THE BLAME GAME
Pointing fingers and assessing blame following post-season losses is an ignoble and time-honored Yankee tradition, dormant during the championship years but more recently, resurgent. Alas, where frustration seeks an outlet and failure demands a scapegoat, reason evaporates and an obvious truth gets lost. The Yankees have become victims of their recent successes-- of an extraordinary string of four championships that defied the odds and often eluded explanation and was all the more remarkable for seeming so easy and effortless, so seamless and inexorable. And as fans, we, in turn, have fallen victim to expectations so high that modest success looks like failure, victim to the collective delusion that given sufficient talent and desire a baseball team should win a championship every year and that anything less is a failure of will or nerve or management.
But no player can will performance, no matter how talented, now matter how great his prior accomplishments. Still less can a team. If they could, no great hitter would suffer a slump and every great pitcher would throw a perfect game. Statistics only measure probability; or as Derek Jeter observed last Saturday, “The game isn’t played on paper.” Every pitch of every at-bat accordingly is crucible on to itself, singular, un-predictable, inimitable. No magic formula can reproduce success.
Accordingly, the 2006 Yankees didn’t lose because they didn’t play hard enough or because they didn’t want to win badly enough. They didn’t lose because stars don’t perform under pressure and role players do or because of some missing, magical chemistry. They didn’t lose because of a stoic clubhouse; and they didn’t lose because of a tense clubhouse. They didn’t lose because Joe Torre played this one and not that one, or because he placed this one fourth in the lineup and that one eighth. NO, the Yankees lost because they lost. They lost because over a four game stretch between October 3, 2006, and October 7th, a less talented lineup outperformed a more talented one. It is, at once, that simple and that arcane. Hold everything else constant, and re-play the games tomorrow and a different result, no doubt, would ensue, and we would be no wiser or closer to an explanation.
PITCHING, PITCHING, PITCHING: WHY THE YANKEES DID LOSE
Now, this isn’t to say, a geriatric owner who spends $200 million a year on players in his frantic effort to win one more ring before he succumbs to oblivion cannot exercise some control over his franchise’s fate. If a payroll of All-Stars doesn’t guarantee a championship, it certainly enhances your prospects for one. Nonetheless, the allocation of money, of course, is as important as the amount expended. And the irony of the Yankees’ predicament is that, far from reflecting their team’s prodigious talent, the $200 million dollar payroll instead may be a measure of its shortcomings—the Yankees desperate effort to compensate with productive, albeit expensive, hitters for a deficiency money cannot so easily rectify: aging, and increasingly mediocre, starting pitching.
The availability of productive, all-star caliber position players through trades and free-agency each year enables teams willing to spend money to increase their run production. Pace Carlos Lee, Bobby Abreu, Carlos Delgado, Rafael Furcal, Ramon Hernandez, Troy Glaus, Lyle Overbay, Alfonso Soriano in 2006 alone. Pitching, however, is another matter entirely.
The Yankees have had such difficulty resolving their pitching woes through their financial might because other teams, realizing great pitching’s importance and scarcity, have begun to sign young, premiere hurlers to long-term contracts before they qualify for free-agency. Blame Brian Cashman all you want but the trade and free agency markets, of late, has been bereft of first-rate pitching talent.
In 2002, the Yankees signed Jose Contreras, in 2004, Carl Pavano—the two best pitchers, then available. Neither paid dividends. In 2003, they traded for Javier Vasquez and Kevin Brown; in 2004, for Randy Johnson. Altogether, the lot of them has won a single post-season game: Vasquez, in Game 3 of the 2004 ALCS in which he received the win but nonetheless surrendered 4 runs in 41/3 innings, the final score 19-8.
And this futility only illustrates why acquiring another team’s starter is always a second-best option to cultivating your own and underlines the Yankees’ greatest problem. Not since Andy Pettite in ‘95 has the Yankee farm system harvested a pitcher deserving of the mantle of a One, Two, or Three starter. (Ted Lilly rates no better than a fourth starter and the Yankees’ international scouting signed Chien-Ming Wang, as they did Contreras.) And Boss George-- in the foolish arrogance that is the flip-side to the prodigal spending and zeal for winning Yankee fans cherish—let Andy Pettite walk. And perhaps in the only truly misguided decision of Brian Cashman’s otherwise impressive tenure, he traded Ted Lilly for Jeff Weaver, a nullity, who, in turn, was traded for clubhouse cancer, Kevin Brown.
