Five Questions: New York Yankees

If not for Aaron Boone’s pennant-winning home run and the comeback that preceded it, the Yankees’ 2003 season would have been eminently forgettable, at least by their standards. The enduring memory of the season before Boone’s blast was Roger Clemens’ 300th victory, the excitement of which was diminished by three weeks of anticipation and three prior failed attempts. The Yankees had a very good season, winning the division and pennant over a very good Boston team despite injuries to some of their most important players, but measured against expectations and their storied history, 2003 was at best a letdown, and at worst a failure.

To George Steinbrenner, it was a failure, and the Yankees spent liberally this past offseason to make their team better. They signed Gary Sheffield, Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill; traded for Javier Vazquez, Kevin Brown and Alex Rodriguez. They didn’t make these moves because they’re greedy or megalomaniacal, they made them because they want to win, and making those moves gives them a better chance to win. They’re not entitled to victory, but they have just as much right to try and win as every other team. The problem with the system isn’t that the Yankees are allowed to make these moves and take their payroll this high, but that other teams aren’t able to.

But despite their massive payroll, the Yankees are no lock to win the World Series in 2004. Sports, and baseball in particular, are inherently unpredictable in small samples. It’s hard enough to predict who’s going to win a postseason series in October; to predict who’s going to win in March is foolish. But more than that, money doesn’t guarantee success. How you spend the money is more important than how much of it you spend.

In 2001, a small-market/high-payroll team won the Series; in 2002, a large-market/mid-sized-payroll team won, and last season, a mid-sized-market/low-payroll team finished on top. Any team can win the World Series if they make intelligent personnel decisions, stay healthy, and if the in-game breaks go their way. All we know about the Yankees going into 2004 is that they’re probably going to win a lot of games. But how they’ll do in the postseason — or if they’ll even get there — well, that’s up to the fates, and they’re not for sale.

1) Can the Yankees stay healthy?

Strictly speaking, every player is an injury risk, so any team could be brought down by injuries. But of course, there are riskier players than others, and the Yankees appear to have cornered the market on risky stars.

Newcomers Kevin Brown and Tom Gordon have a long history of injuries; Bernie Williams, Jason Giambi, Steve Karsay and Jon Lieber are all coming off of surgery; Jose Contreras, Mariano Rivera, Kenny Lofton and Derek Jeter seem likely to suffer a series of nagging injuries throughout the season, and Javier Vazquez has been worked hard in Montreal. And while they haven’t been slowed by injuries yet, the ages of Mike Mussina, Paul Quantrill, Gary Sheffield and Jorge Posada make them riskier than in past seasons.

The Yankees might not limp through 2004 like they limped through 2003, but it’s likely that they’ll be dealing with injuries for much of the season. They have enough talent to survive the temporary loss of one or two players, but if a few players go down for an extended period, the Yankees might have to struggle to make the postseason.

More important is being healthy for the playoffs. The Yankees’ roster has been assembled to win a short series, and a healthy Yankees team could be the team to beat in October. But if they lose one of their top three starters, or one of their big hitters, then the cracks start to show, and they become a very beatable team.

2) Is the Yankees’ pitching too right-handed?

The House That Ruth Built was, shockingly, built with Babe Ruth in mind, having a short right field fence that stayed short as it extended into right-center, before curving around to create a disgustingly deep left-center — Death Valley. Over the years, right field has moved away from home plate and left field has moved closer, but Yankee Stadium is still much more favorable to left-handed power hitters than to righties, and by extension, it’s always been to the Yankees’ advantage to stock up on southpaw pitchers. The Bombers have never won a World Championship without having at least one game started by a lefty, and 1947 was the only season in which they won the title without having a regular lefty starter.

Unless Donovan Osborne suddenly regains his early-’90s form, the Yankees will go through the entire 2004 season without an effective lefty starter. No lefty batter will have to take a day off against the Yankees, and will almost always have the platoon advantage. They could have re-signed either of the two lefties from last season’s rotation, but were tepid in their pursuit of both Andy Pettitte and David Wells– ironically, for health reasons.

Just like sacrificing defense for offense, the Yankees are better on balance with the pitchers they have, but in a short series, giving Trot Nixon and David Ortiz a platoon advantage could be decisive. That makes the two weakest pitchers in the bullpen — Gabe White and Felix Heredia — vital for the Yankees. If they can dominate lefties in the late innings, then not having a lefty starter won’t be as much of a disadvantage.

3) Will Jason Giambi and Bernie Williams rebound from injury-plagued seasons?

Through the 26th of April last season, the Yankees were on fire, and so was Bernie Williams. The Yankees were 20-4, and the media was speculating as to whether 2003 would be a repeat of 1998. Williams, a relatively slow starter (.279 career April GPA), was just as hot, posting a .373 GPA through the first 24 games.

But at some point in late April or early May, Williams tore cartilage in his left knee, and the numbers — already regressing — started to plummet. He went 0-21 before finally going on the DL, and his GPA dropped all the way to .293. When Williams returned, his power had disappeared, his numbers continued to fall, and he finished the season with his lowest GPA since 1993.

