Reflections on the end of the Steinbrenner era

The Boss and I, we go way back. George probably doesn’t know it, but on July 30, 1990, I was sitting in Yankee Stadium as the crowded cheered his suspension from baseball.

That was, of course, before the glory days of the 1990s when, all of a sudden, Yankee fans got used to winning. We couldn’t criticize Steinbrenner anymore because his money was responsible for the lust we as fans had for winner. And year after year, the players his dollars put on the field fulfilled our basic yearning for World Series titles.

Now here we sit in 2007, and the last time the Yanks won the World Series, I was in high school. But despite years of post-season losses, it’s hard to grow disillusioned. The Yanks have made the playoffs every year since 1995. They’ve lost some close series, won some close series and have provided a generation of Yankee fans with new memories of postseason heroics.

But something else is happening in 2007, something off the field that will shape the Yanks for years to come. The end of the George Steinbrenner Era is upon us. Over at Yanks Fan vs. Sox Fan, Peter Abraham sat down for a virtual interview. During the exchange, Abraham dropped this gem:

I think we are already at the post-Steinbrenner phase. His health is one of the most closely guarded stories in sports and that is obviously because it is fading. I believe that Brian Cashman, Randy Levine and Steve Swindal make 95 percent of the decisions and once George gives up his title or passes away, Swindal will be the man in charge with Cashman at his side. I like Steve a lot, his recent arrest aside. I think he will do what is right. But I don’t believe you’ll see the Yankees with a payroll $50 million higher than any other team.

Of course, Abraham isn’t the only one noting Steinbrenner’s waning power and health. Ken Auletta, in a recent New Yorker piece about Howard Rubenstein, noted that the PR guru has done all he can to shield a frail Steinbrenner from the press and public. Memory loss, old age, it doesn’t matter. It’s clear that Steinbrenner is not the force he once was, and personal feelings toward Steinbrenner aside, his is a fate I would wish on no one.

The end of George’s reign as emperor of the Evil Empire evokes some nostalgia in me and fear for the team’s future. Luckily, the fear has been quickly assuaged, but I’ll get to that shortly. The nostalgia, on the other hand, won’t fade. George has always been part of the Yankees circus. Even as they tore through the leagues in the late 1990s, a George eruption or some backhanded statement-cum-threat was just a long losing streak away.

When the Yankees won in the 1990s, there was George sitting front and center basking in the adulation. Maybe he hogged the spotlight a little too much since it was, after all, Paul O’Neill and Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera and Bernie Williams and many others who brought the trophies to New York. The Boss just signed the checks. But he was out there grinning just like the rest of us were.

In the 2000s, the Yankees’ performance, their wild spending and Steinbrenner’s declining health seemed to go hand-in-hand. Steinbrenner began to issue vague statements about “true Yankees” (Mike Mussina and Jason Giambi) and “warriors” (Gary Sheffield and Carl Pavano). He made moves to get Raul Mondesi and Randy Johnson. He became baseball’s own Veruca Salt. He wanted to lock the whole world up in his pocket. He wanted it now.

Life even imitated satire. A 2003 article in The Onion read, “Yankees ensure 2003 pennant by signing every player in baseball.” Two years later, with the arrival of Randy Johnson, The Onion seemed strangely prescient.

Steinbrenner’s free spending and wild antics were good for the fans too. We saw a powerhouse team that could score six runs a game take the field every night. We saw some of the game’s best pass through the hallowed halls of Yankee Stadium. We saw four million fans trek up the Bronx for a glimpse at the Yankees. We saw World Championships and bitter, historic defeats. And that’s where the doubt creeps in.

As George Steinbrenner fades from the Bronx and a new management team take over, will the Yankees be as willing to poor their financial resources out on to the field? Will they maintain at win-at-all-costs strategy? I don’t know, but I’m afraid the temptation to pocket some more profit may come into play.

In that interview, Abraham notes that the Yanks’ payroll will come down a bit. When the team outpays their competitors by $50 or $70 million and overpays for marginal talent, it’s okay for the payroll to decrease. But the payroll shouldn’t decrease to the detriment of the team on the field.

So far, Brian Cashman has shown he can built a win-now and win-later team. The Yanks have plenty of young talent climbing through the ranks of their farm system and, pitching doubts aside, have an overabundance of Major League All Stars filling out their 25-man roster.

If Cashman, Levine and Swindal keep it up, the Yanks can leverage their financial power as the number one team in the number one media market in the country. They can leverage their baseball operations knowledge to construct a solid on-field Major League product and a wealthy young farm system spewing out prospects.

But for the fans, as George fades away and the Yanks are left in new hands, we the fans are going to wonder. George Steinbrenner and his wallet provided us with comfort. His spending was our security blanket, and that security blanket is gone. As this era ends and a new one begins, I hope we see smart baseball moves and smart spending. I do after all want that elusive 27th World Championship just as much as the Boss has yearned for it since we were a few outs away in 2001. I want it now.

