From Ruben Rivera to Aaron Judge: How the Yankees turned a top prospect in 1990 into a star 30 years later


Whenever the 2020 Major League Baseball season begins, the New York Yankees are likely to have franchise star Aaron Judge in right field on Opening Day. A fractured rib limited Judge in spring training and he was going to start the season on the injured list. The shutdown has given Judge a chance to heal though, and he may not miss any games when it’s all said and done.

Judge, now 28, is entering his fourth full big-league season and he’s been among the game’s best players since 2017. He smashed a then-rookie record 52 home runs that year en route to being named the unanimous Rookie of the Year. Judge was also the MVP runner-up that season. Here are his ranks since Opening Day 2017 (min. 1,000 plate appearances for rate stats):

  • On-base percentage: .401 (4th)
  • Slugging percentage: .572 (4th)
  • OPS+: 157 (3rd)
  • Home runs: 106 (8th)
  • WAR: 19.4 (5th)

Judge is a true player development success story. He overcame extreme swing-and-miss issues in college and in the minors to become a very productive big leaguer. Yankees coaches worked with him and Judge deserves credit for tinkering and making constant adjustments. It’s not easy. His work ethic and baseball acumen helped him get to where he is now.

Getting Judge into pinstripes was a long process that dates back much further than his college or minor-league career. The string of transactions 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 whole lot of patience.

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

Nov. 21, 1990: Yankees sign Ruben Rivera

The Yankees signed two Riveras — cousins — as international amateur free agents out of Panama in 1990. One came with little hype and fanfare and eventually became the greatest closer in history and the first unanimous Hall of Famer. The other was billed as the next great Yankee from the moment he signed. Ruben had far more buzz than Mariano.

In fact, Baseball America magazine put Ruben on the cover of their Dec. 1994 issue with the caption, “The next Mickey Mantle?”

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Rivera was one of the most hyped prospects in baseball history.
Baseball America

Baseball America ranked Rivera — Ruben, not Mariano — as one of the nine best prospects in baseball every year from 1995-97. He made his brief MLB debut as a Sept. call-up in 1995 and got his first extended taste of the big leagues in 1996, when he hit .284/.381/.443 in 46 games but only 106 plate appearances. He was a part-time player on a championship team.

Behind the scenes, the Yankees were growing impatient with Rivera, who was immensely talented but also immature. He authored a very underwhelming .235/.324/.395 batting line in 101 Triple-A games in 1996 and there were concerns about his work ethic. Rivera had the tools to be great, but did he have the drive to be great? The Yankees determined the answer was no.

“I really had great hopes for him. He could run, he could throw, he could hit for distance,” Herb Raybourn, who signed Rivera when he served as New York’s director of Latin American operations, told Ken Davidoff of the New York Post in 2015. “He had all the tools. But he also liked to fool around. You have to be serious.”

April 22, 1997: Yankees trade Rivera for Hideki Irabu

Hideo Nomo took MLB by storm in the mid-1990s and paved the way for other Japanese stars to migrate to the show. Irabu, known as “The Japanese Nolan Ryan,” was more hyped than Nomo. The Padres purchased Irabu’s contract from the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan in Jan. 1997, a move that led to the creation of the posting system. Japanese teams wanted compensation for their stars.

There was one small problem with San Diego purchasing Irabu’s contract: he didn’t want to play for them. “I have absolutely no desire to conclude a contract with San Diego. My first pick is the Yankees. All I can say for now is that I have told this to my agent and that there has been no change in my wishes,” he told the Associated Press at the time.

Padres president Larry Lucchino was confident Irabu would come around — “We think that when we have a chance to speak with him, we’ll be able to adjust his perspective,” he told the Associated Press — but it never happened. Irabu held his ground and forced a trade. To the Yankees he went in a six-player trade headlined by Rivera. One month later Irabu signed a four-year, $12.8 million contract. Here are the full trade details:

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

Following a brief minor-league tune-up, Irabu joined the Yankees in July 1997 and was very good his first time out, holding the Tigers to two runs in 6 2/3 innings. He struck out nine.

