Thursday, December 9, 2010
Updated: December 10, 10:43 AM ET
Carl Crawford is no concern for Yanks
By Wallace Matthews
If you're the type to believe that any good day for the ballclub in Boston is a bad day for the New York Yankees, the announcement that Carl Crawford will be wearing red socks instead of pinstripes in 2011 must come as very bad news indeed.
However, if you are the type who pays attention to detail, who really thinks about why some baseball teams win and others lose, and you're not the type to get caught up in buying just for the sake of buying, it really shouldn't make a difference where Crawford plays next year.
First of all, a slug of Reality Potion: The AL East wasn't going to remain a two-horse race forever with neither of those two horses hailing from Boston. The Boston Red Sox were going to rejoin this party anyway, and guess what? The Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays might have something to say, too. As for the Tampa Bay Rays, you can expect them to find a younger, cheaper way to get it done. They will survive the loss of Crawford, and so will the Yankees.
Because the truth is, although it would have been nice to add Crawford to the Yankees' roster, the acquisition would have been about as meaningful as Reggie Jackson adding another Corvette to his fleet of muscle cars.
The Yankees scored more runs than any other team in baseball last season, 852. (The Red Sox were next with 818, then the Rays with 802.) New York's supposedly "weak-hitting'' outfield of Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher accounted for 264 of those runs -- a number that isn't far from the 276 scored by the Tampa Bay trio of Crawford, B.J. Upton and Ben Zobrist, and swamps what was produced by the injury-depleted Red Sox.
So now Crawford takes his 110 runs, his 90 RBIs, his 19 homers and 47 stolen bases to Boston. So what? Offense was not the problem for the Yankees. It was preventing runs, not scoring them, that did them in last season.
The Yankees didn't make it to the World Series in 2010. They fell two wins shy, and it wasn't because of lack of production from their outfield. And I will tell you that if Crawford had been playing left field in the ALCS instead of Gardner, the Yankees still would have gone down in six games and the Texas Rangers still would have gone on to their skull-dragging by the San Francisco Giants.
Because for all the advanced metrics now applied to the performance of baseball players, all the VORPs and WARPs and WHIPs, the oldest one is still the most relevant: ITPS.
It's The Pitching, Stupid.
The Yankees need pitching. Period. Starting pitching, relief pitching, batting practice pitching. They need Cliff Lee. They don't need Carl Crawford. Never did, and never really wanted him.
When asked about Crawford on Wednesday, Yankees GM Brian Cashman told reporters, "It is not a need for us. We have Gardner. We have Granderson. We have Swisher. I have a certain amount of money that I can spend. I'm going to attack the areas of need for us.''
It is basically the same thing he told me in October, right after the Yankees got bounced by the Rangers in six games. Crawford was never a need, never a priority.
Lee was and still is.
On Thursday morning, a Yankees source confirmed to me that the Yankees are willing to go to seven years on Lee, not only the best but basically the only starting pitcher on the free-agent market worth bidding on.
It is a risky strategy -- there is a long and unhappy history of long-term deals for starting pitchers turning catastrophic -- but it is a strategy the Yankees can afford to pursue simply because they are the Yankees.
You sign a pitcher like Lee for seven years, and you take out a hefty insurance policy. Then you pray he either performs up to your expectations or gets hurt so that you can collect at least some of your money back. Then you go out and do it all over again.
That's how valuable starting pitching is in this league and why teams are falling all over themselves, mortgaging their futures and indulging in the kind of deficit spending that would make a senator blush, to obtain the services of Cliff Lee.
The Yankees have had it both ways, from the catastrophes of Don Gullett and Carl Pavano and Kei Igawa and currently A.J. Burnett to the majesty of CC Sabathia, without whom maybe they wouldn't have even made the playoffs last year.
If the Yankees add Lee as the No. 2 starter or, more likely, the 1-A, they will improve their club a lot more than the Red Sox have with Crawford. Throw in a maturing and improving Phil Hughes, the possibility of one more year from Andy Pettitte and either Burnett or Ivan Nova relegated to the nonessential No. 5 slot, and you've got the makings of a rotation that may not be quite the equal of Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey and Jon Lester but probably damned good enough.
Crawford is a run creator, no doubt. But he will be 30 in August, and for a player whose game relies so much upon speed, that is perilously close to where the production may start to fall off.
Gardner, Crawford's Yankees counterpart, is two years younger and about $20 million a year cheaper. Although the money doesn't matter so much, the comparable production does. Gardner scored 97 runs to Crawford's 110. He matched him in stolen bases with 47. He doesn't come close on homers or ribbies -- not too many guys who hit ninth in the order knock in 90 unless your name is Scott Brosius and the eight guys hitting above you are the 1998 Yankees -- but that is what Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira are there for.
Gardner does other things, chaotic things on the base paths. He doesn't need to hit to score, and he doesn't need to hit home runs to score often. In many ways, he is the perfect player for a lineup that is top-heavy with sluggers.
The Yankees can win with him in left field next year, provided he comes back healthy from surgery on the wrist that troubled him all season. And they can win with Granderson, who submitted to a swing makeover in August from hitting coach Kevin Long and looked like a different player from then on. As for Swisher, he was unconscious all last season, and the Yankees hope he never wakes up. Or at least not until the end of 2011, when his contract runs out.
The Yankees won 95 games with that outfield last season and a pitching staff that was basically Sabathia and pray for a blizzard. They can win that many with the same outfield in 2011.
Yet they needed to win at least two more. Crawford would not necessarily get them those wins. Lee would.
Losing Crawford to the Red Sox is a loss the Yankees can live with.
Losing Lee to anyone may not be.
Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.
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