Monday, February 23, 2009

Countdown To Opening Day: #41

The Yankees have a long history of getting great players just as they are exiting their prime and their 2005 aquisition of Randy Johnson was a perfect example.


When the Yankees got The Big Unit, I couldn't have been more excited. I got a call from my roommate Kevin and we were both downright giddy. We had known him as an ageless wonder who had just hit his stride at age 35 and taken down four straight Cy Young awards.

At a time when the rest of the Yankees' rotation was Mike Mussina, Kevin Brown, Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright, it looked like a move that should have pushed them over the top. The Red Sox had just won the World Series and it seemed like sending Javier Vasquez, Brad Hallsey, Dioner Navarro and $9M to the Diamondbacks was going to right the baseball universe once again.

In retrospect, there were a ton of warning signs, land mines, red flags and caution tape that Yankee fans probably should have noticed.
  1. He was 41 years old
  2. He had spent his last six seasons in the National League West
  3. After pitching 244 or more innings in 5 consecutive seasons, he was hurt in 2003 and started only 18 games at a 4.26 ERA
  4. He was making $16M a year
  5. His K/9 had been declining for 4 years
  6. Being 6'10" is as much of a liability as it is an asset
I don't put much stock in whether people in the New York media think a player can "handle the New York media", but that scuffle with a cameraman on the way to his Yankee physical certainly wasn't a good omen.

After posting ERAs 2.64 or below in 5 out of his 6 years in Arizona the Big Unit threw 225 2/3 innings of 3.79 ball for the Yanks in 2005. Mostly attributed to his "hanging sliders", he gave up 32 home runs and 207 hits, the highest totals of his career. It was a respectable season overall, but it fell far short of even the most conservative expectations of Yankees fans, players and executives. The prevailing thought at the time was that Johnson would rebound the following year and return to his dominant form.

The result was quite the opposite, in fact. He started 33 games but threw only 205 innings, an average of under 6 1/3 innings per outing, the lowest of his career. His K/BB ratio fell from 4.48 to 2.86 (also the worst of his career). For the first time since his rookie season in 1989 and only time since, he posted an ERA worse than league average.

Late in the season it was revealed that Johnson was pitching with a herniated disc. He received treatments and ended up starting Game 3 of the ALDS against Detroit. It was his last game in Pinstripes and he gave up 5 runs in a contest the Yanks went on to lose 6-0.

The Yanks ended up trading Johnson back to the D-Backs for Luiz Visciano, Ross Olendorf, Alberto Gonzalez and Stephen Jackson. It was a pretty fair haul for a 43 year old pitcher with a bad back coming off what was easily the worst full season of his career.


After getting it right (for the most part) with guys like David Cone, David Wells, El Duque and Roger Clemens during the last 90's and Mike Mussina in 2001, the aughts have been filled with a minefield of pitching acquisitions that just didn't work out.

In addition to Johnson and Vasquez: Kevin Brown, Jaret Wright, Carl Pavano, Jon Lieber, Jose Contreras, Esteban Loaiza, Jeff Weaver...

If the Yanks are going to return to the promised land this year, they need two big double-initialed additions to the rotation buck that trend.

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