The wheels fell off after that. Irabu allowed 42 runs in his next 37 1/3 innings and was demoted to the bullpen in September. He finished his rookie MLB season — his age-28 season — with a 7.09 ERA in 53 1/3 innings spread across nine starts and four relief appearances. He did not pitch in the postseason that year.

Irabu had his best season as a big leaguer in 1998. He was in New York’s rotation all year and had a 4.06 ERA in 173 innings. That was roughly nine percent better than league average once adjusted for ballpark. Irabu was the club’s No. 5 starter behind David Cone, Orlando Hernandez, Andy Pettitte, and David Wells that year and he did not pitch in the postseason.

Although he was productive in 1998, Irabu was not living up to the hype or his contract, and tensions boiled over early in 1999. He failed to cover first base in back-to-back spring training starts, leading to the late George Steinbrenner calling him a “fat toad.” 

“He looks like a fat, pus-sy [rhymes with fussy] toad out there,” The Boss told the New York Post‘s George King. “That’s not a Yankee. Come on, guys, we are going to meet again (to tell him what we expect).”

Irabu started the 1999 season in the bullpen before shifting back into the rotation in May. He struck out 12 in a complete game win over the Red Sox on July 30, at which point he was sitting on a 3.89 ERA. After that, Irabu pitched to a 6.63 ERA in the final two months, and opponents hit .295/.362/.467 against him. He allowed eight runs in 4 2/3 innings in a postseason mop-up appearance.

As for Rivera, he spent four seasons with the Padres and underwhelmed, hitting .204/.301/.397 in 394 games. He bounced around a bit after that, including returning to the Yankees in 2005 and getting released after stealing Derek Jeter’s glove, and eventually settled in as a star in the Mexican League. Rivera was still active at age 45 in 2019.

Dec. 22, 1999: Yankees trade Irabu for Jake Westbrook

Irabu’s poor performance and general indifference frustrated the Yankees and they made the decision to move on following the 1999 season. They sent him to Montreal for three young pitchers in a move that also cleared a big-league roster spot for prized pitching prospect Ed Yarnall, who never did amount to much.

Here are the trade details:

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

“Hideki came in with a lot of fanfare,” Yankees GM Brian Cashman told the Associated Press at the time. “He wanted us as badly as we wanted him. There were some good times and some tough times as well. We saw those flashes of brilliance that attracted us when he was a free agent coming out of Japan.”

Irabu’s two seasons in Montreal were disastrous. He got hurt and pitched poorly (6.69 ERA in 71 1/3 innings), but did save 16 games with the Rangers in 2002. Irabu returned to Japan in 2003. His tale has a tragic end, sadly. Irabu battled alcoholism and legal problems after his playing career ended, and committed suicide in 2011.

For the Yankees, the trade was about building depth. Lilly and Westbrook spent 2000 as up-and-down depth arms, though Lilly was eventually able to build some staying power. He remained with New York until being sent to the Athletics in the three-team Jeff Weaver trade at the 2002 deadline. That trade doesn’t contribute to the Judge transactions tree but it is worth mentioning.

Westbrook, a former Rockies first-round pick who went to the Expos in the 1997 Mark Lansing trade, allowed 10 runs in 6 2/3 innings spanning three big-league appearances with the Yankees in June 2000. That 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 roster.

June 29, 2000: Yankees trade Westbrook for David Justice

The Yankees won four World Series titles in five years from 1996-2000 and the 2000 team was the weakest of the four. On the day of this trade, they were three games behind the Blue Jays in the AL East and had scored the fifth fewest runs in the American League. New York need another bat and they used Westbrook to get that bat a month before the deadline.

Here is the next trade in the transaction tree:

  • Yankees receive: David Justice
  • Indians receive: Jake Westbrook, Zach Day, and Ricky Ledee

“We’re getting a professional hitter who has been in every postseason but one since 1991,” Cashman told Buster Olney of the New York Times after the trade. “His makeup is built for New York. No question, it’s an upgrade.”

