A morning K-Rod what-if

Unless something major is breaking, odds are good that the three of us are sleeping right now. It’s about 6:30 a.m. in Vegas, and while I woke up Joe with a 5:30 a.m. Vegas time text about Sabathia, I promised I wouldn’t do that today unless the sky happens to fall.

As we gear up for the last day of Winter Meetings and Mike’s upcoming Rule V draft live-blog, I wanted to play a little what if game based on an Anthony McCarron tidbit. In the few hours between K-Rod’s signing and the CC Sabathia news, the New York newspapers quickly filled up with glowing articles about Francisco Rodriguez. As part of the Daily News’ wall-to-wall coverage, McCarron unveiled a K-Rod timeline featuring this juicy tidbit:

September 24, 1998: Rodriguez, only 16 years old, signs with the Angels as an amateur free agent. The Angels beat out several other teams, including the Yankees, with a $900,000 offer. Yanks were reportedly ready to go higher than that, but Rodriguez believes Angels when they tell him he’d have a quicker path to the majors.

Now, I haven’t really been able to confirm this 11-year-old piece of news. 1998, the year the Yanks won 125 games and dominated the Padres in the World Series, was a year before time. We had no blogs; we barely had the Internet. No one paid attention to signings of 16-year-olds out of Venezuela. Jesus Montero would have been just a blip on the radar of the Yankee Universe a decade ago.

But it does pose an interesting “what if.” What if the Yanks had been the ones to sign K-Rod? What they offered him more money, as McCarron said they did, and he bit? It’s safe to say that the last six years would look much different.

In 2002, in the ALDS, K-Rod, then 20, had thrown just 5.2 innings at the Major League level, but because of a quirk in the rules concerning injuries, the Angels were able to add him to the Major League roster. He took the playoffs by storm. He earned the win in two of the Angels’ victories against the Yankees, and Anaheim would go on to capture a ring. All told, K-Rod earned the W in five of the Angels’ 11 playoff wins that year. It’s not a stretch to say that the 99-win 2002 Yankees would have suffered a far different fate had K-Rod been in their system.

Beyond that, it’s too tempting to play even more dangerous “what if” games. What if K-Rod and not Tom Gordon had faced David Ortiz in 2004? I’ll let you turn that one over in your mind, knowing that the Red Sox have beaten K-Rod the closer a few times. K-Rod the premiere set-up man would be an entirely different beast.

Of course, baseball is filled with these what if’s, and as Rodriguez finally comes to New York, it’s interesting and dangerous to imagine what could have been had he chosen the Yanks’ money over the Angels’ promise.

Another Bernie ‘What If?’ scenario

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.

When Bernie Williams nearly left New York

October 12, 1999 — For the first time since Bucky Dent carved himself a place in playoff lore, the Yankees and Red Sox are gearing up to meet in the postseason. Boston is all abuzz as the AL East Champions are playing host to the Wild Card team and defending World Champions from New York. While the Yankees finished with 98 wins this season, the Red Sox’s 104 victories were tops in the Majors, and the Yanks will have to hope that their superior pitching can overcome a power-packed Boston lineup.

Ironic in this meeting is one center fielder for the Red Sox, the former Yankee Bernie Williams. Williams, after becoming a Yankee mainstay, left the Bronx after the Yankees’ 125-win season last year. While the Yankees were prepared to offer Williams a five-year, $60-million contract, the star and his agent Scott Boras rejected that deal. They knew they could get more elsewhere and were tired of playing games with George Steinbrenner.

So now Williams will face off against his old team in Fenway. The Yanks — with their tempestuous twosome of Paul O’Neill and Albert Belle — look strong, but can they overcome the Red Sox?

* * *

We know that didn’t happen. Bernie Williams wasn’t on the Red Sox in 1999, and the Yankees were the AL East champs again.

But it was close. For a while in 1998, it looked like Bernie was Boston-bound, and if he had landed in Fenway, it’s not hard to imagine the Sox taking the division. Williams was the top offensive center fielder in the AL in 1999. His VORP that year — a measure of how much better he was than the next best available option — was 79.9. Darren Lewis, the Red Sox’s starting center fielder, pulled down a -24.8 VORP. That swing of 100 would have theoretically netted the Sox 10 more wins and a spot atop the AL East. It’s funny how history turns out.

