Baseball Toaster Bronx Banter
Yankee Preview Sunday: Roundtable Discussion
2004-02-28 23:20
by Alex Belth

Seven Up: All Together Now

Part One, Side One

When I was growing up I remember feeling that it was very important to be right about things. Opinions mostly. In family discussions and conversations, being right seemed to equate being heard, feeling recognized. As an adult, I don’t feel the burning need to be right anymore. I’m much more interested in learning something I don't know. That is why I get so much out of what other people have to say. I find listening and paying attention to be one of the most stimulating aspects of following baseball—or just about anything else for that matter. It helps that baseball attracts good talkers.

So I asked an eclectic group of baseball writers to answer a dump truck load of questions I had about the upcoming Yankee season. I purposefully chose a diverse group—from professionals to bloggers—so that the reader would get a balanced feel for what some of the best baseball minds have to say about the Yanks.

A note on how the forum was conducted. The questions were e-mailed to the participants. When I received the responses—from fourteen guests in all—I recognized that I would need to run this in two parts on two consecutive days. As it is, it's looooong. Hope you don't have anything to do for a while. But hey, the whole purpose of Yankee Preview week is to offer a feast of insight and opinion to all the insatiable Yankee junkies like me out there. The worst it should be is too long.

Regardless, I tried to keep things brisk, and conversational. I have edited portions of the answers at my own discretion in order to keep the length manageable. In no way have I tried to misrepresent any of the contributor’s original intent. Further, I am grateful for all of the time and effort each guest put into answering the questions. I hope you enjoy what they have to say and that it stimulates even further discussion.

Cast of Characters:

(In Alphabetical Order)

Larry Mahnken: Replacement Level Yankees Weblog

Tim Marchman: The New York Sun

Buster Olney: ESPN

Alan Schwarz: Baseball America, ESPN

Joe Sheehan: Baseball Prospectus

Joel Sherman: The New York Post

Glenn Stout: Baseball Historian

Bronx Banter: Will Joe Torre be fired during the 2004 season? If so, when? If he is canned, who will replace him? Will Torre ever manage the Red Sox?

Larry Mahnken: I believe that it's unlikely that Joe Torre will get fired in mid-season unless the Yankees go into an extended slump, or are winning but playing very poorly. It's possible, but I'd be surprised if it happened. If Torre does get fired, I think his replacement will be Willie Randolph, who it seems is being groomed for the job by being named bench coach. Randolph should probably keep the job through 2005 at least, but if the Yankees go out meekly, he might get axed. I think this is Joe Torre's last managing job.

Tim Marchman: I can’t imagine Torre being fired this season. If he is replaced, either in-season or in the fall, I hope the Yankees buy Bobby Valentine away from the Chiba Lotte Marines.

Buster Olney: Yes, Torre will be fired during the season -- by the All-Star break. Willie Randolph will take over. Yes, I think Joe will manage the Red Sox within three years... It'll be Joe McCarthy all over again.

Alan Schwarz: I think Torre will survive just fine, and retire after the season. Don't see the Red Sox in his future, except, I hope, this year's ALCS.

Joe Sheehan: I'll say Torre survives, in part because a postseason slot is a near-certainty. Torre will never manage the Red Sox.

Joel Sherman: The question I always ask when it comes to Torre and the Yankees is "if not him, who?" This is not the Tigers or Brewers or any team in the NBA's Eastern Conference. These are the Yankees. By the time the season is over, they will likely have a luxury tax payroll of $200 million. George Steinbrenner is capable of staggering moves due to fits of anger. But with that kind of payroll can he really just guess or hope a Willie Randolph or Don Mattingly can step in and save a struggling team? I think Steinbrenner would only do that if matters looked utterly hopeless anyway - the Yanks were under .500 at the All-Star break or in early August, and he would take the humiliation of Torre as his 2004 victory.

