A Series of Ridiculously Stupid Eventsby Larry Mahnken
January 04, 2005
It's been quite the offseason for the Yankees, coming off of a humiliating loss to the Red Sox in the ALCS. They blew their 3-0 lead because... well, it's become fashionable to say they lost because of their starting pitching, but considering that they outpitched Boston in the ALCS, that Boston's starters cost them two games to the Yankees' one, that their lack of a reliable lefty starter and Torre's abuse of his best relievers during the regular season left them unable to close out games, and their lineup suddenly became incapable of getting a clutch hit after their 19-8 romp in Game Three... it's perfectly reasonable to blame the loss on their starting pitching.
Well, that's what the media and fans do; they visualize the story ahead of time, and try to fit what actually happened into it. It's what some of us like to call "lazy analysis". The Yankees struggled to get quality starting pitching all season, so when they lost the ALCS, it was easy enough to blame their starters, and the fact that Kevin Brown (and exiled starter Javier Vazquez) were so terrible in the deciding game made it really easy. It wasn't much different than how the media fawned over the Angels' non-Moneyball style in the 2002 postseason and credited their win to pitching and productive outs, totally missing the fact that the Angels' hitters beat the crap out of every team they encountered that postseason.
The Yankees bought into that, too. Oh, sure, they had a problem in the rotation; it was old, it was fragile, and Javier Vazquez, Jose Contreras and Esteban Loaiza had regressed severely from the previous season. They'd absolutely have to take care of that, so they traded for 41-year-old Randy Johnson and signed Jaret Wright (who had averaged 39 innings over the previous four seasons and has a career ERA of 5.09) and Carl Pavano (and his 4.21 career ERA). Just for good measure, they let their two most valuable starters from the previous season, Jon Lieber and Orlando Hernandez, walk as free agents. Brilliant! The departing trio would cost $22.5 million in 2005 to the newcomers' $33 million, but hey, nice things cost money.
While they were busy solidifying the rotation, they made time to increase their bullpen depth. The first thing they did is re-sign Tanyon Sturtze, who had mastered the repeatable skill of coming into a blowout, giving up a couple of runs, and then having the team come back behind him. He was also pretty good for a few weeks at the end of the season, so his career 5.23 ERA should be of no concern to them, nor should his career 6.13 ERA as a reliever. They made a couple of trades, shipping The Run Fairy, Felix Heredia, across town to the Mets for Mike Stanton, who had been a key cog in the Yankees' late-90's bullpen. However, Stanton's ERA in Shea was a deceptively low 3.16, he had allowed 44% of his inherited runners to score, and lefties had a .796 OPS against him. That was good enough for the Yankees, though, and they eschewed free agent lefty-killer Steve Kline and instead traded Kenny Lofton for righty Felix Rodriguez.
Now, of course, there wasn't much wrong with the lineup, but some tweaking needed to be done. After the injury to Aaron Boone and trade of Alfonso Soriano to Texas for A-Rod, the Yanks had a hole at second base which Enrique Wilson widened, and then Miguel Cairo surprisingly filled. Now, Cairo's season was obviously a fluke, so they'd want to find someone more reliable to fill that hole. They found their man in Tony Womack, whose OPS was 29 points lower than Cairo's in 2004, 11 points lower over his career, and who is 4½ years older, to boot. But he does bring more speed than Cairo, and his .319 career OBP will fit right into the Yankees' leadoff spot. The Yankees expect him to repeat his success from last year, when he scored a whopping 91 runs (a total bested by only 58 other players last season), while batting in front of Larry Walker, Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds -- no mean feat.
They'd need a new first baseman, too, since they have no idea what they're going to get from the deflated Jason Giambi next year. They could have grabbed Richie Sexson or Carlos Delgado, but why settle for a tall freak or a Commie traitor when you can inject some Mystique and Aura in the person of Tino Martinez? Tino makes his triumphant return to the Bronx, where he memorably participated in four World Championships, contributing to victory in one of them, and overshadowing his massive contribution to the team's defeat in 2001 with a dramatic home run off of Byung-Hyun Kim. Martinez should be good for some average offense and solid defense, but most importantly will inspire the Yankees to reach the same heights they did in the late 90's, all for the low price of $3 million.
All that was left to do was to find a replacement centerfielder. Certainly they weren't planning to keep Bernie Williams out there, were they? They can't be that stupid, can they? They do understand he's costing them almost five wins a seasons with his glove, don't they? Right?
Well, apparently not, because it appears that they aren't going to do anything to replace Bernie Williams. They are apparently not going to make an offer to Carlos Beltran, because his asking price is too high. Derek Jeter at $20 million this season is fine, but Carlos Beltran at $17.5 million... pass.
Sure, Beltran's going to be overpaid, but so is Jeter... and Posada, and Brown, Mussina, Karsay, Rivera, Giambi, Martinez and Williams. Oh, and Wright, Pavano and Womack, too -- they would have been better off keeping Lieber and El Duque for $5 million less.
This is where the Yankees draw the line? After several foolish moves that improve the team not a lick, and one blockbuster move that improves them a bit (but probably not as much as everyone expects, and perhaps not at all), they decide that signing Beltran, who embodies an improvement of more than five games right now, and is an investment in the future of the franchise as well, is too much?
What has become of the Yankees, the team that built a dynasty with intelligent moves and sustained it with their millions? They've deluded themselves in to believing things that aren't true, they've bought into their own hype, and they've discarded rational analysis. They didn't win in the 90's because they had chemistry and character and Mystique and Aura; they won because they fielded the best team in baseball.
This isn't the downfall of the Yankees; they still have too much talent for that to happen. But the Yankees are playing Russian Roulette with their personnel decisions. They passed up on Vlad Guerrero last offseason for the aging Gary Sheffield, and they're eschewing Carlos Beltran for a diminished Bernie Williams. They try to fill holes with mediocre players who can't possibly fill them. They're trying to reassemble the Yankees of seasons past, four years after they had to retool because that core was in decline. They keep putting more bullets in the chamber. With $200 million at their disposal for players, it should be impossible for the Yankees to die, but every time they pull the trigger on a decision like the ones they're making this offseason, they pull the trigger on the gun, too.
Larry Mahnken is a staff writer for The Hardball Times, and co-editor of the Replacement Level Yankees Weblog. You can contact him with your comments, questions, romantic propositions and incoherent rantings at DLMahnken@hardballtimes.com.