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January 8, 2004

The New Face of Evil, Part One
by Larry Mahnken

The difference between the Yankees team that lost the World Series last season and the Yankees team that will win the World Series in 2004 is dramatic, and if you were a fan that stopped paying attention after Game Six and didn't hear anything about the team until Spring Training, the turnover in the roster would be jolting.

12 of the 25 expected players for the Yankees next season were not on the Yankees' roster at the start of 2003. Two more players, Steve Karsay and Jon Lieber, were injured for the entire season. Only one regular starting pitcher from last season, Mike Mussina, is in the rotation in 2004. The bench and pitching rotation are dramatically different not only from Opening Day, 2003, but from Game Six, and the lineup will feature two entirely new players, as well as the likely shift of the Yankees' center fielder of the past 11 seasons to DH. Only five players remain from the Yankees' last Championship in 2000, and one of those, Alfonso Soriano, was a 22-year old rookie who wasn't on the postseason roster.

These aren't your twin brother's Yankees.

In many cases when a good team turns over it's roster as dramatically as the Yankees have, it marks the end of the team's run, not because of chemistry, but because the players that are coming in are often not as good--and sometimes dramatically worse--than the players they are replacing. The end may well be near for the Yankees, but the changes that they made to their roster seem as likely to delay that eventuality as they are to bring it about. Most of the moves the Yankees made were good moves, although risky ones, and seeing as how the team is coming off of 101 wins and a pennant, a fall from contention seems unlikely this season, barring disaster.

The one area of the diamond where the Yankees remained completely stable is at catcher. Both the starter and his backup are precisely the same as last season.


Jorge Posada (588 PAs, .312 GPA)
John Flaherty (111 PAs, .248 GPA)

2004: (3-year averages)
Jorge Posada (581 PAs, .292 GPA)
John Flaherty (228 PAs, .224 GPA)

In Jorge Posada, the Yankees have one of the most valuable catchers in baseball, on the same level with Ivan Rodriguez, Javy Lopez, Mike Piazza and Jason Varitek--assuming he stays healthy, something that you'll hear a lot of in this team rundown. 2003 was above his career and 3-year average, but it wasn't his best season. But it's more likely that he'll experience something of a decline than repeat his performance. Nothing dramatic, but something more in the .850 OPS range than .920.

As for John Flaherty, he's pretty much a replacement-level player personified. Last season's numbers looked pretty good for a backup, but a 2 HR game in Baltimore skewed the numbers, without that game, his GPA was .229. He's unexceptional defensively, doesn't play anywhere else on the field, and is a useless tagalong on the postseason roster. But Joe Torre likes him, so the Yankees have brought him back for another season, rather than seeking out a better option. A team can do just fine with a replacement-level backup catcher, but having a backup with some pop is a very useful addition. A team with a $170 million payroll should be stocking their bench with players like that, but instead the Yankees have brought in Flaherty, Enrique Wilson, Miguel Cairo, and paid them several hundred thousand dollars more than what they're worth. I'm all for charity, but it still seems unnecessary to me.

First Base:

Jason Giambi (690 PAs, .317 GPA)
Nick Johnson (403 PAs, .308 GPA)

2004: (3-year averages)
Jason Giambi (683 PAs, .347 GPA)
Tony Clark (358 PAs, .252 GPA)

A lot of the Yankees' offense last season came out of their first basemen, which created a bit of a problem, and not just in the World Series. You could play one at first base and the other at DH, but moving one to any other position involved a rightward shift along the defensive spectrum, one that neither was likely to pull off successfully. From the above, it would appear that the Yankees replaced Nick Johnson with Tony Clark (which isn't official yet, but is pretty much so), but he was really replaced with Gary Sheffield--the Yankees shifted that offense to right field. It makes things a little more flexible, it allows the Yankees to move some players around from day to day without hurting their offense, and might even help.

If Jason Giambi stays healthy, that is. Jason Giambi was hampered by injuries all last season, but didn't miss time, possibly because the other serious injuries the Yankees suffered in their lineup last season made his presence in the lineup crucial. The eye infection and hand injury he played through last year are hardly causes from continuing concern, but the knee injury that required offseason surgery is cause for serious concern. Other players coming off of similar surgery have suffered extreme drop-offs in performance, and difficulty staying healthy, so the Yankees need to be concerned about what they're getting out of their top hitter next year. Unlike Mark McGwire, Jason Giambi has the benefit of being able to DH, so if he's not 100% healthy, he can stay in the lineup.

If he's healthy, the Yankees will probably get better production than they did in 2003, when they still got one of the better hitters in baseball. It's unlikely that they'll get the 2000-01 version of Giambi, but the 2002 model is not out of the question. If he's healthy, that is.

