Starr: The Yankees' ‘Wild’ Future

In the final home game of the 2003 regular season, the Boston Red Sox clinched the wildcard spot in the playoffs, setting off an exuberant celebration on the Fenway field.

A few of us Red Sox diehards, while thinking how lovely it was to be back in the postseason fray for the first time in four years, found the whole thing a little déclassé. Maybe we were just snobs, but it seemed a little too much excitement over finishing second once again, six full games behind Boston’s deplored rival, the New York Yankees.

I now confess that not only was I wrong—party hearty whenever you have an excuse—but that the Yankees might actually have something to learn from that moment. Unlike that signal conveyed by the Boston players and team management, which must have countenanced the wild on-field romp, the unmistakable message from Yankees owner George Steinbrenner is that the real meaning of a wildcard entry is that the team lost the division title. Ultimately the Yankees may have to decide: do they want to win it all or win every game? Do they really plan—with 26 world championships—to hang those division banners in the new Yankee stadium?

Moreover, recent baseball history certainly suggests that the wildcard entry produces more than reasonable odds of achieving what is, after all, Steinbrenner’s obsessive goal: a World Series championship. In the 11 years since that consolation prize has been added to the postseason, four wildcard teams—the Florida Marlins first in 1997, the Angels in 2002, the Marlins again in 2003 and the Red Sox in 2004— have won titles. And the betting favorite for 2006 is now the Detroit Tigers, a team that had to settle for the wildcard berth.

Joe Torre may indeed have some managerial flaws. Still, it’s hard to tell whether those problems are innate to Torre’s style or whether they stem from his compliance—willing or otherwise—with ownership’s dictate to win at all cost and at all times. The two most frequently expressed reservations during his long tenure can be linked directly to that consideration. The first is his overuse of his most reliable relievers, which has tended to lessen the effectiveness of folks like Tom (Flash) Gordon, Scott Proctor and, possibly, even Mariano Rivera, in the postseason. (On a recent broadcast, Fox made much of Tigers manager Jimmy Leyland’s philosophy that sometimes you have to be willing to lose today to win tomorrow.)

The second is Torre’s reluctance to integrate young players into the lineup, something he was forced to do this year—with Melky Cabrera and Andy Phillips and with great success—after the major injuries suffered by Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield. It is unlikely that any team would have sat such high-priced stars in the playoffs for the new kids on the block. But the Yankees were certainly the least likely to do so. And it seems clear that their eagerly anticipated returns to the team proved to be something of a Trojan horse, infusing the lineup with the one thing it didn’t lack, muscle, and sacrificing defense and possibly chemistry.

(As an aside, it seems to me the criticism Torre is getting for batting A-Rod eighth—panic, some say—is absurd. The Yankees had already outed Rodriguez in a Sports Illustrated article and their feelings about his failure to deliver when it counted were pronounced. He wasn’t delivering for the third successive October. The Yankees have superb hitters 1-9; it wasn’t like he was being dropped for Horace Clarke.)

Early in that Yankees series, as A-Rod’s postseason futility continued, predictions were that Rodriguez would be the scapegoat for any defeat and that his days with the Yankees were numbered. The latter may still be true, though everybody—from A-Rod to Yankees general manager Brian Cashman—is taking pains to deny it. It’s certainly in New York’s interest, whatever its ultimate intention, to keep their superstar third basemen from appearing to be any more damaged than this disappointing season, with career highs in strikeouts and errors, already suggests.

But when the entire team folded its tent in Detroit, Alex was spared the rod, and it was Torre’s future that turned into the big question mark. The Yankees were smart to resolve that matter quickly and, in my opinion, smart to resolve it in their manager’s favor. Torre is more than just a baseball manager. He is something of a civic treasure. All quibbles aside about his performance, he’s earned—for what he’s done for the team and the city—the right to finish out his contract next season. And to the extent that the Boss recognized that, the decision imbues him with a little more class than I am accustomed to awarding him.

What’s surprising to me, though, is why Cashman has been subjected to so little criticism. Perhaps that reflects a recognition among sophisticated Yankee fans that he has not had sufficient decision making power until recently to bear the brunt of the blame. Still, the Yankees’ most conspicuous problem—even given its hitting collapse against Detroit—has been starting pitching, and the blame lies with the front office. The acquisition of Randy Johnson at age 41—requiring an extension of his contract through 2007 for an additional $32 million—may have been a calculated gamble on a singular talent. But the age issue coupled with injury woes has assured that it was a bad gamble. Johnson—with an ERA of 5.00 last year, almost two full points above his career mark—was simply serviceable this year  and unlikely to improve on that next season.

Still, Johnson’s signing ranks as sheer genius compared to the big-money pacts given free agents Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright—like Johnson’s deal, in the panicked frenzy after the Yankee loss to the Red Sox in the 2004 AL Championship Series. Wright came with a reputation of being fragile, but he’s Ripkenesque—43 appearances and 16 wins in two subpar seasons in New York—when compared with Pavano. Signed for four years at about $10 million per, Pavano made 17 starts in 2005, winning just four games—and has been sidelined by injury ever since. Both were regarded by the Yankees as better options than keeping Jon Lieber, who had gone 14-8 in 2004 and was a standout against the Red Sox in the playoffs. (In his two subsequent seasons with the Phillies, Lieber has won more games than Wright and Pavano combined.)

Those flops have followed a succession of expensive acquisitions, like Jose Contreras and Javier Vasquez, who were ballyhooed as the solution to the team’s pitching woes and dispatched after brief, disappointing in the Bronx. Even Mike Mussina, who has averaged 15 wins in his six seasons with the Yankees, has never quite measured up to his lofty billing, as perhaps his 5-7 postseason record attests. Mussina, whose $17 million option for 2007 now seems a dubious proposition, may find that the New York Post made the final judgment on his Yankee career: he pitches just well enough to lose.

Now the Yankees were hardly alone in their enthusiasm for and pursuit of all those putative pitching stars. The Red Sox were equally avid. And Contreras has now lived up to the billing—but only after he was traded to the Chicago White Sox. Ironically, had the Yankees starting rotation not been in such disarray, the team might never have acquired Cory Lidle, who died tragically this week in a small-plane crash in Manhattan. (Lidle had become a free agent at season’s end and was unlikely to return to the team.)

If the Yankees balk at reupping Mussina, they will enter the 2007 season with just one reliable starter, Chien-Ming Wang. But the good news is that there is pitching--good pitching--to be had if money is no object. And while there is no place, not even Steinbrenner’s New York, where money is no object any longer, that is the one place where it is seldom a deterrent. For starters, free agents include Oakland A’s ace Barry Zito, who is 102-73 in seven seasons in the league, and Jason Schmidt, who has put up Mussina-like numbers in six straight winning seasons with the San Francisco Giants. And sentimentalists will get all tingly thinking about the possible return to the Bronx of Andy Pettitte, a stalwart during the Yankees heyday, not to mention his Houston teammate and mentor, Roger Clemens. But the most enticing prospect of all may be Daisuke Matsuzaka, who was MVP on Japan’s winning team in this year’s inaugural World Baseball Classic. Matsuzaka is just 26 years old and his team, the Seibu Lions, has indicated it will make him available. There is speculation that it may cost up to $30 million just to begin negotiations with the Japanese ace. That’s a number that has New York Yankees written all over it. When it comes to writing checks, they are, without doubt, champions of the world.