Past Free Agent Review: Kenny Lofton

Open Thread: Rob Cano
Mailbag: Maholm, Scrap Heap, Padilla, Fukudome
Visual proof that Kenny Lofton was indeed on the Yankees.

For the Yankees, the 2003-2004 offseason was an adjustment period. After an emotional victory over the Red Sox in the ALCS, they had fallen flat to the Marlins in a six-game World Series. Andy Pettitte would decamp for Houston; Roger Clemens would retire for the first time; David Wells was persona non grata. With prized Cuban hurler Jose Contreras in tow, the Yankees had to restock the club.

That winter would be George Steinbrenner‘s last hurrah. Before taking a step back due to his health, the Boss went on a rampage. Marginalizing Brian Cashman to an extent, Steinbrenner brought in Gary Sheffield instead of Vladimir Guerrero and oversaw a trade for Javier Vazquez. Jeff Weaver, goat of the 2003 World Series, wound up in Los Angeles in exchange for the perennially disgruntled Kevin Brown. Steinbrenner, who banned Yankee officials from attending the Winter Meetings that year, had one more player in mind, and despite objections from Joe Torre, he brought him in.

That player was ticketed for center field. For Bernie Williams, 2003 was a turning point. Williams hurt his knee early in the year, and he would never be the same offensive force again. After the season, it was clear the Yanks needed some outfield help, and so the Boss brought in Kenny Lofton, against everyone’s wishes. Bernie was one of Joe Torre’s guys through and through, and the Yankee skipper wanted little to do with a 37-year-old interloper.

From the start, the Lofton relationship seemed strained. Despite assurances during a press conference that he would even park cars if the Yanks wanted him to, Lofton never really fit. He played in just 83 games for the Yanks, often sitting for stretches at a time because Torre often wouldn’t play him. He hit .275/.346/.395 but brought in for his speed, he was successful in just seven of ten stolen base attempts. He battled some injuries throughout the year and never seemed to fit.

When the postseason rolled around, Lofton had a bare role to play. He appeared in three of the Yanks’ seven games against the Red Sox, and despite some limited success at the plate, he made no appearances between games 2 and 7. When the Yankees could have used his speed, Torre kept him on the bench. The decision still haunts Yankee fans today as they assess the missed opportunities and blown chances from that historic ALCS.

When the season ended as it did, it was clear that things would change in the Bronx, and Lofton became one of the scapegoats. During the first week of December, the Yankees shipped him to the Phillies for Felix Rodriguez. Yet, Lofton had no love lost for the Yankees. He become enmeshed in controversy when he sounded off with Gary Sheffield against Joe Torre and reportedly urged CC Sabathia to turn down the Yankees. Bad feelings, it seems, run deep.

The bad feelings left over from Lofton’s tenure in New York weren’t entirely his fault. He arrived at a time of conflict between warring factions in the Front Office, and Joe Torre wasn’t about to let George Steinbrenner dictate his starting lineup. Still, the Yankees had a potential weapon in Lofton, and their field general didn’t want to recognize that. Today, the Yanks’ roster is far more balanced, and the players all have their roles. The team has certainly come a long way since the days of Kenny Lofton.

Open Thread: Rob Cano
Mailbag: Maholm, Scrap Heap, Padilla, Fukudome
  • Bernie

    Good blog. But Yanks got Pavano the next season not after the 2003 season

    • Mike Axisa

      That they did. Oops.

  •!/czm93 Craig

    Didn’t Torre have Lofton and Bernie pick names out of a hat to see who would start? IIRC, Lofton picked Bernie’s name.

    • forensic

      He said the lineup is so deep that he could pick them out of a hat and not be wrong.

    • pat

      In his book Torre actually talked about this situation a little bit. I think the story he gave the press and the story about what actually happened are a little different. Supposedly the “names from a hat” thing came about because Bernie and Lofton wanted to be named the opening day starter as to be on the All Star Ballot ( 3 OF per team and Sheff and Matsui were locked into the corners). Torre wouldn’t pick one over the other so he told them to pick the names out of a hat. Kenny picked, selected Bernie’s name and got heated and Torre had to show him the other slip that said Lofton to prove it wasn’t fixed. I think in the end Bernie saw how disruptive and childish Kenny was acting that he relented and Kenny got the opening day spot.