But Jason Giambi is 33 today, and even without the knee injury, injuries are something that will have to be planned for from now on, as is decline. Several players in recent seasons have been able to sustain their peak performance into their late 30's, but they're still the exception, and Giambi's recent injury history would indicate that he won't be one of them. I don't expect it to happen in 2004, but Jason Giambi's days as an elite hitter may be numbered.

Tony Clark isn't a starter, he's a backup, but unless Giambi can stay healthy and play first base regularly, or Bernie Williams can learn how to handle first base, Clark will be a part-time starter. He's not good enough to start, and when he was healthy and in his prime, he wasn't a superstar. He's no longer in his prime, and he's had health issues, so the Yankees are hoping that Giambi is healthy, so he can be used in the narrow role that he's suited for.

If Tony Clark plays almost exclusively against left-handed pitchers, shifting Giambi to DH and Bernie Williams to the outfield (preferably left field), he helps the Yankees. Kenny Lofton is a fairly good hitter against righty pitchers, but against lefties, he's not just bad, he's horrible--sub replacement-level. Tony Clark is a solid hitter from the right side, and replacing Lofton's bat against lefties with Clark makes the Yankees' lineup better--better than it would be with Lofton playing every day, better than it was last year.

But if Giambi can't play the field, and Bernie can't take his glove, the Yankees' lineup become worse-not necessarily worse than last season, but worse than it can be, and worse than the Yankees hope it will be.

If that happens, the Yankees would probably have been better off getting a player like Jeremy Giambi, who despite a terrible season last year, is, in my opinion, a much better offensive player than Tony Clark. Fernando Seguignol could have filled the role Tony Clark is filling this season, and if Clark struggles or is injured, perhaps he will. The Yankees are taking a risk in bringing in Clark rather than a better hitting first baseman, but if Giambi stays healthy, I think they're better off for making that decision. And, of course, there's the possibility that Clark can rediscover his offensive prowess for one season, and be a tremendous asset no matter what the role.

He's not Nick Johnson, he's not going to be Nick Johnson. But Tony Clark should be more than good enough.

Second Base:

Alfonso Soriano (734 PAs, .283 GPA)
Enrique Wilson (145 PAs, .215 GPA)

2004: (3-year averages)
Alfonso Soriano (696 PAs, .273 GPA)
Miguel Cairo (227 PAs, .236 GPA)

Overrated by the mainstream, underrated by statheads. The impression of Alfonso Soriano is starting to change on both sides of the spectrum, as traditional analysts are seeing past Soriano's immense talent and understanding how his approach at the plate is keeping him from being an elite player. His Batting Average, HRs and RBIs are still high, so he'll always look better than he is at first glance, but even without looking at OBP and SLG, it's becoming clear to everyone that he's not the second coming of Hank Aaron.

But he's not the second coming of Juan Samuel, either. He's not the second coming of anyone, he's the first coming of Alfonso Soriano, a very unique player, and a good player. There was cause for encouragement last season, his walk rate increased, his strikeout rate decreased. His defense improved somewhat, and with the hiring of Don Mattingly as batting coach, there is some hope that he can be taught to control his aggressiveness, and stop swinging at awful pitches. Soriano's hope is in decreasing his strikeouts, not increasing his walks. The latter is probably never going to happen to a significant degree, but the former may, and if he's not striking out too much, then there is reason to believe that he can keep his Batting Average and Home Runs at their current level, and remain a good player.

During the early part of the offseason, there was some talk of moving Soriano to the outfield, or trading him to Kansas City for Carlos Beltran. While trading Soriano for Beltran might have been a good trade in terms of talent, the lack of a quality option at second base for the Yankees would likely have made it a poor move overall, as would the move to the outfield. Instead, the Yankees brought Kenny Lofton in to play Centerfield, and will make do with Soriano at second. With Derek Jeter's defensive shortcomings, it would be nice to have a Gold Glove caliber second baseman, but the loss of Soriano's offense would likely hurt the Yankees more than a Pokey Reese would have helped the defense.

Enrique Wilson was the backup at second base last season, as he was at shortstop and third base. He's still a backup option at second, but I've listed him elsewhere, and labeled Miguel Cairo as the Yankees' backup second baseman, because that's what he is. Second base is the position that Cairo plays with the least ineptitude. He can also play shortstop, third base and the outfield, in the sense that he has the gloves in his locker and can find his way there from the dugout, but he's not going to make anyone forget Randy Velarde, and is more likely to bring back some unpleasant memories of Clay Bellinger. He's Enrique Wilson without the ability to hit from the left side or the unnerving resemblance to John Sterling. He even has a contract disproportionate to his talent.

