Bill Madden: Lou Piniella gets screwed by Hall of Fame; Inside Yankees deal for slugger Juan Soto

NEW YORK — The winter meetings in Nashville, Tenn., kicked off with Lou Piniella being screwed and concluded with Juan Soto finally being traded. In between, Shohei Ohtani held everyone hostage and now comes the first-ever head-to-head faceoff between the New York behemoths Yankees and Mets for a premier free agent, in this case Yoshinobu Yamamoto.

As all the baseball folks began gathering at the Opryland Hotel last Sunday, the Hall of Fame announced that the 16-member Contemporary Era Committee had elected former Tigers and Pirates manager Jim Leyland to Cooperstown and that was a good thing because Leyland, who won pennants for the Tigers in 2006 and 2012 and a world championship with the Marlins in 1997, was eminently deserving. But he should have been accompanied by Piniella, whose overall credentials were equally Hall-worthy, and what happened to Sweet Lou was nothing short of a tragedy.

Going into the meeting, the committee members were fully aware that Piniella had missed by a single vote in the previous Contemporary Era election three years ago — and probably semi-aware that, since then, he’d turned 80 and had serious health issues with cancer and a stroke. With the most wins (1,835) of any of the managers (Leyland, Davey Johnson and Cito Gaston) on the ballot and a higher overall winning percentage (.517-.506) than Leyland, and the fact that of the 16 managers ahead of him on the all-time wins list, 12 are already in the Hall of Fame while three others, Bruce Bochy, Dusty Baker and Terry Francona are sure shots for election in the near future, Piniella seemed like a sure shot this time around — especially because the committee members all had three votes.

And yet five of the committee members declined to give any of their three votes to Piniella and he wound up missing out on election to the Hall of Fame by one vote. Again.

The argument you are going to hear against Piniella is that he had only one World Series — in 1990 when his Reds team went wire-to-wire for the National League pennant and then scored one of the biggest World Series upsets in history by sweeping Tony La Russa’s heavily favored 103-win A’s — and I get that, when you consider Joe Torre, one of the members on the committee, had six World Series to his credit.

But even with that, of all the 10 candidates on the ballot only former National League president Bill White got more than five votes and Piniella’s overall resume for 40 years in the game was clearly superior to any of the candidates. As a player, Piniella hit .291 over 18 seasons (the last 11 with the Yankees), was Rookie of the Year with the Royals in 1969, and hit .305 in 44 postseason games and won two world championships with the Yankees, while as a manager he was the only person on the ballot credited with literally saving a franchise

Before Piniella came to Seattle, the Mariners had had only one winning season in their history, but under his direction they achieved their greatest success — to this day — with four postseason appearances in 10 years, including a major league record 116 wins in 2001 — despite constantly being unable to afford to keep their biggest stars, Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Randy Johnson.

The Mariners owners in 1995 had threatened to put the team up for sale after King County voters rejected a proposal to fund a badly-needed new stadium to replace the Kingdome. But after Piniella rallied the Mariners from a 0-2 deficit and defeated the Yankees in the 1995 American League Division Series, the state Legislature reversed course and voted to approve a $384.5 million retractable roof stadium to keep the team from moving.

In 2020, former Mariners CEO John Ellis wrote a letter to the Hall of Fame extolling Piniella’s role in saving the franchise and making baseball relevant in Seattle. “Lou was the right man at the right time to breathe life into an organization, change the culture in the process and make baseball relevant in an entire region of the country,” Ellis wrote. “During his time as manager of the Mariners (1993-2002) home attendance doubled from 1.6 million in 1992 to over 3.2 million in 2000-2002. Without his passion, our wonderful ballpark would never have been built.”

Although he won only the one World Championship, everywhere Piniella went after leaving the Yankees, he immediately turned things around in his first year. His 1990 Reds improved by 16 games before going on to win the World Series. His ’93 Mariners improved by 18 wins. His 2003 Tampa Bay Rays had plus eight wins and in 2004 won 70 games and finished out of last place for the first time in their history. And his 2007 Cubs had plus 19 wins.

“I never had a manager who had the fire Lou had for winning,” said Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr., who played for Piniella with the Mariners from 1993-99. “Lou was one of the best managers of his time, right up there with La Russa, Bobby Cox and Joe Torre.”

Five people on the committee didn’t agree, and that’s a shame on them.

Meanwhile, after two days of inaction and boredom at the winter meetings, the Yankees and Padres shook things up by pulling off the Soto deal as everyone was headed out of town and from the sounds of things, it was Hal Steinbrenner who was the initiator. Yankees GM Brian Cashman had been loath to surrender Michael King or top pitching prospect Drew Thorpe, and knowing how desperate Padres GM A.J. Preller was to move Soto’s estimated $30 million salary, along with the fact there was probably no other team able and willing to give up a front line starter and a No. 1 pitching prospect for a high-priced rental player, he was content to wait it out until the price went down.

But sometime during the week Hal summoned up his “inner George” and ordered Cashman to give up the two pitchers and just make the deal, even though it now means staring down the barrel of Scott Boras and the prospect of another 10-year contract, this one likely well over $400 million, if he wants to re-sign Soto.

The trade for Soto will be minimized, however, if the Yankees are unable to address the top of their rotation after Gerrit Cole — which is why beating out Steve Cohen for Yamamoto would seem to be imperative. If the Yankees fail to land Yamamoto, a logical backup plan would be Jordan Montgomery, who the Rangers are now saying they won’t be able to re-sign because of revenue uncertainty from the potential $100 million RSN default payment by bankrupt Diamond Sports Group.