Let's get the less-renowned players out of the way. Balabon had been a big prospect, but was awful between A-ball and Double-A in 1987. At the time of the trade, he was 21 and looking shaky. He got to Triple-A in the Mariners' system with Calgary in 1991, but never topped 11 wins in the minors, and his control was shot.
Evers had gone 10-1 with a 1.18 ERA for "Short-Season A-ball" Oneonta in 1985, and 13-5 for Class A Fort Lauderdale in 1987. But he'd already missed nearly all of 1986 with an injury, so the Yankees felt they could let him go, without giving much up. He topped out with the Mariners' Double-A team in Williamsport in 1990, going 4-12, got hurt again, and never pitched professionally again except for 1 season in an independent league.
Balabon was 24 and Evers 26 when they threw their last pitches in "organized ball." So, whatever they were (and are) as human beings, as ballplayers, they were no great loss to the Yankees.
The key was Buhner. At the time of the trade, Jay Campbell Buhner was 23 years old, going on 24. He was a righthanded hitter, born in Louisville, Kentucky, and grew up in the Houston suburb of League City, Texas. He had a very good season at Triple-A Columbus in 1987, and had played 7 games for the Yankees late that season. Thus far in 1988, he had come to the plate 76 times for the Yankees, batting .188, hitting 3 home runs, with 13 RBIs.
I was there at the old Yankee Stadium when he hit his 2nd major league home run (I previously thought it was his 1st), a grand slam that gave the Yankees an 8-6 win over the Baltimore Orioles on June 11. From May 15 to July 6, he had been the Yankees' regular center fielder, as Claudell Washington had gone into decline.
It's important to remember that Buhner was righthanded, and that Yankee Stadium (1988 being the 1st season of the outfield distances that it had until it closed, and even that was an improvement over what it had before, and the new Stadium has had those distances since it opened as the replacement) was not conducive to righthanded power hitting. It was much better for lefthanded hitters. With Don Mattingly having a bad back, and other injuries hitting the team, the Yankees needed a good lefthanded DH/pinch-hitter.
At the time of the trade, Kenneth Allen Phelps was 33 years old, going on 34. He was a lefthanded hitter, born and raised in Seattle. He debuted with the Kansas City Royals, having a 3-game "cup of coffee" in their 1980 Pennant season. He played 21 more games for them in 1981, and 10 for the Montreal Expos in 1982, before his hometown Mariners (keeping in mind that they weren't his hometown team while he was growing up, they didn't play their 1st game until he was 22) got him in 1983. By 1988, he had already had 3 seasons of at least 24 home runs, and in his last 2 seasons, he'd gotten 64 and 68 RBIs. These are decent totals.
But his highest batting average at that point was .259 in 1987. He was a one-dimensional player: He didn't really hit for singles, doubles or triples; he didn't hit to the opposite field; he wasn't much of a baserunner, being kind of a chubby guy who stole 10 bases in his entire career; and as for his fielding, well, there's a reason he was frequently a DH. (Well, 2 reasons: The Mariners had a pretty good 1st baseman in Alvin Davis.)
Phelps wouldn't do much for the A's, either, and in 1990 they traded him to the Cleveland Indians, and that was it for him in the majors. Lifetime batting average: .239. Home runs: 123 -- not exactly a big total for a guy known for his power, especially since he played with short right-field porches at the Kingdome and Yankee Stadium.
Here's what Buhner did for the Mariners: 14 seasons, 307 home runs, 4 postseason berths.
The trade loomed pretty large to Yankee Fans who watched the team fall apart in 1989, after 4 years of close-but-no-cigar contention, and begin 4 years of doldrums. Buhner's bat would have been a big help, wouldn't it?
It got worse after the 1995 American League Division Series, when the Yankees lost to the Mariners, with Buhner batting .458 with a homer and 3 RBIs in those 5 games. You'll notice that the Seinfeld episode in which Frank Costanza (played by Jerry Stiller) yells about this trade to George Steinbrenner (Larry David), "The Caddy," aired on January 26, 1996, less than 3 months after that series.
It's been 25 years since The Boss pulled off this moronic trade. How could he do it? How could the Yankees as an organization have let such a stupid thing happen?
Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame the Yankees for Trading Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps
5. Injuries. Although the Yankees stayed in the AL Eastern Division race most of the way in 1988, they had a bunch of injuries. I mentioned the game in which Buhner hit the grand slam. Here's the lineup the Yankees had on Opening Day that season (April 5, an 8-0 win over the Minnesota Twins):
LF Rickey Henderson
2B Willie Randolph
1B Don Mattingly
DH Gary Ward
RF Dave Winfield
CF Roberto Kelly
3B Mike Pagliarulo
C Joel Skinner
SS Rafael Santana.
Okay, the bottom 2 weren't good hitters -- so bad that they actually batted after a pitcher in the June 11 game. But they were good on defense. And the 1st 7 were all good, either for getting on base or for hitting home runs (or both). Now, here's the lineup for the June 11 game:
3B Wayne Tolleson
2B Bobby Meacham
RF Dave Winfield
1B Jack Clark
CF Jay Buhner
LF Gary Ward
DH Rick Rhoden
SS Rafael Santana
C Joel Skinner
And you thought the 2013 Yankees had issues with injuries. Clark and Ward were both good hitters, but not good fielders, yet neither was the DH in this game. Tolleson and Meacham were both shortstops by trade, yet neither of them is playing his natural position here. Tolleson played shortstop for the Yankees and wore Number 2, but he was no Derek Jeter. Hell, he was no Frank Crosetti. Career OPS+: 66. Meacham wasn't a whole lot better, at 73. And neither fielded anywhere near as well he would have needed to in order to offset his offensive weakness. To be blunt: If Wayne Tolleson and Bobby Meacham are your first 2 hitters, you're in deep trouble.
(To be fair, though, Tolleson stole at least 17 bases in a season 4 times, peaking at 33 in 1983 -- for the Texas Rangers; Meacham stole 25 bases in 1985, and twice led the AL in sacrifice hits, but played his last big-league game later in '88, finished in the majors at age 28.)
In what turned out to be his last masterstroke before being fired as a big-league manager for the final time later that month, Billy Martin put pitcher Rick Rhoden in as the DH, and it worked: He hit a sacrifice fly that got a run home.
But of the 9 starters, 6 were out of position (in bold), and 5 were simply not major league hitters (in italics). Rhoden's career OPS+ of 60 was decent for a pitcher, but his lifetime batting average of .238 and on-base percentage of .253 barely justified his presence in the lineup. But he was healthy, and not the batting disaster that Tolleson, Meacham, Santana and Skinner had become. The only guy in that lineup who could hit and was playing his preferred position was Winfield.
So bringing in a lefty bat with power was necessary. Whereas the Yankees had Winfield, Clark, Ward, and even Henderson to provide power from the right side. (Yes, Henderson: Despite playing most of his career in parks not conducive to righthanded power, he hit close to 300 homers.) For the 1988 Yankees, Jay Buhner was surplus to requirements.
4. Ken Phelps. As I said, at the time of the trade, Phelps had already had 3 seasons of at least 24 home runs, and in his last 2 seasons he'd gotten 64 and 68 RBIs. He had a lefty swing that was tailor-made for Yankee Stadium.
As a Mariners' fan website puts it:
Phelps was known as a very selective batter. He hit for power, struckout often (many on "called" strikes) and walked regularly, leading to a very good on-base percentage. Current Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane and his vision of “Moneyball" would have loved Phelps if he played in the late 1990's/early 2000's.
If Phelps had been 22 instead of 34, and had started out in the Yankee system, and had tailed off the same way, today he'd be thought of in the same vein as his contemporaries Steve Balboni, Dan Pasqua and Kevin Maas, guys who were great prospects but flamed out quickly. But he was brought in at age 34 (for all intents and purposes), and his reputation was dragged down.
Still, the move was totally justifiable at the time: Trading a righthander who had proven nothing in the majors when you had righthanders who had proven themselves good hitters, for a lefthander who had proven things. The Yankees traded something they didn't seem to need for something that looked like something they did need.
3. Jay Buhner -- in 1988. As I said, he hadn't proven much. He had made a grand total of 99 plate appearances in the major leagues. His batting average as a Yankee was .199; on-base, .255; slugging, .319; OPS+, 58.
That's right: His on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, adjusted for park effects, compared to his contemporaries, was lower than that of his teammate Rick Rhoden, a pitcher. In other words, in 1988, you could be blunt and say that Jay Buhner stunk; or you could be charitable and say he wasn't ready for the major leagues.
Well, what about what he did afterward? Huh? The Yankees could have used that, couldn't they?
