Every franchise has its dark periods. In those periods, there are certain players who get overlooked, even when they produce. In the early 1990s, the Yankees were mired in a terrible stretch. Ineptitude and the meddling ways of owner George Steinbrenner began to take its toll on the club as the 80’s moved along. The 1989 Yankees finished with just 74 wins, the Yankees’ worst record since 1967.
The 1989 season was a window to what was to come over the next few years that saw the Yankees mired in last place, waiting for that core that we now all know and love to lead the next championship run.
That 1989 season was the culmination of poor, short-sighted thinking by Steinbrenner and would ultimately lead to a brutal few seasons. The front office made some questionable moves that season, but none would be more interesting than the April 30th trade for Jesse Barfield.
During this time in Yankees history, Jesse Barfield was brought in to give some hope, as he was an elite outfielder in his prime. Barfield’s tenure in pinstripes was largely thought of as a failure, both at the time and even now. However, a closer look shows a player who was still producing at a high level despite suffering injuries and being on some of the worst teams in Yankee history. It turns out he was an ignored star from an era Yankees fans want to ignore.
A cannon of a right arm and prodigious power made Jesse a star as the right fielder for the Toronto Blue Jays. The Jays were a team on the rise during the middle and late 80’s, and Barfield seemed to be blossoming along with the Blue Jays’ other stud outfielders, George Bell and Lloyd Moseby. For a brief period of time, the trio formed the best all-around outfield in the sport.
He made his major league debut in 1981 and became a fixture in right field for the next seven seasons. Barfield would come into his own in 1985, as he was a major contributor to the East Division Championship team, a club that beat out a strong Yankees club. Barfield batted .289/.369/.536 with 34 doubles, 9 triples, 27 home runs, and 20 stolen bases along with a .393 wOBA and a 142 wRC+. He finished seventh in MVP voting.
Barfield had the best season of his career in 1986, hitting .289/.368/. 559 with 35 doubles and a league leading 40 home runs, a .401 wOBA and 147 wRC+. His 7.5 WAR was second in the major leagues. If analytics were en vouge back then, he would’ve had a legitimate case for winning the AL MVP award, finishing fifth in reality. He never posted a season with a WAR value over five again, but was a quality power hitter and considered one of the elite right fielders in the sport.
Barfield would continue his above average production in 1987 and 1988, but he would not match that two-year run as one of the best players in the game. While he played in 137 and 150 games respectively, he would miss some time due to a wrist injury, a hint of what was to come.
By the time 1989 season rolled around, the Yankees were almost to the bottom of their death spiral to irrelevancy. The 1988 team won 85 games and would be the last winning Yankees team until 1993. With turmoil in the dugout, in the front office, and at the top—Mr. Steinbrenner wasn’t the more beloved figure he became later in his life—the Yankees opened up the ‘89 season with one of their worst pitching staffs in history (Chuck Cary, Andy Hawkins, Dave LaPoint, Walt Terrell, Tommy John, Rich Dotson, John Canderlaria, and Clay Parker) and one of their most incomplete offenses, with the likes of Steve Balboni, Ken Phelps, Mel Hall, and Don Slaught, all tabbed to play big roles. Only Steve Sax and a young Roberto Kelly offered any sort of consistency behind Mattingly.
With Dave Winfield out for the season with back surgery, the Yankee lineup was in desperate need of a power hitter to back their star player, Don Mattingly.
In typical ‘80s Yankees’ fashion, on April 30th, they decided to trade one of their best young prospects, this time 23-year-old Al Leiter, to the Blue Jays for the 29-year-old Barfield. Leiter was a frustrating prospect at a time when the Yankees had negative patience for any young player. Leiter had blister issues and, despite the promise he showed, he had four awful starts to begin the season, resulting in his trade to Toronto. Leiter eventually underwent Tommy John Surgery after the trade, but once healthy, he became a durable starting pitcher for the next decade. From that lens, the swap looks like a disaster for the Yankees.
Meanwhile, the Yankees acquired a right fielder with an arm that reminded many of Dave Winfield. In fact, Steinbrenner was often quoted saying that Barfield was the best right fielder in the game, a definite dig at Winfield.
Barfield had a quality first season in New York, hitting .240/.360/.410 with 19 doubles and 18 home runs, a .350 wOBA and 120 wRC+ in 129 games. At the time, it felt like a disappointment offensively, but we were enamored with his arm in right field. In reality, he was one of those few bright spots in a season where bright spots were too far and few between. In retrospect, the advanced numbers are much kinder to Barfield than our perception at the time.
He did play in 153 games in 1990, leading the team with 25 home runs. He hit a solid .246/.359/.456 with a .364 wOBA and a 128 wRC+. Barfield was the lone power threat in the lineup that season, until Kevin Maas had his spectacular run. Mattingly’s back injury happened; Steve Sax couldn’t repeat his 1989 performance. The 1990 team would finish last in runs scored, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. There was no real threat other than Barfield, so he was often pitched around, resulting in a career-high 80 walks. By the time the season ended, the Yankees were in the Stump Merrill era, a time when they were the worst team in the sport.
Barfield struggled in 1991 as injuries began to add up. The bat speed slowed due to wrist issues, and the power was waning. The result was a .225/.312/.447 slash line with 17 home runs, a .333 wOBA and a 105 wRC+ in 83 games. He only appeared in 30 games during the 1992 season.
The Yankees and Barfield parted ways, and it would be the last time Jesse Barfield played a regular season game in the major leagues. He attempted to play in Japan during the 1993 season, but he was released during the season. He signed with the Astros in 1994 and did not make the team, much of which had to due with his wrist injuries. At age-34, Barfield retired and began a coaching career.
Jesse Barfield will never be considered one of the Yankees’ greats. He had the misfortune of being acquired at time when the organization hit rock bottom in every way. Its star, Don Mattingly, would suffer a debilitating back injury. Dave Winfield was hurt, ridiculed by Steinbrenner, and then traded away. Steinbrenner was banned from the sport on July 30th, 1990, which led to Gene Michael finally getting the chance to rebuild the organization the right way. Unfortunately for Barfield, that wrist injury precluded him from being a part of the process.
Barfield was a good, underrated player whose production was lost in the chaos of the Yankees’ downfall. It was the wrong place at the wrong time to truly appreciate one of the era’s best all-around players.