The hot stove is running cold right now, so this week we’re running a series of guest posts from Sam Tydings, Steven’s brother. Sam used Out of the Park Baseball to simulate some past “what if” Yankees scenarios. Yesterday we looked at the Greg Maddux non-signing. Today it’s the Albert Belle non-signing. You can follow Sam on Twitter at @simmonsclass.
It is hot stove season, which means it is officially time to picture every top free agent in Yankee pinstripes and without facial hair, while assuming the team will retain anyone they want to keep around as they pursue championship number 28. Currently the team is looking to build its next dynasty and fly more flags, but the 20th anniversary of a moment that nearly broke up the last Yankees dynasty recently passed.
In November of 1998, the Yankees not only nearly failed to keep Bernie Williams, but would have (allegedly) allowed him to sign with the Boston Red Sox. Had Williams walked, the Yankees would have purportedly signed temperamental outfielder Albert Belle, who was coming off of a year where he hit .328/.399/.655, leading the league in OPS and hitting 49 homers. Belle opted out of the last 3 years and $30 million dollars of his deal with the White Sox, ultimately signing a 5 year, $65 million deal with the Orioles. But what this blog presupposes is…what if he didn’t?
Thanks to the majesty of Out of the Park Baseball, I simulated the world where Bernie teamed up with Nomar to lead the 1999 Red Sox while Albert Belle tried to keep the Yankees emerging dynasty going.
I feel like George’s expectations probably would have been higher than this Opening Day lineup!
The fake 1999 season was an extraordinarily compelling one. The Yankees and Red Sox battled all season long, with the Bombers ultimately compiling 102 wins to Boston’s 101, good enough for a division title and ultimately the same ALCS matchup and result that actually occurred, as the Yankees defeated the Red Sox in 5 games before beating the Astros in 5 to claim their 25th World Series.
Belle hit 25 homers but struggled in the playoffs, while Bernie slashed .329/.406/.520 with 22 homers for the Red Sox. Then things got weird. The Red Sox shipped out Bernie after one season to clear budget space for some free agent signings, and the Rockies and Orioles ended up being the dynasties of the mid 2000’s. Belle never topped 27 homers with the Yankees, retiring after only playing 13 games in 2003. He topped out at just over 60% of the fake Hall of Fame vote before falling short, while Bernie never got over 20%, but did pick up a few rings with the Rockies, to put a bow on a stellar career and one way the story could have gone.
Had Bernie actually walked, I highly doubt the Yankees would have gone into the 1999 season with Tony Tarasco starting in center field like our fake Yankees did. Certainly by 2000, the team would have acquired a longer-term solution in center by trade or free agency. By Opening Day 2000, Jim Edmonds would be traded from the Angels to the Cardinals for Adam Kennedy and it is easy to picture Edmonds tracking fly balls in death valley at the old stadium and making highlight reel catches, even helping to cover for Belle’s lack of defense in the corner.
But one more interesting option might have been on the table for a fascinating what-if of its own: noted Yankee killer Ken Griffey Jr, who famously rejected a trade to the Mets before accepting a trade to Cincinnati before the 2000 season. At the time, Griffey was not said to be willing to accept a trade to the Yankees either, but with Bernie entrenched in center, the Yankees’ need wasn’t as pressing. But it’s hard to see the Yankees not being willing to throw together an offer around enticing (at the time) names like Ricky Ledee, Randy Keisler, Drew Henson, maybe even Alfonso Soriano if it meant Griffey would be taking his talents to the Bronx.
The Yankees dynasty of this simulation died on the vine after the 1999 title, but with Belle and Edmonds or Belle and Griffey, it could have potentially surpassed the heights the team ended up reaching. Of course, it easily could have fallen far short. Ultimately, we should all be thankful Cashman/Boras/Bernie were able to work something out to keep the dynasty alive and leave Belle’s tenure in pinstripes as a hypothetical, even if they should have won a few more titles along the way.