Staying warm by the Hot Stove
There are a couple of motives behind this. First, I realize I’ve been a bit football heavy of late – I may be one NFL column away from morphing into Peter King and writing about my daughter’s field hockey team and the newest mocha offerings at Starbucks for the rest of my days. I'd like to avoid this if possible.
More importantly, I’ve been specifically advised by Apple Sports Life physicians to refrain from writing any further on the Jets and their recent tribulations until my heart rate safely drops from its current Rick James 1982 Super Freak World Tour-levels. The last month of football may have single-handedly shattered the Agony-Ecstasy scale of sports fandom and quite frankly, no more Jets games until September may be the only cure.
So with that out of the way, let’s turn our attention to Hot Stove baseball. In a town that can’t get enough of baseball, is there anything better? It’s become like the season before the season – or maybe even more apt, the season that decides the season. The Yankees are up to their usual tricks following Game 7, which was to be expected. Steinbrenner has predictably gone insane, asking his high-powered baseball executives for little more than coffee and donuts for the last three months. Shockingly, he’s done a serviceable job. The Mets have made this off-season particularly memorable in New York – hemorrhaging money quicker then…well…Rick James during his 1982 Super Freak World Tour.
With that said, I’m going to breakdown the Yankees and Mets off-season movement. I’ll do this in two parts because before I even start typing, I guarantee I’ll end up rambling on for 1,000 words or so on the Yankees. The Mets shouldn’t always be the bridesmaid, should they? Wait, don’t answer that.
New York Yankees (2004 record: 101-61, A.L. East Division Champions, lost to Boston (4-3) in the ALCS)
Comings: LHP Randy Johnson, RHP Carl Pavano, RHP Jaret Wright, LHP Mike Stanton, OF Doug Glanville, 1B Tino Martinez, 2B Tony Womack, INF Rey Sanchez, RHP Felix Rodriguez
Goings: RHP Javier Vasquez, RHP John Leiber, 1B Tony Clark, 1B John Olerud, 2B Miguel Cairo, OF Kenny Lofton, 1B/DH Jason Giambi’s credibility, LHP Felix Heredia, RHP Esteban Loaiza
Listen. It wasn’t hard to figure out what the Yankees needed to accomplish this off-season. For all of last year’s regular season success, the convincing playoff showing against the Twins and even jumping ahead 3-0 on Boston, anyone that closely followed the team knew they were a fatally flawed bunch. With a pitching rotation thinner than a Saved By The Bell: The College Years script, the best you could do was cross your fingers, turn your collar up and hope to slip through the cracks of October without being noticed.
Well, they got noticed. It’s easy to sit back today and ridicule them for “choking” away the ALCS, thus cheapening the immense achievement of your own team (yes, I’m looking at you Bill Simmons) but in reality, the 2004 Yankees were a team teetering on the brink of disaster from August on. Vasquez and Brown were unequivocal busts and when the resurgent El Duque was finished off by a dead arm in late September (a truly overlooked aspect of the team’s downfall) the Yankees were a ticking time bomb. Once the ship began to take on water following Rivera’s blown save in Game 4, there were no aces of yesteryear to save the day. It was baseball’s version of the Titanic – sans Kate Winslet’s fat ass.
So, what do you do when you’re the universe’s most lucrative sports franchise and you need pitching? Time’s up. You buy pitchers. The biggest acquisition of course was Randy Johnson, who couldn’t possibly be any uglier. Luckily, he also may be the most dominating left-handed pitcher in the modern era, so I guess you take the good with the bad. Johnson is a stud the Yankees have coveted since ’98, and he gives them back that true ace that can go toe-to-toe with any other pitcher in the game. Losing Vasquez in the deal is more than forgivable -- add him to the laundry list of players who didn’t have the chops to cut it in New York. (Paging Kenny Rogers…you have a phone call at the front desk…)
The Carl Pavano signing has the potential to swing the division. An argument can be made that Johnson and Schilling cancel each other out (pending Mrs. Schilling’s recovery from ankle surgery, of course). But Pavano swings the balance of power between the starting rotations. This is especially key when remembering that Pavano (an ex-Sox farmhand wunderkind and Connecticut native who grew up idolizing Donnie Baseball) waited until the final hour to decide between the Sox and Yanks. Keep that in mind when CP is facing Wade Miller’s injury replacement in the ALCS.
The remaining off-season movement has been more or less window dressing. Jared Wright has bust written all over him, but when you’re the Yankees you can take a $21 million chance on a No. 4 starter. Tino Martinez was a nice nostalgia signing, I believe he recently did some commentary on I Love the 90s Part Deux. And while Tino isn't the dangerous offensively force he once was, if he gives you .260, 18 and 70 and plays his usual solid defensive first base, sign me up. It’s obviously a huge upgrade over Tony Clark who, God love him, made every Red Sox pitcher during last year’s ALCS look like Brendan Frasier in The Scout.
(An incredulous Bob Costas, paycheck in hand) "Steve Nebraska has struck out 26 straight Cardinals on 78 pitches!!! No mortal can stand in the way of history!!! Except for maybe one!!! One man who could end the perfection…a man who has had an uncharacteristic power surge here in the playoffs…a man whose wicked stroke knows no bounds…the great one…The Wizard of Oz...OZZIE SMITH!!!"
(Okay, I’m paraphrasing above, but casting a 40-year-old Ozzie Smith as the most feared hitter in baseball has to be the most egregious stretch in the history of sports and cinema. I mean, The Scout was released in 1994. Were Al Belle, Frank Thomas or Jose Canseco really unavailable? Hell, I’d even take Ozzie Canseco if given the choice. This just kills me.)
And yet I digress.
Miguel Cairo was a nice surprise last season, but he cut his own throat in contract negotiations and the Yankees scooped up Tony Womack instead. This may prove to be a solid upgrade by season’s end. If Stanton can get back some of that old Yankees magic, he’ll be a great left-handed option out of the pen. Add that to the fact that he was traded for the tragically awful Felix Heredia (to the Mets, no less) and this could end up a very smart move.
And then there’s Jason Giambi. (Cracks knuckles...)
If ever there was a cautionary tale in the modern day free agency era, Giambi is it. He was a perfect fit in Oakland, the face of a Gashouse-type team and the game’s most dangerous left-handed hitter not named Bonds. But he turned down a more than generous offer to stay with the A’s and followed a greener money trail to New York. Giambi's life hasn't been the same since. He has never looked comfortable here, even when he was playing well. And that has not been often, other than a five month stretch in his first season with the team. Now, along with Bonds (ironically), he is the face of the steroid scandal, largely due to the uniform he wears. His body is shot from excessive drug use. He’ll never be the same player who won the MVP in 2000, never come close to earning the millions of guaranteed dollars owed to him in that fateful backloaded contract. Will the Stadium rain boos on him come April? My gut feeling is no, New York likes an underdog and you won’t find a more forgiving fan nation. But if Torre decides to throw him in the fire as a full-time DH/1B, and he’s batting .185 in early-May…look out. His nightmare may be just beginning.
We’ll tackle the Mets next time…