Baseball Toaster Bronx Banter
Yankee Preview Sunday: Roundtable Discussion
2004-02-29 00:15
by Alex Belth

The Flip Side

Part One, Side B

BB: Jason Giambi hasn't been embraced by New Yorkers in spite of two impressive offensive campaigns in pinstripes. Has the criticism been unfair? How much pressure do you think Giambi is facing going into the 2004 season? Does he get a pass now that Rodriguez and Sheffield are here to help? Short of the Yanks winning a championship, what will it take for him to be accepted by Yankee fans?

Larry Mahnken: Of course the criticism of Giambi is unfair. The man was one of the top ten hitters in baseball last season despite being injured all year, and is the best hitter the Yankees have had since Mickey Mantle. He hit two home runs off of Pedro in Game Seven, for goodness sake! Giambi will have a lot of outside pressures applied to him, but I don't think he'll let it get to him. How he plays in 2004 depends a lot more on his knee than his response to pressure. I don't think having A-Rod and Sheffield here help take pressure off. With the added offensive punch, Giambi will be looked up to put up even bigger numbers, because he'll be "protected".

Tim Marchman: Giambi symbolizes the moment when the Yankees went completely overboard, and so heíll never get any love from New York. I never think criticism of a player (as opposed to his play, a big distinction) is fair so long as he gives his best effort, which Giambi seems to have done. Pressure or no, heís ageing and frequently injured, and I see no reason to think heíll be more than a hitter with a .900 OPS. Without defense or speed thatís not an MVP candidate, which is what he was sold as. The expectation that he would continue to have seasons like he did his last two years in Oakland was unrealistic, but he doesnít need to perform like that to be an asset to the team.

Buster Olney: I think Giambi will be helped out greatly by the addition of A-Rod and Sheffield, because it will take some heat off him. But in the end, he'll be targeted again, because of his defense (which is terrible) and his growing problems on offense, which are exacerbated by the fact that he's not a very good athlete and he has physical problems. I don't think he'll ever be really loved by Yankees fans, because now, if they win another title, Alex will get much of the credit.

Joe Sheehan: I'm not sure exactly what Giambi would have to have done for the criticism to *not* be unfair. The guy has been one of the top players in the league in every year as a Yankee. I think, to a certain extent, the pressure's off him, as pressure tends to shift to new guys. (Caveat: I don't think Giambi has been on steroids, but if that turns out the be the case, all bets are off.) So yes, Rodriguez, Sheffield, Brown, Vazquez...all these guys deflect the pressure.
By the way, isn't this an old conversation? Wasn't Giambi accepted when he hit the grand slam against the Twins in the rain? Maybe he should have been accepted when he hit two home runs off Pedro Martinez to keep the Yankees in a game they were well on their way to losing. I don't know. Maybe he has to build the Jets a new stadium by hand, craft and present the city's bid for the 2012 Olympics, and use his wealth to subsidize free rides on the C, D and 4 lines for the next 15 years.

Joel Sherman: I think Giambi is the poster child - in many ways - for the fight between strict adherence to statistical analysis and factoring in non-quantative issues. There is no doubt that Giambi still has great value as an offensive player due to his patient/power combo. But he has been a lesser player with the Yankees than he was in his final three seasons with Oakland. The dramatic increase in strikeouts should worry the Yankees. So should the knee problem. This is an injury that has been likened to the one that forced Mark McGwire's retirement and the Yankees do have five years left on this contract. His ties to McGwire, his bulked-up body, his insistence on having a personal trainer accompany him at all times and his summoning to testify for the Balco grand jury also puts him in a dubious light when it comes to illegal performance enhancers. Is that fair? Perhaps not, but we would just all have our heads in the sand to not notice this accumulation of information and the potential distractions and detractions to Giambi's game.

Giambi also was brought here with the idea he had leadership skills. That is just not the case. He is often an island or simply missing in action. That does not mean he is hurting the team, simply that he has shunned an opening to step forward and do more. In all these regards, I think no Yankee benefits more from having Alex Rodriguez on the team than Giambi. It is a distraction away from the Balco story, at least until more stuff hits the fan. It lessens Giambi's need to hurry into the batting order if his knee is not ready and no longer is his unwillingness to step forward as leader/spokesman as great a factor.

