Rivals in Exile: Strange Arrivals and Sad Departures

Larry Mahnken: When the Yankees were winning the World Series every year, they also were hovering around having one of the highest payrolls in the game every year, since, you know, good players get paid well. This was something that bothered a lot of people, apparently because it’s okay when one team dominates the game if they’re not spending any money to do it, but if you start spending money, then it becomes unfair.

I kinda think maybe they were complaining about one thing when their real problem was with the other, but it sounds like petty jealousy to complain about one team winning, and complaining about their spending habits sounds more charitable and fair.

The thing is that the Yankees, while spending more than almost everyone else, were not spending beyond the means of every team. Several teams could have spent just as much money as them, but the thing was that the Yankees were spending their money on players that were worth their salaries, and acquiring them through trades and signings that were usually both fair and very smart.

That doesn’t appear to be true anymore.

For one, it appears the Yankees are attempting to outspend the Department of Defense, and to spend that money with the same efficiency, too. It’s no longer a question of whether the Yankees will break the $200 million threshold this off-season, but how far they’ll blow past it. For that money, you’d expect the Yankees to be signing the best of the best, but you’d be wrong.

They are expected by many to snag the best player on the market, Carlos Beltran, but their pursuit has been tepid so far while they’re busy signing mediocre pitchers and trying to get rid of a good one.

To be fair, they’ve been trying to move Javier Vazquez for Randy Johnson, but the rumored trades that involve Vazquez are ones that I’ve been less than enamored with, because they involve both Eric Duncan and Tom Gordon, who the Yankees appear to have irrationally lost faith in.

Vazquez did struggle terribly last year, but his track record indicates that he’s more likely to bounce back than repeat that performance, even though there were tangible reasons for it. What makes the Yankees misdiagnosis of Vazquez’s quality more painful for me to watch is that they’re doing the same thing with the pitchers they’re signing, only the other way around.

They correctly identified their starting rotation as the team’s chief weakness, but the players they targeted to help out there are very unlikely to be the answer. Jaret Wright had seven seasons where he was either mediocre, terrible or injured, and then had a great season last year under the tutelage of Leo Mazzone. While the potential for a great season was always there, that’s true of a lot of pitchers, and several pitchers have had surprisingly strong seasons with the Braves and failed to repeat it. The Yankees however have decided that Wright is likely to repeat what he did last year, and gave him $21 million over three years.

Carl Pavano had six mediocre seasons before 2004, too, but pitched 220 innings with a 3.00 ERA in his contract year, and became a coveted target on the free agent market. To be fair to the Yankees, he had also been hotly pursued by the Red Sox, who appeared likely to sign him until this past weekend, but the Yankees spent over $60 million this week on two pitchers with two combined good seasons.

Now, Wright and Pavano are not that unlikely to perform as well as Jon Lieber did last year or is likely to in 2005, and have the advantage of being six years younger than him. But the money was way too high for them regardless of what the market is, and they’re also not that unlikely to totally implode and be untradeable drags on the Yankee rotation.

And the Yankees are still apparently looking to sign Eric Milton, who doesn’t even have a good season to hang his hat on — not in 2004, not ever. They’re apparently willing to spend nearly $25 million on this trio next season, but Pedro Martinez apparently is missing something.

There were a couple of other moves: Tony Womack was signed to fill the Enrique Wilson memorial run prevention position in the lineup, and will start at second base. A lot of the articles have called him the Yankees new leadoff hitter, but Joe Torre should be beaten senseless if he ever bats him higher than eighth in the lineup. Womack doesn’t bring anything to the lineup that they didn’t have with Cairo or Wilson last year, but there weren’t a lot of other second base options out there, and Womack at least won’t block Robinson Cano if the Yankees decide to give him a shot at some point in 2005. It was a silly move that shouldn’t kill the team, but sure as hell won’t help them.

They also signed Korean lefty reliever Goo Dae-seong to fill the Jesse Orosco memorial ancient LOOGY role, though I don’t see anything in his past performance that gives me confidence in his ability to effectively shut down lefty batters. I think it’s more likely that he’ll spend all year in Columbus than make the postseason roster, but the move does preclude any chance of signing Steve Kline, which is a bit disappointing.

Obviously the team isn’t done with making moves, but so far they’ve tacked millions onto their payroll for next season without getting materially better. They should still be good enough to make the playoffs without much trouble, but they should still have done that if they just kept the same team next season.

