WTNYOctober 29, 2003
Organizational Meeting: Yankees
By Bryan Smith

Today I'll move along in my organizational rankings, going to the New York Yankees. The format has changed for today, as two Yankee bloggers (Larry Mahnken from the Replacement Level Yankee Blog and Alex Belth from Bronx Banter) take their swings at my questions. My answers won't appear until tomorrow, so, no great loss for the reader. Enjoy...

1) It's no secret the Yankees will target right field in the offseason, as a Delucci/Rivera platoon isn't Yankeesque. Instead, the Boss is left to decide between Vladimir Guerrero and Gary Sheffield. Some reports say Steinbrenner prefers Sheffield, do you agree and why?

Alex Belth- Sheffield is definitely George's kind of guy and vice versa. Sheff is high maintenance but a borderline Hall of Famer. He would fit with the Yankees for three seasons I think. If he stays healthy, there is no reason to believe that he wouldn't be very helpful for a winning team. If he plays in a losing situation, he could be an issue.

But if you want the better player--his back injury this past season notwithstanding---Vlad is the way to go. He's so young, and so strong and so good. People talk about how shy Guerrero is and how that wouldn't fit in here in New York. But again, if he stayed healthy, he would be a monster, because the guy doesn't have a conscience and he's just too good to suck.

I don't know if you can go wrong with either guy, except I worry about Sheffield staying healthy. Because if he gets hurt, it's like a super charged version of Danny Tartabull all over again. Personally, Vlad is my favorite player in the National League--I own a Vladi jersey and t-shirt--so I would be ecstatic if he came to play in New York. But as a baseball fan, I feel like it would be too much for the Yanks to have him. Let a weird guy like Vlad go to the Padres, or stay with the Expos.

Larry Mahnken- If the Yankees are going to target right field instead of moving Matsui to right, Bernie to left and getting a centerfielder, I'd prefer Guerrero over Sheffield. Sheffield is a better hitter than Guerrero right now, but Vlad is a better fielder and is seven years younger. They'll likely only lock up Sheffield for three or four seasons, and he shouldn't decline much in that time--but then, he might collapse. Vlad is a safer bet over the next few years, fits the Yankees' needs better, and will be productive longer. I'd go with Vlad.

2) The Yankees largest problems lie in defense and lineup construction. Can anything be done in the next six months to amend defensive defiencies? Will Torre ever realize Soriano isn't a leadoff hitter? What would you do with the defense and the lineup?

LM- First of all, let's specify where the Yankees' defensive problems are: up the middle. Aaron Boone is a pretty good third baseman, Nick Johnson is a good first baseman, Hideki Matsui is a pretty good left fielder, and whomever they stick in right is going to be okay. The weaknesses they have, unfortunately, are with the guys who have to cover the most ground: Bernie Williams, Alfonso Soriano and Derek Jeter. Bernie was never a great defensive player, he never took good routes to the ball or got a good jump, but he was very fast, and could make up for his mistakes with his speed, and was a good fielder. Now that he's slowed down, his defense is terrible, and any balls hit in the gaps are likely to fall in. Outs become hits, and singles become doubles.

When he filled in for Bernie Williams, Hideki Matsui did an adequate job. He's not a very good center fielder, but he's at least as good getting to balls as Bernie Williams, and he has a stronger arm, making him a better choice for center. If the Yankees sign a right fielder, swapping Bernie and Godzilla would be an improvement in the outfield, though it still wouldn't make them good, or even average. If they were to move Matsui to right, Bernie to left, and bring in a ballhawk center fielder like Mike Cameron or Carlos Beltran, they would probably have at least an average defense.

Derek Jeter is a horrid shortstop, everyone in the sabermetric community has long acknowledged that, watching him play shortstop would make you think that he had already retired and they had put his monument at shortstop. Problem is, either the Yankees don't know that, or they have no intention of ever doing anything about it. He's gonna be a shortstop until he decides that he's not going to be a shortstop.