Truth be told, Justice was Plan C for the Yankees. They turned to Justice only after failing to complete trades for Sammy Sosa and Juan Gonzalez. “We had a player who was desirable if they couldn’t pull off a Sammy Sosa or Juan Gonzalez deal. We were waiting in line,” Indians then-GM John Hart told the Associated Press following the Justice trade.

Justice proved to be exactly what the Yankees needed. He went on a three-month rampage in pinstripes, hitting .305/.391/.585 with 20 home runs in 78 games after the trade. He drove in 60 runs. In his signature moment as a Yankee, Justice hit a go-ahead three-run home run against Arthur Rhodes and the Mariners in Game 6 of the ALCS to give the Yankees their third straight pennant.

The Indians made themselves a fine little trade, it should be noted. Westbrook spent nine years with Cleveland as a league average (and oftentimes better) innings-eater before being sent to the Cardinals in the three-team trade that gave the Indians Corey Kluber. Ledee was flipped for David Segui a month after being acquired and Day was used to acquire Milton Bradley the following summer.

Dec. 7, 2001: Yankees trade Justice for Robin Ventura

Justice’s encore with the Yankees did not go quite as well as his 2000 arrival. A nagging groin injury limited Justice to 111 games and saw him hit .241/.333/.430 with 18 home runs in 2001. The club had a void at third base and that led them to Ventura. The one-for-one trade was the first player-for-player Yankees-Mets trade in eight years.

“It was obvious that we had a void to fill at third base in 2002,” Cashman told ESPN following the trade. “It is our belief that Robin — with his left-handed bat and on-base average — was our best option.”  

Ventura was rock solid for the Yankees in 2002, hitting .247/.368/.458 with 27 home runs. He was an upgrade over late career Scott Brosius, who retired the previous offseason, as his lefty power fit well in Yankee Stadium and his Gold Glove caliber defense helped the pitching staff. Ventura was a perfect fit in 2002 the same way Justice was a perfect fit in 2000.

As for Justice, his time with the Mets was brief. He was flipped to the A’s one week later for relievers Mark Guthrie and Tyler Yates. Oakland acquired Justice in part to replace Jason Giambi, who signed with the Yankees as a free agent. “We feel like we’ve got a guy who’s one year removed from being an MVP candidate,” A’s GM Billy Beane told the Associated Press at the time.

July 31, 2003: Yankees trade Ventura for Scott Proctor

Similar to Justice, Ventura’s second season with the Yankees was not nearly as good as his first. He dipped to .251/.344/.392 with nine home runs through 89 games in 2003, which pushed New York back into the third base market. They acquired Aaron Boone at the trade deadline and flipped Ventura to the Dodgers in a related move. Ventura spent the next year and a half with Los Angeles.

Here is the full Ventura trade:

  • Yankees receive: Scott Proctor and Bubba Crosby
  • Dodgers receive: Robin Ventura

“He did a tremendous job as a Yankee. I can’t say enough about what Robin was here for us, and how he was in the clubhouse as well. But the fact of the matter is because of the stage in his career it was likely that we would be looking for a third baseman this winter,” Cashman told the New York Post‘s George King. “I think third base is the most difficult position to fill in the major leagues. When Aaron Boone became available on the market we felt it was one of those rare opportunities and one of those opportunities we couldn’t pass up. It’s not only a deal for next year but upgrades that position significantly at third base this year.”

Boone’s stint in pinstripes was short but memorable. He of course swatted his historic walk-off home run in Game 7 of the ALCS that year, but then he tore up his knee playing basketball in the offseason, leading to the Yankees trading for Alex Rodriguez. You can also draw a straight line from Boone’s time with the Yankees as a player to him being named their manager two years ago.

Crosby and Proctor both spent several years in the Bronx. Crosby was a defense-first fourth outfielder who occasionally started — Cashman famously said Crosby was the team’s center fielder not longer before signing Johnny Damon — while Proctor settled in as a trusted Swiss Army Knife reliever. In his best season, 2006, he had a 3.52 ERA in 83 appearances and 102 1/3 innings.

