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November 29, 2003

Wakeup Call
by Larry Mahnken

The Yankees won 101 games last season, they won the American League Pennant, and they took the World Series to six games before losing. The ending was disappointing, but the overall outcome is very good, and if next season ends up the same way, that's a very good result, too.

But if the Yankees allow themselves to be complacent, and try to do the same thing with the same roster, they will likely fail--not because they will decline, though they likely will, but because their competitors will be getting better, trying to catch them, and trying to pass them. If the Yankees want to win next season, they have to be better than they were this season, because what was almost good enough this year won't be good enough next year.

So far, it seems the Yankees have been more interested in retooling than making bold improvements. Rather than reconstruct the machine, they are tacking more parts on, covering holes with makeshift patches. It is, for the most part, what they've been doing since '98, trying to keep the dynasty going one more year, every year, with only the next season in mind. But eventually, the frame of the team they're building around might cave in, and bring the whole house tumbling down. It hasn't happened, the Yankees keep winning from April through September, and while October hasn't ended the way the Yankees would have liked since 2000, their "failures" are largely unlucky, and each series they lost could have gone the other way. The Yankees haven't missed the playoffs since the early 90's, and they haven't lost the AL East since '97. Until they do, they are unlikely to suffer a shock significant enough to cause a top-to-bottom renovation of the roster.

But maybe this week that shock finally came, and they didn't have to lose anything for it to happen. The Red Sox acquired former World Series co-MVP Curt Schilling from the Diamondbacks in what has to be considered an excellent trade for Theo Epstein. The Red Sox have addressed an area of need in about the best possible way, and they have done so without taking away from strength. No, the deal the Diamondbacks accepted for Schilling was a lesser one than they reportedly demanded from the Yankees, but it was a superior offer to what they Yankees could have constructed without Nick Johnson or Alfonso Soriano.

Now the Red Sox have not only as good an offense as anyone in baseball, but they have one of the very best 1-3 rotations in the game, too, with Martinez, Schilling and Lowe. Schilling's salary makes it difficult for the Red Sox to retain both Pedro Martinez and Nomar Garciaparra after this season--perhaps either--and they may have mortgaged their future to take one shot at the World's Championship that has eluded them since 1918, but what a shot it is. The Red Sox, right now, are the best team in baseball, and as it stands, winning next season might be less about things breaking right for them than it is about things not breaking wrong for them.

So what can the Yankees do about this trade? Nothing. There is no trade that the Yankees can make and no free agent they can sign that will make Curt Schilling not a Red Sock, there is no transaction that the Yankees can make that will make his impact on the quality of the Red Sox less in any way. The playing field has been raised, there is nothing the Yankees can do to bring it back down.

What they can do is bring themselves up, make bold moves to become significantly better, not just marginally better--something that they should be doing anyway. There are obvious holes that need filling with quality players, but there are also subtle holes (in visibility, not impact) that need attention, rather than being ignored as they have been for so long. This trade could be the wakeup call that the Yankees need, and how they respond is crucial to their chances for next season.

If they underreact, avoiding making a bold move in response, such as moving Alfonso Soriano to center field, Williams to DH, and trading Nick Johnson, it gets Bernie out of center and Soriano away from second base, but nobody knows if Soriano will be any good in the outfield, and it does nothing to address Jeter's awful defense, and makes the lineup worse, as whoever replaces Soriano at second won't be nearly the hitter Nick Johnson is. It would probably make the team worse rather than better, and the Yankees will have to focus on the Wild Card early next year.

On the other hand, they could overreact, and trade Soriano or Johnson for players that don't make the Yankees appreciably better, if at all, while making more money, and having the name recognition that will have the media groaning, while not actually helping anything.

I don't really know what they should do, or what their options really are, but what I'm starting to think is that they Yankees should react by doing their very best to get Alex Rodriguez.

