I’m not convinced the kid will stay healthy but if he does the future is bright for Michael Pineda.
[Photo Credit: Andrew Theodorakis/N.Y. Daily News]
Adam Jones, owner of a lifetime .322 on base percentage, has so many good, coherent arguments to make.
How was it for Tanaka to face Adam Jones? I will translate for Tanaka-san: Easy. Very Easy.
Image via Underscoopfire.com
I have to admit that if I was a major league pitcher today, and Jeter was at the peak of his game, Derek Jeter would be the one shortstop I’d want to play behind me. Why? Simple. Jeter’s always caught the ball. J.J. Hardy, the Orioles’ Gold Glove shortstop told me the cardinal rule of playing shortstop is, “You can’t throw the ball if you don’t catch it.”
[Photo Via: Bleeding Yankee Blue]
Here’s an Opening Day treat from my pal Paul Solotaroff. “The Last Yankee” is a story he wrote about Don Mattingly for the National Sports Daily back in 1990 and at the time it rang true. Of course, this was before Derek Jeter. Still, dig this trip down memory lane as we get ready for the season to begin tonight in Houston.
“The Last Yankee”
By Paul Solotaroff
The National Sports Daily, July 6, 1990
It begins, of course, with Babe Ruth, the god of thunder, who invented the home run and the 12-hot dog breakfast. It runs through Lou Gehrig, the first baseman built like a center field monument, and through Joe DiMaggio, the center fielder straight from central casting. It culminates in Mickey Mantle, that beautiful wreck who played hard, lived hard, and once remarked in his forties that if he’d known he was going to live so long, he’d've taken better care of himself. “It,” of course, is the lineage of the One Great Yankee, the player who taught his generation about class and success, and set boys everywhere dreaming about pinstripes.
It wasn’t, God knows, anything like virtue that made Ruth an icon. What signified him to his age was his invincibility—he won everything in sight, and devastated teams doing it. His 500-foot shots were like bombs over Nagasaki; whenever he hit one, the other side just collapsed.
But the mythos of the Great Yankee has as much to do with heart as muscle. DiMaggio played on crippled heels; Gehrig, the last couple of years, could hardly bend to take grounders, so ravaged was he by ALS; Mantle hobbled through much of his career, his knee done in by a sprinkler head. Nonetheless, they endured like soldiers, Gehrig for 17 years, Joe D. for 13, the Mick for 18. Gehrig lasted through ’39, by which time DiMaggio was securely established; DiMaggio until ’51, when Mantle broke in. No one, alas, stepped up for Mantle but his legacy of courage and pride survived, in trust, for his eventual heir.
Beyond the monster home runs and memorable catches in center, though, what the One Great Yankee did was set absolute standards—Yankee standards. DiMaggio must have uttered all of 10 words his entire career, but his mute ferocity put the fear of God into his teammates. He once cornered Vic Raschi, who was 21–8 that year but had a nasty habit of squandering big leads, and told him that if he ever blew another one, he’d beat the hell out of him then and there. Nor was there any malingering permitted. If DiMaggio was going to go out there every day on splintered shins, then, believe it, everybody was going to play. One shudders to think what would have happened if Joe D. had ever played with Rickey Henderson.
Mantle may have been the culmination of the line—no one has ever had his combination of lefty-righty power and speed—but he was not the last of the Great Yankees. Reggie, with his drink-stirring swagger, was as true a son of Ruth as any of them. Forget the fact that he was only there for five years. They were titanic years, full of glorious theater; no one since the Babe has so enlivened the franchise.
And then, of course, there is Don Mattingly. All line drives and silence, he is the very incarnation of Gehrig: solemn and single-minded and as untaintable by George Steinbrenner as Gehrig was by Ruth. But this is where the lineage ends. When Mattingly goes, there will be no more like him. Rome is burning, the royal family disgraced. Soon, nothing will remain but the mad fiddler and his running slaves.
“My place in Yankee history?” sniggers Donald Arthur Mattingly. ”I’ll tell you what my place in Yankee history is. It’s hitting .260 on a struggling ballclub, and letting everyone down in here. At the moment, I don’t exactly feel too much a part of Ruth or Gehrig or DiMaggio.”
It is three hours before game time, and Mattingly, sheathed in sweat and silver bike shorts, is sitting in his corner cubicle, the place d’honneur in the Yankee clubhouse. The other players loll about, most of them still in street clothes, grazing on fruit or playing three-handed rummy, but Mattingly has already put in a fierce hour in the batting cage. His black bat propped beside him, he looks like he wants nothing so much as to go back there now, to the temple of his solemn devotions.
In the batting cage, there is the pure release of hard work, and the pleasure of attacking one baseball after another. But mostly, there is the relief of being away from this team, a collection of can’t-win don’t-care, no-account strangers, the most faceless bunch to ever set foot in here. Two years ago, this room was electric with the likes of Henderson, Willie Randolph, Jack Clark, and Dave Winfield. Now, peopled by Velardes and Leyritzes, it’s got all the flavor of a bus station. Surveying the scene, Mattingly’s eyes say, “Can these guys really be Yankees?”
“Man, oh man, this is just so tough,” he says. “It hasn’t been like this since I was 13 playing for a Babe Ruth team. We were horrible. Awful. Plus, we had bad uniforms. Ugly green things. It was terrible.”
Mantle-Maris-Berra-Howard. Munson-Nettles-Jackson-Gossage. Those teams won because they were star-laden,yes, but also because they were blood-and-knuckles competitive. Year in, year out, they played as tough as pirates, tromping on good teams of lesser wills. Not so these Yankees. They give up before the first shot rings out.
“By the seventh inning we’re getting pounded again, or we’re down a run and we don’t expect to win, and you think, ‘This is another night we’re not going to get over the hill,’” he laments. “We’re not even making tough outs. . . . It’s really pretty ugly, to tell you the truth. What they need to do is get rid of anyone who doesn’t care. I take it home every night, and some guys just leave it. That ticks me off, to see a guy laughing and joking around when we lose. . . . You don’t want any of those kind of guys on your team.”
It is hard to say which is sadder, the dismantling of all this glorious tradition, or the desolation of Don Mattingly. Once the centerpiece of the gaudiest lineup in baseball, he is, for all intent and purposes, alone out there now. In ’88, he hit behind Henderson and Randolph, who, regardless of their averages, drew 100 walks apiece, and were constantly dancing off of first and third for him. Now, he hits behind Roberto Kelly, who walks about as often as Mario Andretti, and Steve Sax, an opposite-field hitter whom American League pitchers seem to have figured out.
“It was such a different situation with Rickey and Willie,” he says wistfully. “They put pressure on the pitcher. When there’s nobody out there, the pitcher doesn’t feel any tension. The only thing that’ll hurt him is a home run.”
The loss of Henderson and Randolph, both of whom Steinbrenner essentially gave away, is only the half of it, though. The other half is the subtraction of Clark and Winfield, who combined for 200 RBI behind Mattingly in ’88. In baseball, this is called protection, and without it you stand about as much chance as a stray blonde in a biker joint. In Mattingly’s first five full seasons, only four players hit more homers than he did (137); near the halfway point of this one, he has exactly five. And nobody in baseball had more RBI over that stretch (574); to date, he has 33. Thanks entirely to George’s machinations, the Yankees are dead last in the league in hitting, slugging, runs scored, total bases, and on-base percentage. And so the team that won more games than anyone else in the ’80s stands every chance of losing 105 this year. If this were any other kind of business, federal investigators would have been called in long ago and a conservator appointed.
