The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Monday, December 10, 2001


Remaking the Yanks, Part IV-Point-Something: The Ventura Deal

It's not as if the Futility Infielder eight-ball didn't see the possiblity of a David Justice-for-Robin Ventura trade coming. But when it was being discussed in the New York Post a few of days ago, I took it for the Post's usual modus operandi when it comes to the Yanks. I've often felt that their writers covering any NY team write about what they want to see happen, either as a best- or worst-case scenario (Jordan/Ewing/Tino/Boomer/Tuna is coming back with the Knicks/Yanks/Mets/Jets/Rockettes) rather than what will happen. So I waved it off, writing, "It's hard to see how that trade helps either team from a financial standpoint. It might solve the Yanks short-term third base needs, but at the expense of outfield production."

I wasn't wrong about the financial angle. The difference in salaries (Justice will make $7 million, Ventura $8.25 mil) won't prevent the Yanks from signing Jason Giambi, and it won't help the Mets sign Barry Bonds, unless Steve Phillips can ship Justice off for some cheaper talent. But while it's obviously a trade that's short-term in nature (both players are in the final year of their contracts), I do think it's a good one, particularly for the Yankees.

On the surface, what we have here is a challenge trade involving two proven veterans coming off of disappointing, injury-plagued seasons. Justice hit .241 with 18 HR and 51 RBI while hampered by groin problems, Ventura hit .237 with 20 HR and 61 RBI while struggling with shoulder problems that have contributed to two consecutive sub-par seasons.

But if you look at it more closely, it's easy to be convinced that the Yanks are getting the better end of the deal. For one thing, Ventura's season wasn't all that bad. He still managed 88 walks and a .359 On Base Percentage, only five points off of his carer mark. And that .359 OBP is 16 points higher than Scott Brosius, who had a good year with the bat by his own standards. Here are the lines of the two traded players, along with Brosius:
           2001 OBP/SLG/SL*OB        Career OBP/SLG/SL*OB               

Justice .333/.430/.142 (439 PA) .378/.507/.192
Ventura .359/.419/.150 (549 PA) .364/.447/.163
Brosius .343/.446/.153 (478 PA) .323/.422/.136
Ventura was about 5% more productive than Justice on a per at-bat basis, and not far off of his own career level (down 8%). In a down year, he was almost on-par with Brosius. Justice was waaaaay off, down about 25% from his career level of productivity.

And then there's the defense. For starter's there's a larger market for corner outfielders than third basemen, not just this year, but in any year--that's just the normal distribution of talent. Justice is so highly thought of for his defense that he's been a DH for about half of the American League portion of his career (334 times in 675 games). On the other hand, Ventura plays a difficult position and has six Gold Gloves to his name, most recently in 1999. He has fallen off a bit in the past two seasons, but he still had a better season with the leather than Scott Brosius (who fielded a lousy .935 this year). In fact, he's got slight edges on Brosius, career-wise, in fielding percentage, range factor, double plays and zone rating (though not enough to draw conclusions without analyzing the groundball tendencies of their respective pitching staffs).

Ventura had shoulder surgery after the '99 season, but the shoulder has continued to bother him. He struggled mightily last summer, hitting only .183 from June through August, though he had a strong September (.286 AVG/.412 OBP/.536 SLG) as the Mets pushed the Atlanta Braves for the NL (L)East title. Reportedly he's taken a new approach to his training this offseason, involving kick-boxing. It should help him if he's looking for a rematch with Nolan Ryan, and it probably couldn't hurt if the Sox ever recall Izzy Alcantara. But the bottom line is that hif he's reasonably healthy, he should be as good or better than Brosius, and he buys (albeit at a steep price) some time for Drew Henson to develop.

On the other side of the coin... I spent a lot of time during the postseason ragging on Justice, who looked awful for most of the year, and especially bad in the World Series. In 2001, he lived up to his injury-prone nature, and had a career-worst season. But that doesn't detract from what he did in 2000, coming over to the Yanks in a trade from the Indians and igniting the Yankee offense with 20 HR and 60 RBI in a half-season. Those 87-win Yanks may well have missed the playoffs without him, and his home run in Game 6 of the AL Championship Series, off of the Mariners' Arthur Rhodes, goes down as one of the biggest of the Torre Era (it was still giving me shivers when they played it during pre-games and rain delays at Yankee Stadium in the fall).

Justice may well help some team in 2002, but there's a good chance it won't be the Mets. One of the reasons Phillips traded for Justice is that unlike Ventura, he doesn't have any no-trade restrictions in his contract. As he's probably not capable of a 140-game season in the outfield, he'll likely wind up back in the American League. But even if the Mets did keep him, he would help a sad outfield whose top hitter was Tsuyoshi Shinjo (.268, 10 HR, 56 RBI, .320 OBP, .405 SLG). Not exactly amazin'.

As for the rest of the Yanks latest offensive facelift (since I've blown my piece on the rotation off for at least another day), wild reports are emanating from ESPN. Bob Klapisch reports that the Yanks are growing disturbed about Jason Giambi's hesitancy to close the deal. Giambi was reportedly huddling with his family in Las Vegas this weekend to mull his options--or to wait for another suitor (or a credible counteroffer from the A's) to emerge. Meanwhile, over on Planet Gammons, Ol' Pete seems to have gone off of his medication, and not just the kind that prevents him from those run-on sentences (see the opening paragraph of this column). Gammons concocts a scenario whereby both Gary Sheffield and Barry Bonds end up in pinstripes. Somebody get this guy a doctor. On a much more rational note, the New York Times suggests that the Yanks are pursuing Giants outfielder John Vander Wal, a 36-year old lefty who hit .270 with 14 HR and 70 RBI (.364 OBP/.442 SLG). I'll let you guess which Giant my money is on for donning the stripes.

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