A very Merry Tex-masYanks land another big name on the market
In the 2004-2005 offseason, the top free agent on the market was Carlos Beltran, the switch-hitting, slugging center fielder. It happened that the Yankees had a need in center field, as Bernie Williams, 35, had just completed his second subpar season in a row, and his defense had long since passed the point of no return. Beltran reportedly had a great deal of interest in playing for the Yankees, but for reasons that were unclear then and remain unclear, the Yankees passed. That meant not only leaving Williams in center for another year, but it also meant that when Williams finally had to be wedged out of center field, they had to go to the best available player, which meant Johnny Damon. Damon has had two good years in three for the Yankees, but he is not the player that Beltran is, is far older, and soon proved that he was no longer a center fielder.
It is no exaggeration to say that the Yankees' decision to pass on Beltran so as to use their monetary advantages that winter primarily on pitching help-which came in the dubious forms of Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright, plus the aged but still viable (and cranky) Randy Johnson-has played a key part in their failure to win a title in the years since. Had the Yankees passed on Mark Teixeira, a player who perfectly suited (as was suggested here in this space on Monday) three of their needs simultaneously, age,offense, and defense, they would have repeated the same error.
They did not. All credit to Brian Cashman and the Steinbrenner family, to the former for playing it cool and then making his move, to the latter for opening their wallets and spending big-and to all three for not just spending, Wright- and Pavano-style, but for spending it on the right player, maybe the "rightest" player that they've acquired since Alex Rodriguez. If only they don't try to move Teixeira to another position so a defensively inferior player can play first. Nah, that would never happen.
There is one point in the above worth repeating: all the dollars that accrue to sport's wealthiest organization mean nothing if they are not spent wisely. Too often, the Yankees have settled for something other than the choicest cuts of meat. This time, it's filet mignon all the way.
The Yankees are not perfect. The defense is still poor. The outfield defense could be very shaky depending on the alignment the Yankees pursue. They could choose to let a meaningless spring training battle decide center field instead of letting the evidence of a full major league season inform their choices. They could give Xavier Nady more playing time in right field than Nick Swisher. Derek Jeter is losing range even as we speak. Jorge Posada may or may not be able to throw.
And that reminds me to revisit another point, as a major metropolitan newspaper published a column castigating the Yankees for closing off first base to Hideki Matsui, Johnny Damon, and Jorge Posada. Here we go:
This year, major league first basemen hit .272 /.353/.464.
Two years ago, they hit .276/.357/.463.
Three years ago, they hit .285/.363/.488.
Over the last five years, they hit .275/.355/.468.
Over the last ten years, they hit .276/.359/.472.
No doubt you're starting to get the picture. Now, this is the average. If a team is getting these rates from its first baseman, it's breaking even in comparison with the league. You could have Albert Pujols and do a lot better. You could have Doug Mientkiewicz and do a lot worse. Heck, your manager could give Miguel Cairo the odd start at first base. Some of these first baseman, like Albert Pujols and New Yankee Teixeira, not only hit but can field the position. While the standards are set where they are, there is no plausible reason that the Yankees should pass on a 29-year-old MVP-level player so they can reserve first base for aging former stars who will struggle to meet even the average level of production for the position and will almost certainly not be defensive assets. That is a formula for losing. And, oh yeah, the contracts of both Damon and Matsui are up at the end of the season. Unless the Yankees are as misguided a year from now as they were intelligent in signing Teixeira, what to do with those players at age 36 and up will be some other club's problem.
Thus endeth the lecture. For now, suffice it to say that the Yankees have given their fans a great early Christmas present. More importantly, they've done the right thing competitively. Before the Red Sox became the favorites in the bidding, Teixeira was a move the Yankees should have made. Once the Red Sox became involved, it was a move they had to make, lest their rivals to the North unveil their own version of Murderer's Row. As I said above, it was the right-est move the Yankees have made in years.
And with that, I wish you a happy and healthy holiday, whatever holiday is your holiday of choice. Enjoy it, and when you sit down to dinner with your family, don't forget to scratch out Teixeira-ified batting orders into the mashed potatoes.
Tuesday, December 23: Posted at 1:32 a.m. EST
WAITING ON A FEELING
On the way back from Stamford, Conn., after the last TV spot, I caught a very crowded NJ Transit train from Penn Station in Manhattan for the last leg of the journey. I was in a four-seater, and a young woman squeezed in across from me (when you're as large as I am, you can be in a four-seater and still force people to "squeeze"). From the shopping bags she was carrying, it was clear that she had been into the city for a bit of touristy shopping there were several from the Hershey store in Times Square. Rapidly, two other people filled in on top of us, pushing us so close together that we were almost forced to make conversation.
"Bought some chocolate," I remarked cleverly.
She smiled. "Yes," she acknowledged. "Not a lot. Well, more than a little."
"The bag gave you away," I said.
She reflexively glanced at the bag. "The Hershey store," she said, her face coloring. "I did buy some there. I ... I don't know why. I mean, it's not like we don't have Hershey's chocolate at home. It just seemed different somehow." She complained that she still had an hour to drive after the point at which she left the train, and she wasn't sure how she was going to stay awake.
"You could always eat your chocolate," I suggested helpfully. "Your impulsive bit of consumerism may just have saved your life."
At this writing, we are still waiting for the Yankees to indulge in that impulsive bit of consumerism that will save their lives, or their coming season. The seemingly thousands of beat writers and columnists who are monitoring the Mark Teixeira situation can be summed up in two sentences: (1) The Yankees are conflicted about whether or not to make a bid, and (2) the Red Sox are very close to signing the guy.
There is not much else, after going on about this issue for most of a year, that I can add to illuminate this for the conflicted at this late date, except to reiterate that signing a defensive millstone with a questionable commitment to winning at 37 years of age is almost certain to blow up in one's face, if not in year one, then in year two and this time the Detroit Tigers might not be around to offer a pitching prospect or two to redeem the situation. Signing Teixeira promises to have a different outcome. He'll play next season at 29, is a Gold Glove infielder, which the Yankees desperately need if they don't improve the defense, this whole offseason will have been for nothing and if, after a season or two things don't work out, if he wants to leave, he will still have trade value. The sad truth about Manny Ramirez is that given his age, he will play for a few more years well or badly, we don't know and it doesn't matter and then be gone, leaving nothing in his wake. Teixeira is young enough that if he leaves by trade or perhaps even by free agency, he may still be able to give the club something to remember him by, be it solid players in a swap or draft picks.
As to the quality of the two players, I've heard a lot about how Manny has "that thing" and Teixeira doesn't. This is pure Willy Wonka imagination. Ramirez is the better hitter, it is true. Here are the raw numbers for the last five years:
If you rate Ramirez solely on his American League numbers, before his torrid Los Angeles phase, which is extremely, extremely unlikely to be repeated, his rates drop to .303/.401/.573, still better than Teixeira's, but not dramatically so. Even if you compare them on the numbers above, filtering the defensive difference between the two is enough to moot the offensive discrepancy. Put Teixeira in Fenway Park and he likely picks up a few points in batting average as well, and his advantage in doubles will increase.
It's difficult to see what the conflict is about. The Yankees need another bat, they need to improve the defense, and they need younger players. Teixeira is all three. Ramirez meets just one of those criteria, and due to his age and his unreliable nature, we don't know how long he will meet it. There are two gambles here. The smaller is signing Ramirez. The larger is signing Ramirez and thereby enabling Teixeira to go to their division rivals. Doing nothing at all will not suffice. The Yankees need to eat the chocolate or risk running off the road.