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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.