Monday, November 17, 2008

A Canyon Reborn

Hello. My name is Mike Plugh. You might remember me from such blogs as Matsuzaka Watch and Darvish Watch. Perhaps you might remember me from such websites as Baseball Prospectus. As you might notice, the last entry at this venerable institution of Yankees commentary was sometime at the start of the past season. I owe you an explanation.

I'm a resident of two continents. I bridge the divide in real geography as well as metaphorically, via my family life. The past year has been an adventure of life between Japan and the United States. It's included a whirlwind Masters degree at Fordham University in the Bronx and employment at Akita International University in northern Japan. Mid-July saw the birth of my second child, a daughter, in Akita and the demands of each of these things kept me from my passion for baseball. Oh, and there was that pesky little election thing that I was involved in. I've restricted much of my blogging to my politics and media site Communicative Action for the past year. As an active member of Democrats Abroad Japan and a Media Ecologist, I've had my hands full with progressive, netroots activism and a deeper, more committed career in media scholarship.

I'm hoping to make a PhD my next adventure in this journey, perhaps as soon as Fall 2009, but there should be just enough room for my Yankee alter ego at this point to squeeze in at least one more offseason and run at the pennant. For those of you new to my work, please bookmark me or subscribe to my RSS feed. For those of you returning to the Canyon of Heroes perspective, thanks for your loyalty and support. The blog will need a little airing out from the mothballs and will require a few upgrades here and there to reflect my Web 2.0 sensibilities, but jump on board for the ride now while the getting is good. Now to some baseball...

My layoff at COH was actually very well timed. My passion for the Yankees waned slightly at the start of the last season and my expectations were similarly low. More than anything else, the team reminded me of the last years of the Ewing era at Madison Square Garden where nostalgia masked some very real problems and the promise of a few young faces gave us a false sense of our own potential. My busy schedule combined with this pessimissm about the team made it easy to go cold turkey on blogging, even while I kept my eyes on the team all season long. Here's a little sense of why I felt that way, and how I feel right now as a new season's cycle is upon us.

Last season the club put Jason Giambi, Melky Cabrera, Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, Kyle Farnsworth, and a few others on the field every night. None of those players spelled any sort of promise to me. As it turned out, Mussina surprised everyone to turn in one of his finest seasons and a cherry on the sundae of his career with 20 wins. Outside that magical feat there was little to celebrate from any of the other cast of characters. I saw that coming, frankly, and when I connected the dots to the age creeping up on Jeter, Posada, and Abreu I didn't like what I saw. It was one year too many with that core group.

The Johan Santana situation was a bit complicated last offseason. I've long been an advocate for laying off the free agent players with big price tags unless they are of the very elite at their positions. We're talking HOF credentials. Santana is in that class, but it required a trade of our young pitching to acquire him and I don't really support that philosophy. We face a C.C. Sabathia expenditure this offseason that rivals in dollars what we would have spent on Santana, although there have to be a few questions about whether he will ultimately be in the same class long term. There is the issue of his weight of course, but his big success, his prime years, have come after his 25th birthday and there have only been two years worth of performance to go by in judging him. I'll get into my feelings about this move in a moment.

If you keep shuffling the same pieces around hoping to get a different result, it seems you are pursuing a foolish strategy. Giambi at DH. Giambi at first. Matsui in left. Matsui at DH. Johnny Damon in left. Johnny Damon at DH. Flexibility is one thing, trying to jam the same broken down pieces into a lineup is another.

This offseason has the potential to be one of renewal. The permission to blow things up was given as the team lost it's last chance at a championship in the old stadium. The new stadium is here, and with it a new era dawns....sort of. There is still Jeter, A-Rod, Matsui, Damon, Posada, Cano, Melky, and Mariano to name a few. The renewal of the Yankees is still far from in full swing. Getting better is something we can do. Getting younger is also doable. Doing both at the same time is a tougher task and one that will require a big outlay of cash. Our farm system isn't nearly good enough to pay immediate dividends on that front, but the demands of a rabid fan base, a cranky ownership, and tradition almost force the club to pursue every means to win.

Being a Milwaukee Brewers fan or a Tampa Bay Rays fan is an exercise in patience. They stink, they draft, they develop, and they get a fleeting 5 or 6 years of success to live by. Yankee fans want the whole thing every season. We're a greedy and unforgiving bunch. The joy of a Phillies championship in a city decades removed from any sort of championship is a foreign concept for us. Some of us approaching middle age lived through the long, dry years of Yankee mediocrity and can appreciate the current commitment to winning. The joy of it is a bit compromised now, I must say. Sure, it's a happy affair when your team wins it all, but it feels much better when it comes after a period of down times. The definition of "overcoming the odds" for the Yankees is not winning 100 games and fizzling out in the ALDS. That's the definition of being "spoiled."

The aforementioned Brewers put together Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, and others. The Rays have Crawford, Longoria, Upton, and now Price. The Phillies managed to string together Howard, and Utley, and Rollins to go with Hamels. We look to buy our way into the playoffs with only a sideways glance at our young players, Cano and Hughes and Joba, as contributors to the larger picture. Now, we're going to dump the old and bring in the new. Out is the $100 million Jason Giambi experiment that ultimately only amounted to a few exciting moments and a lot of ties to the steroid era. Out is Mike Mussina, in all likelihood, who represented the good but never great pitching staff that took over post Clemens, Key, Cone. Out may be Abreu, who was a good Yankee and a model of the modern baseball philosophy that's rightly or wrongly attributed to Billy Beane's "Moneyball." The right field short porch will probably whisper, "Goodbye Bobby. I hardly knew ye."

