An Offseason Look: New York Yankees
By Tom Edwards, Editor-In-Chief, Buhner.com

    As is the case during any offseason, the "hot stove league" warms up again, and especially in New York, suddenly 8 million potential Yankees and Mets GMs begin to draw out their master plan on how to rebuild their franchises and make the moves that any idiot can see they should make.  Of course, these things involve aquiring every free agent and trading two marginal prospects for the National League All-Star team.

    The reality of it all is that all real GMs feel that their team can be better than it already is.  While some feel that it will take just one key player and others think that a major overhall has to take place to get this done, hope isn't lost, even in Montreal.

    My goal is to attempt to draw up a realistic plan for those teams, keeping in mind minor league systems, financial constraints, and player attitudes.  While it may be difficult to predict how a player will react to moving into the spotlight of a Boston or New York market, there are certain players who make it more obvious whether they can handle the change or not.  I'm going to start with the New York teams, starting today with the Yankees, and see how many I can do.  I'm only promising the Yankees and Mets, but any others I can do after that is a bonus.

    With that, onto the Yankees.

    NEW YORK YANKEES

    Record: 101-61, 1st in AL East, defeated Minnesota 3-1 in ALDS, defeated Boston 4-3 in ALCS, lost to Florida 4-2 in World Series

    Where they stand:

    Despite the insanity that he causes within the organization and the media headlines he attracts, the Yankees are lucky to have an owner who wants to win, and is willing to pay the money it takes to win a World Series.  This Steinbrenner isn't the Steinbrenner of the 80s and 90s, possibly because he is willing to give enough decision making power to GM Brian Cashman and the rest of the Yankees braintrust.  Unlike owners who want their team to win but feel they would make better GMs than the professionals they hire to do that job for them (see Snyder, Daniel) or owners who care more about turning a profit than putting a winning team on the field, Steinbrenner just wants to win, and as long as he makes sure that it's his GM's job to evaluate talent, the team is better off having him.

    The team, however, is entering one of its biggest transition years in recent memory.  Roger Clemens is retiring, David Wells is a free agent (and not likely to be re-signed), and Andy Pettitte is a free agent who has made it known that he is seriously considering selecting a team close to his family (namely Houston).  If Pettitte does indeed sign with Houston, the Yankees lose 633 innings pitched, 53 wins, and a 4.02 ERA.  The Yankees other starters last year?  438.2 innings pitched, 31 wins, and a 4.35 ERA (including Mike Mussina's 17 wins and 3.40 ERA).

    The pitching has more issues than Jeff Weaver potentially being their third starter.  The Yankee bullpen, outside of Mariano Rivera, is full of question marks.  As it stands right now, the Yankees have two pitchers on their roster who have pitched more than 5 games for them in relief last season; Rivera and Chris Hammond, who was good enough to be left off the postseason roster.  Antonio Osuna, Gabe White, and Felix Heredia have all had their options declined, and are free agents.  Jeff Nelson is a free agent as well.  The four pitched in a combined 233 games last year.  The only other player on the Yankees roster with signifigant major league bullpen experience is Steve Karsay, who lost all of 2003 with an injury.  A team with too much pitching in March finds itself desperately needing it going into this offseason.

    The outlook with the Yankees and their position players is better, but still in need of changes in 2004.  Most feel that Alfonso Soriano needs to be moved to the outfield, or at least away from second base, as his play at second reminds many of when Ron Gant was a second baseman.  Bernie Williams, once an above average center fielder, is now a shell of his former self out in the field.  Right field was mainly a platoon of part time players after the necessary trade of Raul Mondesi to Arizona midway through the season.  Jason Giambi's various injuries have likely made him a permanent DH, and his .250 average this season was more than 50 points lower than his career average.  The bats in general are strong.  230 home runs and a .271 team average will keep any team in a game.

    What can be done to make them better:

    With the Yankees, the first thing that needs to be looked at is not necessarily what to do, but what _not_ to do.  Teams coming off playoff runs tend to look at postseason performance instead of regular season performance and make decisions off of that.  The postseason is great and all, but you have to do well in the regular season to get there.

    • Do NOT non-tender/trade Aaron Boone.

