Ten days have elapsed since Steve Karsay was designated for assignment. The Yankees have been unable to trade him, leaving them two options: assign him to the minor leagues, or release him. They have chosen the latter. The four-year $22.5 million contract Karsay signed with the Yankees on the sixtieth anniversary of Pearl Harbor calls for him to make $5 million this year, which the Yankees must now pay, along with the $1.5 million buyout on his option for 2006, without hope for getting anything in return.
When the tale of the Giambi-era Yankees is told, Karsay will likely be remembered as a bad signing, a case of the Yankees throwing an unnecessary amount of money at a fragile pitcher to solve a problem that could have been solved less expensively and paying the cost for their reckless behavior, yet another signpost on the fading dynasty’s road to ruin. Upon closer examination, however, Karsay is revealed as merely another victim of Joe Torre’s now notorious push-button method of bullpen management.
When Torre was hired as the Yankee skipper, The Daily News famously dubbed him “Clueless Joe,” and the one statistic most often associated with him was his 4,110 games in a major league uniform, as a player and manager, without a World Series appearance. In fact, in 32 seasons in the majors, Torre had only been to the playoffs once, as the new manager of the 1982 Atlanta Braves. To make matters worse, his was a history of late arrivals.
Joe Torre made his major league debut as a 19-year-old catcher with the Milwaukee Braves in 1960, just two years after the second of two World Series appearances by the team, the first of which resulted in a World Championship, and both of which featured Torre’s older brother Frank as the Braves’ starting first baseman. After a second place finish in 1960, the Braves fourth-place finish in 1961 was their highest in Torre’s nine seasons with the team, during which the franchise was forced to relocate to Atlanta due to a steep decline in attendance.
On St. Patrick’s Day 1969, Torre was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in a blockbuster challenge trade, Torre for future Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda, straight up. The Cardinals Torre joined were the defending National League Champions and had won the World Series two years prior and again another three years prior to that. With Torre aboard, St. Louis slumped to fourth for two years before scratching out three second place finishes in his final four years with the club, one of which came when the Redbirds finished with an 81-81 record, but were just 1.5 games behind the eventual NL Champion New York Mets in a weak NL East.
On the day of the second game of the 1974 World Series, Joe Torre was traded to those same Mets, a team that had represented the National League in two of the previous five World Series. They then finished third in Torre’s first two years with the club. Beginning in 1977, when Torre took over as the Mets’ manager, the team lost 90 games in four straight seasons, with only the 1981 players strike preventing a fifth.
Having tallied a .405 “winning” percentage as the Mets manager, Torre took over the Atlanta Braves in 1982 and took them from a second-half finish of fifth in 1981 to the NL West division crown. Joe Torre had finally made it to the postseason only to watch his club get swept in three games by Whitey Herzog’s Cardinals.
Torre’s Braves declined in each of the following two seasons and he spent the next five years out of the game before returning to St. Louis as Herzog’s successor in 1990. Under Herzog, the Cardinals had played in more World Series than any other team in the 1980s, the most recent being 1987, but under Torre they never won more than 87 games and only once finished as high as second place. When Torre was fired less than half way through the 1995 season, he thought his managerial career was over.
When Joe Torre was hired by George Steinbrenner to take over for Buck Showalter as the Yankee manager in 1996, the one thing that united his three previous managerial terms, other than the lack of a World Series appearance at each stop, was his tendency to recognize young pitchers who would make valuable relievers and to hand them the ball at every opportunity. With the Mets, he turned current Yankee bullpen coach Neil Allen, who was a starter in the minors and a rookie with Torre’s Mets in 1979, into the team’s closer, but Torre had even greater success with another rookie named Jeff Reardon, whom he turned in to Allen’s set-up man, milking him for 110 1/3 innings in 1980. Reardon would go on to save 367 games, briefly holding the career record in the category.
In Atlanta, Torre moved second-year reliever Steve Bedrosian (who had also started in the minors) into the set-up role behind established closer Gene Garber, deploying Bedrosian in 137 2/3 regular season innings in the playoff year of 1982 and 120 innings the following year. Bedrosian would go on to win the 1987 Cy Young Award as the closer for the Philadelphia Phillies, but not before he became the first victim of Torre’s overreliance.
According to The Scouting Report: 1985:
As in 1983, Steve Bedrosian was awesome in the early months of 1984, and as in 1983, he tapered off in the later months, losing his arm strength, much of his velocity and much of his effectiveness. The season ended with Bedrosian pronounced physically sound, but there was no doubt that he once again had been unable to hold up under the grueling workload of a short reliever.
