Our Story So Far

It’s been 31 days since the Yankees lost the World Series to the Florida Marlins, which means it’s been 30 days since armchair GMs started tripping over each other to offer blueprints for fixing the numerous glaring weaknesses of a team which won 101 regular-season games and its sixth pennant in eight years. The past month has seen pundits posit the pinstripes as the perfect prescription for every marquee free agent this side of Pudge Rodriguez. They’ve plotted trades for big names such as Sammy Sosa, Alex Rodriguez, Curt Schilling, Carlos Beltran, and Javier Vasquez, among others. They’ve expected George Steinbrenner to pound a panic button which would jettison Alfonso Soriano to the far reaches of the Walla Walla Sweet Onion League for his meager postseason performance, coax Roger Clemens out of retirement, trade Nick Johnson for a mouthy, over-the-hill former ace who’s an armchair GM himself, and claim Manny Ramirez‘s $100 million contract and ten-cent head off of waivers from the Boston Red Sox.

Yet despite all of the ink spilled in this rush to remake the Yanks, none of this has happened. Surprise! What’s next — an article from Peter Gammons entitled “Pitching Comes First for Yankees”? Too late. Sorting out the fly shit from the pepper — to borrow a phrase from my father — when it comes to the Yanks’ offseason plans has been a tedious task, one that I’ve pretty much avoided except in private conversation. After all, most of these deals don’t even pass the crack pipe test (“If you were a GM who’d been smoking crack for a week, would you make this trade?”), let alone merit a blow-by-blow evaluation.

For once, the team with the game’s biggest payroll seems determined not to set the market. That’s likely an impossiblity, given that the Yanks can always outbid their opponents, and that they may be the only team capable of making a multi-free-agent splash. But like every other team, they seem determined to wait for the secondary free-agent market (based on non-tendered players as of December 20) to present cheaper alternatives and perhaps bring down the asking price of the non blue-chip free agents.

Let us review where the Yanks stand. The Yankees have eleven players under contract for 2004, in commitments that total nearly $100 million. Believe it or not, they have even more money tied up in 2005, and nearly $400 million committed over the next six years. Here are their long-term commitments, with all figures in millions, via the MLB Contracts Page. These numbers have been calculated to include prorated signing bonuses; year-by-year team totals include buyouts but not team options:

2004: Jeter $18, Mussina $14, Williams $12, Giambi $10, Posada $9, Contreras $9, Rivera $8.89, Matsui $7, Weaver $6.25, Karsay $5, Lieber $2.45. Total: $99.59 million

2005: Jeter $19, Mussina $17, Williams $12, Posada $12, Giambi $11, Weaver $9.25, Contreras $8, Matsui $8, Lieber $8 team option/$0.25 buyout, Karsay $5. Total: $101.5 million

2006: Jeter $20, Giambi $18, Mussina $17, Williams $15/$3.5, Posada $13.5, Contreras $9, Karsay $6.5/$1.25. Total: $82.25 million

2007: Jeter $21, Giambi $21, Mussina $17/$1.5, Posada $12/$4. Total: $47.5 million

2008: Jeter $21, Giambi $21. Total: $42 million

2009: Jeter $21, Giambi $22/$5. Total: 26 million

Whew. For better or worse, the Yanks are locked in on several players; due to their large, backloaded contracts, Giambi and Jeter would almost certainly sail through waivers just as Manny did. These commitments make a wholesale housecleaning impossible, requiring the Yanks to patch up their foundation and improve incrementally. Fortunately, a housecleaning is not what the Yanks require, and unlike most other teams, they’ve got the money to pay salaries other teams can only bitch about.

As it stands right now, the 2004 Yanks face two fundamental problems:

1) The rotation may be facing its biggest overhaul of the Joe Torre era.

2) The team’s up-the-middle core, second baseman Alfonso Soriano, shortstop Derek Jeter, and centerfielder Bernie Williams, is bordering on defensive inadequacy for a ballclub with championship aspirations.

I’ll explore both of these problems in greater depth in next couple of weeks. For now, here’s a quick glimpse at a few of the free-agent situations they’re facing:

• They’re not getting Curt Schilling for their starting rotation. A couple of weeks ago, the word was that George Steinbrenner was set on Schilling as Roger Clemens’ replacement in the Yankee rotation. But the Diamondbacks appeared to overplay their hand. According to a report from ESPN’s Jayson Stark (who is apparently Schilling’s personal mouthpiece, judging by his three columns in ten days devoted to the pitcher’s Hamlet-like deliberations): “Arizona asked for Nick Johnson and Alfonso Soriano and a prospect. And the Yankees were expected to assume not just Schilling’s $12-million salary for next year, but also more than $16 million in deferrals. And take back either Matt Mantei or Junior Spivey.” One can only hope Brian Cashman didn’t break a rib laughing at that one.

