Juan Rivera is returning to the Bronx. Normally, the signing of a journeyman outfielder to a minor league contract wouldn’t be worthy of mention, but in this case, the acquisition says a lot about the Yankees’ past and present, and, perhaps, their future as well.
On the same day the Bronx Bombers inked Rivera, Nick Johnson announced his retirement and Javier Vazquez’ comeback was sidetracked by knee surgery. In 2013, these items are little more than off season footnotes. However, when the trio crossed paths 10 years ago, it was a headline event.
After losing the World Series to the Marlins in 2003, the Bronx Bombers entered a transition phase that included replacing four-fifths of the previous year’s rotation. To help fill the void, the Yankees targeted Vazquez, a young right hander who managed to turn heads despite playing in the relative obscurity of Montreal. In the four seasons before donning pinstripes, Vazquez logged over 900 innings and recorded an ERA+ of 123, placing him among the game’s elite hurlers. So, the cost of acquiring the 26-year old right hander wouldn’t be cheap.
In order to pry Vazquez away from the Expos, the Yankees had to part with a package that included Johnson and Rivera (as well as left handed reliever Randy Choate), two highly touted prospects who had made favorable first impressions in pinstripes. As recently as 2002 and 2003, Baseball America respectively ranked Johnson and Rivera as the 13th and 55th most promising minor leaguers in the game, so the deal signaled the Yankees’ commitment to acquiring proven veterans (even young ones like Vazquez) over developing homegrown talent. Although many fans were sad to see the Yankees trade away two of their own, the deal was widely viewed as a win for both teams. The Yankees were getting one of the best starters in the game, while the Expos were acquiring two can’t miss prospects. Unfortunately for both teams, the best laid plans don’t always work out.
Vazquez proved to be a huge disappointment in New York, and the grand slam he surrendered to Johnny Damon in game seven of the 2004 ALCS became a signature moment in the Yankees’ historic collapse. The Expos made out much better in the exchange, but neither Johnson nor Rivera had a lasting impact on the franchise. Rivera was traded the following season and, after two very strong campaigns in 2005 and 2006, Johnson spent more time on the disabled list than the field. As it turned out, what seemed like a path altering trade for both teams was really nothing more than a short detour.
Aside from the amusing coincidence of all three players being in the news 10 years later, the fallout from the Yankees trade with the Expos illustrates the difficulty of building a roster. What looks good on paper in the off season doesn’t always work out on the field. Prospects are seldom can’t miss, and even established players have difficulty making transitions. Also, health is always an important variable. When these bumps in the road occur, seasons can wind up going off a cliff, unless, of course, you have the budget to make costly repairs.
In order to remedy the mistakes made in the 2003 off season, the Yankees threw more money at their problems, but, with the team now operating under a strict budget, they no longer have that luxury. As a result, signing high-priced free agents and depleting a middling farm system are decisions that can’t be taken lightly. That’s how the Yankees, who usually shop in the high-end district, wind up signing Juan Rivera to compete for meaningful playing time.
A 25-year old Juan Rivera would make an ideal addition to the 2013 Yankees, but the acquisition doesn’t come with a time machine. Then again, even if it did, 10 years ago, players like Rivera were expendable because the Yankees could afford high-priced free agents to replenish their roster. Now, ironically, those same players, as veterans on the downside of their careers, could be an indispensible part of the Yankees’ new cost conscious approach to building a roster.