Other clever moves from the past 25 years: Yanks trade for Roger Clemens

Editor’s Note: “The 25 Smartest Moves of the Last 25 Moves” series It may be over, but with the lockdown still in place we thought it would be fun to spend a week screaming five more smart deals that barely got a cut in the top 25 votes. Enjoy!

The only question that surrounded the Yankees after the 1998 season was whether the Yankees were the best baseball team ever. With every major player back headed for spring 1999 training, whether or not they were the favorites to win the World Championship again was certainly not a question.

Meanwhile, Toronto’s Roger Clemens, the game’s best bowler and one of the best bowlers of all time, has made no secret of the fact that he wants to change the scene. As a longtime Clemens fan, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner made no secret of the fact that he wanted Roger in striped lines. While crossing the tee and dotting the eyes certainly involves overcoming some challenges, the game’s best bowler joined the game’s best team just as spring training was about to begin, causing an uproar throughout the MLB.

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

Deal date: 18/2/99

NYY statistics during the first decade (1999-2002): 124 Start, 792.1 IP, 0.690 percent W/L, 115 ERA+, 3.81 FIP, 16.7 fWAR, 2001 Cy Young Award

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman (along with Joe Tory, Jane Michael, and everyone else in the Yankees’ brains trust) agreed with the president that Clemens would look great in striped stripes. The issue was that every time the topic was brought up with Toronto’s GM Jord Ash, the conversation ended abruptly when Ash demanded David Wells and Alfonso Soriano in exchange for Clemens. Cashman is tired of repeating that Soriano is not going anywhere, and he stops answering Ash’s calls at some point. However, his stubbornness paid off when Ashe finally relented and asked Graeme Lloyd and Homer Bush to join Wells on a trip to Toronto instead of Soriano.

Yankees players had to look back on events back in 1998 when Clemens hit Derek Jeter and Scott Bruceus with pitches that didn’t seem to be accidental. Similarly, Steinbrenner will have to prepare himself for the flood of hostility he will surely get from fellow owners as the issue of big market teams stocking stars has been somewhat controversial among owners out of season. However, all things seemed to be settled when the five-time Cy Young Award winner, who had the best two consecutive seasons of his career, wanted to be a Yankee.

Although Clemens’ first season as a Yankee would be considered good by the standards of most shooters, it was disappointing in comparison to his lofty expectations. Although he finished in the top half of AL bowlers in the ERA+, FIP, K-percentage and OPS+ opponents for this season, it was clear that he wasn’t the dominant bowler he was in Toronto. The high walk rate of his career and the second worst hit to nine innings of his career cheated a record 14-10 won loss in the year.

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

To that end, he and the team succeeded, going an astonishing 11-1 in the postseason on their way to another championship. Clemens certainly did his part, throwing seven rounds of a three-stroke closing ball in the ALDS playoff series against a Texas team who averaged 5.83 points per game in ’99. Then after a clunker attack against Boston at ALCS*, he threw another gem to complete the World Championship sweep against the Braves, allowing only one action over 7.2 innings in the Game 4 playoff.

*After the loss at Fenway, Clemens asked Brian Cashman if his coach, Brian McNamee, could join the team to work with him. Cashman had already denied the request once and felt McNamee was a “problem” but this time it was overruled by the president. Thus a continuous fork was firmly set up in the side of the team.

Clemens spent the first two and a half months of the 2000 season in a similar fashion to 1999. Again, he was far from being “bad,” but he wasn’t anywhere near the bowler everyone was hoping to see. After taking a beating from the Mets on June 9, Clemens left after one round on his next start with a chronic thigh strain that necessitated a trip to IL. When he returned on July 2, it was clear that his nagging injury was probably more of an issue than reported because the bowler we all hoped to see finally showed up.

Over his next 16 starts, Clemens would fit a 2.21 ERA with the Yankees winning 12 of those games. He had finished the season with 131 ERA+, 4.6 bWAR, and finished in sixth place in the AL Cy Young Award vote. Most importantly, the Yankees were heading into the postseason again.

After two not particularly good games against Oakland at ALDS that lasted only 11 combined rounds, Clemens made a historic showing against Seattle in Game 4 of the ALCS. Against a Seattle team that averaged 5.60 points per game during the season, the Rockets threw an entire game in one stroke, knocking out 15 times in just two careers. I try to avoid talking to other fans, but at the time, I felt like I was watching the best post-season halftime performance ever, and with Clemens’ final score of 98 in the game, I was probably right.

Clemens’ next start would come against the Mets in Game Two of the World Series, and he was almost as dominant as he was in Seattle on his earlier start. Despite personally creating a massive distraction from his performance by throwing a broken racket in Mike Piazza’s direction, Clemens, otherwise, barely sweated, threw eight elimination runs, lunged nine, didn’t walk with nothing, and finished with a game score of 87. The win gave the Yankees a 2-0 lead in a streak they would have gone on to win, and although Clemens made many of us question his sanity, no one was wondering where the dominant version of The Rocket was anymore.

Clemens maintained the momentum he generated during the second half of 2000 through the entire 2001 season. In the year, he had started 33 times, threw 220.1 rounds, posted 128 ERA+ and finished in the top five among AL pitchers in bWAR, FIP and K-BB ratio. In addition to earning his first All-Star appearance as a Yankee, his 20-3 performance stunned the BBWAA crowd of the era, earning him his sixth Cy Young Award and an eighth place in the AL MVP vote.

In the post-season, Clemens will falter again somewhat against Oakland in the ALDS before redeeming himself with a 4-game win against Seattle in the ALCS. Then facing the Diamondbacks in Game 3 of the World Series, with the Yankees already tapering off to two games to nothing, was a hit. Clemens’ seven one-ball innings with nine offensive strokes resulted in the Yankees winning a decisive victory that kept them in the series. He followed that up with another great performance in Game 7, hitting 10 strokes over 6.1 innings while only allowing one run. (I respect the family members’ request not to discuss what happened in the game after that point.)

In 2002 Roger missed three weeks with another groin strain erupting, but nevertheless put on a very good season as most of his stats were as good as they were in his 2001 Cy Young award winning campaign. Over 29 starts and 180 innings, he scored The second best K-BB ratio in AL, while a 3.30 FIP would be good for the third best in the league. He would have started Game 1 against the Angels at ALDS, allowing four runs over 5.2 innings for an eventual 8-5 Yankees win, although as it turns out, this would be the team’s final win of the year.

After the 2002 season, Clemens tested the waters of the free agent and would eventually re-sign with the Yankees on a one-year deal for the 2003 season, which was initially billed as a farewell season en route to a 300-win and 4,000-mile milestone. He would spend the next five years signing one-year deals with the Yankees and Astros, with a few temporary retirements. However, regardless of the drama, he would go on to add what was already one of the best autobiographies ever.

To be sure, Clemens’ tenure in New York from 1999 until 2002 after the trade was not without complications. Only the people in the locker room at the time can say for sure, but the ongoing TV series with Piazza and the Mets couldn’t make things easy for them. Reintroducing McNamee to the team has been quite a problem for the organization, David Kohn and former strength and conditioning coach Jeff Mangold (among others) have stated publicly.

However, it is a trade we will do again quickly if given the opportunity. The Yankees have earned stretches of dominance, a Cy Young award, and a major contributor to four teams that have made the post-season, winning two more World Championships in the process. Not that we were all a little sad to see Wells – and to a lesser extent Lloyd and Bush – leave, having ‘The Rocket’ by our side for once was a lot of fun.

(Author’s note: Many thanks to John Pessah’s great “game” for the background used here.)