The Devil’s Advocate: A Major Disasterby Larry Mahnken
April 14, 2005
In New York, playing .500 baseball for anything longer than 2 games is considered a minor – make that major – disaster, and doing it at the start of the season is even worse. The Yankees may have gotten the press off their backs for a day with last night’s strong showing against Curt Schilling and the Red Sox, but with another loss the heat will be right back on.
Of course, a 4-4 record is nothing to be especially concerned with; the Yankees haven’t played 5% of the season yet, and there is reason to expect things to get better. Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield are clearly going to hit better, and it’s unlikely that anyone is going to play significantly worse than they are right now.
The problem is, outside of Rodriguez and Sheffield, there doesn’t seem to be anyone else who is certain to improve. It’s highly probable that some of the other players will step up and play better, but when you take into consideration age, injury history, and even sometimes the fact that the player just doesn’t have a history of success, there’s a lot of risk on this Yankees team, and it is genuinely possible that this team is going to flop, big-time.
A few wins in April could hide that, and you really can’t tell how a team’s season is going to go this early. It won’t be until the All-Star break that we can get a really good reading on how good this Yankees team can be, but so far, the positive signs are practically non-existent.
It didn’t have to be this way, and it should never have been this way. While the Yankees’ front office has consistently achieved its primary objective of fielding a championship-caliber team, it has totally failed to exploit the team’s enormous payroll advantage. The Yankees have a payroll over $200 million, and for that much money they should be fielding a legitimate All-Star team – not players who’ve played in past All-Star Games, but who are strong candidates to play in the game this year.
If, for example, the team were to spend the minimum on bench players and bullpen filler, they’d have almost $13.5 million dollars to spend on every position, including DH, every starting pitcher, and their closer. For that money, the team could afford to have replacement-level bench players and relievers, because they’d be winning over 70% of their games anyway.
But if you’re not going to be having an All-Star caliber lineup, you should at least be sporting a starter-quality bench. Instead, the team features ultra-bland backups John Flaherty, Rey Sanchez and Bubba Crosby, all of whom would be likely bench players on almost any team in the majors. Their best, perhaps only, pinch-hitter is Ruben Sierra, who isn’t bad, but isn’t particularly impressive, either.
The problem with the Yankees has nothing to do with Joe Torre or Mel Stottlemyre. It’s not about lineup construction or bullpen usage. The Yankees are struggling because the front office did a terrible job of building a team with the resources they had. For whatever reason, they neglected their depth and their defense, they placed too high an emphasis on single-season performances rather than career progression, and have vastly overvalued veteran players, particularly veterans with postseason experience, over more promising players entering their prime. It’s made for an old, expensive, high-risk team that will impress nobody with its successes and be a target for merciless derision should it fail.
None of this means that the Yankees won’t win games this year, that they’ll lose the division or flop in the playoffs. Their main competitors in the division and the league, the Red Sox, appear to have a number of serious concerns, too. But if the struggles continue, or return after a successful stretch, it won’t be because the team has lost focus, or because some of the players acquired this offseason “don’t have what it takes to play in New York.” In some cases, the Yankees have simply signed or traded for players who simply aren’t that good, and are doing little if anything to help them win games. If the team isn’t meeting expectations, one has to consider the possibility that the reason for that is, quite simply, that the expectations were too high to begin with.
Tanyon Sturtze now has an ERA of 2.89 in 9.1 innings pitched this season, and a 1.98 ERA in his last 27.1 innings (including the postseason). After kicking around baseball for the past 10 years, continually getting chances because of his 95 MPH heater in spite of poor results, the 34-year old pitcher may have found his niche.
It’s very easy to write 27.1 innings off as a sample-size fluke, and it may well be. But this is an area where scouting is enormously valuable (something some critics of sabermetrics fail to see). Sturtze is, in fact, a different pitcher than he has been in the past, having learned a cut fastball from Mariano Rivera last year – the pitch Ted Williams called the toughest one to hit (back when it was called a slider).
The addition of a new pitch, particularly one as potentially dominating as a cutter, can turn a bad pitcher into a dominant one, especially as a reliever, and it may have done so for Sturtze. It’s the kind of thing that takes a long time to show up in stats, but a scout can notice it very early on, and give you a better idea of what this pitcher is likely to do in the future than stats alone can.
It’s not all sunshine and lollypops, though. Last night Sturtze pitched his fifth game of the season, which may indicate a total lack of faith by Torre in the rest of his bullpen, an omen that the Yankees may be headed for a repeat of last year, when Torre wore his best relievers out with overuse, one by one.
If Sturtze is the real deal now, you’d like to have him come into tight situations, but it’s much more important to have him able to come into those situations in October than it is in April. It might cost the team a few games early on, but Torre needs to have some faith in Paul Quantrill and Steve Karsay right now, if just to find out once and for all how much faith he should have in them in October.
Before Sunday’s game, where the Yankees were playing Bubba Crosby in center instead of Bernie Williams, Michael Kay told YES viewers that Joe Torre had said, “Last year, Bubba Crosby was great for us on defense and as a pinch-runner, but he was nothing for us offensively. We need to get him in the lineup more.”
See, normally the first part of that statement would lead to the opposite conclusion. Go figure.
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.