Rivals in Exile: Everybody Was Wrongby Ben Jacobs and Larry Mahnken
January 12, 2005
Ben Jacobs: Well, it's settled. The Yankees ended up getting one of the two players everybody had assumed they'd end up getting, and I'm actually pretty happy with that. Of course, we all know how you feel about this series of ridiculously stupid events.
Basically, it comes down to this for me. If you had told me to pick whether the Yankees would have Carlos Beltran and Javier Vazquez -- but no Randy Johnson -- or Johnson instead of Vazquez -- but no Beltran -- I would have opted for the latter in a heartbeat. It's not that Johnson isn't a better pitcher than Vazquez, because he obviously is. It's that he's also a pretty big risk at his age whereas Beltran has almost no risk and is simultaneously a much bigger improvement over Bernie Williams than Johnson is over Vazquez.
The other reason that I'm happy about all of this is that it didn't improve the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in California of the American League West of Major League Baseball. After the Yankees, the Angels may have been the team that was mentioned most often as a potential destination if either Johnson or Beltran changed teams. One worry I had was that if the Yankees didn't get one or both of them, the Angels would.
Since they didn't, things look very good for the Red Sox to reach the playoffs yet again (well, things already looked good, but they look even better). Basically, for the Red Sox to miss the playoffs, the Yankees would need to win the AL East (which they obviously can) and the Angels would need to be better than last year (even though they don't appear to have done much, if anything, to improve) and either all the young players the A's are going to use need to work out or the Rangers need to get quite a bit better. If all that doesn't happen, the only way the Red Sox miss the playoffs is if they suffer a ridiculous number of injuries.
Back to the Yankees, they're obviously a very good team even without Beltran. But, as you frequently lament, they passed on an opportunity to become a truly dominant team. If they had simply decided to pass on Wright and Pavano and find some cheaper options to fill out the rotation around Johnson, Mussina and Brown and also kept Miguel Cairo instead of signing Tony Womack, they would have saved about $15 million. If they had used that money (and the fact that they have a bunch coming off the books in the next couple years) to sign Beltran, they'd have a better offense than last year, a better defense than last year and possibly a better rotation than last year.
Instead, they probably have a better rotation than last year, although Wright and Pavano are anything but sure things and Johnson is old. They also have a terrible defensive outfield, with a truly awful centerfielder flanked by two corner outfielders who both need help, rather than being able to provide help. In addition to that, the lineup is more suspect than last year, with question marks at second base (Womack), center field (Williams), first base (Tino Martinez) and designated hitter (Jason Giambi and Ruben Sierra).
I wouldn't be at all surprised if the Yankees win 100 games yet again. But neither would I be surprised if they "only" win 90-95 because some things go wrong. They are, in my opinion, a team with a very high ceiling, but also one with quite a bit of risk. Beltran would have eliminated a lot of that risk, but the Yankees decided they finally had to draw the line on spending money and I'm glad they did.
I've already talked enough about what I think of Boston's off-season, so I'm not going to get into that again. But whether you think the Yankees have the better team right now or not, this much is obvious: the Red Sox can match up with them just fine. With Beltran, the Yankees would pretty clearly have been the better team on paper. Without him, it's not so clear and even if it is to you, it's certainly not very significant.
It would have been a great race anyway, but now it looks like the Red Sox and Yankees should be in for another very hard-fought race this season, with another pretty good chance of meeting in the ALCS. I can't wait for that Sunday night opener to arrive.
Larry Mahnken: A lot of people misinterpreted what I was saying in my previous article. It's not that the Yankees have necessarily made bad moves this off-season (though Womack and Wright certainly were); it's that they spent an enormous amount of money for a small payoff, when spending that money on Beltran would have given a huge payoff, as well as helping them in the long-term.
How badly Bernie Williams' defense hurt the Yankees is debatable, but it's clear that the impact is sizeable. I'm willing to posit that the difference between Bernie and Beltran next year will be as large as the difference between Vazquez and Johnson will be, or at least it will be close. For the second year in a row, the Yankees chose someone who might help them more in the short term and passed up on someone who could help them long-term.
Extremely irritating to me is that the team spent the off-season "improving their pitching" without even once acknowledging the fact that their defense is a problem. They have touted Tony Womack's defensive ability, but Cairo was better than him, and only a season after they brought in Kenny Lofton to keep Bernie Williams out of center, they're going into Spring Training with nobody who could fill in without hurting the team.
I honestly am starting to believe that the Yankees are really that clueless, that they don't think Bernie is nearly as bad as he is. With the move of Rodriguez to third base last season and the continued insistence on keeping Bernie in center, it's becoming more apparent that the people who are calling the shots on the Yankees are ignorant when it comes to defensive value.
If Beltran was going to cost the Yankees $18 million a year, I could see them passing, but they could have had him for 6 years/$99 million, less than the Mets got him for. The luxury tax implications are irrelevant, since they have to pay that tax no matter who they spend the money on. I would rather have seen them pay for Beltran than Tino, Womack, Wright and Sierra combined. They could have made this work, but their analysis and priorities were screwed up.
Still, I say the Yankees have the edge on Boston next year. I don't expect much of a drop-off from anyone next year except maybe a small net decrease at second (remember, Wilson played for much of the season). I expect A-Rod to be better, Giambi to be better, Tino to be an improvement on Clark and Olerud, Johnson to be a big improvement on Vazquez, Pavano to be no worse than Lieber, and Wright to be as good as or better than Loaiza and Contreras were. I expect Mussina to bounce back big, and Brown to bounce back a little. The bullpen is deeper, and should be fresher in October. I think they have a better team than they did last year, although with more risk. I think the Red Sox are about the same, with much less risk. Over the course of the season that should even out for a close race, but in October I don't think Schilling/Clement/Wells/Arroyo can match Johnson/Mussina/Pavano/whoever.
If the Yankees had Beltran, it wouldn't have even been close, for while I feel that the Yankees will have a better lineup again, Beltran's work on both sides of the ball would have bumped the Yankees up multiple wins. The real impact of that decision won't be felt for the next couple of years, but I'm already feeling enough regret for all of Yankee Nation.
Ben Jacobs and Larry Mahnken are staff writers for The Hardball Times. Ben can be contacted here, Larry can be contacted here.