The galleys have been corrected, the birthday parties have been postponed, and it’s time to enjoy the rites of spring, Yankee style. Opening Day is upon us, and the Bombers try to make the post-season for the ninth consecutive year. What’s ahead? Ask and it shall be answered.
So is all this Bronx Zoo crap going to be a problem? Joe Torre’s relatively peaceful reign notwithstanding, team harmony is the most overrated commodity in baseball. Clubhouse chemistry is something that beat writers get to see and you don’t. But they forget that baseball is a team game played by individuals. Which is why, from Tris Speaker and Steve O’Neill bloodying each other on the World Series-winning 1920 Cleveland Indians to the Barry Bonds-Jeff Kent smackdown last summer, baseball history is riddled with winning teams that get along about as well as Michael Moore would with Donald Rumsfeld.
What about George Steinbrenner dissing Derek Jeter? Was Derek Jeter spending too many late nights with Jordana Brewster? Can there be such a thing? An emphatic no on both counts. But is the Boss right in arguing that Jeter’s game has slipped? Damn right. Since 1999, Jeet’s on-base percentage has dropped from .438 to .373 and his slugging percentage has plummeted from .552 to .412. Just as importantly, he has become a full-blown liability in the field. He is dead fucking last among regular AL shortstops in every meaningful defensive category—zone rating, range factor, assists, putouts, and double plays.
If it isn’t the parties, what’s eating Jeter? Chalk it up to old age, not effort. While it’s easy to think of him as Dorian Gray in pinstripes, Jeter will be 29 in June, and big-bodied shortstops age about as well as cheap Beaujolais. Robin Yount was this age when he moved to the outfield, and Ernie Banks was only a couple of years older when he was exiled to first. Can you say third base?
But Alfonso Soriano will take up the slack, right? Yes, it’s nice that everyone keeps comparing him to the young Hank Aaron. Here’s a chilling, but more apt, comparison: Juan Samuel. Like Samuel, Soriano has remarkable power and speed for a middle infielder. But also like Samuel, he doesn’t have a clue about the strike zone. Sori’s strikeout-to-walk numbers last year (157-23)—were actually worse than Samuel’s (141-33) at a comparable age. Pitchers eventually wise up to this, and when your bat speed goes, your career goes with it.
C’mon, it can’t be that bad. Let’s pair up two more players: Barry Bonds and Ruben Sierra. In 1989, Sierra was 23, a year younger than Bonds and clearly a better player—hitting .306 with 29 homers and 119 RBI. (Indeed, Sierra’s numbers that season—.306 batting average, .347 on-base percentage, .543 slugging percentage—are remarkably similar to Soriano’s 2002: .300/.332/ .547.) The one edge for Bonds? Walks: Barry had 93, Ruben had 43. And it’s that understanding of the strike zone—not his beefed-up body or his me-first ‘tude—that has made Bonds the greatest hitter of his time.
So the Yankee problem is the hitting? No. With Jason Giambi in the lineup, and the über-patient Hideki Matsui and poised-for-breakout Nick Johnson hitting behind him, Jeter can slip, Soriano can flop, and the Bombers might actually score more runs than they did last year, when they led all of baseball.
What about the pitching? There’s the rub. The Yankees, very simply, are in danger of becoming the Atlanta Braves. That is a team perfectly suited to winning the division. And losing in the first round of the playoffs.
What’s going to happen to David Wells? It’s not the 100-large fine or George’s tough love. It’s the fact that he’s an old 39, with a history of back problems. And last season the Yankees gave him the highest run support in all of baseball: 7.46 per nine innings, against a 3.75 ERA, which was higher than El Duque’s and even Ted Lilly’s. Still, the Yanks have the deepest starting pitching in baseball; Jeff Weaver and Jose Contreras should be able to more than pick up the slack.
So what’s the problem? The fact that as fourth and fifth starters, Contreras and Weaver will spend most of October watching from the bullpen. And that’s the one place in which the 2003 edition of the Yankees is weaker, on paper, than its championship predecessors. Hyper-valuable Mariano Rivera is beginning to show his age, and his supporting cast ain’t exactly stars.
Isn’t a great closer more important than a bunch of middle-inning guys? Don’t underestimate the value of middle relief in the post-season. That was the Yankee strategy during their championship run: Beat up on the other team’s middle relievers—right, Arthur Rhodes?—while Ramiro Mendoza, Mike Stanton, and Jeff Nelson held down the fort. If Nelson is on the 2001 Yankees, he enters Game 7 in the eighth inning, Mariano pitches one perfect inning for the save, and the Yankees win the World Series.
So will the Yankees miss these guys? Let’s look at the numbers. While Dozer never became the Pedro Lite we hoped he’d be, in 18 post-season appearances for the Yankees he posted a 2.37 ERA (down from 4.08 regular season), gave up less than a hit an inning, and posted a 4-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Stanton? Same deal: 2.10 post-season ERA in 53 games, 1.54 in the World Series, down from 3.77 regular season. And the same applies to Nelson—3.28 regular season ERA, 2.66 post-season, 2.25 in the World Series.
What about the new guys? In a small sample of 11 games, Steve Karsay’s just the opposite—he’s got a 1-3 post-season record and a 4.91 playoff ERA, up from his 3.88 regular season. As for Chris Hammond, the polls haven’t closed but the early returns aren’t good.
What about the Red Sox? The Red Sox are the only legit threats in the division. And they should be fascinating. Not only is their top-level talent every bit as good as the Yankees but they’re also running the team the way you or I might. New owner John Henry hired a geek, Theo Epstein, as GM, and stat guru Bill James as a consultant. In his first big move, Epstein cast off Ugie Urbina in favor of a flexible bullpen in which the top reliever is more likely to pitch in the seventh inning of a tie game than in the ninth with a three-run lead.
So what’s the bottom line? You can start lining up for playoff tickets now. The Red Sox could mount a real challenge, but the Yankees should have enough talent to win the division. Once in the playoffs, Joe Torre looks at Juan Acevedo and longs for Ramiro Mendoza, and the Bombers lose to the eventual champion A’s in six games in the ALCS.