Josh Phelps can help this team

You might have read this already, you might not have (and you might not have the subscription that is required to do so), but Baseball Prospectus ran an article back in December on the career of Josh Phelps. Instead of just glossing over the numbers, Marc Normandin tries to put them into context and tries to explain why Phelps was disappointing at times on the major league level.

For instance, he was a terrible disappointment for Toronto in 2004, but he sported an ungodly low he .276 average on balls in play, which is in stark contrast to his expected level of .317 (based on the percentage of line drives he hit). Then you have 2005 with Tampa, when Sweet Lou handed him a mere 177 plate appearances. His 2006 season in AAA for the Tigers looked stellar, as he posted .308/.370/.532 averages. In addition, he walked in 7.2 percent of his plate appearances, hit a line drive in a little over 20 percent, and got his groundball percentage down to around 40.

He obviously has the skills to succeed, but has faced a few unlucky breaks — injuries included. I don’t think that Phelps is beyond repair by any sense. In fact, if he can translate some of the skills he displayed in AAA to the major league level and stay healthy, he’ll contribute far more to the 2007 Yankees than Andy Phillips and Doug Mientkiewicz.

Then again, I may be over-arguing here. Does anyone really think that Phillips or Mientkiewicz can make a meaningful contribution? And please, spare me the Pete Abraham “Minky will save an error a week.” That’s a load of anecdotal horse shit.

When can Hughes help?

Damian at Project Prospect took a crack at answering that question, and concludes with this:

It’s not until we start looking at some of the all time greats – Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens… – that we see pitchers called up this young without struggling. Of course, it is possible Hughes will end up being an all time great but it’s far more likely he’s going to struggle a little in his first season or two. Yankees fans need to keep this in mind as they watch him grow.

New York can be a very difficult place to struggle. Jose Contreras comes to mind as an example of an extremely talented pitcher who couldn’t get it together in pinstripes. Hughes is likely going to have his ups and downs before he settles in as the pitcher he’s going to be throughout his career.

Have some patience with him. He’ll be a fine pitcher some day.

The whole piece is well worth the read, and really puts one key fact into perspective: almost all young pitchers struggle early on in their careers.

FYI– If you think Hughes dominated Double-A last year, take a quick look at the numbers put up by Rick Ankiel at that level at the same age, cited in the article. Can’t help but wonder just how good he could have been.

What to do with all these pitchers

Phil Hughes. Humberto Sanchez. Tyler Clippard. Steven White. Ross Ohlendorf. Matt DeSalvo. Jeff Karstens. Darrell Rasner. Steven Jackson.

That’s 9 guys vying for 5 Triple-A rotation spots. Even though most of us would prefer the Yanks to have that dearth of pitching at the big league level, none of these guys are that far away from contributing to the Bombers. Before we start to shake out this situation, let’s take a quick look at which each player did last year to put themselves in contention for a AAA rotation gig:

[Read more…]

Farnsworth developing not one, but TWO new pitches

Possibly lost among the “Moose had a good outing” and “Giambi is ready for the season” fodder is an interesting article in the Daily News regarding Kyle Farnsworth’s expanding repertoire.

Farnsworth, one of the Yankees’ setup men, is working on a changeup and a sinker, hoping that pitches in the mid-80s can keep hitters from sitting on his fastball. It’s something that pitching coach Ron Guidry suggested at the end of last season.

I’m a bit puzzled by this. First, how effectively is he going to be able to work in two new pitches? The article mentions that he spent most of the winter resting his troublesome back, so in essence he began developing them this spring. I’m just unsure that a guy entering his 13th year in the league can develop two new and effective pitches in a little over a month.

Second, if he’s adding these two, is he removing the slider? As frustrated as we were last year with his using it in inappropriate situations — not to mention hanging it far too often — does anyone feel better with him using new and untested pitches rather than one he’s used throughout his relief career? I mean, if he can work in a splitter and changeup effectively, then yeah, I can live without the slider. It once again comes back to the skepticism about his ability to throw these pitches.

In theory, I’d love Farnsworth to throw a splitter and a change. With his devastating heat, they seem like the perfect complement pithes. I just wish he’d have come to this realization earlier, when he’d be better able to develop them, rather than rushing in.

My official prediction: he’ll stick with the fastball and slider this season.

Photo: Matthew J. Lee / Boston Globe

Curt Schilling reads our blog

As much as we don’t like Curt Schilling for his success against the Yankees, a statement in one of his recent blog posts makes me think he’s reading our site. After I criticized him for seemingly interviewing himself, Schilling wrote, “Since some people mistakenly thought that the Q&A was me interviewing myself, no idea how that could happen, I have taken to pasting questions instead of trying to paraphrase them.” Well, that’s neat. A real live Major Leaguer has read River Ave. Blues!

(Also, I think it was that confusing use of the personal I in the form of the interview, Curt. It wasn’t very clear.)