Shortsighted deals for Boone and Weaver started New York's downfall
Posted: Tuesday October 28, 2003 12:43PM; Updated: Wednesday October 29, 2003 9:32AM
It was fitting that when the Yankees lost the World Series -- and no, it wasn't when Josh Beckett took the hill for Game 6 and took the Texas torch from Roger Clemens -- that the organization's biggest mistakes of the past two seasons were at the vortex. New York lost the Fall Classic in Game 4, when Aaron Boone twice could not get the tie-breaking run home from third base and when Jeff Weaver allowed a 12th-inning gopher ball, which tied the record for the latest home run in a game in World Series history. The Yankees built their world championship run on signing the right free agents, making shrewd trades and developing a farm system that graduated future All-Stars Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter to the big leagues within a four-month window in 1995. They put a halt to the Jay Buhner-Doug Drabek-Fred McGriff giveaway deals. Now the trades for Weaver and Boone demonstrate that the Yankees have lost their magic when it comes to pure evaluation moves. Neither deal was made under any duress, financial or otherwise. New York simply made poor decisions.
What did the Yankees give up for Weaver and Boone? Only the single most important commodity since Yankee Stadium was built to reward left-handed hitters and penalize right-handed batters: good, young, left-handed pitching. Last season, they gave away Ted Lilly for Weaver, not to mention top prospects Jason Arnold and John-Ford Griffin, and this year they dumped Brandon Claussen for Boone.
When the Yankees traded for Weaver, they made the evaluation that Lilly would never be more than a No. 3 starter and that Weaver would be a No. 1 or a No. 2 alongside Mike Mussina as the anchors of the rotation for years to come. New York whiffed badly. Weaver is a career loser with a hangdog presence, and behaves nothing like an ace. He is 27 years old with a 51-63 record, including a 7-9 mark last season for a team that won 101 games.
Why Joe Torre entrusted a tied World Series game to Weaver is a mystery, but for the almighty worshipping of the righty-vs.-righty mentality, even if your righty had a 9.26 ERA out of the bullpen and was working on 27 days of rust ... er, rest. Torre said he was also looking for "length," which means he was looking for Weaver to throw four, maybe five shutout innings to bring the game into the 15th inning. Right. And I'm looking to win the lottery. Besides, there have been 584 World Series games and only one ever went more than 12 innings -- and that was a 14-inning affair between the Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Red Sox in 1916.
Lilly, meanwhile, already is a better pitcher than Weaver. The Oakland staff succeeded where New York did not. Under pitching coach Rick Peterson, the A's changed Lilly's mechanics to increase his velocity and improved his confidence. Mistake No. 2 for the Yanks was the trade of Claussen for Boone and reliever Gabe White, a forgotten man ever since he gave up that moon shot to Trot Nixon in the ALCS. Maybe Claussen won't pan out. The point is that he had tremendous value as a trading chip and the Yankees gave that up for a player they didn't need. There was, according to one Yankees official, a split in the front office over the deal. Acquiring Boone was not a unanimous move.
Said one official who was against it, "We haven't seen the player the scouts told us we were getting. His [swing] mechanics are awful. Look at his feet when he swings. They're always moving. To me it's not a slump. It's poor mechanics."
In addition, Boone has a painfully long swing. He brings his hands around the ball rather than keeping them inside the ball. That's why Braden Looper kept pounding fastballs in on his hands in the 11th inning of Game 4 -- he might as well have shouted to Boone what was coming -- and Boone still could not hit the pitch; he whiffed with the infield in. Two innings earlier, he left Ruben Sierra on third by grounding out. Boone went 2 for 14 in the postseason with runners on base, including an 0-for-10 finish.
Moreover, he played scared on defense, making the most errors by a third baseman in the World Series in 55 years (three) and being spared a fourth by an official scorer. His footwork was lazy and horrible.