If the Yankees had a good defensive second baseman, it wouldn't be so much a problem. Unfortunately, Alfonso Soriano is not a good defensive second baseman. He's not horrible, nowhere near as bad as Jeter--he's pretty decent going to his left. Unfortunately, he doesn't have much range to his right, and he's horrible at fielding the ball backhanded. So the Yankees have two middle infielders who can't go up the middle--you can see the problem here. Probably the most oft repeated phrase on Yankees' broadcasts is "ground ball up the middle, through to centerfield for a base hit."

So, what can the Yankees do about this? Well, they could move Soriano out to centerfield, something that the New York media is talking about. There are several problems with this strategy: it makes Soriano a less valuable player, he might be a terrible defensive outfielder, and the player who replaces him will be a lesser offensive player than Soriano, too. Another option is to trade Soriano, but the decrease in the Yankees' offense at second base would probably be far more than the increase in defense. And, of course, the Yankees aren't going to get equal value in a trade for Soriano anymore, now that he's about to become expensive through arbitration. Basically, the Yankees' options are either to become a worse team overall, or accept that they have a massive hole in the middle of their infield. The defense will cost them a few games, and might cost them a postseason series, but over the course of the season, the offense will win more games than the defense loses. Considering that Boston will likely be better, and Toronto is on the rise, I don't think that the Yankees can afford to drop any games in the standings, and so while they can make a move to improve the outfield defense, I think they'll just have to accept their crappy infield defense for a few years.

The best thing they can do is stay away from pitchers like David Wells and Jeff Weaver, and build a pitching staff around High-K pitchers like Mussina, Contreras and Pettitte--to keep the ball away from the defense.
As for the lineup, I doubt that Torre will ever accept that Soriano is the worst choice he has for batting leadoff. He believes that the first run of the game is more important than the second or third run, and that speed is a vital asset at the top of the lineup, neither of which are true. Speed is a good thing to have at the top of the lineup, to avoid double plays, but it can be utilized better at the bottom of the lineup, where the batters behind you are less likely to hit HRs and doubles, so stealing a base can create more runs for you. Using some of the rationale put forward by Joe Sheehan in a recent article, here's my ideal lineup, using the 2003 World Series roster:

R - Jeter (gets on base, has good speed, a little power but not enough to bat third, and hits too many ground balls to hit second)
S - Williams (Again, gets on base, doesn't have the power any more to bat cleanup, hits fly balls, which avoids DPs, switch hitter makes LOOGYs less effective)
L - Giambi (The best hitter on the team)
S - Posada (Good OBP, good power, but not as good as Giambi, switch hitter between lefties)
L - Johnson (Best OBP on team, fifth spot in order leads off innings second most on team after leadoff, good power to take care of first four batters' leavings)
R - Soriano (Good power to clear bases after high-OBP guys have batted, good speed avoids DPs with Johnson ahead of him and ground-ball hitting Matsui behind him, can steal bases to increase scoring chances with weaker hitters at bottom of lineup)
L - Matsui (Hits a lot of ground balls, so you'd want to bat him behind someone with good speed so you can execute a lot of hit and runs. Posada is about the worst guy to bat him behind)
R - Boone (Possibly the weakest hitting player on the team, but righty bat gets LOOGYs out after one batter)
L - Garcia (Adequate hitter against righties, useless against lefties, platoon partner Rivera is opposite)

AB- I agree with the majority of observers who think that Soriano is ill-suited for the lead off spot. I think hitting him somewhere 6-9 would be a place to start. I don't know what will make the kid a better fielder. I don't know if it's just a matter of concentration, effort and dedication on his part. He hasn't improved enough defensively. But there is no telling that he'd be a better out fielder than he is at second. Sure, he'd be able to use his speed, but who knows if he's got any instinct for it.

I think the idea of moving Soriano is an attractive one. Even though he had a miserable playoff, he is still young and dazzlingly talented. Most importantly, he isn't making tons of money, so he is movable. He certainly could be traded for a pitcher or a stellar infielder.

