It’s our penultimate edition of our countdown and starting with number five, we have nothing but Hall of Fame ballplayers the rest of the way.
6. David Cone. New York Yankees. WAR: 61.6
The Lou Brock-for-Ernie Broglio trade might be the most famous example of a lopsided trade, but the Royals sending David Cone to the Mets for catcher Ed Hearn was far worse. Cone might not be in the Hall of Fame, but he has a better career WAR total than Brock by a lot.
The Royals took David Cone in the third round of the 1981 Draft out of high school in right in Kansas City. His trip through the minor leagues was slowed by a torn ACL in Spring Training in 1983 that caused him to miss that entire season. He finally made the majors in June of 1986 and he pitched 11 games out of the bullpen that year.
KC was just a year removed from their World Series-title winning team that offseason and they strongly felt that they needed an upgrade behind the plate, sending Cone to the defending World Series champion Mets for promising young catcher Ed Hearn. Hearn suffered a shoulder injury and only played 13 games for the Royals over the next two years before retiring. Cone impressed the Mets so much that he made the team out of Spring Training. Injuries and Dwight Gooden heading to rehab meant that Cone was promoted to the rotation by the end of May. But a month later, he broke his finger while bunting and didn’t return until August.
Cone came back in 1988 and he had became the new ace of the Mets staff. He went 20-3 wit a 2.22 ERA. He made the All-Star game and finished third in Cy Young Award balloting. The Mets won the NL East, but were upset by the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series.
Cone only won 14 games in each of the next three seasons in Queens, but that had more to do with a drop-off in offensive support than Cone pitching poorly. He led the NL in strikeouts in 1990 and 1991. Cone had a mid-90s fastball when he was young, but he was best known for a wide assortment of breaking pitches that he could throw from pretty much any arm angle.
Cone made his second All-Star Game in 1992, but he was also becoming known for a hard-partying reputation. There were some truly heinous accusations (you can look them up) leveled at Cone during this period and while all of them were dismissed eventually, it made Cone regular tabloid fodder. The fact that Cone had always been on the best of terms with the media (he had actually wanted to be a sportswriter and not a ballplayer when he was young) kept things from being worse.
All of this, combined with Cone’s impending free agency and the fact that the 1992 Mets were famously dubbed “The Worst Team Money Could Buy,” led to a trade to Toronto in August for rookie Jeff Kent. Cone pitched in eight games for the Blue Jays down the stretch. He started two games in the ALCS and two more in the World Series as Cone won the first of his five World Series rings in Toronto.
Cone returned to Kansas City as a free agent for the 1993 season. He was good that year, but even better in 1994 when he went 16-5 with a 2.94 ERA for the Royals. Cone was named the AL Cy Young Award winner that year.
That was the year that ended early because of the strike, of course. Cone was a respected team leader and was known for being good on camera and on good terms with the press. That led Cone to being named the American League player representative and perhaps the most public face of the strike among the players. Cone was involved in all of the negotiations and was also involved in lobbying Congress to get MLB’s antitrust exemption revoked.
None of Cone’s union activities made him popular in Kansas City and while it wasn’t the only reason he was traded back to Toronto when Spring Training re-opened in 1995, it certainly was one of the reasons.
The Blue Jays traded Cone to the Yankees at the trade deadline in 1995. Cone re-signed with the Yankees for 1996 but missed much of that season after he was discovered to have a life-threatening aneurysm in his shoulder. But he returned after surgery in September and made one start in each postseason series as the Yankees won the first of their four titles in five seasons.
Cone was a major factor in the Yankees success over the next three seasons, making the All-Star Game in 1997 and 1999. Also, on July 18, 1999, David Cone threw the third perfect game in Yankees history.
Age caught up to Cone in 2000 and he had the worst season of his career, although the Yankees won the World Series again and he got his fifth ring. Cone signed with the Red Sox as a free agent for the 2001 season, but while he was better than he was the year before, he wasn’t great and he missed time dealing with a shoulder injury.
Cone sat out the 2002 season when he didn’t get an offer he liked. He attempted a comeback with the Mets in 2003 but retired at the end of May when he realized his body just couldn’t handle it anymore.
Cone went 194-126 with a 3.46 ERA over 17 seasons. He fell off the Hall of Fame ballot after one year, but he honestly has a better case for Cooperstown than Jack Morris. Maybe if those Mets teams of the early-90s had scored a few more runs, Cone would have won over 200 games and he’d be a more serious candidate.
The media-savvy Cone was always considered a natural for the broadcast booth. He called some Yankees games during his year off in 2002 and returned to calling Yankees games in 2008. He took 2010 off, but otherwise has been calling Yankees games since then.