Since that rebuke, the Red Sox have put together a trade for Schilling, one in which they’d give up pitcher Casey Fossum and three prospects — in other words, no proven talent. But that deal is contingent on Schilling waiving his no-trade clause, presumably to sign a two- or three-year contract extension which would enable him to end his career in Beantown. Until he decides to lobby for another trade, that is. And only if the team hires his pal Terry Francona as manager, a move the Boston Globe reports is in the pipeline.

Of course, the New York-area papers are ready to paint Schilling-to-Boston as another crisis which will have Steinbrenner screaming for vengeance. Please. The Yanks didn’t get to where they are by going off half-cocked every time some tabloid spelled out a Sox deal. If you’re a Yanks fan, count yourself lucky they didn’t give up either Soriano or Johnson in a Schilling deal, and that he’ll soon be somebody else’s headache.

Steven Goldman, who writes the “Pinstriped Bible” column for YES, had an enlightening take on the Yankee angle to this deal:

The two Yankees young enough not to have fought in the War of 1812 are safe, at least until Boston resolves Curt Schilling’s contract demands. Given the lesser package Arizona seems to have accepted — three pitchers of unsettled destiny plus an outfielder who slugged .295 in the Sally League, Arizona’s demand for Alfonso Soriano and Nick Johnson can be viewed as an opening gambit, a bluff. It also serves as an epitaph for the Yankees farm system.

The Yankees currently do not have sufficiently exciting prospects to put together a package of nearly-ready talent. If you’re thinking of trading with the Yankees and you don’t want expensive veterans or fringe-y youngsters, Johnson and Soriano are really the only items of interest left on the menu.

While that may be true, there are still other reasons to like Schilling in a Red Sox uniform from the Yankee point of view. One is that it would appear to limit Boston’s long-term spending options. They already made a desperate move to free themselves from Manny Ramirez’s contract, and they’re in the final year of Nomar Garciaparra’s and Pedro Martinez’s deals. Handing out $25-40 million in extensions to the new kid in town isn’t likely to be a hit with those two, and it’s also unclear whether Boston would assume responsiblity for the deferred money. Additionally, signing him would likely eliminate the Sox as one of Andy Pettitte’s suitors.

Steinbrenner’s admiration to the contrary, Curt Schilling is not Roger Clemens. He’s a pitcher who’s had two excellent seasons and several good ones over the course of his career, but he’s never won a Cy Young award, let alone six, and he’s got a ways to go to win 200 games. He’s a flyball pitcher, not particularly well suited to Fenway Park, where he hasn’t done too well historically (career 6.04 ERA in 25.1 innings). On the other hand, he’s still a fine pitcher who strikes out more than 10 men per nine innings and has pinpoint control, allowing less than two walks per nine in each of the past four seasons. Though he spent a bit of time on the DL last season, that time was due to an appendectomy and a broken hand, not shoulder or elbow trouble. But as the Yanks found out in the World Series, old pitchers have a nasty habit of breaking down at inopportune times. Let Schilling break down on somebody else’s watch.

• They’re not getting Vladimir Guerrero as their rightfielder. The 27-year-old is, as ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick puts it, “The only player young, talented and accomplished enough to set the standard for free agents this winter.” But Vlad picked the wrong year to become a free man, or at least the wrong strategy to pursue. The market is slow, and teams aren’t inclined to give out the large, long-term contracts that they tossed around so freely in the past (see Ramirez, Manny).

Yankee GM Brian Cashman has shown little interest; his long-term payroll obligations are too high to justify signing Vlad to a multi-year deal. As he told Crasnick: “He’s a 27-year-old premier free-agent outfielder, and I’ve got a lot of guys on very large contracts. Not that we’re not interested in Vladimir Guerrero, but our current commitments negate us from being a player on him.”

Fair enough. As the New York Daily News‘ Anthony McCarren points out, it’s possible that Cashman is just being a savvy negotiator (imagine that!): “[M]aybe the Yankees are positioning themselves for a late run if Guerrero doesn’t get what he wants elsewhere.”

• The Yanks appear to prefer Gary Sheffield as their rightfielder. Unlike Guerrero, the 35-year-old Sheffield is in no position to demand a deal longer than three years. A few days ago, Sheff’s uncle Dwight Gooden floated the rumor that his nephew was poised to sign with the Yanks, something along the lines of $35-40 million over three years. That’s not an unreasonable amount of dough for a guy who’s averaged 35 homers, 105 RBI and an OPS in the neighborhood of 1.000 over the past 5 years, even if he does lead the league in headaches. Sheffield appears to like the Yanks as well.

But it’s not a done deal — Sheffield lawyer/contract consultant (he fired agent Scott Boras this year) is still giving the standard “We’re talking to many teams” spiel, and the Braves, his team of the past two seasons, are still in the picture. The money from either team may not be as high as Sheffield desires. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that the Yanks are preparing a 2-year, $22 million offer, while the Braves are offering about $10 million a year for two or three years — this despite the fact that Sheffield made $11 million this past season.

Expect plenty of bitching before this one comes to pass.

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