Steven Goldman has been harping on the uselessness of Cairo for several columns, because A) he's fairly useless, and B) there's not really much else to talk about, but as useless as Cairo is, he's also irrelevant. He's not going to take playing time away from anyone except when they need a day off, and he's not likely to make a significant negative impact on the Yankees' postseason chances by himself. The virtue of having him on the team is that he can at least theoretically play three infield positions and the outfield, which allows the Yankees to add Tony Clark, who will certainly be more useful to the Yankees than a ballhawk backup outfielder who pinch-runs and starts ten games.

Cairo is unlikely to draw the type of backlash that Todd Zeile drew last year, because unlike Zeile, Cairo is unlikely to be taking playing time away from actual baseball players. If Joe Torre decides to be Tony LaRussa and plug Cairo in every other day, then you're sure to hear screams from this fan, but I don't see it happening. It's something to bitch and moan about during the dead part of the offseason, but in July, Miguel Cairo is going to be just another guy at the end of the bench.


Derek Jeter (539 PAs, .290 GPA)
Erick Almonte (109 PAs, .232 GPA)

2004: (3-year averages)
Derek Jeter (653 PAs, .284 GPA)
Enrique Wilson (169 PAs, .189 GPA)

On Opening Day last season, the Yankees got one of the worst scares they've had in years, as Derek Jeter's shoulder was separated by a shinguard driven into it as he slid into third base. The Yankees were suddenly facing a season without one of their best players, without a viable option to replace him. Going into the day, the 2003 season looked promising, and after it, things looked bleak.

Fortunately, Jeter only missed a little more than a month, and indeed went on to have possibly the best non-1999 season of his career. Going into 2004, Jeter is healthy again, perhaps for the first time since the Yankees last won the World Series, and the question has to be asked: is he going to start putting up great offensive numbers again?

It's not as though his offense has been dreadful since 2000, but from 2000 to 2002, he experienced a clear decline in value. It was getting to the point where some were questioning how valuable Jeter really was, as his defense was suffering from a steep decline as well, and was perhaps negating the value of his offense.

That defensive decline does not seem to have stopped. It's become so poor that the difference between him and a good defensive shortstop is visible to anyone willing to look, and the difference between a good defensive player and a poor one is usually too subtle to see without the aid of statistics. What the statistics say is that Jeter is about the worst defensive shortstop in baseball, and while the reliability of defensive statistics is light years behind that of offensive statistics, it takes a very myopic fan to deny that Jeter's range is, at the very least, poor. It's easily poor enough that objections to trading for Alex Rodriguez and moving Jeter to third on the basis that Jeter shouldn't be moved are patently ridiculous. Indeed, the Yankees should have explored the possibility of trading for Rodriguez, and if the trade was not pursued solely on the desire to keep Jeter at shortstop, then there is a great deal of ineptitude in the Yankees' front office.

But I am of the opinion that the Yankees can live with Clutchy Clutch McClutch at shortstop even with his Glove of Lost Dreams. I do think that the defensive statistics overstate the negative impact of his defense, though his apologists vastly understate it, and I do think he is one of the best shortstops in baseball. I like Derek Jeter, I really do. He's a good ballplayer, and a good guy. But he's not all he's made out to be, and I can't stand to hear people speak of him as a Golden God.

As for his backup, Enrique Wilson will be one likely to play short when Jeter needs a day off, though Cairo can find his way to that space between third and second, too. Wilson isn't any more valuable than Cairo, though he can switch hit, and he's not likely to see much more than 100 PAs in 2004, either, and a couple of oh-fers against Pedro during the regular season will hopefully keep him on the bench in an ALCS rematch.

Erick Almonte filled in for Jeter when he was hurt last season, and would probably be called up to do so again if Jeter is DL'ed in 2004. He's not a good hitter, and his defense at short made Jeter look good, though he probably wasn't actually any worse than Jeter, he just made mistakes when he got to the ball.

As long as nobody gets hurt, the Yankees will be fine in the middle infield. Fortunately, Alfonso Soriano and Derek Jeter aren't the Yankees who we should be concerned about when it comes to health. It's a good thing, too, because if one of them goes down for a significant period of time, the fear that arose last Opening Day will come to fruition. The Yankees will be screwed.

Third Base:

Aaron Boone (648 PAs, .260 GPA)

2004: (3-year averages)
Aaron Boone (589 PAs, .261 GPA)

Last year, Aaron Boone threw away more goodwill faster than George W. Bush. His pennant-winning HR made me for a time forgive his generally crappiness during the regular season games that mattered and the playoffs, but his World Series suckfest made me and many other Yankees fans bitter again, and and the words of Joe Sheehan spoke true: "It was a home run, not diplomatic immunity."