5. Dennis Eckersley, Boston Red Sox. WAR: 67.5
“Eck” had two careers. In the first half, he was a pretty good starting pitcher. He won 20 games once and was named an All-Star twice. Then he started the slow descent into mediocrity that many pitchers undergo in their early 30’s. That was when Eckersley moved to the bullpen and he became one of the greatest relief pitchers of all-time.
Dennis Eckersley was a third-round pick of the Cleveland Indians in the 1972 MLB Draft. The right-hander made his his major-league debut in April of 1975 and he had three good years in Cleveland and was named an All-Star in 1977. He threw a no-hitter against the Angels in May of that year. Eckersley had a very high leg kick and a 3/4 delivery and threw a fastball, slider and curve.
Eckersley was traded to Boston after the 1977 season (See the entry on Rick Manning). He won 20 games for the only time in his career with a 2.99 ERA his first season in Boston. That was the year the Red Sox blew a mid-August nine-game lead over the Yankees, but Eckersley was 10-6 with a 2.62 ERA in the second-half. He also won all of his final four starts.
Eckersley won 17 games in 1979 with another ERA of 2.99. But after that, Eckersley began to suffer shoulder problems. He was also prone to giving up home runs, which isn’t ideal for Fenway Park. He had an ERA over 4 in 1980 and 1981. He had a comeback of sorts in 1982 and made his second All-Star Game. But he struggled in 1983 and finished with a record of 9-13 and an ERA of 5.61.
The next season, 1984, didn’t start any better for Eckersley. But he got a second chance when the Red Sox traded him to the Cubs for Bill Buckner in May. Eckersley pitched well for the Cubs, going 10-8 with a 3.03 ERA in 24 starts, as they won the NL East for the first time. Unfortunately, with the chance to send the Cubs to the World Series for the first time since 1945, Eckersley gave up five runs in 5.1 innings and took the loss in Game 3. I don’t want to talk about what happened after that.
Like every other starting pitcher for the Cubs in 1985, Eckersley was injured in 1985. He did pitch well when he was on the mound. But he followed that up with another injury-filled campaign in 1986 when he didn’t pitch well, going 6-11 with a 4.57 ERA.
Eckersley compounded the issues with his shoulder by drinking a lot. Eckersley had always had a problem with alcohol but it got so bad near the end of his time in Chicago that he was finally forced to admit he had a problem and seek treatment.
The Cubs dealt the now-sober Eckersley to Oakland for three minor leaguers who never played in the majors. The Athletics didn’t have any room in their starting rotation, so manager Tony La Russa put him in the bullpen. In mid-May, stopper Jay Howell came down with an arm injury and Eckersley moved into the saves role. But in order to protect Eckersley’s oft-injured shoulder, La Russa decided to only have Eck pitch the ninth inning. Before this time, the bullpen pitcher designated to get most of the saves would enter the game anytime after the sixth inning. But La Russa had a deep bullpen and set up a system where Rick Honeycutt would usually pitch the eighth inning and Eckersley would pitch the ninth. The modern baseball closer was born.
Eckersley dumped every pitch but his fastball and slider in the bullpen. Freed from having to pitch more than one inning, his slider, coming from almost a sidearm arm slot, became one of the most devastating pitches in the game.
In 1988, Eckersley went 4-2 with a 2.35 ERA and a league-leading 45 saves. He finished second in Cy Young Award balloting. Of course, the season ended poorly with the Kirk Gibson home run, but things got better in 1989 when the A’s won the World Series. Eck saved 33 games that year and had an ERA of 1.91.
Eckersley had the best season of his career as a reliever in 1990. He was practically unhittable all season. He saved 48 games and had an ERA of 0.61. He walked only four batters in 73⅓ innings that year and one of those was intentional. But once again, the heavily-favored A’s fell to the Reds in the World Series.
Eckersley saved a career-high 51 games in 1992 and won both the Cy Young Award and the MVP Award. The MVP Award was rather silly—there were several position players who made more of an impact that season—but this was the era of the cult of the save statistic. Still, Eckersley was very, very good that year as well.
The A’s “Bash Brothers” dynasty was over well before the strike of 1994 and with Oakland going nowhere, they dealt Eckersley to the Cardinals (and La Russa) for the 1996 season. He had two more solid years as a closer in St. Louis. He returned to Boston for one more go-round in 1998, but at age 43, he wasn’t very good and he retired after the season.