None of which is to exempt Mattingly from blame, or to suggest for a moment that he exempts himself. His recent castigation of the team was the first of its kind, an outburst after a disastrous sweep in Boston during which manager Bucky Dent got canned and the wheels came off this abysmal club. By nature, Mattingly is unceasingly upbeat (read, deluded) about his teammates, and brutally hard on himself. Never mind that all the talent has gone elsewhere—to his mind, the losing this season is somehow his fault, his particular responsibility. On a team batting .240, it is not enough anymore to hit the ball hard and field his position flawlessly. He has to drive in every runner, though he hasn’t had a pitch to hit in weeks; he has to turn this team around, though no one has a clue what direction it’s headed in the first place; he has to take outfield practice, extra batting practice, more extra batting practice . . .
“I have no excuses for this year,” he says, despite the built-in excuse of a chronic back problem, which flared again this week. “You look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘You haven’t been getting it done, have you?’ I’ve swung at bad pitches, I haven’t been patient—there’s a whole lot of things I haven’t done. Naturally, you try to do too much, but I’m not even doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”
He bites the sentence off, chewing on his self-acrimony. He is generally about as expressive as prairie grass, disclosing as little about himself as is humanly possible. But this year he’s been even quieter than usual, stewing in a broth of exasperation. “If you’re around him every day, you can tell,”says first base coach Mike Ferraro. “He has a lot of anxiety to succeed. He’s a very intense person, a perfectionist. Mantle was exactly the same. A quiet guy, but boy, you didn’t want to be anywhere near him when we lost.”
“I can tell you exactly where this season went south on him,” says Tony Kubek, the Yankees’ color man extraordinaire. “It was about a month ago in a game here against K.C. The Yankees are getting one-hit, 3–0, it’s the bottom of the ninth, they’ve got men on first and second and Mattingly up. [K.C. manager John] Wathan runs out and tells his reliever, ‘Do what we did to [Wade] Boggs last year—walk him. I don’t care if there’s no base open and he’s the tying run—put him on. He goes back to the dugout, [Steve] Farr throws Donnie a curve that just does break over the plate, and he hits it back into the right field seats. The next day, the word goes out around the league: ‘There’s nobody else on this team that can beat you—do not pitch to Mattingly. I don’t think he’s had a ball to drive since.”
For the last six years Don Mattingly has simply been the best player in baseball. Over that stretch, he is first in the majors in total RBIs, third in hits, fourth in BA, fifth in HRs. He’s won a batting title, an MVP, five Gold Gloves, set a consecutive-game home run streak, has been the AP Player of the Year three times running and an All-Star every season. He didn’t get here on talent—not, at any rate, the sort of head-turning talent with which superstars are usually favored: the blinding bat speed, for instance, of Canseco, or the magic eyes of Ted Williams. No, Mattingly is the first self-made Great Yankee, a 19th-round draft pick from Evansville, Ind., who, through the alchemy of smarts and desire, turned modest gifts into exquisite skills.
“Don Mattingly’s the best first baseman I’ve ever seen,” Kubek says, “because he practices harder than most guys play. Intensity pays in the game, and Donnie’s focused from the minute he gets to the ballpark. Offensively, defensively, he’s just so tuned in. It’s his mental sharpness more than anything that makes him so special.”
Mattingly’s hitting coach, Darrell Evans, agrees. “A lot of guys work hard. The great ones work smart, know themselves backwards and forwards. I saw that in Atlanta, with [Hank] Aaron, and in Detroit, with [Alan] Trammel. Other guys may realize their potential, but the Mattinglys exceed theirs.”
Baseball people extol the work habits of Dave Stewart and such, but no one in the sport puts in the hours Mattingly does. He grew up in the mirror, emulating his hero, Rod Carew—hands back, knees bent in that old man’s crouch—and has been perfecting and refining the stroke practically every day since. Like a guy with a vintage car, he always has it up on the blocks, sweating the little things like the set of his shoulders, the tilt of his hips.
But something has gone wrong with his swing this year that no amount of tinkering has fixed. Jumping at the bait of that enormous contract he signed in April (five year, $19.3 million), he has tried to be the savior of this team. Instead of taking what the league is giving him and lining the away pitch to left, he is contorting himself, trying to jerk it into the short porch in right. That is breaking faith with his one commandment to himself, to hit the ball hard, and never mind where it goes.
“Donnie had fallen into some pretty bad habits before I got here,” says Evans, who came over as hitting instructor when Champ Summers was fired with Dent. “Normally, he’s the most patient hitter in baseball, but this year he’s just lunging at balls. I guess it’s easy enough to see why.”
That it is, though not without a little history. In ’88 when Mattingly signed his last contract (three years, $6.7 million), he got off to his habitual slow start and was roundly savaged by Steinbrenner for “lacking leadership,” George’s code word for wimpishness. The belittlement stunned and ate away at Mattingly, and at the All-Star break he exploded, telling the national press that he’d never “gotten it [respect] around here.” A hideous snit between the two ensued; for days, the back pages were bloody with George’s threats to trade him.
The whole business deeply embarrassed Mattingly, who is, as Kubek describes him, “Yankee class from head to toe—and I mean the kind you don’t see around here anymore.” Whether Mattingly knows it or not, he is surely trying to pre-empt another strike by George, flexing muscles he doesn’t have, breaking his back to be The Man. It is an old, old story—Steinbrenner signing someone to a fat contract, then promptly and publicly impugning his manhood—but it is the last time we shall see it play out here. None but the lame (Pascual Perez) and desperate Dave LaPoint will take his money anymore, though the Mark Langstons will of course be happy to use him shamelessly to drive their price up elsewhere. Money is money, and every owner in baseball has it. What George has frittered away is the only capital that mattered: the cachet of being a Yankee.
It spoke to Mattingly this spring—”It would kill me if I left and two or three years later the Yankees won”—just as it had spoken to Reggie Jackson 15 years before him, and 50 years before Reggie, to a strapping architecture student named Lou Gehrig. “Just putting on a Yankee uniform gave you confidence,” Gehrig once said. ”It made you better than you actually were.” The pride of the Yankees was no insubstantial thing; it was the team’s precious equity, built up over time by a succession of the greatest men ever to play this game. Now it is gone, squandered by the little man from Tampa, and New Yorkers are immeasurably poorer for it. They cling to Don Mattingly, cheering even his pop flies and groundouts, because he is the last Yankee, and he is all they have left.
[Illustration from the 1986 Sports Illustrated Baseball Preview issue]
Wonderful, long profile on Masahiro Tanaka by Barry Bearak in the Times yesterday. This one is worth your time, indeed:
Japan once had a popular comic book series called Kyojin no Hoshi, Star of the Giants. It was later adapted for television, movies and a video game. The stories were of a young boy who wanted to be a baseball great. He was relentlessly, even cruelly, pushed toward that goal by his father, who put his son through an onerous regimen of training. The show “was grounded in the harsh work ethic that Japan embraced” as it “clawed its way up from the ashes” of World War II, wrote Robert Whiting, author of several books about baseball in Japan. The All-Star Ichiro Suzuki, now with the Yankees, had such a father. So did many boys.
Masahiro Tanaka did not. His father, a far more restrained man who worked for a camera manufacturer, was a baseball fan but had not played the game much. He was satisfied to entrust his son to coaches.
