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From Ruben Rivera to Aaron Judge: How the Yankees turned a top prospect into a 62-HR hitter 30 years later

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The American League has a new home run king. In Game 161 of the 2022 MLB season, New York Yankees franchise star Aaron Judge hit his 62nd home run of the year, breaking a tie with Roger Maris. Maris previously held the AL single-season home run record with 61 homers in 1961.

Judge, now 30, will be a free agent after this season – good timing for those 62 homers, huh? – and he’s been one of the best players in the game since his rookie in 2017. That year, he broke a then-rookie record of 52 home runs and was unanimously named Rookie of the Year. Judge also finished second in MVP voting that year and finished fourth in MVP voting in 2021.

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Judge is a true player development success story. He overcame extreme slip problems in college and junior high to become a highly productive major league player. The Yankees coaches worked with him, and Judge deserves credit for constantly making adjustments. It is not simple. His work ethic and baseball acumen have helped him get to where he is today.

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Dressing Judge in pinstripes was a long process that began much earlier than his college or minor league career. The chain of deals that led to the Yankees acquiring Judge is 17 months older than Judge himself. It can be traced back to 1990 and includes seven trades, one international signing, one draft pick, 21 different players and a lot of patience.

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Here is a step-by-step breakdown of the transaction tree that resulted in Judge playing for the Yankees.

November 21, 1990: The Yankees signed Ruben Rivera.

The Yankees signed two Rivers—cousins—as amateur international free agents from Panama in 1990. One of them appeared without fanfare and eventually became the closest player in history and the first unanimous Hall of Famer. The other was declared the next great Yankees since the contract was signed. Ruben had a lot more noise than Mariano.

Actually, Baseball America magazine featured Reuben on the cover of its December 1994 issue with the headline “The Next Mickey Mantle?”

Ruben Rivera.png
Rivera was one of the most hyped prospects in baseball history.

Baseball America

Baseball America ranked Rivera—Reuben, not Mariano—as one of the top nine prospects in baseball every year from 1995 to 1997. He made a brief MLB debut in September 1995, and made his first major league appearance in 1996 when he hit .284/.381/.443 in 46 games, but only in 106 games. He was a part-time player on a championship team.

Behind the scenes, the Yankees were impatient with Rivera, who was extremely talented but also immature. He wrote a very disappointing .235/.324/.395 batting line in 101 Triple-A games in 1996, and his work ethic was feared. Rivera had the tools to be great, but did he have the will to be great? The Yankees decided the answer was no.

“I really had high hopes for him. He could run, he could shoot, he could hit long distances,” said Herb Rayborn, who signed with Rivera when he was New York’s director of operations for Latin America. told Ken Davidoff about New York Post in 2015. “He had all the tools. But he also liked to fool around. You must be serious.”

April 22, 1997: The Yankees trade Rivera for Hideki Iraba.

Hideo Nomo took MLB by storm in the mid-1990s and paved the way for other Japanese stars to move onto the show. Irabu, known as “Japanese Nolan Ryan”, was more hyped than Nomo. In January 1997, the Padres purchased the Irabu contract from Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan, which led to the establishment of the placement system. The Japanese teams demanded compensation for their stars.

There was one small problem with San Diego buying Irabu’s contract: he didn’t want to play for them. “I have absolutely no desire to sign a contract with San Diego. My first choice is the Yankees. All I can say for now is that I told my agent about it and that my wishes have not changed.” he told The Associated Press at the time.

Padres President Larry Lucchino was confident that Irabu would come to his senses: “We think that when we have the opportunity to talk to him, we can change his point of view,” he told the Associated Press, “but this never happened. Irabu stood his ground and forced the exchange. He went to the Yankees in exchange for six players led by Rivera. A month later, Irabu signed a four-year, $12.8 million contract. Here are the full details of the deal:

  • Yankees get: Hideki Irabu, Homer Bush, minor leaguers Gordy Amerson and Vernon Maxwell
  • Padres receive: Ruben Rivera, minor league player Rafael Medina and $3 million in cash

After a brief minor league setup, Irabu joined the Yankees in July 1997 and had a very strong first half, holding the Tigers to two runs in 6 2/3 innings. He struck out nine.