    There has been a lot of talk about how Boone's performance in the playoffs (sans series-winning home run) proves that he's just a part-time player or a utility guy placed in a starting role.  However, his brother was typecast that way too and the Mariners decision to stick with Bret Boone paid off in a Gold Glove second baseman with run producing ability.  Aaron Boone averages 21 HR and 20 SB with a .270 average over 162 games over his career.  He's been striking out less and becoming a better hitter over the last few seasons.  The Yankees gave up their best starting pitching prospect to get Boone, and to let Boone go for nothing would make a questionable trade a guaranteed bad one.  Boone is a better than average third baseman, and would help the Yankees more than hurt them.

    • - Do NOT trade Nick Johnson.

    Most Yankee trade rumors involve Johnson, mainly because Johnson has yet to hit his prime and first base is a position that the Yankees already have a proven starter for (although Giambi's ability to play the position after knee surgery is at best, questionable.)  Johnson managed to bat .284 and hit 14 HR despite missing a third of the season due to injury.  He has potential to be a Giambi-like hitter and is cheap.  If the Yankees were to trade Johnson to aquire a starting pitcher, the Yankees would have to turn to Giambi to play first (which he may not be able to do) or turn to free agency, where their only reasonable options are names like Travis Lee, Eric Karros, Fred McGriff, and JT Snow, none of which would come close to Johnson's production, and all of whom are either in the twilight of their careers, or in the case of Lee, not likely to ever get better than last year's career year.

    • - Do NOT overspend for Andy Pettitte.

    While most will agree that Pettitte is a good pitcher and a very good teammate, he is not a #1 starter.  Pettitte's career ERA is almost 4, buoyed by a very good 1997 season (2.88) and a 2002 (3.28) where he also battled injury.  Pettitte is sure to get serious consideration from the Yankees due to his tenure with the team and his perceived "clutch ability" to break Yankees losing streaks and pitch well in the playoffs.  Pettitte's playoff ERAs over the last four years have gone 2.84, 4.55, 12.00, and 2.10.  Again, this isn't to say that Pettitte isn't a good pitcher, but he isn't one of the top ten pitchers in the league, and he shouldn't be paid like one, especially in this market.  Steinbrenner may panic and try to win Pettitte over with cash to prevent him from leaving to go to Houston, but if Pettitte really wants to leave, he'll go no matter what the price, and the Yankees should be careful to tell the difference between actual family compassion and a bargaining ploy.

    Now that we know what the Yankees shouldn't do, what can the Yankees do to improve?

    • - Sign two starting pitchers in free agency; one "big", one "moderate".

    As it stands right now, the Yankees have four starting pitchers (not including Pettitte) that they can put into a rotation; Mussina, Jose Contreras, Jeff Weaver, and Jon Leiber.  Mussina is a given, while Contreras has shown that while he's a horrible reliever, he still has great stuff, and needs to start in order to massage his ego.  Having seen what he can do as a starter, that's a concession you can make.  Weaver and Leiber are question marks.  Leiber is coming off Tommy John surgery, and was more known as a workhorse and inning eater than as a overpowering pitcher.  He can't be that now, at least a season removed from surgery.

    Weaver, in contrast, is more of a curiousity.  While pitchers are a bit flaky and can "lose it" at any time, Weaver just doesn't seem to fit into the Yankees equation, and whatever confidence he might have had was probably shot last season with the Yankees questionable handling of their rotation.  Weaver, who was the ace of the Tigers pitching staff when aquired midway through 2002, bounced back and forth from the bullpen that season, then watched as the Yankees went out and signed Contreras to take his spot into the rotation.  While position players can play every day in order to prove their point and get their confidence back, a pitcher's psyche is a lot more difficult to nurse back to full strength playing every 5th day, at best.  Fifth starters run into situations where they don't run a regular schedule as well, and their turns are skipped on occasion.  While some might think Weaver has lost it, I'm more prone to think that he has his confidence ruined by a team that showed no faith in him as a starting pitcher.  He could have pitched in New York (as some are saying that he can't handle New York) if he was given a set spot in the rotation and a vote of confidence from the franchise.  Instead, he was the teams' alternate option, and when he started off badly, New York turned on him, as can happen.  For Weaver's sake, he either needs to be traded to a new team and get a new start or given a vote of confidence from the Yankees that they are willing to go with him into the 2004 season.  The best solution, I think, is to find a taker for Weaver and to move on from there.  The Yankees realisticly don't have the confidence in Weaver, and if they attempt to put him into the rotation, the likelyhood is that he will fail.