The younger Tanaka’s introduction to organized baseball was almost happenstance. He was in the first grade, playing with his younger brother near Itami Koyanosato Elementary School. Baseball practice was going on, and Tanaka stopped to watch his schoolmates. The coach, Mitsutaka Yamasaki, asked him if he wanted to hit, and the boy looked agile as he swung the bat. Tanaka’s mother listened as the coach praised her son, and the family decided baseball might be a good way for Masahiro to make friends.
Yamasaki was extremely fortunate that year. He is 68 now and still coaching at the school, but he considers three boys from that single first grade class to be the best ballplayers he ever had. The most athletic, Hayato Sakamoto, played shortstop; the biggest, Yoshitaka Nago, pitched; Tanaka, who had the strongest arm, was deployed at catcher, the position he played until he was a teenager.
[Photo Credit: Edward Linsmier for The New York Times]
According to this report, 2014 will be Derek Jeter’s final season as a player. The announcement came on Jeter’s Facebook page.
[Painting by Michael Pattison]
Other major league teams have had as many as three Japanese players on the roster at the same time, and one — the Boston Red Sox — even briefly had four. But none have had the prestigious group the Yankees now has. As a result, the entourage of Japanese news media trailing the Yankees in 2014 could be a record-setter.
When Darvish joined the Texas Rangers in 2012, he was met at their spring training facility by about 150 reporters, the overwhelming majority of them from Japan, according to John Blake, the Rangers’ executive vice president for communications. And when Darvish arrived, the Rangers already had Koji Uehara and Yoshinori Tateyama on their roster. But only Darvish was a star.
The Yankees, in contrast, were already attracting a great deal of attention from the Japanese news media because Suzuki and Kuroda are such prominent players, with Suzuki almost surely headed to the Hall of Fame. Adding to the Japanese interest in the Yankees is the simple fact they are the most famous baseball team in the world and that Hideki Matsui played in the Bronx from 2003 to 2009.
[Photo Credit: Emily Veach for The Wall Street Journal]
Mark Teixeira’s bum wrist might bother him throughout the season. Couple his sore wrist with his steep decline and unless he’s developed a hell of a sense of humor over the off-season, it’s hard to see what he’s bringing to the infield in 2014.
That’s just fine though because they’ve got Hall of Famers at short and third and an MVP candidate at second… hold on, I’m catching up on some news items. Oh. Oh no.
So the 2014 Yankee infield might be bad. How bad? Let’s look at the Steamer projections for the infielders:
1B: Mark Teixeira .247/.341/.465, 26 HR in 558 PA (2.2 WAR, not factoring in lingering wrist issue)
2B: Brian Roberts .251/.314/.379, 6 HR in 335 PA (0.7 WAR)
SS: Derek Jeter .281/.339/.376, 5 HR in 409 PA (1.3 WAR)
3B: Kelly Johnson .231/.311/.393, 15 HR in 490 PA (1.4 WAR)
UTIL: Eduardo Nunez .257/.307/.363 2 HR in 162 PA (0.1 WAR)
UTIL: Brendan Ryan .216/.284/.297 3 HR in 308 PA (0.2 WAR)
(While I don’t think WAR is a perfect metric to stand in for overall performance, I’m going to use it below since it was the only way to easily compile the infield-specific data for each team in Yankee history).
Unfortunately for the Yankees, Steamer only projects 2262 plate appearances, so they’d need another 350 PAs or so from total scrubs who were not good enough to make the above list. But save your shuddering until the end please.
Last year’s infield was also bad. In place of Teixeira, we mostly saw Lyle Overbay. Jayson Nix and Nunez took turns sucking at short and third, and when they weren’t bad enough, David Adams was there to be even worse. The 2013 infield produced 4.2 WAR, one of the worst in modern Yankee history, but not the worst thanks to Robinson Cano’s all-star season. Cano was worth 6 wins above replacement all by himself, so the rest of that collection of suck was worth -1.8 WAR.
At least the 2013 infield was not designed to be bad. The Yankees hoped for Teixeira and Cano to play their customary 150 games and for Jeter and Arod to be back on the field some time in the spring. And not the springs of 2014 and 2015. Even with performance declines and ample substitutions, that’s not a recipe for one of the worst infields in franchise history. In fact, those four guys led one of the best infields in Yankee history to the 2009 World Series title.
In contrast, the Yankees stumble into 2014 with eyes wide open. This is hardly revelatory, as the infield represents approximately 50% of the lineup, but it’s hard to win with a terrible infield. It’s obvious there’s a strong correlation between infield quality and winning percentage. What we’re about to experience is rare in Yankee history.
Let’s go way back to 1925, the year Lou Gehrig replaced Wally Pipp. Gehrig at 22 was good, but the rest of his cohorts were not, and the result was one godawful infield. Like Cano in 2013, only Gehrig’s presence keeps the group in postive WAR. The Yankees won only 69 games and finished seventh. The next year they added Tony Lazzeri, won the pennant, and, seemingly, made putting together a quality infield an organizational priority.
From 1926 through 1964, the team from the Bronx became the Yankees as they are known today. Twenty six pennants in 38 years means that seeing the Yankees in the World Series was more probable than flipping a penny and seeing Lincoln’s mug. The infield was occasionally worth 20 WAR all by themselves and rarely dipped into the single digits.
The average infield during that span accounted for around 14 WAR, or almost 3.5 WAR per position. After Gehrig, the Yankees didn’t employ slugging first basemen to rack up the WAR but instead relied on depth and diverse skill sets around the horn. Casey Stengel maximized value with strategic platoons. Rolfe, Crosetti, Rizzuto, Gordon, McDougald, Skowron, Richardson, Johnson etc. Hall of Famers some, but solid and productive all.
Since 1965, the Yankees have still been the class of baseball, but the pendulum has swung back to Lincoln’s visage in the battle of probability with the Yankees only appearing in the Postseason 22 times in 48 years. The twin killings of the player draft and CBS ownership made it harder for the Yankees to stockpile the best amateur talent and increased competitve balance across the game.
The Yankees have occasionally sucked in the last 48 years, and they haven’t always put together a decent infield. And not surprisingly, there’s some overlap there. Using last year’s total as a baseline for inepitude, here are the worst infields since 1926:
1965 (77-85, 6th Place AL): 4.1 WAR
Clete Boyer flashed quality leather as always at third, and Joe Pepitone contrbuted something at first, but this was the beginning of the Horace Clark era and the rest of infield gave us a sign of the mediocrity to come. Clarke burst onto the scene with a typically forgettable performance in 51 games, but as often the case with teams of this era, he was hardly responsible for the overall suck. Phil Linz, Bobby Richardson and Tony Kubek combined to be truly awful as regular players.
1982 (79-83, 5th Place AL East): 1.3 WAR
Take post-1973 numbers with a grain of salt because it’s difficult to separate out the WAR of some of the DHs in here, but no amount of precision is going to improve this group to respectability. Off years from Randolph and Nettles made Roy Smalley the most productive infielder. There is so much negativity in this group it’s like my living room when Mariano Rivera blows a save. Steve Balboni blundered to -1.1 WAR in just 33 games and Bucky Dent deteriorated to -1.1 WAR in just 59 games. That’s sabotage with a quickness.
1988 (85-76, 5th Place AL East): 2.6 WAR
Mattingly’s season was just fine, but he was merely an all-star and no longer able to carry the team. Randolph was nearing the end of his usefulness as a starting second basemen. And oh my, the suck of the left side of the infield. Randy Velarde, Rafael Santana, Mike Pagliarulo and Luis Aguayo combined to produce almost -3 WAR.
