Monday, October 31, 2005

2005 Off-Season, Part I

Open season on free agents might not begin for a few weeks, but the talks have been rampant since October 10th on what the Yankees should do to improve this off-season. This has been an increasing dilemma since 2000, and each year it seems that smart signings (Sheffield, Matsui) are coupled with bone headed transactions (Womack, Mondesi), helping kill the Yankees chances of winning it all.

This is not to say that poor free agency decisions are the reason the Yanks haven’t won it all since 2000. It’s just asserting that had more thought out moves been made, maybe one of those years could have been salvaged. But instead, they were stuck with a thorn or two in their sides, and that goes a long way when you’re trying to best 29 other teams.

Today is the opening segment in a week long series on what the Yankees can do to improve this off-season, which directly coincides with meetings being held in New York on the same topic. I’ll be providing some thought out rhetoric on the moves that I truly believe can elevate this team, just like Cashman is sitting down with George Steinbrenner, Randy Levine, Billy Connors et. al.

However, I’m not going to launch into a my “we need to sign X and Y and Z” today. That will come Thursday. Tomorrow will be the state of the team as it stands at the moment, and Wednesday will be exploring the trading block. The reasons for this are 1) I’m working on a unique system of evaluation for teams in the American League and 2) I wanted to take some time to gripe about poor Yankees off-season (and a few in-season) moves from the recent past.

So let’s start following the 2000 season. Plenty good happened then, but the big news was nabbing Mike Mussina, the most highly coveted pitcher on the market. In addition, we got our hands on a young lefty named Damaso Marte. When you factor in the inking of O’Neill, it seemed like a positively productive off-season. Sure, David Cone and Doc Gooden were gone, but they were both over the hill and unlikely to find a spot in the 2001 rotation anyway.

This would have been all fine and dandy, had it not been for one trade that kinda gets under my skin in hindsight. The Big Name: Drew Henson. The price tag: Wily Mo Pena. Now, Pena might not be a superstar, and at the time he was traded there was little evidence that he’d bloom into a major leaguer. But here go the Yanks again, giving up prized prospects to get a big name for the headlines. So Pena is enjoying relative success in Cincinnati at the age of 23, while Henson is sitting on the bench for the Dallas Cowboys.

The lesson for the 2005/2006 off-season: don’t be so quick to give up low level prospects for big names (::ahem:: Torii Hunter).

Some in-season beef: trading Marte for Enrique Wilson and Randy Flores for Randy Velarde. Marte may have been one of the weaker links in the White Sox bullpen this year, but he was certainly better than any lefty reliever that passed through the Yankee Stadium doors daily. Same goes for Randy Flores, who was perfectly average in ’05, but would have been a lefty upgrade for the Yanks.

The moves in the ‘01/’02 off-season were a bit more prolific than those of the previous year. Right off the bat, the Yanks snatched up the premier name on the list once again, Oakland A’s slugger Jason Giambi. This was in addition to picking up Steve Karsay, who had a great season in the bullpen for the Braves, and Rondell White, a perpetual .290-.300 hitter. The off-season was capped by the return of Boomer, who broke a verbal agreement with the D Backs in order to return to New York.

See, nothing bad happened there. Instead of mortgaging prospects, George merely opened up the checkbook and roped in a few big names. So he overpaid for all those names; big deal. He’s George friggin’ Steinbrenner, and if he has to overpay for talent, well, it’s better than having no talent at all.

But then came July 2002, a month that retrospectively makes me want to tear my eyeballs out, possibly with a spork and knife. The first blunder was dishing Scott Wiggins to Toronto for Raul Mondesi. It’s not that Wiggins was a particularly special player in my book, but there are few players less special than Mondesi. Given the chance to reverse one of the Yankees trades from these years, this one or the next one would be it. Yes, I hate Mondesi that much.

