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Mariano Rivera: We were lucky to have him

Who were his minor league teammates, and how lucky were we to see him become such a dominant force in major league baseball.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

As I sit here still trying to get this dust out of my house, I wanted to reflect on how unlikely it was for Mariano Rivera to make it to the major leagues, much less become the greatest relief pitcher of all time. Mariano was signed by the Yankees in 1990 as a 20-year-old amateur free agent out of Panama. He spent his first season with the organization's Gulf Coast League team. That team had 33 different players get playing time. Out of those 33, only 8 would ever play in the major leagues, slightly more than 24%.

Rick Cerone was a 36-year-old catcher making a rehab stop with the team, and was out of baseball before Mo ever made his MLB debut. Cerone would spend 18 years in the big leagues, accumulating 8.1 rWAR and 9.6 fWAR. Mike Figga was a 44th round draft pick of the Yankees in 1989, and he would actually make it to the majors, compiling -0.8 rWAR and fWAR over 3 seasons and 99 plate appearances. Matt Dunbar was a lefty who had one -0.5 rWAR and -0.2 fWAR season with the Marlins. Russ Springer pitched 18 years in major league bullpens for 10 teams, retiring when he was 41 years old. He produced 3.1 rWAR and 3.5 fWAR over 740 games and 856.1 innings.

Carl Everett, dinosaur denier, also played with Mo that summer. He would go on to be the most productive member of the team not named Rivera, creating 20.4 rWAR and 17.3 fWAR, although none of it with the Yankees. Two ghosts of Yankees past also played with Mariano that summer: Shane Spencer and Rickey Ledee. Ledee was only 16 at the time, so it was pretty amazing that he was already playing in the states. He would go on to be a part-time contributor for the Yankees in 1998 and 1999, before failing when given a full-time gig in 2000. Overall, he put up 2.9 rWAR and 1.2 fWAR. Spencer was a platoon bat, spending five years with the Yankees. However, he is best-known for his amazing 1998, when he hit 10 home runs in only 67 at-bats, good for a .373/.411/.910 line and 1.1 rWAR/1.2 fWAR. He was off to Japan after 2004, ending his MLB career with 4.9 rWAR and 5.6 fWAR.

So those other 7 players combined for 38.1 rWAR and 36.2 fWAR. Mariano by himself has been worth more than them, with 56.6 rWAR and 40.2 fWAR. This was much closer than the next year, however, when only 10% of his teammates ever made it the to the big leagues. Rivera was joined by Everett and Dunbar on the 1991 Greensboro Hornets. The only other player out of the 30 total players to make it to the major leagues was Rafael Quirico, who pitched in one game for the 1996 Phillies, ending his MLB career with a 37.80 ERA and a -0.3 rWAR/-0.2 fWAR. So, Mariano out-produced his 1991 minor league teammates 56.6 rWAR to 19.6 rWAR and 40.2 fWAR to 16.9 fWAR.

Mo spent 1992 with the Fort Lauderdale Yankees. Out of 47 total players on that team, 11 actually played in the major leagues, or a little over 23%. Everett and Figga joined Mariano on this team as well. Mike Gallego had a rehab stint, in the middle of a career where he produced 17.1 rWAR and 14.1 fWAR over 13 seasons. Scott Kamieniecki debuted as a 27-year-old in 1991, and spent the next ten years pitching in the big leagues, creating 9.1 rWAR and 6.5 fWAR. Allan Anderson was 28 years old, trying to return to the majors where he had spent the previous six years with the Minnesota Twins. He won 33 games in his age 24 and 25 seasons, but they proved to be a fluke, which should not have been a surprise, given his 3.4 K/9 rate. He never made it back to the major leagues. Over his six year career, he was worth 8.6 rWAR and 9.5 fWAR.

Shawn Hillegas was also on a rehab assignment. He spent 7 years in the big leagues, creating 1.6 rWAR and 1.7 fWAR. Kevin Mmahat actually debuted with the Yankees in 1989, but never made it back to the big leagues. He pitched in 4 games and 7.2 innings, producing a 12.91 ERA, -0.5 rWAR and -0.3 fWAR. Similarly, Wade Taylor made his major league debut at age 25 with the Yankees the year before, in 1991, only to never return to the major leagues. He pitched 116.1 innings over 22 starts (23 games total), with a 6.27 ERA, -0.7 rWAR, 0.8 fWAR. Robert Eenhoorn (no relation to Lois) was a second-round pick by the team in 1990 from Davidson College. He spent 4 years in the bigs, but only got 74 plate appearances, accumulating 0.2 rWAR and 0.0fWAR. Domingo Jean became a top prospect for the Yankees in 1992, and was second on the team to Brien Taylor in strikeouts - 187 to 172. However, he never found success in the big leagues, spending 10 games and 40.1 innings with the Yankees in 1993, with a 4.46 ERA, 0.4 rWAR, and -0.1 fWAR. Given his age and success in the minors, it is surprising that this is the only opportunity he received.

So, over Mariano's first three years in professional baseball, he had 107 teammates. Of those 107, 16 actually made the big leagues, or about 15%. And only nine could be considered "prospects" moving up the ladder, not trying to make it back to a big league ball club - just over 8%. Out of those nine, here is how they rank by WAR:

Name rWAR fWAR
Mariano Rivera 56.6 40.2
Carl Everett 20.4 17.3
Russ Springer 3.1 3.5
Rickey Ledee 2.9 1.2
Shane Spencer 1.1 1.2
Robert Eenhoorn 0.4 -0.1
Rafael Quirico -0.3 -0.2
Matt Dunbar -0.5 -0.2
Mike Figga -0.8 -0.8

Mariano's fWAR alone almost beats the other four player's rWAR and fWAR values combined - 56.6 vs 26.3 rWAR and 21.9 fWAR. What does this prove? Well, some may say that it was a weak Yankees system - that would need more research. Others would say that it just shows how dominant Rivera has been in his career. Only 8% of his teammates were prospects who made it to the major leagues, and less than 1% actually were All-Star level as a player - Carl Everett. He outproduced the other eight all by himself. I think that it also shows how rare it is to make the majors in the low minors, and how much of a blessing it was to not only see Mo make it, but actually thrive and become the greatest relief pitcher of all time. Thank you for so many great years and memories.

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