1990 (67-95, Last Place, AL East): 1.2 WAR
Nobody will be surprised to see this team on the list, as they won only 67 games. This was the year Don Mattingly’s back spasmed him into oblivion. Alvaro Espinoza got 150 games to prove he was nothing close to a Major Leaguer and neither Mike Blowers nor Jim Leyritz could handle third. Steve Sax at least had a pulse, but if it wasn’t for Kevin Maas coming out of nowhere to hit a bunch of homers, the Yankees would have had negative WAR for the infield. (Also, some of Mass’s 1.3 WAR came from 25 games at DH, so really, this total should be even lower.)
2000 (87-74, 1st Place AL East, World Series Champions): 3.7 WAR
A World Champion. Maybe there is hope for 2014 after all! Derek Jeter was in superstar mode at the plate hitting .339/.416/.481. But he picked the wrong year for that slash. Since offense was so jacked up in 2000, his numbers merely tabbed him as an all-star instead of the MVP candidate he’d be in virtually any other context. UZR hates his defense so much that he racked up only 3.7 WAR. You will notice, with some non-rigorous number-crunching, that means the World Champs got exactly zero from Tino, Knobby, Brosius and their understudies.
2013 (85-77, 3rd Place AL East): 4.2 WAR
We went over this, it was all Robinson Cano. And he’s a Mariner.
2014: 6.4 WAR (Projected before Teixeira’s wrist revelation)
So 6.4 WAR is probably more like 4 or 5 WAR when you discount Teixeira and add in the scrubs who will use up the rest of those plate appearances we’re missing. If Teixeira is bad enough, it’s possible that McCann plays first base and the infield will receive a shot in the arm. Though that’s still bad news for the Yankees, because they’ll be sacrificing the catching advantage they paid handsomely to obtain this offseason. I’d be surprised if the 2014 infield is better than the 2013 infield.
The problem is that these players are too old to have much hope for upside. Kelly Johnson, I guess, could put together something special if everything breaks perfectly for him, but the other guys? Guys in their late 30s coming off career-altering injuries do NOT have career years. If we are very, very lucky, they have seasons that resemble their career averages. More likely, they play poorly and infrequently.
It’s going to be a very bad infield, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a very bad team. The Yankees will need heavy lifting from the outfield and the catcher and they paid the price for that muscle this offseason. The top of the rotation is going to have to outperform their 2000 counterparts, as the bullpen lacks 2000′s Rivera, Stanton and Nelson.
But that’s definitely possible. If Sabathia bounces back (and it’s reasonable to expect him to be a good pitcher this year), the 2014 staff could be excellent. The real problem is that the rest of the AL East is much better than it was in 2000, so the 2014 Yanks could outperform the 2000 team byseveral games and still be shut out of October baseball.
Flip things around and look at the best infields in team history (1927, 1929, 1936, 1942, 2002, 2007, 2009) and there’s much more security in booking your Postseason parties. Starting in 2015 (or this July), when second base, shortstop and probably third base are all holes to fill, it’s time to build another one.
In the winter of 2011, a plan was hatched. That plan, to get the payroll under $189 million for the 2014 season, formed the guiding principle of player acquisition for the Yankees until last week, when the Yankees signed Masahiro Tanaka. I love the Tanaka signing, but we have to acknowledge that it signifies two years of wasted effort.
Fans excused certain decisions because this plan loomed like a dark cloud. They can’t even think about going outside to talk to Zack Greinke because it’s going to rain! Kevin Youkilis for a one-year-deal adequately addresses 2013 without impacting 2014!
The Yankee rosters for 2012 (AL East Champions, ALCS losers) and 2013 (tied for 3rd in AL East) were forged with these constraints in place. How might things have played out had the Yankees been operating as usual?
The new CBA that inspired the 189 plan followed the 2011 season. In the off-seasons of 2011-12 and 2012-13, the following free agents signed contracts that extended into 2014 – the danger zone for the Yankees:
|PLAYER||POS||TEAM||1st YR of Deal||YRS||TOTAL|
|Shane Victorino||OF||Red Sox||2013||3||$39.000MM|
|Jeff Keppinger||2B||White Sox||2013||3||$12.000MM|
|Maicer Izturis||SS||Blue Jays||2013||3||$10.000MM|
|Ryan Dempster||SP||Red Sox||2013||2||$26.500MM|
|Jake Peavy||SP||White Sox||2013||2||$29.000MM|
|Jonny Gomes||LF||Red Sox||2013||2||$10.000MM|
|David Ortiz||DH||Red Sox||2013||2||$26.000MM|
|David Ross||C||Red Sox||2013||2||$6.200MM|
|Melky Cabrera||LF||Blue Jays||2013||2||$16.000MM|
I have no idea what free agents the Yanks would have pursued, but we can predict, with some degree of certainty, that they would have signed more than just CC Sabathia and Ichiro Suzuki.
Some of the good players are rendered moot before we start. Derek Jeter erases Jose Reyes. Mark Teixeira eliminates Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols. Mariano Rivera bumps off Papelbon. We can’t consider David Ortiz an actual option for DH, can we? Robinson Cano blocks second base and though Alex Rodriguez was mucking things up as usual, you’ll notice a distinct lack of free agent third basemen above. So if the Yankees were going to spend in 2011-2013, it was going to be on pitching, catching and the outfield.
Because there are five rotation spots and very rarely five starters who are both good and healthy at the same time, the starting rotation can always stand some sprucing up. Anibal Sanchez was available, affordable and miles better than anyone else the Yankees had at the back of the 2013 rotation. (Zack Greinke was also miles better than anyone the Yankees had, but he was neither as affordable nor as available, depending on what you believe about his interest in pitching half of his games in New York.) Other guys might have interesting names, but even with the benefit of hindsight, I can’t pick out obvious targets for the Yanks other than Sanchez and Greinke, two guys they didn’t even sniff around.
The bullpen, eh, I can’t find fault there. The Yankees employed Rivera, Robertson and Soriano during this time period and all of their bullpens were pretty good. It would be great if they landed a guy like Grilli or whatever, but throwing a lot of money at the bullpen is just not the best way to spend dough regardless of the overall agenda.
Catching was obviously a self-inflicted wound. The only good catcher on this list is Russell Martin and he was already a Yankee. The Yankees went with budget catching in 2013 and it contributed to them missing the Postseason.
The outfield is a pretty tough puzzle to solve because, like the rotation, there is almost always room for a new face. But the 2011 Yankees had a sweet outfield. The 2012 outfield was also going to be very good, but Gardner could not stay healthy enough to play with Granderson and Swisher and Ibanez could not replace him. Enter Ichiro, who gave them some life in 2012 but drained all that and then some in a vampiric 2013 performance. And then, of course, Vernon Wells.
The decision to re-sign Ichiro after his 2012 stint was extremely damaging as he got a 2014 contract – the only other 2014 contract the Yankees handed out was to CC Sabathia. Obviously, the outfield needed help in 2013. But who was there that the Yankees would have employed?
Josh Hamilton and B.J. Upton were busts of epic proportions. Imagine a scenario where Vernon Wells was preferable! That actually happened. But I guess the Yankees would have been in play for Hamilton. Maybe his addictions would have steered them clear, but I can’t be certain. For other proven Major Leaguers, it boils down to retaining Swisher or correctly predicting Victorino’s resurgence. Either upgrade would have been huge.
