Food For Thought: First Baseman

The Yankees’ last four primary first baseman. Interesting to see Tex’s curve compared to Donnie’s. Stupid back problems.

(related graphs)

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Torre, Mattingly to attend Monday’s Steinbrenner tribute

The Yankees are set to pay tribute to George M. Steinbrenner III prior to their game against the Rays tomorrow evening, and according to Bill Madden, both Joe Torre and Don Mattingly will be in attendance. The Dodgers are off tomorrow, and it will be the first time that either Torre or Mattingly will return to Yankee Stadium (new or old) since leaving after the 2007 season. I expect them both to get roaring ovations, especially Donnie Baseball.

The Yanks will be unveiling a monument honoring Steinbrenner in Monument Park, the first new one since 1999.

Mattingly to take over as Dodgers’ manager in 2011

According to more reports than I care to cite, former Yankees’ manager Joe Torre will step down as Dodgers’ manager after the season and hand the reigns off to former Yankee megastar Don Mattingly. Donnie Baseball has basically zero managerial experience at any level, but he was always considered a candidate to manage the Yanks at some point in the future. In the unlikely scenario that has the team looking for a replacement for Joe Girardi after the season, Mattingly is no longer an option.

Mattingly will get his managerial feet wet this offseason with the Phoenix Desert Dogs of the Arizona Fall League next month. Among the players on his roster: Yankee farmhands Austin Romine, Brandon Laird, Corban Joseph, George Kontos, and Craig Heyer. Please don’t break them.

Learning from history with Don Mattingly

Buck Showalter, George Steinbrenner and Don Mattingly in 1993. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

As the Yankees spent Spring Training in 1990 in Fort Lauderdale, Don Mattingly found himself getting ready to play out the final season of a three-year contract. He was a month away from his 29th birthday and over the last six years had hit .327/.372/.530 with 161 home runs. He had made six straight All Star appearances and had earned himself five Golden Gloves and an MVP award. While his seasonal numbers had declined from his gaudy totals he put up in 1985 and 1986, he was one of the league’s top first baseman and the Yanks’ biggest superstar. He would, in other words, earn his money.

That spring, a year before Mattingly was to hit free agency, the Yankees made the point moot. They signed him to a five-year extension worth $19.3 million, and until Jose Canseco topped that total a few months later, Mattingly’s $3.86 million annual salary was the highest in baseball. Donnie Baseball would be the Yanks’ marquee name for years to come.

But for Mattingly, disaster struck. Number 23 had injured his back in a clubhouse incident in 1987, and in 1990, his back problems would flare up again. He played just 102 games and hit .256/.308/.335 with five home runs. While he recovered some of his health, over the duration of that five-year contract, Mattingly was a shell of his former self. From 1991 until his retirement in 1995, he hit .291/.350/.416 with just 53 home runs. His playing time dipped from 153 games per season to 134, and he went from a superstar with top power to an above-average hitter with recurrent health problems and little power.

Over the weekend, Steve Lombardi at WasWatching highlighted the Mattingly saga. With much attention on the Yanks’ decision not to extend Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter right now, Lombardi focused on how Steinbrenner used to operate his club. He wouldn’t let his star players approach free agency and treated them well. “Don’t tell Jeter this is how the Yankees used to roll,” he said in the headline.

To me, though, Mattingly’s contract status and his subsequent decline serve as a warning to the Yankees in 2010. When George Steinbrenner jumped the gun and overextended Mattingly, the team paid a high price. The club knew that Mattingly’s back problems sapped him of his power in 1988 and 1989. They could have waited out 1990 to see how he fared. Had he duplicated his 1990 season, there’s no way the Yanks would have extended him that $19.3 million offer.

Today, Rivera and Jeter find themselves in similar situations. The two are in the latter stages of Hall of Fame careers and both are still very productive players. The Yankees will, as Hank Steinbrenner has noted, take care of these guys when the season ends. There is no reason to do it a day sooner. What happens if age catches up to Derek Jeter or Mariano Rivera this year? The Yanks can’t reward these two for the past if the future doesn’t hold similar levels of productivity.

As always, baseball is a business, and putting money into a risky investment before the investment requires it is rarely a good idea. The Yankees didn’t wait with Don Mattingly twenty years ago, but they will wait with Jeter and Rivera today. Both players know and accept that they’ll get their dollars when the time is right, and the Yankees know to be careful when the big bucks are concerned. That’s just smart baseball.

Mattingly training to succeed Joe, but which one?

Seeing Don Mattingly — and Joe Torre too, for that matter — in a Dodgers uniform is still rather jarring. I grew up watching and idolizing Mattingly in the Yankee pinstripes, and he just looks wrong in another uniform.

For now, though, all we can do is sit back and protest silently. When the Yankees opted for Joe Girardi over Don Mattingly in the fall of 2007, they picked their man and stuck with it. Mattingly went west with Joe Torre, and he continues to train for a managerial position. Which one, though, remains a mystery.

In a ridiculously platitude- and green tea-laden article about how relaxed and appreciated Torre is with the Dodgers, L.A. Times scribe Bill Shaikin tackles that very issue. Number 23’s return to the Bronx isn’t quite as far-fetched as it may seem. Shaikin writes:

Torre and the Dodgers have a mutual interest in grooming hitting coach Don Mattingly as his successor. Mattingly coached for Torre in New York, then followed him to L.A. “When it’s time for Joe not to manage the club, we would like his replacement to be on our staff,” General Manager Ned Colletti said.

If the Yankees do not return to the playoffs — after spending $423 million on Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett — we cannot imagine Manager Joe Girardi will be invited back. The Yankees selected Girardi over Mattingly as the replacement for Torre, and perhaps they’ll ask their beloved first baseman for a do-over.

Mattingly, who has no managerial experience, said Torre has promised him nothing. “I feel like he’s helping me prepare,” Mattingly said, “but I don’t know if that’s necessarily for here. I liked it in New York. I like it here. I like the game.”

Every the diplomat, Mattingly refused in that last quote to say where he would want to manage, but it’s not hard to read between the lines. There’s little doubt in my mind that if he had his druthers, Mattingly would be sitting on that bench in new Yankee Stadium right now trying to lead the Yanks to World Series Championship number 27.

Maybe he should have been hired after all last year as the symbolic choice to lead the Yankees into the new stadium, but the Yanks went a different path. Shaikin is right though in leaving that question of Mattingly’s future open-ended. Joe Girardi is under contract for this year and next. Missing October with this team could very well mean his job, and Mattingly would be a logical candidate.

So from 3000 miles away, I hope Joe Torre is doing a good job training Mattingly. As long as he leaves the bullpen management lessons up to someone else, one of baseball’s’ potential managers-in-waiting couldn’t have a better teacher.