I don't think the Rangers should trade Rodriguez--he's not the problem--but if they are foolish enough to put him out there for a reasonable price, why shouldn't the Yankees get in on the bidding? Because they already have Jeter? If anyone really believes that the Yankees would be better off with Jeter at short and Boone at third than Rodriguez at short and Jeter at third, please turn in your brain for repairs. Sure, Jeter's defense at third might be as bad as it is at short, but rather than creating a hole on the right side of the infield and the middle of it, he just creates one on the right--while A-Rod makes up for some of Jeter's shortcomings in the hole, and solidifies their up-the-middle D, too. Not to mention the improved offense. And if Soriano is part of the trade, then you can move Boone to second, where his offense is less of a negative, and his defense will probably be a plus.

I think the Yankees should make an offer for A-Rod. Offer Soriano, maybe offer Johnson, too. Take all his salary, send some cash along, see if there's anyone else in the farm system that will make the deal work, too. If the trade can be made, make it. An opportunity to acquire a player like Alex Rodriguez doesn't come along very often--this is the second time in four years the Yankees have that chance. Don't let complacency--the feeling that what you have seems good enough--again allow this chance to pass. Plus, when they idiotically move Rodriguez to third next year, it'll give me something to bitch about all season.

My instincts tell me the Yankees will make a good move, but not a bold one. My fears tell me that they'll make a stupid move. My dog tells me that he contains the spirit of a 6000 year old man. Wait, forget I told you that last one.

November 23, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

Hey, that was fast. I'm back.

Okay, it wasn't fast, I didn't have cable or the internet for two weeks, and had to rely entirely on the newspaper for baseball news, and in a minor league city in the offseason, that is pretty much half a page, if that.

I don't seem to have missed anything big in the last couple of weeks, the BBWAA picked the right AL ROY (for the wrong reasons), the wrong NL ROY, the right MVPs, and probably the right Cy Young Award winners. Not really much to bitch about. 5-7% of anonymous steroid tests came back positive this year, I don't see this as being at all a problem, I was actually expecting it to be higher. I do notice that the media has blown this waaaaaaaaaay out of proportion, probably because they have a need to be outraged about something. I also agree with Rob Manfred for the first, and likely last time, when he told the Olympics to basically shut the hell up. Baseball cannot and should not be held to the standard that the Olympics are held to, or want to be held to. They are not events of the same nature, and not run with the same motives. Baseball is an industry, the Olympics are a competition. The people who run Baseball have a financial investment in the specific competitors, the people who run the Olympics do not. And, of course, steroids do not threaten the integrity of the event in baseball as they could in the Olympics. The goal in baseball is not to be the fastest or strongest. Steroids affect the record books for individual achievements, but no more, and probably much less, than park effects, equipment changes, training practices, and segregation. It's not worth getting outraged about, especially when the known usage is so small.

As expected, the free agent market is moving slowly. The Yankees want Andy Pettitte back, and I think they'll get him back, but serious interest from Houston and token inquiries by the Red Sox to drive the price up means he certainly won't be a bargain. It seems likely that they'll be bringing in Gary Sheffield, too, which is a move that I'm not particularly excited about. Sheffield is a great hitter, there's no denying that, but he's at a point in his career where a decline is likely in the next few seasons, and possibly a large one.

On the whole, I'd say adding Sheffield is a good move, but not a great move. It adds offense to a position where they got little last season, but it doesn't address the team's real needs: defense and starting pitching. It makes them better, but it leaves them vulnerable.

I'd rather have Guerrero, but if the Yankees seriously aren't interested in bidding on him, Sheffield is probably the best choice, Mike Cameron being the only other outfielder I'd have any real interest in. He addresses one of the Yankees' primary needs, would likely hit much better than he has in the past couple of years once outside of Safeco, but his offense is still far inferior to Sheffield's, and while younger than Sheff, he is still entering his decline period. Looking ahead, if the Yankees have any interest next year in pursuing Carlos Beltran, the pieces would fit together better with Sheffield out there instead of Cameron.

The Yankees also seem likely to cut ties with as many faces from last year's bullpen as possible. I think they would have been fine going into 2004 with the same bullpen as the end of 2003, but most of those pitchers have probably lost Joe Torre's trust, and seeing how difficult it is for a young reliever to earn that trust from Torre (I think Rivera only stuck because he never gave up any runs), the front office would probably be best served bringing in a few "proven" relievers, who might not actually be any better than what the Yankees had or have in the minors, but are more likely to get used.