The Yankees, in other words, have to return to building their pitching staff from within. Cultivating your own starting pitchers offers multiple advantages. First and foremost, they’re younger and cheaper than some other team’s undesired chaff or free-agent defection. A young, homegrown, draft-reared pitcher grants a team his first six years, often his most productive at that, at a bargain cost, freeing payroll for addressing more urgent and immediate needs. Secondly, it affords an organization the opportunity to observe a young pitcher’s maturation, gauge his temperament, evaluate his “stuff”, control his pitch count and physical development, and measure his promise—the opportunity, in short, to make a far more informed projection of his success in the majors than the much smaller sample given a scout’s desultory reconnoitering of another team’s farm system. The Yankee gravity chamber starts at the Single A level and the pitcher who can flourish on Staten Island’s first floor is the most likely to reach the Bronx’s summit.
MORE LESSONS THE TIGERS TEACH US
The ignominious defeat Verlander, Bonderman, Zumaya, et. al inflicted on the Yankees further emphasizes the priority pitching should assume. An object lesson, incidentally, the Yankee recent championship teams offered to anyone who’d have heeded it. Much has been made of the ’96 through ’01 teams’ chemistry, their profusion of role players, their resilience, tenacity, and fire compared to the phlegmatic overpaid stars of today. Nonesense: all of it.
The Yankee successes during this era began and ended with pitching. Built on a rotation of four premiere pitchers (Pettite, Cone, Wells/Clemens, and El Duque), the Yankees dynasty subdued lineups in the ’96 Orioles, the ‘98 Indians, the ‘99 Rangers, and ’00 Mariners that rivaled, if not equaled, those of the post-‘03 Yankees. Because if you beat Wells or Cone in Game 1, the Yankees threw Pettite at you in Game 2; if you defeated Pettite in Game 2, they threw El Duque in Game 3 and Clemens in Game 4.
Compare, by contrast, the vulnerability of a 2004 rotation of Vasquez, Lieber, Brown, and Mussina; a 2005, of Mussina, Wang, a 42-year-old Randy Johnson, and Shawn Chacon; or 2006, of Wang, Mussina, a 43-year-old Johnson, and Jared Wright. As Tom Verducci observes on SI.com that since Game 3 of the 2004 ALCS, Yankee starters are 2-7 with a 5.73 ERA, including 0-3 with a 10.38 ERA when facing elimination.
Still, the ’06 ALDS does more than merely exemplify the cliché that “good pitching will stop good hitting” no matter how many all-star hitters a lineup sports, it also shows why, to quote Joe Torre’s maxim, “It all begins with pitching”. For if hitting can compensate for pitching mediocrity over 162 games, it is considerably less likely to do so in a five or seven game post-season series when a lineup faces the best starting staffs the league has to offer. In fact, during the post-season, when the pressure intensifies and each at-bat can mean the difference between advancement and elimination, middling pitching actually risks neutralizing your own lineup’s greatest strength, as the Yankees’ uncharacteristic impatience against Rogers and Bonderman testified.
During the 2006 regular season, the Yankees lead the American league in runs scored largely because of a methodical, patient approach at the plate that netted them a league leading .363 on base average, 649 walks (second behind the Athletics’ 650), and forced opposing teams pitchers to throw, on average, 152 total pitches per game.
However, once Randy Johnson and Jared Wright yielded 5 and 4 runs in Games 3 and 4 respectively, they neutralized the Yankee hitters’ greatest strength. The Yankee lineup abandoned their strict regiment of taking walks, forgoing balls and swinging exclusively at strikes—either because the stress and dire urgency of overcoming a 4 to 5 run lead in critical games made them overanxious or because 4 to 5 run cushions enabled Rogers and Bonderman to challenge the Yankee batters with strikes and to stay ahead in the count or both.
To illustrate, the Yankees stellar .363 OBA during the season dropped to .204OBA in Game 4 and a .212 OBA in Game 3. Secondly, the 152 total pitches per game Yankee batters normally saw fell to 126 in Game 3, and 109 in Game 4. Finally, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, Detroit pitchers threw first-pitch strikes to 65.5 percent of Yankee batters, over 8% points above the 57.2 percent the Yankees encountered during the regular season. As much as the Tiger’s pitching quelled a vaunted Yankee batting order, then, the Yankee pitching staff made an equal contribution to the lineup’s failures.
In contrast, the miracle comebacks of the Yankees championship years derived largely from the ability of the Yankees starting rotation and bullpen to contain deficits to a run or two-- three, at the absolute maximum. (The one and only glaring exception to this pattern occurred in Game 4 of the ‘96 World Series when the Yankees overcame a 6 run deficit.)
