Another Bernie ‘What If?’ scenario

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Before Santanamania momentarily took hold of our Yankee-loving lives, we were in the middle of discussing the winter when Bernie Williams almost left New York. I argued that Bernie’s departure would have paved the way for the Red Sox to win in 1999. But not everyone took such a shortsighted view as I did.

In fact, one of our frequent commenters, Eric from Morrisania wrote an excellent counterfactual about what may have happened if Bernie had indeed been allowed to leave, and in Eric’s view, things turn out pretty well for the Yanks. Since it’s such a well-done comment, I thought it merits its own discussion. So here is Eric’s view — with some very minor edits by me — on what could have been if Bernie had left New York in November of 1998.

We gave Bernie a 7 year, $87.5M deal ($12.5M per). Belle signed with Baltimore later that offseason for 5 years, $65M ($13M per).

For the first 4 years of the 7 year deal we gave Bernie (1999, 2000, 2001, 2002), he was awesome, with OPS+ of 149, 140, 138, and 141. He was a key middle of the order bat on the WS teams of ‘99 and ‘00, and performed admirably in the heartbreaking ‘01 loss and ‘02 early exit. The last three years of the deal, when he was age 34, 35, and 36, his play fell off noticeably (OPS+ 107, 108, 85). And, Bernie was never an above average CF in the field, let’s be honest.

Belle, meanwhile, gave Baltimore a great season in 1999 (OPS+ of 142; .297/.400/.541 37HR 117RBI) followed by a so-so 2000 (OPS+ 109; .281/.342/.474 23HR 103RBI) where he spent time on the DL. They shut him down with a hip problem in September of ‘00, and 6 months later, he announced his retirement. Of the $39M still owed to him; insurance payed off 70%, so the Orioles were on the hook for $11.7M combined, which they could spread across 2001, 2002, and 2003.


If we had signed Belle instead of Bernie, we would have received essentially the exact same levels of production in 1999 and a slight decrease in 2000, which is significant since we made the playoffs by finishing only two games better than a pretty bad Boston team that presumably would have been much better with Bernie on it. BUT, we also would have been in the market for a new outfielder either in the winter before 2001 if we suspected that Belle’s hip condition was serious, as it was or in the winter before 2002 if we optimistically believed that we could count on Belle going forward. So, what could have happened?

Assuming we expected Belle to return and his retirement caught us unaware (as it did Baltimore), we probably would have tried to swing a trade for someone during Spring Training. Ron Gant, Michael Tucker, and Milton Bradley were all dealt during the 2001 season, so it’s reasonable to assume we might have been able to pluck one of them off without giving up too much. We could have pushed for Juan Gonzalez, who wore out his welcome in multiple locations. Then, after the season, we could have pursued Johnny Damon or Moises Alou as free agents in the 01-02 offseason, or went after the big fish, Gary Sheffield, who wanted out of LA. Or, we could spent more in prospects and dealt for Jermaine Dye, who was also on the block, as a more permanent CF solution.

Then, there’s the other scenario – where we’re concerned enough about Belle’s health after the 2000 season to pursue an OF upgrade right then and there, which would be a real possibility since O’Neill would be 37 at the time and LF is a revolving door of Ricky Ledee, Shane Spencer, Glenallen Hill, and Luis Polonia. So, what FA outfielders were available in the 2000-2001 offseason? Ichiro. Oh yeah, and Manny Ramirez.

Imagine the Red Sox-Yankees games of 2001-2007, only with Bernie on their team and Manny Ramirez on ours. Or, imagine our lineup with Ichiro and Jeter at the top, and bear in mind that if the Sox had signed Bernie, they probably wouldn’t have signed Manny Ramirez; he’d be somewhere else (Mets? Dodgers? Angels?).


So, my question is, would you have given away the 2000 subway series, and even traded a 2000 WS title for a 2000 Boston Red Sox title, in exchange for substituting Bernie Williams six seasons from 2001-2007 for six years of Manny Ramirez, Ichiro Suzuki, Gary Sheffield, Jermaine Dye, or Johnny Damon? Because, frankly, the numbers competition isn’t even close.

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  • mike

    it’s hard to say that i’d give up a ring, especially one against the mets for some unspecified players. unless you’re giving me ALL of the above mentioned guys…

    so, no.

  • Chofo

    It’ hard to argue against the rings, but the point is well taken. I still think that the Yankees did the right thing. You must consider the context, as the team came from the magical 1998 and Bernie, the long awaited prospect, had a GG and batting title. Looting him would had been terrible PR move too.

  • Chip

    Well I can think of a time where the Yankees could have had Manny in a no questions asked waiver move. Does anybody think we should have considered that a bit more strongly? Everybody in the media knew the Red Sox were trying to get rid of his salary and stick the Yankees with it but seriously, think about having him instead of Matsui over there.

    • Ben K.

      Chip, I thought it then, and I still think it now. The Yanks made a big mistake in not picking up Manny’s contract then. Who knows if the Sox would have let that claim go through? But the thought of Manny in the OF since 2004 always makes me wonder what could have been. It’s not a stretch to say that it would have changed baseball history.

      • Edwantsacracker

        I’m sorry but Manny Ramirez could not play on the Yankees as an outfielder. Could you imagine him trying to cover the ground in left field. He’s obviously one of the greatest hitters in the game and would have made an excellent DH, but he already rejected that idea when Boston wanted him to switch to DH. I don’t expect he would have been any more receptive to the idea as a Yankee.