Indeed, after two seasons of abuse by Torre, Steve Bedriosian hit the disabled list with an arm injury in 1984. The next year, Torre was gone and Bedrosian was moved into the Atlanta starting rotation where he posted a league average ERA. That December he was traded to Philadelphia.
In St. Louis, Torre got two great years out of Mike Perez, another youngster, by making him the primary set-up man for Lee Smith, the man who replaced Reardon atop the all-time saves list. In the post-LaRussa/Eckersley era of relief pitching, Perez’s 165 2/3 innings of pure relief placed him among the top 13 most active relievers in the game across the 1992 and 1993 seasons. In reality, Perez was used even more frequently than that statistic would indicate. Following his 93 relief innings in 1992, Perez pitched 72 2/3 innings out of the Cardinal bullpen in 1993 despite spending more than two months on the disabled list with a shoulder injury.
With Smith having been sent to the Yankees at the trading deadline in 1993, Perez was installed as the Cardinals’ closer in 1994 only to hit the disabled list twice more as his ERA shot up from 2.48 in 1993 to 8.71. The Scouting Report‘s summary of Perez’s 1994 season is typical of the way Torre abuses then discards his relief pitchers:
Mike Perez had a 1.29 ERA in April, with six saves in six chances. Then a strained muscle in his right shoulder disabled him, and Perez was never the same. His ERA shot to almost 13.00 in May. He had a cortisone shot in the shoulder in early June and had a good stretch, but didn’t enter a game in a save situation after June 13 and was sent to the minors on July 15.
A free agent after the season, Perez fled to the Cubs where he had one last solid season before fading out of the league over the following two. The only reason Reardon didn’t suffer a similar fate was that he was traded to Montreal in May 1981, giving Torre just one full season to inflict damage upon him. Indeed, Reardon never surpassed his 110 1/3 innings pitched under Torre in 1980.
With the Yankees, Torre again found his man, taking Mariano Rivera, who had struggled as a rookie starter under Showalter in 1995, and installing him as the set-up man for closer John Wetteland. Rivera went on to have arguably the greatest season as a set-up man in the game’s history to that point, pitching 107 2/3 innings in the process. With Rivera handling the seventh and eight innings and Wetteland nailing down the ninth, Torre effectively limited his opponents’ opportunity to score runs to six innings. With this end game in place, the Yankees, with Joe Torre at the helm, not only advanced to the World Series, but won it. Ever since, Torre has been trying to recreate that winning formula.
In 1997, the Yankees let Wetteland depart as a free agent and installed Rivera as the team’s closer, promoting righty Jeff Nelson (who had appeared in 73 games for Torre in 1996) to a dual set-up role along with newly acquired lefty Mike Stanton. Nelson and Stanton combined for 145 1/3 innings setting up Rivera in 1997 as the Yankees returned to the postseason only to suffer first-round loss to the Indians that included a key blown save by Rivera that many consider a turning point in his emergence as one of the greatest closers in the history of the game.
True to form, after pitching in 150 games over his first two seasons with the Yankees, injuries, including those to his back and pitching elbow, shortened Nelson’s 1998 and 1999 seasons. Fortunately, Stanton was able to keep up his end of the bargain while a mix of LOOGY Graeme Lloyd (1.67 ERA in 1998) and righties Darren Holmes (3.33 in 1998), Jason Grimsley (3.60 in 1999), and Rivera’s cousin, ever-present swing-man Ramiro Mendoza (3.76 combined) ably filled in Nelson’s regular season innings. This enabled Nelson to resume his role in the postseason as Torre’s Yankees won the World Series in both years.
In 2000, Nelson was again healthy and he and Stanton combined to make 142 regular season appearances as the Yankees won their third consecutive World Championship, but in July of that year, Nelson made a costly mistake. Generally outspoken, Nelson was conscious of the sacrifices he had made for the Yankees’ winning effort and had become embittered by the lack of financial and critical respect afforded to valuable middle relievers such as himself. When Torre left his name off the American League All-Star roster despite his 1.69 ERA at the break, Nelson snapped. He got into a shouting match with the Yankee manager over the snub, then took his gripe to the New York Post saying, among other things, “If I am not going to get the respect from my manager, I am not going to be a bulldog and suck one up for the team.” Nelson was in the final year of his contract and, after the World Series, surely emboldened by his All-Star outburst, the Yankees refused to meet the pitcher’s demands. That winter, Nelson signed with the Mariners, for three years at $10.65 million.
