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June 29, 2001

The Daily Prospectus

The Yankees

by Keith Law

Successful sports franchises tend to fall in one of two ways. Injuries and age may take their toll. Far more dramatic and frustrating to fans, though, is the team that begins to smoke its own dope: after years of having transactions work out in its favor, the team starts to interpret luck as skill and assume that past successes will be repeated regardless of the quality of moves the team makes.

I speak specifically of the Yankees, whose luck-drenched run at the top appears likely to end despite the golden opportunity presented to them by the Red Sox, who can't seem to stay healthy or excise the deadwood from their lineup.

Many successful teams recognize that the end is hurrying near and will try to grab the brass ring one last time, usually by importing "proven" talent to scrape into the playoffs. These attempts rarely work, and leave the team worse off for the immediate future beyond the last-gasp season. However, the Yankees' gambles last year paid off handsomely; the team won its third straight World Series and didn't give up much future talent in the trades it made to get there.

A smart and self-aware team would look at that season and say, "Well, we squeezed every last drop out of that roster, so now it's time to work the next generation into the lineup and plan for the future." The Yankees, however, appear to have started to believe their own hype. "Maybe 2000 wasn't the last year for the championship core; maybe 2001 is instead, so let's shore up the roster for one last run." If you do that too many times, of course, you end up like the 2000 Orioles: all veterans and no future.

The Yankees began this self-immolation last week by trading D'Angelo Jimenez, one of the minor leagues' best middle-infield prospects--albeit one with a scary freak injury in his past--for a middle reliever who had a career ERA over 5.70 before this season. Granted, Jay Witasick is in the midst of an incredible season, but he's just another failed starter proving that middle relievers are really easy to find. Meanwhile, down in Columbus:

PITCHERS           W-L   ERA   G SV    IP   H   R  ER  HR   BB  SO
Ricardo Aramboles  1-3  3.04   4  0  23.2  26  11   8   2    4  14
Mike Bertotti      1-2  3.11  18  0  37.2  33  17  13   3   23  43
Domingo Jean       1-3  2.73  26  2  26.1  30  10   8   1   10  28
Brandon Knight     6-4  3.66  13  0  86.0  79  39  35  11   29  79
Brandon Reed       1-2  3.48  24  1  33.2  27  18  13   2    8  30

Brandon Knight, the one starter and the one prospect of the bunch, probably belongs in the Yankees' bullpen, cutting his teeth on major-league hitters in preparation for a shot at a starting role next year. Reed nearly made the Tigers' bullpen in 1999, but spring-training injuries held him back. He boasts a big-breaking curve ball that's tough on right-handers. Either one of these guys could do 80-90% of the job that Witasick will do...and the Yanks would still have Jimenez.

Now the Yankees' dark side has struck again. Let's look at some numbers:

               Player A                    Player B

Year    AVG   OBP   SLG   EqA       AVG   OBP   SLG   EqA
1998   .305  .352  .504  .291      .265  .351  .405  .279
1999   .275  .335  .457  .263      .292  .393  .454  .301
2000   .274  .312  .427  .245      .283  .366  .385  .268
2001   .207  .261  .332  .217      .255  .337  .342  .260

So, which guy would you prefer to have in left field (assuming these were your only two options)? Would you go out of your way to sign Player A if you already had Player B? Of course not. But that's what the Yankees did, bringing back Gerald Williams--a player so awful that the majors' worst team released him--and putting Chuck Knoblauch squarely on the trading blauch...er, block.

Williams will exacerbate the Yankees' primary offensive problem of impatience. No Yankee has more than 36 walks right now, and Knoblauch ranks fourth on the team with 29. Gerald Williams has never drawn more than 34 walks in any major-league season.

Even worse, the Yankees seem inclined to deal Knoblauch for more veterans, rather than trying to use him to restock the farm system, even with grade-B talents. Part of the problem is that the Yankees waited too long to deal him, and their patience with Knoblauch this year hasn't paid off at the plate. But Al Martin is not going to help this team now and he's certainly not going to help them later.

Keith Law is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

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