• Game 3 of the ’96 ALDS, Rangers led 2-1 in the 9th inning; Yankees win 3-2
• Game 1 of the ’96 ALCS, Orioles led 4-2 in the 7th inning; Yankees win 5-4
• Game 3 of the ’96 ALCS, Orioles led 2-1 in the 8th inning; Yankees win 5-2
• Game 1 of the ’98 WS, Padres led 5-2 in the 7th inning; Yankees win 9-6
• Game 3 of the ’98 WS, Padres led 3-0 in the 7th inning; Yankees win 5-4
• Game 1 of the ’99 ALCS, Red Sox led 3-2 in the 7th inning; Yankees win 4-3
• Game 2 of the ’99 ALCS, Red Sox led 2-1 in the 7th inning; Yankees win 3-2
• Game 1 of the ’99 WS, Braves led 1-0 in the 8th inning; Yankees win 4-1
• Game 3 of the ’99 WS, Braves led 5-2 in the 7th inning; Yankees win 6-5
• Game 2 of the ’00 ALCS Mariners led 1-0 in the 8th inning; Yankees win 7-1
• Game 6 of the ’00 ALCS Mariners led 4-3 in the 7th inning; Yankees win 9-7
• Game 3 of the ’01 ALDS tied 0-0 in the 4th inning; Yankees win 1-0
• Game 4 of the ’01 WS, Arizona led 3-1 in the 9th inning; Yankees win 4-3
• Game 5 of the ’01 WS, Arizona led 2-0 in the 9th inning; Yankees win 3-2
• Game 7 of the ’03 ALCS, Red Sox led 5-2 in the 8th inning; Yankees win 6-5
WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
The Yankees pitching predicament, however, isn’t as bleak as the alarmists have implied. The late season performances of Jeff Karstens and Darryl Rasner should buoy Yankee fans—even if we should abide that age-old warning about not judging players by how they perform in April or September. As should the rave reviews the Yankees top pitching prospect Philip Hughes has earned. The recent emergence of J.B. Cox, Huston Street’s successor at the University of Texas, and Tyler Clippard offer cause for optimism as well.
Let’s hope, nonetheless, the Yankees have learned from the Red Sox’s recent travails that danger awaits an organization which elevates young pitchers before they’ve fully ripened in the minor leagues or developed sufficient arm strength to pitch 200 innings. Cashman’s refusal to promote Hughes, thus far, in addition to the organization’s decision to cap his innings this year at 150 bode well. The flip side, of course, is that the Yankees cannot expect Hughes (or even Karstens and Rasner) to pitch a full season in 2007, let alone, to have conserved ample arm strength to prosper in the post-season.
Accordingly, the off-season presents the Yankees with a formidable but not insuperable challenge for 2007. They have to manage to bridge the gap between a future rotation of younger pitchers not yet able to handle a full season’s workload and a current rotation of tired, aging veterans too exhausted to pitch effectively during the postseason. The bridge’s cornerstone will hinge on whether the Yankees can obtain an effective, reliable 2nd starter, if not a 3rd starter as well, to follow Chien-Ming Wang in the rotation.
As Randy Johnson’s dreadful performances in Game 3 of the 2005 and 2006 ALDS demonstrate, the Yankees cannot rely on him, at 43, to pitch any more consistently or effectively than a 4th starter would perform. Meanwhile, Mike Mussina-- if the Yankees chose to re-sign him for two years at an annual salary markedly less than the $19million he made this year-- could assume the more deserved role of a 3rd starter. (If the Yankees and Mussina cannot strike a mutually agreeable arrangement, the organization should pursue Andy Pettite with the promise of more years and more money than the Astros will offer.)
To secure a 2nd starter the Yankees have one of two options: (i) wring him from an infertile or unripe crop inside the organization—a crop comprised of Pavano, Karstens, Rasner or Scott Proctor (ii) acquire him from without, either by signing Japanese pitcher Matsuszaka or Barry Zito. (The Yankees evidently think about as highly of Jason Schmidt as he does of NY: that is, not much.)
TO TRADE HIM OR NOT TO TRADE HIM?: THIS IS THE QUESTION
Then of course, there’s the third option, the latest fashionable bromide to arise from the media echo chamber: Trade A-Rod. And like all groupthink and herd piety, it should be distrusted because it stems more from professional conformity and facile opinion than the deliberate analysis and reasoned conclusions that follow from weighing the evidence.
Can A-Rod excel in the post-season as a Yankee? Of course, he can. From Game 1 of the 2004 ALDS through Game 3 of the 2004 ALCS Alex Rodriguez went 14 for 33, a batting average of .422. To conclude he cannot depends, quite simply, on selective perception-- the much remarked statistic that from Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS through Game 4 of the 2006 ALDS, Alex Rodriguez has gone 4 for 45, a batting average of .090. But if you extract an almost identically sized unrepresentative sampling from Derek Jeter’s post-season statistics, for example, you could arrive at the same conclusion. Between Game 1 of the 2001 ALCS and Game 7 of the World Series, Jeter went 6 for 44, a .136 average.