Glenn Stout: If he was really hurting, then of course the criticism isnít fair Ė if he was jaking it, the criticism was deserved. Weíll never know. Of course the wild-card with him is the whole steroid issue. A-Rod and Sheffield should help him, but no one is going to be happy if he hits .250 again. Iíd rather see him hit over .300 with 25 HRs and 40-50 doubles and strike out less. Last year it looked as if he got totally homer happy, but then again, no one else but Posada was hitting home runs.

BB: Who will have the better season: Pettitte or Vasquez? Clemens or Brown.

Larry Mahnken: If you're trying to ask who'll have the better ERA, I think it's very tight, and it's tough to pick one over the other. However, the question behind the question is whether the Yankees would have been better
off with Pettitte and Clemens or Vazquez and Brown. If you put it into that context, I think there's no question that Vazquez and Brown will outperform their
predecessors. The Yankees' defense will hurt them, and the Astros' defense will help Clemens and Pettitte, so the numbers might not reflect that.

Tim Marchman: Vasquez will easily have a better season than Pettitte. I think Brown will be better per inning than Clemens, but pitch a lot fewer innings.

Buster Olney: Vazquez will thrive, more than Pettitte. Clemens will stay healthier than Brown and win a few more games.

Alan Schwarz: I think they're all pretty darned even, Pettitte and Clemens moving to Minute Maid of course poses questions. Brown, if healthy, a huge if, will be the best of the bunch.

Joe Sheehan: Vazquez over Pettitte is an easy call. Deciding which old pitcher will stay healthier isn't. I'll say Clemens, but without much conviction.

Joel Sherman: This is a real good question, and probably one that will more determine if the Yanks do great things this year than anything involving A-Rod. Whether Vasquez and Brown outdo the men they are replacing is not as significant as them simply having very good years. I, for one, believe the switch from NL to AL is a dramatic one. There are just less outs in the lineup and I think it takes a toll on starters mentally and physically. I keep hearing Vasquez is a tough-minded guy. Well, we are going to find out. We know Brown is tough-minded, the question is whether he is tough body. If you absolutely forced me to guess - and it is a totally a guess - I would say Pettitte will outdo Vasquez and Brown will outdo Clemens.

Glenn Stout: I think "better season" needs defined. Ballpark and league differences could result in Pettitte/Clemens having better raw numbers, but in general I think Vasquez/Brown will do better for the Yankees in 2005 than a combo of Pettitte and Clemens would. I donít think the Astros will be all that good, really Ė their younger players and vets arenít really dove-tailing.

BB: Will Mike Mussina win 20 games? If not, will he at least win 15 games again? How close is Mussina to being a Hall of Famer?

Larry Mahnken: In a just world, Mike Mussina would win 20 games. He's one of the top 15 pitchers in baseball, and he's supported by one of the best offenses. Hopefully, Kenny Lofton will take over for Bernie in center, which should lower Mussina's ERA. I think there's a 50/50 chance he'll win 20, and a 99% chance he'll win 15, barring injury. As for the Hall, I think Mussina is 51 victories, or three seasons away from becoming a lock for Cooperstown. 250 victories isn't impressive on it's own, but with only 110 losses so far, Mussina is one of the most consistent winners of the past 10 years. He won't get shafted like Blyelven, because he's not going to lose 250 games, too.

Tim Marchman: I think heíll win from 15 to 20 games like he does every year. To my mind, heís already a Hall of Famer of the Jim Bunning class if he retires tomorrow; itís not his fault that heís been overshadowed by some of the greatest pitchers to ever live, or that heís pitched in a DH league in an extreme hitterís era. To my mind the question is whether he can get up into the Jim Palmer class of the Hall.

Buster Olney: Two more great seasons, where he starts to approach 240 wins, and I think Mussina will get into serious Hall of Fame range. He'll win 20 this year.

Joe Sheehan: Yes, because he's probably due for a lucky year in which he gets run support. I'm picking him for AL Cy Young (not news, I pick him about every other year) and could see him go nuts, 25-3 or something. By merit, that year would probably push Mussina into the Hall. In reality, the standards for starting pitchers have become a little weird, so it's not clear what they need to do to be Hall of Famers going forward. Mussina is going to look a lot like Tom Glavine, with a bit more value but less shiny things on the resume. Not good.

