One of the aggravating trends in 21st-century baseball is the way in which the offseason calendar gets stretched a bit further each year. Baseball has become a year-round endeavor, but even at that, most of the major offseason maneuvers used to happen before the holidays. Since I’ve been doing this–and especially in the last few years–that’s become less true, as major free agents go into the new year unsigned, and major trade talks percolate less than six weeks away from spring training.

I suppose I should enjoy it more as a fan, but as a writer on deadlines for a book that needs to have currency to be valuable, it’s frustrating. Moreover, there’s so much news still happening that if I go too long without filling this space, I get backed up like a storm drain in Santa Clarita.

Such as…the completion, at long last, of a trade that puts Randy Johnson in Yankee pinstripes. After getting involved in more aborted three-ways than a porn star with performance issues, the Yankees finally convinced the Diamondbacks to take Javier Vazquez, Dioner Navarro, Brad Halsey and $9 million in exchange for the big left-hander. To complete the deal, the Yankees agreed to a two-year, $32-million extension that will make Johnson the highest-paid 43-year-old in baseball history.

With the $16 million Johnson will make this season and the $9 million in small bills sent to Phoenix, the Yankees are effectively paying $57 million for Johnson’s services at ages 41 through 43. That’s $19 million a year for someone who at his best is one of the five best pitchers in baseball, but who has to be considered a risk given his age and the condition of his knee. This deal doesn’t look as risky because of Johnson’s track record, but given the enormous cost, it’s as dangerous an investment as any made this winter.

Vazquez makes $36 million over the next three years. The Yankees have spent an additional $7 million a year, plus a decent catching prospect, plus staff filler in Halsey, for what may or may not be an upgrade. Vazquez had a lousy second half, and bore too much blame for the Yankees’ inability to reach the World Series. A year ago, there’s no way anyone would have dealt him straight up for Randy Johnson. Is it possible that the two players have diverged in value that much in the course of one year?

No, it’s not. The Yankees have once again thrown a large amount of money at a situation without actually solving it. Signing Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright didn’t improve the rotation as much as it added payroll, and the additions the Yankees have made on the hitting side–Tony Womack and Tino Martinez–are an embarrassment. The Yankees have more than $100 million in new contracts this winter, pushed their 2005 payroll well over $200 million, and they still have Bernie Williams patrolling center field.

That last point is the salient one. The Yankees have been in need of a center fielder for at least three years. Williams, great in his day, has seen his defense decline past inadequacy. Worse still, he’s coming off his second straight season of an EqA in the .270s, not only driving his overall value down but making it less likely that he can be an asset as a DH.

It appears–and I’m certain this story will be bandied about in the days to come–that the Yankees’ decision to bolster their rotation with thin-track-record guys like Pavano and Wright has cost them Carlos Beltran. I am, quite frankly, stunned. Since the summer, I’ve insisted that the Yankees would simply come over the top of whatever the last offer was to make sure they got the best player on the market. That’s been the Yankees’ M.O. of late; don’t waste money on the middle class, and spend what’s necessary to bring in the best. The acquisitions of Mike Mussina, Jason Giambi, Alex Rodriguez and Vazquez all reflect that approach. To a certain extent, adding Johnson does as well.

Committing $17 million a year for the next three years to two guys who, combined, have four decent seasons in the majors is something the Diamondbacks do. That $17 million, coincidentally, is what Beltran will average over the life of his contract with the Mets.

The Yankees could have had it real easy this winter. Picking up Jon Lieber‘s option and signing Beltran would have made the team much better and left them with virtually the same payroll in ’05, plus the cash they didn’t spend on adding Johnson. With Beltran, the Yankees would have done at least as much for their run prevention as adding Wright will do.

The Yankees aren’t a much better team today than they were when the season ended, and with Williams, Womack, Martinez and Ruben Sierra apparently in line to get a lot of playing time, there’s a very good case to be made that they’ll be worse. The Red Sox haven’t had a great offseason either, but they were better last year and should open ’05 as the favorite in the AL East.

A couple of years ago at the trade deadline, I coined the term, “GMitis.” It’s a condition that afflicts every GM and causes them to think they need pitching, whether they do or not. I won’t lay the blame for all of this at Brian Cashman’s feet–sorting through the Yankees’ decision-making process would make a Kremlinologist blanch–but someone in the Bronx got GMitis bad this year. The Yankees needed a center fielder and a second baseman. They got three of the riskiest pitching contracts in the game. I don’t care if you’re making more money than Oprah; that’s bad baseball, and they will pay for it.

The Diamondbacks are better off with Vazquez and the money, although they used it largely to do something silly. After fits and starts, they reached an agreement to send Navarro and three other prospects to the Dodgers for Shawn Green, and renegotiated his deal to pay him $32 million over the next three seasons. Like Williams, Green has fallen from his established offensive level over the past two years, largely due to a big drop in power. His raw stats will look much better than they have recently as he moves into a much, much better run environment; his value shouldn’t change much.

With Green, Troy Glaus and Luis Gonzalez, the D’backs have a middle of the order that looks tremendous on paper, will make an insane amount of money, and could end up with anywhere from 700 to 1,500 at-bats. Vazquez is a big addition for them as well, but they’re so bad up the middle that it’s hard to see them getting over .500 unless the expensive hitters all have big seasons.

While the Dodgers did well to move Green’s salary, there’s still time for them to make the same mistake the D’backs did in spending the savings unwisely. Derek Lowe is riding the memory of his 2002 season and three decent starts in October, being regarded as a front-line starter when he’s really an innings guy with a puny strikeout rate. He’s expected to join the Dodgers this week, and while it’s not such a bad idea–the Dodgers need starters, and Lowe is durable–the reported terms of his deal are four years and $36 million. That’s far too significant a commitment to a pitcher who’s had two good years as a starting pitcher in his entire career.

Well, unless you use the Pavano scale.

In all of this movement, someone must have done well, right? Well, the Mets have now signed the best pitcher, Pedro Martinez, and the best player, Beltran, on the market. Seven years and $119 million for Beltran is in line with reasonable expectations, given the change in the market from last year and Beltran’s edges over Vladimir Guerrero in defense, speed, and assumed health. I actually expected Beltran to come in at 8/$126MM, but that was assuming he’d play on a different subway line.

The Mets have had the best offseason of any team, not just this year, but in recent memory. By ignoring the middle class and focusing on getting the best players they could, they’ve improved by 10 to 15 wins, vaulting to the top of the NL East mix.

If New York is a Mets town again in 2007, it will be the decisions made this winter by the two teams that made it that way. The Yankees’ mistakes directly benefited the Mets, and that they took advantage is a credit to Fred Wilpon and Omar Minaya. For the first time in a long time, the best front office in New York may be located in Queens.

Thank you for reading

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