Seven players who succeeded after brief starts with the New York Yankees

New York Yankees Mike Lowell, Fred McGriff

These players all began their careers with the New York Yankees before having their best years on other teams.

Josh Benjamin

The New York Yankees are off the calendar for a while, devoted readers.

MLB has suspended its season in wake of the coronavirus pandemic, delaying Opening Day by at least two weeks. Day by day, it looks increasingly likely another postponement is coming.

The Yankees, meanwhile, are remaining in Tampa, and fans are left wondering what to do. How do we get our baseball fix while waiting for the season? Sure, MLB The Show 20 comes out on Tuesday, but playing video games all day long gets old. For yours truly, at least.

That said, consider this. How many significant players throughout baseball history did well with one or more teams, but started with the Yankees? The answer is simple: more than you’d think.

Think about it. A popular TV show made one of its best jokes about New York trading Jay Buhner to the Seattle Mariners. A borderline Hall of Famer never even got to don the pinstripes.

It’s that time, folks. As we wait for the Bronx Bombers to get back to game action, let’s do a deep dive into some players who started with the Yankees but succeeded elsewhere.

No. 7: Tyler Clippard

Dateline: Shea Stadium, May 20, 2007. The Yankees are in Queens facing the New York Mets for their road leg of the annual Subway Series. The team is struggling, having lost five of six. The pitching staff is in such shambles, a 22-year-old rookie is making the start and his MLB debut.

And where was yours truly in all of this? Well, I was in the stands at Shea watching my team burn. Tyler Clippard was the Yankees’ latest attempt to get some momentum going on the pitching staff. At this point, why not?

Well, Clippard exceeded expectations in front of a hostile crowd. He pitched six innings of one-run ball and even hit a double in the Yankees’ 6-2 victory. Clippard would make five more starts that season and go 3-1, but posted a 6.33 ERA.

He was then traded to the Washington Nationals and has since become a reliable relief pitcher. Clippard was a two-time All-Star with Washington and has since pitched for eight other teams. He also returned to the Yankees via a trade in 2016 before being shipped away again the following year.

His career as a starter might not have panned out, but the Yankees really missed out on Clippard as a strong setup man.

No. 6: J.T. Snow

Everyone remembers J.T. Snow, but not for his baseball career. He’s best known for his heroics in Game 5 of the 2002 World Series when he saved manager Dusty Baker’s bat-boy son, Darren, from a potential collision at home plate.

In fact, Snow was drafted by the Yankees out of the University of Arizona in 1989. He turned enough heads in the minors to warrant a call-up in 1992 and appeared in seven games. Unfortunately for Snow, first base was blocked by team captain Don Mattingly.

Thus, in 1993, Snow was traded to the then-California Angels in the Jim Abbott trade. He spent four years with the Angels before being traded to the San Francisco Giants, with whom he made the World Series in 2002.

All in all, J.T. Snow enjoyed a 16-year major league career and won six Gold Gloves on top of batting .268 for his career. Three years after the Yankees traded him, Mattingly retired and New York traded for Tino Martinez.

Sure, Martinez helped the Yankees win four World Series rings, but Snow had a natural lefty swing. Had he not been blocked by Mattingly, he surely would have taken advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short porch.

No. 5: Mike Lowell

On Sept. 13, 1998, Mike Lowell debuted for the New York Yankees as the starting third baseman. Facing the Toronto Blue Jays, he earned his first career hit with a single to center.

The September call-up hit .267 in eight games, but incumbent third baseman Scott Brosius blocked him. Brosius being named 1998 World Series MVP ensured he would stick around. Thus, Lowell was traded to the then-Florida Marlins for pitching prospect Ed Yarnall.

Simply put, the Yankees would love to have this one back. After hitting .300 in 1998, Brosius only batted .254 the next three years and battled injuries. Yarnall appeared in seven total games across two years.

Lowell, meanwhile, became a three-time All-Star with his hometown Florida Marlins and won a World Series against the Yankees in 2003. Lowell was then traded to the Boston Red Sox in 2006 and won another ring in 2007 while also being named World Series MVP. He retired after the 2010 season with a .279 lifetime batting average and 223 career home runs.

The Yankees royally missed out.

