Revisiting the 2004 Offseason

The Javy Vazquez trade turned my mind back to his initial acquisition.

The Yankee World Series loss in 2003 was a painful one. Today, we regard it as the end of the dynasty era. The Yankees made the World Series in 6 of 8 years, but had lost the last two. The Yankees wouldn’t make it back until they won the 2009 World Series, but with a decidedly different team. I strongly believe that the 2004 offseason was the most important of my lifetime for the Yankees, and for baseball as a whole.

Brian Cashman had a huge job on his hands after the 2003 World Series loss. The 2003 team was one heavily reliant on its starting pitching. Andy Pettitte, David Wells, Mike Mussina, and Roger Clemens were all 200 inning starters, and the bullpen was solid. The team’s position players were not so healthy. Years of pitching dominance and aging hitters had left the team with a lot of holes. Players like Raul Mondesi, Karim Garcia, Aaron Boone, Robin Ventura, Enrique Wilson, Ruben Sierra, and a declining Bernie Williams received significant playing time. Jason Giambi was about to fall off the steroids cliff, and Derek Jeter’s defense started to look real bad. To make matters worse, the Yankee farm system was at an all-time low.

The star rotation dissolved away from the Yankees. Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte moved home to Houston. David Wells departed for San Diego. Jeff Nelson and other top relievers left for free agency. Brian Cashman had a gargantuan task on his hand: get back to the playoffs, despite a surging Red Sox team. He made the following moves:

  • Acquired Kevin Brown for Jeff Weaver, Brandon Weeden, and Yhency Brazoban
  • Acquired Javy Vazquez for Nick Johnson, Juan Rivera, and Randy Choate
  • Signed Gary Sheffield to a 3-year, 37 million dollar contract
  • Traded Alfonso Soriano and Joaquin Arias for Alex Rodriguez and cash
  • Signed Tom Gordon to a 2-year, 7.25 million dollar contract
  • Signed Paul Quantrill
  • Signed Tony Clark
  • Signed Orlando Hernandez
  • Signed Travis Lee
  • Moved Jose Contreras to the rotation

That’s a ton of action! And we thought the Yankees were busy this year. The 2003 and 2004 teams didn’t look a thing alike. Brian Cashman acquired two of the NL’s best pitchers in Brown and Vazquez, and arguably the two best available hitters in Sheffield and Rodriguez. He dealt from a position of strength with Nick Johnson, having Jason Giambi to man 1st base, and sacrificed star young 2b Alfonso Soriano to get the best player in baseball in Alex Rodriguez. Jose Contreras in 2003 looked great, and ready to start.

To make matters worse, things just didn’t seem to go according to plan all season. Giambi, Mussina, Vazquez, Brown, Contreras, and to a degree Alex Rodriguez struggled. However, the Yankees offset those issues with power. The 2004 team hit 242 home runs, including 16 from Tony Clark, 23 (!) from Derek Jeter, and 17 from Ruben Sierra. They won 101 games, and almost made it to the World Series.

2004 was the beginning of the arms race in the American League. The Yankees added 30 million dollars worth of payroll, and would add nearly 75 million from 2004 to 2005. It was the first “All star at every position” attempt by the Yankees, and they succeeded. While the pitching was left behind, its hard to fault Brian Cashman for that. On paper, the Yankee rotation in 2004 looked only a little bit worse than 2003. I think that Cashman did an excellent job, all things considered. I remember thinking that Vazquez in particular was a great move at the time, even if it didn’t work out.

Tomorrow, I’m going to take a look at the 2005 offseason, where I think Cashman deserves less praise. The late-Torre era had a lot of highlights and a lot of flaws, and this was the offseason where those stories started.

E.J. Fagan been blogging about Yankee baseball since 2006. He lives and works in Washington, DC.

13 thoughts on “Revisiting the 2004 Offseason

  1. MJ

    Everyone always points out how the Yanks should’ve signed Vlad in ’04 instead of Sheffield and I probably agree, although it’s always fun to point out that they finished 1-2 in the MVP vote that year. The first two of Sheffield’s three years in NY were tremendous:

    308 games, .290/.386/.523, 70 HR, 244 RBI, two All-Star appearances, two Silver Slugger awards, a 2nd place finish in the ’04 MVP (Vlad) and an 8th place finish in the ’05 MVP (A-Rod).