      • Plank

        I have a hard time thinking Lofton was the one with the problem in that relationship. He wanted to start because he was clearly the better player and better for the team. Williams wanted to start because he’s human. Torre wanted to start Williams because he was an egomaniac during the last few years and wanted to show he was more powerful than the front office.

  • Marcus330

    That was a great post. I love these trips down memory lane. However, one big correction: the Yankees didn’t sign Pavano until after the ’04 season. His first year in pinstripes was ’05. Also, not sure exactly what you meant when you said Contreras “defected” (from Cuba or from the Yankees?) but they acquired him before the ’03 season and traded him at the deadline in ’04. Regardless of which event you were referring to, his status with the team during the ’03-’04 offseason was stable

  • Marcus330

    Also, as far as I understand it, it’s a widely help belief that Cashman was the sole architect of that Vazquez trade and contract extension. Even at the time I’m pretty sure it was reported that the Vazquez trade was the only big move Cashman, and not the Steinbrenner/Tampa brain trust, was responsible for. Pretty sure those reports were then rehashed when Cashman re-acquired him a few years later from the Braves. On that point and not positive, but I am fairly confident in my recollection.

    • Rich in NJ

      IIRC, Cash has said that he told George that he preferred trading for Vasquez instead of Schilling due to the age difference, and Vasquez’s subsequent underperformance caused him to lose influence for a time with George.

      • pat

        I thought it was also because Arizona demanded Soriano and Nick Johnson? Cash said screw that and dealt them independently of each other bringing back Centaur-Rod and a 27 year old who was averaging 211 ip with 8.0 k/9 and 2.2 bb/9. Don’t even look at Javy’s stats from Montreal because it’ll hurt to see how good and young he was. In fact, heading into the 2004 season Hardball Times had him as their consensus pick for the AL Cy Young.

        The rest is, as they say, history.

      • RetroRob

        I don’t think that’s correct. The Yankees did have an interest in Schilling, but Jerry Colangelo disliked Steinbrenner so much that he preferred to deal Schilling to the Red Sox, basically used the Yankees to try and improve the package from the Red Sox, while asking for even better prospects from the Yankees.

        • Kevin

          Schilling was never going to end up in pinstripes..Colangelo hated Steinbrenner and never would have allowed it.
          It’s why I hate losing in 01 even more..that $#@ stuck it to the Yankees for the next several years.

          • jsbrendog

            it’s because of david wells. he had a handshake agreement with colangelo and broke it after stein took him out to dinner and offered hima contract with the yankees

            • Steve (different one)

              This. The Schilling thing was direct payback for Wells. There are a bunch of articles out there if you google it. The mid-00’s were crazy times.

  • Nathan

    I really wanted for Lofton to work for the Yankees, even though I knew his best years were behind him. Man, Lofton during his Indian days was a premiere leadoff/steal machine. Even with SF, he still had a little magic left. But with the Yankees, it just never got started.

    Sort of reminds me of Randy Johnson. Maybe its just the memories of what they were and my expectations of them to bring back some old magic left me disappointed.

    • Plank

      I think he would have played better if the Torre mafia had given him regular playing time.

    • RetroRob

      The Yankees use, or more specifically non-use, definately impacted his overall play, hitting and fielding. The following year he triple slashed at .335/.392/.420, with a 121 wRC, and rated out at a plus 10.2 UZR, putting up basically a 4.0 fWAR season. He was productive all three years after he left the Yankees. In fact, I’m still trying to figure out how he never got a job in 2008 as he still wanted to play and he was still good, both hitting and in the field, in 2007. Odd.

      His year on the Yankees easily rates out as the worst of his career. I think that says it all.

    • Mattingly’s Mustache

      I thought this was one of the reactionary Steinbrenner moves during that era. Juan Pierre beat them with speed in the WS. Go out and get Kenny Lofton- he is fast. Randy Johnson beat the Yanks- go out and get him, etc… I feel that WS dictated a lot of free agent decisions. Classic Stein…

      • Steve (different one)

        Womack, Jaret Wright, Pavano….

  • Matt DiBari

    I have nightmares of Jason Varitek chasing Tim Wakefield knucklers all over Fenway Park while Gary Sheffield stands still and Kenny Lofton sits on the bench.

    That and no one bunting against big fat one legged Curt Schilling. Lofton and Jeter should have bunted until he had to hobble off the field.

