Regular Articles

(Read Part I and Part II)

And then came the Yankees.

When Joe Torre rode into New York back in 1996, it seemed likely he’d be just another stay a few seasons as manager before being dismissed by the Boss in his eternal quest to find the next champion. Steinbrenner had already gone through six managers in the past decade and Joe certainly didn’t look to have the pedigree to turn the team into a perpetual champion.

But what the Yankees did have were the horses needed to start their dynasty - and while Joe may not have had them under perfect control, he was along for the ride. The kernels of greatness were all in place. Wade Boggs was there as were Paul O’Neil, Bernie Williams, Tino Martinez and young kids named Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada.

The starting staff featured Andy Pettitte, Jimmy Key, Kenny Rogers and former Cy Young winners Dwight Gooden and David Cone. And as good as they were, the bullpen was even better with Jeff Nelson, Mariano Rivera, and John Wetteland to handle the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings. It was a pitching staff that didn’t need to be tinkered with - you could even call it automatic.

And as the years passed it got better. The offense would add players like David Justice, Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui, Robin Ventura, Alfonso Soriano, Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, and others.

The starting staff would replace underperformers with premier names like David Wells, Mike Mussina, Roger Clemens, Orlando Hernandez, Jose Contreras, Kevin Brown, and Randy Johnson.

In the bullpen John Wetteland would give way to Mariano Rivera, Mike Stanton would move into a set up role, as eventually would Steve Karsay, Tom Gordon and others as the Yankees became the greatest sports franchise in history.

And success was automatic. Or so it seemed. At least until buying the best pitching began getting harder and harder. For every Mike Mussina and Roger Clemens there were Jeff Weavers, Kevin Browns, Randy Johnsons and the second go round of Roger Clemens. Big names stopped clearly translating into big successes as clubs started locking their top young pitchers into long term deals and fewer and fewer of the best young pitchers ever came to market. That left the older veterans, the injury risks and the borderline aces on the board for teams with money to fight over.

And it forced the Yankees in many ways to change. Instead of buying pitchers they found that they had to trade for them. Every year the top prospects were dealt in order to shore up an older, less stable rotation.

Until last year, Torre clung to his veterans. And one by one they crumbled. Kevin Brown and his bad back barely played his last two seasons as a Yankee. Randy Johnson was ineffective. Mike Mussina became erratic and Roger Clemens finally got too old. Finally Torre was forced to throw a young arm.

Enter Chen Ming Wang - winner of 38 games over the last two seasons, a solid number two starter, and arguably the best pitcher on the Yankees staff. Without him, these 2006-2007 Yankees would have had even less in the way of stability and might have missed the playoffs altogether.

But while Wang kept the rotation afloat, it was Rivera who did it in the bullpen. But Rivera couldn’t pitch the seventh, eighth, and ninth as relief pitching began to become dearer and dearer. And that’s where it fell apart for Torre’s greatest weakness once again came to the fore.

Despite an organization which had some pitching prospects, Torre stuck with his aged and overpaid staff. And while some of that clearly wasn’t by his own choice, he waited until his hand was forced to promote them - and that’s true even of Wang.

While the Yankees pitching struggled over recent years, Torre can’t be blamed for ineffective arms. His management of them is another story and when the pitching isn’t automatic, his decisions have seemed questionable far too often for the comfort of any Yankees fan.

In hindsight, and with a microscope on the numbers, the difference between the halcyon days of Torre’s career rest on his handling of a pitching staff. Several times in his career Torre has failed to recreate or reform staffs which have lost their ability to perform at their best.

No doubt getting the best out of a pitching staff is an art form, and love him or hate him Torre hasn’t proven himself to be a master.

So it all comes back to the question, just how good is Joe Torre? Could you drop him into a situation like that faced by managers in Texas, San Francisco, or Tampa Bay and expect him to thrive?

The answer is that it’s doubtful. Nothing in Torre’s resume suggests that he’s a good manager for a young team or that he’s capable of developing rather than retarding a young pitching staff. But with a team full of veterans and a strong pitching staff, he’s a capable and efficient manager who gives his players enough room to do what they do best.

And that may also be his greatest weakness. Torre trusts his players and lets them do their job. He believes in them, even as they decline and lose the ability to judge what they can really still do.

Is Torre a brilliant manager? A man who’s earned his Hall of Fame credential or just a man in the right place at the right time? The Hall of Fame is loaded with guys who were made to look a lot better by the players, coaches and managers around them. Torre will get into the hall as a manager based on the Yankees play the last 12 years, but how much of the credit is really his?

That’s a tough question to answer.