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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.

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