But proven Major Leaguers weren’t the only available players. As we have already discussed, international free agents such as Yoenis Cespedes as well as Yu Darvish and Yaisel Puig, remain the biggest misses for the Yankees during this time period. And the Yankees didn’t even swing. I didn’t even really notice the Iwakuma signing in Seattle, but I’d love to have him on the team. It’s possible that the Yankees didn’t think these players were any good, but it’s also possible that, with the failure of Kei Igawa fresh in their minds, they did not want to allocate any of their precious 2014 budget on relative unknowns - even if the upside was that they turned out to be bargains and enabled them to contend while pinching pennies.
On top of all this are the unexplored trades. Since the Yankees needed salary cleared for 2014, they had to be very careful about trade partners. Typical salary dumps became much more complicated or non-existant. We have no idea what kinds of trades might have been possible, but look at how they handled the Soriano trade. They gave up a prospect they liked in order to get the Cubs to pay more money.
The Yankees cut off several avenues of talent acquistion: they did not sign Major League free agents to 2014 contracts; they did not sign international free agents to 2014 contracts; and they did not trade for players with large 2014 contracts. When you turn the talent spigot off with such force, it’s requires a lot effort to turn it back on. Hence the rampant spending this year doesn’t even cover all the holes.
Without the 189 plan, it’s hard to imagine the Yankees being worse in 2013 than they actually were, but it’s also no sure thing they would have had a contender. The above list shows there were many pitfalls strewn about the jewels of free agency. They could just as easily be stuck with Josh Hamilton now as they could be enanmored with Anibal Sanchez.
When you think about the depth the 2013 Red Sox acquired via free agnecy, though, you can see that talent was available for those free to spend. In fact, the absence of Yankee dollars from the market probably played a role in driving that talent to Boston. Kind of like a black hole sucking Victorino, Napoli, Drew and Uehara through the Bronx and into a frightening dimension on the other side where they would become World Champions for the Red Sox.
So yeah, add Swisher and Martin back to the 2013 team because the Yankees failed to replace them and maybe they win the Wild Card. But then subtract Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran from the 2014 Yankees. I don’t see a clear choice there.
But a Yankee team in 2013 with Darvish, Cespedes or Puig in addition to Swisher and Martin? And maybe they found the needle in the haystack with Sanchez and blocked Uehara or Victorino from signing with the Sox? Oh well, they probably would have all wound up on the DL together anyway.
Today the Yankees agreed to contracts with all of their remaining arbitration-eligible players. Their projected payroll, based on the 25-man roster using league minimum players to fill in wherever there is not an obvious starter, is now at about $188 million dollars.
Masahiro Tanaka appears to be a player the Yankees want desperately. Will they break their backs for him? Ponder this current roster this weekend and do whatever kind of dance you need to do to help the Yankees land Tanaka.
If they do, they’ll have no chance at shrinking the payroll enough this season to fit the original austerity plan and they’ll be free to sign more bullpen and rotation depth and to try to upgrade second and third base through trades. But if they don’t sign Tanaka…
Can you imagine them stepping over the $189 million threshold for Ubaldo Jimenez or Ervin Santana or anyone else that’s currently available? The Yankees have been crash-dieting ever since 2011. Masahiro Tanaka is the diet-breaker – the butter-soaked porterhouse. These other guys aren’t even Kit-Kats.
So this Hall of Fame vote is going to be a train wreck and there’s nothing that can be done about that. It’s too bad, because players that deserve a fair discussion aren’t going to get one with the stable of candidates bulging with elite players who may have used setroids.
This problem gets personal for us as Bernie Williams has already been dumped from the ballot while Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and probably Mike Mussina are likely to encounter similar ignorance. Of course Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera won’t be largely delayed, but looking down the road doesn’t promise a smooth path for any player who isn’t a certified member of the G.O.A.T. club, certified “clean” division.
Of course the glow of the anointed warms a body for a spell, but the Madduxes, Jeters and Riveras can’t boil the blood like the Morrises and Posadas. And those raucous debates are being pushed to the margins by the glut of all-time talents with steroid taint.
This is a shame because Hall of Fame is a great place for Yankees and their fans, and that debate around each election is especially fun when Yankees are involved. Moreso, reflecting the Hall of Fame back on Yankee history is a favorite diversion. One barely has to squint to assemble entire rosters of Yankees related to the Hall of Fame.
ALL TIME GREAT YANKEE HOFers
Infield: Yogi Berra, C; Lou Gehrig, 1B; Joe Gordon 2B; Tony Lazzeri, 3B; Phil Rizzuto SS
(Lazzeri has to shift to 3B to fill out the infield. He played 166 games there over eight seasons, so it’s not crazy.)
Outfield: Mickey Mantle, LF; Joe DiMaggio CF; Babe Ruth RF
Bench: Reggie Jackson, OF; Dave Winfield OF, Earl Combs OF, Bill Dickey C
(I guess Reggie could be a starter on the team below, but I prefer him here.)
Rotation: Whitey Ford, Red Ruffing, Lefty Gomez, Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock, Jack Chesbro
Relief Ace: Rich Gossage
Of course, Rizzuto is just warming Jeter’s spot and the Goose is about to get some help in the bullpen. Absurdly stacked lineup, but the back-end of the pitching plumbs the depths of HOF standards.
PART TIME YANKEE HOFers
Infield: Frank Chance, C; Johnny Mize, 1B; Home Run Baker, 2B; Wade Boggs, 3B; Joe Sewell, SS
(Here we have to take some liberties. Frank Chance didn’t become part of a famous poem hiding behind catcher’s gear. Nevertheless, he did play 187 games there, just none for the Yanks. Home Run Baker never played second base, but the defensive spectrum may have been inverted back then and he probably could have hacked it at second better than Boggs. And Sewell made it into the HOF for his days at short, but he only played third base for the Yankees.)
Outfield: Wee Willie Keeler, LF; Rickey Henderson, CF; Enos Slaughter, RF
Bench: Paul Waner OF, Leo Durocher IF
Rotation: Catfish Hunter, Phil Niekro, Clark Griffith, Gaylord Perry, Stan Kovaleski, Burleigh Grimes, Dazzy Vance
This is a fun team because all of the starting position players save Frank Chance made real contributions to the Yankees. Six of the eight players fit easily within the top 200 Yankees and even Enos Slaughter was around to play in 15 World Series games and notch a salami against the Dodgers in ’56. The pitchers beyond Hunter and Niekro were just passing through.
NOT QUITE HOFers
Infield: Thurman Munson, C; Don Mattingly, 1B; Willie Randolph, 2B; Frankie Crosetti, SS
(Crosetti is probably too far away from the HOF to make this team, but we need a SS.)
Outfield: Charlie Keller, LF; Bernie Williams, CF; Tommy Henrich, RF
(I know there are no campaigns to elect Keller and Henrich, but they lost a lot of playing time to WW2, so let’s give them a boost.)
Bench: Roy White, OF; Elston Howard, C; Gil McDougald IF
(I remember reading Bill James entry on McDougald, something like “McDougald could have been a Hall of Famer elsewhere, but he was fated to be a Yankee,” and feeling McDougald got the better fate. I think that’s what James meant, too.)
Rotation: Ron Guidry, David Cone, Tommy John, Allie Reynolds
Bernie Williams and Willie Randolph are interesting cases to compare. Both up-the-middle All Stars on fantastic teams. Both highly respected indivduals. And if they could flip-flop in the timestream, they might both be in the Hall of Fame.