        Matsui is not a great left fielder, but there was a post on pinstripe alley that showed he was much better on the road than he was in Yankee Stadium. I know I get frustrated with Matsui’s Defense sometimes and could not imagine Manny doing as well.

        • Ben K.

          I’d gladly take Manny’s offense in exchange for his subpar defense. It’s not like the Yanks’ outfielders are winning too many Gold Gloves these days anyway.

  • JRVJ

    A bird in hand…..

  • Rob NY

    I tell you what I think what isnt being considered is what that says to future players and us as fans about the franchise we support. IMO I would want my team to be more about loyalty than all of that. It isnt like Bernie was dead weight, the man earned his money, team that with the loyalty to players who give you everything and I cant see letting it play out any other way. (though ichiro would be really nice patrolling center at this point : X)

  • Jersey

    Tough choice, based on these parameters. Very tough choice. I ultimately agree with the decision to keep him though. Hindsight is 20/20, but I’d rather have the definite ring than have a better shot at rings thereafter, given the uncertainty in the postseason.

    And let’s not forget that Bernie led either the AL or the Majors in Win Shares for a CF in ’99, ’00, and ’02, then he mashed in the ’03 Series anyway. So the “gimme” years of the tradeoff aren’t until ’04 (and we know how that turned out…). A lot to consider. But I think you gotta go with the rings, with loyalty, and with a touch of sentimentality.

  • Geno

    It goes beyond stats. Albert Belle was a total nutjob. Bernie fit right into the long line of classy Yankees. Bernie added to clubhouse chemistry. Belle would have been a cancer. I’d take Bernie every time. Belle always struck me as more of a Red Sox type of player.

    • dan

      Except that Belle woulda been gone in two years anyway. And in this scenario, we don’t win the world series with Belle, so it doesn’t really matter how bad he is in the clubhouse.

      • Geno


  • Jamal G

    To be honest the decision to drop Bernie and have Ichiro or Manny in the lineup makes much more sense IMO it’s just that I’ve always been a big believer in “that something special”. I know that senetnce is usually rserved for the casual baseball fan or the old-timers who don’t give two craps about OBP or VORP but to be championship teams are special in all sports. You have to have the right mix and obviously Bernie was that right mix and everything worked together perfectly. So I would have stuck with Bernie just as the Yanks did.

    I have another “What If” for you guys. What if the Yanks did let go Bernie and did sign Manny Ramirez, then I’m sure Cashman & Co. would have envisioned an eventual move to the DH position so they would have most likely (or George would have most likely) laid off from signing Jason Giambi who everybody knew his future was at DH. So does that mean that we see a couple more years from Tino Martinez to allow Nick Johnson to graduate to the everyday Yankees 1B or do we sign a stopgap for those couple of years until Johnson comes up? Then if we do let Johnson become the everyday 1B with no Jason Giambi on the roster then it would make no sense to trade him to the Expos so does that mean we never get our hands on Javier Vazquez? Then in turn does that mean no Big Unit since Vazquez was the key component in that deal and also since Randy Johnson’s salary isn’t on the books does that mean we are able to sign Carlos Beltran in 2005? LoL, this is pretty fun. But seriously you think all of those decisions I just listed could have been affected if the Yankees let Bernie walk in 1998?

  • Chip

    The problem is that it’s all speculation. Maybe the Yankees get Manny and he blows out his knee in the first week so the Yankees trade some A-ball kid named Robinson Cano for a stopgap? Maybe we don’t get Vazquez but end up needing but decide we need Mark Mulder and Beane only wants this underrated pitcher named Wang? The possibilities are endless when you go back a full ten years.

  • Travis G.

    i just cant give up a ring, especially against the Mets.

  • Dave

    You never give up rings. Bernie. ftw.

  • Barry

    I would of taken Manny or Ichiro.

  • dan

    This post is very interesting, and I think I commented on it originally in the comments section a few posts back, but forgot this detail: Ichiro wasn’t a free agent.

    The Mariners used the posting system (first player ever to be posted), and paid $13million to negotiate. I’m not sure the Yankees would have taken a chance like that on the first Japanese hitter in the US, considering it was the first time a blind bid had ever been made on a player. While they might have gotten Manny, Ichiro was far from a foregone conclusion.

    • eric from morrisania

      But, the Yankees never really got too involved with the Ichiro posting because we already had a CF named Bernie Williams, who we’d just given 90 million dollars to. My speculation is that things might have been different if we didn’t have that.

      You can take the Bernie/Belle discussion out of it, and sub this: suppose things happened exactly as they did, we gave Bernie 7yrs/90M, but he’s the one who had a degenerative hip? We write off Bernie’s contract to insurance… we still may go hard after Ichiro in that scenario too. The point of the hypothesis is what may have happened to the Yankees if in 2000, the superstar outfielder we had just signed (whether it was Bernie or Belle) is suddenly a non-factor and a sunk-cost, what might have been? And to say that, ultimately, we may have benefited by not committing a long contract to Bernie because his play declined at the end of his contract, while better options came along during that interim that we didn’t consider because we had x-number of future dollars pledged to an outfielder past his prime…