It seems to me that after this offseason, the Yankees might be a little better, they might be a little worse, or they might be the same, but they're not going to be much better, and they're not going to be much worse, which to a degree, is good. But Boston will probably be better, if not much better, Oakland is probably already better, and Toronto is making moves in that direction. The Yankees are still on top of the heap, but they're not alone. Ten years ago, that would have sounded great--at least they were on top--but after having been all alone for a few years, being able to walk around in your underwear and leave dirty dishes in the living room, it feels kind of cramped with someone else there. It's still pretty good, and the lease is still in your name, but it was a lot better before.

* * *

Oh, and I'd like to thank The Score Bard for sticking me in his Periodic Table of Bloggers. I'm Lawrencium. I think I've got a new nickname now. That's awesome.

November 21, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

I've been without internet for a while, so I haven't been able to update the blog. I still don't have internet, I'm at the library writing this. I'll be back when I'm back online, I don't know when that will be. It's very frustrating.

Just wanted you all to know that I'm not dead. I'll let you know if I ever am dead.

November 6, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

Seems there was some controversy over my most recent entry. Mostly because it wasn't very well written. Well, sorry about that, there was a lot of premise behind some of the things I was trying to write, and I didn't do a very good job of showing the premise.

That's why professional writers have editors, folks. Sometimes what you write sucks.

The first thing I'd like to clear up is that I wasn't taking a swipe at Randolph and Down when I said that maybe Soriano hadn't been coached well, but rather I was showing that it's possible that Soriano is capable of playing second base, and is capable of discipline at the plate, and the assumption that he must be lazy seems to me to assume that the coaching he's recieved is excellent, and discounts the possibility that maybe Randloph and Down are more suited for working with veterans than teaching young players. I'm not saying that's the case, but rather that I think it's unfair to say that Soriano must be lazy. He may well be, though.

I also seemed to be advocating two contrary positions, that the Yankees should keep Soriano and keep him at second base, and then that they should trade Soriano and Nick Johnson. Actually, I was saying that if the Yankees do keep Soriano, they should keep him at second base, and that while I would like to keep Nick Johnson, sometimes trading a favored player is best for the team. I'm not saying that they should be traded, but rather that there are circumstances under which I would trade them.

Let me make it clear: I'm opposed to trading Soriano for Beltran without making any other moves. If you make that trade, you've done the same thing as moving Soriano to the outfield, except Beltran is a better hitter at this point, and at least you know he's going to be a good defensive player (while Soriano might be awful). You're also moving Matsui to right and Bernie to left, and you have to look for another second baseman, and you can't sign a big-hitting outfielder.

I'm opposed to trading Johnson for Vazquez on it's own. You can then move Williams to DH, and in addition to signing a power hitting right-fielder, you can add a center fielder. Say, Mike Cameron. But you've essentially traded an excellent young hitter for an older hitter of questionable ability. Now, THAT would be a Steinbrenner early 80's move.

Nor do I think Johnson for Vidro would be a fair trade for the Yankees, but if you've made a Soriano for Beltran trade, and signed Guerrero or Sheffield, you've got an extra player. You're not going to be able to move Bernie, making either Johnson or Matsui expendable. Obviously, I'd rather have Johnson, but he's also the one who's more tradeable, and the one who is more likely to get value in return. I'd rather have Vazquez, because Vidro, while a solid hitter, isn't very good defensively. I'd rather have Castillo, who isn't as good a hitter, but does make up for some of Jeter's defense. But, if you're going to trade Johnson under those circumstances, you trade him to fill a hole, which in this scenario would be the rotation or second base. The other option is to bench either Bernie or Matsui, keep Johnson, and sign Castillo, which also works, but then you're only allowed to sign one more Type A free agent, and you have to depend more on Jeff Weaver, Jon Lieber or Jorge DePaula to fill out the rotation--and you're again forced to bench one of your best hitters in National League parks.