Ben Jacobs: Well, Larry, I can’t say I disagree with a single thing you said. Last off-season, I said that the Yankees would, in the not-too-distant future, either implode or reach $300 million in payroll. Looks like they’ve decided to do the latter. In fact, the moves they’re making this off-season are just making it more likely that they’ll need to get up to $300 million to avoid imploding.

With a lot of overpriced players already on their roster, including some who might not give them much production at all, the Yankees should have been looking for some players who are on the safe side. As you said, Wright and Pavano are not all that safe, having just one really good season each. Not only that, they both also have a pretty extensive injury history, although they were healthy this year.

If they go into the season with a rotation of Mike Mussina, Javier Vazquez, Kevin Brown, Pavano, Wright and Milton (remember, the Yankees can’t have just five starters), they don’t even need to be unlucky to find themselves scrambling for healthy/effective starting pitchers. They’d be asking Mussina and Brown, both old pitchers who had injuries this year, to be healthy and good. They’d be asking Vazquez to bounce back from whatever was wrong after the All-Star break. And they’d be asking Pavano, Wright and Milton (or at least two of them) to successfully move from the NL to the AL, when none of them are that great anyway.

That’s a lot to ask. As for Tony Womack, let’s just say that the Red Sox both signed AND traded him for absolutely nothing last spring. And even with the then 34-year-old having the best season of his career, the Red Sox weren’t missing anything.

Speaking of the Red Sox, after a lot of talk, there wasn’t much action by them this weekend. Pedro Martinez? Apparently close, but still on hold. Jason Varitek? Also apparently close, but also still on hold. Edgar Renteria? Rumored to be almost signed, but apparently not that close after all.

That leaves them with an off-season haul so far of David Wells, Matt Mantei and John Halama. And you know what? I like it.

Wells is old and fat, but he’s still a fine pitcher. He doesn’t walk people and he’s had eight consecutive seasons with an ERA+ above 100. If he gets hurt or simply falls apart because of his age, he’ll probably only cost the Red Sox $8 million, which isn’t terrible for them. He could potentially cost $18 million, but that would probably mean he stayed healthy for both seasons and pitched pretty darn well.

I don’t really see a reason to expect Wright or Pavano to be any better than him, and the Red Sox are committed to him for a year (in Wright’s case) or two years (in Pavano’s) less than the Yankees are committed to their new guys. And for all of his age and lack of conditioning, Wells has pitched at least 195 innings in eight of the last nine seasons.

The relievers, Mantei and Halama, signed for $750,000 (with incentives) and $1 million (probably with incentives, but I’m not sure), respectively, which is a pretty good use of money for Boston. The Red Sox already have a solid back end of the bullpen in Keith Foulke, Mike Timlin and Alan Embree, but there has to be some concern over the ages of Timlin and Embree.

Mantei’s had a very solid career when he’s been healthy, so he can replace Scott Williamson as the reliever who’s really good but not always able to pitch. Halama is an effective reliever, he’s left-handed and if the Red Sox need him to (and they probably will with their aging rotation), he can make a start in a pinch.

So, I’m pleased with the way the Red Sox started this off-season. Of course, now they need to make sure Martinez and Varitek end up back in Boston. It would be nice, if they decide they can spend that much, if they got Renteria as well, but that’s not imperative. They can make do with signing somebody like Jose Valentin or trading for somebody like Julio Lugo (which they’ve been rumored to have attempted) or Ramon Vazquez (which they’ve been rumored to be on the verge of doing).

Basically, I have nothing to complain about so far this winter. The Red Sox haven’t done anything I don’t like yet, and the Yankees have yet to do anything that really worries me. In fact, I have more hope now than I did a month ago that they’ll miss out on both Randy Johnson and Carlos Beltran. That would leave them with the rotation I mentioned above and a “center fielder” named Bernie Williams.

How would you feel about that? Maybe a better question is, how would your furniture feel?

LM: I think there’s a very small chance that Carlos Beltran will go back to Houston, but if he doesn’t he’ll be a Yankee. I think J.D. Drew would be wise to wait to sign until after Beltran’s off the market, because if the Yankees miss out on Carlos they’ll come knocking on J.D.’s door. I think there’s very little chance that the Yankees are going to play Bernie Williams in center ever again, and Scott Boras’ statement that Bernie would be willing to move to first base makes me even more secure in that belief. I think my furniture will be just fine.

