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“His job is on the line. I think we're paying him a lot of money. He's the highest-paid manager in baseball, so I don't think we'd take him back if we don't win this series.”
--Yankees owner George Steinbrenner to The (Bergen, N.J.) Record

From the moment that George Steinbrenner uttered those words, it appeared the Joe Torre era in New York was about to end. There had been intimations before that this was the case, but never had it been stated so baldly by ownership that there was a tremendous unhappiness with Torre’s performance.

And from the moment that the words crossed Steinbrenner’s lips, Yankee fans and players have been defending Torre as a Hall of Fame manager, extolling his brilliance. But really how good was Joe Torre as the Yankee skipper?

That’s a huge question to ask, and one almost impossible to answer. In reality the question is, Where did Joe Torre end and the Yankees begin. By that I mean how much of Torre’s success really stemmed from Joe Torre and how much was due to the fact he had the best ballplayers, the highest salaries, and ownership that handed him tools which essentially couldn’t be matched.

Why do some think he’s a true Hall of Famer, and others, including myself, believe the last decade of Yankees baseball could have been just as successfully managed by a monkey.

Now, seven years after the Yankees last won a World Series, we turn a critical eye on Torre. A lot has changed in those seven years, but the Yankees still boast the highest payroll in the game and never hesitate to bring in big name, big money players.

But perhaps the core value changed somewhere along the line. The Yankees stopped mortgaging the farm system by trading away their best youngsters for “help me now” type players. And while that wasn’t mandated by budgetary constraints, it was mandated by the number of big time players who’ve come into the Bronx via trades but have failed to get the Yankees over the hump.

Because of that the Yankees have developed some rather talented youngsters including Robinson Cano, Chien-Ming Wang, Philip Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, and Melky Cabrera. They may not all work out in the long term as the verdict is still out on Hughes and Chamberlain, but Wang has evolved into a solid number two starter, Cano is an outstanding second baseman, and Cabrera has become a key player among the new Yankees.

And the market has changed. When it comes to free agents, the Yankees have the money to always get their man, and they pretty much always do. But now, with teams like the Mets, Red Sox, Cubs and Angels willing to dig deeply into their pockets, it costs them a lot more.

Because of that general manager Brian Cashman seems to occasionally shy away from overly expensive moves. It’s a sense of fiscal responsibility which when speaking of the Yankees seems quite alien - especially when you consider the size of their payroll.

But it’s the fiscal responsibility of other teams which has caused a lot of the problems. Deals, especially for top pitchers have moved from being two to three year contracts to being five to eight years in length. There is less hesitation to lock top players into long-term contracts years before free agency loom. Because of that the pickings in the free agent market have gotten a lot slimmer over the past four or five seasons and have widened the market, bringing many more suitors for top talent.

That has deprived the Yankees in their last few seasons of the automatic bullpen where they knew just who was going to pitch the seventh, who the eighth before handing the ball off to Mariano Rivera.

While you can blame that on the general manager or the players who couldn’t handle those roles, it was Joe Torre who couldn’t find a way to make it work as smoothly. That led to a 2007 second place finish, their first, in the last nine years, and to their third consecutive elimination in the first round.

Let’s take a look at Torre’s 12 year tenure as manager

2007: 2nd Place (94-68), eliminated in the ALDS by Cleveland
2006: 1st Place (97-65), eliminated in the ALDS by Anaheim
2005: 1st Place (95-67), eliminated in the ALDS by Minnesota
2004: 1st Place (101-61), eliminated in the ALCS by Boston
2003: 1st Place (101-61), eliminated in the WS by Florida
2002: 1st Place (103-58), eliminated in the ALCS by Anaheim
2001: 1st Place (95-65), eliminated in the WS by Arizona
2000: 1st Place (87-74), won the World Series v. Mets
1999: 1st Place (98-64), won the World Series v. Atlanta
1998: 1st Place (114-48), won the World Series v. Atlanta
1997: 2nd place (96-66).
1996: 1st Place (92-70), won the World Series v. Atlanta

What does a manager really do? The manager is the general of the team. With the players his job is to optimize the performance, execute strategic moves, and maximize the chances for the team to win every game. But even a good manager needs to have his players do their job to be successful.

If the player do their jobs, and the manager does his, the manager probably alters the outcome of somewhere between five and fifteen ball games per season. He does this by decisions on substituting pitchers, playing match ups, strategic moves (i.e. calling for the infield to play in to prevent a run from scoring, trying to have a runner steal, hit and run, etc.), pinch hitting, motivating his team, and helping slumping players work through bad stretches.

And for Torre, much of that, until recent years had always been automatic. His lineup card was an All-Star team by itself, his pitching staff just as good. There weren’t a lot of decisions to make. You don’t pinch hit for the best hitters in the game, you don’t think about the bullpen when you hand the ball into a bullpen with two premier set up guys and the best closer in the game.

And maybe because of that we should look at what Torre did before becoming the Yankee skipper.

To be continued...