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November 19, 2004

by Larry Mahnken

For the most part, a team's sucesses and failures have to be pinned on its players. It's the performance of the players that determines the outcome of a game, and there's little that managers and coaches can do that has a major impact on those performances. There are definite positive and negative effects to the decisions coaches make, but they are, in my opinion, much less significant that we would generally believe, and I would further go to say that they're less important than the random fluctuation of performances. For this reason, I believe that it's far more important for a manager to be a leader of men than a great strategist, and the best strategy a manager can often employ is to stay out of the way of what's happening on the field.

The Yankees lost the pennant in the manner they did because they failed to perform in the final four games of the ALCS. The tactical decisions that were made by Joe Torre have been criticized by me, and I am strongly inclined to believe that, had those decisions not been made, the Yankees would have won the pennant, and probably the World Series. But that is little more than a belief, and they may well still have lost. More importantly, they had several opportunities to win in spite of Torre's decisions, and their failure to do so was not the fault of Torre, Stottlemyre, Mattingly or anyone else except the players who failed to perform when it counted.

However, it is absolutely stunning to me that after the most humiliating defeat in the team's history, and the greatest postseason collapse in the history of the game, the only coach to be shown the door was bullpen coach Rich Monteleone. Perhaps Torre's penalty is the shattering of the near-blind faith that's been placed in him for winning four titles and six pennant, and he'll be given almost no leeway in 2005, but it still seems like someone's getting let off easily.

The first good news to come this offseason was the apparent retirement of Mel Stottlemyre, but soon enough that story turned around as he came back for one more season. I and many others around here have placed a large amount of blame on Stottlemyre for the ultimate failure of the Yankees this season, some of it fairly and some of it unfairly.

While, again, I believe that ultimate responsibility must rest with a player for his failures, much blame can be placed at the feet of specific coaches for specific reasons, and while laissez faire attitudes are often the best ones for coaches, they are not always the best ones. Sometimes, you have to do something, and usually doing the wrong thing is going to hurt more than doing the right thing will help.

And this is my problem with Stottlemyre. During his tenure the Yankees have sent some of the best pitching staffs in baseball to the mound. Steven Goldman wrote this week:
The good performances of the pitchers on his watch are evidence of his abilities of a pitching coach. If Stottlemyre is going to be penalized for every pitcher that fails to live up to expectations, realistic or not, he should be credited for every pitcher that succeeds in performing as advertised or better. Clearly Yankees staffs have, on the whole, lived up to expectations.
I cannot agree with this assessment. You cannot judge a coach simply on how his team performs compared to expectations, because how they do in that comparison is not entirely the result of a coach's actions. This is the case with Dusty Baker, who was given entirely too much credit, in my opinion, for the success of the Giants and Cubs. The arrival of Baker in San Francisco coincided exactly with the arrival of Barry Bonds that season, 1993. That the Giants improved markedly is more likely the result of Bonds' arrival than Baker's, and the improvement of the Cubs last season is more likely the result of the team's improved health and the maturing of their starting rotation than Baker's hiring.

And so it is with Stottlemyre. He's been blessed with David Cone, Andy Pettitte, David Wells, Orlando Hernandez, Roger Clemens and Mike Mussina, as well as Rivera, Wettleland and other great relievers. The talent of the pitching staff is the most likely reason for the success of the pitching staff, not Mel. The failure of the pitching staff this year is largely the result of injuries and aging, but that wasn't the only reason.

Jon Lieber was a tremendous asset for the Yankees in the second half and in October, but he struggled early on in the season. The turnaround came when he, on his own, found a flaw in the mechanics of his throwing motion, and corrected it himself. If there was ever a job for a pitching coach, this was it, but instead it was the player himself who found and corrected the problem. This could be excusable, but Lieber was not the only pitchers struggling mechanically.

Jose Contreras, blessed with spectacular stuff, was unable to find any consistency with the Yankees, partially due to mental barriers, but also due to inconsistent mechanics. A trade to Chicago had early positive results, but ultimately ended without much success for the White Sox. Perhaps El Titan de Bombs is unfixable, but if he isn't, the failure to fix him is a failure of Stottlemyre's.

More importantly was the failure of Javier Vazquez. In the first half Vazquez was as good a starter as the Yankees had, and while his strikeout rates were down and home run rates were up, he was going okay. Then the bad mechanics that have plagued him in Montreal came to haunt him in New York. He became frightfully inconsistent and became unable to put batters away, and by the ALCS he was the Jeff Weaver of 2004. Vazquez's mechanics are not a new problem, but it became noticeably worse as the season progressed, and Stottlemyre was unable to do anything.

