickly becoming a fan favorite due to his fun-loving personality, Swisher had the best years of his career when in pinstripes. Over that span, he slashed .268/.367/.483 (124 OPS+) and hit between 23 and 29 home runs and 30-36 doubles. Additionally, the Yankees made great use of his flexibility: his ability to play first base allowed them to not worry about carrying an additional one on the roster, he was comfortable hitting pretty much anywhere in the order, and he was willing to fill in wherever when the need demanded (most notably seen through his one inning in relief on April 13th, 2009).
When Swisher’s contract ran out, however, the Yankees decided to give him a qualifying offer and send him on his way — instead, they re-signed Ichiro to play right for two years. Although this may have looked like a mistake in the short term since Ichiro did not channel his old Mariners form, it quickly became obvious that the Yankees made the right move anyway, as Swisher would not even finish the four-year deal he signed with Cleveland, but would instead be released on March 28th, 2016, by the Atlanta Braves.
The Yankees, meanwhile, received a compensation pick in the 2013 MLB Draft that they would then turn into their future right fielder, Aaron Judge, so all around, the decision not to retain Swisher worked out extremely well on all levels.
Brandon McCarthy — 2014-15 offseason
At the time, the Vidal Nuño-for-Brandon McCarthy trade did not seem to be a huge deal, but appeared to be one in a long line of Yankees moves to increase the floor of the rotation by trading for an underperforming veteran that they hoped they could fix. Unlike Jaime Garcia and Andrew Heaney, however, the McCarthy trade worked wonders. In 14 starts for the Yankees, McCarthy essentially became the team’s ace in the absence of an injured Masahiro Tanaka, posting a 2.89 ERA (3.22 FIP). His highlights included a complete game shutout against the Astros on August 21st and an immaculate inning on September 17th.
Despite his importance to the rotation in 2014, the Yankees were not serious players when he hit free agency that winter, and he opted to sign a four-year, $48 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Battling injuries over the next four years — he never threw more than 92 innings in any given season the rest of his career — he never quite lived up to the contract. His three months with the Yankees would ultimately turn out to be the best stretch of his career.
Todd Frazier — 2017-18 offseason
The 2017 Yankees were not supposed to be a good team; after all, the Opening Day lineup had three players with less than a year’s experience between them (Gary Sánchez, Greg Bird, Aaron Judge), a career backup infielder at shortstop due to injuries to Didi Gregorius (Ronald Torreyes), and Jacoby Ellsbury in the middle of the order. And yet, due to elite performances from two-thirds of that trio and the emergence of Aaron Hicks in center field, the Yankees found themselves firmly in playoff contention come July, and as such, they flipped a package headlined by former first-round pick Blake Rutherford to the Chicago White Sox for the trio of David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, and Todd Frazier.
Arguably the the closest thing the trade had to a throw-in, Frazier immediately took over for Chase Headley at the hot corner. While Frazier wasn’t exactly his prime self at the plate, he was nonetheless a solid supplementary piece towards the bottom of the lineup, slashing .222/.365/.423 (107 OPS+) with 11 homers in 66 games. The local kid put together a nice highlight reel in pinstripes, which included arguably my favorite introduction to the Bronx — an RBI triple play in his first home plate appearance at Yankee Stadium.
And of course, Frazier was instrumental behind the “thumbs down” gesture that became a defining feature of the 2017 Yankees.
Despite the fact that Frazier became such an instrumental part of the clubhouse, the Yankees did not seriously consider re-signing him that winter, and he instead inked a two-year, $16 million deal across town in Queens. And while Frazier has been a perfectly serviceable player since then (that is, aside from the 2021 season), it’s clear the Yankees made the right move; he has since been forced to shift off of third, and his bat doesn’t exactly play well at first. Meanwhile, a strong rookie campaign by Miguel Andújar and two good years by Gio Urshela locked down the hot corner in the Bronx.
David Robertson — 2018-19 offseason
Let me get one thing straight: letting David Robertson walk following the 2013 season was absolutely not the right move, and in many ways a mistake with even wider repercussions than we realize at first glance. Imagine if the Yankees had Robertson available to trade at the 2016 deadline in addition to Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman! Yes, I know that re-signing Robertson likely means not signing Miller, but in this case, “I reject your reality and substitute my own.”
No, in this case, I am referring to the decision to let Robertson walk after the 2018 team fell short in the ALDS. At the time, this was a bit of a controversial move, as the Yankees needed a strong bullpen to counter their weak rotation. Rather than bringing back the Houdini, however, the Yankees opted instead to re-sign Zack Britton and add Adam Ottavino, and while the Ottavino contract certainly did not work out for the Yankees, neither did David Robertson’s contract with the Phillies. In fact, he made only seven appearances with them, in which he allowed four runs in just 6.2 innings, before hitting the shelf with a strained elbow that eventually required Tommy John surgery. He would not appear in a Phillies uniform ever again, as he suffered a setback during his rehab in 2020.
Obviously, you can never predict injuries, especially Tommy John surgery. But that winter, the Yankees clearly made the decision to roll with the arm with fewer innings on it (Ottavino, only 413, compared to Robertson’s 657), and in that sense, the decision appears to have paid off.