Bernie has several HOFesque hitting seasons, albeit without the career counting stats. He has the memorable postseason moments that sometimes rate. There was nobody out there taking up Bernie’s flag and he dropped off the ballot in his second time around.
Bernie had little support because the defensive statistics currently favored by the cognescenti show him to be among the worst fielding centerfielders of all time. And certainly at the end of his career, he was clearly pretty bad out there. So the group most likely to support him (the SABR people who, in the very recent past, would have placed extremely high value on the excellent-hitting center fielder of a dynasty team) wanted nothing do with him. The mouth breathers looking for 3000 and 500 wouldn’t touch him. And most of the bloggers aren’t exaclty weeping on their keyboards to see a beloved Yankee get kicked to the curb. He deserved better, even if he didn’t get ultimately get in.
Willie Randolph came up for election in 1998, a year when 11 second basemen hit double digit home runs. Randolph was an excellent player, whose speed and abilty to take a walk combined with his defense at second made him a central figure for perenially contending and occaisionally triumphant Yankee teams. He received 1.1% of the vote and was dropped in his first year.
I don’t remember any discussion of his candidacy at all, though admittedly, I wasn’t paying close attention. Now the same fielding statistics that reduce Bernie Williams to an after-thought elevate Randolph to a very credible Hall of Famer. Randolph’s career fWAR (62) is wedged right between Roberto Alomar’s and Ryne Sandberg’s. Today, Willie Randolph would be given a much longer look than he was in 1998, even if the result were the same.
This rotation may be getting jammed up soon. David Cone suffers from the same issue that dogs many of the star pitchers of the recent era – when hitting stats skyrocket, pitching stats suffer. It’s hard to get your ERA under 3.00 when the league is scoring almost 6 runs a game. Pettitte and Mussina may be on the way to keep Coney company.
And of course we have players whose careers have been truncated by tragedy, segregation, WW2, and injury. Howard battled segregration AND had to serve in the military before he could start his career. Keller lost possibly his two best years to service (his 27 & 28 year-old seasons) and then his back finished him at 30. Mattingly fell apart at 29! This team may not have the all-timers, but I get the sense these players receive the most love from the fans (Munson over Reggie, Mattingly and Randolph over Winfield and Henderson, Cone over Clemens, Bernie over Jeter.)
FUTURE YANKEE HOFers?
Infield: Jorge Posada, C; Mark Teixeira, 1B; Robinson Cano, 2B; Alex Rodriguez, 3B; Derek Jeter, SS
Outfield: Tim Raines, LF; Ichiro Suzuki, CF; Gary Sheffield, RF
Bench: Jason Giambi, 1B; Carlos Beltran OF; Bobby Abreu OF; Johnny Damon, OF; Andruw Jones, OF
Rotation: Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte
Relief Ace: Mariano Rivera
Robinson Cano and CC Sabathia have a lot of work to do, and both took turns in their careers recently that bear monitoring, so let’s leave them alone. Mark Teixeira is nowhere near the Hall of Fame and is falling further away with every pop-out and popped tendon sheath. Jason Giambi also is not getting into the Hall of Fame on merit. I also skirted over guys like Lance Berkman and Pudge Rodriguez who didn’t even play a full season with the Yankees.
So then let’s break this down (ignoring steroids) into those that are clearly in and those that will cause a debate. Rivera, Jeter, Clemens, Arod, Unit, and Ichiro are well above any statistical line voters can draw. Posada, Raines, Sheffield, Beltran, Abreu, Damon, Jones, Mussina and Pettitte are not necessarily.
I eyeball this as Posada, Raines, Sheffield, Beltran, and Mussina are HOFers. Abreu, Damon, and Pettitte are not. Jones probably is, but I just don’t understand defensive statistics well enough and his hitting doesn’t get him there alone. (I expect Raines, Beltran and Mussina to actually get in.)
The future team would be a helluva a lot more fun to contemplate if Robinson Cano were still around. Maybe Brian McCann gets back to an All-Star-level and his strict adherence to baseball etiquette eventually puts him over the top. Otherwise, hope the Alabama Hammer puts nails in the ninth inning for a decade or so, because it’s about to get lonely on this squad.
The Hall of Fame is a cool place to visit. I went there three times from the ages 12 to 18, but then I haven’t been back in 20 years. So even for big time patrons, it exists mostly as a topic to argued over in the winter before spring training starts. To me, that dwarfs the problem of Barry’s plaque – which I may or may not ever see even if ever gets one. We are losing the chance to discuss Jorge Posada’s piss-stained hands until we are pinstriped in the face. And over the years, that’s become the most popular wing of the museum.
Sometimes, the best trades or free agent signings are the ones a team doesn’t make. Many Yankee fans seem to feel that way about the team’s decision to let Robinson Cano head west to Seattle. Is that wishful thinking? Perhaps, but considering the team’s eager willingness to trade him earlier in his career, such an outcome would be par for the course.
What about the flip side? When it comes to transactions not made, is relief really more common than regret? Or, are opportunities lost just as impactful as serendipitous gains? Since the advent of free agency in 1976, no team has been more active on the open market than the Yankees, so there are plenty of case studies to consider. Listed below are some of the higher profile transactions that the team seriously considered, but never made, accompanied by alternatives that were implemented, when applicable, and an evaluation of how the net result influenced the course of franchise history.
1976: Yankees pursue free agent Bobby Grich, but settle on Reggie Jackson as a consolation.
Background: Baseball’s first free agents were subject to a very different system than today. Instead of simply hitting the open market, players filing for free agency would enter what was known as a re-entry draft. Teams would then select players in a pre-determined order, much like the amateur draft, but instead of acquiring exclusivity, they would simply be granted the right to negotiate. Because only 12 teams could select any one potential free agent, the draft process effectively cut the player’s market in half. In addition, individual teams could only sign two net new free agents (i.e., if a team lost a free agent, it could sign three). These limitations were intended to limit competition for players, but they wound up constraining supply more than limiting demand. Exponentially higher salaries were the result.
Fresh off a World Series sweep at the hands of the Reds, the Yankees entered the winter seeking a player who could put them over the top. As it turned out, Reggie Jackson fit the bill perfectly, but he wasn’t the Yankees’ first choice. When it came time to make their first selection in the re-entry draft, the Bronx Bombers went with Orioles’ gold glove 2B Bobby Grich (Jackson was selected sixth, but that was partly due to the relative lack of interest from teams who knew they would not be able to sign him). The only problem for the Yankees was Grich was intent of playing close to his home in Long Beach. So, when Grich reached an accord with the California Angels, the Yankees shifted their focus to Jackson and signed him shortly thereafter.
Outcome: In five years with the Yankees, Jackson was the straw the stirred the drink. From 1977 to 1981, the right fielder posted an OPS+ of 148 and was a key contributor to two World Championships, including being named MVP of the Fall Classic in 1977.
Over the span, Bobby Grich was equally impressive with the Angels, compiling an OPS+ of 128 and playing strong defense at second base. In 1979, Grich also helped the Angels win their first division title.
Verdict: Although the Yankees very well might have enjoyed similar success with Grich, it’s hard to imagine the second baseman (who would have played short stop for the Yankees) providing more value than Jackson. Also, when you consider the contributions of Willie Randolph and Bucky Dent during the five years in question, it seems clear that the Yankees’ plan B in 1976 turned out to be the best course of action.