Perhaps there was nothing he, or anyone else could have done -- in the end it comes down to Vazquez being able to fix the problem with the aid of the pitching coach. But it is clear that, at least in the case of Lieber, he was not providing sufficient aid to help his pitcher, and there were no apparent reprecussions for it. There's no reason to believe that if he had failed Lieber he wasn't failing other pitchers, and there's no reason to believe that he won't continue to fail them.

How much impact could a new pitching coach have on the Yankees? I don't know, but Stottlemyre does not seem to be having much of a positive one anymore, if he ever did. Loyalty is a nice thing, but eventually, in this game, you have to let your friends and allies go when they become liabilities. The Yankees made a mistake in bringing Mel back for one more year.

The Yankees' pitching did not cost them the ALCS, but losing in that manner was a convenient excuse to remove Stottlemyre and bring in someone new. It's another lost opportunity, one they may suffer for missing. I certainly hope that they don't, but it's not the most encouraging start to the offseason.

November 18, 2004

by Larry Mahnken

The Yankees have been making the postseason every year for the past decade, but it's only been the past few seasons that they've started going nuts on the free agent market. The core of their championship teams -- Jeter, Williams, Pettitte, Rivera, Posada -- was mostly homegrown, and the bulk of the key players from outside the system were either accquired through saavy trades or signing them as second-tier free agents. The Yankees spent more money than anyone else, but they were spending that money one players they had accquired for reasons independent of money. To get Chuck Knoblauch they gave up Cristian Guzman and Eric Milton, both highly-regarded prospects -- and the Twins didn't have to dump Knoblauch, he was just sick of losing, and wouldn't shut up about it. They gave up David Wells for Roger Clemens, and while they certainly ended up on the better end of that deal, they didn't "buy" Clemens.

But after winning their third straight title in 2000, they opened up the pursestrings a little more and started making a big splash on the free agent market. They signed Mike Mussina for 2001, Jason Giambi and Rondell White for 2002, Hideki Matsui and Jose Contreras for 2003, and while their free agent adventures were limited to Sheffield and QuanGor last offseason, they did bring in Vazquez, Brown and A-Rod in deals largely built around money.

And they've failed to win a World Series since they started this splurge. Coincidence?

Yeah, probably. They could have made better moves than they did, and signing so many free agents has decimated their farm system by costing them draft picks every year, but the ability of the team to accquire what they needed when they needed it was not, until this past season, heavily impeded by what they had done in the offseason. This past season they were unable to accquire the desperately desired Randy Johnson (you'd expect a lot of porn to come up on a Google search of that phrase...), but then, nobody else rode off with him either. But had they some tradable commodities in the farm system, they might have brought home Johnson before the deadline, and might have won the World Series. Or they might have lost -- pitching was not what cost them in October, it was the sudden inability of their offense to get crucial hits after winning 19-8 in Game Three.

This offseason, everyone is looking to the Yankees first when it comes to the big free agent names. Pedro Martinez had lunch with George Steinbrenner the other day so they're obviously somewhat intrigued, they're considered the leading suitor for Carlos Beltran if they want him, since they seem to be the only team that can match his 40-year $80 bazillion contract demands. They'll trade for Johnson, bring in Jeff Kent to play second and Carlos Delgado to play first, and sign Jason Varitek just to piss off A-Rod.

Problem is, where is all the money gonna come from? Now, some estimates that I've considered reliable have the Yankees bringing in $300 million in revenue a year, and I suppose that those numbers will keep going up. But they've already commited around $180 million to payroll next season, and they still need six more players to fill out the roster. Their payroll will absolutely be over $200 million, and with the luxury tax and revenue sharing they'll be right around or over that $300 million mark. Now, if George has money saved up (if?) he may very well be willing to dip into that fund to keep getting better -- what's he gonna save it for anyway? -- but what would spending all this money do to the Yankees' future.

Now, the Yankees could construct the contracts they sign to keep the real payroll low next season, since they have about $45 million coming off the books after next season, about $32 million of it to players who are almost certainly not coming back in 2006 (Bernie, Brown, The Run Fairy™, Lofton), so they pay someone like Beltran a lot less upfront, but a lot more down the line.

But still, if they sign Beltran for what it looks like he's going to get, they'll have committed almost $90 million to four players in 2008, and Jeter and Giambi don't look like a sure thing to be all that good then, either.

