32 Years Ago Today
April 30, 1989 (the day after my son’s birthday, happy day after your birthday, Dwight), the Blue Jays traded right fielder Jesse Barfield to the Yankees for Al Leiter.
Now Jesse was kind of on the downhill side of a good career. He had 40 home runs in 1986, with 27 the year before and 28 the year after. He had been a Gold Glove winner and an All-Star and popular with Blue Jay fans. But in 1988, Jesse hit just .244/.302/.425 and, to that point in 1989, had only been hitting.200/.256.438. It seemed like he was older than 29. Years of playing on the carpet at Exhibition Stadium could do that to a player.
Al Leiter was a 23-year-old left-handed starting pitcher with the Yankees. He had made 14 starts in 1988 and had a 4-4 record with a 3.92 ERA, and he had been a pretty highly thought of prospect. Added into the equation was that the Jays had a young outfielder, Junior Felix, who wanted to make room for him to play every day.
Well, the Jays traded for damaged goods. Leiter’s last start of the 1988 season, manager Dallas Green left him out there for 162 pitches. If a manager did that now, a pitcher’s agent would sue. Dallas wasn’t one of your more progressive managers; he figured men should be men. And broken.
Soon after joining the Jays, Leiter had shoulder surgery. Then a pinched nerve. Then tendinitis. Then more shoulder surgery. Then he couldn’t pitch because of blisters. In his first four seasons with the Jays, 1989 to 1992, Leiter pitched 15.2 innings. But the Jays stuck with him.
In 1993 the Jays gently worked him back into the pitching staff. He got into 34 games, 12 as a starter, threw 105 innings and had a 4.11 ERA with a 9-6 record and 2 saves. He even had a complete game shutout in there. He pitched in 5 postseason games, all in relief, getting the win in game one of the World Series against the Phillies. Add in that he hit a double in his one at-bat in that series. In 1994 he made 20 starts, missing some time with blisters, and wasn’t very useful when he did pitch, putting up a 5.08 ERA.
Then in 1995, he finally put it all together. He had a 3.64 ERA in 28 starts, 183 innings. It seemed that we were finally about to get some value from Al. After all, we stuck with him through all the surgeries and all the troubles.
Nope. Leiter went out and signed as a free agent with the Florida Marlins, helping them to a World Series in 1997. I’ll admit, it pissed me off. I thought the team had helped him through all those injuries. And then, when he finally gets healthy, he bolts.
Meanwhile, Jesse Barfield had a couple of decent seasons with the Yankees, hitting .240/.360/.410 with 18 homers in 1989 and 246/.359/.456 with 25 homers in 1990, then fell off some and was out of baseball after the 1992 season.
Junior Felix? He never became the player the Jays thought he would. He played two seasons with us, 1989 and 1990, hitting .261/.322/.419, with 24 home runs and 31 stolen bases with 20 times caught. He wasn’t good. But he was part of the Jays big trade with the Angels that got us Devon White. The Jays packaged Felix, Luis Soto, and Kevin Rivers for the Angels getting White, Marcus Moore, and Willie Fraser in return. White, the only helpful player in there, would help us win 2 World Series, hit leadoff, and play great defense in center. He was the best defensive center fielder we’ve ever had (though Kevin Pillar had some moments).
The Leiter for Barfield trade didn’t work out for us, but then it didn’t do much for the Yankees either (they finished 5th in the AL East in 1989 and 7th in 1990). The Jays finished first in the AL East in 1989 and 1991 (not that Leiter helped) and then went on to win the World Series titles in 1992 and 1993.
Not Pat Gullick’s best trade, but he was pretty unlucky. I don’t think they did as thorough a medical exam when players were traded back in those days. We got damaged goods, and Felix was an overrated prospect. You can’t win them all.