Absent Nelson, the Yankee bullpen suffered a steep decline in quality after Rivera, Stanton and Mendoza in 2001. With Joe Torre losing faith in Brian Boehringer (perhaps due to three consecutive poor outings in June after he had spoiled his manager with a 0.98 ERA through the end of May), rookie Randy Choate prone to wildness (5.03 BB/9), and dissatisfied with the other available solutions such as Todd Williams (4.70 ERA) and Carlos Almanzar, the Yankees panicked, trading second base prospect D’Angelo Jimenez to San Diego for Jay Witasick in late June only to watch Witasick’s 1.86 ERA swell by two and a half runs once in pinstripes. The July 1 acquisition of Mark Wohlers faired no better, but confident of their moves, the Yankees traded Boehringer and his 3.12 ERA on Independence Day to San Francisco, where he posted a 4.12 ERA that still would have bested Wohlers and Witasick. As a result, Torre was forced to lean more heavily on Stanton, who surpassed 80 innings pitched for the first time in his career, and Rivera, who set a career high for appearances.
That year the Yankees returned to the World Series. Having won twelve of their last thirteen World Series games, the Yankees promptly lost the first two games to the Arizona Diamondback’s overpowering duo of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. Despite dramatic (and nearly identical) ninth-inning comebacks and extra-inning victories in Games 4 and 5 that gave the Yankees a 3-2 lead in the Series, the Diamondbacks pushed the Series to its limit with another victory behind Johnson at home in Game 6. Game 7 featured the stellar pitching match-up of Schilling against Roger Clemens. Living up to its billing, the game remained tied at 1-1 after seven innings. In the top of the eighth, the Yankees took a 2-1 lead on a home run off Schilling by rookie second baseman Alfonso Soriano. With no room for error and having already used Stanton to finish the seventh inning for Clemens, Torre brought in Rivera, who by that point had thrown 94 2/3 relief innings in 81 games between the regular and post seasons, to start the eighth and hopefully nail down the Yankees fourth consecutive World Championship. True to form, Rivera struck out the side in the eighth around a two-out Steve Finley single, but in the ninth he fell apart. After a single, a throwing error, a force out, a double by current Yankee left fielder Tony Womack, a hit batsman and a broken bat blooper into shallow center off the bat of Luis Gonzalez, the Diamondbacks had won the World Series.
Stunned, many blamed Rivera’s increased workload during the regular season for his breakdown in Game 7, pointing to the absence of an adequate replacement for Nelson as a primary reason for the increase. As a result, the team that was unwilling to give Nelson the $10.65/3 contract he got from the Mariners a year earlier went out and signed Steve Karsay, coming off a spectacular season of set-up work split between Cleveland and Atlanta, for $22.5/4.
In his first season as a Yankee, Karsay stepped right into the role assigned to him, posting a 3.26 ERA and even picking up 12 saves when Mariano Rivera hit the DL. That Rivera actually hit the DL three times that season–twice for a strain in his pitching shoulder, the first time he had ever been disabled for arm trouble–was more concrete evidence of his overuse the previous year. Unfortunately, not even Karsay and a healthy Rivera were able to stop the Anaheim Angels from manhandling the Yankees in that year’s ALDS.
What the Yankees failed to notice when signing Karsay was that the righty had set a career high for appearances in 2001 following 155 1/3 innings primarily in relief in 1999 and 2000, and that his ERA after being traded to Atlanta on June 22, 2001 was more than two runs worse than with Cleveland prior to the trade. Under Torre’s command in 2002, Karsay again set career highs in games (78) and relief innings pitched (he originally came up as a starter with the A’s, switching to the pen after his first full season in 1997). In fact, Karsay’s 88 1/3 innings pitched in 2002 were more than Stanton or Nelson would ever throw in a single season. Thus it should not have been terribly surprising when Karsay struggled with back and shoulder injuries the following spring.
Karsay underwent shoulder surgery in May 2003 before throwing a single regular season pitch. Meanwhile, after 428 dutiful appearances over the previous six seasons, Mike Stanton had signed as a free agent with the crosstown Mets during the offseason after being given a deadline to accept a contract from the Yankees was that would have amounted to a paycut, proving Nelson’s point about the respect afforded middle relievers.
Having lost his two primary set-up men, Torre struggled with his bullpen throughout the 2003 season. Rivera missed time early in the season with a recurring groin injury, forcing former Tiger closer Juan Acevedo back into the role. Acevedo became an early casualty after racking up a 7.71 ERA. The finishing blow came during a spectacular Game of the Week pitchers duel between Roger Clemens, going for his 300th win, and Kerry Wood at Wrigley Field, in which Acevedo turned a 1-0 Yankee lead into a 1-3 deficit with one pitch to Eric Karros. Acevedo was released four days later. His replacement on the roster, Al Reyes, posted a 3.18 ERA that hid an inconsistency that almost guaranteed a poor outing every three or four times his number was called, leading to a permanent demotion in mid-July.