    • Sheff was a beast as a Yankee until injuries took him down a few pegs but for a while him and Alex were every bit as devastating (in the regular season) as Ortiz and Ramirez.

      • MJ

        Indeed. The only edge that I give to Papi/Manny of that era was that they were lefty/righty in the lineup which made it extra tough later in games when the bullpen was trying to get them out.

        But, yeah, Sheff/Alex was just beastly on pitchers in 2004/2005.

  2. pvdeluca

    Brian Cashman apologists! My god, i wish i had a job were i can blame the owner for every poor move and take credit for everything that works out. “Pitching was left behind”, kinda an important detail to leave out don’t you think? Cashman has more resource sthan anyone in the game and has won once (with a team he constructed) in nearly a decade. Think about what would happen if Walmart was outearned by every startup in the industry.

    You guys do a good job, especially with the minor league stuff, but this idolizing of a man who finally drove the ferarri past the finish line and seems to flip flop on his vision with increasing regularity needs to stop. I have noticed this trend in other blogs too, sorry i’m taking it all out on you.

    • MJ

      Cashman constructed the 1998, 1999 and 2000 teams as well. Or don’t you think that trading for Chuck Knoblauch, Scott Brosius, Roger Clemens and David Justice or signing David Wells and Orlando Hernandez count for nothing? And that’s just the big-picture stuff.

      No one’s disputing the fact that Jeter, Rivera, Williams, O’Neill, Martinez, Cone and Pettitte were already here but it’s just absurd to believe that Cashman had no role on the 1998, 1999 and 2000 championships as well.

  3. pvdeluca

    Those were nice moves but he inherited a “team” and i believe he took that team and turned it into a fantasy squad within 2-3 years. He then seemed to get a free pass for the next 6-7 years while he substantially increased payroll as well as first round playoff exits. I just don’t get how this guy is proclaimed such a genius. Nevertheless, he did finally win and this win is indisputably his. It seems he was able to switch his philosophy over the last couple of years from free agent signings to player development supplemented by free agents. Its just most of us don’t get 5+ years on the job training with no repercussions. Lets see how he does over the next few years. If he wins then I’ll be wrong.

    • MJ

      First of all, no one proclaims him a genius. He’s a good, competent GM that has done a very good job since getting complete control over baseball operations in November 2005.

      Second, considering the farm system he inherited was completely barren because he didn’t have control over the scouting/drafting process, it’s no surprise that the Yanks had to go the free agent route for a number of years until their system could start producing enough players to plug into holes or used for trades.

      Third, you dismiss the players I listed as “nice moves” but completely ignore the fact that Wells was the team’s best starter in 1998 and that Clemens was the team’s best pitcher from ’99-’03.

      Like every GM, Cashman has made his share of mistakes but unlike every GM, he has a mandate to win every single year or else people think he’s a failure.

      You can’t have it both ways — you can’t expect him to win every year but then be upset that he spends money or that he goes after the game’s best players. If you want Cashman to be a pure development GM that spends less money, you have to ease up on the belief that it’s only “win or else” around here.

      • Matt F.

        Well said. I’m no Cashman apologist, but there is something to be said for the increased power Cashman receieved over baseball operations (including the drafting and developing aspect) after the 2005 season, and the almost immediate improvement of the farm system thereafter (with the help of Oppenheimer and Newman of course).

      • Moshe Mandel

        This is about as perfect an analysis of Cashman you can find, and I can guarantee you, as someone who knows MJ for a while from another blog, he is not a Cashman apologist.

        • MJ

          Thanks Moshe, I appreciate the kind words!

          • Moshe Mandel

            Comment really distilled the rational way o think about Cash. In fact, if you dont mind, I’d like to use the comment as a jumping off point for a post over the next day or two.

          • MJ

            Of course I don’t mind! I’m honored.

            I’m loving this site and I’m glad I’ve made it a part of my daily reading over these past six weeks or so.

  4. This was a classic example of not acquiring old pitchers and career NL pitchers and bringing them to the AL East in high leverage spots in the rotation.

    2005 was no better however as the team traded for Randy Johnson (42), Al Leiter (40), Jaret Wright career NL and Carl Pavano (contract year) career NL.

    That is a bunch of starting pitchers to have been brought in for a 2 year period!

    Kevin Brown
    Javier Vazquez
    Orlando Hernandez
    Randy Johnson
    Al Leiter
    Jaret Wright
    Carl Pavano

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