(It is worth observing that outside New York, A-Rod’s post-season statistics are as impressive as his regular season numbers. Over his two appearances in the post-season with Seattle ’97 and’00, A-Rod went 18 for 51, a .353BA, with 3HRs and 8 RBIs. A-Rod’s career post-season numbers, then, are 36 for 129, a.280BA with 6HRs and 16RBIs. By contrast, compare Derek Jeter’s career post-season numbers-- a sampling size 3.6 times larger than A-Rod’s-- are 142 for 462, a .307BA, 16HR, 47RBI’s. If you extrapolate A-Rod’s career post-season numbers for an identical number of at-bats, Jeter only surpasses A-Rod in batting average.)
So which is the real A-Rod? The A-Rod of the 2004 ALDS or the A-Rod of the 2005-6 ALDS. The MVP of the 2005 season who batted .321 and hit 48HR’s or the merely very productive A-Rod of 2004 and 2006, who hit for a combined batting average of .288 and averaged 35.5 HR’s per season.
Answer: both and neither. Alex Rodriguez has been a Yankee for a total of three years. Accordingly, he hasn’t amassed enough post-season plate appearances to allow anyone to determine definitively which is the representative performance-- 2004 or 2005-6. The same applies for his regular season numbers.
But apart from the caprice and pre-maturity any judgment about A-Rod’s hospitability to New York entails, his currently depreciated value militates against trading him at this juncture, even assuming, for the sake of argument, he would waive his no-trade clause-- is that at this juncture. The relentless jeering and media criticism has so diminished A-Rod’s standing; no team would relinquish sufficient young pitching to deserve the Yankees’ consideration. Alongside Albert Pujols, A-Rod has the best career average regular-season statistics in baseball, but the Yankees would not receive a package commensurate to what the player with the 2nd greatest statistics in baseball has accomplished.
I trust Cashman’s insistence that he does not intend to trade A-Rod reflects this wisdom. Indeed, any GM in baseball who would trade a player of A-Rod’s caliber, as some in the media have advocated, for Irving Santana and a prospect should be dismissed on the spot. Of course, if the Angels want to trade Irving Santana, Francisco Rodriguez (a.k.a. K-Rod) AND Chone Figgins; or if the Tigers want to trade Zumaya, Verlander or Bonderman, and Brandon Inge for some package including A-Rod and Scott Proctor, the Yankees should consider it. However, neither the Tigers nor the Angels, naturally, would entertain such deals, even if the Yankees and A-Rod both could agree. All of which means an A-Rod trade will provide talk show fodder for the next four months but Alex Rodriguez, in the end, will play for the Yankee in 2007.
Actually, if the Yankees are intent in unloading some of the excess offense for pitching, they should consider exercising Sheffield’s $13 million option and then trading him to another team. Of course, once news leaked that the Yankees were contemplating the possibility, Sheffield's very public remonstrations and threats to retire reduced his value somewhat. However, a small-market franchise desperate to increase its offensive production might consider Sheffield worth the risk nonetheless because his contract includes between four to five million dollars of deferred salary. And at 9 million for a year, Sheffield is a bargain. With the Cubs and Astros expressing interest, Cashman just might be able to acquire someone like Bobby Howry or Chad Qualls. Or if the rumors and Tim Purpurra has given up on him, perhaps, in the logic of trading one risk for another risk, Cashman could parlay Sheffied into Brad Lidge. A fanciful prospect, I concede.
Alternatively, Jason Giambi turns 36-years-old in January. And the tendency of his health to deteriorate over an entire season (in both 2003 and 2006, injuries prevented him from playing in October) both diminishex his post-season production and confines him to the role of DH. Giambi has two years remaining on his contract at $21million per year. If the Yankees agreed to defray $10million of the remaining $42 million owed Giambi, a team desperate for hitting might cede an able, young arm for him. Giambi also has a no-trade clause but he lives in Las Vegas and hails from Southern California. He just might agree accordingly to a trade to the Angels or Dodgers, each of whom has an excess of quality young pitching in their farm systems.