“Bernie on the Red Sox?” you might say with a chuckle. “That never would have happened, right?” While it can be tough to see through Scott Boras’ hyperbole and fake seven-year offers, by all accounts in November of 1998, Bernie Williams nearly ended up in Fenway.

Bernie’s tale begins in 1997 when the Yankees were trying to extend their center fielder. They offered him a five-year deal worth just south of $40 million. As you could guess, they were laughed out of the room, and for a while, it seemed as though their offer and past contract snubs were insulting enough to convince Williams to cease negotiations entirely. Money and loyalty are powerful motivators.

Throughout November, Scott Boras and the Yankees engaged in their usual dance as reports of other deals surfaced. At various times, the Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Rockies and Red Sox all expressed interest in Williams. But by the end, it became a battle between rivals. The Yankees and the Red Sox squared off with a big x-factor waiting in the wings.

To the dismay of Yankee fans, that x-factor was none other than hotheaded slugger Albert Belle. As the Yankees and Bernie looked to finalize their looming divorce, a new marriage between the Yankees and Belle was on the horizon. While the Yanks were initially interested in Jim Edmonds, those talks fizzled, and at 32 years old, Belle was one of the most sought-after free agents of 1998. The hip condition that would end his career two seasons later was nowhere to be found, and his numbers and temper were fearsome.

When Williams rejected that five-year, $60-million deal, the Yankees turned their attention to Belle. When I left my apartment on Wednesday night, November 25, 1998, to attend a friend’s Thanksgiving Eve party, I believed that Bernie Williams’ tenure in the Bronx was over. The Yanks and Bernie, as Buster Olney had reported that morning, were nearing a final separation, and Bernie was about to land in Boston.

The Yankees however had an out: Scott Boras offered them one last chance to match the Red Sox’s supposed seven-year, $90-million deal. Bernie, it seemed, wasn’t as keen to get out of New York as earlier reports indicated. When I got home late that night, my dad had left me a note on the door: Bernie Williams signs with the Yanks for seven years and $87.5 million, it said. I was ecstatic. Somehow, the Yankees and Bernie were able to overcome their differences, and Bernie would remain a Yankee.

In the end, it was always tough to tell if Bernie was actually going to leave. Three columnists in The TimesJack Curry, Harvey Araton and Buster Olney — all speculated that Boras used vague, half-serious offers to get the Yanks to ante up. By keeping the archrival Red Sox involved, Boras knew the Yanks would pay, and he won.

When the real 1999 ALCS dawned, the Yanks, led by Bernie, beat the Red Sox with their sad excuse for a center fielder. As we know, Bernie’s Yanks would go on to great success. While Bernie’s contract became something of an albatross by the end of it and Williams still seems to have a poor relationship with the Yankees, keeping Bernie out of Boston was a sage move.

When the Yankees almost traded Andy Pettitte

Two weeks ago, I had fun with a little What If? scenario involving Randy Johnson in 1998. This time, at the suggestion of Hollaforskolla, I’m jumping ahead a year to the 1999 trade deadline when Andy Pettitte was nearly traded.

It is the morning of July 30, 1999, and the Yankees are right where they should be. At 61-39, the defending World Series champions are in first place with a 6.5 game lead over the Red Sox. But all is not well in Yankeeland.

Andy Pettitte, 27 and not too far away from free agency, is struggling. Two days before, Pettitte couldn’t get out of the 4th inning against a pathetic White Sox team, and the lefty finds himself 7-8 with a 5.65 ERA. The Yanks are on the hook in 1999 for $5.95 million and are facing another year of arbitration before free agency. While to us in 2008, that seems like small beans, to George Steinbrenner in 1999, Pettitte is not coming through and the Boss has made it known that Andy Pettitte is on the trading block.

The next four days bring a whirlwind of rumors and near-trades. The stories provide us with a glimpse into what could have been a very costly move. On July 30, Buster Olney, then the Yankee beat writer for The Times writes that Steinbrenner “did not order that Pettitte be traded, but the actions of his subordinates in the hours after the staff meeting in Tampa, Fla., suggested that they were working hard to formulate an acceptable deal before the deadline Saturday night.”