Joel Sherman: I think Mike Mussina rolls out of bed with 15 wins. He should have been a 20-game winner a few times in his career. As far as stuff goes, there are few pitchers that combine his arsenal and intellect. When he fails, I believe, he is just thinking too darn much. The Hall of Fame question is an intriguing one because, of course, many voters are going to look for 20-win seasons. But he does have eight top six finishes in Cy Young voting. I think he is going to need many more people who do statistical analysis to come into the electorate who honor how much better than league average he has been throughout his career. Without that, I think he falls into the Bert Blyleven netherworld.

Glenn Stout: If heís ever going to win twenty, this should be the year. He sort of needs that to move out of the longevity HoF group of pitcher, but then I think the HoF is rather meaningless anyway. Tom Yawkey is in the Hall of Fame, for crying out loud.

BB: Do you see Jose Contreras as the x-factor in the Yankees starting rotation?

Larry Mahnken: Contreras isn't just the pivot of the rotation, he's one of the crucial factors in the AL East race. If Contreras is the ace the Yankees hope he is, then they'll be dancing with the Red Sox for the division title right down to the wire. If he's inconsistent and rarely dominant, then the Yankees have to hope that Brown and Lieber stay healthy and pitch their best. If he's hurt or mediocre at best, then they'll be eating Boston's dust and fighting it out with Oakland and Anaheim for the last playoff spot.

Tim Marchman: I see Randy Johnson as the x-factor in the rotation. Contreras can, I think, be reasonably expected to pitch from 150-200 innings of league average ball. He might well do better than that, but thatís all the club needs him to do.

Buster Olney: I think Lieber is the X-factor, whereas Contreras will be like Hideki Irabu in '98 and '99: He'll dominate mediocre and bad teams and get frazzled against good teams.

Joel Sherman: I think just about everyone in the Yankee rotation is an X-factor, accept perhaps their near sure thing in Mussina. But, yes, Contreras is vital. I am still wondering if he is not a set-up man. I wonder if he has the endurance to make 30 starts. He has very good stuff. But we will have to see that he can apply that over a full season.

Glenn Stout: I still think, in the long run, heíll prove to be a more important player for NY than Matsui.

BB: How do you think Bernie Williams will adapt to being a designated hitter? Will Kenny Lofton's presence distract him or inspire him? How close is Williams to being a Hall of Famer? What does he need to do to qualify?

Larry Mahnken: Bernie has undoubtedly been underappreciated by the Yankees in his career, but I think he's somewhat used to it now. Proud as he is, I don't think he is upset at how the move from center was handled, and Torre's decision to let him fight to keep his job will probably help smooth the transistion for him. I think Bernie Williams needs to get at least 500 more hits and 60 HRs while staying over .300 for his career to get serious consideration for Cooperstown. Four rings, and maybe more before he's done certainly help his case, but I think he's borderline at best.

Tim Marchman: Whether he adapts well to being a DH has to do, I think, with whether his injury problems are solved by moving him out of the field. Heís quite capable of having a 7-year run where heís a hitter of near-Edgar Martinez quality. No idea how upset he is about being moved, but heís been a great hitter for a long time and Iíd expect him to hit as well as heís physically able; his seasonal numbers were, until last year, incredibly consistent for someone with such a reputation for being a flake. His numbers are in the grey area for the Hall, and the 6 pennants and 4 rings are a significant argument for his inclusion. I think heíll eventually get in, probably as a Veteranís Committee selection.

Buster Olney: Bernie needs some more volume to go into Hall of Fame consideration, and whatever Lofton's role, Bernie will figure it out and be at peace with it. A more serious question is how his shoulders will hold up -- and whether they will hold up. He's got a lot of mileage.

Joe Sheehan: I don't think Lofton's presence will matter at all. This is largely speculation, but Williams strikes me as a very self-aware man. I can't imagine he doesn't understand that he's better off not playing center field at this point in his career, and his body's age. If Williams isn't a Hall of Famer, I propose that the pile of bricks out by Glimmerglass Lake with the plaques be converted into low-cost housing. Or maybe a Wal-Mart.

Joel Sherman: I think Bernie will end up playing the majority of his games in center field. Joe Torre is going to need his clubhouse lieutenants more than ever this year and he is not going to disrespect Bernie if Bernie shows Torre in spring that his knee is fine. Kenny Lofton is going to end up on the bench a lot if Travis Lee plays first base. I see Lofton getting traded in July as part of a deal for a player of some money that the Yankees need.