Finally, the Yankees, evidently, are contemplating moving Scott Proctor into the starting rotation next year, a move that would necessitate their signing an imposing reliever like Justin Speier to assume Proctor’s bullpen role. Yet with the 100+ innings Proctor pitched in relief in 2006, the Yankees cannot expect him to transition seamlessly into a starting role anytime soon. In fact, the recent experiences of Yankee relievers Steve Karsay, Paul Quantril, Tom Gordon, and Tanyon Sturtze casts into question Proctor’s likely efficacy as a reliever in '07, let alone a starter. After Karsay amassed 88 innings in relief for the Yankees ’02; Quantril, 95 innings in ’04; Gordon, 90 and 80 innings in ’04 and ’05 respectively; and Sturtze 78 innings in ’05; each reliever was, at best, less effective the following season, or at worse, suffered major injuries that ended or curtailed his season. Indeed, at this writing Proctor already has complained of elbow soreness and has undergone testing for bone chips, thus far negative, and has sought a second opinion from arm expert, Dr James Andrews-- surely a bad omen for his future health.
The Yankees will have to bolster their bullpen this off-season, then, notwithstanding Proctor’s future role, signing or re-signing, two or more reliable relievers from a contingent which includes free-agents Octavio Dotel, Ron Villone, Justin Speier, Denys Baez, and perhaps, Eric Gagne, if the Dodgers chose not to re-sign him by December 7th.
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
Although the media's post-mortem included its share of hand-wringing drivel about the team's ailing, aging talent, the Yankees actually have a nucleus of position players in their prime who they can rely on to produce offensively for the forseeable future: Jeter is 32; A-Rod, 31; Matsui, 32; while Damon and Abreu turn 33 in November and March respectively. (And replacing 38-yr-old Sheffield with 33-year-old Abreu, for this reason makes Cashman's July trade the greatest Yankee mid-season acquisition since they obtained David Cone in '95) While Cano, of course, is 24, and Cabrera, a future starting outfielder, younger still. If the Yankees can continue then their recent trend of elevating one minor league prospect a season capable of producing and contributing in the Bronx, they will excel in run production for the years to come.
Of course, if the reports of the Yankees impending senility have been greatly exaggerated, age does afflict them, nonetheless, in two critical areas. Although Jorge Posada earned well-deserved kudos for his superb year offensively, and even more notably, defensively, he turns 36 next August. And catchers' skills tend to decline early, relative to other position players, and suddenly besides. Worse, the Yankees traded Posada's expected replacement Dioner Navarro in the Randy Johnson trade and don't have anyone in their farm system poised to ripen to fill the need.
Then, of course, looms just over the horizon the darkness no Yankee fan can suffer to contemplate: life A.M., that is, Life-after- Mariano. This past September we all glimpsed the void that the Indispensable Yankee's retirement, one day, will leave behind. And it's a future that's positively terrifying. It perhaps only exaggerates a little to liken it to a future without a father, for the Great Rivera, has acted as that kind of protective and reassuring presence in the 9th inning for Yankee fans over the last ten seasons. The franchise never will replace him. The best they can hope for is to groom a successor worthy of the mantle.
Cashman's challenge in the short-term is obvious-- dramatically improving the starting rotation. This means acquiring a 2nd starter behind Wong through a trade or free-agency; salvaging productivity from Carl Pavano; and re-signing either Mike Mussina or Andy Pettite for as long as it will take for Philip Hughes to pitch 200 innings a season.As if this didn't present a taxing enough challenge, the long-term will demand even more of Cashman. First, he will have to find successors to Posada and Rivera; where the task of replacing either alone will prove burden enough. Secondly, he will have to replenish a barren farm system, despoiled through a decade of consumptive trades and incompetent drafting. The Yankees pitching crop at the Double and Triple A levels, over the last ten years, until very recently, has been paltry, at best: a scarcity for an organization as great as the Yankees, and with their resources besides, is deplorable, especially when compared to the wealth of young pitching the Angels, A's, Dodgers, Cubs, and Tigers have developed and reared.
A high draft position, or first-round picks lost to free-agent compensation, can only excuse so much ineptitude. Not when the Athletics select Rich Harden in the 17th round or Tim Harden in the 6th (since traded to the Braves); not when the Tigers select Joel Zumaya in the 11th round; nor when the Yankees chose Dave Walling (who?) in the 1999 amateur draft's first round and the Angels pick Lackey in the 2nd and what's more, sign Ervin Santana and Francisco Rodriguez as amateur free-agents. The Yankees can expect three to five more years of optimal productivity from their nucleus of Jeter, A-Rod, Damon, Matsui, and Abreu. Whether Cashman can build an equivalent arsenal of pitching to complement them will determine whether this core wins one or more championships or whether the franchise squanders their talent. And while Cano, Cabrera, and Tabata suggest great future promise, should Jeter, A-Rod, and Matsui, especially, finish their career without them garnering another championship, the Yankees will have wrought a tragedy of Ruthian dimensions