    • ChooChoo

      Bunting? You’re advocating bunting on the RAB website? How dare you.

  • nsalem

    Lofton was disliked in every clubhouse he walked into (and there were plenty of them.) He played hard when he was in the right mood. He was older than Bernie and had stopped being an elite base stealer a few years before coming to the Yankees. His defensive skills were vastly superior to Bernie, but Bernie’s regression year of 2003 was basically what Lofton had been for the last 5 or 6 years. If the Yankees did not plan to have him as their everyday centerfielder I don’t think they should have signed him. I blame the Yankee’s not Lofton for the signing. Lofton was what he was and the Yankees probably would have been better of with a low cost late inning defensive replacement type alternative for the last couple of years of Bernie’s career.

  • Jose M. Vazquez..

    Being that Bernie was one of my favorite players, I hated in when they brought in an old Kenny Lofton. Bernie was still better on one leg than Lofton. Lofton played for many teams but never led any of those to a WS title. I had forgotten that Bernie had hurt his knee, still, he was a very good clutch hitter compared to Lofton who never was.

    • nsalem

      I agree Jose. Belated Happy and Healthy New Year to you and your family.

      • Jose M. Vazquez..

        Thanks Nsalem. The very best to you and yours in this New Year. May we win it all in 2012.

    • Steve (different one)

      But the plan was not to bench Bernie, it was to ease him into a DH role, so his “clutch bat” would still have been in the lineup. It was a good plan, but Torre was having none of it.

      I knew things were out of control when Torre started Bernie in CF and Lofton in RF. That was as direct an FU as you can get from Torre.

  • Butters McGee

    I’m a young guy who only really began caring about baseball in the middle of the ’09 season, so I have no strong memories of the George Steinbrenner era. As a lifetime local, all I really knew about those times as they were happening was through evening news reports, which at the time I hardly even processed or cared about. Knowing what I know now, I’m not sure I would have become the committed Yankees or baseball fan that I am today if I had come of age a few years earlier, say 2006 or 2007. I hate farcical or ridiculous org situations, as a nerd (an economist) they anger me to no end: I’m pretty sure I would have loathed this sort of a situation. Who knows, maybe I would have just become more of a hockey fan instead…

  • jsbrendog

    this is the kind of stuff that made me hate torre his last few yrs. he sabotaged the team to prove a pointl. shut the fuck up and play the best team you asshole.

    • I am not the droids you’re looking for…


  • JohnC

    Lofton ended up having the last laugh as he hurt the Yanks in the 2007 Divison Series when he returned to Cleveland

  • Matt :: Sec110

    Let’s start a 2000s all-hated FA team…

    leading off CF, Kenny Lofton
    batting & playing second, Tony Wolmack

    • Jumpin’ Jack Swisher

      Batting third: Tony Womack

      • Matt :: Sec110

        zinger! I always add the L

    • I am not the droids you’re looking for…

      SP: Carl Pavano

    • Plank

      You hated Kenny Lofton? He’s seriously one of my favorite players of all time and I hope he gets some HOF love, he deserves it.

  • Kosmo

    My fondest memory of Kenny Lofton the Yankee came in June 2004 vs. San Diego in a intra-league game. The Yanks were losing 2-0 with 2 outs in the bottom of 9th inning with non other than Trevor Hoffman on the mound. Matsui and Lofton hit back to back HRs to tie and subsequently NY went on to win in extra innings.
    Lofton upon leaving NY had 3 very good seasons ages 38-40. He´s another borderline HOF.

    • Steve (different one)

      I remember his game clear as day because Javy started and was pretty dazzling with his off speed stuff. Remember thinking the Yankees had found another stud…

    • Mike R.

      LOL I’ll never forget that game. David Wells started that game and I saw Prisoner of Azkaban with my brother.

  • Matt :: Sec110

    Pavano is obvs the #1 starter. (I never really ‘hated’ The Big Unit so..)

  • Jumpin’ Jack Swisher

    This post is racist.

  • Matty Ice

    I always hated Lofton. Don’t know why.

    Oh wait, it’s because he was a douche.

    (great article btw, I love the nostalgia).

  • Mike R.

    Kenny Lofton is my favorite non-Yankee of all time.

    • Plank

      Yeah, I’m really surprised by this anti-Lofton vibe in the comments. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t love him. Lofton was awesome.