After that, the wheels fell off. Irabu allowed 42 runs in his next 37 1/3 innings and was moved to the bullpen in September. He finished his MLB rookie season – a season at age 28 – with a 7.09 ERA in 53 1/3 innings divided over nine starts and four substitute appearances. He did not compete in the postseason that year.

Irabu had his best season in the big leagues in 1998. He was in New York’s rotation all year and had a 4.06 ERA in 173 innings. This was about nine percent better than the league average after adjusting for the ballpark. Irabu was the club’s fifth starter after David Cone, Orlando Hernandez, Andy Pettitt and David Wells that year, and he did not pitch in the postseason.

Despite being productive in 1998, Irabu did not live up to the hype or his contract, and tensions peaked in early 1999. him a “fat toad”.

“He looks like a fat, fluffy [rhymes with fussy] toad there” The boss told New York PostGeorge King. “These are not Yankees. Come on guys, we’ll meet again (to tell him what we’re expecting).”

Irabu began the 1999 season in the bullpen before returning to the rotation in May. He struck out 12 points in a complete victory over the Red Sox on July 30, at which point he had a 3.89 ERA. After that, Irabu posted a 6.63 ERA over the past two months and was hit by opponents at .295/.362/.467. He allowed eight runs in 4 2/3 innings in the postseason sweep.

As for Rivera, he played four seasons with the Padres and failed to impress, hitting .204/.301/.397 in 394 games. After that, he changed a bit, including returning to the Yankees in 2005 and release after stealing Derek Jeter’s glove, and eventually became the star of the Mexican league. Rivera was still active at age 45 in 2019.

December 22, 1999: The Yankees trade Iraba for Jake Westbrook.

Irabu’s poor performance and general indifference disappointed the Yankees, and they made the decision to leave after the 1999 season. They sent him to Montreal to pick up three young pitchers, which also cleared a spot on the Major League roster for valuable prospect Ed Yarnall, who didn’t get much done.

Here are the trading details:

  • Yankees get: Jake Westbrook, Ted Lilly and Christian Parker
  • Exhibitions receive: Hideki Irabu

“Hideki came with great fanfare.” Yankees CEO Brian Cashman told The Associated Press at the time.. “He wanted us as much as we wanted him. There were good times and hard times. We saw those flashes of brilliance that attracted us when he was a free agent leaving Japan.”

Irabu’s two seasons in Montreal were disastrous. He was injured and pitched poorly (6.69 ERA in 71 1/3 innings), but saved 16 games for the Rangers in 2002. Irabu returned to Japan in 2003. Unfortunately, his story ended tragically. Irabu struggled with alcoholism and legal troubles after his playing career ended and committed suicide in 2011.

For the Yankees, trading was all about building up depth. Lilly and Westbrook spent 2000 as deep players, although Lilly was eventually able to come into her own. He remained in New York until he was sent to the Athletics in a Jeff Weaver three-team trade at the 2002 deadline. This transaction does not affect the judge’s transaction tree, but it is worth mentioning.

Westbrook, a former Rockies first-rounder who went to the Exhibition in 1997 in exchange for Mark Lansing, allowed 10 runs in 6 2/3 innings spanning three major league games with the Yankees in June 2000. It was his first taste of MLB. and his only three appearances with New York. A few weeks later, the Yankees used him to improve their lineup.

June 29, 2000: The Yankees trade Westbrook for David Justice.

The Yankees won four World Series titles in five years from 1996 to 2000, and the 2000 team was the weakest of the four. On the day of the trade, they were three games behind the Blue Jays in East Alabama and finished fifth in the American League in points. New York needs another bat and they used Westbrook to get it a month before the deadline.

Here is the next transaction in the transaction tree:

  • Yankees get: David Justice
  • Indians get: Jake Westbrook, Zack Day and Ricky Lady

“We have a professional forward who has played in every postseason but one since 1991. Cashman told Buster Olney about The newspaper “New York Times after the deal. “His makeup is made for New York. Definitely an update.”

Truth be told, Justice was the Yankee’s Plan C. They only turned to justice after failing to complete the exchange of Sammy Sosa and Juan Gonzalez. “We had a player who was…


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