One element that makes acquiring players difficult for the Yankees is that they never know how a player will respond to playing in New York until he is there. Pitcher Antonio Osuna, for instance, looked like a good signing last offseason, but he basically told the Yankees toward the end of this year that he couldn't pitch in the New York environment. So he was nowhere to be found when the Yankees needed right-handed relievers against the Marlins. Maybe Boone, too, is a guy who is just not cut out for New York.
Losing the World Series was bad enough. Now the Yankees are stuck with Weaver and Boone. Weaver is due $15.5 million over the next two years. The Yankees should explore trading him, especially since the fans of New York will make it difficult for him to succeed there. The club may have to eat some money in order to get rid of Weaver, but it should try to dump him on St. Louis for fellow underachiever J.D. Drew.
Boone earned $3.7 million last year and will make between $5 million and $6 million in arbitration. The Yankees should non-tender him, but they won't -- basically because they gave up a top prospect to get him and because having an overpaid player means nothing to them. His power was a creation of the Great American Smallpark in Cincinnati. Yankee Stadium will reduce his numbers.
The Yankees didn't necessarily lose the World Series. The Marlins won it, with solid defense and clutch, young power pitching and just enough key hits. I didn't like the way George Steinbrenner and the Yankees were insulted when the Astros no-hit them this year. It was not an embarrassment. It was a great night of pitching for Houston. The same recognition needs to be applied to the World Series. Give Florida credit.
That said, the Yankees do need to tweak their team -- as all teams need to continually reassess in this era of increased player movement. Here are other suggestions New York might consider. Obviously, the club isn't about to heed all of them, or even some of them, but here are a few options they do have:
* Trade Alfonso Soriano for Carlos Beltran. This works, of course, only if the Yankees are able to re-sign Beltran, who is a better offensive player than Soriano and would give New York the upgrade in outfield defense it needs. (Bernie Williams would slide to left and Hideki Matsui to right.)
* Re-sign Pettitte. Steinbrenner might as well give the left-hander a blank check, what with Clemens retiring and David Wells, the guy who proudly doesn't bust his butt every day, a back operation waiting to happen.
* Explore getting Javier Vazquez and/or Jose Vidro from Montreal. Here is where giving up Claussen hurts New York. Its chips are depleted. The Yankees do have Nick Johnson and Juan Rivera, and then there's Dionar Navarro, a 19-year-old, switch-hitting catcher who hit .341 in Class AA.
* Inquire about getting Mike Lowell, moving Boone to second base and Soriano to center field.
* Sign Gary Sheffield and bring the team back nearly intact.
The Yankees lineup fell apart in the postseason because Soriano lost whatever clue he had about an intelligent approach to hitting and because Jason Giambi degenerated from a cleanup-hitting first baseman who was one of the most feared hitters in baseball to a seventh-place hitting DH who could not hit anything hard above his belt. The Yankees ought to be very worried about Giambi's left knee, which is suffering from patella tendinitis, the same painful injury that quickly ruined Mark McGwire's career. Giambi has five more years left on his contract. It will be very interesting to see which Giambi shows up in spring training next year: the massive, bulked Giambi who wants to hit 40 home runs, or a slimmer version who wants to take some strain off the knee and will sacrifice power to hit .300 again.
As for the rotation, Mussina and Jose Contreras are in. Jon Lieber is likely to be in. Weaver is likely to be back. Pettitte should be back, unless the Astros, who play in the left-hander's home state, can unload Billy Wagner (who is owed $8 million next year and either a $3 million buyout or $9 million salary in 2005) and Pettitte and his family decide he'd rather pitch at home. Wells may have to re-work his option if he wants to come back. There are more question marks in the rotation than the Yankees have seen in years. Claussen would have looked good there, especially because New York needs to infuse the staff with some youth.
Yankees postseasons have become a joyless pursuit of perfection. Anything short of winning the World Series is regarded as failure. It would be fascinating to see a season in which New York didn't make the playoffs at all, just to see if any happiness and appreciation would return thereafter. I don't foresee such a season just yet. Well, not unless the Yankees panic into more making mistakes like the Weaver and Boone deals.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Tom Verducci covers baseball for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.