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Mariano Rivera was Almost a Tiger, Then Almost a Red


New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera earned career save number 600 last night in the Yankees’ 3-2 win at Seattle. In doing so, he became just the second pitcher ever to reach the 600 milestone. In fact, he and Trevor Hoffman, who owns the record for now with 601 saves, are the only two pitchers ever to record as many as 479 saves.

There is no debating Rivera’s status in the game’s history. No player has dominated his role like Rivera has his. The interesting thing is that Rivera’s storied career with the Yankees almost never happened.

In 1995, the Yankees were looking for a starting pitcher and David Wells was having a banner year for the Tigers. Yankees’ GM Gene Michael asked what Detroit would want in return and Rivera’s name was on the list. At the time, Rivera was a starter, typically working in the low-90s with a straight fastball, but with a very good slider and changeup. Word is that while the talks were on-going, Rivera, who had been shelved with shoulder soreness, returned to the mound and had suddenly began reaching 95-96 on the gun. Michael called his Triple-A staff insisting they check their gun, convinced there was a malfunction. When the gun came back good and the speed was corroborated by an opposing scout, Michael nixed the idea of trading Rivera.

That wasn’t the only time that Rivera was nearly dealt, however. The Tigers wound up dealing Wells to the Reds in 1995 for a package centered around C.J. Nitkowski, but that following winter, Wells would be on the move again. A filing from then-reporter Murray Chass (h/t River Ave Blues) says that George Steinbrenner placed a phone call to Reds’ GM Jim Bowden and offered Rivera and catcher Jorge Posada in exchange for Wells. Bowden declined that offer and instead dealt Wells to Baltimore for speedy outfielder Curtis Goodwin.

There is no telling what would have happened if Rivera had been traded to the Tigers, or to the Reds. New York had to wait only one more year to get Wells, who was signed as a free agent following the 1996 season. The Tigers were going nowhere in the mid-90s and Rivera was a starter at that time. Had he played in Detroit, I wonder if he would have ever found his way to the back-end of the bullpen, or ever decided to try the cutter that made him so dominant.

The Reds, on the other hand, had used the Wells acquisition to help propel them to a post-season berth in 1995, but the Goodwin trade was a disaster, especially if they could have landed two of the “Core Four” Yankees. By the time Bowden declined Steinbrenner’s offer, Rivera was getting primed to become a fixture in New York’s bullpen. He would spent the ’96 season setting up for John Wetteland, often throwing the seventh and eighth innings for New York.

600 saves later, the fates of three franchises were altered significantly by two trades that never happened.

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