Extreme Makeover: Bronx Bombers Edition

Atit Amin

Take a moment out of your day and visit the New York Yankees official website. In the top right-hand corner, you’ll notice an advertisement that reads, “Watch the World Series on Fox.” Perhaps the site managers are living in denial that it is still 2001. In any case, the Bronx Bombers are not in the World Series and by the looks of it, more players are likely recuperating from season-long ailments than taking interest in the Fall Classic. Following another improbable exit from the American League (AL) playoffs, the Yankees and more so, General Manager Brian Cashman, should not be searching for cosmetic changes this off season. Although no member of the Yankee hierarchy will readily admit to it, the Yankees are in dire need of a facelift.

Although I’m a dedicated fan with plenty of Yankee pride and passion, I was unable to follow any of the Yankees’ postseason debacles. Given the circumstances, one hardly needed to read an ESPN column or pick up a USA Today to notice that the Yanks underperformed, once again. However, unlike 2005, when the team put on a similar disappearing act, momentum and confidence were on their side this year. The Yanks wrapped up their ninth consecutive AL East title in August, compared to the final day of the season a year before. Furthermore, New York had a revitalized lineup featuring former All-Stars at every position and prompting some writers to refer to it as a modern-day “Murderers’ Row.” Lastly, instead of facing a far superior Angels team, the Yanks were matched up against a substandard Tigers squad they handled, five wins to one loss, during the regular season. Despite another botched attempt to prove it wrong, baseball’s oldest proverb prevailed, “Pitching wins Championships.”

Striking at the core of the Yankees’ current woes is the lack of a true team identity. For example, reflect on a few of the past Series Champions, such as the 2004 Red Sox and the 2005 White Sox. After making history, the former squad was known for its gritty perseverance in the most desperate of times. Likewise, the latter team relied on a steady dose of strong pitching and steady offense to capture last year’s title. As compared to their Dynasty teams, recent Yankee squads have not had the harmony, chemistry and balance on and off the field that produces a Champion.

Current captain, Derek Jeter, is undoubtedly the heart and soul of the Yankees. He epitomizes the organization with his persona, charm and class. Unfortunately, his one liability is exactly what the Yankees need. As a captain, he should be the outspoken leader, who needed to provoke Alex Rodriguez and Carl Pavano to put their prior troubles behind them and actually make significant contributions to the team. Jeter’s clutch play throughout his career speaks for itself, but occasionally a motivational speech, a la Herman Edwards, may have been necessary. By wearing a “C” on his jersey, he is responsible for leading by example and getting the most out of his teammates. Often, when I think of a quintessential captain, Red Sox Catcher Jason Varitek and Mets Pitcher Pedro Martinez are the first ones to come to mind. Even former Yankees Roger Clemens, Paul O’Neill, and Orlando Hernandez fit the profile of outstanding leaders, who made their teammates better by challenging them. On the 2006 squad, aside from Jeter, the Yankees’ best player was the tacit 19-game winner, Chien-Ming Wang. All of 26 years of age, the Taiwanese Wang is notorious for his one-line postgame interviews. In a classic example of his reclusiveness, Manager Joe Torre said, “Gator told him and he sort of shrugged his shoulders: OK,” following their choice to select him as their Game 1 starter against the Tigers. After Wang’s respectable outing, the Yankees were beset by an unrelenting case of the whiffs and a string of ineffective pitchers. Somewhere between Games 2 and 3 would have been the ideal time to rally the troops and remind them of their exact failure this time last year, but no one came to the forefront. There is no need to explicitly look for a player that fits this mold, especially since very few exist, but in overcoming their postseason troubles, the team is yearning for an unequivocal presence to light a fire underneath them.