Of course, Aaron Boone isn't the suckiest suck in the history of suck, he's an okay ballplayer. As his GPA shows (though it isn't adjusted for park, which would bring it down), he's an average hitter, and maybe a little above average for a third baseman. His defense is pretty good, if unspectacular, as well. Having Aaron Boone at the bottom of your lineup is hardly a bad thing; indeed, when your worst hitter is a league average hitter, you're doing quite well.

The problem with Aaron Boone, aside from the fact that the Yankees traded Brandon Claussen, who they could very much have used this upcoming season, for him, is that he's not the type of player who keeps things going. His value is in his home run power, not in getting on base. He'll make a lot of outs, taking Plate Appearances away from the Yankees' best hitters, although the number of outs he creates will be minimized by his batting ninth, and be less damaging to the Yankees' offense than Alfonso Soriano was batting at the top of the lineup last season.

Had there been any available third basemen better than Boone this offseason--had Mike Lowell been non-tendered, for instance, then the Yankees would have been better off cutting ties with Boone and upgrading the position. Had a Soriano for A-Rod trade been made, and Jeter shifted to third, Boone might have become more useful to the Yankees, potentially upgrading their defense at second and being an acceptable hitter for the position. As it is, he remains at third base for another season, after which the Yankees will likely move on and add a superior player at the position, perhaps an All-Star like Eric Chavez, who seems certain to become a free agent. For 2004, Boone will do.

Left Field:

Hideki Matsui (695 PAs, .267 GPA)

2004: (3-year average {using Japanese League stats--take with a spoonful of salt})
Hideki Matsui (639 PAs, .332 GPA)

Godzilla turned out to not be as great as he was hyped to be, not even close. He was a quality player, though below average for the position, and hardly a crucial part of the Yankees' lineup. After the season, he was robbed of the opportunity to rob Angel Berroa of the Rookie of the Year by writers who decided that clearly defined rules were open to whatever interpretation their prejudices wanted them to make, but at least they gave the award to the right man.

Matsui had an uncanny knack for hitting in the clutch that was more than selective memory. In 198 PAs with runners in scoring position, Matsui's GPA rose to .301 (.297 when SF are turned into ABs), enough PAs to create a reasonable sample size, and a large enough increase to turn heads.

There may be some connection between Matsui's clutch hitting and the one month of the season he was a special hitter, when the Yankees played the National League in June. Matsui's offense against the NL was vastly better than against the AL, leading to questions as to whether there is a difference in how he's pitched to by NL pitchers than by AL pitchers. But a mechanical change in Cincinnati may also explain the improvement.

The Yankees aren't going to give up Hideki Matsui, or even bench him, unless his performance becomes a significant drag on the offense. His nationality alone makes him profitable to the Yankees, and having a Japanese player in the lineup every game makes the Yankees a very attractive team to Japanese fans. Because the Yankees are going to stick with him, they have to be hoping that his performance improves greatly in 2004.

I think that his performance will improve at least somewhat, if not greatly. Matsui was one of the most pronounced groundball hitters in the Majors last season, and I've said before that you can't hit 50 HRs in any league by hitting the ball on the ground, no matter how close the fences are--unless the walls are really short. His struggles with gravity would imply, to me, that there was some problem either with his mechanics, or adjusting to the pitching patterns of MLB pitchers. Matsui seems to be a hard-working player who doesn't suffer from excessive pride, and I think he can make the adjustments he needs to this offseason to get better. Will he hit 50 HRs? I highly doubt it, but 25 HRs and 40 2Bs seems realistic to me.

Center Field:

Bernie Williams (521 PAs, .268 GPA)
David Dellucci (246 PAs, .229 GPA)

2004: (3-year averages)
Bernie Williams (618 PAs, .298 GPA)
Kenny Lofton (599 PAs, .259 GPA)

With the signing of Kenny Lofton, the era of Bernie Williams as the Yankees' centerfielder is likely over. Joe Torre has said that Williams and Lofton will compete for the job, and that diplomacy in easing a player out a position they're no longer able to play is one of Torre's greatest strengths. Unfortunately, one of Torre's great weaknesses is being blinded by excessive loyalty to players who have done great things for him in the past, and he may be inclined to keep Williams in center if his play out there is not awful, even though Lofton is certain to be a better defender.

