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Observations From Cooperstown: The Vets Committee

Posted By Bruce Markusen On November 15, 2010 @ 7:33 am In Bronx Banter,Bruce Markusen,Hall of Fame,Observations From Cooperstown,Yankees | Comments Disabled

A quick scan of the newly released Veterans Committee ballot, featuring candidates from the Expansion Era, reveals a “who’s who” of Yankee baseball during the 1970s and eighties. Two left-handed aces, Ron Guidry and Tommy John, highlight the list of players. The managerial pool is represented by five-time Yankee skipper Billy Martin. Former Yankee executive Pat Gillick, who is best known for putting together championship teams in Toronto and Philadelphia, can also be found on the ballot. And let us not forget about the highly anticipated presence of the late George Steinbrenner, who arrives on the ballot for the first time.

So let’s take the Hall of Fame cases of each candidate, one by one. At his peak, which ran from 1977 to 1981, Guidry qualified as a Cooperstown-caliber pitcher. But then there was too much inconsistency in the early eighties, followed by a quick three-year decline from 1986 to 1988. Unfortunately, when Guidry lost his king-sized fastball, he never made the successful transition to a breaking ball, change-of-speeds pitcher. If only Guidry had enjoyed more longevity, he might have stretched his career win total from 170 to 200-plus and made himself a worthier candidate for the Hall of Fame. A very fine pitcher and a legitimate ace, but not quite Cooperstown material.

John was just the opposite of Guidry. He had the longevity, 26 seasons worth, which was particularly remarkable given that his left arm was ravaged and then rebuilt through the surgical procedure that now bears his name. Unlike Guidry, John lacked the kind of dominant stretch that would have made him a Hall of Famer. John was a very good pitcher from 1977 to 1980, twice finishing second in his league’s Cy Young Award voting, but he was never regarded as one of the top two or three pitchers in the game. That’s what happens when you lack the power out-pitch and the big strikeout totals, something that was incompatible with his reliance on sinkers and sliders. In many ways, John was the Andy Pettitte of his era, a legitimate No. 2 starter and an occasional ace, but without Pettitte’s extensive postseason resume.

On to this year’s managerial candidate, the fascinating and bizarre Billy Martin. I’m always tempted to vote for Martin because of his baseball brilliance, his innovation, his preference for a daring, breakneck style of play. I’ve often said that if I needed to win one game, just one game, without regard for tomorrow, Martin would be my choice to manage. But such a narrow criteria does not fit the breadth of a Hall of Fame candidacy, where long-term outcomes matter. In the short run, few managers produced better results than Billy the Kid. Almost all of Martin’s teams showed significant improvement when he began a new managerial tenure. The records of his teams in his first season—and sometimes in the second season—improved dramatically. Unfortunately, none of the turnarounds endured in the long run. By the third season, Martin had clashed with the front office or alienated too many of his players, with several taking residence in his overcrowded doghouse. The bottom line on Martin is this: one world championship, as the Bronx burned in 1977, does not a Hall of Famer make.

So that’s three no votes for Martin, John, and Guidry. Now on to the good news. Though most of his work came outside of the Yankee frame of reference, Pat Gillick is a slam dunk choice for the Hall of Fame. As the general manager of the Blue Jays, Gillick took a youthful expansion team, building it first into a division winner and then into a two-time world champion by 1993. As the GM of the Mariners, Gillick acquired half a dozen All-Star players during a two year stretch, providing the framework for a 116-win team in 2001. Gillick then took his formula to the National League, where he made effective trades for Jamie Moyer and Brad Lidge, helping to assemble the Phillies’ first world championship after nearly a 30-year drought.

All of these accomplishments are enough to put Gillick in the Hall, but his Yankee influence only adds to the impressive body of work. Filling a role as one of GM Gabe Paul’s reliable advisors in the mid-seventies, Gillick provided significant input on a number of successful trades. According to Bill Madden’s new book on George Steinbrenner, Gillick was the driving force behind the blockbuster that brought Willie Randolph, Dock Ellis, and Ken Brett from the Pirates for Doc Medich. That should be icing on the cake for Gillick, who fully deserves to be one of the handful of general managers represented in Cooperstown.

So that brings us to The Boss, who is making his debut on a Hall of Fame ballot just a few months after his passing. Steinbrenner is not as much of a cinch as Gillick, if only because of his endless controversies, punctuated by two disgraceful suspensions at the hands of two different commissioners. Yet, I believe Steinbrenner managed to overcome those embarrassing episodes by taking a Yankee franchise mired in mediocrity and reviving it within three short seasons, both financially and artistically. As the game’s most active owner from 1973 through the early 2000s, Steinbrenner expanded the size of the front office and the farm system, influenced trades, and took the lead in signing free agents, making him a successful pioneer of checkbook baseball. Steinbrenner’s teams won seven world championships and 11 pennants during a 37-year span, more than any other owner–or team–of the era. And almost as significantly, Steinbrenner promoted and enhanced the Yankee brand, making it by far the most valuable franchise in all of North American team sports. In my mind, those accomplishments are sufficient to make The Boss a deserving part of the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2011…

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Brian Cashman’s midweek meeting with Cliff Lee confirms the worst-kept secret of the off-season: signing the Rangers’ ace and New York’s nemesis is Plan A for the Yankees this winter. So what happens if Plan A falls through, if Lee insists on a sixth year and the Yankees refuse, or if Lee decides that he likes the heat of Texas more than the pressure cooker of New York? In that case, the Yankees need to have a Plan B. One possibility would be signing Jayson “The Werewolf” Werth or Carl Crawford, freeing up Brett Gardner or Nick Swisher to be included as part of a trade package for a starting pitcher.

Plan B could also involve another free agent left-hander, the relatively little known Jorge de la Rosa, last seen with the Rockies. An imposing left-hander with terrific stuff, de la Rosa is only 29 and just one season removed from a career year in Colorado. In 2009, de la Rosa went 16-9 with a 4.38 ERA. His ERA fell lower in 2010, though a torn tendon to his pitching hand limited him to 20 starts and 121 innings.

Over the last three seasons, de la Rosa has averaged a strikeout per inning. He has the kind of power repertoire that could translate effectively to the American League East. And he will come much cheaper, at fewer seasons, than Cliff Lee. He has the ability to pitch as a No. 3 or 4 starter, depending on the return of Andy Pettitte. If the signing of Lee becomes unfeasible, de la Rosa might just be an acceptable option.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.


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