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March 31, 2005

2005--Setting the Stage

Bronx Bafflers

by Jay Jaffe

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I have a confession to make. I'm a fair-weather Yankee fan, bandwagoneer, carpetbagger, flip-flopper of the worst (pin)stripe. Call me what you will; I've heard it all and worse. If you've read me elsewhere you probably know all this, and it's nothing new. That's not what I'm talking about.

No, my confession is this: After a lifetime hating all that the interlocking NY stood for, I moved to Manhattan just in time to be seduced by the class and composure of the Joe Torre team that ended the Bronx's championship drought in 1996. Over the ensuing seasons, the Yankees have brought me a joy that's included celebrating their 1999 World Championship with 57,000 of my closest friends in The House That Ruth Built. Now, however, after all of that fun, I'm coming to loathe this team just as I was raised to do.

On the heels of their unprecedented collapse in last year's American League Championship Series, and on the eve of a 2005 season that opens with them facing the same archrivals who subdued them, this Yankee team fills me with dread. The jig is up; the Yankees have created severe problems for themselves, and the money they've used to solve those problems is in considerably shorter supply than they've led us to believe. They're a $200 million tightrope walker, and I have to admit, I'm curious at what the splatter would look like if they tumbled.

Not that this offseason didn't provide clues. In a sense, the splatter happened when the team blew its 3-0 ALCS lead over the Red Sox. The Yankees ended their season humiliated on their home turf in Game Seven, their two highest-profile pitching acquisitions bombed into submission by a potent Sox offense that was without weakness. One expected George Steinbrenner to order the heads of Torre, GM Brian Cashman, and Game Seven starter/designated wall-puncher Kevin Brown served on a platter, their bodies fed to the hogs, their loved ones disappeared into the ether. Such a response would have made perfect sense on a visceral level; it's how things were done in the Bronx in the '70s and '80s. Just ask Dick Howser, who piloted the 1980 team to 103 wins, yet faced the blade for the team's loss to the Royals in the LCS that season.

The part of me that's rooting for the splatter is the same part that sees a roster built with all the grace of a congressional spending bill fraught with dozens of tacked-on pork-barrel amendments. Well, that or the car Homer Simpson designed for his half-brother Herb. In other words, ick.

The chain of events that led to this mess has been well documented. After declining Jon Lieber's affordable contract option, the Yanks watched the market for starting pitching explode, triggered by the Mets overpaying Kris Benson. Eager to get in on the act, they committed nearly $60 million to Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright, whose track records include exactly two healthy seasons with better than league-average ERAs since 1998. Spending all that dough still left the Yanks without a true ace, so they pulled off a deal with the Diamondbacks that netted Randy Johnson in exchange for last winter's bounty, Javier Vazquez, and $9 million. They then agreed to a two-year, $32-million extension for the Big Unit.

The Yanks then tightened their purse strings shy of addressing their primary need on offense and defense: supplanting aging Bernie Williams in center field. Though the free-agent market offered a solution in 28-year-old Carlos Beltran, and though he was reportedly willing to take a discount to play in the Bronx, the Yanks never made a serious run. Presented with a price tag of six years and $100 million (compared to the seven-year, $119 million deal Beltran struck with the Mets) Cashman passed, explaining that with the luxury tax imposed upon the Yankees, "$100 million is the same as $140 million."

Cashman grossly overstates the impact of the luxury tax. The average annual value of the deal is used to determine payroll for luxury tax purposes. An AAV of $16.67 million for the rumored six-year deal translates to a $6.67 million hit for each of the two years remaining on the current Collective Bargaining Agreement. Beyond that, all bets are off; if there's no new CBA in 2007, there's no percentage in place by which to penalize the Yankees. Even with a new CBA, it's unlikely that the 40 percent figure will be applicable in the first year of the deal. Thirteen million dollars isn't chump change, but it isn't $40 million either; the Yanks played fast and loose with their explanation for skipping out on Beltran.

Worse, not only was the money too tight to sign Beltran, it caused the Yanks to skimp on other offensive upgrades, or at least stopgaps. Over a difference of $1 million, they gave the boot to second baseman Miguel Cairo, a 31-year-old coming off a nice season, yet still carrying a run-of-the-mill .273/.322/.370 career line. Their replacement? Thirty-five-year-old Tony Womack, who carries a .274/.319/.362 career line. Womack's postives, which include, um, speed, "proven veteranitude" and "worldseriesability," apparently made him much more preferable than Cairo. In search of a first baseman to accommodate Jason Giambi's need to DH, they plucked Tino Martinez from a Tampa cryogenics lab, apparently hoping to rekindle (thaw?) past glories.