BB: Theo Epstein and Billy Beane are the two most celebrated general managers in the game right now. Is there any doubt that Brian Cashman belongs in their company?

Larry Mahnken: Yes, there certainly is doubt. Cashman is a very good general manager, but the Yankees have made some questionable moves under his watch. You can blame all of those moves on Steinbrenner, but one has to ask why Cashman didn't find alternate, superior solutions to the problems that led George to make those moves before it ever came to that. I don't think the Yankees should fire Cashman on his own merit, but if Billy Beane was willing to work in The Bronx, I'd dump Cashman in a second. He's good, but he's not THAT the elevator.

Tim Marchman: Epstein and Beane have no world championships between them, and I think they would say that means the question is whether they belong in his company. As for Cashman, the obvious problems appraising him are that the Yankees are run by committee, and that he can go out and get Alex Rodriguez if his third baseman tears up his knee. Weíll have to see Cashman in full charge of a team other than the Yankees to fairly judge his ability. For what itís worth I find John Schuerholz to be by far the most impressive GM in baseball, the only clear Hall of Famer currently running a team.

Buster Olney: Cashman has four rings. Theo has done a great job, and so has Billy, and between them, their teams have won one postseason series, let alone a World Series. The question should be whether those guys belong in the same breath as Cashman.

Alan Schwarz: "Celebrated" basically means media hype. The jobs each of them have are vastly different, and I don't think it's truly reasonable to compare them. And Epstein has only been on the job for a little over a year.

Joe Sheehan: Sure. Why the hell would you let the guys with no rings--and one with a year on the job--hang with the guy trying to catch one for the thumb? In all seriousness, it's hard to know how much of the Yankees' success is due to Cashman's work. He inherited the core developed by Bill Livesey and Stick Michael, and a chunk of the additions along the way are hard to credit to one person, given the Kremlin-like state of the Yankee front office. ("Mark Newman was sitting on Steinbrenner's right. This must mean frost in Leningrad, and an attempt on the life of Koyastkov!") Cashman knows what he's doing, but it'll take his next job until we know just how strong a GM he is. My guess is he's top-tier, in the discussion with Beane, Epstein, et al.

Joel Sherman: There will always be doubt about Brian until he goes to a team that does not spend as freely as the Yankees and proves that on a more reasonable budget that he could assemble a consistent winner. But among his peers, Brian has a great admiration society.

Glenn Stout: Well, I think both Beane and Epstein, in particular, are celebrated more because they are celebrated rather than for anything else. Cashman has been good for this team, for entirely different reasons that the supposed "genius" of Beane and Epstein. You manage according to your team and resources and you general manage according to your team and resources. Cashman has been most valuable for his ability to negotiate the mine fields of that position under Steinbrenner.

But I think the A-Rod deal was savvy in that they were able to move in Bostonís wake and put together a deal that didnít expand the boundaries that had already been staked out, thus giving Selig no reason to block it under the "best interests" clause Ė which I think he would have done had he not allowed Boston so much latitude earlier. Cashman has also always sensed that you have to play to the back page in NY, and deals like the one for Clemens and A-Rod recognize that.

BB: The Yankees have a gruff edge this season with the additions of Kevin Brown, Sheffield and Kenny Lofton. Some observers look at this team as a far cry from the Paul O'Neil Yankees. Will the new attitude help or hurt the team?

Larry Mahnken: A lot of guys have come into New York in past years with a bad reputation, and turned out to be fine teammates. Joe Torre is excellent at keeping the clubhouse professional, and making sure everyone's focused on their goal. I don't think the new personalities will have any effect on the Yankees' performance on the field.

Buster Olney: Even if you assume that these guys are benign, rather than cancerous, it won't be the same; those guys of the dynasty all had shared history, they played for each other. The Yankees of 2004 are a lot of islands loosely connected by the color of their uniform.

Joe Sheehan: Um...what? You know the difference between Paul O'Neill and Kevin Brown? Paul O'Neill played for the Yankees. Same actions, same attitude, but Yankees fans liked their guy. Seriously. Calling Kevin Brown a "far cry" from Paul O'Neill is ridiculous.