Glenn Stout: I don’t think Torre will be fired. Neither do I think he will ever manage the Red Sox. I think he is focusing on his legacy now. His managerial record combined with his playing record gives him a reasonable shot at the Hall of Fame, one that would only be damaged by managing elsewhere.

BB: The arrival of Alex Rodriguez brings with it plenty of potential for controversy. The biggest issue of course is who should play shortstop? Though the Yankees don't have any intentions of moving Jeter right now, who do you think should play shortstop for the Yankees

Larry Mahnken: Does this question really need to be asked? Playing Jeter at shortstop and moving Alex Rodriguez is madness. It's like if the Yankees traded for Curt Flood in 1968, and moved him to left because they already had Joe Pepitone out there.

Tim Marchman: For this year, Jeter at shortstop and Rodriguez at third base seems to make best sense for the Yankees. I think that for 2005 they should look to move Jeter to centerfield and Rodriguez to shortstop.

Buster Olney: I think Jeter should play shortstop, because he's been there, he's earned the right, and the Yankees are better overall with him at short and A-Rod at third. I think A-Rod is the better shortstop, but I think Jeter would have far more difficulty in changing position than Alex would (Neither one, incidentally, would make a smooth transition to second base...)

Alan Schwarz: Rodriguez is pulling the very smart PR move by graciously moving to third, making Jeter look selfish. The pressure's on Jeter now, not the other way around. I don't see him moving this year. Next year, I wouldn't be shocked if the pressure mounts for him to move to second. Eric Chavez looms as a free agent...

Joe Sheehan: Alex Rodriguez. He's the better defender of the two, and that should be the only consideration. The rest is unprofessional puffery

Joel Sherman: I think Jeter should play shortstop. Yes, Alex Rodriguez is a better shortstop than Jeter. But he also profiles as a better third baseman. Jeter does not seem to read the ball well off the bat and that would be an even greater detriment at third base. From what I have seen - an admittedly limited sample - and what I have learned talking to baseball officials I respect, my sense is that A-Rod has a good first step. He also has softer hands than Jeter, another valuable tool at third.

Glenn Stout: I’m fine with Jeter at shortstop, particularly since that was the understanding when the deal was made. To back away from that now would be to invite controversy. And I actually think it makes a great deal more sense to play A-Rod at third now – its an easier position to protect such an enormous asset.

BB: Some baseball observers are more offended that A Rod--the better defensive player, and perhaps the best shortstop since Honus Wagner--will be asked to move positions than they are that he's joined the Yankees. Jeter is famous as a team-first player. Do you think he would ever consider moving positions, ala Chipper Jones, if it helps the team? If he doesn't, how could that change his image? In addition, what position do you think would best suit Jeter's talents?

Larry Mahnken: I've always thought that Jeter is the kind of guy that wouldn't put up a fuss if Joe Torre asked him to change positions. He might not like it, but he'd do it, and wouldn't complain. However, I'm pretty sure he's not going to volunteer to move.
Does that change my impression of him? Not really, why should he offer to move from a position he likes? Maybe he doesn't even know how bad he is. The real question is why the Yankees haven't asked him to move. It's mind-boggling.

Tim Marchman: If Jeter flat-out refused to make way for a better player it would rightly change his image to that of a jackass. That seems extraordinarily unlikely. He is a professional who will do what he is asked to do by management.

Buster Olney: No, I don't think he'll consider changing positions. I think that as soon as Joe is gone as manager, the firewall between Jeter and The Great Shortstop Controversy will be gone and George will affect a change; I'd venture a guess that within three years, Derek will ask for a trade.

Joe Sheehan: I think he should be approached privately and given the chance to move voluntarily. If that fails, he should be asked to do so, If that fails, he should then be told to do so. Would he go? I have no idea, but you have to have the conversation.
Jeter's image--winner, vs. Rodriguez the non-winner--is the holdup here. I'm not convinced the people involved don't truly believe that moving him would have some intangible negative affect on Yankee baseball. I think calling him out on the issue would bring forth legions of people doing ring counts. The argument for Jeter at shortstop amounts to crediting him with having better teammates from 1996-2003. I'm on record in all kinds of places as advocating Jeter to center field. Let the raw speed have a greater impact, and eliminate the footwork problems.

