Winter has turned to spring - well, at least when it comes to the baseball calendar - and, for the first time in more than 20 years, Bernie Williams is not in Tampa or Fort Lauderdale, taking batting practice and shagging down fly balls.
Signed as an undrafted free agent by the Yankees on September 13, 1985, Williams has spent 21 of his 38 years roaming the outfields in Florida, Oneonta, Prince William, Albany, Columbus, New York, and dozens of other minor and major league cities. He has been one of those rare one-team players, who re-upped with the Yanks on two occasions. Sure, he almost left the Bronx for the greener pastures of, gasp, Boston in 1998. But he took it upon himself to meet with the Boss and the two sides worked out a seven-year, $87.5 million contract that was virtually identical to the offer made by the Red Sox.
After Bernie's multi-year deal ran out, he agreed to return in 2006 for $1.5 million. Expected to be the fourth outfielder, Williams was thrust into a starting role when Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield landed on the DL for an extended period. He started 104 games, playing mostly in RF but also in CF, LF, and as a DH.
Melky Cabrera also benefited from the injuries and emerged as a viable fourth outfielder for 2007, rendering Williams nothing more than a pinch hitter who could also serve as a fifth outfielder and an occasional designated hitter. Bernie filed for free agency at the end of October and the Yankees opted not to offer him salary arbitration. Not wanting to guarantee the 16-year veteran a roster spot, the Yankees offered him a non-roster invitation to spring training in late January.
Nearly four weeks have passed and Williams sits home in Westchester County, N.Y., waiting to see if a guaranteed job opens up for him. Earlier this month, Bernie told the the New York Daily News, "I'm working out, but I think the way it looks right now, it doesn't seem like I'm going to be playing with that team this year." That team? Yikes. I can sense the anger all the way out here in Southern California.
What's going on here? Who's at fault for allowing the situation to get to this point? Is Bernie an asset or a liability at this stage in his career? Let me see if I can offer a non-partisan viewpoint on this hotly debated subject.
OK, let's take these questions one at a time. "What's going on here?" Well, a Yankees great is nearing the end of the road and the club no longer has a guaranteed roster spot for him. Look, these things happen. It happened last year with Tim Salmon and the Angels. Salmon, like Williams, had played his entire career with the team that originally signed him. Unlike Bernie, the all-time Angels great missed the previous season due to an injury. Salmon did not file for free agency and the Halos, unsure of his health status, offered him a minor league contract and an invitation to camp. With a good spring, Tim earned a spot on the roster and was a productive force as a PH and part-time DH, playing only four games in the field all season.
"Who's at fault for allowing the situation to get to this point?" Without being privy to all the conversations that took place, this one is a difficult question to answer fairly. I believe Brian Cashman should have sat down with Bernie during the off-season to explain the situation to him. "You have been a great Yankee. We appreciate everything you have contributed over the years. Going forward, we would like you to remain with the organization in some capacity but, to be candid, we're just not sure if there will be a spot for you on the roster this season. It all depends on whether we trade Melky as well as some other moves we may or may not make. You're a free agent and you can do as you please, but I'd like to invite you to spring training and give you an opportunity to make the club. I can't promise you anything, but I know Joe would like to have you on the team, if at all possible. If this works for you, great. If not, I can understand that, too. Either way, I just wanted to extend you the courtesy of letting you know what was on our minds." Unfortunately, I don't believe this meeting ever took place. If it had, I would say it was up to Bernie to accept Cashman's offer, sign with another team (which really wasn't an option he wanted to pursue due to his goal of retiring as a Yankee), or retire.
"Is Bernie an asset or a liability at this stage in his career?" Well, let's take a look at the numbers.
Bernie's last great season was in 2002 when he hit to the tune of .333/.415/.493. You might even say it was his last good season. Yankee fans know all too well that Williams slumped in 2003-2005, yet he was far from horrendous - at least at the plate - in '03 and '04 when he slugged 37 HR and drew 156 BB while putting up an OPS+ of 110. He had a poor year in '05 but bounced back last season and hit .281/.332/.436. Not too bad, especially when compared to several other players on the team, including someone who could earn a spot on this year's roster.
Bernie crushed lefthanded pitchers (.323/.387/.549). Are you going to tell me that there's no room on the team for a player who put up a .936 OPS vs. LHP? Last year was not a fluke either. He has always pounded lefties. Let's take a look at his career spits.
AVG OBP SLG OPS
vs. LHP .308 .397 .503 .900
vs. RHP .292 .373 .465 .838
In limited playing time, Phillips has had reverse splits.
AVG OBP SLG OPS
vs. LHP .195 .233 .244 .477
vs. RHP .262 .305 .470 .775
Josh Phelps, who is also competing for one of the 25 jobs this spring, didn't even play in the majors last year but has hit lefties well when given the opportunity.
AVG OBP SLG OPS
vs. LHP .292 .357 .500 .857
vs. RHP .257 .325 .460 .785
The problem with Phelps is that he strikes out over 25% of the time and is a liability on the bases and in the field. Yes, he is younger than Williams, but it's not like Bernie faded down the stretch either.
It looks to me like Williams still has some fuel left in his tank. Just in the last five years, the Yankees have given more than 100 AB in a season to such veterans as Ron Coomer, Karim Garica, Ruben Sierra, Shane Spencer, John Vander Wal, Craig Wilson, and Todd Zeile. I would submit that a 38-year-old Williams is better than each and every one of these players - all of whom were nothing more than corner OF/1B/DH/PH types. Not a one was on the team for his glove.
OK, I realize yesterday was yesterday but is the makeup of this year's club all that different? If you want to keep Doug Mientkiewicz for his glove and lefthanded bat, fine. But let's not kid ourselves here. Minky will turn 33 in June and has never been much of a hitter. He doesn't hit RHP any better than than LHP so it's not like he is going to make sense as a platoon partner with Phillips or Phelps. I never cared for Jason Giambi as a first baseman, but isn't it possible that the Yankees could be better off running him out there vs. southpaws while inserting Williams in the lineup as the DH? And why couldn't Bernie have learned to play 1B if the Yanks were petrified at the thought of seeing Giambi with a glove in his left hand?
As Rob Neyer so keenly noted in a recent column (Insider subscription required), Bernie Williams has been treated well financially by the Yankees over the years. How well? $103 million well. However, as far as I can tell, this matter has little or nothing to do with money. But, if this is the end, you would think that both sides could have shown each other a bit more respect after a successful partnership that has lasted nearly 22 years.
Rich Lederer, a native of Long Beach, California, is a longtime friend of Bronx Banter. Rich and I collaborated on a profile of Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter three years ago, almost to the day. His site, The Baseball Analysts, is essential reading for baseball fans.