In the 2004-2005 offseason, the top free agent on the market was Carlos Beltran, the switch-hitting, slugging center fielder. It happened that the Yankees had a need in center field, as Bernie Williams, 35, had just completed his second subpar season in a row, and his defense had long since passed the point of no return. Beltran reportedly had a great deal of interest in playing for the Yankees, but for reasons that were unclear then and remain unclear, the Yankees passed. That meant not only leaving Williams in center for another year, but it also meant that when Williams finally had to be wedged out of center field, they had to go to the best available player, which meant Johnny Damon. Damon has had two good years in three for the Yankees, but he is not the player that Beltran is, is far older, and soon proved that he was no longer a center fielder.
It is no exaggeration to say that the Yankees’ decision to pass on Beltran so as to use their monetary advantages that winter primarily on pitching help–which came in the dubious forms of Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright, plus the aged but still viable (and cranky) Randy Johnson–has played a key part in their failure to win a title in the years since. Had the Yankees passed on Mark Teixeira, a player who perfectly suited (as was suggested here in this space on Monday) three of their needs simultaneously, age,offense, and defense, they would have repeated the same error.
They did not. All credit to Brian Cashman and the Steinbrenner family, to the former for playing it cool and then making his move, to the latter for opening their wallets and spending big–and to all three for not just spending, Wright- and Pavano-style, but for spending it on the right player, maybe the “rightest” player that they’ve acquired since Alex Rodriguez. If only they don’t try to move Teixeira to another position so a defensively inferior player can play first. Nah, that would never happen.
There is one point in the above worth repeating: all the dollars that accrue to sport’s wealthiest organization mean nothing if they are not spent wisely. Too often, the Yankees have settled for something other than the choicest cuts of meat. This time, it’s filet mignon all the way.
The Yankees are not perfect. The defense is still poor. The outfield defense could be very shaky depending on the alignment the Yankees pursue. They could choose to let a meaningless spring training battle decide center field instead of letting the evidence of a full major league season inform their choices. They could give Xavier Nady more playing time in right field than Nick Swisher. Derek Jeter is losing range even as we speak. Jorge Posada may or may not be able to throw–
–And that reminds me to revisit another point, as a major metropolitan newspaper published a column castigating the Yankees for closing off first base to Hideki Matsui, Johnny Damon, and Jorge Posada. Here we go:
This year, major league first basemen hit .272 /.353/.464.
Two years ago, they hit .276/.357/.463.
Three years ago, they hit .285/.363/.488.
Over the last five years, they hit .275/.355/.468.
Over the last ten years, they hit .276/.359/.472.
No doubt you’re starting to get the picture. Now, this is the average. If a team is getting these rates from its first baseman, it’s breaking even in comparison with the league. You could have Albert Pujols and do a lot better. You could have Doug Mientkiewicz and do a lot worse. Heck, your manager could give Miguel Cairo the odd start at first base. Some of these first baseman, like Albert Pujols and New Yankee Teixeira, not only hit but can field the position. While the standards are set where they are, there is no plausible reason that the Yankees should pass on a 29-year-old MVP-level player so they can reserve first base for aging former stars who will struggle to meet even the average level of production for the position and will almost certainly not be defensive assets. That is a formula for losing. And, oh yeah, the contracts of both Damon and Matsui are up at the end of the season. Unless the Yankees are as misguided a year from now as they were intelligent in signing Teixeira, what to do with those players at age 36 and up will be some other club’s problem.
Thus endeth the lecture. For now, suffice it to say that the Yankees have given their fans a great early Christmas present. More importantly, they’ve done the right thing competitively. Before the Red Sox became the favorites in the bidding, Teixeira was a move the Yankees should have made. Once the Red Sox became involved, it was a move they had to make, lest their rivals to the North unveil their own version of Murderer’s Row. As I said above, it was the right-est move the Yankees have made in years.
And with that, I wish you a happy and healthy holiday, whatever holiday is your holiday of choice. Enjoy it, and when you sit down to dinner with your family, don’t forget to scratch out Teixeira-ified batting orders into the mashed potatoes.