Larry Mahnken and SG's

Replacement Level Yankees Weblog

"Hey, it's free!"

The Replacement Level Yankees Weblog has moved!  Our new home is:

Larry Mahnken
Sean McNally
Fabian McNally
John Brattain

This is an awesome FREE site, where you can win money and gift certificates with no skill involved! If you're bored, I HIGHLY recommend checking it out!


Disclaimer: If you think this is the official website of the New York Yankees, you're an idiot. Go away.

December 18, 2003

What did Satchel say about looking back?
by Larry Mahnken

Normally, the offseason belongs to the Yankees. They may not make the most moves, they may not sign the best players, but when the last free agent is signed, and the last trade is made, it seemed fairly clear that the Yankees were going to field the best team going into the season. Everyone started the offseason chasing the Yankees, everyone ended the offseason chasing the Yankees. Every year since 1998, the Yankees have either had the best record in baseball, or played in the World Series.

The plan was simple: they would figure out where they had a whole, and they'd fill it with the best available player, or close to it. In 1997 it was second base and Chuck Knoblauch, in 2000, it was the starting rotation and Mike Mussina, in 2001, first base and Jason Giambi, in 2002, left field and Hideki Matsui. Even after winning 125 games in 1998, they added Roger Clemens.

This year, they saw many holes, and made many moves. To make up for the loss of two of the top 15 pitchers in the American League, they traded one of the best young hitters in baseball for one of the best pitchers in baseball, and their worst starter for yet another ace. Their bullpen was a disaster in the early part of the 2003 season, and looked shaky at times down the stretch, so they revamped it by adding two of the more dominant reliever in baseball last season. They finally acknowledged the decline and fall of Bernie Williams's defense, and brought in Proven Veteran Kenny Lofton to nudge Bernie to DH. And to fill the biggest non-ALCS hero hole in their lineup, they brought in Gary Sheffield, who in a world without Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols, would probably have been National League Most Valuable Player.

Indeed, the Yankees have done well, at least for the 2004 season. They have probably made their team better, and it is highly unlikely that they have become worse. In past years, sportswriters without analytical minds would have declared them World Champions before pitchers and catcher even reported, and bemoaned the state of the National Past-It's-Time. They still may.

But while the Yankees have an excellent team headed into 2004--quite possibly the best team, and if everything was to go perfectly, perhaps one of the great teams of all time--a World Series title is hardly a given. Nor is the pennant, or even the American League East title. Indeed, all that can be safely said about the 2004 Yankees is that unless things go horribly wrong, they are almost certain to make the playoffs.

The Boston Red Sox fielded a team in 2003 that was nearly as good as the Yankees', and indeed may have been better. The Red Sox were neck and neck with the Yankees in the standings until the last few weeks last season, and while they lost the season series 10-9, Boston's victories over the Yankees were more overwhelming than the Bombers' wins over the Sox. Appropriately, the ALCS came down to the bitter end, the Red Sox had a three-run lead with five outs to go in Game Seven, but blew the lead in improbably fashion and lost the game and the pennant in even more improbable fashion. Further, while the Yankees were 6 games better than Boston in W-L record and nearly two games better in Pythagorean Record (an expected record based on runs scored and allowed), Boston's record when adjusted for the performances of their players and the quality of their opponents was nearly three games better than the Yankees, implying that perhaps the Red Sox were unlucky (or perhaps a few dominating wins against inferior teams threw the numbers off). No matter how you look at last season, you come to the same conclusion: the Red Sox are a damn good team.

And they have a damn good front office, too, led by General Manager Theo Epstein. Epstein took a strong 2002 team and improved it through a series of low-profile, economical moves--filling a hole at first base and DH with Kevin Millar and David Ortiz, bringing in an alternative to Shea Hillenbrand at third base, ultimately making Hillenbrand, who is a solid player but overrated, expendable. A bold experiment in the bullpen failed because the Red Sox had difficulty finding reliable relievers to get the job done, but by season's end, he had assembled a quality pen.