I would move Boone anyway you could, and personally, I would consider trying Jeter out at third. I know this would never happen with Torre around, but it would be interesting to see what would happen. I've heard people say that Jeter wouldn't be right for the hot corner, and other people who just think he should play anywhere but short. I would like to think of him in the mold of Robin Yount. Actually, with all the talk of Sori moving to center, wouldn't Jeter make a decent left fielder?

But then his numbers would be left fielder's numbers. And without much pop. Still, Chipper made the move. We'll sure see how much of a team guy Mr. Jeter is the day he's faced with moving from short. I would give it three to four seasons, depending on how quickly his skills decline.

3) Roger Clemens and David Wells won't be Yankees for much longer The team has Mussina, Contreras, and Jon Lieber penciled in for the rotation. How important is it to re-sign homegrown Andy Pettite? Can you give Jeff Weaver the 5th spot? If no, who are you targeting to round out the rotation, and what would you do with Weaver?

AB- I think they are in a position where they have to sign Pettitte. The beauty part for Andy is he's got the team by the balls. Sometimes players get lucky, and Pettitte---like Pudge Rodriguez---are the Grand Prize Winners this year. Last season Pettitte was terrific but sidelines with injuries. He went into the final year of his contract earning a whopping $11.5 million with a lot to prove. So he goes out and wins 20 games and is stellar in the playoffs and now the Yankees have to sign him or they look like schmucks. Pettitte has actually earned himself a bloated, handsome deal. I see the Yanks over paying to keep him. I don't know if that would be wise---to wildly over pay for Andy Pettitte--but with no other left-hander on the staff, it appears a likely scenario. And after all, this is the Yankees. They can afford it. I'm interested to see how much of Pettitte's decision is based on Mel Stottlemyre's future. Pettitte sure is in the driver's seat here. The bottom line is, unless he goes to a winning situation, Andy will regret ever leaving the Yankees.

LM- Well, I think Wells might be back next year, although his back injury might have cost them the World Series. They won't pick up his option, but I think Steinbrenner might sign him again, if only to annoy Torre. It is vital to re-sign Andy Pettitte. A rotation of Mussina, Contreras, Lieber, Weaver and DePaula would be great for most teams, and was pretty similar to what Boston threw out there this year, but the Yankees are a team that is focused solely on postseason success, and while the playoffs are largely luck, one of the things you can do to increase your chances of winning is to have three or four strong starters, the stronger the better. Pettitte is a pitcher who isn't hurt tremendously by the Yankees' defense, and the Yankees also can't afford to let him go to Boston.
I think the Yankees should take another chance with Weaver--though he shouldn't have been on the postseason roster, or even pitching at all in September. He's a good pitcher, although one who is exceptionally susceptible to getting hurt by the Yankees' defense. Early in the season, he was let down by the bullpen, defense, and just plain bad luck, but as he grew more frustrated, he made more bad pitches and started getting genuinely hammered. I think he can be a good pitcher for the Yankees, though never an ace. They would have been better off with Lilly in the rotation. Keep Weaver, unless you get a really good offer, and keep him the 5th starter.

I think that the Yankees should also be looking for another starters, I expect nothing out of Lieber. Colon and Millwood might seem excessive, but they really are replacing Roger Clemens. Both appear similar to me, Millwood is about a year and a half younger, but then, Will Carroll is reporting that Millwood is going back to Atlanta (What a steal! They get Millwood AND Estrada, and all they have to give up is a first round draft pick! WOW!)
So, saying they re-sign Pettitte and sign Colon (which, if Millwood goes to Atlanta, leaves Boston with nobody, which would be HUGE), the Yankees have this rotation:


If the Yankees re-sign Wells and move Weaver, then stick him in the fourth spot, because Torre won't realize what he's got in Contreras until June or July. That's a damn good rotaton. If the Yankees don't bring in a free agent pitcher, or let Pettitte walk, then I think that DePaula will get a shot at the rotation in March, though I don't think he'll make the cut, or stick very long if he does.

