The restructuring of the New York Yankees began five days after
that broken-bat bloop by Luis Gonzalez parachuted to posterity
behind second base, clinching the World Series for the Arizona
Diamondbacks and breaking the Yankees' run of three titles. At 9
a.m. on Nov. 9, about 15 of the team's baseball operations
executives and scouts secretly gathered in a windowless meeting
room at a hotel in Orlando.
On the table before each of the attendees sat a report prepared
by general manager Brian Cashman tracking New York's on-base
percentage and walks for the past decade. Cashman had run
similar numbers on May 3, when he first sensed the Yankees were
losing their knack for taking pitches, drawing walks, getting on
base by any means possible and, ultimately, scoring runs.
Cashman crunched the numbers again on May 22, again on Aug. 22
and again immediately after the World Series. The final numbers
were worse than he'd feared: New York drew fewer bases on balls
in 2001 than it had in the strike-shortened 1994 season. The
Yankees' 519 walks were their fewest since '91, remembered only
by the most knowledgeable baseball paleontologists as the Alvaro
Espinoza Era, and their .334 on-base percentage was the club's
worst since '92. "This has got to stop," Cashman said firmly to
For 10 hours the executives and scouts sequestered themselves
like a jury--lunch was brought in--until they devised a
blueprint to rebuild New York into a more patient, more
productive offensive machine. Five weeks, two trades and $181
million in free-agent expenditures later (including dollars
shelled out for pitching reinforcements and for manager Joe
Torre), the Yankees had executed their plan as efficiently as if
it were just another room-service order. The big enchilada was
free-agent first baseman Jason Giambi, who last Thursday signed
a seven-year deal, with an option for an eighth, worth $120
million. As side dishes, New York retained free-agent lefthanded
starter Sterling Hitchcock (two years, $12 million), overpaid
free-agent righthanded setup man Steve Karsay (four years, $23
million) and corralled leftfielder Rondell White (two years, $10
million). The Yankees also allowed Torre to remain the
highest-paid manager in baseball, re-signing him for three years
and $16 million.
Giambi, the 6'3", 235-pound former Oakland A's slugger, has a
rightfield home run stroke that's ideal for Yankee Stadium and a
career .412 on-base percentage, fifth best among active players.
"The best part is, the first inning isn't the whole offense
now," says Torre, whose lineup last season often sagged in the
middle and at the bottom. "We have balance and flexibility."
Torre is considering batting shortstop Derek Jeter,
centerfielder Bernie Williams and Giambi 1-2-3 in a lineup that
most often will employ two switch-hitters (Williams and catcher
Jorge Posada), three righthanded hitters (Jeter, second baseman
Alfonso Soriano and White) and four lefthanded hitters (Giambi,
DH Nick Johnson and two other new acquisitions via trades,
rightfielder John Vander Wal and third baseman Robin Ventura).
The Yankees turned over five of the nine spots in their lineup
and in every case plugged in a higher on-base-percentage player.
Giambi, whose .477 led the American League last year, replaces
Tino Martinez (.329). The other upgrades are Ventura (.359) for
the retired Scott Brosius (.343), White (.371) for the free agent
Chuck Knoblauch (.339), Vander Wal (.364) for the retired Paul
O'Neill (.330) and rookie Johnson (.407 at Triple A Columbus) for
the traded David Justice (.333).
"I knew one thing: Change was coming," Cashman says. "We had
gotten away from what made us successful offensively. A lot of
the same hitters who were patient weren't patient. We were very
'attack mode' for some reason. Pitching is still the key, but if
our pitchers were honest, they'd tell you how difficult it was
without runs last season." With 804 runs scored, New York ranked
fifth in the league; its .255 average with runners in scoring
position ranked 11th.
Even the Yankees' trades were executed seamlessly. They were
prepared to dump Justice on Oakland for prospects when, instead,
the crosstown Mets agreed to give them a ready-made solution at
third in Ventura. The Yankees also determined in Orlando that
they had to trade ineffective reliever Jay Witasick, even if it
meant getting low-grade prospects, and wound up shipping him to
the San Francisco Giants for Vander Wal. Despite the flurry of
moves, Cashman says that because of back-loaded contracts, the
Yankees' cash outlay to cover payroll for next year will be the
same as it was for last season: about $115 million.
