2007 was considered a gigantic failure for the New York Yankees not just because they were knocked out of the first round of the playoffs for the third consecutive season, but also because for the first time since 1997, the Yankees failed to win their division. The Steinbrenner family had gotten impatient with the consistent losing streaks this team had been experiencing in the playoffs especially when $200 million was being pumped into the team yearly. Forget for a moment that our pitching staff has been inconsistent and injury prone over the past few seasons, and forget for a moment that our best hitter has a serious mental block against hitting in the post season, and all of a sudden it appears that the reason for our early post-season departures was manager Joe Torre. Forget also that Torre won 3 championships in 4 years, led the Yankees to the post season in every season he managed, and won the division in 10 of the 12 seasons he was with the team. The fault was all Joe Torre for not being fiery enough to get these over paid players going. Further more, Torre was not involved with player development, didn't attend the winter meetings, and seemed uninterested in the youth the team was developing that would become the stars of the future. If you're focusing on how Posada, Pettitte, Jeter, and Mariano became stars under Torre's watch, and how Wang, Cano, and Melky became main stays with Torre, than you're missing the point. The point is, Torre was responsible for the Yankees not winning any championships since 2000, and in 2007 that was 7 years too many. The Yankees needed new leadership, someone who would develop our youth, who could motivate aged players, who would yell and scream at umpires, and light a fire under his team during the playoffs, and Torre was not it. His glory days were behind him, and we needed some fresh blood.
So who would be this man? Everyone expected Don Mattingly to be the front runner for the position, while Tony Pena and Joe Girardi were strong candidates for the job. Mattingly never managed a team, and that was a knock against him, but the biggest knock against him was that he would be too much like Joe Torre. He did after all come up as a batting coach and bench coach for Torre, their temperaments were similar, and in the one game he managed, he managed similarly to Torre. Girardi had experience managing a mostly rookie team in the Marlins, and made them competitive. Girardi showed fire, as he would openly battle Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria during games, and managed several rookies into respectable big league players. That was exactly what the Yankees wanted with Ian Kennedy, Phil Hughes, and Joba Chamberlain preparing to start the season on the big league roster, Robinson Cano getting his first big league contract, and Melky Cabrera on the edge who could potentially get pushed to become a better hitter than his .273 average was showing.
Many Yankee fans agreed with the change. I for one was sad to see Torre go, but I felt like the change would be a good thing. I felt positive about Girardi, and repeated many of the selling points given by Cashman and the Yankee organization throughout the winter. Girardi was fiery, he could help our youth, he was a mentor to Posada, and a veteran when Jeter, Pettitte, and Mariano were coming up. They would all look up to him, and he would have the respect of the players. Plus, a relief in my mind was that Torre couldn't abuse the bullpen. This was my one issue with Torre, and I believe it was founded. Never mind that several of Girardi's rookies on the Marlins ended up with arm injuries after he mismanaged their inning limits. Girardi was going to give the Yankees the kick in the pants they needed. He managed in the National league, which of course meant he knew how to manufacture runs. The Yankees would likely steal more bases than ever before, bunt runners over instead of relying on the long ball like they did under Torre, and strong defense would be emphasized.
Come spring training and everything appeared to be delivered as promise. Girardi had taken away the candy and was having his team run more than they had in any spring training before. Laid back Torre would never make his players do this everyone thought, and it would help keep them healthy, and help them avoid the slow start they experienced in what seemed like every season under Torre.
Then came the beginning of the season. The Yankees got off to the slow start they always had. The rookie's were getting rocked, but they had their spaces solidified in the rotation. The offense was not hitting, and the lineup was not manufacturing runs like we thought they would. Everyone blamed it on the teams age, and on A-Rod who had reverted to his former ways in the clutch. Then, injuries came aplenty, Jeter and A-Rod snapped their quads, Posada's shoulder needed surgery, and a freak injury to Chien Ming Wang's foot took him out for the rest of the season. Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy were diagnosed with mysterious injuries and taken out of the lineup. The Yankees got a short boost from Darrel Rasner, and Joba Chamberlain pitched well to cover the loss of Wang, but the Yankee offense was still stuck in the malaise they always seemed to start a season with. In the meantime, Mike Mussina and Mariano Rivera were pitching one of the best seasons in their careers. But it had little effect since the Yankee offense was not scoring enough runs to win games.
After the all-star break the Yankees made a run and everyone thought they were going to make their comeback as they always did. But then Pettitte struggled in the second half, the time he historically had thrived. The Yankee offense reverted to its malaise and once Joba went down with right shoulder tendinitis, many knew the season was done. The Yankees stumbled along through the rest of August and September, but each game became as meaningless as the one before. Cano and Jeter heated up over the last month, but it was too late for any kind of impact.
The Yankees ended the 2008 season in third place in the division and missed the playoffs for the first time in 13 years, not including the strike shortened season of 1994.