In fielding a 2007 squad, General Manager Brian Cashman faces several consequential issues that will determine the course of next year’s team. Foremost, there is no need to exercise Rightfielder (RF) Gary Sheffield’s $13M option for the following season. The team has an incumbent player, who is younger and, in many respects, a better overall player than Sheffield, in Bobby Abreu. Declining Sheffield’s option is also a consequence of the team’s crowed outfield situation, and more importantly, the need to instill a true First Baseman. Both the Sheffield and Giambi experiments at First Base were an utter failure. Given their penchant for sluggers, I’m skeptical of their commitment to reserve Andy Phillips; however, priority must be given to improving the defense, especially after the performance of their corner infielders this past year. If the Yankee brass has second thoughts on Sheffield’s future, it will be out of fear that he signs with either the New York Mets or the Boston Red Sox. That should hardly be of concern, however, because the Red Sox have more important issues than RF and the Mets play in an entirely different league.

On the subject of Yankee outfielders, I hope that I’m not among the minority, who believe up-and-coming Melky Cabrera has earned himself a full-time starting position. In replacing injured Left Fielder Hideki Matsui, Cabrera established himself as the premier defensive player at his position by leading the AL in assists. Furthermore, the rookie displayed improved poise and patience at the plate, qualities most Yankee hitters take pride in. From his premature debut in 2005, he also demonstrated that he was capable of hitting anywhere in Torre’s lineup. He led all AL rookies in runs scored, doubles, triples, stolen bases and walks. Bear in mind that he is only 20 years old and wasn’t an everyday player this season. Giving him a starting job would translate into a Designated Hitter platoon of Matsui and Jason Giambi, an unlikely occurrence. Ultimately, Yankee hierarchy has to consider that limiting his playing time would stunt his ascending development.

Improving fundamentals and playing better defense will only be possible if the team has a solid pitching staff as their base. At the season’s end, the team will only have two of its starting pitchers under contract for next season, in ageless bummer Randy Johnson and the aforementioned Wang. The team holds a hefty $17M option on Mike Mussina’s contract and can pay Jaret Wright a $4M payout. The latter of the two issues is much simpler, as the team needs to cut ties with Wright, an ill-advised and rash signing. He does not give the team the best chance to win nor is he able to last deep into games, often tiring out by the fifth inning. The more difficult decision lies with Mussina, who will be 39 at the start of the 2007 season. The one knack on him was observed yet again this postseason, in his inability to establish himself in October. For all his postseason struggles, his experience and regular season superiority outweigh the disadvantages and if both sides can agree to an equitable contract, then he should return. That leaves two spots open at the back end of the rotation, inducing the need to give thought to auditioning September call-up Jeff Karstens for a full-time job. In fact, it was Karstens, who filled in for Mussina late in the season, and the former responded by going 2-1 in all six of his quality starts. Over those six starts, he pitched more than 40 innings, never gave up more than four runs in any one outing and finished with a sub-four earned run average. With room for one more spot, it may be a foregone conclusion that this vacancy will be filled by an expensive free-agent signing. However, a more cost-effective and equally beneficial option would involve giving top-prospects Tyler Clippard and Phillip Hughes a chance to prove themselves at the major league level. Both were contributing members to the Yankees’ Double-AA affiliate, Trenton Thunder that captured the regular season Northern League Title. The duo was first and second in wins, earned run average and strikeouts. A free-agent signing would be perceived as less risk than promoting a young, inexperienced prospect, however, it would revert to the successful-mid 1990s strategy of developing and following through with farmhands.

Overcoming adverse situations has not been one of the Yankees’ forte recently, however, they were dealt an unprecedented shock with the passing of a teammate, only a few days after their postseason elimination. An amateur pilot and rotation stabilizer, Cory Lidle lost his life in an unforeseen plane crash, just as his teammates were beginning to clean out their lockers and head their separate ways for what will now be a remorseful and somber off season. He was a midseason acquisition, along with Abreu, and was not brought in to be a savior, but simply eat innings and keep the team in the ballgame, whenever his name was called. Although he faltered toward the end of the season, his departing was not meant to be in this manner.

In his limited service with the ballclub, Lidle made a lasting and unforgettable impression upon his teammates. In mixing and matching missing pieces with well-established names, the Yankees are simply in search of Lidle’s successor: a charismatic individual, with an uncanny knack as a fierce competitor.