Now comes word that apparently Pedro Martinez is about to sign with the Mets. While that’s not a done deal, either, it does signify a serious blow to the Red Sox. Obviously, they’ll pursue Matt Clement now, but he’s not Pedro. Suddenly, the Red Sox rotation doesn’t look that much better than the Yankees’, and if New York adds Carlos Beltran and the Red Sox lose Jason Varitek, too (though I consider the latter to be unlikely), the Yankees could have a clearly better lineup than Boston as well. At the very least, it looks as though the Yankees are going to be as good as or better than the Red Sox next year, though it will almost certainly be a close race once more.

I think the signing of David Wells is a solid one, but just because he hasn’t had a serious health problem in the past few years doesn’t mean he won’t next year or in 2006. The guy still weighs in at just under 700 pounds, and Yankee fans all remember that his back bailed out on him in Game Five of the 2003 World Series. He’s been consistent and good, but while Boston could get 200 innings out of him in 2005, they shouldn’t necessarily expect it.

I understand why they’ll be letting Pedro go — he’s getting paid way too much by the Mets. But one of the benefits of being rich is that you can afford to pay a premium for irreplaceable talent. With Schilling and Pedro, the Red Sox would be the clear favorite to repeat next year, now they’re one of several teams who should contend. In the long haul they’ll be best served to let Pedro go and build a dominant team from within and with reasonably priced free agents, but in the short term it’s going to hurt them a little.

I wouldn’t say I’m ecstatic about Pedro leaving — the Yankees have always done well against him — but it does make me feel a little better about this offseason. The Yankees haven’t done anything to pull away from the Red Sox yet, but at least Boston hasn’t done anything to pull away from the Yankees, either.

BJ: I guess I better prepare myself for the day Tom Brady leaves the New England Patriots, because it’s going to happen eventually. I can tell myself that he’ll stay in New England for the duration of his career, as I did with Nomar Garciaparra and Pedro Martinez, but that’ll just make the day he does leave New England that much harder to take. Much better to come to terms with it now and enjoy however much longer he has in New England without any delusions of him staying forever.

Because Bill Belichick has the same philosophy as the Boston Red Sox — nobody is more important than the team. And when it gets to the point where Brady is no longer able to perform at a level deserving of what he gets paid (or wants to get paid), Belichick will cut him loose. And that’s exactly what happened with Martinez and, to some extent, Garciaparra.

I can’t blame the Red Sox one bit for letting Pedro leave, just as I didn’t blame Belichick for releasing Lawyer Milloy (I did question the timing of that move a little, but I think it worked out OK). He’s definitely the best pitcher on the free agent market this off-season. He’s also definitely not worth $56 million over the next four seasons. The Red Sox made a more than reasonable offer of $40 million over the next three seasons. There’s nothing they can do about Omar Minaya deciding to do whatever it took to sign Pedro, but that doesn’t make his departure any easier to take.

All that, however, is just how I feel emotionally about seeing one of my favorite players leave my favorite team. As far as the fortunes of my favorite team, I’m not nearly as bummed out. When discussing the absence of Pedro Martinez, it’s worth noting that they don’t really need to replace PEDRO MARTINEZ.

Is Pedro probably better than the 3.90 ERA he posted for the Red Sox last year? I think he is. But the fact remains that he only had a 3.90 ERA for the Red Sox last year, and the Red Sox won the World Series. So it wouldn’t be a terrible thing if they simply replace that 3.90 ERA, and I think that’s something they can do with the players left on the market (either Matt Clement or Odalis Perez would have a solid shot at doing so).

Losing Pedro is tough for the Red Sox, but there’s nothing they can do about it because they can’t make the Mets not offer him too much money. And the Red Sox can still make moves that put them ahead of the Yankees on paper. But as you noted, the Yankees can also still make moves that put them ahead of the Red Sox on paper. And either way, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if it comes down to Game 7 of the ALCS yet again.

But, unless something drastic happens, there’s no chance I’ll get to see Pedro twirl a PEDRO gem for the Red Sox again. So, I better make sure I enjoy Brady doing all the things he does to help the Patriots win while he’s still doing them. Because there will come a time when he’s doing those things, although maybe not quite as well, for another team.

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