Cooperstown Confidential - Final Postseason Edition - 10/31/2003
This is the final edition of “Cooperstown Confidential” for the 2003 season. I’d like to thank all of the loyal readers, those who have taken the time to write and provide feedback, and especially those who have offered their kind support and encouragement. I’m not sure what the immediate future holds for “Cooperstown Confidential,” but hopefully I’ll be able to make periodic visits to this and other web sites during the winter. Any suggestions for improving the column are certainly welcome. Most importantly, thanks for reading.
Yankees Circa 2004
Even before they lost the World Series in six games to the Florida Marlins, some writers had called for massive rebuilding to take place in the Bronx over the winter. Other observers, taking a different course, point out that the New York Yankees couldn’t be that flawed, since they came within two games of winning their fifth World Championship under Joe Torre. In truth, the reality of the situation lies somewhere in between. The Yankees don’t need to be rebuilt from top to bottom (even though George Steinbrenner probably has a differing opinion on that right now), but they can’t afford to stand pat either, principally because of their collective age and the retirement of Roger Clemens. Instead, the Yankees need to perform some significant tinkering, not only in terms of acquiring outside talent but also in rearranging some of the current parts so that they fit better along the defensive spectrum.
While there’s always the question of what should be done, that often doesn’t mesh with the changes that will be done. So with an eye toward the logical and the reasonable, here’s a plan of action—position by position—that the Yankee brass might take during a cold, hard winter:
Catcher: Jorge Posada is one of the few Yankees that can safely be called untouchable. In spite of a poor postseason (capped off by a failure to block and tag in Game Six), Posada just completed his best all-around season, reaching the 30-home run and 100-RBI marks for the first time while displaying better agility and a stronger throwing arm behind the plate. Posada’s presence means the Yankees will ignore the two hot catching commodities on the free agent market: Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez and Javier Lopez. Now if Rodriguez were willing to switch positions and play second or third base, then that might become a different story, but the Marlins’ postseason MVP isn’t likely to make that switch after a hallmark season behind the plate.
First Base/ Designated Hitter: Here’s where the questions begin. Will the Yankees continue to use Nick Johnson at first base and hope that he can improve his pitiful ability to scoop low throws, or will they gamble on Jason Giambi, hoping that his knee problems aren’t chronic and won’t prevent him from playing 120 or more times on the infield? Despite the off-the-record belief of some Yankee front office members that Giambi is as soft as pudding and tightens up under pressure, the Yankees realistically aren’t going to spend much time trying to shop him and his large contract this winter. Instead, they’ll hope that knee surgery helps in the short term and that he’ll lose about 10 to 15 pounds in an effort to put less stress on his legs. Under a best-case scenario, Giambi will be able to return to the pounding of first, and at worst, he’ll become an expensive DH. In contrast, Johnson’s status remains far more muddled than that of Giambi. The organization remains split on his potential, with some movers and shakers willing to offer him, primarily because of his frequent hand injuries, to the Expos for stud right-hander Javier Vasquez. Others in the front office feel that Johnson is a building block and shouldn’t be traded for anything less than a king’s ransom. My guess? The Yankees will dangle Johnson, end up trading him for a quality pitcher or a very good outfielder, and move Bernie Williams into the DH role on a fulltime basis.
Second Base: Only one thing seems certain at this troublesome position: the Yankees will have a different everyday second baseman in 2004. Let’s face it, Willie Randolph has already put in countless hours with Alfonso Soriano, but he’s made only small improvements at the position and doesn’t figure to get sufficiently better to avoid being a liability. Soriano simply doesn’t have the hands of a middle infielder, but his speed and athleticism make him an acceptable fit in the outfield. He has a strong arm, but it’s an infielder’s arm, and no one knows for sure how that will translate to the outfield, so we’ll have to wait and see whether he ends up in center or in right field. And then there’s always the option of a trade, which seems like a greater possibility with each passing day). The Royals have already expressed some interest in a Soriano-for-Carlos Beltran swap, but Beltran’s agent is Scott Boras, which is always an obstacle. The Yankees still love Soriano’s talent, but they’ve grown weary of his inability to make adjustments at the plate, his unwillingness to take pitches, and his continuing lapses of concentration in the field. Soriano will probably be traded away, with the Yankees acquiring another second baseman and/or an outfielder in return… So who ends up at second base? The trade market could feature Jose Vidro, but the Expos will want a lot in exchange (Soriano?). Roberto Alomar, Luis Castillo, and Fernando Vina are potential free agent options, but Alomar wants no part of Chapter Two in New York, Castillo prefers playing for a small market team, and Vina will be 35 years old next April (plus the Cardinals may pick up his $4.5 million option and then try to trade him.) Here’s where the Yankees could get creative, by moving one of their other infielders to second base. Keep reading.