    So the Yankees do something they, deep down, want to do.  Sign either Kevin Millwood or Bartolo Colon (I'd prefer Millwood) and sign a second tier starter, like a Miguel Batista or Kelvim Escobar.  Millwood's market may be driven up, and they have to make sure not to get into a bidding war with other teams requesting his services.  But the Boss gets who he wants, regardless of price, so if he wants Millwood (just like he wanted Mussina a few years back), he'll get him.  Looking at a fourth starter though, you can take a risk on a player like a Batista or Escobar.  Escobar probably has the bigger upside, still being only 27 years old, and has an array of pitches.  Escobar was dragged from short relief to the rotation and back, and never got into a comfortable position.  Despite Escobar looking much better as a starter than as a closer (almost a run a game difference), the Blue Jays kept jerking him around, which affected his numbers.  Batista, on the other hand, will be 33 next season, and has completed three seasons with Arizona after an unspectacular career reaching the majors with five different franchises.  Batista is a decent pitcher, not necessarily overpowering, but has "good stuff", and gets batters out.  He keeps the ball in the park (13 HR given up in 193 innings this past season) and will come cheaper than Escobar will.  A minimal investment (in baseball terms) in a Batista (say at 2 years/$8 million) is pretty good for a fourth starter, and allow Lieber to go into the fifth starter position, easing him into being a full-time starter.

    • - Sign an established lefthander and righthander for the bullpen, and invite a lot of other pitchers to camp.

    As much as GMs would probably like to say that building a good bullpen is this great science, there's a lot of dumb luck involved.  The Atlanta Braves had one of the best bullpens in baseball in 2002 taking pitchers who hasn't seen major league mounds in years and making them suddenly marketable players.  Inviting Darren Holmes and Chris Hammond to camp for virtually nothing can do no harm, and in the case of the Braves in 2002, netted them two great relievers.  At the same time, relying on 5 non-roster invitees as your bullpen isn't the wisest path of action for a winning team.  It may be what you have to do if you're working with a payroll like Milwaukee's, but if you have the Yankee payroll, you can afford to spend on an established relief pitcher or two.

    Good left-handed relievers are tough to come by, as evidenced by the long careers of Rick Honeycutt and Tony Fossas (and now Jeff Fassero).  The only lefties available of much value are Arthur Rhodes and Shigetoshi Hasegawa, both of whom played for Seattle last season.  While Rhodes is coming off a questionable season which saw his strikeouts drop and his ERA rise, he looks to be a better fit in New York than Hasegawa.  "Shiggy" has said that he feels comfortable in Seattle, and batters batted 60 points higher against him on the road than in the spacious confines of Safeco.  He's not an overpowering pitcher, and his success as a closer last season was more playing the hot hand than it was him breaking out.  There will be interest in him, but bringing Hasegawa from the relatively comfortable playing environment of Seattle to the fishbowl that is New York could spell disaster.  While Rhodes had a down season, he could be picked up relatively cheaply, works well in the setup role, and can be overpowering at times.  Good for a two year deal.

    As for a right-hander, there are a good amount of relievers on the market.  While a Keith Foulke or Ugueth Urbina will probably command top dollar, the "second-tier" of right-handers is vast, and the Yankees can afford to be careful with who they go after.  While names like LaTroy Hawkins and Tim Worrell may float around, a name like Tom Gordon would be worth a close look.  If Gordon truly is physically back from Tommy John surgery (he's pitched in 147 games the past three seasons), he could be a closer at a middle reliever's price.  Another consideration is the comeback story of Rod Beck.  Pitching in AAA after battling back from surgery himself, the Padres took a flier on him last season and he paid off.  Beck's a good clubhouse guy and if he pitches even close to as well as he did last season for the Padres, he's worth the investment.

    • Break the news to Bernie Williams.  He's not a center fielder anymore.