This offseason, the Red Sox have made transactions of a much higher profile, doing the very best they could to make their team the very best it could be. They had a hole in their rotation, and rather than filling that hole with a league average pitcher, or even a solid pitcher like Kevin Millwood or Bartolo Colon, they added a true ace in Curt Schilling, and they key player that they gave up for him was Casey Fossum, who might have helped the Red Sox this season, but whose value lies more in his potential down the road. To improve the bullpen, they added Keith Foulke, one of the finest relief aces in the game. It's unlikely that the Red Sox will use Foulke as anything other than a "closer" in 2004, though they probably won't be shy about using him for multiple innings, but he is certainly an ideal fit for the Sox. The acquisition of Mark Bellhorn from the Rockies, a player of great value who was buried by Dusty Baker in Chicago earlier last season, is probably an upgrade at second base, and creates the potential for the historically great Red Sox offense of 2003 to be even better in 2004.

But rather than stop with trying to fill holes, the Red Sox have taken a bold step--they tried to upgrade at positions that were already strengths. In Nomar Garciaparra, they have possibly the second-best shortstop in the game, and a favorite of the fans. In Manny Ramirez, they have a controversial player whose offensive value is still undeniable, and who is probably one of the five best hitters in baseball. Most teams would not only be satisfied with that, they would be thrilled.

But the Red Sox saw an opportunity to get better, and they went for it. Texas was foolishly willing to part with the best shortstop in baseball, and the best mortal player in baseball, Alex Rodriguez, for Manny Ramirez. The transaction wouldn't be that simple, of course. Boston would have to pick up as much as $5 million of Ramirez's salary each season, a condition that didn't appeal to the Red Sox at all.

But rather than give up on the deal, the Red Sox tried to find a way to make it work. They sought, and received, a negotiating window with Alex Rodriguez and Scott Boras from Commissioner Selig, and attempted to restructure his contract so that, essentially, the money they would be sending to Texas would be coming out of Rodriguez's contract.

At first, I had few worries about the possibility of this trade: Manny Ramirez and Nomar Garciaparra (who would have to be moved after this trade) are worth more than Alex Rodriguez, and to make the deal beneficial to the Red Sox, they would have to flip Nomar for a quality left fielder. Indeed, that was not just possible, but probable, but to me, the overall benefit to the Red Sox seemed small.

And then came word that the Red Sox were going to trade Garciaparra to the White Sox for Magglio Ordonez, along with Scott Williamson and receiving minor leaguer Neal Cotts, as well. While Williamson has a great deal of potential value to the Red Sox, the possibility of flipping Nomar for the greatly superior A-Rod and Manny for the, in my opinion, equally good, if not superior Ordonez gave me a terrible scare. That would not only be a better team, that would almost certainly be a team that was better than the Yankees even if everything went right for the Bombers.

What was especially frustrating was that the Yankees probably could have Rodriguez for Alfonso Soriano, move Derek Jeter to third base and Aaron Boone to second, and receive a benefit at least as great as the Red Sox would get in their potential trades. But the Yankees are clearly attached to Jeter at short, and their apparent total lack of interest in Rodriguez convinces me once and for all that they do not at all believe that Derek Jeter is lacking defensively.

The Red Sox and Rodriguez negotiated a deal that seemed palatable to both sides, but when the contract was submitted to the MLBPA for approval, it was rejected. The Players' Association determined that the contract constituted a reduction in the value of Rodriguez's contract--a violation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement--and that if the trade was consummated, they would file a grievance.

To most fans, and most of the media, this seems blatantly unfair: if Rodriguez is amenable to giving back $25 million, why shouldn't he be allowed to? Why is the MLBPA being so greedy?

At this point, I should point out that I'm not a lawyer, but as I understand it, the MLBPA couldn't sign off on it. Going from Texas to Boston may have some benefit to Alex Rodriguez in that it satisfies his personal desire to play for a winner and closer to home, but it offers no tangible benefit, and is thus clearly a reduction of value. If the Players' Association were to ignore the provision of the CBA that forbids reduction of a players' salary, it would become unenforceable by precedent, and owners would be allowed to--and almost certainly would begin to apply pressure to players under contract to reduce the value of their contract or be trade to an undesirable team, or have the team disassembled around them. The MLBPA doesn't just represent Alex Rodriguez, it represents everyone in Major League Baseball (even the scabs), and Rodriguez understands that. I'm sure that Bud Selig and Rob Manfred and Larry Lucchino all understand that, too. They're not stupid, they just think that the public is, and to further their goals, they need to bash the players.

