By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Nearly all of Willie Randolph's choices worked out pretty much as they could have been expected to, given the level of talent available to him—and the man with the primary responsibility for providing that talent was Minaya, with a reputation last season as a smart baseball man. If the Mets GM couldn't be expected to provide a Koufax or Mize, then why, with the team's newfound resources, couldn't he at least have given Randolph a better bullpen and bench than you'd find on an average Triple-A franchise?
Common sense says yes, Minaya could have provided these if allowed to, but the Wilpons wouldn't let him spend the money. They did loosen the purse strings on the big deal for Johan Santana, but Johan's salary is largely offset by increased ticket sales at higher prices.
The Yankees' failure to fortify themselves is even more indefensible. After giving up 24 runs in four games while losing the AL Division Series to the Cleveland Indians, the Yankees pretended to make a serious bid for Santana, but according to Jim Souhan of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, "The whole thing was probably smoke and mirrors. Most sources at the Twins organizations indicated that the Yankees never made a serious offer." Instead, the term "fiscal responsibility" was bandied about, and the front office declared that it would stay "in-house" and produce aces out of the organization's supposedly strengthened farm system. That plan has so far resulted in a combined 0-7 record for Phil Hughes (currently in rehab) and Ian Kennedy.
After losing their No. 1 starter, Chien-Ming Wang, for what might be the season, the Yankees blew more smoke about making a deal for Cleveland's 2007 Cy Young Award winner, C.C. Sabathia (19-7 last season), and then balked on a second straight deal for an ace lefty, again declaring they would stay "in-house." So far, "in-house" has meant Darrell Rasner, Sidney Ponson, and—shudder—a third try for Kei Igawa. Last Sunday, the Milwaukee Brewers made the deal the Yankees wouldn't, sending three nondescript "prospects" (none of whom have played an inning in the major leagues) plus a player to be named later for Sabathia. If the Yankees' farm system is flourishing, as the front office insists, why didn't the team make the deal with Cleveland? The obvious answer is that they could have, but the Brewers were willing to shell out the salary and the Yankees were not.
Thirty-some years ago, when free agency was new and superstars signed long-term contracts, old-fart New York columnists like Dick Young complained that players, having received their big money, would slack off and underperform. There's no evidence that that ever happened, but the flip side—that team managements, once they got their long-term cable and stadium deals, would pocket the profits at the expense of quality of play—has never really been examined. As Marvin Miller, the first head of the players' union, used to say: "Watch out when you hear baseball executives say 'fiscal responsibility.' It's code for 'profit before winning.' "
If there's one basic way to compare the new Steinbrenners with the old one, it's this: Of all the sins that George was charged with over the years, no one ever accused him of "fiscal responsibility." The easiest way to determine that he's no longer calling the shots is that Johan Santana and C.C. Sabathia aren't in Yankee pinstripes. Looking back on 2008, we may recall it as the time when the Mets were finally content to be the No. 2 team in New York and the Yankees resigned themselves to being No. 2 in their division, behind the Red Sox—or, God help us, the Tampa Bay Rays. The consolation for this planned mediocrity is supposed to be the big party that the Mets, the Yankees, and the City of New York will be throwing next year for their new five-star hotel/shopping- mall ballparks. It's a party that most fans will only be able to watch on TV.