How Ruben Rivera helped Yankees get Aaron Judge

October 5th, 2022

Editor's note: A version of this story originally ran in 2020.

On the day that Patty and Wayne Judge carried their adopted newborn through the doors of their Linden, Calif., home, "Basic Instinct" was enjoying a four-week run as the nation’s top movie, Kris Kross scored airplay with the top song on the charts and the transaction tree that would install Aaron Judge as the Yankees’ right fielder had already sprouted.

Judge’s New York tale begins with another celebrated outfield prospect. The act of fitting the future 2017 American League Rookie of the Year for pinstripes can be traced to the club’s 1990 signing of Ruben Rivera, a cousin of Mariano Rivera who was once lauded on a magazine cover as “the next Mickey Mantle.”

In a remarkable sequence that spans decades, here is how Rivera connects to Judge, the new AL home run king:

Nov. 21, 1990: A Ruben with everything … or so it seemed
Many fans probably remember Rivera for his ill-conceived decision to swipe and sell one of Derek Jeter’s gloves during Spring Training in 2002, an act that resulted in players voting him off the team, but he was once heralded among the organization’s top hopes for the future.

Signed for $3,500 ($1,500 more than Mariano), Rivera was rated by Baseball America as the game’s second-best prospect in 1995 behind Alex Rodriguez. He made his Major League debut in ’95 at age 21 and batted .281/.377/.438 with two homers and 16 RBIs over 51 games (105 OPS+) with New York from 1995-96.

In hints of things to come, Rivera’s reputation for a lack of maturity dented his once-brilliant potential. That was no issue for Mariano, of course, who discovered his famed cutter and wound up enshrined in both Monument Park and Cooperstown as the game’s all-time saves leader.

April 22, 1997: ‘Express’ delivery
27-year-old Hideki Irabu was lauded as the “Nolan Ryan of Japan” when his team, the Chiba Lotte Marines, sold the hurler’s rights to the Padres in January 1997. San Diego thought they could woo the righty, but Irabu repeatedly insisted that he would never pitch for them, intending to sign only with the Yankees.

George Steinbrenner loved that. The Yanks agreed to acquire Irabu’s rights as part of a six-player deal that also sent infielder Homer Bush and outfielders Gordie Amerson and Vernon Maxwell to New York. San Diego received Rivera, right-hander Rafael Medina and $3 million, and the Bombers swiftly inked Irabu to a four-year, $12.8 million contract.

Irabu was briefly a sensation -- more than 51,000 packed Yankee Stadium for his debut on July 10, 1997, with 35 million said to be watching on television in Japan -- but his Yanks tenure is best remembered for Steinbrenner’s verbal explosion following a 1999 Spring Training game, when Irabu was slow to cover first base and was called a “fat … toad” by The Boss.

Over three seasons in New York, Irabu went 29-20 with a 4.80 ERA (89 ERA+) in 74 games (64 starts).

"Hideki came in with a lot of fanfare," general manager Brian Cashman said 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."

Dec. 22, 1999: Dealing hurlers
With the signing deemed unsuccessful, Irabu was sent to the Expos in exchange for right-hander Jake Westbrook -- a first-round pick of the Rockies in 1996 -- and two players that were named later, left-hander Ted Lilly and right-hander Christian Parker.

The idea, as Cashman said at the time, was to give Ed Yarnall an opportunity to be the Yanks’ fifth starter. That didn’t work out, but Lilly spent three years in pinstripes, going 8-12 with a 4.65 ERA (97 ERA+) in 49 games (32 starts). Parker appeared in just one big league game, allowing seven runs over three-plus innings to the Blue Jays on April 6, 2001.

Meanwhile, Westbrook -- a future All-Star with Cleveland -- was 0-2 with a 13.50 ERA in three games (two starts) for the Yanks early in the 2000 season, unable to complete three innings in either of his starts and pitching to a 4.65 ERA at Triple-A Columbus.