This Rodriguez to Boston deal isn't dead yet, of course, but I sure hope it is.

Even if Alex Rodriguez were to go to Boston, the impact on the Yankees' fortunes next year would be far from devastating. The Yankees, as I said, are almost certain to make the playoffs, as are the Red Sox. It seems likely to me that there will be another Yankees/Red Sox ALCS, and it seems likely to me that it will go 6 or 7 games again. In a 7 game series, anything can happen, the best team doesn't always win, and merely being there means you have a chance. Maybe Boston will be better than the Yankees next season, but that doesn't mean they're going to win anything.

Still, the Yankees should try to be the best team they can be. I do not think they have done that.

I fear that the Yankees have made a great mistake in signing Gary Sheffield. Not in and of itself, of course. I fully expect Sheffield to be a very good player for the Yankees, perhaps a great player--perhaps a Hall of Famer. But I think they could have added the same production from Vladimir Guerrero, perhaps better, and in the long term, he certainly seems to be a better risk. It's possible that Guerrero never wanted to play for the Yankees, and it's also possible that his back injury could be chronic and debilitating, that the Yankees could have ended up signing Don Mattingly, circa 1990-1995. But it's silly to think that they didn't pursue him because of money, which is what they say. From what I've heard, it seems to me that they went after Sheffield because they wanted Sheffield more. And I fear that this was a mistake.

In Brown and Vazquez the Yankees have done well. Vazquez is more of an injury risk than generally talked about, but he's not prone, and if he stays healthy this season, I won't be nearly as concerned going forward, but Brown is a ticking time bomb. If healthy, he's likely to be a dominant pitcher, even considering the Yankees' infield defense, unless age and past injuries catch up to him suddenly. However, if injured, he's worthless to the Yankees. Still, flipping Jeff Weaver, who was practically useless to the Yankees in 2003, for a pitcher who could potentially contend for the AL Cy Young is a bold move, and one that potentially could look brilliant in hindsight. Obviously, keeping Pettitte would have been a wise move, but he was hardly free from injury concerns himself, and if both he and Brown are healthy, the Yankees are better off with Brown. The other alternatives for starting pitching: Colon and Millwood are, too me, inferior to what they got.

Kenny Lofton would be both a positive move and a negative one. It's positive in that it moves Bernie Williams out of center field and into DH, and offers an upgrade in the Yankees' outfield defense. It also likely moves Alfonso Soriano out of the leadoff spot and into the middle of the lineup, where his power is more valuable and his impatience less costly. On the other hand, Lofton is hardly a superior hitter, and he barely offers any upgrade over the Garcia/Rivera platoon the Yankees had in right field at the end of last season. Indeed, the best way to use Lofton may be a platoon, perhaps with David Dellucci in center, or Ruben Sierra DHing with Matsui moving to center and Bernie to left against left-handers (though we know that Matsui and Bernie would really be in left and center, respectively). Overall, the move does offer more benefit for 2004 than detriment.

However, the other negative is the possibility of Lofton being signed for two years. This doesn't necessarily preclude the Yankees from chasing Carlos Beltran next season, but if the Yankees made this transaction with the view towards having Lofton start in center in 2005, they would have been far better off signing Mike Cameron, who I believe would be a good hitter in Yankee Stadium, and a spectacular defensive player.

They did a fine job with the bullpen, though they did overpay. Much depends on Steve Karsay's health, but it says a great deal about the job the Yankees did when the best non-Rivera relievers in the bullpen at season's end are the worst relievers going into 2004.

The Yankees did well, but they could have done better. They should have done better. They still can do better. Say all you want about assembling fantasy baseball teams and such, but it sure looks to me like that's what the Red Sox are trying to do.

Last season was a great pennant race, and an even greater ALCS. The Red Sox scared the hell out of me, and they're probably going to do it again. This probably isn't the best Yankees team that I've seen in my lifetime, but I don't think I've ever looked forward to a season more.

It's gonna be great.