Shortstop: Derek Jeter’s diminishing range used to be an acceptable problem, if only because the Yankees kept winning championships with him at shortstop. Well, now they haven’t won a title in three years, and Jeter’s range is only becoming more limited, in part because of injury and partly because of age. If the Yankees were smart, they’d make a full-bore run at Japanese free agent stud Kaz Matsui, make him their everyday shortstop, and move Jeter to second base, where his lack of range would become less of a liability. And for the first time ever, the Yankees are actually giving a sliver of thought to moving Jeter to another spot, be it second base, third base, or the outfield. In reality, though, the conservative Yankees probably won’t make such a daring move this winter, which means they won’t be able to sign Matsui, who wants to remain a shortstop (and he’s a good one). The end result? Status quo at shortstop for 2004.
Third Base: There’s been some talk that the Yankees might not tender a contract to Aaron Boone because of his offensive flailings and fielding yips in the Series, but they’re not willing to embarrass themselves by having nothing to show for the Brandon Claussen deal. Besides, Torre loves Boone’s makeup and attitude, and wants him back in the Bronx next year. So look for the Yankees to re-sign Boone, with an outside possibility of moving him to second base if they’re able to swing a deal for a better hitting third baseman. Another possibility is potential free agent Mike Lowell, but his defensive play at the corner has the Yankees concerned, especially with Jeter already overexposed on the left side of the infield.
Outfielders: Hideki Matsui will certainly be a part of the Yankee outfield picture in 2004; it’s just a question of whether he’ll play left field, center field, or right field. Matsui’s range and throwing arm make him best suited for left, but right now he’s a better center field option than Bernie Williams, whose postseason foibles in the field have convinced the Yankees to make him a DH and/or a left fielder. Matsui can also play right field, but his lack of arm strength and the availability of free agents Vladimir Guerrero and Gary Sheffield make that the least likely of the scenarios. Both Guerrero and Sheffield are high contact/high on-base percentage hitters (each had 400-plus OBPs, with fewer than 60 strikeouts), which is exactly the kind of hitter the Yankees need after their swing-and-miss postseason. Guerrero is the better of the two choices, if only because he’s only 27, making him seven years younger than Sheffield. Plenty of concerns have been raised about Guerrero’s introverted personality making him a bad fit for New York, but the Yankees have a manager like Torre and high character players like Jeter, Posada, and Williams who can help the shy Guerrero acclimate himself to life in the Bronx fishbowl. As for Sheffield, he wants to play in New York, Steinbrenner likes him, and there’s always the Dwight Gooden connection, but the addition of a soon-to-be 35-year-old outfielder to an already aging roster has to raise some red flags… So what will the Yankees do with their muddled outfield situation? Look for Matsui to remain in left, Williams to move to DH (with occasional duty in the outfield), Soriano or a trade piece to take over in center, and the multi-talented Guerrero to occupy right. One way or another, the Yankees will have a far different outfield in 2004.
Bench: John Flaherty did an acceptable job as Posada’s backup, but he’s a free agent who’s thought about retirement within the last year. The Yankees would love a better-hitting backup here, especially one who bats from the left side, but one option was removed when Greg Myers re-signed with Toronto. Another possibility, albeit from the right side, could be the Mets’ Vance Wilson, who might not be tendered a contract for 2004… Enrique Wilson experienced another poor season at the plate, making it questionable whether the Yankees will bring him back at a salary of $750,000. That’s a lot of money to pay for a player who hasn’t hit since his days in Cleveland, and who is nothing special in the field or on the bases. The Yankees just might cut bait with Wilson and replace him with the cheaper and more athletic Erick Almonte… In the outfield, Torre likes David Dellucci for his defensive play and versatility, along with his ability to bunt and steal bases. The Yankees will probably bring both Dellucci (contact) and Karim Garcia (power) back, giving them two different kinds of left-handed hitting options for the late innings. As for Ruben Sierra, Torre likes him now that he’s shown a willingness to embrace a backup role, but his inability to play the outfield acceptably will likely make him the odd man out… Once heralded as a top prospect, Juan Rivera now projects as no more than a backup, but could return as a sixth outfielder (if the Yankees carry that many). Otherwise, he’ll be traded, since he has nothing left to prove at the Triple-A level. He might become a throw-in to a package that features either Johnson or Soriano… And what about Bubba Trammell, you ask? That remains anybody’s guess. I have no idea really.