July 21, 2007: Yankees trade Proctor for Wilson Betemit

Proctor’s effectiveness and durability led to manager Joe Torre using him a lot. A lot. Those 83 appearances and 102 1/3 innings in 2006 were followed by 52 appearances and 54 1/3 innings in the team’s first 103 games in 2007. Proctor’s effectiveness began to wane and things got so bad in June he burned some equipment on the field following a loss. He was trying to erase the bad mojo.

The Yankees had pitching depth that summer but were lacking on the bench, so, prior to the deadline, Cashman sent the overworked Proctor back to the Dodgers in a one-for-one trade with Betemit. “I’m glad Joe put me in as many games he did. It showed he had confidence in me and I have nothing but respect for him. I want to go out and pitch every night if I can,” Proctor told the Associated Press after the trade.

“There are certain guys in my system right now that I have people telling me could replace Scott Proctor,” Cashman told reporters, including Tyler Kepner of the New York Times, following the trade. “And if that’s the case, that’s what made me consider the opportunity for Wilson Betemit. We have needs, there’s no doubt about that. But there’s a belief that some of those needs might very well be met from within.”

Betemit, only 25 at the time, was a former top prospect who had not yet found his way at the MLB level. The Yankees used him as a true bench player behind their star-studded infield (A-Rod, Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano) the next season and a half, during which he hit an underwhelming .253/.286/.425 with 10 homers in 124 games. New York rolled the dice on a talented young player and didn’t work out as hoped.

Proctor pitched well with the Dodgers in 2007 (3.38 ERA in 32 innings) before being hurt and ineffective in 2008 (6.05 ERA in 38 2/3 innings) and missing the entire 2009 season with injury. The Yankees brought him back as a scrap heap pickup late in 2011 and, in his final act on an MLB mound, Proctor allowed Evan Longoria’s walk-off home run in Game 162. The home run combined with the Red Sox’s collapse put the Rays in the postseason.

As for replacing Proctor in the bullpen in 2007, the Yankees called up top prospect Joba Chamberlain in August and he quickly emerged as Rivera’s primary setup man. Chamberlain allowed two runs (one earned) with 34 strikeouts in 24 innings after being summoned.

Nov. 13, 2008: Yankees trade Betemit for Nick Swisher

The Yankees were the most active team in the game during the 2008-09 offseason. They signed CC Sabathia to what was then the richest pitching contract in baseball history. They added A.J. Burnett on a lucrative free agent contract to further bolster the rotation. Cashman then convinced ownership to splurge for Mark Teixeira and signed him out from under the Red Sox.

That busy offseason started in mid-November with the Swisher trade. Swisher had a disappointing 2008 season with the White Sox (.219/.332/.410) and his personality — Swisher’s dial is perpetually turned to 11 — didn’t mix well with a clubhouse that included manager Ozzie Guillen and no nonsense veterans like Paul Konerko and Mark Buehrle. It was a bad fit and the White Sox were ready to move on.

Cashman and the Yankees to happy to oblige. They looked past Swisher’s underwhelming 2008 season and saw a 28-year-old switch-hitter with power and track record of getting on base signed to a team-friendly long-term contract. The Yankees had to replace Bobby Abreu in right field and Jason Giambi at first base that winter. Swisher was versatile enough to fill either role.

“We did our due diligence and engaged our scouts and we believe and are hoping that ’07 and ’06 are more representative of Nick Swisher than ’08. It was a risk we were willing to take,” Cashman told Bill Madden and Anthony McCarron of the New York Daily News following the trade. Here are the full details:

  • Yankees receive: Nick Swisher and Kanekoa Texeira
  • White Sox receive: Wilson Betemit, Jeff Marquez and Jhonny Nunez

The trade has since gone down as one of Cashman’s greatest heists. Swisher hit .249/.371/.498 with 29 homers during a bounce-back 2009 season and was a key contributor to that year’s World Series championship team. In four years as a Yankee, Swisher managed a .268/.367/.483 batting line with 105 homers and 11.9 WAR. They got the A’s version of Swisher, not the White Sox version.