And yet, I think they have to sign Beltran, or at least make a move for J.D. Drew or Andruw Jones (in order of preference), because overpaid or no, it's a wise move if they don't want to fall apart. At contract's end Beltran will likely be about Bernie's age now, and had Bernie not gotten hurt in early 2003 I think he still would be one of the top offensive contributers from center in the game. I see a lot of Bernie in Beltran, and he's a lot better with the glove. Beltran won't be "worth" the contract he'll get, but he'll still be worth having as a starter at the end of it.

If the Yankees want to keep winning, they'll have to start signing younger players, and making wiser economic decisions. Had they spend $185 million wisely last season, they would have had an incredible juggernaut of a team, won 110 games easily and only lost in October by way of a stunning upset. But the $185 million "flop" (in the relative sense only) was the result of several years of bad contracts, and the accumulation of other teams' bad contracts in the past couple of seasons.

The Yankees should continue to be big players on the market, but they have to start showing severe restraint. Rather than signing Giambi in 2001-02, they could have given the job to Nick Johnson, signed a veteran first baseman to back him up, and spent their money on a three or four year contract to Barry Bonds. They would have spent less money, gotten more production (and anticipated it, as well), and they wouldn't regret the deal when it expired. They should have, in my opinion, done the opposite with Gary Sheffield -- instead signing Vlad Guerrero, who is far younger, just as good, only slightly more expensive, and will likely be much more valuable at the end of Sheffield's contract than Gary will. Sheffield was signed as a short-term patch, Guerrero could have been the first step in a radical makeover of the team -- the second step being A-Rod, the third being Beltran -- that could make them younger, better, and more likely to stay at the top of the game for years to come.

But Vlad's gone and he's never coming to New York as a young man, so there's no point crying over it. But the team should still bring in Beltran, and around him and A-Rod build the core of the next Yankees team for the next five years. Even if Giambi and Jeter fall off, if Matsui sustains this peak for a few years and they can add some quality players around the rest of the diamond, that should be more than enough to keep them at the head of the pack.

They're not entitled to be there, they have to earn that spot. But they have as much right to go for it as any other team, and I'll say once again, the best way to do it this year is to sign Carlos Beltran.

Expect them to sign Milton, Leiter and Robbie Alomar and day now, and stick Bernie back in center.

November 9, 2004

The Hardball Times Baseball Annual
by Larry Mahnken

The book is here! We at the Hardball Times have compiled the best articles from this past year and some great new material, and now it's available to sell for $16.75 plus shipping. For those of you who don't have the space for a new book or don't want to spend $16.75, we also offer an e-book for just $6.25, which you can read on your computer.

When we started THT last offseason, we hoped to write a book at season's end or before next spring, and we've actually pulled it off. I'm honored to have worked with such great writers and great guys.

All of you who love my site and The Hardball Times will greatly enjoy this book, and I'm sure every baseball fan friend of yours will love it, too, so spread the word. You can only buy it here right now, we don't know yet if we'll be selling it in bookstores.

So grab a copy today, and I'll be back in a couple of days with commentary on Derek Jeter's magic hands, the false hope that Mel Stottlemyre gave us for a few days, and what the Yankees are gonna do this offseason -- and what I think they should do. This is the most important offseason for the Yankees in decades, and while I think that no matter what moves they make this offseason they have a spectacular chance to win the AL East and World Series next season, the choices they make as to which players to accquire, for how much and for how long will go a long way towards determining if 2005 will be just another year in the great run, or the last hurrah.

But most importantly, buy my book! Buy my book! Buy it for yourself, buy it for your family, buy it for your friends. Buy it for homeless people, for stray dogs, and your invisible friend who is probably really bored since you stopped believing in him when you were eight. And then buy another copy. Buy one for each room in your house, so you never have to be more than a few feet from a copy. Build a shrine unto it and worship it as your new God. Tear out the pages and paste them on the wall to find hidden messages for the communist spies like Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. Take it out to the bar to pick up women and settle bar trivia, such as "What's the tenth word on page 117 of The Hardball Times Annual?" (answer: instance). Set it on fire to see if it burns! See if it'll stop a bullet! Leave it on the train tracks to see if it'll get squashed, or derail the engine, killing and injuring hundreds and spilling toxic waste that will make your neighborhood uninhabitable for decades! There's literally hundreds of ways to misuse this book! But to do it, you have to buy it...

Internet Post of the Day
by Fabian

"Buck and McCarver even spoke about his calm eyes leading the Yankees to victory" user in defense of Jeter's postseason.