Friday, May 06, 2005

Horse Feathers

George Steinbrenner's horse, Bellamy Road, is running in this Saturday's Kentucky Derby. With his New York Yankees in last place in the AL East, despite a staggering $200+ million payroll, many have suggested that the Derby will provide the distraction Big Stein needs. Don't count on it.

Bellamy Road, at 5-2 odds, is the clear favorite to win the Derby. The Yankees, at 5-2 odds, were the clear favorite to win the 2005 World Series, according to The Yankees still have 133 games to go, so they haven't spit the bit just yet, but those odds appear to have been too generous. And if the same oddsmakers were involved in those predictions, I would hold off on buying any "Bellamy Road for Triple Crown" t-shirts just yet.

Steinbrenner clearly thought he had the horses to win the AL East for the 8th straight year when he acquired Randy Johnson, Jaret Wright and Carl Pavano to join the starting rotation. A curious move, when it was the bullpen that did the team in during the playoffs last year (see ALCS, Games 4-7, aka the Greatest Comeback of All Time).

Rather than addressing its most glaring weaknesses, however, the Yankees' cure for postseason hangovers has been to mimic the strengths of the teams that beat them. In 2003, the Yankees lost to the Marlins in the World Series, and George was infatuated with the speed and small ball skills of center fielder and leadoff man Juan Pierre. So the Yankees got Kenny Lofton. So what if Lofton is ten years older than Pierre, and had exited his prime, while Pierre was just entering his? GET ME LOFTON. And when Lofton performed below expectations in his first season with they Yanks? GET RID OF LOFTON.

In 2004, it was the Red Sox starting pitching that caught Big Stein's eye. You can just hear him saying, "That Curt Schilling is a warrior," much like Kevin Brown was a warrior for Big Stein, before he declared war on the clubhouse wall last September (not wanting to kick a man while he's down, I'll refrain from commenting on the much more generous pitching syle of Brown so far this season). So starting pitching it was, and in came Johnson, Wright and Pavano. GET ME STARTERS.

The Yankees' embarassment of riches has been embarassing. They're not just losing, they're losing badly, getting blown out by teams with payrolls 1/7 the size of theirs (Tampa Bay). They've now lost four series in a row, including three in a row to their cellar dweller roommates, the Devil Rays.

The losing has certainly led to some interesting moves. Tony Womack, the 35-year-old speedster who had a good postseason for the Cardinals in 2004, was brought in to play second base, the only position at which the Yankees didn't have a one-time All-Star last season. Why struggle when you don't have to?

Womack's been moved to left field as part of the domino effect of Bernie Williams moving out of center field (and into a hybrid bench/DH role) and Hideki Matsui moving from left to center. Now in his 12th season in the majors, Womack had never before played left field until Tuesday. Should work out fine. In his place at second? A rookie with zero Major League at bats prior to this week. Wouldn't it have made more sense to find someone else to play left field?

Two more rookies were thrown into the rotation this week in place of the possibly injured Johnson (groin) and the definitely injured Wright (shoulder, ego, chances for another big contract). With all of these rookies, they're starting to look like Tampa Bay. They're certainly playing like it. Both rookie pitchers, Sean Henn and Chien-Ming Wang, got bashed around this week. With Bellamy Road running in the Derby, one of Steinbrenner's farm systems is clearly in much better shape than the other.

Whatever happens in the race, King George will likely have made one of his best investments in a while. Steinbrenner paid $87,000 for the horse, roughly what Jason Giambi makes per game. So while Steinbrenner watches jockey Javier Castellano in the Run for the Roses on Saturday, and his fans run for the exits, don't be surprised if more changes take place. If Bellamy Road finishes out of the money, it'll be Castellano batting leadoff next week, Brown to the DL and the ever shrinking Giambi atop Bellamy Road for the Preakness. Big Stein's not horsing around.


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