Many of the Torre detractors and Girardi supporters point to the injuries and the hitting with RISP as the reason the Yankees did not make the playoffs, and they argue that these situations were outside of Girardi's control. And never mind the fact that Torre took an inferior team in the Dodgers to the playoffs for the 13th consecutive time in his career, and never mind that he took them to the championship series. He was in a weak division. If Torre was managing the Yankees they would have ended up dead last in the division right?
Well, for me, I need to take a look at the reasons I liked Girardi as a managerial candidate last winter and see how he did in those categories this season. Here are those categories:
Bringing up the Young Players
Well, Joba Chamberlain succeeded, but both Kennedy and Hughes faltered throughout the season. I don't fault him for this since this would have likely happened no matter who was managing. Where I do fault Girardi is in the decline of Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera. How these two players plummeted so quickly after at least a couple seasons performing on this stage is beyond me. Why no one, including Girardi could not motivate Cano the way Bowa did last season is also beyond me. Under Girardi, the youth failed.
This was the man who was going to get the Yankees performing at a higher level after all these years of tea drinking Torre pampering his players. Never mind that A-Rod and Posada had one of the best offensive seasons of their careers the previous season, and never mind that both Jeter and Cano battled for a batting title the year before. Girardi was going to finally get the offense performing the way it should. Instead, the Yankees experienced a sharp decline in hitting with RISP. Girardi had no answer for the lack of situational hitting, and his supposed small ball managing was not used anymore than it was with Torre. The Yankees scored the fewest runs they had since 1995, a year before Torre began to manage, and achieved this feat with nearly the same lineup that produced 929 runs the year before.
Gaining the Respect of a Veteran Clubhouse
Girardi did after all mentor Posada, and was a veteran guy that players like Jeter, Mariano, and Pettitte looked up to. Apparently this was not enough as it has most recently been revealed that all these players have expressed issues with their new manager including his constant lineup changes, the best of which was the use of career minor leaguer Justin Christian instead of the hottest bat in the lineup at the time in Johnny Damon, because the pitching match up was not favorable to lefties, and of course the issue with Girardi seeking the advice of "his" coaches over the well-liked, highly-respected, former big league manager Tony Pena. Girardi lost his clubhouse, something I never thought would happen with him.
Using not Abusing the Bullpen
This Girardi did well. He used his bullpen much more effectively than Torre did. He still favored the lefty matchups as much as Torre, but avoided the same attachment to certain relievers that Torre used to have. In doing so, Girardi spread the work load around better, and probably saved some arms in the process.
Many Girardi loyalists would like you to believe that Torre could never have pulled this team together after the loss of both Wang and Chamberlain. These people also have very short memories. This season was not nearly as severe as the impact of injuries our starting rotation suffered in 2005. I'll refresh your memories. This was the season where our rotation of Randy Johnson, Mike Mussina, Carl Pavano, Kevin Brown, and Jaret Wright were going to take us to the next world series. Brown, Wright and Pavano all went down early in the season and would not return except for Wright who struggled when he did come back. In the meantime, we brought up this rookie sinkerballer named Chien Ming Wang, who filled in beautifully, not unlike Joba did this season, but Wang went down with, can you guess? Right shoulder tendinitis. The Yankees got unlikely contributions from Shawn Chacon who we traded for and Aaron Small who was a journeyman minor leaguer who ended up on our triple A team. Al Leiter, who we attained from the Marlins, won a few games for us as well, before a string of bad starts put him in the bullpen. To fill in starts in the meantime, the Yankees would use Tanyon Sturtze, Scott Proctor, Sean Henn, Darryl May, and Tim Redding none of which pitched particularly well. With this kind of crippling impact on our rotation, with 3 of our 5 starters going into the season gone, with our best rookie fill in down with an injury, and with journeyman starters, and converted relievers filling in our starts, the Yankees could not have done better than 3rd place could they? The Yankees won the division that season, continuing a trend that would later be taken for granted.
Many fans, myself included, thought that Torre was keeping us from getting past the ALDS every season. Now, we're seeing that Torre was what was getting us to the ALDS every season. We're seeing it now with the Dodgers.
Some may think its unfair to compare Girardi to Torre since Torre has so much more experience, but what else do you expect when you replace one of the best manager's in Yankee history with someone expected to do an even better job? Girardi is not better than Torre. Sure he manages the bullpen better, but that's about it.
But before I'm accused of being a Girardi hater, let me clarify my position. I like Girardi. I think that he can manage, and that he is one of those smart baseball people who get the game. He is very ambitious and sets his goals high, and I appreciate those qualities about him. I sincerely hope that Girardi leads this team to the 27th world series championship in 2009, but he has much work to do. He needs to win back his veterans, and find a way to motivate the youth. Most agree that Cano should have been benched months before he was, and many believe Hughes and Kennedy should have been in the minors quicker than they were. I have my doubts about Girardi, but I think he could overcome this disappointing season.
Although 2008 was a disappointment, we need to give Girardi 2009. Despite what we and the Yankee brass may have thought going into this season, replacing Joe Torre's success is not an easy task. The first year was bound to have its difficulties. For 2009, I'm completely open to seeing Girardi shine as a manager.