That day, the Yankees are rumored to be in discussions with the Phillies. A potential deal with net the Philadelphia Phillies Andy Pettitte, and the Yanks would get Adam Eaton, Anthony Shumaker and Reggie Taylor. At the time, those were three highly touted prospects. It’s funny how things work out.

Also on the table is a deal with the Giants for Shawn Estes. Olney, proving that old habits never ever die, does indeed call Estes “a better fit” for the Yankees because he’s due just $2.15 million in 2000. Imagine Andy Pettitte’s almost getting traded because of a $4 million difference.

As the clock ticks down to midnight on July 31, 1999, Pettitte’s future in pinstripes looks dim. As Olney notes, on the same day they reacquired Jim Leyrtiz, the Yanks had a deal in place with the Philadelphia Phillies. This deal however is contingent upon another deal: If the Yanks can land Arthur Rhodes or Roberto Hernandez, Pettitte is gone.

There are a few hitches. To get Rhodes, the Yanks would have to send D’Angelo Jimenez and Luis De Los Santos to the Orioles. At the time, Jimenez was a highly-regarded prospect. A terrible motorcycle accident would change his career a few years later. To give up Hernandez, the Devil Rays wanted one of two young kids: Alfonso Soriano or Nick Johnson.

Well, as we know, nothing happened, and the fallout exposed some divisions in the Yankee organization. George Steinbrenner, for one, was less than enthusiastic that Joe Torre intervened to keep Andy Pettitte. ‘Our manager seems to think things are all right,” Steinbrenner said. ”I have great confidence in my manager.”

Pettitte wasn’t too enthused by that statement, according to Olney. ”You want your owner to want you around,” he said.

The next day, George backtracked a little. ‘The manager is happy,” he said. ”That’s good by me.”

But when all was said and done, Andy Pettitte came oh so close to getting traded on that fateful night in July. But he wasn’t traded, and he responded in kind. Through August and September, Pettitte would go 7-3 with a 3.46 ERA, and he threw two stellar starts in the ALDS and ALCS before getting bounced early in game 3 of the World Series. The Yanks would eventually win that game on a home run by Chad Curtis in the 10th.

We know what happened after 1999 with Andy Pettitte. He had some stellar seasons in the Bronx, and except for a terrible start in the 2001 World Series, he pitched his heart out in the postseason. His game 6 start in the 2003 World Series against the Marlins was brilliant even though he was overshadowed by Josh Beckett.

This is one trade that the Yanks are glad they never made. Andy Pettitte has been far superior than Adam Eaton, and the money stopped being an issue for the Yanks shortly after they won again in 1999 and 2000. But eight years ago, without hourly-updated blogs and the constant surveillance of the Internet, not too many people knew that Andy Pettitte came to within a hair’s breadth of being traded. In the end, Pettitte and the Yanks were, to borrow a phrase, a good fit.

What If: Re-imagining the Yankee Dynasty

Before I begin this exercise in What If? baseball history, let’s just remember that hindsight is always 20/20. When we look back in time and try to evaluate trades that weren’t made, it’s easy to do it sitting here in 2008. The trick is to put our selves in the shoes of those involved in the decision. In this case, that means hoping in a time machine and journeying to July 31, 1998.

It is July 31, 1998, and the Yankees are on a once-in-a-lifetime roll. The Yankees are 76-27 with a 15-game lead over the Red Sox. Since a 1-3 start, the team was a blistering 75-24. That just doesn’t happen.

But despite being prohibitive World Series favorites, the Yankees were always searching for ways to get better, and leading the charge was a rookie. General Manager Brian Cashman was in his first year as Yankee GM, and a series of moves and non-moves, beginning on that fateful night in July — the trade deadline — would impact the Yankees Dynasty up through the present day.

As site commenter Phil reminded us today, the Yankees were in the hunt for Randy Johnson. I had completely forgotten about these behind-the-scenes moves. But as RAB favorite and one-time Yankee beatwriter Buster Olney relates, the Yankees didn’t pull the trigger:

[Read more…]