07 June 2004

Should the Yanks regret the A-Rod-for-Soriano trade?

Like the Run Down question I do approximately every week, this is a conversation I had over email with Brandon Rosage, who runs Baseball Outsider.com, a fans' perspective website with some pretty cool content in its own right. The original appeared here.

Should the Yanks regret the A-Rod-for-Soriano trade?

Travis Nelson: Absolutely not. The Yankees (and more accurately Aaron Boone) should regret the injury that necessitated the A-Rod for Soriano trade, but they should in no way regret the trade itself. As great as Soriano is, he's always going to be limited by his inability to take a pitch (or rather, to take four of them out of the strike zone). He's two years older than we used to think, and he's about to get very expensive.

Alex Rodriguez is, of course, already very expensive, but he's better than Soriano is, and the Yankees have what amounts to a bargain for his contract after getting Texas to pick up over 40 percent of A-Rod's remaining salary. It's been worked out that the Yankees are actually paying A-Rod less, on average, than five other players on their own team (Jeter, Sheffield, Brown, Giambi, and Mussina). What's to regret?

Brandon Rosage: From a business standpoint, a trade for A-Rod is golden. Alex Rodriguez in pinstripes draws fans and unparalleled interest, not to mention a can't-lose situation at third base.

But looking at the Yankees as a team (which is rarely done these days), I can't help but notice that, with the continued distraction of repeated superstar additions, the club doesn't function well. The best Yankee teams, and the best winning teams anywhere for that matter, had home-grown, time-tested chemistry that put together wins on the field -- not just on paper.

Sure, with eight All-Stars on the field, the Yankees have virtually guaranteed that their work on paper will translate into wins on the field. But the Yankee teams that have neglected to win rings in the past three years have lacked that team chemistry and proven ability to get business done on-the-field.

I'm not so sure Rodriguez fixes this situation. He's a quick fix. Granted, he's a bargain and a sure thing. But all that gurantees is a productive third baseman. Scrapping together nine productive players in February doesn't ensure your franchise will be a productive team.

Travis Nelson: With all due respect, I think that "Team Chemistry" may be the most overrated commodity in all of major league baseball, excepting perhaps "Momentum" or "Joe Morgan's Analytical Skills."

A quick perusal of the annual league champions on BaseballReference.com shows that winners aren't always guys that get along great. The Oakland Athletics that won three straight championships in the early 1970s? The late '70s "Bronx Zoo"? Did those guys win because they all hung out at the bars together at night after games and had picnics in each others' backyards? The 1989 World Series Champion Oakland A's, with McGuire, Rickey, Canseco, Eckersley, Dave Parker, Dave Stewart and others, might have been the biggest collection of eccentrics and egotists to call themselves a major league baseball team since...well, the 1988 Athletics, who also had Don Baylor in the mix, but won the American League anyway.

Baseball teams win on two things: talent, and luck, in that order. If you've got enough talent, you don't need luck. You can pummel the competition and if a few things don't fall into place, you still come out ahead in the long run. The Yankees have had and continue to have the talent to not just compete, but to succeed in the regular season. Chemistry is bred by winning, not the other way around. If your team's doing well, it's easier to let your teammates' annoying little habits roll off your back. When you're losing, everything irritates you. Having a good relationship with the guy who sits next to you on the bus or in the locker room in no way will help you to know how to hit Pedro Martinez's change-up or Randy Johnson's slider. Having talent will.

Consider this: If there had been no strike in 1994-95, and if the current three-division format had been in place in 1993, the Yankees would be working a post-season streak of eleven straight seasons, and I can tell you from having followed them for the last decade that this clubhouse has not always provided a sanctuary of fun and respite for every player. Through Darryl Strawberry's, Dwight Gooden's and Steve Howe's drug issues, Paul O'Neill's tantrums, Jack McDowell's finger, Luis Polonia's statutory rape, Ruben Rivera's theft, Ruben Sierra's selfishness, Danny Tartabull's brooding, Raul Mondesi's sulking, Chuck Knoblauch's brain-cramps, David Wells' bar fights, and Denny Neagle, Terry Mulholland, Hideki Irabu, Kenny Rogers, and Jeff Weaver just plain sucking, these Yankees have continued to win and win big in the regular season. Why? Because they have talent, not chemistry. And if they don't, then they can go pick some up, like you and I pick up eggs or beer when we realize we're running low.

The post season, on the other hand, is largely a craps-shoot. If you get in, you've got about a 1-in-8 chance of winning, since eight teams make it every year. The Yanks have won four championships in nine attempts, which is more than pretty damn good. This is where luck comes in, and in a short series, the team that plays well and gets a few breaks, not necessarily the best team, will win it all. The Yankees of the last three seasons have not failed to win championships because they didn't "click" as a team, they've failed because they didn't "hit" or "pitch" or "field" as well as their opponents did, for a week's worth of games. That's not chemistry. It's misfortune. Bad luck, plain and simple.

You can't blame A-Rod or any of the other new players the Yankees picked up this year on their last three seasons' misfortune. (Incidentally, I'm sure that lots of teams would love to have the kind of "misfortune" the Yankees have had this decade.) For one thing, they just got here. For another, they currently have the best record in baseball, leading the majors in runs scored, with all those new acquisitions helping the Yankees to function better as a team than any other in MLB, with the most productive lineup. And A-Rod, leading the team in hits, homers, steals and total bases, has been a big part of that. Soriano, in the meantime, has only six homers and eleven walks, and seems to have stopped stealing bases, which used to help compensate for the other limitations in his game. The numbers he has right now project out to look a lot like what Rich Aurilia has done the last two years. Do you think anyone would be pondering the success of this trade if it had been A-Rod for Aurilia? Me neither.

Like I said, what's to regret?

Brandon Rosage: I'd be stupid to argue that the Yankees can't win with a mixed bag of All-Stars. As you point out, the Yankees have been to all but one World Series in the 21st century. But the reason they haven't won those series is the fundamental difference between the great Yankee teams and today's Yankees team: chemistry.

There have been great teams with a$$h01es up and down their lineup that have won it all. But what separates the good clubs from the greatest is team chemistry. It's an overused word, I agree. But in the case of the Bronx Bombers, its a point of interest.

I also agree that winning a championship most often requires luck. Just ask the 2002 Anaheim Angels. But nothing defeats luck better than a team with great chemistry. If the Yankees, or any team for that matter, had the chemistry and trusted success that the late '90s Yankees had, luck wouldn't be an issue. And if luck isn't issue, your club is better than all the rest.

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