In might be C.C. Sabathia and his strong, young left arm. In is Nick Swisher, a Bobby Abreu pretender with the versatility to play first base if needed. Teixeira? Burnett? Manny? Who else is coming in on the white horse to save the day? If only it was the proverbial "man on a white horse" that the Yankees needed. There is A-Rod, after all.

Can the Yankees be better? With their resources, yes. Can the Yankees be exciting? If lots of offense and overwhelming star power is your thing, again, yes. If making the playoffs every year, championship or no, is acceptable, then yes. As a long time fan of the sport, and the Yankees, I long for a bit of perspective on what it means to win it all. I won't throw back the banners or the memories of the tickertape parades, if they come again, but I liked it a bit better when it was Charlie Hayes clutching the last out at third for some odd reason. I'm not a Scott Brosius apologist, but I was satisfied with his rise from mediocrity to contribute to a great season in 1998. I enjoyed Joe Girardi and Paul O'Neill, who were great Yankees if not great players. The satisfaction of winning doesn't come from winning at all costs, but rather winning despite the odds. That's why the world could fall in love with the Rays. The excitement built over time and their tremendous feat was a tribute to a long-suffering franchise who finally got it right.

Okay, now that my little cathartic speech about winning in some kind of ideal, pure fashion is over, back to Yankee world. Thank God we have an ownership that understands how to generate revenue via its geographical advantages. The Red Sox finally got that right a few years back and have turned their franchise into the model club of the sport. We are in the position to put money back into the team and will do so again this year. Dropping the older, dead weight is the beginning to a fresh start. Understanding the right kind of players to bring in with big money is the trick. C.C. Sabathia is a good place to start, and to start by overspending to avoid getting caught out on the cheap. Pairing Sabathia with Wang and Joba makes us super tough. A strong #4 would put us in a position to compete with any team out there. Is it Hughes? Hard to say. He can certainly be #5. I don't think that we need to go crazy with Derek Lowe or A.J. Burnett to find that #4 guy. It's not worth it.

I also think that spending big on the offense is unnecessary. Swisher is a good start at a decent price. Keep Cano. Don't give up on him yet. He has something, if he can tap into it for a full season. Find someone young to sit behind Posada and develop him. Easier said than done. Don't blow the wad on a first baseman if Teixeira isn't coming. Let Damon and Matsui ride out their contracts unless you can unload them on someone. I'd only spend on Manny if I were going to dish out big cash on an outfielder, but I don't think it's intriguing as it would be in my opinion. The Yankees can spend less, score a little less, play better defense, pitch MUCH better, and win. What's more, we can win it all without the Giambi's and Matsui's and Damon's and the high priced position players that we've tried to plug in over recent years. If we stick with our veterans, add Teixeira and Sabathia, isn't that enough? Can't we spend the next two years phasing out the guys that are on the big decline and replace them with the lower priced players that produce 80% of the big names, but play hard, play good defense, and inject a little life into the process.

My last word here may be blaspheme to Yankee fans and I may lose some of you in the process, but I don't care if the Yankees win big every season. I like it when they win. I want to win more and more championships. I want to stop the Red Sox at all costs. But...if we don't win....okay. That's the very nature of competition. There is no winning without losing. The two define each other. It's how you win and how you lose that determine the satisfaction or sting in the end. Winning by outspending everyone and stacking a lineup of big names is less satisfying poetically. Likewise, losing under the same circumstances is correspondingly unpoetic. It's rather pathetic actually. When Moose spit the bit against Detroit a couple of years ago in the ALDS, some Yankee fans lost it, and rightly so. The "greatest lineup ever assembled" went cold and the pitching was exposed for what it was...aging and never dominant. The loss produced a kind of cotton-mouth effect that really carried over into last season and was never alleviated at any point.

So, I'd rather fight hard and lose with some fulfillment of the Homeric hero poem than by playing the role of the once leading man turned B-actor. I'd love to win either way, but doing so can only truly be satisfying for this Yankee fan if it happens as a result of a Tampa Bay Rays-style commitment to developing draft picks, or by putting together a group of complimentary pieces that includes solid guys that don't attract the spotlight to go with the A-Rods in the middle of the lineup. When I say solid guys, by the way, I don't mean sucky guys with guts. I mean...ugh...Kevin Youkilis. That leaves a bad taste in my mouth but it illustrates the kind of professional ballplayer that does the things that win games (no errors, plus .400 OBP, occasional power) without making headlines or drawing the $200 million salary. When a guy like that wins, and in the process kills his rival, it feels so, so good for his fans and hurts all the more for his enemies. That's poetic justice and that's what we've been missing for a while. The mythological. The poetic. The compelling story that makes the 162 game season an epic rather than a grind or a tabloid-to-tabloid living that frustrates as much as intrigues.

Join me this season to follow this story and hopefully we can piece together the essence of what satisfies us most about being fans of a storied franchise. The story.