Earlier this week Buster Olney wrote a column about how George Steinbrenner is up to his old tricks once again and that the 2003-04 Yankees are starting to resemble the Yankee teams of the 1980s:
It all seems familiar. From 1976-1981 — a period of six years — the Yankees had dominant pitching, with Sparky Lyle and Ron Guidry and Goose Gossage and Catfish Hunter, won two World Series and played in two others and made the playoffs every year but one. Steinbrenner asserted even greater control, lured free agents, stripped the farm system. By 1983 the Yankees had a lineup of Roy Smalleys and Steve Kemps, aging hitters who had seen their best years, and by 1986 the Yankees’ leading starter was Dennis Rasmussen, an 18-game winner; no other pitcher won 10 games.
After the Yankees traded for Javier Vasquez yesterday, I heard many fans bemoan the fact that in trading Nick Johnson, the Yankees are in fact headed back to the dark ages of the eighties. First of all, dark is a relative term: while the Yankees didn’t make the playoffs between 1982-1994, they weren’t terrible for all of those years. Plus fifteen years is a drop in the bucket for a Cubs fan or a Sox fan or even a Phillies fan. Hey, when was the last time the Mariners were in the World Serious? Secondly, I don’t think the Yankees will spin back that far so long as Joe Torre is managing the team. (We’ll talk again next year.)
We’re headed back to the dark ages. Is this true? Well, yes and no. Indeed George has taken control of player transactions in a way that he hasn’t in a long time (anyone paying attention could see this going down from jump last winter when Steinbrenner bashed Jeter in the papers). But what else would you expect him to do? Did anyone actually believe that King George would go out quietly, with humility and dignity? Who do you think we are dealing with here? Gene Autry?
Now that Steinbrenner is spending cash freely and loading up on free agents like Gordon, Quantrill and Sheffield, Yankee fans are reminded of the shopping sprees of the eighties. The team is getting older, and more expensive, but I think that it is premature to think that this is the 1982 Yankees. The Yankee teams in the 1980s did not have Mariano Rivera, or a starting rotation with the likes of Mike Mussina, Javier Vasquez, and (hopefully) Andy Pettitte.
I checked in on some of the old Bill James Abstracts last night and found a few interesting excerpts regarding the old Yankee philosophy. In the early part of the decade, the Yankees, like many teams simply misunderstood what their needs were:
Whenever you talk yourself into thinking that you need a player that’s when you pay too much for him. And that’s what George has been doing in the last few years.
Hello, Davey Collins. James writes that the approach Steinbrenner took during the first free agency period of 1976-1981 worked out better:
Ignore the needs of your team, ignore the strengths and weaknesses of the players available. Just identify the best player out there, and go after him.
…What I’m saying is this: Great players’ careers are relatively much less vulnerable to fluctuations in value than are ordinary players’ careers. That’s why great players hang around until they’re 40; if they have a bad year, they still have value. There is a security in them.
from the 1984 Baseball Abstract
Hello, Gary Sheffield. Obviously by the end of the decade, things had gone terribly wrong for the Yankees:
The New York Yankees are trapped on a treadmill. Although they have not won anything since 1981, the Yankees have the best winning percentage of any team during the decade, or should I turn that around: although they have the best winning percentage of any team during the eighties, the Yankees have not won anything since 1981. They are acutely aware of this, and so the winter of 1987-1988 was spent in frantic preparations to make the 1988 season the season in which the great nucleus of this team is surrounded by a cast good enough to lift the Yankees off of that 85-to 92-win treadmill, and onto the championship rung. There is an irony in this, for it is exactly this philosophy that creates the treadmill from which the Yankees are so anxious to escape.
…The Yankees don’t believe in staying with a young pitcher or a young player through the bad stretches; they want everybody to succeed now. When a young player goes through a down phase or when a veteran has an off year, the Yankees give up on him. The pressure, the fear of making a mistake and getting shipped immediately to Columbus, inhibits the development of young players, and in many cases flatly destroys them. That means that over a period of time, nobody on the roster is getting better, while some people are getting worse. To keep from slipping back, you have to keep bringing in new taletn, players who are on the top of their game. That drives the treadmill. But when the treadmill starts to gain on you, when you start to slip back toward the middle of the pack, what do you do? You turn up the power, of course. You bring in more players who are coming off of good years. You put more pressure on the players. You give up more quickly on the kid who has a couple of bad outings. So then the treadmill runs faster.