See, these moves I've proposed aren't meant to stand on their own, rather, they are a plan to not only improve the team, but make the pieces fit better. Can you honestly say that the team I've proposed at the end of the previous post (even if you remove Lowell and replace him with Boone) isn't better than keeping the same lineup and adding Guerrero? The offense might not be as good, but the defense would be far better, and the addition of Vazquez makes the rotation at least as good, of not better than it was this year.

Nobody should ever be considered untouchable, everyone should be available for the right price. The risk of trading away a good young player is that they will become great, and the risk of not trading them is that they won't become great, and the player you passed up would have helped you tremendously. I think these moves, done in tandem, would help the Yankees tremendously, both next season and in the seasons to come.

I also didn't address the situation with Beltran's contract: he's represented by Scott Boras, who prefers to have his clients file for free agency, to drive up their value, and he's eligible for free agency after 2004. There's two concerns here: 1) the Yankees could trade for him, then lose him as a free agent, and 2) the Yankees could also sign him after 2004 without making a trade, and still have Soriano. As for the first concern, it's not one. If the Yankees want to keep Beltran after 2004, they're going to keep Beltran, and not being able to sign him before he becomes a free agent would save them some payroll next season. As for the second concern, it's nice to try to have your cake and eat it to, but it doesn't help the Yankees at all next season, and they might need the help. And, of course, there's the possibilty that some other team could sign (or trade for and sign) Beltran next year, leaving the Yankees looking for other alternatives, and ones that might not be as good as the choices they have this offseason.

The Yankees are a very good team, a team that won the pennant. But they're old, they're deeply flawed, and while other teams can usually settle for that, the Yankees cannot. It's always been that way, the Yankees were never allowed to settle for anything but the best, the city won't stand for it. This offseason offers the Yankees to not only become a better team, but a more rounded team, with fewer weaknesses. There are risks involved in change, but there are risks involved in staying the same, too. If the Yankees don't make any moves, and just grab a right fielder, a starting pitcher, and work on the bullpen, I won't be upset--they'll be better than they were in 2003, and probably the best team in baseball. But they will have missed an opportunity to become something much better.

November 4, 2003

Second base--and second thoughts
by Larry Mahnken

Sorry for no update for the past few days. I took the weekend off, and then some stuff came up yesterday. There wasn't much news over the weekend anyway, the Yankees declined their options of Gabe White and Antonio Osuna, which wasn't at all surprising. Osuna was ineffective in the second half, and didn't make the postseason roster, and even if the Yankees want White back (I'm not sure if they do or not), $3.5 million is a bit pricey for a middle reliever. They could probably resign him for less than that.

Also, they named Don Mattingly the hitting coach, Willie Randolph the bench coach, Lee Mazzilli the third base coach, and Luis Sojo the first base coach. I think all of these are solid decisions, getting Randolph off of third base might be an important positive improvement next season, and it likely means that Randolph will soon be the first black manager of the Yankees. I don't know how Mattingly will be as a hitting coach, but 1) he's a man that the players will respect, and listen to, and 2) let's be realistic, he's the type of hitter we hope Soriano becomes. Sure, it would be great if he became Hank Aaron, or Sammy Sosa, but more important than walking is that he stop striking out on bad pitches. Mattingly didn't walk, but he didn't strike out, because he swung at pitches he could hit, and hit them hard. Soriano can succeed with that approach.

And speaking of Soriano, let's move on to my overview of where the Yankees stand at second base.

While there were several disappointing offensive performances this postseason, the most putrid was that of Alfonso Soriano. For the entire playoffs, Soriano batted .225/.267/.296/.562, with one homer and a postseason record 26 Ks. Unlike Aaron Boone, his home run was meaningless, and didn't absolve any of his prior sins. Overall, Soriano did very little to win any postseason games for the Yankees, and much to lose them.

For some people, this was an "I told you so" moment, because it showed Soriano's hackiphilia at it's worst. For others, it was an eye opener, as they finally realized how fatal Soriano's flaw could be. Soriano became on of the main scapegoats this postseason, and many have called for him to be traded, or at least moved to the outfield.

