This is the first installment in what will be a long series that will examine each trade that Brian Cashman has made since becoming the General Manager of the Yankees. We will look at each trade in chronological order and determine if the trade was beneficial to the Yankees. (An explanation of the overall project can be found by clicking here: The Brian Cashman Legacy Project.)
PART 1, TRADE 1
February 6, 1998. The Yankees traded Eric Milton, Cristian Guzman, Brian Buchanan and Danny Mota to the Minnesota Twins for Chuck Knoblauch.
Well, Brian Cashman didn't pull any punches with his first significant trade. This was a huge trade - a blockbuster in its own right - though people today don't necessarily remember it as such.
When the trade was made, Chuck Knoblauch was an All-Star. He was a hard-nosed scrappy second baseman who was one of the biggest impact players in the American League. The 1991 Rookie of the Year had a lifetime batting average of .304 with a .391 on-base percentage. Knoblauch also was one of the game’s best base stealers. He had swiped 62 bases in 1997. Knoblauch had been an all-star in three of the four previous seasons and was the reigning Silver Slugger Award winner at second base. He had also just won his first Gold Glove. Make no mistake, Knoblauch was a star – a big star. He was also young - only 28 years old at the time of the trade.
The acquisition of Chuck Knoblauch also addressed one of the Yankees’ weakest positions – second base. In 1997, the Yankees main starting second baseman was Luis Sojo. That year he appeared in 72 games at second base, and while he batted .307 overall, at 32 years old, and with a lifetime batting average of .265, it was apparent that Sojo wasn’t the answer. The other main Yankees to spend time at second base in 1997 were Mariano Duncan (41 games), Rey Sanchez (37 games), and Pat Kelly (48 games). None of these players were considered a longtime answer to the position. The Yankees needed an upgrade and they turned to one the best young players in the game. It seemed that Chuck Knoblauch and the young Derek Jeter would team at second base and shortstop for the next decade or more.
But, in order to acquire Knoblauch, the Yankees had to give-up a veritable king’s random. The jewel of the trade was the young left-handed pitcher, and future ace, Eric Milton. In 1998, Milton was ranked as Baseball America’s #1 Yankees’ prospect. He was the crown jewel and he looked the part. Drafted in the first round in 1996, Milton had pitched to a 14-4 record in his first professional season where he had already progressed to AA ball.
Cristian Guzman, a young shortstop, was also extremely highly regarded. In 1997, Baseball America ranked him as the Yankees’ #7 overall prospect. At the time of the trade, Guzman had never played above single-A ball, but he was regarded by many as a future star.
Brian Buchanan was also a touted prospect. The Yankees’ First Round pick in the 1994 draft was coming off a year where he hit .309 with 10 homers in 116 games at Double-A. He followed this with a respectable .279 with four homeruns in his first AAA experience.
Danny Mota was the fourth piece, a low level minor league right-handed pitcher who in three years had not advanced past Single-A ball.
In total, the Yankees gave up a lot to get Chuck Knoblauch. It was a costly acquisition, but for a player of Knoblauch’s caliber – a young star who would solidify a weak position on the Yankees well into the foreseeable future, the trade made sense.
The initial results of the trade can’t really be disputed. With Chuck Knoblauch batting at the top of the order, the Yankees won three consecutive World Series. And, while Chuck Knoblauch was never the star the Yankees hoped he would be in pinstripes, his production was better than most people remember. In 1998, Knoblauch played in 150 games solidifying second base. He slugged 17 home runs. He stole 31 bases. While he batted only .265, his on-base percentage was .361 thanks to his 76 walks. The Yankees won 114 games in 1998 and then won the World Series. As the lead-off hitter, Chuck Knoblauch was a big part of that.
Chuck Knoblauch was even better in 1999. That year he batted .292 (with a .393 OBP) and clubbed a career high 18 homers. His 28 stolen bases were also solid. The Yankees won their second consecutive World Series in 1999.
In 2000, the Yankees again won the World Series, though Knoblauch that year fell victim to the throwing “yips” that he is now mostly remembered for. Knoblauch’s inability to seemingly make simple throws cost him his chance to stay at second base. Knoblauch played in only 102 games for the Yankees batting .283. His on-base percentage was .366.
Knoblauch’s last season with the Yankees was 2001. He played 137 games, mostly as the left fielder. He hit an unremarkable .250 with only 9 homers. After the season, he became a free agent and signed with the Kansas City Royals where he finished his career.
Eric Milton, was an excellent pitcher, who anchored the Twins staff, but he never became the true ace that he was projected to be. He was very good, but he was never great. Milton’s best year was 2001 where he went 15-7, 4.32. Milton threw over 170 innings in each of his first five years as a Twin, going over 200 innings for three straight years. In six seasons in Minnesota, Milton went 57-51, 4.76 overall. The highlight of his career came on September 11, 1999 when he threw a no-hitter against the Angels. The Twins traded Milton to the Phillies before the 2004 season. After one season in Philadelphia, he signed with the Cincinnati Reds where he toiled for three seasons. Elbow troubles ended Milton’s career prematurely. He finished his career with the Dodgers.
Cristian Guzman was the starting shortstop for the Twins for six seasons. In 2001, he made the All-Star team and batted .302 overall. Guzman was solid player. After playing with Minnesota, he signed as a free agent with the Washington Nationals and made the NL All-Star team in 2008.
Brian Buchanan played two and a half seasons with the Twins batting .258 with 16 homers in 143 games. He was traded to the Padres for Jason Bartlett who became the Twins’ shortstop after Guzman. Buchanan ended his career with the Mets.
Danny Mota did make it to the big leagues, but only for four games, with the Twins, in 2000.
Final Analysis & Grade
This was a tough trade to start with and assign a final grade to.
The Twins did very well. Eric Milton was a very good to excellent starting pitcher. Cristian Guzman was an excellent shortstop. In addition, Brian Buchanan played well enough to allow the Twins to get another starting shortstop and Danny Mota performed as the fourth guy in a trade like this would be expected to – he made it to the Majors, but not for more than a quick cup of coffee.
Considering that Knoblauch was out of baseball after 2002, it seems that the Minnesota Twins made out much better in the deal. They received two players who starred for them for many years while Chuck Knoblauch was out of baseball after 2002.
If one looks at WAR, it seems like a slam dunk win for the Twins. Knoblauch totaled only 7.4 WAR in his four seasons with the Yankees. Milton and Guzman alone earned 22.2 Wins Above Replacement for the Twins. Jason Bartlett, who the Twins acquired for Brian Buchanan earned another 8.9 WAR.
Still, in the end, the goal for the Yankees is to win championships, and with Chuck Knoblauch, they won three in a row and just barely missed out on a fourth in 2001. Knoblauch was a big part of all of that – less in 2001, but he major contributor in 1998 and 1999, especially.
Sometimes it has to hurt to get a great player. This trade definitely hurt the Yankees in many ways. While the Twins got the longer-term results because Knoblauch’s star faded much too quickly, he still played a significant role in the Yankees championships. Just because the other team made out very well doesn’t mean the Yankees lost.
Feel free to disagree, but because of the championships, I’m going to give Brian Cashman a B+ on this. The trade did was it was supposed to do, it helped bring three World Series pennants to the Bronx, but because Chuck Knoblauch did not give the Yankees the long-term impact they expected he would, Cashman didn't earn the A.