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October 30, 2003

Looking forward
by Larry Mahnken

So, I took a few days off. I needed a few days off.

It hurts to lose. It doesn't matter how often your team wins, losing still hurts.

Well, it's time to move on. The Yankees lost, the lost to a team that they're better than, and a team that they played better than. They were in control of the series, and had a chance to put the Marlins away, but they couldn't get the big hit, Joe Torre put the wrong pitcher into the game, David Wells's poor work ethic caught up to him at the worst time, and then they were dominated by an excellent young pitcher, and they didn't do what was needed to get him out of the game. More than being beaten, they lost, and it sucks.

It happens. That's the way the postseason works, that's the way baseball works. There's changes that need to be made, but an overhaul would be a bit extreme. They didn't lose because of some character flaw, but because they didn't get hits at the right time. The Yankees could bring in the best player at every position, and it still could happen again.

But changes need to be made, improvements need to be made. The don't need to be made because the Yankees lost the World Series, they would need to be made even if they won. Boston is going to get better, Toronto is going to get better, and if the Yankees stay at the same level, or get worse, making the playoffs is not going to be a sure thing. If they want to make the playoffs next season, if they want to win a title next season, they're going to have to make moves to get better.

Over the next few days, I'm going to outline what I think the Yankees should do in the offseason with their roster. For Bryan Smith's Wait 'Til Next Year blog, I answered some of his questions, and I caught some flak from a couple of Primates for my comments that the Yankees should try to sign not only one of the big free agent outfielders but also one of the big free agent pitchers. I didn't make this suggestion because having the best players on the Yankees is "some kind of birthright", but because I think the Yankees have as much right to sign those players as everyone else. It doesn't matter that the Yankees have won more of their fair share of World Championships, it's still fair for them to try to win more. (By the way, the Yankees would have to go over 620 years without a title to balance the scales. Seriously.)

I don't expect the Yankees to make most of the moves I suggest, and they might not make any of them. They might not even be the best moves: feel free to contribute your ideas in the comments.

Today, I'll look at the catchers:

The Yankees have Jorge Posada signed for the next few years (he can void his contract after next season, but with him being due at least $21 million over the final three years of the contract, it's unlikely that he'll do that), so they don't have to worry at all about a starting catcher. Posada was the best offensive catcher in the American League in 2003, and a legitimate MVP candidate. At 32, a decline is inevitable, and his defense is not strong, but he should still remain one of the top catchers in the game, and be a huge asset to the team.

Where the Yankees have room to improve is with their backup catcher. John Flaherty filled that role this past season, and while his OPS looked pretty good for a catcher, that was mostly because of his 2 HR game in Baltimore this August, for the most part, he was the same weak-hitting catcher he's always been. Joe Torre has always liked the glove men as backup catcher, so they might bring back Flaherty or someone like him, but it's important to remember the price the Yankees paid for having him on the roster. In Game Four of the World Series, the Yankees pinch-ran David Dellucci for Jorge Posada when he was the tying run on first with two outs. It was the right move to make, that run had to score. But when that run did score, they had to put John Flaherty into the lineup. Flaherty came up twice in extra innings, went 0 for 2, and the Yankees ultimately lost the game, and the series. If the Yankees had a good hitting backup catcher, they might have won the game, and if they had won that game, they would almost certainly have been World Champions.

A better hitting catcher would have helped the Yankees during the regular season, too. When Flaherty gave Posada a day off, it left a hole in the Yankees' lineup, and often they would have to bring Posada in to pinch hit and catch when the game was close in the late innings, and Flaherty came up in a clutch spot. The lack of production from Flaherty might also have dissuaded Torre from giving Posada enough time off, and while Posada kept hitting in the second half, he was also an offensive zero in the ALDS and World Series (though he was great in the ALCS). A better hitting catcher might give Posada a game off a week, and keep him fresh for October, and also help him maintain his offensive value for a couple more seasons.

My suggestion would be to sign free agent catcher Todd Pratt, who played with Philadelphia the past couple of seasons. Pratt isn't much with the glove, but he can hit quite well. He likely can be signed for about the same the Yankees were paying for Flaherty this past season, and in addition to giving Posada time off without being a major hit to the lineup, he can also be used as a pinch-hitter.

The factors that decide whether the Yankees can bring in Pratt are whether Philadelphia brings him back (and if he wants to come back), and if Joe Torre is willing to have a backup catcher who can hit but not field. I think it's likely that he'll go back to Philly, and even if he doesn't that the Yankees will bring in another weak-hitting catcher. The Game Four situation is unlikely to happen again next year, and it didn't really cost the Yankees the World Series by itself, anyway, so backing up Posada with a similar player to Flaherty won't kill them, but the benefits of a player like Pratt: more rest for Posada, less of an offensive hit when Posada sits, and a deeper bench makes it, in my opinion, a move that would make the Yankees a better team.