…. Big deal

With all the talk of the Yankees trading for Johann Santana, little has been made of the fact that they wouldn’t need to trade for him had they made the smart free-agent choices over the last several seasons. Had they been able to do so, they wouldn’t be sitting here with a virtually useless Johnny Damon, a soon-to-be out of baseball Carl Pavano; they wouldn’t have given up a bunch of good prospects for Randy Johnson, only to see him go away after providing nothing of real value. They wouldn’t have needed Shacon, or Aaron Small. They wouldn’t have had to pay Roger Clemens $4 million dollars per win.

In fact, one free agent would have probably made all the difference in the world. Three seasons ago, when the Yankees passed on the chance to sign Josh Beckett, even though he was clearly the best available free agent pitcher of the last ten years, they were following a pattern of incorrectly analyzing their needs, and more importantly, misjudging the value of the available free agents. This led them to overpay for and/or trade for a group of mediocre and/or over the hill starting pitchers, like Pavano, Johnson, and Kevin Brown, to name but a few. In fact, the starting pitchers the Yankees have trotted out over the last four seasons have been little more than over-priced mediocrities, (in some cases, massively over-priced mediocrities). The lion’s share of the blame for the team’s failure to recapture the championship lies at the feet of these pitchers, these decisions, and let’s not forget Mike Mussina, who has been a good but not even close to great pitcher since he’s been a Yank.

Missing out on Beckett –and then having to watch him lead the Red Sox to the promised land this last season– is a mistake they must regret. If they end up having to give up Joba Chamberlin to land Santana, it could end up being the kind of mistake even the uber-wealthy Yankees may regret for along, long time.

During the first half of Joe Torre’s tenure, when Yankee Stadium was, once again, the place where championships live; it was starting and relief pitching that made the team what it was. Steinbrenner, Cashman, and the rest of the Yankee braintrust clearly forgot that, as they focused on remaking the team into an offensive juggernaut; ignoring the fact that their starting pitchers were getting older, less effective, and more difficult to replace, and neglecting speed, youth, and defense for good measure. The decision to ignore the opportunity to nab Carlos Beltran proved to be equally costly, as the team has spent every season since searching for the right combination of outfield defense and offense. No powerhouse pitching, no youth, no speed, suspect defense…. But all of this could be overcome by one thing; outstanding –make them swing and miss outstanding– starting pitching.

In 1998, all five of the Yankee starters had at least 126 strikeouts, with David Cone’s 209 leading the pack. In ’99 all five starters did it again, and in 2000, four starters made 30-plus starts, and all four of them had well over 100 strikeouts. IN ’01, when the Yanks lost to the D’backs in seven games, both Mussina and Clemens had over 200 strikeouts, and four starters had over 100. In ’02 and ’03, again the team had four starters crack the century mark.

Starting in 2004, the Yankees starting pitchers have gotten old, gotten bad, and become completely hittable. In ’04, the top Yankee strikeout total came from Javier Vazquez, who topped out at a mediocre 150 in 198 innings. In ’05, the Yankees got 80 strikeouts from Mariano Rivera, which was the third-highest total of any pitcher on the team. I n ’06, Scott Proctor’s 89 was also the third-highest total on the entire staff; and last season, Andy Pettitte had 141, Wang had 104, and Mussina had 91.

Why have the Yanks been such postseason pushovers the last four seasons? This is why. No power pitching, at all. For that matter, no truly consistent, effective starting pitching of any kind. You think Joe Torre suddenly forgot how to manage? Or did the Yankees have no one who could take the ball and get them to the seventh inning more than one game in five?

Add it all up, and you come to no other conclusion than this:

The Yankees absolutely have to land Santana.

They have to if they intend to continue to play every season as a win it all or nothing proposition. Without him to start Game One of each series, this team goes into every playoff series as an underdog, no matter how much offense they have. You want to see a David Ortiz moment from A-Rod? Get a dominant starting pitcher, or two, for that matter, because Pettitte and Mussina’s best days are behind them, Wang’s stuff relies too much on defense, and there’s no sure thing in Hughes and Kennedy. Get Santana, and you can match up with Beckett and the Red Sox, or anyone’s ace, really.

It’s too bad they miscalculated Beckett’s value. It’s too bad they failed to see Bernie Williams was done when they could have had Beltran at a now downright underpaid $13 million per. They did. They aren’t gonna move Jeter to the outfield, even though they need to. They aren’t gonna get younger. They need to upgrade their pitching staff, and they need Santana to start the process.

UPDATE: Doh! I forgot that Beckett was a trade as well. Oh, well. My argument still holds water. The Yankees did make trades that were for the wrong guys, while also making free agent choices that were pretty awful as well. Sure, maybe they couldn’t have gotten Beckett, just like the Giants can’t really make a swing for Cabrera. But, just because I screwed up one part doesn’t mean I’m crazy…. ha ha! ;-)

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