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September 23, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

The Red Sox won, the Yankees lost, and Oakland didn't play, so all the celebrations get put off another day. Jeff Weaver's probably killed himself by now, but this loss didn't mean a damn thing, clinching the division is just a formality.

Looking back at the Jeff Weaver trade, the similarities to the Boone trade are interesting. The Yankees gave up top prospects for a parallel move at a position that didn't need improvement anyway, the player they received was insignificantly younger than the one they let go, and used the wrong hand. And, of course, they ended up playing like crap. Maybe the Yankees would have destroyed Ted Lilly's arm by now, who knows? But having Jason Arnold and John-Ford Griffin in their system would have been a tremendous help to the Yankees this season when they went looking for a right fielder. Maybe they could have gotten a long-term solution.

But there's nothing the Yankees can do about it now. Weaver is, of course, a mental wreck now, and there are questions as to whether he can ever turn it around. But should the Yankees really just cut him? Or dump him off on some other team for nothing? It might satisfy our frustrations about how he's pitched by doing that, but it wouldn't do the Yankees any good. Especially since they threw away Claussen, the Yankees are going to be desperate for pitching help next season. Even if they sign Colon, they'll need another pitcher, and if they sign Colon and Millwood, they'll be out of the race for a top right-fielder, and unless they make a push for Kaz Matsui and move Jeter or Soriano to the outfield--which I see as being unlikely, though a good idea--they'll be left with a hole out there for at least another year, though not necessarily a gaping one (Karim Garcia should be okay). No, the Yankees are going to have to hang on to Jeff Weaver, stick him in the back of the rotation, and hope that he can turn it around. They've made their bed, and now they have to lie in it. Getting rid of him won't fix anything.

Another interesting event is the offensive explosion of Alfonso Soriano, who defeated me in my Runs Created wager yesterday by crossing the 113.99 threshold, and with two more home runs (seven in his last eight games), he's making the Home Run wager a close thing. It's nice that he decided to heat up just when the games stopped having any vital importance, maybe he'll keep it up for another month--but it would be unlike him. Maybe he'll keep crushing the ball through the Division Series, but his pattern indicates that he's likely to be miserable in the Championship Series and World Series, too. Well, I wouldn't mind if he was miserable in the World Series anyway, 'cause that would mean the Yankees were playing in it, but you get my point.

This week I'm giving my own evaluations of the Yankees' roster going into the postseason. It's in part to fill space, and in part to put in print how I really feel about these players, rather than just criticize them. Today, we've come to a player who I don't believe I've criticized yet, Jorge Posada.

In the 2001-2002 offseason, the Yankees signed Posada to a 5-year, $51 million extension, one that was met with immediate derision by the sabermetric community. He was 30 years old, an age where most players start to decline, and catchers in particular are likely to decline dramatically. Posada wasn't out there for his defense, and if his OPS dropped below the .838 it had been at two straight seasons, that $10 million investment would look very foolish.

But then, there is reason to believe that Posada can sustain his value longer than a typical catcher. He started life as a middle infielder, which saved him the wear and tear that other catchers have dealt with as they were still learning to hit. This may have not only helped him become a better hitter, but also extended his life as a catcher in the majors. So far, it seems that it has.

At the All-Star break, when Posada was voted the starting catcher for the American League, Red Sox fans howled that Jason Varitek should have been the starter, that he was clearly superior to Posada. It was a hard case to make then, as his higher OPS was due to a higher SLG, much lower OBP and a better hitters' park, and Posada had the far better track record. Events have shown that the coronation of Varitek as the AL's best catcher was premature, as Posada has not only sustained his performance throughout the season, but improved on it. He is clearly the best catcher in the American League.

Is Posada the MVP? No, Alex Rodriguez is, and all the discussions about who should be MVP are just BBWAA member making excuses to not vote for A-Rod, and it's not really about the Rangers' record, it's about his paycheck, which writers and fans resent. The wrangling around with the meaning of value (which, if they would actually read their ballots, the writers would see was already CLEARLY defined as "strength of offense and defense") has led us to a definition that would mean, in an extreme scenario, if A-Rod hit .400 with 90 HRs and 230 RBI for the Tigers (which might get them to, say, 70 wins), he wouldn't be the MVP. What's even dumber than that is that there are people who will try to argue that it would be THE RIGHT DECISION to not give him the MVP in that scenario. And there will probably be at least one person who will try to argue that point in my comments section below. While using poor grammar.

But I've digressed again. This is about Posada, not A-Rod, and if the writers aren't going to give the MVP to Rodriguez, giving it to Posada wouldn't be the worst alternative (that would be giving it to Ichiro!). In AL Runs Above Position, only A-Rod and Manny Ramirez ranks ahead of Posada. As I said, he wouldn't be the best choice, but he wouldn't be a horrible choice either.

It's just an award, anyway. What's more important is that, for the first time since 2000 (coincidentally, the last time the Yankees won the World Series), Posada has put up an OPS above .900 in the second half, and for the first time in his career, it's higher than his first half OPS. A large part of that has to be due to the presence of John Flaherty, who Joe Torre trusted enough to play about once a week, and surprisingly hit enough to minimize the loss of Posada's bat. That extra time off means Posada is going into to Postseason healthy and relatively rested--he'll probably get most of next weekend off--and maybe he'll have his first good postseason this year.

Posada really is a great hitter, not just for a catcher. But the other side of the ball, on defense, he's not very good. He's not awful, he allows more than his fair share of passed balls (though an overzealous scorekeeper in Boston helped a little with that), and he allows stolen bases at more than the break-even rate, but he's not killing them with the glove. His defense doesn't detract from his value anywhere near the way it does for Derek Jeter, Alfonso Soriano or, lately, Bernie Williams. While there are vastly superior defensive catchers out there, the offense of Posada crushes that disadvantage. In every position where there is a choice between defense and offense, the Yankees have chosen offense. At catcher, at least, it's a no-brainer. You'd have to be a historically lousy catcher to negate Jorge Posada's bat, and Jorge isn't one.

You always hear going into the postseason what an unfair advantage the Yankees have in acquiring players, and that no team can hope to compete when the Yankees can go out and sign Jason Giambi and Mike Mussina, and stock up on stars elsewhere, too. But the biggest "unfair" advantage that the Yankees have is that they get incredible offensive production out of their catcher, shortstop and second baseman--all of whom are homegrown--giving them a headstart when they go to fill the rest of the lineup card. If the Yankees had truly maximized their financial advantage when filling out the team, they would have clinched the division in late August.

I think the Yankees are actually stronger at starting catcher, relative to position, than they are at first base with Giambi and Johnson. Especially with how Jorge's hitting, going into the postseason, I rate him an A+.

Tomorrow, it starts to get ugly: the starting outfielders--Bernie, Bustzilla, and...Karim Garcia, I guess.