June 29, 2000: Justice is served
Seeking a big bat to bolster the postseason drive, Cashman was flirting with the Cubs about Sammy Sosa and the Tigers about Juan Gonzalez when a third option surfaced -- 34-year-old slugger David Justice, who had belted 21 homers with 58 RBIs to that point for Cleveland.

Pitching-starved Cleveland liked Westbrook, considering him the anchor of a swap that also included right-handed prospect Zach Day and outfielder Ricky Ledee.

''I'm like everyone else; we all thought Juan Gonzalez or Sammy Sosa was coming here,'' Justice said at the time. ''I just never thought because of the rivalry between Cleveland and the Yankees that I would ever cross over here.''

Justice hit .305/.391/.585 with 20 homers and 60 RBIs (145 OPS+) in 78 games for the Yanks in 2000, earning honors as the American League Championship Series MVP against the Mariners. In 2001, Justice served mostly as a DH for Joe Torre’s squad, batting .241/.333/.430 with 18 homers and 51 RBIs (99 OPS+) in 111 games.

Dec. 7, 2001: Crosstown traffic
Swaps between the Mets and Yankees have been rare, but Cashman and Queens GM counterpart Steve Phillips believed they could solve each others’ problems in the winter of 2001, agreeing to just the 11th player transaction between the teams and -- to date -- the most significant in terms of player value.

The Yanks were shopping Justice that offseason, aiming to be rid of his $7 million salary for 2002, and they were close to finalizing a trade with the A’s. However, Scott Brosius’ retirement created a vacancy at third base, and even coming off a down year, six-time Gold Glove Award winner Robin Ventura made sense.

"It was obvious that we had a void to fill at third base in 2002," Cashman said at the time. "It is our belief that Robin -- with his left-handed bat and on-base average -- was our best option."

Justice never suited up for the Mets, who shipped him to Oakland one week later for pitchers Mark Guthrie and Tyler Yates. It marked the first intra-city trade since Sept. 17, 1993, when the Mets dealt left-hander Frank Tanana to the Yanks for right-hander Kenny Greer.

July 31, 2003: Robin and a bat, man
Ventura enjoyed some success in his return to the AL, making the All-Star team in 2002 as he batted .247/.368/.458 with 27 homers and 93 RBIs (119 OPS+) at the hot corner. That power was largely absent in ’03, prompting the Yanks to swap him to the Dodgers for outfielder Bubba Crosby and right-hander Scott Proctor.

Crosby hit .223 in 196 games from 2004-06 and is frequently remembered for the brief period when he was penciled in as the starting center fielder, prior to Johnny Damon’s ’06 arrival. With Ventura bound for the West Coast, Cashman made another move that day, acquiring third baseman Aaron Boone and left-handed reliever Gabe White from the Reds for two prospects and cash.

Boone didn’t immediately upgrade the offense, but he etched his name into franchise lore by homering off Tim Wakefield of the Red Sox to end Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. Without that homer, would Boone have been offered the opportunity to manage the club 15 years later? And if Boone hadn’t blown out his knee playing basketball after ’03, would A-Rod have ever been a Yankee? Things to ponder.

July 21, 2007: Proctor and a gamble
Proctor became a favored bullpen choice for Torre, particularly in 2006, when he led the AL with 83 appearances while posting a 3.52 ERA (129 ERA+). Proctor worked to a 3.81 ERA (119 ERA+) through 52 appearances in 2007 when the Yankees dealt him to the Dodgers for infielder Wilson Betemit, seeking punch for a shorthanded bench.

At the time of the deal, Cashman lauded Betemit’s flexibility, citing his age (25) and ability to play shortstop, third base and second base. Proctor was thought to be expendable considering a crop of young pitching on its way to the big leagues, including fireballing right-hander Joba Chamberlain, who had recently been shifted to a bullpen role in the farm system.

“We have some young arms," Cashman said at the time. "Some of them are transitioning from the rotation to the 'pen down there, and others are ready to knock on the door and push their way up here at the same time. We just feel that some of these guys have earned the shot."