It wasn't that they spent $4 million for two years of Womack, $3 million on Martinez,or $1.5 million for another year of DH Ruben Sierra's sub-.300 OBP and his magic bald head. It's that they settled for low-budget grizzled vets at a time when they really should have shelled out for a better bet. As a result, despite a lineup with Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Derek Jeter, Hideki Matsui and Jorge Posada, they figure to be league-average or worse at the four remaining hitter slots. That's to say nothing of a defense about which it can best be said, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything that might blow your word count."

As to Giambi, the pièce de résistance of the Yankee woes...coming off a season during which he suffered every illness this side of bubonic plague, he reported to camp with the refreshing cloud of leaked BALCO testimony--in which he admitted to several years of steroid usage--hanging over his head. While the media focused on the fact that the Yankees still owe Giambi $82 million over the next four years, The New York Times' Murray Chass unearthed a source within the organization who revealed that before the big slugger inked his seven-year, $120-million pact, agent Arn Tellem requested the removal of all steroid references from the language of the contract. In other words, Exhibit A in the case for the owners' complicity in this steroid quagmire: a superstar virtually told a team he was using, yet they handed him one of the largest contracts of all time, bending over backwards to protect him at their own expense. No wonder the Yankees made little noise about attempting to terminate his contract once the BALCO revelations aired; they knew they were stuck with him. That's not all they're stuck with, either; the Yankees have more than $400 million committed to player contracts beyond 2005.

As if that dark cloud on the horizon weren't enough, the Yankees' farm system is practically bereft of major-league-ready talent to use as chips in trade or to plug into the starting lineup. At a position where they dearly could have used a prospect, second base, they have the slim pickings of one Robinson Cano, of whom PECOTA thinks so highly as to project an anemic .249/.291/.387 line. For the few slots the Yanks have produced viable options, such as utilityman Andy Phillips, starter Chien-Ming Wang and reliever Colter Bean, the front office has blocked any chance for those players to contribute with more expensive veterans.

In short, it's painfully clear the Yankee front office is, if not out of ideas, then at least at an impasse as to how to implement the ones they have with creativity and foresight. In this regard, the pesky Red Sox have not only surpassed them, they figure to hold a distinct advantage going forward. Nowhere was that more clear than last October's LCS clash. Sox GM Theo Epstein and his charges created a big edge for themselves in constructing and deploying their roster, while the Yanks drastically misused theirs. Emblematic were Game Six's flailings of Sierra and reserve first baseman Tony Clark--two aged hitters with more than a few holes in their swings--which occurred while reserve outfielder Kenny Lofton looked on from Torre's doghouse. Can't anyone here run this team?

As if all of this weren't enough, the price tag for this unholy disaster movie in the making has been passed on to the customers. For the past several years the Yankees maintained an admirable stability in ticket prices, their average cost rising just 60 cents from 2001-2004. But while 2005 official averages haven't been published, the great majority of Yankee tickets have risen by $5 or $7 over last year. My own Tier Box MVP tix have gone up to the tune of Abe Lincoln, and I'll wager they're not rolling back beer prices to mitigate that increase.

As a fan, I look over this expensive Frankenstein knowing that it's laden with superstars, even future Hall of Famers, a team projected by PECOTA to win 95 games, second-best in all of baseball, and likely to provide a good run in October. The Big Unit aside, however, this has the feel of déjà vû all over again. It's not too difficult to imagine either Pavano or Wright as the next episode of Mystery Stottlemyre Theater, in which a previously effective(ish) starter falls apart on the Yankee watch. Beyond that, it's even less difficult to envision injury-induced collapses, major or minor, of a few older vets, the kind that can turn a 95-win wild-card team into an 87-win squad making tee times in October.

While I'd take comfort in the fact that such a catastrophe might spur introspection on the part of the Yankee brass, dragging them into the 21st century with a rethinking of player development, free-agent acquisition and roster construction, I'm far too realistic to expect that. This is the New York Yankees, they'll be doing things their way for as long as the Boss draws breath, chasing titles every year, and proving me wrong several times over.

I can live with that, so long as I get to buy tickets.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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