4) Alfonso Soriano is one of the hottest/coldest players in the Majors today. In April and September he hit .370 and .348 respectively, while in May and July he hit .229 and .240. 18 of his 38 home runs came in the first and last months of the season. Does this concern you, and do you believe the team should lock him up now, or let him go to arbitration the next few years?

LM- I know that you should look at what a player can do instead of what he can't do, so here goes:

Alfonso Soriano can steal bases with a high rate of success.
Alfonso Soriano can hit a lot of Home Runs.
Alfonso Soriano can get a hit on a high percentage of the balls he puts in play.
What he can't do is look for a good pitch to hit, lay off breaking pitches off the plate or high fastballs, or play defense. Those first two are what concern me most, and are the reason for his streakiness.

Maybe Soriano will develop some plate discipline--I doubt it. Maybe he'll sustain this current level his entire career, which would make him worth having on the team. But he's also a huge risk to drop off suddenly, so I'd let him go to arbitration, which takes the risk that if he improves, you'll have to pay a lot more money to lock him up, but if he falls off, you're not stuck with him.

The player I think they should lock up through arbitration and well beyond is Nick Johnson. The only concern with Johnson is injuries, if he stays healthy, I think he'll be one of the top five hitters in baseball in three years. Thing is, few people appreciate how good he is right now, and you can probably lock him up long-term cheaply, and have an elite hitter on your team for years to come for less than ten million dollars a year.

AB- I like Soriano a lot. He is an exciting kid to watch. But I also believe in getting rid of guys too early rather than too late. And I'd like to see some of Jeter's persistence and drive in Soriano. I'm happy either way, but if he stays, I expect more out of the guy. And I don't mean homers either. I mean he should stop trying to be Dave Kingman.

5) One achilles heel for the Yankees in 2003 was middle relief. The team will have Steve Karsay and Chris Hammond back next year. Would you pick up the options on Antonio Osuna and Gabe White? And whom else would you target on the market?

AB- Osuna is gone. And whatever. He wasn't great. I don't know about Gabe White. I wouldn't be terribly upset to see him back, but I'm not wed to him by any means. I think the guy Hasegawa is the most attractive reliever on the market for the Yankees, even if LaTroy Hawkins is getting more press. Hawkins is another kind of guy that George would wildly over pay. Much as he did with Steve Karsay, even though that was a different market.

The Yanks have to develop or acquire a nasty left hander for the pen too I think. Nellie won't be back. No great loss.

LM- Well, a large part of the Yankees' middle relief problems last season was Juan Acevedo, who made their bullpen look far worse than it was. It wasn't a good 'pen, but after the trade deadline, it started to come together, and regardless what the media said, they had a good bullpen going into the playoffs--just not a great one.

Hammond pitched well this season, but Torre stopped using him in September, and didn't use him in the playoffs until Game 5 of the World Series, where he was not sharp. If Torre actually uses him in 2004, he'll be an asset.
I don't know if I'd pick up White's option, that is pretty hefty for a setup man, but I would try very hard to bring him back. He's a good relief pitcher, a lefty who can get out righties, and he's probably the only good thing to come out of the Boone trade.

Heredia pitched well, and he's picked up his half of the mutual option. I think I'd probably pick up the team half, too. It's pricy for a LOOGY, but Torre seemed to trust him, and that's an important asset for a Yankees' releiver.
I'd let Nelson go, and I'd bring up Colter Bean, who it would seem is capable of being a Chad Bradford type pitcher. I wouldn't really look to the free agent market to get relief help. Rivera, Karsay, White and Hammond looks pretty good to me.

6) Who from the coaching staff do you expect back next year? Is there any coach, other than Torre, that would really be a significant loss for this franchise? Would Brian Cashman be a loss?

LM- Well, Zimmer is already gone, no loss there. Mel Stottlemyre is deciding whether or not to come back. He's good with veteran pitchers, but he didn't do much to help Jeff Weaver this season. If he wants to come back, I'd bring him back. Rick Down is gone, likely as the scapegoat for the Yankees' postseason offensive struggles, but he should be the scapegoat for Alfonso Soriano. Willie Randolph and Lee Mazzilli are likely staying, unless they get managerial offers somewhere.