2. Jay Buhner -- after 1988. Here's his career totals: BA, .254. OBP, .359. Slugging, .494. OPS, .852. OPS+, 124. Hits, 1,273. Doubles, 233. Triples, 19. Home runs, 310. RBIs, 965.
Decent stats, sure. The fact that his 1995, '96 and '97 HR & RBI stats were 40 & 121, 44 & 138, and 40 & 109 makes it look worse for the Yankees.
But as a wise man once said, Statistics are like bikinis: What they reveal can be great, but what they don't reveal is more important. Let's look beyond those basic stats:
His highest batting average for a single season was .272, in 1993. People who say that Phil Rizzuto doesn't belong in the Baseball Hall of Fame cite his .273 lifetime batting average. Well, Phil Rizzuto had a higher lifetime batting average than "good hitter" Jay Buhner -- and could run, and could field.
Mickey Mantle and Reggie Jackson are Yankee Legends who were criticized for striking out too much. Well, Mickey's highest single-season strikeout total was 126; Reggie's top total as a Yankee wasn't much more, 133; Buhner led the AL in strikeouts in 1996 with 159 and in '97 with 175.
And let's keep in mind: The Yankees were nowhere near contention for the next 4 seasons, 1989 through '92. And the Yankees traded for Jesse Barfield after this. Would Buhner have given the Yankees much more than Barfield at that time? Would having Buhner in those 4 seasons have helped much? I doubt it.
Yeah, but Buhner helped the Mariners reach the postseason 4 times, right? Well, look at his teammates: Ken Griffey Jr., future Hall-of-Famer; Edgar Martinez, nearly a HOFer; Tino Martinez, who was traded away after 1995 but consistently put up All-Star-quality numbers, including in 1995; Alex Rodriguez, you know his story; Mike Cameron, All-Star; John Olerud, wasn't a Mariner for long but played very well for them. And that's not even considering their pitching: Randy Johnson, Aaron Sele, Jamie Moyer, eventually Freddy Garcia. Buhner was never the most, or the 2nd-most, or even the 3rd-most important player on his own team.
And look at Buhner's decline:
1997 Age 33, 665 plate apperances, OPS+ of 132
1998 34, 286, 109
1999 35, 343, 105
2000 36, 430, 127
2001 37, 53 100
Wow, his appearances really dropped. And so did his production. Injuries. And he was famously bald. Steroids? As far as is publicly known, he was clean... but he does fit the profile. Remember, he didn't just go from 430 plate appearances to 53; that 2000 season was the anomaly for Buhner after 1997.
Let's be honest here: If Jay Buhner was the Yankees' right fielder from 1993 to 2001, you know the Yankee Haters would claim that his decline "proves" that he was using performance-enhancing drugs.
Ah, but Buhner wasn't the Yankees' right fielder from 1993 to 2001, was he?
1. Paul O'Neill. If Buhner had been the Yankees' right fielder from 1989 (a year in which Dave Winfield was out the entire way with an injury) through 1992, instead of former Toronto Blue Jay slugger Jesse Barfield (who gave the Yankees 3 decent seasons but was hurt and really came to the team at the wrong time in its history), the Yankees wouldn't have traded Roberto Kelly to the Cincinnati Reds for O'Neill. Kelly might well have been traded for somebody -- Bernie Williams was on the way up and became the Yankees' regular center fielder until 2006 -- but he wouldn't have been traded for O'Neill.
Paulie became one of the cornerstones of the new Yankee Dynasty, playing well and doing so consistently, playing while hurt, pushing himself to come through in big moments. No, he wasn't a Hall-of-Famer, but he was a better all-around player than Buhner: He could hit for average (batting .300 6 times), he could hit to the opposite field, he was a decent baserunner (stole double figures 5 straight seasons, including 22 at age 38 in his final season), and he was a much better-fielding right fielder than Buhner.
Nobody says Kelly for O'Neill was a bad trade -- unless, of course, they're a Cincinnati Reds fan, or a major Yankee Hater. So don't think of the 1988 trade as Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps. Think of it as Jay Buhner for Paul O'Neill.
Would you make that trade? I'd make it in a New York minute.
A recent photo of Phelps and Buhner
In case you're wondering: Today, Buhner is still living in the Seattle area, living off his baseball earnings, acting as an official spokesman for a local car dealership, and indulging in his passion for fishing. Can't fault him for any of that. Phelps, who actually is from near Seattle, is living near Phoenix, broadcasting for a minor-league team.