When the New York brass met in Orlando, the two most prominent
free agents were Giambi and Barry Bonds. It was quickly
determined that Giambi was their man. "It's kind of humbling when
somebody just broke the home run record," Giambi says, referring
to Bonds's 73-homer season, "and they say, 'No, we don't want
him. We want you.'"
The Yankees dismissed Bonds for several reasons. At 37 he's seven
years older than Giambi. Also, New York was troubled by reports
that Bonds was egocentric and disliked by teammates, feared he
was a poor fit for the hypercritical fan and media culture of New
York, and dreaded the prospect of being mired in the protracted
negotiations that are a trademark of his agent, Scott Boras.
The Yankees knew Giambi would be a better fit for New York: an
extrovert who had developed into a leader of the youthful A's.
What they didn't know about Giambi was his passion for greatness.
That changed when Cashman phoned him to begin the recruiting
process. During that conversation Giambi said he wanted to become
a Hall of Famer. "When I heard that," Cashman says, "my interest
shot up another level."
Jason grew up in Southern California listening to his father,
John, a banker, tell stories about Mickey Mantle, John's favorite
player. When Jason was introduced at a news conference at Yankee
Stadium last Thursday wearing his pinstriped number 25 jersey
(the digits add up to Mantle's number), he at first teared up and
couldn't bring himself to speak. Finally he mustered, "We didn't
get 7, Pops, but we got the pinstripes."
Giambi would still be playing for Oakland had Athletics owners
Steve Schott and Ken Hofmann given Giambi a no-trade clause last
March, after Giambi's agent, Arn Tellem, and general manager
Billy Beane had agreed to a six-year, $91 million deal. "They
wanted to be able to trade him at any time," says Tellem of the
Oakland owners. "They decided they didn't want him. If it had
been left to Billy and me, the deal would have been done." The
A's finally agreed to the no-trade provision in October, but
shortly thereafter New York was in on the bidding.
The Yankees attacked the off-season aggressively, backed by the
greatest financial resources in the game (with $242 million, New
York had by far baseball's largest operating revenue in 2001).
For instance, with a green light in Orlando from general
partners Steve Swindal and Hank Steinbrenner--Hank's father,
George, skipped a major off-season planning session for the
first time--Cashman began implementing the blueprint in November
while many clubs waited on the possibility of a contraction
dispersal draft. "Some teams may have had their eyes on players
on teams mentioned in contraction," Cashman says, "but given
where we would have drafted, I didn't see that we were looking
at a great player. I wasn't going to get caught up in worrying
about trading up, because that only distracts you from the job
Similarly, the Yankees showed no patience with hesitant clubs or
agents, especially when it came to finding a replacement for
Knoblauch. They coveted Florida Marlins outfielder Cliff Floyd
but quit pursuing him when the Marlins, operating under a pending
ownership change, were indecisive. New York asked the Anaheim
Angels about outfielder Darin Erstad but moved on after the
Angels said they weren't sure if they'd trade him. The Yankees
also contacted Alan and Randy Hendricks, agents for free agent
Moises Alou, but switched to White because they knew they could
get a quicker, cheaper deal. "The Yankees go in, they want to
find out if you're really interested or just shopping, and
they're ready to make a deal if you are," Tellem says. "If you
don't move, like with Alou, they'll move on."
Last Friday, in his Yankee Stadium office, Cashman played Twister
over the stacks of files and reports scattered on the carpet as
he attempted to locate a copy of his on-base-percentage report.
When he couldn't find it, he summoned an assistant, who, after
some spelunking, found it right on Cashman's desk, behind which
stood a wipeboard with the names of the new and improved Yankees
written at positions on a diagram of a baseball field. When he
looked past the board and out his window, Cashman saw heavy
machinery on the real field, which was stripped bare of its sod
and dirt. The winter was coming off just as planned for the
Yankees, rebuilt from the ground up.
B/W PHOTOMONTAGE: CHUCK SOLOMON (GIAMBI); NICKOLAS MURAY/BASEBALL HALL OF FAME (RUTH) I got you, Babe Giambi may not fill Ruth's pinstripes, but he hopes to follow him into the Hall.