And let's be clear, Lofton is clearly a better defensive player than Bernie Williams at this point in his career. Bernie always got poor jumps on fly balls, and took poor routes to them, but his long legs and speed allowed him to outrun the ball and play good defense. Not defense worthy of the Gold Gloves he won, mind you, but he was an asset out there. Now, his speed is all but a memory, and his poor defensive instincts are exacerbated by his weak arm. The triple he allowed to roll past him in Game One of the ALDS last season may have opened everyone's eyes to the problem, but Bernie's been a liability in the outfield for the past couple of seasons.

Putting Kenny Lofton in center makes the Yankees defense much better. He's not much more than an average centerfielder, at best, but he is a huge improvement over Williams, at the outfield position responsible for covering the most ground.

And perhaps key to the decision to move Bernie is the injuries Williams suffered last year, in large part because of his playing the outfield. Williams injured his knee running into a wall, and before having surgery on it, suffered an excruciatingly long hitless streak, and after missing significant time following surgery, was drained of much of his power. Moving Williams to DH to keep him healthy is a wise decision.

I don't think the drop in performance Bernie suffered last season is a permanent one. It's too much to ask for more All-Star seasons out of him, but his power seemed to return in the World Series, and I think he'll be good for at least 20 HRs in 2004, and his OBP will be over .380. He shouldn't be batting fourth, and won't, thanks to Gary Sheffield, but in the 6th or 7th spot in the lineup, he'll help the Yankees score runs.

As for Lofton, his coming will lead to two important changes to the Yankees' lineup. The first is moving Bernie to DH, but the other change is to get Alfonso Soriano out of the leadoff spot, which he has always been horribly unsuited for. Lofton doesn't walk much, nor is he an OBP God, but he does both more than Soriano. The real benefit is in moving Soriano down in the lineup, where his power is utilized best and he'll make fewer outs.

On his own, Lofton is unexceptional. He's not a great hitter, though he put up a solid .271 GPA last season, and is best utilized in a platoon. He's not a great fielder, he doesn't have a good arm, but in both he's better than Williams, and in that sense is an asset. Two years might be a bit much for Lofton, but if it doesn't prevent the Yankees from getting a real centerfielder in 2005, it won't hurt, and if Lofton can be a fourth outfielder next year, that'll be a plus, too.

Right Field:

Karim Garcia (262 PAs, .241 GPA)
Juan Rivera (184 PAs, .254 GPA)
Ruben Sierra (336 PAs, .252 GPA)

2004: (3-year averages)
Gary Sheffield (625 PAs, .328 GPA)
Ruben Sierra (386 PAs, .261 GPA)

Although the front office did a fine job of creating a black hole at third base in midseason, the real hole in the Yankees' lineup last season was in right field. After a torrid start by Raul Mondesi, he fell in love with the rally-killing double play, and the Yankees were ultimately forced to turn to a platoon of Karim Garcia, Juan Rivera and David Dellucci, with Ruben Sierra tagging along as a pinch hitter. It worked well enough, Rivera was best against lefties and Garcia best against righties, and the result was an almost adequate right fielder. The Yankees didn't lose the World Series because they didn't have a star playing right, but it sure could have helped if they had one.

Gary Sheffield is a star. Now, I would much have preferred Vlad Guerrero, but Sheffield is one of the best hitters in baseball, and helps the Yankees' lineup.

There have to be concerns about his signing, though. He's 35, and a decline wouldn't be a surprise, even in 2004. Indeed, before his huge 2003 season, Sheffield's numbers were in a 3-year decline. He's not a good defensive player, he's not a fast runner, and his reputation is that of a selfish player, and the curious circumstances of his signing have to raise questions.

But let there be no doubt that Gary Sheffield is a great hitter. Aside from the huge numbers he put up in Atlanta last season, his walks and strikeouts show how disciplined a hitter he is, not swinging at bad pitches while making contact and crushing hittable pitches.

I think Nick Johnson may have been a better hitter in 2004 than Gary Sheffield, but he has yet to be in any season, and Johnson has a long history of injuries. I said before that with the signing of Sheffield and Lofton, the Yankees have taken a giant step sideways with their lineup, but upon further review, I've changed my tune. The Yankees will probably be a better hitting team in 2004 thanks to these moves if they can stay healthy, even if Bernie and Giambi don't perform any better than they did last year.

As for Sierra, he's nothing special, but he can handle the job. He won't be taking PAs away from Nick Johnson next year, and in his role as pinch-hitter, he is capable of providing what is requested, which is the occasional dramatic HR or double.

That's it for the lineup. In Part Two, I'll of course run down the pitching staff. I'm shooting for tomorrow on that, but let's keep in mind, I'm very lazy.