…The problem with the Yankees is that they never want to pay the real price of success. The real price of success in baseball is not the dollars that you come up with for a Jack Clark or a Dave Winfield or an Ed Whitson or a Goose Gossage. It is the patience to work with young players and help them develop. So long as the Yankees are unwilling to pay that price, don’t bet on them to win anything.
From the 1988 Baseball Abstract
Does any of this feel familiar? Yes, the Yankees have essentially given up on developing players for the next few years. The players they have developed are now veterans. But the old Columbus shuttle isn’t as frequent as it used to be. If this were the old days, Jeff Weaver’s head would be spinning more than Jim Beattie’s did. Yes, George is acquiring proven stars to lead the way, a ploy that ultimately failed during the eighties. But from what I can tell, the Yankees are doing a relatively good job of identifying their needs. They needed a right fielder, and are going after the best–OK, maybe the second-best–one available. They needed to upgrade their bullpen, and went out and signed Gordon and Quantrill (who are a far cry from the likes of Osuna and Acevado). They need starting pitching, they traded for Javier Vasquez.
I don’t see a Steve Kemp or a Jack Clark yet, although if they sign Kenny Lofton he would fit that category just fine.
The Yankees have sacrificed their prospects to win now, and guess what? They’ve been to six of the last eight World Serious’ and have won four of them. That’s got to come at a price. You can’t have everything. The Yankees can’t stay on top forever. One year, gasp, they will actually miss the playoffs. I don’t know that it will be in 2004, but it’s bound to happen. George isn’t just going to sit back and say, “OK, we made the Serious this year, let’s take a few steps back and build for the future.” This man is in his seventies, and desperately wants to win another title or three before he leaves us.
No, the Yankees will have to crash out of playoff contention, and suffer through some hard times before they start to rebuild their farm system again. The best way for this to happen on George’s watch may be to get the old man suspended again.
Things go in cycles. I empathize with the panic that Yankee fans must be feeling, but they need to relax. As John Harper correctly points out, yesterday’s trade was proof that Brian Cashman still exerts a degree of influence over his boss:
This was something of an anti-Steinbrenner deal that’s all about solid baseball evaluation, not marquee value. It’s also a deal for which The Boss surely will put GM Brian Cashman on trial, pending the results.
Chances are Steinbrenner had barely heard of Vazquez before his baseball people identified him as a target this offseason. Curt Schilling is more Steinbrenner’s idea of a big catch, which is at least partly why he was so furious when the Red Sox got him.
…As a result, one person with knowledge of the Yankees’ internal discussions said yesterday that Cashman, with the support of superscout Gene Michael, had to do a hard sell on Steinbrenner to convince him that Vazquez was the way to go.
…”[Cashman] gave (Steinbrenner) a lot of numbers on Vazquez to show how good he could be for the Yankees,” the person close to the situation said yesterday. “He made the point that Vazquez is still getting better, and that he’ll be twice the pitcher he was with Montreal because he’ll have more run support. (Cashman) did his homework on the guy.”
I heard a lot of Yankee fans crying yesterday about how losing Nick Johnson is the sign of the end. “We’re headed back to oblivion.” Can you imagine how we must sound to other fans around the country who would kill to have these kind of problems? The Yankees were not going to retain the classy chemistry of the ’96-’01 team indefinetly, and I think that may be what is so upsetting to Yankee fans. But instead of living in a fantasy world and believing that the Yankees were going keep the David Cone-Paulie O spirit alive forever, we should appreciate just how precious and special that team was in a George Universe. Then we can wake up and appreciate that for all of his bluster, for all of his arrogance, George Steinbrenner is once again putting together a very good team for 2004. I urge Yankee fans to enjoy the spirit of the season and be thankful for what we have and not complain about what we don’t have.