Five Questions: New York Yankees

Entering the season with the highest payroll in baseball history – indeed, the highest payroll in the history of professional sports – it’s easy to pick the Yankees to win the World Series again. The money always distorts things, as do the names the Yankees have bought – and they have now, unlike in the late 90’s, bought the bulk of their talent.

But there have been many high-paid flops in recent memory, notably the Mets, the Orioles, the Dodgers and the Rangers. The Yankees are spending at a level those teams could scarcely dream of, but it doesn’t make them immune to the mistakes that brought those teams down. The Yankees are old, they are overpaid, and they lack depth.

There are no bargains on the Yankees. Their only cheap players are cheap because they’re replacement-level. They have no truly young players, and there are no prospects ready to help in any meaningful way this season, though maybe a couple can be leveraged into a trade for yet another overvalued player.

Big money doesn’t guarantee success, and the Yankees are perhaps getting less for their money than any team in baseball history. There is clearly a lot of upside to this Yankees team; if everyone repeats their 2004 season in 2005, they’ll win the AL East in a walk, no matter how well things go for the Red Sox. But there’s a lot of risk there, too, perhaps more than any other team in baseball, and far more than a team with a $200 million payroll should ever have.

1. What will Jason Giambi do?

Jason Giambi took steroids. Then Giambi stopped taking steroids. He hurt his knee, a worm took up an unwelcome residence in his abdomen, and a bunch of cells in his pituitary gland decided to multiply really fast. He had the worst season of his career, was generally useless to the team, and in the offseason his reputation was destroyed when the San Francisco Chronicle leaked his testimony about steroid abuse.

While trying to get Giambi to accept a buyout of his contract, the Yankees threatened to make him the “poster boy” for steroid abuse if he didn’t leave. He already is.

But the Yanks are stuck with him, and they’ll need to manage as best they can.

Last year the Yanks got nothing from Giambi, and they didn’t get very much from their DH in general, either. So if the Yankees can get, say, an .800 OPS from Giambi this year, they’ll have gained in that area. Of course, they’re not competing against the 2004 Yankees this year, but the 2005 Red Sox, and considering that repeating the same run production and prevention this year is far more likely to result in 89 wins than 101, they need to outproduce 2004. Getting a strong performance from Giambi would go a long way to reaching that goal, and so far his spring performance has been a good omen.

2. Which Randy Johnson are the Yankees getting?

All apologies to Johan Santana, Randy Johnson was the best pitcher in baseball last season. It says a lot about the ineptitude of the 2004 Diamondbacks that he barely finished over .500, and a lot about how overrated a pitcher’s W-L record is that Roger Clemens completely destroyed him in the Cy Young voting. You can’t blame the Yankees for going hard after him this past offseason

Yeah, they gave up on Javier Vazquez too soon, and they may have been better off with Carlos Beltran instead of Johnson, but when you think you have a chance to acquire a pitcher like Johnson, you do it.

Of course, the Yankees might not have gotten a pitcher like Johnson.

Since going to the National League in 1998, Johnson had a 170 or higher ERA+ every season, save one. That season was 2003, when his ERA ballooned to 4.26 in half a season due to a knee injury, for which he had to have surgery to remove the cartilage. Last season he utilized a new injection treatment to get through the season, and obviously responded excellently. But how long will that treatment work? If it stops working, the Yankees may be stuck with the 2003 version of the Big Unit, or perhaps even worse.

If they get the good version of Johnson, it will be tough to pick against the Yankees in the postseason, unless the rest of their pitching is dreadful. With the bad version, they’ll have to hope that Mike Mussina and Kevin Brown are better than last year, and that Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright aren’t much worse. That’s certainly possible, but it’s a much easier equation with the good version.

3. Can a team win with only two outfielders?

Bernie Williams, the longest-tenured Yankee, has been patrolling centerfield in the Bronx for over a decade. At his peak, his was a very good defensive player, never really worthy of the Gold Gloves he won, but still an asset with the leather. Starting in 2002, he was no longer an asset, but a liability, and a serious one.

The Angels singled the Yankees to death in Game Four of the 2002 ALDS, which should have served as a wakeup call for the team. But they did nothing to help their outfield defense in the offseason, instead adding slugging left fielder Hideki Matsui, whose glovework can charitably be described as “acceptable”. In the 2003 offseason, they brought in Kenny Lofton to supposedly fight Williams for the starting job, but they ended up going with Williams everyday, even sometimes inexplicably starting Lofton at DH with Bernie in center. And their major outfield acquisition that offseason was Gary Sheffield, a poor defensive outfielder whose skill was lessened by an injury to his left shoulder.

This offseason, the Yankees were presented with a golden opportunity to dramatically improve their outfield defense. Beltran is hardly a Gold Glover, but he’s solid in the field, young, and most importantly, much, much better than Williams.

But the Yankees made no effort to sign Beltran, despite being offered a discount by Scott Boras. Instead, they stripped themselves of every viable alternative in center, and did the seemingly impossible: make Williams in centerfield for 162 games the best possible outcome for the team.