As those of you who read "Moneyball" know, one of the reasons the A's have been successful is that they look at what a player can do for them, rather than what they can't do for them. What's important is not their style of play, but whether they can help the team win, and if they can, then they're worth having.

Alfonso Soriano is a player who can help the Yankees win. Yes, he has tremendous flaws in his game, he swings at everything, and not even the most stringent Soriano apologist is going to say that he's a good defensive player. From what I've read, it appears that the Yankees are blaming Soriano for these flaws, saying that he's lazy, and doesn't work hard to change. Perhaps, but perhaps it's poor coaching, too. Maybe Willie Randolph is good at tweaking infielders who are already good, but can't teach someone to play second. Maybe Rick Down could recognize flaws in the swing of an established player, but couldn't teach a kid how to look for his pitch. I get the impression from what I've heard and what I've seen that the Yankees have approached Soriano's plate discipline by demanding results, rather than pushing the process, saying that they want him to walk more and get on base more. And so he takes pitches. Not balls, just pitches, because you can't walk if you're swinging. And you'll walk more with this approach, but you'll also strike out looking a lot, and you won't hit the ball. Let me emphasize once again: the goal of plate discipline is not to draw walks, it's to get a good pitch to hit.

But even if he doesn't learn plate discipline, he's still got strengths: he's got tremendous power, and fantastic speed that he utilizes very well on the basepaths. But he's not a leadoff hitter, and perhaps not even a middle of the order hitter, either. Perhaps part of the problem with his hitting approach this year was that there were no palpable consequences for his hacking, he was inked at the top of the lineup, and if he was dropped down, he'd always go right back up, no matter ho he was hitting.

I'm wary of trading Soriano, or moving him to the outfield. If you make him an outfielder, you're risking the possibility that he'll be a lousy one, you're lessening his offensive value, and precluding yourself from adding another outfielder, one who can field well or hit great, and you have to sign a second baseman to replace Soriano, probably one who can field well, but with an inferior bat. If you trade him, you risk the possibility that Soriano could improve, and become a Hall of Fame caliber player. That's a risk with every transaction, but this one more than others, because he's halfway towards become that type of player.

If the Yankees are "stuck" with the same infield next season, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, but some improvement would be nice. I previously advocated retaining Soriano, and also was opposed to the idea of trading Nick Johnson, but in the past few days, I've rethought those opinions.

See, with Johnson I've fallen into the trap of being loyal to a player over the best interests of the team. As a fan, there's nothing wrong with that, but I shouldn't have let it color my analysis. Johnson is already a fantastic hitter, and a good defensive player, whose flaws (catching low throws) can be corrected with good coaching (hey, if the A's turned Scott Hatteberg into a "Picking Machine", they can make Johnson better, too). I am almost positive that he will, if he stays healthy, become an elite offensive player. You don't want to give away the next Jason Giambi.

But if you've got an opportunity to make the team better overall, you have to take it. Yes, Johnson's a great hitter, but the Yankees already have Jason Giambi locked up at first base for several more years, and with Bernie Williams and Hideki Matsui in the fold next season, it would be nice to move one of them to DH to open up centerfield and right field for improvement.

And so, I conjured up this plan of action for the postseason, that involves trading both Johnson and Soriano, as well as maybe signing the full limit of 3 Type A Free Agents. At first, I wondered whether the Yankees would be willing to increase their payroll to do this, but I've decided 1) whenever you ask how high the Yankees' payroll can go, the answer always seems to be "higher", and 2) If they don't make these moves, and they don't win, or nearly lose, George will spend money next offseason anyway. If he's going to do it next season, it would be wise to do it now, when it's a buyer's market and there are some excellent players available.

1) Re-sign Andy Pettitte. Above all else, this is the most important move for the Yankees to make this offseason. Houston's trade of Wagner worries me, because it may free up the payroll room needed to sign Pettitte, but the Yankees clearly need Andy back in the fold next season.