No. 4: Jose Rijo

How quickly we forget Jose Rijo. He debuted with the Yankees as an 18-year-old in 1984 as owner George Steinbrenner tried to catch lightning in a bottle like the crosstown Mets did with Dwight “Doc” Gooden.

The plan backfired. Rijo, despite posting a 1.88 ERA in the minors the year before, was woefully unprepared for the majors. He went 2-8 with a 4.76 ERA in 24 games as a rookie. In the offseason, the Yankees traded him to the Oakland Athletics for Rickey Henderson.

Rijo was inconsistent in three years in Oakland and was traded to the Cincinnati Reds in the 1987 offseason. There, he finally found his groove and became a full-time starter in 1989. Rijo became a reliable ace for the Reds and was the 1990 World Series MVP, scoring wins in Games 1 and 4.

Likely because he debuted so young and wasn’t developed properly, elbow trouble initially forced Rijo out of the game at just 30 years old. He missed five years before a brief comeback with the Reds in 2001 and 2002.

Rijo’s career is largely defined by what could have been, especially from the Yankees’ point of view. Still, his career ERA in a Reds uniform, eight total seasons, is an astounding 2.83. If anything, Rijo overcame early inconsistencies to become one of the most consistent hurlers of his time.

No. 3: Doug Drabek

Doug Drabek had a weird path to the majors. The Cleveland Indians originally drafted the Texas righty in 1980, but he opted to attend college at the University of Houston. The Chicago White Sox then drafted him in 1983, and the Yankees acquired him for Roy Smalley the next year.

The 23-year-old Drabek went 7-8 with a respectable 4.10 ERA in 1986, but this was a bad time to be a young Yankee. Steinbrenner often traded prospects for aging veterans in the ’80s, and Drabek was dealt to the Pittsburgh Pirates for a trio of journeymen pitchers in November.

In yet another case of the Yankees making a bad trade, Drabek became the Pirates’ ace almost overnight. He posted a 3.02 ERA in six years in Pittsburgh and took home the NL Cy Young in 1990. Drabek then spent six years with the Houston Astros, Chicago White Sox, and Baltimore Orioles.

He wasn’t a Hall of Fame pitcher, but the Yankees definitely missed out by not being more patient with Drabek.

No. 2: Jay Buhner

In 1984, the Yankees acquired prospect Jay Buhner from the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 1987, he slugged 31 home runs with 85 RBIs at Triple-A Columbus and also registered an eye-popping 20 outfield assists.

Buhner put the pinstripes on later that year and hit .227 in seven games. He bounced back and forth between the minors and majors in 1988 and hit .188 before being traded to the Seattle Mariners. New York received Ken Phelps in return, only to flip him to Oakland the following year.

Buhner went on to become a dominant power hitter for the Mariners as Frank Costanzas around New York collectively raged. Once again, the Yankees had mortgaged the future for short-term gain, only to see it blow up in their face.

Jay Buhner retired in 2001 with 310 career home runs, though he never won a World Series in Seattle. Perhaps that would have been different had he been a Yankee, but that’s a story for another time.

No. 1: Fred McGriff

Thus far, everyone on this list has had one thing in common. Even though they didn’t see their best years with the Yankees, they at least got to put on the pinstripes at least once.

Fred McGriff never received the same privilege. The Yankees drafted him out of Tampa’s Jefferson High School in 1981 and he was primed for a bright future. With his helicopter swing, he seemed destined to park many home runs in Yankee Stadium’s short porch in right field.

There was just one problem. Two years earlier, the Yankees drafted Don Mattingly. He debuted the year after McGriff was drafted, and the rest is history. Mattingly was a regular MVP candidate within three years, and the Yankees traded McGriff to Toronto in December 1982.

This is one trade that’s hard to dissect. At the time, it made sense. Mattingly debuted and was a hit, and McGriff was clearly the Yankees’ backup plan if Mattingly was a bust. The problem is starting in 1990, chronic back problems robbed Mattingly of his power. He played through 1995 before retiring.

But McGriff, meanwhile, got his happy ending in several ways. His MLB career lasted 19 years with six different teams. He twice led his respective league in home runs. In 1995, he won his first and only World Series ring with the Atlanta Braves.

He retired in 2004 with a .284 lifetime average and 493 home runs, and somehow still isn’t in the Hall of Fame. Fred McGriff might never have been a Yankee proper, but he still managed a great career.

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