For third time in their last five championship off seasons, the Yankees will have a World Series MVP entering free agency.
In 1996, closer John Wetteland took home the hardware, appearing in 5 games, saving all four Yankee wins, and striking out 6 while posting a 2.08 ERA in 4.1 innings of work. Just 30 years old, Wetteland's contract expired following the season. The Yankees had absolutely stolen him from the Expos prior to the '95 season and he spent two memorable years as the Yankee closer. He recorded 74 saves in those two seasons, and his other stats were even more impressive: 167 ERA+, 1.03 WHIP, 9.7 K/9, 3.86 K:BB.
Yet, Wetteland didn't inspire a sense of confidence. Despite his impressive numbers, he always seemed to be walking a tightrope in the ninth inning, blowing 10 saves over the two years. He absolutely melted down in the 1995 Division Series, to the point that Buck Showalter wouldn't even use him in the deciding Game Five, instead allowing an exhausted David Cone to be relieved by an exhausted Jack McDowell, and by Wetteland's eventual replacement.
With Mariano Rivera turning in an astounding 1996 as Wetteland's set up man, the Yankees allowed their closer to walk, bequeathing the role of closer to Mo. The rest is history. Wetteland signed a four year, $23M contract with the Rangers, where he continued to excel as one of the league's best closers until back injuries forced him to retire following the 2000 season.
Two years later the Yankees found themselves in a similar predicament. Scott Brosius won the 1998 World Series MVP on the strength of his .471 showing with two huge home runs in Game Three, including a three run shot off Trevor Hoffman in the eighth inning, erasing the final lead the Padres held in that Series.
Unlike Wetteland, Brosius came to the Yankees almost as an afterthought. After two miserable seasons in New York, the Yankees were able to unload Kenny Rogers on Oakland following the '97 season for a player to be named later. Eleven days after the initial deal, the clubs agreed on Brosius, who was coming off a dismal .203/.259/.317 (53 OPS+) season. Perhaps the Yankees thought he could recreate the success he enjoyed in '95-'96 (.284/.369/.486 121 OPS+), but if nothing else the Yankees were rid of Rogers and had picked up a player who could be in the mix to replace the Wade Boggs/Charlie Hayes tandem at third base and was versatile enough to see time at shortstop and all three outfield positions.
Brosius went on to have a career year in the magical 1998 season, hitting .300/.371/.472 (121 OPS+) and driving in 98 runs while batting primarily eighth or ninth. He strong performance coupled with his historic showing in the World Series prompted the Yankees to re-sign Brosius to a three year $15.75M contract, despite the fact that he was 32 years old and the Yankees had Mike Lowell ready to take over. Lowell would be 25 come next Opening Day and had hit .304/.355/.535 with 26 HR and 99 RBI at AAA, a year after hitting .315/.401/.562 with 30 HR and 92 RBI.
With Brosius in tow for another three years, the Yankees flipped Lowell to the Marlins for three minor league pitchers, one of whom never appeared in the Bigs, one of whom never made it to the Bronx, and who pitched a combined 44 innings in the Majors. Brosius wouldn't come close to replicating his 1998 numbers for the remainder of his career. As likable as Brosius was, as good as his 1998 season was, as big as his HRs were in the '98 and '01 Series, electing to keep him over Lowell was a mistake.
Eleven years later, the Yankees face a somewhat similar situation with Hideki Matsui. Unlike Wetteland and Brosius, Matsui is not a new comer, being the most tenured Yankee outside of the "core four". He's 35, considerably older than both Wetteland and Brosius at the time of their WS MVPs. Unlike with Wetteland and Brosius, the Yankees don't have a young replacement waiting in the wings. Jesus Montero is still seen as a catcher and is still likely a year away; Juan Miranda has posted good numbers at AAA but doesn't project to carry his weight as a Major League DH.
Given that Matsui is strictly a designated hitter at this point, the Yankees do have some additional flexibility in that they don't have to have a direct replacement for him, but his offense (.274/.367/.509, 128 OPS+) will be difficult to replace no matter what they do.
Retrospective hindsight says the Yankees went 1 for 2 the last times they faced such a decision. Time will tell how they fare this time around.
AL Notes: Wright, Vazquez, Russell, Pelfrey
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