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George Steinbrenner Goofed: The Al Leiter Trade

Harold FriendChief Writer IJuly 28, 2010

TAMPA, FL - FEBRUARY 24:  Pitcher Al Leiter #26 of the New York Yankees poses for a portrait during the New York Yankees Photo Day at Legends Field on February 24, 2006 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Nick Laham/Getty Images

It was one of the worst trades the New York Yankees under George Steinbrenner ever made.

On April 30, 1989, the Yankees sent 23-year-old left-hander Al Leiter to the Toronto Blue Jays for 30-year-old slugging outfielder Jesse Barfield.

A major reason given was that the Yankees were upset with the chronic blister problems Leiter suffered on the fingers of his pitching hand.

At first, it seemed that Mr. Steinbrenner had gotten the better of the trade. Barfield hit 18 home runs for the 1989 Yankees, although he batted a Mark Reynolds-like .240.

In 1990, a season Yankees fans don't recall with fondness; Barfield hit 25 home runs and raised his batting average to .246, although he struck out 150 times, a number that Mickey Mantle, who was unmercifully criticized for striking out too much, never approached (126 in 1959 was Mickey's high).

Barfield appeared in only 84 games in 1991, hitting 17 home runs. He batted only .137 in 30 games in 1992, and then retired.

Meanwhile, Leiter had arthroscopic surgery twice, had a pinched nerve in his left elbow, suffered tendinitis, and missed virtually all of the 1989-1992 seasons.

Then Leiter became healthy, but he started out slowly..

His Toronto Blue Jays' career was mediocre. He won nine games in 1993 with a barely respectable 4.11 ERA.

In the shortened 1994 season, Leiter was 6-7 with a horrible 5.08 ERA. And the following season, his last with the Blue Jays, he started to show how good he was becoming, going 11-11 with a 3.64 ERA.

Control was a problem. Leiter threw 14 wild pitches and led the league with 108 walks.

In 1996, Leiter signed with Florida Marlins. He won 16 games, struck out 200 batters, had a fine 2.93 ERA, and made the All-Star team.

On May 11, he pitched a no-hitter against the Colorado Rockies.  Barfield had been retired four years.

The Marlins became World Champions in 1997. Manager Jim Leyland tapped Al to pitch the seventh game. Leiter pitched well, didn't get a decision, but the Marlins won the game in 11 innings.

Marlins' owner Wayne Huizenga cleaned house following the World Championship season.

New York's most beloved team, the New York Mets, had the sagacity to obtain Al's services.

All Al did was win 17 games in 1998. He lost only six, and had a Whitey Ford-like 2.47 ERA.

In 1999, the Mets and Cincinnati Reds were tied for the Wild Card. Bobby Valentine told Leiter that he was getting the start. Al responded with a two-hit shut out. Barfield had been retired seven years.

The Mets won the pennant in 2000, led by Leiter's 16 wins. He started the World Series opener at Yankee Stadium on a warm, humid night, and out-pitched Andy Pettitte.

Going to the bottom of the ninth inning, the Mets led, 3-2, with Armando Benitez on the mound.

Paul O'Neill had one of the great at-bats in World Series history, finally worked Benitez for a critical walk, and later scored the tying run in a game the Yankees won in 12 innings.

Leiter started the fifth game of that World Series and showed as much grit as any pitcher had ever shown.

On his 142nd pitch, Luis Sojo hit a ground ball up the middle, over second, and into center field to score Scott Brosius and Jorge Posada. The Yankees were World Champions.

In July 2005, the Yankees acquired Leiter, but it was too little too late. At the age of 39, Leiter had nothing left. He retired and joined the Yankees' broadcast booth.

Baseball history certainly would have been different if Mr. Steinbrenner had not traded Leiter for a washed-up Jesse Barfield.

It is impossible to speculate with respect to how the Yankees would have fared if they had kept Leiter, but there has always been a premium on left-handed starting pitchers (see Jamie Moyer).

Leiter won 162 games, averaging 14 wins a season over a 162-game season.

Barfield hit .256 with 241 home runs, averaging about 27 home runs over a 162-game season.

Leiter and Barfield rank about the same when one compares Leiter to all Major League pitchers and Barfield to all major league hitters.

Mr. Steinbrenner's problem was timing. As the great Branch Rickey said, "It is better to trade a player one year too soon than one year too late."

The Blue Jays knew what Mr. Rickey believed. Too bad Mr. Steinbrenner didn't know, or didn't care.

References:

Al Leiter at Baseball Reference

Jesse Barfield at Baseball Reference

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