Today I’m going to indulge in one of the hoariest media traditions known to humankind: It’s my How to Fix the Yankees Column. Every year that the Yankees’ World Series aspirations come to grief, writers near and far offer up their prescriptive takes on just what needs to be done to restore the glory of yore. I’m no different.
Whereas some deluded Gotham types concoct wild hypotheticals that involve swapping Drew Henson, Jeff Weaver, Amsterdam brothel vouchers, an “A Man Apart” DVD and a suitcase of unmarked bills for “Insert elite, untouchable performer here,” I’m going to do my best to remain grounded in reality. In the Yankees’ case, reality means profligate spending on the free-agent market.
The Yankees won 101 games this past season, so they’re hardly in need of sweeping triage. They do, however, have notable weaknesses and no help on the way from a farm system that’s in tatters. Normally, I’m not an advocate of throwing money at a problem, but in this instance I think that’s exactly the answer. The Yankees have the base to win now and are blessed with limitless coffers and only the sparest ceremonial regard for the luxury-tax threshold. Besides, they’re going to suck in four years’ time no matter what they do. So spend money and remember that flags fly forever.
In no particular order of importance, here’s my Yankee off-season blueprint:
- Don’t trade Nick Johnson. I say this for two reasons. One, if he’s able to stay reasonably healthy, he’s got the skills profile to become a top-tier hitter. Two, as you probably read in a recent UTK, Jason Giambi has a potentially serious knee problem. If it is indeed a knee malady like Mark McGwire‘s, the Yankees will need the flexibility to DH Giambi every day so as to minimize the stress he puts on his bum stem. If Johnson’s jettisoned and Giambi’s unable to take the field, dark thoughts of Tino Martinez might invade the Boss’ coconut. As a lifelong Cards fan, let me offer hearty encouragement for a Tino nostalgia tour in the Bronx, but as someone who’s pontificating on how to improve the Yankees, let me say it’s a bad idea of “land war in Asia” proportions.
- Don’t trade Alfonso Soriano. If it’s to package Soriano for Carlos Beltran, as is the optimistic scuttle in some circles, then sign me up; Beltran, I think, is poised to be one of the best players in the game for the next four or five seasons. However, Beltran is also one of those players who appeal to organizations of every philosophical stripe, and I think the market for him will be hotly contested, looming contract concerns notwithstanding. The Yankees have one of the worst farm systems in the game right now, and they’ll be easily outbid for Beltran.
- As for Soriano, his post-season failings have once again raised concerns that his Jason Voorhees approach at the plate has finally caught up with him. Admittedly, I’m not entirely sure what to make of Soriano; he’s a player annoyingly free of tidy historical comparables. He treats walks as though they were a case of the clap, and his defense at the keystone calls to mind Jose Offerman 40 hours into a sleep-deprivation study. That said, he’s a 25-year-old middle infielder with a .502 career SLG and a high-percentage base stealer. Short of a deal for Beltran or Alex Rodriguez, the Yanks would do well to hang onto him for another three seasons. But stop batting him leadoff.
- Re-sign Andy Pettitte. He wants to stay, and he’s coming off arguably his best season. In ’03, he posted the best strikeout rate and second-best K/BB ratio of his career. The modestly high ERA can be mostly attributed to the poor defense behind him. Pettitte’s peripheral indicators augur well for the future. Ink him.
- Sign Mike Cameron and move Bernie Williams to left and Hideki Matsui to right. The Yanks’ top priority should be improving their up-the-middle defense. Some scenarios have Williams moving to DH, but that would mean Giambi and his ailing knee would be forced to play the field. A trade for Beltran is preferable, but in my mind untenable. The best available glove man in center is Cameron, and there’s some evidence that his production is more hindered by Safeco than the average player. He’ll provide excellent defense in center, and a batting line of something like .280/.360/.475 for the next couple of seasons is a reasonable expectation. What’s more, his Safeco-suppressed numbers may mean he’s undervalued by the market.
- Don’t sign a starting corner outfielder. Temptations like Vladimir Guerrero and Gary Sheffield abound, but signing one of them means Bernie must remain in center, which is unacceptable, or DH, which is Giambi’s spot by necessity.
- Sign Miguel Tejada and move Derek Jeter to third. Yes, Miguel Tejada. He’s a notable defensive upgrade over Jeter, and despite the poor plate discipline he’s still comfortably within the top tier of offensive shortstops (Tejada ranked fourth in VORP among all shortstops this year). He’s also coming off a season that’s a disappointment by his 2002 standards, and I think the market will reflect that. Will he command a deal that extends beyond his usefulness? Most probably. But no team is better positioned to absorb sunk costs than the Yankees. And if they choose they can slather him in an above-market salary in exchange for a shorter deal.
So why not ballyhooed import Kaz Matsui? First, Tejada is more of a known quantity. Second, the relative failure of Hideki Matsui, despite far superior numbers in Japan, makes me doubt how well non-Ichiro, power-dependent types make the leap West.
Yes, I’m aware that Jeter may not be entirely amenable to shifting leftward along the defensive spectrum, but that’s ultimately not his choice. He’s been a third baseman in shortstop’s clothing for years now, and in the name of run prevention this is a move that must be made. The addition of a shortstop and retention of Soriano will also confine Aaron Boone to the role that best suits him–utility infielder and pinch-hitter.
- Sign Bartolo Colon or Kevin Millwood. Take your pick. My personal preference is Colon, but either provides innings and front-of-the-rotation ability. This gives the Yankees a formidable starting five of Mike Mussina, Pettitte, Colon/Millwood, Jose Contreras and Jon Lieber. One through five, that’s arguably the best rotation in the game.
- Sign a lefty-killing outfielder. Depth at corners will be needed with Bernie in the lineup every day, and the Yanks have platoon weaknesses in Matsui and Giambi. Someone like Reggie Sanders would be ideal, but he’s unlikely to accept a bench role. In any event, righty-hitting corner defenders aren’t hard to come by, and the Yankees will need a capable one for next season.
- Pick up options on Antonio Osuna and Gabe White. Re-sign Jeff Nelson. Osuna was quietly effective, albeit in mostly low-leverage situations. White’s numbers declined a bit, but he’s still tough on lefties. Nelson didn’t perform well after the trade, but his season on the whole was a fairly strong one. Flesh out the rest of the pen with minor league free agents, waiver-wire pickups and a healthy Steve Karsay. Pass on Felix Heredia, whose weak peripherals don’t justify that comely ERA he put up.
So the lineup becomes something like this:
3B D. Jeter 1B N. Johnson DH J. Giambi 2B A. Soriano C J. Posada SS M. Tejada CF M. Cameron LF B. Williams RF H. Matsui
1. M. Mussina 2. A. Pettitte 3. B. Colon 4. J. Contreras 5. J. Lieber
And the pen:
Closer: M. Rivera Setup: J. Nelson S. Karsay G. White A. Osuna C. Hammond Long/Spot: J. Weaver
Again, these aren’t the moves I’d recommend for the 29 other clubs in baseball, but the Yankees’ circumstances are unique. The team defense must be improved without compromising the run-scoring prowess of the lineup, and the losses of Roger Clemens and David Wells must be mitigated. They’ve got the money to buy all those things, but they don’t have the dispensable young talent base to trade for them. So open the wallet. The last CBA constructed a system that’s effective at reining in everyone except the Yankees, and the Yankees should respond accordingly this off-season.