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December 11, 2003

Worst Case Scenario
by Larry Mahnken

Talking to Aaron Gleeman last night, he commented that a good name for my weblog would be "Worst Case Scenario". As my friends will probably attest to, that would probably be a good name for my autobiography, too. I am indeed a pessimist in all things.

But all along I've been confident that Andy Pettitte would return to the Yankees next season. He wanted to stay with the team, Brian Cashman and Joe Torre clearly prized him, and while the most likely suitors could free up enough money to meet his requested price, the Yankees have more than enough resources to beat any offer. There was no reason to expect Pettitte to not be back.

But he won't be back. The Pettitte situation should have been resolved quickly, but instead the Yankees acted like it would be resolved quickly, and instead of taking care of it right away and moving on to other matters, they focused on their other desires first, and put Pettitte on the backburner. They assumed that when the time came, they could throw a pile of money on the table and get Pettitte's name on the contract. But it wasn't just about money.

Reggie Jackson was courted by George Steinbrenner personally. Dave Winfield was courted by Steinbrenner personally. When push came to shove, it was George Steinbrenner who was able to bring back Bernie Williams, and this offseason, George has courted Gary Sheffield. But not Pettitte. Pettitte didn't get the hard sell, he didn't get the phone calls from Torre and Yogi that Jason Giambi got, and meanwhile his friend Roger Clemens was pulling him in the other direction. From the Yankees, Pettitte got cold negotiation. It was impersonal, only about money.

Certainly, Andy Pettitte was not worth the amount of money that the Yankees would have had to sign him for, and the Astros will quickly find that he's not an ace, but a good #2, and that Bad Andy will show his face at the worst times, and with the short porch in left, he might be showing his face often. But he was closer to being worth it than any other pitcher on the market, and more than that, regardless of the money, the Yankees needed him. Now their only left-handed pitcher is David Wells, exacerbating the loss of Brandon Claussen for the steaming pile, I can't bad mouth Aaron Boone, I promised.

Now the Yankees have to scramble, because while Mussina/Vazquez is great, Contreras/Wells/Weaver inspires little confidence. Of the three, Contreras is the only one who might be really good, but we just don't know. That's a rotation that would be great for almost any other division, but in the AL East, with Boston rolling Pedro/Schilling/Lowe/Wakefield/Kim out there, it's inadequate.

They have to get someone else. There are Kevin Brown rumors floating around, and he would be a good fit, but I think that they're more rumors than anything else. Bartolo Colon is gone, and now Kevin Millwood is the only "major" free agent starter left. While Millwood is a pretty good pitcher, he probably carries a reputation as being better than he really is, and with few options left, the Yankees will have to overpay him more than they would have had to overpay Pettitte.

But it gets worse. With the Sheffield contract negotiations breaking down, the Yankees face the possibility of not accquiring any help offensively this offseason. Sheffield wants to come to New York, that much is clear, but he may have offended Steinbrenner enough to eliminate that possibility, which means the Yankees have to turn to Vladimir Guerrero. But what if Guerrero doesn't really want to come to New York, and goes to Baltimore anyway? What then?

Then the Yankees have to turn to second-tier free agents, or play Ruben Sierra in right. All this after having traded one of their best hitters for Javier Vazquez--a good trade, but if this is the end, I'd rather have seen them losing with Nick than with Vazquez.

The Yankees got worse today. Their rotation is worse than it was a year ago, their lineup is worse than it was a year ago, their defense is no better, and probably worse than it was a year ago. Their bullpen could be great, but the bullpen isn't something that makes a mediocre team good. The Yankees aren't mediocre, but they aren't the best team in the AL East anymore, and while they should make the playoffs, that isn't a certainty, either.

The Yankees could still win the division next year, and they could still win the World Series. They'll probably add Millwood or Brown, and sign either Sheffield or Guerrero, which greatly increases the chances of both of those happening. But from where the Yankees now stand, you can see the end. They have no prospects coming up, and nothing to trade for quality players. Their only means of improvement is free agency, whether it be Major League or international. That's expensive, risky, and it eliminates the possibility of in-season improvement.

The crash isn't going to be a crash. They aren't going to drop to fourth place unless the Orioles get really good. But they are going to stop winning a lot of games soon, and settle into a 1980's level of mediocrity. And when they get there, they better realize that they can't buy their way back to the top.