1982: Sign Floyd Bannister, trade Ron Guidry to Texas for Buddy Bell, or Ron Guidry or Dave Righetti to Kansas City for George Brett, and deal Graig Nettles to San Diego for a minor leaguer (the quality of which would depend on how much of Nettles’ $500,000 salary the Yankees were willing to eat)
Background: After a disappointing fifth place finish in 1982, the Yankees were looking to shake things up in the offseason, with Floyd Bannister being the linchpin to a series of dramatic moves. The Mariners’ 27-year old lefty was coming off a season in which he led the league in strikeouts, making him one of the most coveted players in the re-entry draft. If the Bronx Bombers were able to sign Bannister, news reports suggested they would then flip Guidry or Righetti for either Bell or Brett and jettison Nettles for a minor leaguer.
Considering all of the moving pieces involved, it’s hard to know whether the Yankees could have executed the plan, but it was all made moot when Bannister signed with the White Sox. So, instead of the exciting chain of events that might otherwise have unfolded, the Yankees’ winter shopping consisted of signing Don Baylor and Steve Kemp.
Outcome: Over the term of his five year deal with the White Sox, Bannister proved to be a solid contributor, (200 innings in all but one season; ERA+ of 107), but hardly the cornerstone of a rebuilding process. Both Guidry and Righetti proved to be more valuable pitchers over the span, albeit not by much.
It’s hard to believe Brett was really available. However, if the Yankees failed to do everything in their power to obtain him, it was a big mistake as the third baseman posted an OPS+ of 148 from 1983 to 1987 and remained one of the best players in the game throughout the rest of the decade. Although a more modest performer with an OPS+ of 108, Bell would have also represented a big upgrade for the Yankees, who wound up losing Nettles via free agency after the following season. It would take nearly a decade for the Yankees to acquire another third baseman of similar stature.
Verdict: In just about any iteration, the Yankees would have benefitted greatly from this deal. The acquisition of Bell would have more than offset the downgrade from Guidry to Bannister, while the idea of Brett in pinstripes seems as cataclysmic now as it must have then. Was such a deal really on the table? If so, the Yankees’ failure to consummate it qualifies as one of the team’s worst non-moves.
1985: Trade Don Baylor for Carlton Fisk
Background: In 1985, Carlton Fisk posted career highs in home runs and RBIs, but the White Sox were not eager to sign their 37-year old catcher to a long-term deal. Instead, they worked out a sign and trade with the Yankees, whereby Chicago would ink Fisk to a new deal and then flip him to the Bronx Bombers for disgruntled DH Don Baylor. However, Baylor had a no-trade clause, and he wouldn’t waive it unless Chicago sweetened the deal. Team co-owner Eddie Einhorn angrily balked at the request, proclaiming, “Let him stay with the Yankees”.
Baylor did stay with the Yankees, but only for another month, at which time he was dealt to the Red Sox for Mike Easler. Fisk’s staying power was much greater. Not only did the catcher sign a new two-year deal that offseason, but he remained with the White Sox for the final eight years of his career.
Outcome: Baylor had a solid year for the Red Sox in 1986 and provided above average offense over the next two, but the Yankees made out better with Easler. However, over the longer term, Fisk would have proven to be a better replacement. Despite having the worst season of his career in 1986, Fisk posted an OPS+ of 112 over the next five campaigns, which easily dwarfed the Yankees’ output from their catchers over that span.
Verdict: Assuming the Yankees had kept Fisk for more than two years, they would have easily come out the victor if Baylor had agreed to waive his no trade clause. Would Fisk’s production and leadership have made a difference on Yankee teams that came up short from 1986 to 1988? We’ll never know, but the value he provided at a very weak position for the Yankees would have made the team even more competitive during those years.
1986: Sign any or all of the following free agents: Tim Raines, Jack Morris and Andre Dawson
Background: During the winter of 1985, many of the best players in the game filed for free agency, but strangely, they attracted little interest around the league. Nearly every free agent that off season not only ended up re-signing with their current team, but they did so at terms well below recent norms. The same situation arose in 1986, but this time players were even more desperate to drum up a market. Jack Morris, then regarded as one of the best pitchers in the game, was so exasperated by the process that he offered his services to a list of five teams headed by the Yankees. Every single one turned him down without even discussing the terms. Morris was eventually forced to accept the Tigers’ offer of arbitration.
Tim Raines and Andre Dawson ran into the same difficulties as Morris, but the Expos’ outfielders didn’t relent as easily. Each outfielder refused to accept arbitration or re-sign with Montreal by the January 7 deadline, making them ineligible to return to the team until May 1. Faced with the prospect of not playing for a month, Dawson practically gave the Cubs a blank contract with his signature on it. Meanwhile, Raines waited patiently for another team to show interest. None ever did, and the outfielder was back in Montreal when the calendar turned to May.
Outcome: Raines, Dawson and Morris all had stellar seasons in 1987, and the two outfielders remained very productive for several years thereafter. However, it wouldn’t have taken a long-term deal to sign either or all three. By simply offering fair market value, the Yankees could have added as many as three All Stars to a team that won 90 games in 1986.
Verdict: By colluding with other teams to depress player salaries, the Yankees forfeited a chance to improve their team and prolonged a postseason drought that would last another eight years. The organization’s short sightedness also exposed the league to a costly lawsuit settlement and years of labor acrimony. Considering all the downside to saving a few extra dollars, the winter of collusion is the most glaring example of the worst moves being the ones you don’t make.
1992: Sign Barry Bonds and Greg Maddux
Background: The previous four seasons had been among the worst in Yankees’ history. After the suspension of owner George Steinbrenner, the team had retrenched and embarked upon a rebuilding process that was just starting to yield dividends. So, with the Boss on his way back from exile, and the Yankees’ farm system stocked with the talent, the team planned a master stroke. That winter, the free agent market was headlined by one of the best pitchers and hitters in the game…players who seemed destined to rank among the all-time greats.
The Yankees aggressively courted Barry Bonds and Greg Maddux, but GM Gene Michael couldn’t reel in either. Bonds’ contract demands, particularly his insistence on more than five years, proved too rich for the Yankees, while Maddux took less money to play in Atlanta. As a result, the team was forced to explore other options, which turned out to be Wade Boggs and Jimmy Key.
Outcome: Boggs and Key proved to be valuable consolation prizes, and were important contributors when the Yankees won the World Series in 1996, but Bonds and Maddux each continued on their paths toward immortality and, in the case of the former, infamy.
Verdict: If the Yankees had been able to sign either or both, it stands to reason that their ascendency toward the top of the baseball world would have been expedited. Having said that, it’s hard to imagine the team being more successful from that point forward, so, even though the franchise would have been given a boost in the early part of the decade, most Yankee fans probably wouldn’t want to change how the rest of it unfolded.
1998: Sign Albert Belle; let Bernie Williams go
Background: The Yankees had just completed one of the greatest seasons in baseball history, and Bernie Williams was at the forefront. That year, Williams won the batting title, gold glove, and posted the league’s second highest OPS+ at 160. It was the perfect time to be a free agent.
The Yankees initial offer to Williams was for five years and $37.5 million (eventually raised to $60 million), but the center fielder wanted something closer to seven years and $90 million. The gap was so wide, the team prepared to move on by courting Albert Belle, the only player in the A.L. with an OPS+ higher than Williams in 1998. Then, the Red Sox stepped into the fray, offering Williams the terms he wanted. Around the same time, the Orioles trumped the Yankees’ offer for Belle, so now even their backup plan was on shaky grounds. For whom would the team up the ante?