Starting Pitching: Forget about those reports that indicate otherwise; Roger Clemens is not coming back to pitch another season in the big leagues, so the Yankees will have to replace him with another durable right-hander. They have mixed feelings about Bartolo Colon because of his ever-expanding girth, but also have doubts about Kevin Millwood’s willingness to switch from the National League. (Millwood could be headed back to Atlanta, according to recent reports.) Then there’s always Montreal’s Javier Vasquez, whom the Yankees admire from afar, even if it might cost them Nick Johnson and another player… There’s been a lot of speculation about Andy Pettitte leaving as a free agent (how many times during the postseason did we have to hear FOX broadcasters say this might be his last start in Pinstripes?), but that’s not likely to happen. He loves playing in New York, the Yankees adore his consistency and character, and the Rangers (a logical destination) have already said they don’t have the cash to reel in the 21-game winner. There’s been recent talk that the Braves have interest in Pettitte, but after all is said and done, the reliable lefty will return to the Bronx, taking his rightful place as the No. 2 starter behind Mike Mussina… David “Jumbo” Wells, however, is highly unlikely to return. Not wanting to pick up his $6 million option, the Yankees will try to convince Wells to take a smaller contract, but the hefty lefty will probably opt for greener salaries elsewhere. If Wells had pitched well and picked up a win in Game Five, this whole scenario might have turned out much differently, but the Yankees have serious questions about his back—and his willingness to pitch through pain… So with Clemens and Wells gone, who steps into the rotation? Jose Contreras will become a fulltime starter, which is where he belongs. The Yankees are hoping that Jon Lieber can return from major arm surgery and become a decent starter at the back-end of the rotation. Jeff Weaver remains another option, but the Yankees will do everything they can to find a suitor, even if it means picking up the rest of the $15 million on his contract. If recent rumors that had Weaver going to St. Louis for J.D. Drew or to Anaheim for Darin Erstad are anything remotely close to the truth, then there might still be a market for the talented but high-strung right-hander.
Bullpen: Mariano Rivera is as untouchable as any Yankee, but general manager Brian Cashman will continue make efforts in upgrading the set-up relief corps, which remains an area of concern. From the right side, the Yankees are hopeful that Steve Karsay can return from elbow surgery, but they’re not banking on him regaining his prior effectiveness. They’d like to bring in LaTroy Hawkins as a free agent, with the idea of using him as Rivera’s set-up man and simultaneously grooming him to become Mo’s successor. Another possibility is Shigetoshi Hasegawa, who was unhittable for most of the season before struggling as Seattle’s closer; Hasegawa’s agent has already expressed an interest in coming to New York. The Yankees will also consider two right-handers from within, Jorge DePaula and the flamethrowing Scott Proctor, who came over as part of the Robin Ventura deal and posted 26 K’s and only three walks in 19 innings at Triple-A Columbus. The addition of both a live-armed youngster and a veteran free agent will probably result in the end of Jeff Nelson’s second tenure in New York. The Yankees have already decided to part ways with Antonio Osuna, who’s now a free agent after not being included on any of the postseason rosters… In terms of left-handed relief, the Yankees will have plenty of that commodity in 2004. Felix Heredia has already indicated he’ll exercise his contract option for next year and the Yankees are likely to do the same for Gabe White. And then there’s change-up specialist Chris Hammond, whose contract probably mandates a return to the Bronx in 2004 but who also represented the Yankees’ biggest mystery this past postseason. After pitching reasonably well during the regular season, the Yankees left Hammond off their Division Series and League Championship Series rosters and only activated him for the World Series because of a pitching crunch caused by Game Five of the LCS. Then, in the turning-point game of the Series, Joe Torre opted to use Jeff Weaver ahead of Hammond, even though the left-hander had been far more effective during the regular season. That’s never been fully explained and makes one wonder if Torre will be any more willing to use Hammond in 2004.
