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July 3, 2000

The Daily Prospectus

New York? New York!

by Joe Sheehan

For all the conventional media focus on the so-called "major markets," we've always tried to have a balance of coverage here at Baseball Prospectus. But sometimes the biggest baseball stories do occur in the largest cities, and for the past few days, no city has made more baseball news than the Big Apple.

On Thursday, the Yankees made the first major trade of the season, acquiring outfielder David Justice from the Indians for left fielder Ricky Ledee and two minor-leaguers to be named later. Justice is a minor upgrade on Ledee as a left fielder, not as good on defense and unlikely to maintain his .262/.357/.575 pace, especially the power. Over the course of the second half, a reasonable estimate is that he could be one win better than Ledee, and I'm not convinced that there will even be that much difference between them.

The immediate reaction from all quarters was that this ended the Yankees' pursuit of Sammy Sosa. Now, I don't pretend to know what Brian Cashman is doing at any moment in time--although I'm willing to bet Tums are involved--but I don't see why this trade precludes a Sosa deal.

First of all, with the exception of Ledee, all the players the Yankees were offering the Cubs are still on the table. The two minor leaguers will not be top-tier; the Indians have already gotten the best player they'll get in this deal. They've lopped Justice's two-plus years and $18 million off the payroll, which is their big gain.

Secondly, the Yankees still need another hitter. As long as Shane Spencer is the everyday DH, the team will be underpowered against right-handed pitchers. And as pointed out above, Justice isn't going to magically add a run a game to the Yankee offense.

It's hard to tell what the relationship between Sosa and the Cubs is at this point. As I pointed out earlier this week, the team doesn't have to trade Sosa right now, and might be best served to wait until the winter in an effort to get more teams involved. It is possible, however, that having gone this far with it the Cubs may feel it necessary to send Sosa elsewhere. If that's the case, the Yankees are still the most likely destination.

Of course, as everyone in New York knows without a doubt, the real reason the Justice trade happened was to undercut the coverage of the Mets/Braves series that began at Shea on Thursday. There was some ruckus that day involving a Braves reliever, but he pitched well and nothing happened, so it couldn't have been a big deal.

But Friday night...Friday night was a reminder of why you never, ever, ever leave a baseball game early. Carrying an 8-1 lead into the bottom of the eighth, the Braves watched in horror as Don Wengert helped the Mets get to 8-3, then as Kerry Ligtenberg threw balls four, eight and 12 to move the Mets to 8-5.

With John Rocker and Mike Remlinger unavailable due to minor injuries, the Braves were forced to bring in Terry Mulholland with the bases loaded and Derek Bell, Edgardo Alfonzo and Mike Piazza due up.

Now, conceding that Ligtenberg had walked all three batters he'd faced, this was an odd decision by Braves manager Bobby Cox. Ligtenberg wasn't Mark Wohlers wild; he was just missing with his fastball on pitches that, with a different umpire, could and would have been called strikes. Swapping Ligtenberg for Mulholland, against whom the league is hitting well over .300 and against whom the average right-handed batter hits about like Javy Lopez, just in time to face three fair-to-excellent right-handed hitters, is questionable at best.

It didn't work, either. Bell walked, Alfonzo singled and Piazza hit a line drive that would have landed in Lot 1A at LaGuardia had it not been stopped by the second deck in left field, capping the 10-run eighth.

You can call this hindsight and I won't argue. Cox was put in an unfortunate situation last night by some bad timing and bad breaks, and if he didn't make the perfect decision, it wasn't as if he had a lot of good options. The sequence illustrated just how much the Braves miss Rudy Seanez and Luis Rivera, particularly now that the early-season reliance on Remlinger has caught up to the left-hander.

The solution may be to give more high-leverage innings to Bruce Chen while trying to acquire a right-hander for the seventh and eighth innings who can handle pitching on back-to-back days. The Braves don't need an expensive "closer" as much as they may need a Terry Adams or a Doug Brocail, someone who they're not trying to rehab or develop at the same time they're trying to win games.

Joe Sheehan can be reached at jsheehan@baseballprospectus.com.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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