Betemit’s stint with the White Sox lasted less than three months. He was designated for assignment in June after hitting .200/.280/.311 in 20 games. The move cleared a roster spot for top prospect Gordon Beckham. Betemit spent the rest of 2009 in Triple-A before bouncing around other organizations the next few years. Nunez and Marquez combined to throw 6 2/3 innings for Chicago.

Nov. 9, 2012: Swisher rejects $13.3 million qualifying offer

The original five-year, $26.75 million contract Swisher signed with the Athletics in May 2007 expired following the 2012 season, though the Yankees had little to no interest in retaining him. Swisher was now on the wrong side of 30 and the club re-signed Ichiro Suzuki to play right field following his strong work late in 2012.

There was another motivation behind letting Swisher go: a draft pick. The Yankees made Swisher the $13.3 million qualifying offer, which he of course rejected, entitling New York to draft pick compensation should he sign elsewhere. Swisher eventually signed a four-year, $56 million free agent deal with the Indians that didn’t work out at despite a solid 2013 season.

As compensation for losing Swisher, the Yankees received a supplemental first-round pick in the 2013 draft. It was the 32nd overall selection. They also held the 26th overall pick (their natural first rounder) and the 33rd overall pick (compensation for losing Rafael Soriano to free agency). Hiroki Kuroda rejected the qualifying offer as well, though he later re-signed with the Yankees.

“I’m excited about the opportunities we have,” Cashman told Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News after Swisher and Soriano declined the qualifying offer. “I like the fact that we can continue dialogue with everybody that we would like to and still be in a position to gain draft picks as a worst-case scenario, which would benefit our farm system as we move forward.”

June 8, 2013: Yankees draft Aaron Judge

Going into the 2013 draft, Baseball America ranked Judge as the 30th-best prospect in the class. His raw power was obvious, and he hit .369/.461/.655 his junior year at Fresno State, but concerns about his long levers and swings and misses — Judge struck out 53 times in 56 games as a junior, a very high total for a first-round draft prospect — pushed him down draft boards.

Here is a snippet of Baseball America‘s predraft scouting report:

Judge puts on jaw-dropping batting practice displays, but some scouts worry that his power won’t translate to games … Judge profiles as a .250 hitter and is going to strike out a lot, which comes with the territory for tall power hitters with long arms. A team can live with the strikeouts if he hits 30-plus home runs a year. While his swing is more about strength and leverage than bat speed, he has light-tower power. Judge is a solid-average runner with an above-average arm and will be a solid defender in right field.

The Yankees used their natural first round pick, the 26th overall selection, on Notre Dame third baseman Eric Jagielo. Jagielo was later sent to the Reds in the first Aroldis Chapman trade. The Yankees used their next pick, the 32nd overall selection and the Swisher compensation pick, on Judge. Judge was among the prospects in attendance at the MLB Network studios on draft day.

“I was hoping,” Judge said during the draft broadcast. “Everyone wants to be a Yankee, so I was happy to hear my name called.”  

“Aaron Judge is a big man, and obviously a great-bodied athlete who has a high upside,” Yankees amateur scouting director Damon Oppenheimer said in a statement following the draft. “He can run, he has a good work ethic, he can throw and has the potential to be a five-tool guy with some size and strength.”

Because he’s so big and had to work hard to refine his swing, Judge’s climb up the minors was slower than the typical college first-round pick. He split 2014 between two Single-A levels, 2015 between Double-A and Triple-A, and he opened 2016 back in Triple-A before making his MLB debut in August. He’s been New York’s full-time right fielder and one of the game’s most productive players since. Judge is 17th in WAR (19.1) despite being 151st in games played (396) since Opening Day 2016.

The transactions tree that landed Judge in pinstripes started with another top outfield prospect way back in 1990. It took nearly three decades to go from Rivera to Irabu to Westbrook to Justice to Ventura to Proctor to Betemit to Swisher to Judge, and an awful lot happened along the way (Justice’s heroics, a rare Yankees-Mets trade, Boone’s homer, etc.). This tree could end with Judge if he retires as a Yankee, or it keep going long after he retires. Either way, it’s been eventful, and the story is not yet close to ending.





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