    It's tough to tell a player (especially a marquis player) that he's not helping the team playing his current position.  The best example of that right now is Mike Piazza.  The Yankees have a player like that too (actually, a few if you really looked closely) in Bernie Williams.  While Williams isn't the detriment that Piazza is defensively, the team could do better, even if by just switching Hideki Matsui and Williams (Bernie doesn't have the arm for right, either).  Either way, it leaves the Yankees in a situation where they need an additional outfielder.  The question is whether to look for a center fielder (moving Matsui to right and Bernie to left) or to look for the best outfielder available.

    There has been a lot of discussion about Gary Sheffield and the Yankees, meaning that the Yankee braintrust (at least are rumored) are looking to just immedately fill the gap in right field (which indeed, is an issue) and prefer to allow center to either be manned my Matsui, or even Williams again.  While this solution isn't a bad one, it might be asking for trouble.  Sheffield hasn't exactly been a media darling, and although he's 35 and pretty much dealt with most of the "immaturity" issues in the past, there is still the reminder of the player who pouted recently in Los Angeles and is shooting for his 6th pro team in his career.

    Another possible route for the Yankees (and one a lot of Yankee couch potatoes would like to see) is Vlad Guerrero from Montreal.  Eight years younger than Sheffield and already hitting as well as him, Vlad is a wet dream to GMs, and is easily the prize of the free agent market.  However, buyer beware with Vlad, as a back injury forced Vlad to miss 50 games this season, and while he still did great this season, back injuries are the type of things that cripple careers, including those directed towards the Hall of Fame (see Mattingly, Don).  Vlad's sure to go for big bucks (with Baltimore reportedly very interested) and reportedly likes the idea of staying in Montreal.  Any player who likes Montreal would probably be a bad fit in the pressure and glare of the New York spotlight.

    If it's center field you want though (both Vlad and Sheffield are right fielders), the best available one is Mike Cameron of Seattle.  Cameron has very good speed, good power, and plays an excellent center field.  He's also a mess when it comes to strikeouts (averaging 150 a year), and averages a .253 batting average over the last three seasons.  If the Yankees were to sign Cameron, he'd sit in the #9 slot in the order, which wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing.  However, one of the things the Yankees wanted to address this offseason was a lack of pop in their lineup.  Putting Cameron in with Matsui's questionable power and Williams' declining batting skills in the outfield doesn't exactly strike fear into opposing pitchers.  Much has been made of Cameron's numbers outside of Seattle (54 points in batting average, 165 points in OPS), but it's believed that Cameron wants to stay in Seattle anyway.

    While it remains to be seen how Cameron would do outside of Seattle (if he leaves), the best option for the Yankees outfield seems to be Sheffield.  I didn't think so before I started to write this, but he actually seems like the best fit.  While Sheffield isn't the most media friendly guy around, he'd be signed short term (it's reportedly a two year deal he'd require), and has played in a media market before (in LA).  His past two seasons with Atlanta have been quiet, and he's produced great numbers.  Not only does he hit for power, he hits for average, can steal a base or two, and has a great eye at the plate.  Sheffield has learned right field well over the years (he was brought up as a shortstop and third baseman, and didn't start playing the outfield until his 7th season in the bigs), and can hold his own in right.  As long as the Yankees do the smart thing instead of the loyal thing (Matsui played very well in center field this season playing for the injured Williams), the club should have a good outfield, defensively and offensively.

    So, looking at the roster, it'd go something like this:

    1. SS Derek Jeter
    2. 1B Nick Johnson
    3. DH Jason Giambi
    4. RF Gary Sheffield
    5. 2B Alfonso Soriano
    6. C Jorge Posada
    7. CF Hideki Matsui
    8. LF Bernie Williams
    9. 3B Aaron Boone

    1. RHP Mike Mussina
    2. RHP Jose Contreras
    3. RHP Kevin Millwood
    4. RHP Miguel Batista
    5. RHP Jon Lieber

    Bullpen: LHP Arthur Rhodes, LHP Chris Hammond, RHP Tom Gordon, RHP Steve Karsay, RHP Jeff Weaver, RHP Mariano Rivera

    Looks good to me.

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