Unlike Williams, Giambi started the season miserably, finishing April with a .194 Batting Average and a .243 GPA. Giambi’s numbers got much better in May, and he was Bondsian in June, but suffering from an eye infection early, a bruised hand late, and a knee injury the entire season, Giambi put up his worst numbers since 1998. It was still good enough for fifth best in the American League, and 12th best in baseball, but it wasn’t what the Yankees wanted or expected when they signed him.

Much of the Yankees’ success this season will depend on the performances of Williams and Giambi. They don’t need to put up the great numbers they did in 2002, but if 2003 indicates a steep decline in their future performance, then the Yankees are in trouble.

So far, things haven’t started out that well for Williams and Giambi. Williams is out for all of Spring Training and the very start of the regular season while recovering from an appendectomy, while Giambi reported to camp much slimmer than in seasons past, surrounded by suspicions of past steroid abuse. In neither instance do the questions of spring preclude a successful season, but it’s not helping.

4) Will last season’s foreign imports, Hideki Matsui and Jose Contreras, become star performers?

Last offseason, the Yankees went abroad in search of reinforcement, coming back with Japanese All-Star Hideki Matsui and Cuban ace Jose Contreras. Matsui was expected to add some left-handed power to the lineup, after having hit 50 HR in his final season in Japan. The numbers were expected to drop, of course, but what the Yankees ended up with was a league-average left fielder with doubles power — and one of the most pronounced groundball hitters in baseball, hitting more than two grounders for every fly ball. Godzilla became Groundzilla.

Even more curious than Matsui’s struggles with the forces of gravity was his dramatic turnaround in June. For that one month — and exclusively against National League teams — Matsui started hitting the ball in the air, and more importantly, started hitting it over the fence. But he never repeated that performance, and in no other month did he post a GPA over .260.

The correlation between Matsui hitting the ball in the air in June and hitting well at the same time indicates that his proclivity for hitting ground balls was the source of his problems. While it would be unusual for the 29-year-old Matsui to improve greatly on his first season, it is possible that his mediocre numbers were the result of a correctable flaw in his swing. If that’s the case, and Matsui has corrected it over the offseason, the Yankees might become even more dangerous than anticipated. If it isn’t the case, and June turns out to have been a fluke, then the lineup might be considerably worse.

Contreras, on the other hand, was brought in with 2004 in mind, even though he finished the 2003 season in the rotation. Contreras enters the season as the Yankees’ fourth starter, but has the potential to be an ace. Early in the season, Contreras looked unexceptional, with poor control, a straight fastball and a flat splitter. But when he entered the rotation at the end of the season, he was unhittable, save one dreadful start in Fenway. His dominance wasn’t due to quality of competition, either, as he completely dominated the slugging lineups of Toronto and Chicago in September. His postseason performance was much better than his ERA, which was inflated by one bad inning in the wind of ALCS Game 6, and a poor appearance in relief of David Wells in Game 5 of the World Series.

Nobody knows how Contreras will do in his first full season, but he’s got the potential to be a front-line starter. He strikes guys out, and keeps the ball in the park, though his control will likely keep him from ever being an elite starter. The Yankees should expect good things out of him this year, but they might get something great.

5) Will the Yankees allow loyalty to overcome reason in deciding who plays Shortstop and Center Field?

When Aaron Boone tore his ACL playing basketball in January, the Yankees were left scrambling to fill a hole in the lineup, with few apparent options. Then they called the Texas Rangers, and within days, Alex Rodriguez was a Yankee, much to the disgust of everyone who wasn’t a Yankees fan.

But, to make sure they didn’t maximize the benefit of their blockbuster trade, the Yankees accepted Rodriguez’s offer to move to third base, keeping Derek Jeter at shortstop.

Derek Jeter, the worst defensive shortstop in baseball.

Now, an argument can be made that Jeter would be a worse third baseman than he would be a shortstop, but then Alex Rodriguez might be a terrible third baseman, too. By moving Rodriguez, the Yankees are trading good defense at short and unknown defense at third for terrible defense at short and unknown defense at third. It’s mind-bogglingly stupid.

Turning to the next page of the Book of Stupid, we come to center field. Bernie Williams used to be a good defensive center fielder. He was never deserving of the Gold Gloves he won, but his excellent speed more than made up for his shortcomings elsewhere. As age took his speed, balls that he once caught started to drop, and balls that had once fallen in for singles were rolling past him for doubles and triples. For the past two seasons, Williams has been the worst defensive centerfielder in baseball.

The Yankees seemed to have recognized this, and brought in Kenny Lofton. Lofton isn’t what he used to be, but he’s not nearly as bad as Williams. The problem is, once he’s fully-recovered from his appendectomy, Bernie’s got a real chance of getting his old position back.

With Williams and Jeter at the two most important defensive positions other than catcher, the Yankees will have the worst defense in baseball. Even without those two, the Yankees’ defense is still bad, but much less so. By shifting Jeter to a position where his glove will do less damage, and keeping Williams to at DH (or moving him to left field), the Yankees can make themselves even better, and less vulnerable to a team that puts the ball in play, like the 2002 Angels and 2003 Marlins.

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