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May 3, 2005

Prospectus Game of the Week

Toronto Blue Jays @ New York Yankees, 5/2/05

by Jonah Keri

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Sunday's New York Yankees/Toronto Blue Jays match-up started modestly, as the Prospectus Game of the Week. Now it looks more like The Game That Buried The Yankees' Season.

The Yankees plan to promote Robinson Cano from Triple-A Columbus on Tuesday. They'll then move Cano into the starting role at second base. Left fielder Hideki Matsui will shift to center field. Bernie Williams gets bumped from center to the bench, plus occasional DH duty. The new left fielder? Tony Womack.

That's Tony Womack, the 35-year-old with a career line of .275/.319/.361, who will now play left field, the position considered the second-easiest to fill defensively on the diamond, and thus a position that demands heavy offensive production. He's replacing Bernie Williams, the 36-year-old with a career line of .300/.387/.485.

Baseball Prospectus' Joe Sheehan has a knack for hyperbole, especially when it comes to his beloved Yankees. Upon hearing the news of the team's roster shakeup last night, Joe's take: "Benching Bernie Williams so that you can play Tony Womack in left field may be the single dumbest decision of the 21st century."

Williams' skills have eroded dramatically over the last few years: Joe was calling him "Bernie Williams' corpse" in print two years ago, and swore a blue streak at Williams' declining range as far back as the Anaheim Angels' Yankee-pounding in the 2002 playoffs. Yet for all the doubles into the alleys that Williams couldn't run down, the routine throws he couldn't make, and more recently his mounting struggles at the plate, the Yankees stuck with Williams in the lineup, most of that time still coming in center field.

That is, before Sunday's game. Here's what transpired:

--

The YES Network's broadcast team of Michael Kay and Ken Singleton introduce Carl Pavano as the game's starter. The sometimes dazzling but somewhat inconsistent ex-Expo righty will battle Ted Lilly, the sometimes dominant but somewhat inconsistent ex-Expo lefty. The Yankees opted to spend most of their money on pitching last winter. Along with their trade for Randy Johnson, the Yanks signed Pavano and Jaret Wright to four- and three-year contracts worth $40 million and $21 million respectively. The Bombers spent another $4 million to ink Womack to a two-year deal to start at second base.

We've hammered the Yankees for those moves, wondering why the team didn't simply spend a little more to sign the best free agent on the market, Carlos Beltran, to play center field. They could have then re-signed Jon Lieber (who went for the same three years, $21 million to the Phillies), opened the fifth-starter job to impressive pitching prospect Chien-Ming Wang (K/BB of better than 3.5-to-1 in 2004), then opened second base to a job battle between Cano and Andy Phillips, two Yankee farmhands who could surely aspire to at least match Womack's ridiculously low performance standard, for millions less. Yes, hindsight is 20/20, but Beltran-to-the-Yankees seemed both a foregone conclusion and a perfect fit before the fact; that the Yankees passed on Beltran and invested in such shaky commodities as Pavano, Wright and Womack instead defied--and continues to defy--all rational thought.

The predictable has already happened with Wright. Away from Leo Mazzone's tutelage in Atlanta, he quickly reverted to the erratic pitcher he's been most of his career. Worse, he's returned to his injury-plagued days of old: He's currently on the DL with a shoulder injury, and there are whispers that he could be out a lot longer than the Yankees are intimating, possibly the whole season. We're a month into Wright's three-year deal, and there's already no scenario where you could envision the contract not being a bust.

Pavano also brought a checkered past to the Bronx. He was known for years in Montreal as the all-world pitching prospect acquired in the Pedro Martinez deal who never lived up to his potential and flamed out due to injuries. Like Wright, Pavano found success in a different venue, finally putting it together with the Marlins, just ahead of free agency. Even if Pavano stays healthy in New York, he'll need to pitch like an ace to justify the $10 million a year he's getting. With only lukewarm strikeout rates to back his declining ERAs in 2003 and 2004, though, Pavano brought plenty of risk. A low strikeout rate means plenty of balls in play. When you've got Williams, Womack and Derek Jeter behind you in lieu of Juan Pierre, Luis Castillo and Alex Gonzalez, the risk goes up even more. Everything will have to break exactly right for this deal to work out.


Jays

LF Frank Catalanotto
2B Orlando Hudson
CF Vernon Wells
3B Corey Koskie
DH Shea Hillenbrand
1B Eric Hinske
C  Gregg Zaun
RF Alexis Rios
SS Russ Adams

The heart of the order inspires little fear. The three-year, $17-million deal the Jays gave Corey Koskie this off-season was roundly panned in the Jays chapter of Baseball Prospectus 2005. Koskie's injury concerns and advancing age make him a bad bet over the life of the deal, and there are questions about his back problems and the effect those could have on his power in the present as well. Shea Hillenbrand remains a perennial OBP sieve who keeps conning his way into starting jobs; his fluky .400-plus start is about as likely to last as Clint Barmes' is, and the Jays should expect a typical .290/.320/.460-type season from him. Vernon Wells should return to his norms; he was still below the Mendoza Line at game time.