Coaching Staff: Only two Yankee coaches appear secure for next season: third base coach Willie Randolph and bullpen coach Rich Monteleone. Bench coach Don Zimmer has already announced his departure, hitting instructor Rick Down has been fired, and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre is expected to announce his retirement shortly. In addition, Lee Mazzilli will probably find himself elsewhere; he just interviewed for the Orioles’ managerial slot and, even if he doesn’t get the job, he’s still likely to be replaced as New York’s first base coach… Several names have been rumored to succeed Down as hitting coach, including former Yankees Chili Davis and Don Mattingly. (Davis, in particular, would be a great choice because of his ability to relate to today’s player and his sound hitting philosophies.) One non-Yankee who has no ties to the organization, Gary Gaetti, has also been mentioned, but the powers-that-be have to hope that Gaetti will preach more patience at the plate than he displayed during his long playing career… Luis Sojo will probably succeed Mazzilli as first base coach, in part because of his ability to relate to the team’s Latin American players. That’s an angle that’s been missing from the Yankee coaching staff since the firing of Jose Cardenal… As for the new bench coach, that might be the most intriguing story of all. Former Yankee Joe Girardi, who would like to manage eventually, is rumored to have interest in the bench coach position, which would give him valuable experience in running a game from the dugout. Yet, the odds-on favorite for the job appears to be former Red Sox manager Grady Little, who is still respected for his baseball knowledge if not for his in-game pitching decisions. Another possible landing place for Little is Columbus, where he might end up as manager of the Yankees’ top minor league affiliate.
Hall of Fame Handbook
In honor of the 2003 World Champion Marlins, let’s present the all-gone-fishin’ team, courtesy of the hardworking staff at the Hall of Fame:
Catcher: Fred “Whale” Walters
Josh Brinkley (Died on October 16 in Wallace, North Carolina; age 30; car accident): The hitting coach for the independent Bangor Lumberjacks of the Northeast League, Brinkley was jogging near the side of a road when he was struck and killed by a passing car. Brinkley had joined Bangor this season after previously working for Lincoln in the Northern League. His minor league playing career included stops in Harrisburg (a Montreal Expos affiliate) and independent Little Falls, where he batted .327 during the 2000 season.
Joan Kroc (Died on October 12 in San Diego; age 75; brain cancer): Kroc became the owner of the San Diego Padres after the death of her husband, Ray, in 1984. (Mr. Kroc had purchased the Padres in 1974, thus preventing the team from moving to Washington.) Mrs. Kroc remained owner of the franchise until 1990, when she decided to sell the team in order to spend more time with her family. Noted for her philanthropic efforts, Kroc contributed time and money to a number of causes, including health care, cancer research, and the fight against AIDS.
Frank McCormack (Died on October 9 in Bakersfield, California; age 84): A onetime scout for the New York Yankees, McCormack also worked as a trainer in the minor leagues. In addition to his professional association with the game, he was a passionate fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers and a longtime member of the Society for American Baseball Research. McCormack wrote a regular trivia column for a Dodgers’ fan newsletter.
John Raymond Gora (Died on October 7 in Danville, Illinois; age 91; complications from a stroke): An award-winning photographer, Gora captured one of the most memorable pictures in baseball history—a still shot of Chicago White Sox outfielder Al Smith being showered with a cup of beer while trying to catch a home run ball in Game Two of the 1959 World Series. At the time a photographer for the Chicago Tribune, Gora had begun his career in 1927 as a copy boy for the Chicago Herald-News. He joined the staff of the Tribune in 1942, remaining there until his retirement in 1977.
Stephen Gates (Died on October 4 in Hillsborough, North Carolina; age 27): Gates was serving as the media relations director for the independent Northeast League at the time of his death. He was killed in a hit-and-run accident after stopping to fix a flat tire on the interstate near Hillsborough.
Cooperstown Confidential writer Bruce Markusen is the author of three books on baseball, including A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s (ISBN number 1-878282-23-9), which is available at www.amazon.com and at many major bookstores, including Borders Books. Markusen has also written, The Orlando Cepeda Story and Roberto Clemente: The Great One. A fourth book, The Kid: The Life of Ted Williams, is scheduled for release in the spring of 2004.
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