Over his career, Eckersley went 197-171 with 390 saves and a 3.50 ERA. He was a six-time All-Star and was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
Eckersley started broadcasting Red Sox games in 2003 as a part-time fill in for regular color commentator Jerry Remy. He’s gradually increased the number of games he’s called over the years as Remy has cut back on his workload over the past decade. Just like when he was a player, he’s become known for his blunt honesty, which has gotten him into a running feud with Red Sox pitcher David Price.
4. Jim Palmer. Baltimore Orioles. WAR: 67.5
Jim Palmer pitched for the Baltimore Orioles from 1965 to 1984. Since moving to Baltimore in 1954, the Orioles have played in six World Series and won three of them. Palmer pitched in all six of those World Series. They haven’t been back since he retired.
The Orioles signed Palmer out of Scottsdale High School in Arizona in 1963. He only pitched 29 games in the minor leagues before he made his major league debut in April of 1965 at the age of 19. He mostly pitched out of the bullpen his rookie year but was moved to the rotation for 1966. It was a wise move as he went 15-10 with a 3.46 and the Orioles won their first AL pennant. In game 2 of the World Series, Palmer threw a four-hit shutout against the Dodgers and Sandy Koufax. It was the final game of Koufax’s career. The Orioles swept Los Angeles in four games and the Dodgers didn’t score a single run after the third inning of Game 1.
The future looked bright for Palmer, but after a good start to the 1967 season, he came down with arm problems. He missed most of that year and all of 1968 after undergoing shoulder surgery. He did make some minor league starts in 1968, but he wasn’t any good and never war recalled to the majors. The Orioles left Palmer unprotected in the expansion draft in 1968 and both the Royals and Pilots passed on him.
In that 1968 season, the Orioles hired Earl Weaver as their new manager. Weaver put Palmer back in the rotation and he responded with a 16-4 record and a 2.34 ERA for the 1969 season. The Orioles won the AL East in the first season of divisional play and easily dispatched the Twins in the ALCS. But despite being heavily favored in the Series, the Orioles fell to the “Miracle Mets” in five games.
Palmer and Weaver did not like each other and said so publicly in the course of their careers. Palmer said the only thing Earl Weaver knew about a curve ball is that he couldn’t hit one and Weaver often criticized Palmer in the press as well. But both men knew that they needed the other one to win and they put aside their differences for the sake of the team.
The Orioles won the World Series in 1970 and lost to the Pirates in 1971. In the eight seasons from 1970 to 1977, Palmer won 20 games seven times. (He struggled with injuries in 1974 and only won seven games.) Palmer made six All-Star Games and won three Cy Young Awards. He finished second in MVP balloting in 1973.
As a pitcher, Palmer was a rarity. He was a right-handed pitcher who didn’t strike out very many, didn’t walk many. Instead, he relied on the terrific defense that Weaver put on the field when he pitched. He also didn’t allow many home runs and in the nearly 4000 innings he pitched in his career, he did not allow a single grand slam, nor did he ever allow back-to-back home runs.
The Orioles won the AL East in 1973 and 1974, but fell to Oakland in the ALCS both times. In 1979 the Orioles returned to the World Series, but Palmer made two trips to the disabled list that year with arm soreness. No longer the team ace, Palmer did make two starts in the World Series, but the Orioles lost both games and the Series to the Pirates in seven. Truth be told, Palmer didn’t pitch poorly with a 3.60 ERA, but the Pirates were simply better.
Palmer had one last good season in 1982, going 15-5 with a 3.13 ERA and finishing second in Cy Young Award balloting.
Weaver retired after the 1982 season and the Orioles won their third World Series that year. But it wasn’t because of Palmer, who was injured most of the year and was bumped out of the starting rotation for the postseason. However, Palmer did pitch two innings of scoreless relief in Game 3 and got the win. Palmer is still the only pitcher in MLB history to win a World Series game in three different decades.
Palmer pitched poorly in 1984 and the Orioles released him in May. Not wanting to pitch for another team, he retired. Palmer did attempt a comeback in 1991 at the age of 46, but he got shelled in his first Spring Training game and realized the futility of it. He also said he tore his hamstring during the game.
When Palmer was playing, he was a celebrity outside of the baseball world thanks in large part to a series of underwear ads that made him a sex symbol of the 1970s and 1980s.
Over the course of his career, Palmer went 268-152 with a 2.86 ERA over 19 seasons, all with Baltimore. He was a six-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove Award winner. He won the Cy Young Award three times and was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
Well-spoken and with his centerfold looks, Palmer was a natural for broadcasting. Even while he was still active, he worked as a color analyst in playoff games when the Orioles weren’t playing. He been an Orioles broadcaster for 27 years, Just as he did as a player, Palmer is not afraid to speak his mind in the booth and O’s fans seem to like that.