Pavano sails through the top of the first, retiring the Jays in order. Kay and Singleton segue to last week's firing of Jays hitting coach Nick Barnett. The announcers briefly debate who should take the credit or blame for a team's hitting. It's a tricky question: The best way to get your offense to produce is to find better players. While a skilled hitting or pitching coach can help a player change his approach and improve, the talent still needs to be there.

Even if you find a coach to be failing at his job, you have to question the utility of an April firing. The Jays' offense struggled worse in 2004, finishing 12th in the AL in runs scored. If the team was going to replace Barnett anyway, why not do it after last season, when the offseason would have allowed for a thorough job search, with General Manager J.P. Ricciardi and company sifting through candidates hailing from all levels of the minors and from all 30 MLB teams? Moreover, what did the Jays expect to learn from three weeks' worth of games? A sample size that small tells you next to nothing about hitters' progress.

The Jays panicked. With Wells and Eric Hinske locked up for multi-millions through their arbitration years, Koskie making millions more and a slew of young hitters approaching arbitration status (Alexis Rios, Orlando Hudson etc.), the move smacks of desperation, with the organization desperate to see results. As noted in last year's Prospectus Q&A with Ricciardi, competing with the Yankees and Red Sox, with far less money at their disposal, remains a big challenge for the Jays' braintrust. Now in his fourth season as GM, the pressure's only going to mount on Ricciardi from here.

Doubly intriguing was the two-year contract extension given, almost simultaneously, to manager John Gibbons. Ricciardi has shown a propensity for hiring people with whom he's previously had a close working relationship, either within Major League Baseball or at other levels of the game. Gibbons was a minor-league teammate of his with the Mets some 25 years earlier. The Jays like his organization, his ability to manage the bullpen and the bench, and his efforts to keep the team motivated. Still, the hire of Mickey Brantley as the new hitting coach raised an eyebrow. Brantley came aboard as part of the same cohort system, having worked with Gibbons in the past. That his experience as a hitting coach is limited didn't seem to bother the Jays.

Perhaps the bigger question, then, is whether the Jays have a plan in mind as they try to build a winner in Toronto. The team signed Miguel Batista to give a needed boost to a beleaguered starting rotation; then they yanked him into the closer's role, despite Batista's starter-friendly multi-pitch repertoire and his middling strikeout rates. After a cup of coffee in Toronto last year, the Jays brought Brandon League north with the big club, pooh-poohing his lack of experience above Double-A. When he struggled after just two appearances, the Jays demoted him to Triple-A, claiming they wanted him to get more work; one wonders if he'd have received more work had those first two appearances gone well. These kinds of short-sighted moves threaten to torpedo the Jays' rebuilding efforts, at a time when the Yankees look increasingly vulnerable and a window of opportunity may be opening.


Yankees

SS Derek Jeter
CF Bernie Williams
RF Gary Sheffield
3B Alex Rodriguez
C  Jorge Posada
LF Hideki Matsui
DH Andy Phillips
1B Tino Martinez
2B Tony Womack

Tino Martinez and Womack figure to be dead spots in the order all year. The real concern is Williams, who even well past his prime still figured to be a good source of OBP and doubles power. Instead, heading into Sunday's game, he was hitting an ugly .238/.323/.310, looking like a shadow of his former self. Though tendinitis in his elbow may be affecting both his hitting and his throwing, Williams denies it: "I can play with it," he said. "It's not an excuse for how I'm playing right now. I wouldn't pin it on an injury. I'm starting to feel a little better physically, except for the elbow. I'm starting to get it under control." The Yankees go down 1-2-3 in their half of the first, with Williams popping out to third after being woefully late on a fastball earlier in the count.

The Jays put runners on the corners with one out for Gregg Zaun to start the second. The player long known around BP circles as The Practically Perfect Backup Catcher has become The Huge Bargain Starting Catcher. The Jays picked him up last year after Zaun started the year with the Expos on a minor-league deal that begat a $500,000 major-league contract. For less than double the league minimum he put up a .366 OBP and played a career-high 106 games last season. He's topped that so far this year, hitting a robust .286/.402/.514 through April, while making a shade over $1 million; the team needs more well-placed bargains like Zaun, as surely as they need core players like Wells and Roy Halladay to mature into perennial All-Stars.

Zaun taps into a double play this time, though, ending the Jays' threat.

The Yanks score their first run in the bottom of the second, with Alex Rodriguez lashing a double, then scoring on two flyouts. The teams exchange runs for the next few innings, with the Jays taking a 3-2 lead into the bottom of the fifth. Some highlights:

  • Koskie makes a great bare-handed scoop and throw to nail Womack on a bunt attempt in the third. On the play, Hudson runs full tilt toward first base with his head down, aiming to back up the play. He runs full-force into first-base umpire Rick Reed, a much bigger man than Hudson. The Jays pull Hudson from the game and send him to the hospital, where a CAT Scan turns up negative. Hudson's replacement Frank Menechino later goes on to collect three RBI, including a huge two-run single in the sixth that ties the game.

