Yankees: Revisiting the Time Mariano Rivera Was Almost Traded to Detroit
By Adam Weinrib
The Yankees nearly traded Mariano Rivera to the Detroit Tigers in 1995 for a familiar face.
Even the most bitter, biased Yankee fan has to admit, after a moment of cool, inward reflection: there is no dynasty without Mariano Rivera.
If George Steinbrenner had given up on Mo too soon, the shaky, sweaty ninth innings patented by John Wetteland in 1996 probably would’ve lasted another year before his inevitable further regression, and the 1998 Yankees — the greatest team of all time, otherwise — probably would’ve been without a closer. Usually not a recipe for success.
As it turns out, the length of Mo’s tenure in pinstripes wasn’t all based on skill, either — there was a little bit of luck involved at every step. His signature fastball didn’t develop overnight into his patented cutter until it was almost too late, and Big Stein almost pulled the trigger on a Rivera deal a few separate times, looking for marginal upgrades in a state of panic.
Notably, Mo almost went to Detroit in 1995 — in exchange for David Wells.
Not always, but occasionally, GMs Gene “Stick” Michael, Bob Watson, and Brian Cashman were able to overrule Steinbrenner during his moments of weakness. Luckily, whenever Michael defended a prized prospect during the early 1990s, it always seemed to work out: Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte, and Mo all survived the rumor mill.
Of those men, Michael got closest to pulling the trigger on Rivera. As detailed in Bill Pennington’s book “Champs to Chumps,” a Rivera-for-David Wells trade was all but set in the summer of 1995 for the stretch run. Rivera’s recent big league tenure had ended in disaster, and he was mired at Triple-A Columbus, battling injuries. Detroit wanted to verify the injury wasn’t serious before Michael held their feet to the fire, and in Michael’s independent attempt to verify, he encountered stunning radar gun readings from the kid’s most recent start. His velocity, in the nick of time, had hopped five MPH.
Michael couldn’t believe it. He checked, re-checked, synthesized the data, confirmed it, and called his manager Buck Showalter instead, bringing Rivera back to the Bronx. No deal. Sorry, Detroit. Guess Wells will never be a Yankee now.
During the stretch run in ’95, Rivera showed flashes of his future self, and threw 5.1 innings of shutout, eight-strikeout baseball in a gutting five-game ALDS loss to Seattle. He was the series’ breakout performer, setting up his title-winning 1996 season.
Sometimes, the best trades are the ones you don’t make. And sometimes, the other half of the deal ends up in your city anyway. Win-win to the extreme.