Rookie Jason Anderson, who made the team out of spring training, fared no better, posting a 4.79 ERA, riding the Columbus shuttle, and eventually being dealt to the Mets in July (Anderson is currently tearing up the International League with a 1.43 ERA for the Columbus Clippers, by the way). Antonio Osuna, acquired in a three way deal for Orlando Hernandez that diverted Bartolo Colon away from the Red Sox to the White Sox, couldn’t stay healthy and posted a 5.70 ERA over the season’s final three months. The Yankees’ other major offseason acquisition, Chris Hammond, who was signed to replace Stanton, did pitch well, but gave up back-to back home runs to the Red Sox on July 27 to turn a 3-0 Yankee lead into a 3-4 deficit and was never able to regain Torre’s valuable trust despite a 2.86 ERA, a 2.28 ERA after the All-Star break, and the fact that he only gave up three other homers during the entire season (don’t look now, but Hammond is also having a great season with the Padres after bettering his Yankee ERA in Oakland last year).
Frustrated, the Yankees tried importing pitchers such as Dan Miceli (5.79), Jesse Orosco (10.38), and Armando Benitez, who pitched well after being acquired from the Mets for Anderson and two other minor leaguers, but was also done in by a memorably poor performance in a three game series against Boston. All three were shipped out before year’s end, Benitez for Jeff Nelson himself.
Despite all of this, the Yankees were able to make it back to the World Series in 2003, though they did resort to using starters Mike Mussina and David Wells out of the bullpen in the epic seventh game of the ALCS, which also saw Rivera pitch three exhausting innings. With the exception of Nelson, who pitched four scoreless innings, the Yankee pen and Torre’s use of it in the World Series itself (most famously his decision to bring Jeff Weaver into a tied Game 4, in part occasioned by the rust that he had allowed to accumulate on Hammond) was a significant factor in the Yankees losing to the Florida Marlins in six games.
A seemingly endless series of setbacks kept Karsay sidelined throughout 2003 and most of 2004, inspiring my girlfriend to dub the damaged Yankee reliever “Steve Hearsay.” Karsay finally returned to action last September, posting a 2.70 ERA in seven appearances, but was not given a full opportunity to make the postseason roster (see also: Bean, Colter) despite the extreme workload shouldered during the season by the team’s new Big Three, Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill–both of whom set career highs for relief innings, the latter despite an opening day knee injury for which he was never placed on the disabled list–and Mariano Rivera–who broke his 2001 career high for appearances–and their corresponding late-season decreases in effectiveness (Gordon’s ERA after the All-Star break was a run worse than it was before, Rivera’s was 2.25 runs worse, and Quantrill’s was a whopping four runs worse).
It was a bitter irony. The original motivation for Karsay’s signing was the overuse of Rivera in 2001 that might have lead to his collapse in the World Series. Now, finally healthy again, and just in time for the postseason, Karsay was not given the opportunity to contribute down the stretch and in the playoffs, but rather remained a bystander as the failures of Quantrill, Gordon and Rivera kept the Yankees from finishing off the Red Sox in Games 4 and 5 of the 2004 ALCS, opening the door for Boston to become the first team in baseball history to win a series they once trailed three games to none. It was a humiliating defeat for the Yankees made all the worse by the fact that it came at the hands of the rival Red Sox.
This spring, to the surprise of many, Karsay broke camp with the Yankees, but, as in September, Joe Torre displayed a characteristic lack of trust in the right-hander (who, admittedly, did not pitch as well as he did last year), limiting him to 5 2/3 innings over the first 18 games of the season and then giving him just one more opportunity (six pitches total to two batters) in the next eight games before designating him for assignment on May 3.
It has been said that the Yankees soured on Karsay during his rehabilitation and began to question his fortitude, which may have been one reason Torre shied away from him after his return. If that’s the case, it points to an ugly side of Torre’s tenure as Yankee manager, one in which he attributes the failures of his overworked relievers to the pitcher themselves, rather than the unreasonable workloads with which he saddles them, and shuns them because of their resulting poor performance. The reality of the situation is that Steve Karsay is not to blame for his inability to perform during three of the four years of his Yankee contract. Rather, he is merely the most recent, and most expensive, casualty of Joe Torre’s chronic overuse of his set-up relievers over the past quarter century, which appears likely to continue this year with Tom Gordon, who boasts both an unpleasant injury history and an 80-game pace.
Thanks to Steven Goldman for the access to (and transcription of) The Scouting Report.