  • Derek Jeter makes a sparkling play to gun down Catalanotto at home on an attempted double steal. It's a play teams practice in spring training all the time, but rarely have to employ, and even more rarely execute correctly. As the runner breaks for second, Jeter runs over to cover the bag. Upon seeing the second runner breaking for home, he cuts in front of second, and with no lower-body momentum to propel him, fires a strike--all arm--to Jorge Posada to nail Catalanotto and prevent the run. That's the thing about Jeter. If you're willing to rationally examine his game, you'll find some terrific facets, as well as a few deficiencies. He's an underrated offensive player whose increased walk rate may launch him back into the inner circle of AL hitters. He also shows great instincts defensively, making a variety of difficult plays that might freeze other players. Where he falls short is in his range at shortstop, particularly going to his left. There are no contradictions here. Few players can claim to be great at every facet of the game.

  • I'm no scout, but it looks like there's something wrong with Pavano. Though the YES radar gun only seems to post its readings periodically, Pavano looks to be averaging about 88-89 mph on his fastball, significantly below where it's at when he's at full strength. He's also, as Singleton notes, "wild within the strike zone" all game; while trying to hit the corners, he's instead grooving straight, flat fastballs and getting crushed for his efforts. The Yankees will need to monitor the situation closely. If Pavano ends up getting shelved with a shoulder injury of his own--after Wright's injury, older players' struggles and the bullpen's meltdown--the New York media is going to devour the Yankees' front office, fight over the carcasses, then take aim at George Steinbrenner.

The Yankee bullpen's issues are placed in stark relief in the sixth. After the Yankees take a 6-3 lead in the fifth, Pavano starts the frame by loading the bases with nobody out. Paul Quantrill allows all three inherited runs to score. Later troubles from Mike Stanton allow the Jays to grab an 8-6 lead in the seventh. Meanwhile Tom Gordon has become useless against lefties, losing Joe Torre's confidence in the process. Mariano Rivera is more fragile and less automatic than he's been in the past. Felix Rodriguez and Steve Karsay have regressed to nothing more than expensive mop-up men--Karsay was designated for assignment in the wake of the Williams-Womack-Cano roster shuffle.

When the Yankees look back on this game, though, it will be Williams more than anyone else who gets remembered for his failures. The headlines in the local papers skewered Williams for his flaccid arm. The Jays ran wild on him all game, though two instances stand out the most. The one people may forget occurred when Hillenbrand tagged and made it easily to second on a flyout to center that didn't reach the warning track.

But the one that may have cost Williams his job, and possibly signaled the end of the Yankees' season--May 1st or not--occurred in the fateful seventh. With the Jays already up 7-6, Hinske having stolen third base against Posada's weak arm, Zaun hit a fly ball--a pop-up, really--to shallow center. Against an average center fielder, maybe a handful of runners in all of baseball tag up and try to score--a Carl Crawford, possibly a Rafael Furcal. Seeing Williams camping under the ball, Hinske, with average speed at best, broke for the plate. The throw should have been an easy one to home, with Hinske out by 10 feet. Instead Williams' throw made it only as far as cut-off man Tino Martinez, standing behind the mound. Actually, the throw one-hopped Martinez, standing behind the mound. The first baseman half-heartedly threw to Posada, but Williams' throw had sailed in so weakly that Hinske was pouring a second round of banana daiquiris in the clubhouse by the time Posada finally got the ball. The Jays would go on to win the game by an 8-6 score.

The scariest part of Tony Womack's shift to left field is that Williams' physical skills have eroded so badly that the banjo-hitting transplanted second baseman may in fact be a reasonable alternative to the erstwhile All-Star center fielder. This is a team that was horribly constructed in the offseason, having failed to address what's become the worst defense in baseball, with a bullpen springing leaks everywhere, and even some significant offensive holes in a lineup that remains good but not as terrifying as it once was. The Yankees fell back on a false sense of security, assuming that Pavano and Wright would duplicate their career years of 2004, ignoring--or more likely not realizing--that the team won an amazing 12 more games than their component runs scored and runs allowed totals suggested, that the multiple mid-30s and older players on the roster would suddenly find the fountain of youth.

In the long run, the Yanks should benefit from giving Cano, Phillips, Wang and other young players a shot. If they perform, that could further inspire the team to renew their efforts to build a strong farm system. It was that system, after all, that fueled the nucleus of the great Yankees teams of the '90s, with Jeter, Posada, Rivera and, yes, Williams that led the Yankees to multiple championships. In the short run? It's going to get ugly.

--

Set Your VCRs and TiVos: The next Prospectus Game of the Week will feature the Houston Astros and the Atlanta Braves, Sunday May 8, 1 pm ET (Channel 742 on MLB Extra Innings for DirecTV). Rookie Ezequiel Astacio will face veteran Mike Hampton, in a game that could see Lance Berkman back in action for the improving but still below-.500 Astros. Tune in, turn on, and veg out.

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

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