Joel Sherman: I think Jeter's best skill as a shortstop is tracking balls in the air. If he maintains his athleticism, I think he could move to center field in a similar fashion to Robin Yount. I do not think he would go easily. This is a prideful man, and pride is one of the fuels that has made him an exceptional player. I think it would be a much easier transition if Joe Torre were the one telling Jeter to move. However, Torre holds those who have done big things for him in esteem. He has loyalty to them. He expects Jeter to be his lead lieutenant in the clubhouse. He does not want to offend Jeter, and then lose that.

If Jeter's flaws at shortstop become even more overt this year, this is going to become an even bigger issue, and, yes, Jeter will lose public points if he refuses to make a move that is so widely accepted as the right one.

Glenn Stout: I think if he is injured in some capacity that would obviously affect his play at short, Jeter would probably move. Not doing so doesn’t really detract from the whole image thing – I think the Yankees were wise to take that decision out of his hands. I can see Jeter later in his career moving either to 3rd or 1st, although at this stage of his career I think he could also play LF or CF.

BB: There has been a wide gap in the perception of Jeter's defense. Now that the Yankees have a superior defensive option on their roster, will the perception of Jeter's defensive reputation change?

Larry Mahnken: That could ultimately be the good thing about A-Rod being at third: it makes the media and fans much more critical of Jeter's defense, and with every ball that rolls into center past a diving Jeter, the fans might start moving closer to calling for A-Rod to move back to short.

Tim Marchman: It seems to me that it already has. I haven’t read one article suggesting that Jeter is anything other than a poor defensive shortstop. The casual fans I’ve talked to about it acknowledge this as well.

Buster Olney: The fact that A-Rod is here will put Jeter in an almost no-win situation: Unless he plays exceptionally, there will be voices -- Steinbrenner's among them -- clamoring for change.

Alan Schwarz: Yes. It will be under far more scrutiny than ever before, though there still aren't accepted statistical tools to measure this.

Joe Sheehan: I think it has already. The interesting thing in this discussion is that it's a given that Rodriguez is better defensively than Jeter. I haven't seen anyone argue that Jeter is better with the glove. Whether people will yet come around to what the performance analysis--and to my mind, observation--shows about his defense is doubtful.

Joel Sherman: By the sheer concentration on just the defensive job Jeter does in 2004, there naturally will be more analysis than ever before. And Jeter's defensive reputation already has taken a hit. His inferiority to A-Rod was a major part of the storyline for the week surrounding the trade and it will continue to be. The casual fan who is not immersed in range factor and zone rating, and quite frankly probably has no idea of error totals and fielding percentage probably did not recognize the gap in talents until it was underscored in all the stories.

Glenn Stout: Only because it will be talked about more and written about more – that’s what perception is. Until it is vocalized there is no such thing.

BB: How much better is the Yankees bullpen this season than it was in 2003?

Larry Mahnken: It all depends on the health of Karsay and Gordon. If those two stay healthy all season, this may be the best bullpen the Yankees have had since 1998. They're lacking a strong lefty reliever, but they didn't really have that last year, either.

Tim Marchman: I have no idea. Gordon and Karsay are rather fragile, and like Quantrill are, if not ancient, getting up there in age. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if the middle relief ranked among the best in the game, nor if it was mediocre. I do think it will matter a lot more than last year, as only Mussina and Vasquez are solid best to pitch 200 innings.

Buster Olney: Could be much better, depending on the health of Gordon and Quantrill. On paper, it's terrific. But Gordon and Quantrill are old men, in their baseball lives, and Gordon, in particular, has an injury history...