Before agreeing to the Red Sox offer, Williams made a last ditch effort to keep his pinstripes by calling George Steinbrenner directly. By the end of the call, the Yankees essentially matched the Red Sox offer, keeping Williams in the Bronx for seven more years.
Outcome: Williams was an elite performer for the first four years of his new deal, and over the full term provided value commensurate with his salary. The center fielder was also a key part of two more World Series victories and ended his career as one of the most prolific post season performers in baseball history. Meanwhile, Belle, who signed with the Orioles for five years and $65 million, had a very strong 1999 campaign, but only played two more years because of a debilitating hip injury.
Verdict: It’s a good thing the Yankees didn’t put plan B into action. The loss of Williams’ consistent excellence over the next four years, and the likelihood of Belle’s chronic hip flaring up in the Bronx, would have removed a pillar from the Yankees’ dynasty and, perhaps, caused it to fall much sooner.
This example most closely resembles the Yankees’ recent decision to effectively replace Robinson Cano with Jacoby Ellsbury (or Carlos Beltran). Interestingly, if the Yankees had increased their last offer to Cano in line with the bump given to Williams (approximately 40% in years and total value), the terms would have matched Seattle’s. However, this time, no phone call was made, and, considering the Yankees’ posture, it probably wouldn’t have been well received anyway. Now, the Yankees have to hope they can replace Cano’s remarkable consistency, which was also a hallmark of Williams.
2003: Claim Manny Ramirez from irrevocable waivers
Background: Manny Ramirez was an extremely productive member of the Red Sox’ lineup, but his mercurial behavior often left the team exasperated. So, after a crushing loss to the Yankees in the 2003 ALCS, the Red Sox determined it was time to go in another direction, which meant shedding the remaining four years of Ramirez’ contract. To bring that about, Boston placed Ramirez on irrevocable waivers, essentially making him available to any team who was willing to pay the slugger $20 million per year.
Outcome: No one claimed Ramirez, who posted an OPS+ of 149 over the next four seasons and played a vital role in two World Series victories for the long suffering Boston franchise. Although the Red Sox relationship with Ramirez ended acrimoniously, they didn’t part company until 2008, when the Red Sox extended his contract by picking up one of the two team options attached to the original deal.
Verdict: The Yankees’ failure to claim Ramirez was mitigated by the signing of Gary Sheffield, who essentially matched the Red Sox slugger at half the cost in 2004 and 2005. However, Ramirez had greater staying power, and, by plucking him from Boston, the Yankees would have benefited from removing one of their chief tormenters from a bitter rival. On the whole, the Yankees would have been a better team with Ramirez during the four years that remained on his deal, and their relative supremacy over the Red Sox would have likely been extended.
2004: Sign Carlos Beltran instead of trading for Randy Johnson
Background: The Yankees were hoping to wash away the bitter taste of their collapse in the ALCS with a big acquisition in the off season, and two long coveted players just so happened to be available that winter. However, the team decided that it could only afford to add one, so the Bronx Bombers passed on Carlos Beltran, who offered the team a discount, in favor of trading for Randy Johnson.
Outcome: In 2005, Randy Johnson was the anchor of an otherwise shaky rotation, and his 5-0 record against the Red Sox turned out to be a crucial reason why the Yankees bested their rival for the division title. After that season, however, the Big Unit petered out in pinstripes and was traded back to the Diamondbacks one year later. In contrast, Beltran posted an OPS+ of 130 over the seven years of the deal he signed with the Mets, although two seasons were cut short by injury.
Verdict: Although Beltran provided much more value than Johnson, in 2005, the Big Unit helped the Yankees rebound from their ALCS collapse. Also, Johnny Damon, whom the Yankees likely would not have signed with Beltran in the fold, helped make up some of the void left in centerfield. On the whole, however, it’s hard to argue that the Yankees wouldn’t have been better off with Beltran. Brian Cashman is undoubtedly hoping that the same is true this time around, making the Yankees recent acquisition of the switch hitter a case of better late than never.
2007: Trade for Johan Santana
Background: It had been seven years since the Yankees last won the World Series, and the team’s lackluster starting pitching was the main culprit. So, with the Twins dangling Johan Santana, it seemed a certainty that the Yankees would backup the truck for the talented left hander. Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, Melky Cabrera, Robinson Cano, and Austin Jackson were all coveted by the Twins, and it was reported that the Yankees would have to part with at least three to make a deal. That price proved to be too steep, especially considering some of the concerns the team had about Santana’s durability. So, instead of trading for the ace they so desperately needed, the Yankees allowed the Mets to swoop in and claim that winter’s biggest prize.
Outcome: After the 2008 season, it looked as if the Yankees had blundered badly. Santana finished third in the NL Cy Young race, while the Bronx Bombers missed the playoffs for the first time since 1993. However, Santana began to regress and never again threw 200 innings in a season. In addition, all of the players on the Twins wish list contributed in varying degrees (either in pinstripes or as a trade chip) to the Yankees’ future success.
Verdict: Passing on Santana proved to be the right decision, regardless of the package sent to Minnesota, although including Cano in the deal would have been catastrophic. By keeping all of their prospects and signing a healthier ace the following season, the Yankees quickly rebounded in 2009, winning their 27th World Championship with Sabathia, Cabrera, Cano, Hughes, and Chamberlain all playing a key role.
2010: Sign Cliff Lee
Background: The Yankees tried to acquire Cliff Lee at the 2010 trading deadline, but the deal fell through when David Adams’ medical report revealed a red flag. The Yankees weren’t willing to amend the deal, so the Mariners traded Lee to Texas instead. After watching Lee dominate them in that year’s ALCS, the Yankees were determined to sign the lefty during the off season. However, Lee was more interested in beating the pinstripes than wearing them, so he took less money to join the Phillies.
Outcome: In the three years since signing the deal, Lee has remained one of the best pitchers in baseball, posting an ERA+ of 139 in over 660 innings. Not only would he have made the Yankees a better team during that period, but the left hander would also fill the void in the team’s starting rotation that remains today.
Verdict: Because Lee turned down the Yankees, the team can’t be blamed for inaction. However, had the club been willing to sweeten its offer to the Mariners during the 2010 season, he may have been more amenable to remaining in the Bronx that off season. As a result, that initial reticence has become a source of regret for Yankee fans, and, perhaps, Brian Cashman as well.
In Game 5 of the 2000 World Series, Mike Piazza represented the tying run with two out in the bottom of the ninth. Mariano Rivera was on the hill for the Yankees protecting the 4-2 lead and attempting to shepherd home another World Championship. Rivera uncorked an 0-1 cutter and Piazza appeared to make solid contact and drove the ball to center field.
The ball took off and spun Bernie Williams around as he raced back in pursuit. But Shea Stadium isn’t a band box and the last second cut of Mariano’s signature pitch guided the ball past Piazza’s sweet spot and down towards the end of the bat. Bernie caught up to the ball easily before the warning track and the Yankees were champions again.
Mike Piazza flied / flew out to center field.
Steven Pinker, author of The Language Instinct and expert linguist (among other things), says, “In baseball, one says that a slugger has flied out; no mere mortal has ever “flown out” to center field.”
Before you trust him implicitly, be careful, dude’s a Red Sox fan.
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