Nov. 13, 2008: Number crunching
Betemit did not prove to be the potent contributor that had been envisioned, hitting .253/.286/.425 with 10 homers and 49 RBIs in 124 games (84 OPS+) for the Yanks from 2007-08. As they considered avenues to upgrade, director of quantitative analysis Michael Fishman lobbied strongly for , who was coming off a disastrous season with the White Sox.

As Fishman noted, Swisher had produced the third-lowest batting average on balls in play in the Majors during the ’08 season (.249), while his line-drive percentage (21.2) and hard-hit percentage (30.8) essentially mirrored what he had done during three productive years in Oakland.

Convinced that Swisher had experienced a drop in luck rather than talent, the Yanks dealt Betemit, right-hander Jeff Marquez and right-hander Jhonny Nunez to Chicago for Swisher and right-hander Kanekoa Texeira.

“I was literally going from having the worst season of my career professionally, and personally, I had a tough year as well,” Swisher recalled in 2017. “[Cashman] said, ‘I don’t care what kind of a season you had this past year, we know that you are going to have an amazing turnaround season. We know you are going to be successful.’”

Nov. 9, 2012: Swisher’s sweets

At the time of the trade, Swisher was envisioned as the starting first baseman. That changed when Mark Teixeira agreed to an eight-year, $180 million contract in December 2008, and soon Swisher took over as the starting right fielder, the beginning of a strong love affair with the Yanks’ fan base.

Swisher’s energetic personality spiced up a clubhouse that had grown stale, and his switch-hitting stroke offered balance to a powerhouse lineup that opened the new Stadium with a World Series title in 2009. He batted .268/.367/.483 with 105 home runs and 349 RBIs (124 OPS+) in New York from 2009-12, including an All-Star selection in 2010.

The Yankees extended a $13.3 million qualifying offer to Swisher following the ’12 season, ensuring that they would be entitled to a compensatory Draft selection if he signed elsewhere, as expected. Swisher agreed to a four-year, $56 million contract with Cleveland, and the Yanks were assigned the 32nd overall selection in the 2013 MLB Draft.

"I'm excited about the opportunities we have," Cashman said then. "I like the fact that we can … 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: Here comes the Judge

The Yankees used their first selection in the 2013 Draft on Notre Dame third baseman Eric Jagielo, and seven picks later, they were back on the clock. Commissioner Bud Selig cradled the podium in MLB Network’s Studio 42, announcing that the Yankees had selected “Aaron Judge, a center fielder from Fresno State University in Fresno, Calif.”

According to Damon Oppenheimer, the Yankees’ vice president of domestic amateur scouting, there had been debate within their war room between Jagielo -- a more conventional pick with a nice left-handed stroke -- and Judge, who boasted massive power potential but seemed to be a less polished product.

They believed that Judge (who was rated No. 24 on MLB Pipeline's Top 100 2013 Draft Prospects) might still appear on the board at No. 32, but felt certain that Jagielo wouldn’t make it that far. Oppenheimer gambled and got them both.

“The funny thing is, moments before that pick, I actually almost got up and went to the bathroom,” Judge said in 2018. “I kind of had an idea of where I was going to go, so I figured I'd go to the bathroom here in the next couple picks, then come back and hopefully get drafted. Right before I stood up to go to the bathroom, they said, ‘With the 32nd pick, the Yankees take Aaron Judge.’ It took me by surprise.”

Judge homered in his first Major League at-bat in 2016, going back-to-back with fellow newcomer Tyler Austin, then paced the AL in homers (52), runs (128) and walks (127) in ’17 to earn unanimous selection as the AL’s Rookie of the Year. The runner-up in the MVP race to the Astros’ José Altuve, Judge’s remarkable rookie year also saw him win the Home Run Derby that July at Miami’s Marlins Park.

The “Judge’s Chambers” seating area was erected as a Yankee Stadium attraction in May 2017, and he reached another echelon in 2022, putting together his most complete season, which could very well end in an AL MVP Award. Considering Judge’s standing as one of baseball’s most recognizable stars, there isn’t likely to be another update to this transaction tree for quite some time.