The Yankees’ winter unofficially began at 10:19 P.M. Monday night. Trailing 6-2, with runners at the corners and one out, a capacity Yankee Stadium crowd was silenced when Derek Jeter grounded into an inning-ending double play.
New York eventually fell to Cleveland 6-4, falling short of getting to the World Series there for the fourth straight year and making it seven years without a championship.
Fans and owner George Steinbrenner will be looking for scapegoats, with Joe Torre likely the first victim. But any attempt to completely tear apart a team and rebuild an offense that scored 968 runs this season would be a mistake. The problem with these Yankees is pitching.
Here’s what General Manager Brian Cashman and the Yankees need to think about going into the off-season, starting with the position players:
Yankees’ catcher Jorge Posada had a career year, hitting .338 with 20 home runs, and is eligible for free agency. But not only is Posada among the best hitting catchers in the major leagues, any other free agent catcher the Yankees could sign would be a huge dropoff in production. Both Ivan Rodriguez and Paul Lo Duca are just as old as Posada, with more games caught and far worse offensive skills. Posada needs to be retained, and even a three-year deal is not unthinkable.
First base is one area the Yankees can improve, though there is little on the free agency market. Simply putting Wilson Betemit at the position full-time would even be an improvement. Betemit will likely improve his defense at the position—he handled it adequately in his first go-around at the position, and he is a solid defender at shortstop and third base. But it is worth exploring whether Atlanta would trade Mark Texiera, a free agent after 2008, if new ownership there is serious about cutting costs.
Second base and shortstop are no-brainers. Robinson Cano is one of the bright young stars in baseball, adding plus defense and some patience to his impressive hitting. And Derek Jeter is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Even despite his uncharacteristically un-clutch performance in the 2007 playoffs, he is not the problem.
And the Yankees need to try to bring Alex Rodriguez back. His season was among the best ever recorded by a third baseman. He is in his prime. Even assuming that the Yankees could acquire one of the other top third basemen in baseball, their offense would still take a tremendous hit.
The outfield should include Bobby Abreu in right field. His early-season struggles bore little resemblance to his last 100 games, which were vintage Abreu. He’s a good bet to come close to his standard .290-.300 with a .400 on base percentage, even if his slugging continues to decline. And with a one-year option, the Yankees can simply cut bait after 2008.
Center field includes a breakout candidate in Melky Cabrera. His performance in 2006-2007 was average for a center fielder, but the fact that he managed so well at age 21-22 makes him likely to improve in 2008. He also provides solid defense at the position, which will help the Yankee stable of young pitchers as they develop.
Left field and Designated Hitter should be shared between Hideki Matsui, Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi. It’s unlikely that all three of them will stay healthy for the entire season, though clearly they can provide solid production when able, particularly Matsui. They will combine to make somewhere north of $40 million. But all three would be untradeable without New York picking up a large portion of their salaries. Better to keep them all, and let them pick each other up.
The big changes start in the starting pitching rotation. Andy Pettitte should stay, and should be the Opening Day starter.
For the rest of the spots, the Yankees have some decent options on the roster. They should consider making a bid—and controversial—adjustment by bringing Joba Chamberlain, with his prodigious talent and four excellent pitches, out of the bullpen. Philip Hughes is also ready to help the Yankees for a full season. Chien-Ming Wang can continue to pitch as he has in 2006-2007, but as a solid starter lower in the rotation instead of an under-powering ace.
And depending on how healthy he is, the fifth starter could be Mike Mussina, with a quick hook. The Yankees owe him north of $10 million in 2008. If Moose can regain enough of the talent that saw him win more than 250 big league games, he will be the best fifth starter in baseball. More likely, however, his second-half ERA of 5.72 tells the tale.
Rookie Ian Kennedy needs to be put into long relief, and given the chance to step in if Mussina falters in the early going.
That leaves the bullpen. And it needs to start with Mariano Rivera. He is as solid a choice as any for finest closer in baseball history. The free agent alternatives to close pale in comparison. Bring him back for two years, pay him whatever he asks. He’s been making $10 million—a bargain in today’s market. His departure should be unthinkable.
That leaves, oh, five slots. And here is where the Yankees need to spend heavily. Free agents David Riske from Kansas City and Atlanta lefthander Ron Mahay need to be signed—both represent substantial upgrades over the current crop, and give the manager options from both sides. Riske, in particular, is not subject to platoon splits, and would be the ideal eighth inning option for New York. In a profession with inconsistency, Riske has been well above average for five years running, and will be just 31.
With those three, and either Kennedy or Mussina out of long relief, the other options can range from trading Kei Igawa (and eating his salary) for a reliever from San Diego, who has shown interest, to flyers on other free agents like Octavio Dotel, to trying internal options such as Ross Ohlendorf. Asking these pitchers to pitch the fifth and sixth, rather than the seventh and eighth, will make a world of difference—particularly with durable young pitchers like Hughes, Kennedy and maybe even Chamberlain assuming rotation innings in lieu of Roger Clemens and perhaps Mussina.
And it’s a mistake to fire Joe Torre. In the postseason, a young fan can reach into right field and snatch away an out to help start a dynasty. An infestation of bugs can rattle an unsinkable pitcher to put an end to one. But a manager that can weather the ups and downs of every season, guiding his team to a .605 winning percentage, and even higher in the playoffs, is a rarity.
Getting rid of Joe Torre for winning only four World Series titles in 12 years is like releasing Ted Williams for only hitting .406. No matter who’s in charge, there’s no guaranteeing the Yankees’ performance in the playoffs next October either—assuming they get there.