Over the long haul of a 162-game season, things will balance out somewhat, and if Williams can hit like he did in 2002 again, he’ll be a net positive for the team. But just like in 2002, a serious flaw like defense can cost you a game in the postseason, where there’s no time for things to balance out.

If Williams gets hurt, then the team is in big, big trouble. Their alternatives in the outfield are Doug Glanville and Bubba Crosby, neither of whom should be anywhere near a contending team, let alone a team with a $200 million payroll. Maybe next season the Yankees will find a viable centerfielder, but they had a grand opportunity to fix the problem for the next several years. Because they didn’t avail themselves of that opportunity, they’ll being watching Williams play doubles fly over his head, triples bounce past him, and singles falling in front of him for at least one more year – and that’s at least two years too many.

4. Tony Womack?!

Okay, that’s not so much a question as it is a statement of incredulity, but it needs to be asked: what were the Yankees thinking?

It’s been obvious that the Yankees needed a second baseman ever since they traded Alfonso Soriano to the Rangers for Alex Rodriguez. They foolishly started Enrique Wilson for over a month before handing the job to Miguel Cairo, who had a surprisingly solid season. However, Cairo’s season was neither great nor likely to be repeated, and if they didn’t find someone better they weren’t likely to get much production for the keystone in 2005.

Instead, they signed Tony Womack for two years and $4 million, grabbing a player who had an even flukier season than Cairo, and a less valuable one at that. But at least he was more expensive.

There is little doubt that the Yankees feel they aren’t weakening themselves with the addition of Womack. They feel that his defense is strong (debatable), his bat is acceptable (laughable), and that his speed adds an important missing element to the offense (probably not). Certainly his double off of Mariano Rivera in Game Seven of the 2001 World Series has disproportionately affected the Yankees’ perception of his playing ability, though it would be a stretch to say that the Yankees decided he was useful just based on that.

Maybe they saw something that nobody else did, but there is nothing in his career that would indicate that he will do anything to help the Yankees. His 2004 season was almost completely batting average-driven, he only gained 42 points of OBP from anything other than hits, and had a comically-low .078 Isolated Power. And even this flukish career season at 34 wasn’t particularly valuable; all he could muster was a .734 OPS, which was still 32 points better than his career high and 53 points above his career average. Without a major change in MLB’s drug testing policy, he’s not likely to be worth very much this year.

Why is this all a big deal? Sure, they grossly overpaid him for two seasons, and passed on some superior options, like Placido Polanco, or even Cairo, but it’s just $2 million a year, which is, ridiculously, less than 1% of the team’s payroll, and they didn’t really do that well there last season, when they won 101 games. They were weak, they still are weak. What’s the problem?

The problem is that the best way to make your team better is not to improve where you’re strong or doing okay, but to improve where you’re weakest, and after centerfield, second base was the position where the Yankees were weakest last season. Their 101 wins were a weak 101, they lost the ALCS to a very strong Boston team, and they will have their hands full fighting them off again this season. They needed to improve, and if anything, they went backwards – at both positions. That’s not just unacceptable for the Yankees, that’s unacceptable for any team given the opportunity to improve that the Yankees were.

5. Will the revamped bullpen be good enough?

The Yankees were killed in 2003 and 2004 by a lack of bullpen depth in the postseason, the first time because they didn’t build a strong enough bullpen, the second time because Joe Torre pitched his best three relievers into the ground in the regular season.

This offseason the team brought in two new relievers to hopefully ease the load: Felix Rodriguez and Mike Stanton. Rodriguez was once a dominant reliever in San Francisco, but has come down to the level of “okay” the past few seasons, something the Yankees hope he stays at for one more year, at least. Stanton was a member of the great Yankee bullpens of the late 90’s, and the team hopes he can pitch something like he did back then, but they’re also hoping he can dominate lefty batters like David Ortiz in much the same way that The Run Fairy, Felix Heredia, didn’t.

Will it be enough? If both of the newcomers give sixty or so solid innings, it should be enough to keep the back of the bullpen strong for the playoffs (though the team should expect some dropoff from both Tom Gordon and Rivera this year). If Steve Karsay can make it through the season healthy this time around it will be a big help, if Tanyon Sturtze’s postseason cromulence is for real it will be a huge help. If somebody falters, the team would do well to give a shot to Colter Bean, a minor league reliever who has done nothing but get batters out in his professional career. Instead, they’re likely to give the fill-in role to someone with a good fastball who has done nothing but give up runs in their professional career instead, hoping to find something there that nobody else ever could.

If it doesn’t work out, it probably won’t kill them. They did almost win the pennant with the group they had last season, and in some areas they’ve improved, and in others they are likely to without having had to do anything.

The team should win again, they should make the playoffs again, and they should be strong contenders for a World Championship again. If they fall apart, it will be because of age and injuries and plain old bad luck, and nobody will scratch their heads why. But the Yankees have only one goal, and it isn’t to not collapse. It’s to win the World Series. To do so, most of these questions will have to be answered in a positive way for them.

And, of course, it still might not be enough.

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