Joel Sherman: I think too often this becomes about the media not getting along with a player, which at times could impact a team if other players feel they are having to talk too much in their teammate's behalf. But I think Kevin Brown is a different animal. His teammates have not liked him at his various stops. That could cause problems. Kenny Lofton long had that reputation, as well. But in the past two years with the Giants and Cubs, he actually has been hailed as a good teammate on teams that made the playoffs.

Glenn Stout: That will be totally determined by their W/L record. Attitude only matters when you lose.

BB: From a writer's viewpoint, is this the most interesting Yankee team since the Bronx Zoo days of the late seventies?

Larry Mahnken: I thought the early-90's Yankees were much more interesting, because they were an underdog team coming out of the cellar, and collecting, for the most part, underappreciated players. This certainly is an interesting team, with some new personalities, but New York has tended to suck the personality out of players in recent years. I thought Jason Giambi would be a lot of fun as a Yankee, but he's been all business. What a letdown.

Tim Marchman: Controversial excellence interests me much less than quiet excellence.

Buster Olney: No, I much prefer a functional team to a dysfunctional team. Then you can write more about baseball than catfights.

Joel Sherman: I think A-Rod and the heat of the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry make this the most fascinating team I have ever been around.

Glenn Stout: I donít think so Ė todayís writers donít have nearly the same access as then, and the contemporary player is much, much more guarded. Thereís nothing really inherently interesting about a group of rich guys with no perspective, whether they are ballplayers or CEOís.

BB: What are you looking forward to about the 2004 Yankees? And what are you dreading about them?

Larry Mahnken: I'm looking forward to seeing Gary Sheffield rip doubles into the outfield gaps. I'm looking forward to seeing Javier Vazquez and Kevin Brown on their best days. I'm looking forward to seeing if Hideki Matsui
can HIT THE DAMN BALL IN THE AIR!!! I'm dreading injuries, or seeing Bernie Williams in center field again. But most of all, I'm dreading seeing the Red Sox win it all--or, at least, the aftermath of that.

Tim Marchman: I look forward to seeing Alex Rodriguez play every day; Iíve always gone out of my way to watch him, but this is the first time Iíll be able to see him play every day, and that should be a treat. I dread that instead of putting a team in Brooklyn to counter the Yankeesí revenue advantage, MLB will seek to thwart them by foolishly instigating a longer strike than the one we saw in 1994 by insisting (again) on a salary cap the players will never, ever agree to.

Buster Olney: They are a fascinating collection of Rotisserie Gods, playing under extraordinary expectations -- win the World Series or be deemed losers -- and it'll be fascinating to see how they react. I dread being around the team in important series, because the media pack will extend into Manhattan.

Alan Schwarz: What I dread is their heading into the season as favorites again. Before the Rodriguez trade, it was reasonable to see the Red Sox as favorites for a change. Now we're back to the same old, boring storylines.

Joe Sheehan: They could score an obscene number of runs, especially if they get lucky at second base. I love the idea of watching Rodriguez play for the Yankees. I think this is the year Mike Mussina gets his close-up, too. Dreading? The Carnival of Denial. Any four-game losing streak, because of the potential for an ownership meltdown. Whiny fans in places like Kansas City staging impotent "protests" over payroll figures, as David Glass gets ever richer by whittling away at an entire class of Americans.

Joel Sherman: I am looking forward to the 19 games against the Red Sox. I can't think of anything I am dreading.

Glenn Stout: Iím looking forward to the nineteen games with Boston. Iím dreading all the stupid crap that will be written before and after those games, or said by broadcasters, particularly references to the specious and tired "curse."

BB: Do you think the Yankees will get into a bench-clearing brawl during the regular season?

Larry Mahnken: Without a doubt. Another team might be involved, too, but that's less likely.

Tim Marchman: Iíll be very disappointed if they donít.

Buster Olney: Yes; with the Red Sox. And Pedro will be involved. It's all but inevitable. (It's a lock that either Posada or Sheffield will be the Yankee charging the mound...)

Joe Sheehan: Yes.

Joel Sherman: The Yanks and Red Sox play 19 times. Enough said.

Glenn Stout: You mean with each other? 3-1 vs the Red Sox, 5-1 vs. Tampa, 10-1 vs anyone else or each other.

Tune in on Monday when a second group of writers tackle the same set of questions.

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