2) Trade Alfonso Soriano to Kansas City for Carlos Beltran. This is a move that Kansas City seems open to, and I think it would be a good move for both teams. Beltran is a better player than Soriano, he gets on base more, runs just as well, and while he doesn't have as much power as Soriano, he is an excellent defensive center fielder. For Kansas City, trading for Soriano makes sense, though. Beltran is about to become a free agent, with almost zero chance of coming back, while Soriano is just entering his arbitration years. Soriano fills a need for the Royals at second base, and you can also see him having great offensive seasons at Kauffman Stadium. For the Yankees, it improves their outfield defense, and also adds a player who moves the lineup along, something Soriano does not.

3) Trade Nick Johnson and Jeff Weaver (and pick up most of Weaver's salary) to Montreal for Javier Vazquez or Jose Vidro. This is tricky. First of all, I think this would be a good move on the part of the Expos, they'd be getting someone who will probably be a great hitter (and in three years, major trade bait) and basically two risk-free seasons of Jeff Weaver, who can and has been a very good pitcher, for one of their prospective free agents. However, Minaya probably doesn't appreciate Johnson's value, and Weaver is seen as almost damaged goods, and even if the Yankees paid his entire salary, the Expos might think they're doing the Yankees a favor merely by taking him. If there's any way to make this trade, if there's a prospect somewhere the Yankees' farm system that Minaya would take, make the trade, because freeing up DH is crucial, and using Johnson to fill a hole in the rotation or second base is, as well.

4) Sign Vladimir Guerrero. It might be tough to get him to come to New York, and you might have to "settle" for Gary Sheffield (horrors!), but if there is any way, any amount of money that can get Vlad to New York, do it. He's not only great, but he's young, and if you have him in right and Beltran in center, you've gone from having a hideously bad outfield defense to having a good one, while improving your offense, too.

5a) If Johnson is traded for Vazquez, sign Luis Castillo. Now, Luis Castillo isn't exactly the Yankees' type of offensive player. He has no power, hits the ball on the ground, and most of his value is tied up in speed. But, he does get on base at a good rate (because of his speed), and his defense is excellent, which is the key here. Adding Vlad allows the Yankees to take an offensive hit at second base, and Castillo's defense helps close up that hole in the middle infield, and makes Jeter's defense almost bearable. This move would make the Yankees' infield defense, on the whole, okay. If the Marlins non-tender him, signing Mike Lowell and moving Boone to second might be a good move as well--or even non-tendering Boone and signing both Lowell and Castillo, but that would be too much.

5b) If Johnson is traded for Vidro, sign Bartolo Colon. No, he's not an ace. Yes, he's going to get overpaid. But he's a very good pitcher, and basically, you're trying to replace Roger Clemens. I might even make this move if they traded for Vazquez, but again, that would be superfluous.

Then move Bernie Williams to DH, where he can stay healthy and hopefully return to his 2002 form, or at least near there. Also, since Bernie hits lefties better than righties, and Matsui vice-versa, you can platoon them in left in NL cities, without losing much offensively (perhaps gaining something).

You've improved your offense, you've improved your defense, and you've built an excellent rotation--and I've advocated keeping the bullpen intact for the most part, re-signing White and Heredia, bringing up Choate and Bean, and looking to the return of Karsay for improvement. The key is making the trade with Montreal, which will be tricky, but I think it can be done.

Of course, none of it will be. I expect the Yankees to sign Sheffield, Colon if Pettitte leaves, overpay a relief pitcher, and have all the same problems next year they had this year.

BTW, here would be the Yankees' lineup and rotation, if they made all these moves (and made the Vazquez trade, not the Vidro trade, and all the superfluous ones, as well, if Lowell were non-tendered)

SS Jeter
DH Williams
1B Giambi
RF Guerrero
C Posada
3B Lowell
CF Beltran
LF Matsui
2B Castillo

SP Mussina
SP Vazquez
SP Pettitte
SP Colon
SP Contreras

Yeah, that would be wrong. Am I evil for envisioning a way that the Yankees could assemble that roster, without "screwing" anybody over?