Joe Sheehan: Two or three games. Quantrill isn't a great match for this defense, and Tom Gordon hasn't been healthy and effective in consecutive seasons in a while. On the other hand, the '03 bullpen was awful for five months.

Joel Sherman: Much better. I think this is the most improved area of the club. Mainly because I am a huge Tom Gordon fan. The fact he excelled as a closer with the Red Sox suggests to me he will not be cowed by pitching in big spots for the Yankees. He provides a legitimate option to fill in for Mariano Rivera during Rivera's inevitable one-month groin injury.

Paul Quantrill is a bulldog, but keep in mind a groundball-inducing bulldog who benefited from Dodger Stadium and the Dodger infield. He is still better than Antonio Osuna or Juan Acevedo or much of what the Yanks sent out last year to get the ball to Rivera. I would think the Yanks will get nothing from Steve Karsay, but will be more stable (though still not overwhelming) by having Felix Heredia and Gabe White available from the outset.

Glenn Stout: Much, much better, if this pen performs to expectations. Had last years bullpen done better, the Yankees would have won 110 games, and I think the starters would have had a bit more left in the tank in October. There were a number of times when Torre left starters in last year – or went to a certain reliever early – simply because he had no faith in anyone else. I also think that they are better inoculated against an injury to Rivera than before – Gordon, or even Karsay can close.

BB: Will the Yankees sign Mariano to a contract extension before the end of the 2004 season? And should they?

Larry Mahnken: Unless Rivera suffers a sudden drop in performance, I
see no way the Yankees let him get away, and I consider it equally unlikely that Rivera will jump ship unless the Yankees lowball him. There's no MLB team in Panama. Should the Yankees sign him? Well, that's money that could be used for signing Carlos Beltran, but the Yankees also don't have any other options to close next season. Unless his performance drops off considerably, I can't see how the Yankees could afford to let him go, overpriced though he may be.

Tim Marchman: It would be foolish not to extend his contract; Rivera is historically great. Having a $7-$10 million closer is one of the luxuries afforded by a massive payroll, and if he suffers a severe decline it’s not going to prevent them from getting a replacement.

Buster Olney: Rivera will sign an extension. Unlike Pettitte, there is no other place he can play and be closer to home (really close, that is), and he'll work it out. Money doesn't matter with the Yankees: As long as the guy is effective, he'll get the dough. And once he signs his next contract, it'll be his last.

Alan Schwarz: I think they'll resign him and pay him more than market value, which is no shock out of the Bronx.

Joe Sheehan: I don't see the extension coming, as the Yankees have shown a willingess to let guys go. Can you extend Rivera at that number with Foulke in at $6MM a year, and with Billy Wagner coming on the market? I doubt it. I think he'll be back in 2005, because I don't think he wants to leave, but this is going to be like the Williams signing, not the Jeter one. If his performance in '04 is in line with reasonable expectations, I'd be OK with three years and $22-$25MM.

Joel Sherman: More and more I see Rivera compared to Andy Pettitte. But more and more I have come to believe the Yanks simply did not want Pettitte back. That they preferred Javier Vazquez, in particular. Will they really prefer anyone to Rivera? Not if he remains healthy and productive. There is not great history in closers having longevity. But Rivera has been a great reliever for eight years, and a great closer for seven already. Does he have three more years in him? I don't know, but it will probably be a greater risk for the Yankees not to find out.

Glenn Stout: I think they’ll sign him and I think he is smart enough to stay put. Again, it’s the legacy thing. Saving 70-100 games or more for the Yankees for the rest of his career, and presumably getting more post-season opportunities, serves Rivera well. And I think the Yankees should sign him, unless there is some injury that seriously impacts him both this year and in the future. With the Yankee offense and pen depth over the next few years, Rivera remains plenty talented enough to be virtually automatic at this stage. And he has shown the ability to adapt over the last two seasons, by adding that fastball that backs in on righthanders. The ability to adjust as you age is important, and he is showing he has that capacity.

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