Brian Cashman is, I think, a good GM, but he's not running to show by himself. Steinbrenner also seeks input from Randy Levine (who I think knows nothing about baseball) and Gene Michael (who knows a lot), as well as a bunch of other advisors, then makes the decisions himself, and has Cashman implement them. It's very much corporate, and it prevents the Yankees from doing anything "new". They'll always settle for the mediocre player who they at least know is going to be mediocre rather than the unknown player who might be great, but hasn't proven himself either way.

Would he be a loss? Yeah, but not a huge one. He doesn't have enough control as it is, and if he were moved out, it wouldn't change the direction of the team much.

AB- I think Willie will be back and Torre will be back. Maz is probably gone, Down is gone, Zim is gone. Stot will be back I think. Maybe not. If George gets his way, he'll lure Mattingly back to be the hitting coach, and that would be boffo for him. I would love to see the Yankees make a run at Rick Peterson, even though they may be too late--and ultimately too conservative---to appreciate what Peterson could do for their staff.

Peterson is the kind of guy I'd like to see get a hold of Jeff Weaver. I would assume Weaver will be moved at some point. He's still a qualtity arm. Probably destined to pitch well at some point in his career. It doesn't look like that can happen for him in New York. He's obstinant. The guy just doesn't listen. But he can turn it around if he wants to---but it'll take having an work ethic like Roy Halladay to do it. I wouldn't bank on his "make up" that's for sure.

Cashman will stay and get older and more bent. George will be all over him, but he'll also give Cash the resources to figure it all out too. The Yankees could learn from the aquisitions that Boston made last year---picking up second tier players like Millar, Ortiz, Mueller, and Walker, and making them all part of the puzzle. Boston's offense was more like the Yankees O of '96-2000 than the current Yankee team was. (Of course you'd have to add the mid-90s Indians to those Yankee clubs to equal Boston's 2003 team.)

I think Cashman is great, and have complete faith in his ability to build a winning team. The only question is, can George keep from meddling and making moves like Mondesi and Aaron Boone?

7) What kind of numbers do you expect from Jose Contreras, Jon Lieber, and Nick Johnson in 2004?

AB- If Contreras is healthy and can give the Yankees 200+ innings, that would be fantastic. I think he'd be good too. ERA in the high 3,s-to mid 4s. Lots of strikeouts. Some dominating games mixed in there. 15 game winner easily if he gets the run support.

LM- I think Contreras will win 15 games, have an ERA around 3.50, strike out 200 men, and make the All-Star team. I expect nothing out of Lieber. I expect Nick Johnson to hit .300, hit 25 HRs, have a .450 OBP, and cure cancer.

8) Create a step-by-step offseason to-do list.

LM- What I would do is:
1. Re-sign Andy Pettitte
2. Sign Vladimir Guerrero, Gary Sheffield, or Mike Cameron (in that order)
3. Sign Kevin Millwood or Bartolo Colon (in that order)
4. If step two fails, try to trade for Carlos Beltran, but without giving up Johnson
5. Re-sign Gabe White, pick up the option on Heredia
6. Improve the bench: get a backup catcher who can hit some, a backup infielder who can field some, a good defensive replacement center fielder, and a real pinch hitter (NOT Ruben Sierra)

AB- a. Making pitching decisions. Sign Pettitte, trade Weaver for another front line starter.
b. Figure out the outfield. Move Bernie to left, and then either Sori to center and Matsui to right, or Matsui to center and Vlad or Sheff to right. Or Maybe get another center fielder and move Matsui to right.
c. Sign Hasegawa.
d. Figure out third base and second base. Move Aaron Boone.
d. Figure out if you want to trade Nick Johnson.
e. Get a left-hander in the pen.
f. Sign coaches. (This one might have to be earlier, but whatever.)

Tomorrow I will answer all of the questions, and look at how the media is dealing with this situation. New York is always the most fun to analyze, because every beat reporter, every columnist, every writer in the world has an opinion on this issue. Damn Yankees.