Apparently, having a young lefty on the roster isn’t something Steinbrenner particularly approves of, especially when a young, loose cannon righty can be had in his place. Apparently, the Yankees had been stalking Jeff Weaver for quite some time, knowing the Tigers were looking to ship him elsewhere. During negotiations, one of baseball’s finest opportunists saw something he liked, and stuck his neck in, wanting a piece of this trade’s pie.

Billy Beane had something Detroit wanted: highly touted prospect Carlos Pena. Detroit had something the Yankees wanted: pot-smoking righty Jeff Weaver. And the Yankees had something Oakland was seeking: young lefty Ted Lilly. But don’t think Beane was content at such a simple switcheroo. He swindled the Yanks out of prized prospect John-Ford Griffin in the process. Thankfully, at least Detroit got a laugh out of this one, as they received Jeremy Bonderman later in August as compensation from the A’s.

Thankfully, the Yanks laid relatively low once again in the 2002-2003 off-season. They made three signings of note: Hideki Matsui, Jose Contreras, and Jon Leiber, whom they knew would not be playing in 2003 due to Tommy John surgery. And only two trades were consummated: El Duque to Chicago for Antonio Osuna (d’oh!) and Rondell White for Bubba Trammell (and even though Trammell went MIA mid-season, he was still more compensation than anyone could have expected for White).

Here comes the trade deadline again, and since the 2003 race with the Red Sox was as heated as ever, deals had to be made. Approved deals: sending Mondesi away for more than a Thank You card (actually, we got David Dellucci, who isn’t half bad) and sending Robin Ventura to Los Angeles for Bubba Crosby and Scott Proctor. I think we can even lump in the Benitez for Nelson deal here, though neither would be particularly effective.

Unapproved trade: Brandon Claussen for Aaron Boone. Once again, this isn’t because Claussen is a blooming star, but because really, what did Aaron Boone do other than hit a home run off Tim Wakefield? And maybe if Aaron Boone wasn’t on the roster, the Yanks don’t even let it get to a Game Seven. Maybe they’re in the World Series after a five game trouncing of the Red Sox, and have enough left in the tank to finish off the Marlins. Maybe Claussen comes in to relieve an aching Wells, and maybe Claussen becomes the hero. Point is, Aaron Boone may be famous for dooming the Red Sox, but without him around, it might not even have gotten to that point. And, more importantly, Aaron Boone sucks.

Of course, nothing inspires the ire of George Steinbrenner quite like losing a World Series. Changes were going to be made, and made they were. Gaffe No. 1: Andy Pettitte. I’ve expressed my resentment over this trade more than once in this space, so I don’t feel like I need to reiterate. But, I’d like to take this brief second to call Roger Clemens a no-good scoundrel for accepting a Hummer from George Steinbrenner as a retirement gift, then accepting another from Houston as coercion to un-retire. Funny, how both owners game him Hummers to get their way.

Disapproved Trade: Jeff Weaver and Yhency Brazoban for Kevin Brown. Hell, I would have rather had Weaver over the past two years than Brown, and that doesn’t even account for Brazoban. It was a gamble: Brown stays healthy and he’s an ace; he gets hurt and he’s a bust. Yeah, it’s all about the latter.

Sitting on the Fence: Nick Johnson and Juan Rivera for Javy Vazquez. Seemed like a great idea at the time, since Vazquez was one of the rising pitching stars in the league, and there was really no spot for Rivera or Johnson, considering the presence of Giambi and the newly signed Gary Sheffield. Of course, this one kind of blew up in the Yanks face, but it certainly could have been worse.

Then, of course, was Soriano for A-Rod, a trade which – despite his poor postseason performances thus far – was a no-brainer. And once A-Rod realizes that the stuff he spits out to the media about being a team player is how he should actually be thinking, he may turn out to be a winner yet.

Looking back over this list, it doesn’t seem like the Yanks have surrendered a ton of talent over the years. But, they also haven’t gotten much in exchange, unless a boatload of bloated contracts counts for anything. Before the Yankees consider plucking pieces from the farm system, they need to reflect on years past and realize that the 22-year-old making peanuts is probably going to be just as valuable as the guy they’re trading him for.