Remembering the 2003-04 offseason: the Yankees went crazy

The Star-Ledger-USA TODAY Sports

After losing the 2003 World Series, the Yankees embarked on a frantic shopping spree that lasted all winter long.

From the rumors we've seen so far, it looks like the Yankees plan to be highly active this offseason for the first time in a while. Whatever they do, though, will likely pale in comparison to what they were up to a decade ago. In a three month span from December 2003 through February 2004 the team added seven former all-stars including a Cy Young winner and an MVP while making over $200 million in future payroll commitments and turning over close to half of a roster that finished 101-61 and fell just two wins short of a World Series title. Though not all of their acquisitions lived up to expectations, it was certainly an offseason to remember.

Sheff's Kitchen

Despite finishing third in the AL with 877 runs scored in 2003, the Yankees marked upgrading their lineup as a top priority after a poor offensive performance in the World Series. Although their right fielders hit a respectable .256/.317/.465 overall, they'd used a mixed cast of players like Karim Garcia and David Dellucci down the stretch after the unceremonious dumping of Raul Mondesi. Vladimir Guerrero, who Brian Cashman reportedly preferred, was considered the prize of the free agent market, but George Steinbrenner had long been fascinated with Gary Sheffield, then of the Atlanta Braves, if for no other reason than that he was Dwight Gooden's nephew.

The Yankees struck early on Sheffield, signing him to a three-year, $39 million deal with an option for a fourth year on December 1st, while Guerrero waited things out until January before eventually coming to terms with the Angels for five years and $70 million. Sheffield really wasn't a bad signing at all. He was coming off a .330/.419/.604 season in Atlanta that earned him a third place NL MVP finish. At ages 35 and 36, he had two strong seasons with the Yankees posting wRC+'s of 141 and 137.

The only thing really wrong with Sheffield was that the Yankees picked him over Guerrero, who was six years his junior and one of the truly dynamic offensive players in the game at the time. Vlad won the 2004 AL MVP in Anaheim and managed a .318/.341/.546 triple slash in his six seasons there.

A Farewell to Arms

Perhaps more significant than the quest to make a really good offense great was the fact that the Yankees began the 03-04 offseason by saying goodbye to three pitchers who had won a combined 294 in pinstripes. Roger Clemens "retired", though his particular version of retirement involved 101 more major league starts and an NL Cy Young Award. David Wells wasn't invited back after his achy-breaky back took him out of game five of the World Series. Andy Pettitte's free agency became one of the Yankees' greater offseason blunders in recent memory.

After refusing to sign their then 31-year-old homegrown lefty to an extension after a strong finish to 2002, the Yankees watched Pettitte hit the market off of a 21 win, 3.35 FIP, 5.2 fWAR 2003 campaign. They all but ignored him through November. While Steinbrenner famously shared burgers with Sheffield, Pettitte was wooed by other clubs, including the Boston Red Sox and his hometown Houston Astros. No one really knows what was going through the Yankees' heads at the time, but odds are they thought they could let the market develop then swoop in with a last-minute bid like they'd done with Bernie Williams five years prior. They didn't anticipate that Pettitte would be deeply offended by that approach or how enticing pitching mere miles from his Deer Park, TX home would be for him. Even when the Yankees finally offered around $8 million more, he wouldn't back away from a three-year, $31 million verbal commitment with the Astros. On December 11, Andy Pettitte became an ex-Yankee, and Mike Mussina was suddenly a lonely island in the New York rotation.

A Hello to Other Arms

The Yankees didn't sit on their pitching deficit for long. On the same day that Pettitte officially shunned them, they agreed to pick up Kevin Brown and the two years and $30 million left on his once historic contract from the Los Angeles Dodgers. In exchange, World Series goat Jeff Weaver headed westward along with pitching prospects Yhency Brazoban and Brandon Weeden. On December 16th, the Yankees struck a deal with the Montreal Expos to acquire 27-year-old righty Javier Vazquez in exchange for oft-injured first baseman Nick Johnson, young outfielder Juan Rivera and LOOGY Randy Choate. Less than a month later, Vazquez came to terms on a four-year extension worth $45 million that was supposed to keep him a Yankee through 2007.

On paper, Brown and Vazquez seemed more than adequate replacements for Pettitte and Clemens. After overcoming arm injuries that plagued him in 2001 and 2002, Brown delivered a dominant 2003 season that featured a 2.39 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP to go with 211 innings pitched. Vazquez looked like a true up-and-comer north of the border after a 3.24 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 9.4 K/9 campaign and it was assumed that he'd take things to an even higher level backed by the kind of run support that the Yankees could provide.

Things didn't exactly work out that way. Vazquez lasted just a year in New York after blowing up in the second half of '04 and reaching career worsts in most meaningful categories. He gave up 33 home runs, not including the Johnny Damon grand slam that nailed the Yankees' coffin shut in game seven of the ALCS. Kevin Brown wasn't much better. He hit the DL on June 16th and again on September 4th after he broke his hand punching a dugout wall, all in the midst of a pedestrian 4.09 ERA, 1.27 WHIP year. Brown, too, was culpable in the dumpster fire that was game seven. He started the game and left the bases loaded for Damon's slam after giving up three other runs in just two plus innings of work.

The Birth of Quan-Gor-Mo

Despite a characteristically strong year from Mariano Rivera, the Yankees' bullpen was shaky in 2003, allowing opposing hitters a .746 OPS and generally making a mess of things a bit too often. The team never found suitable replacements for departed stalwarts Jeff Nelson, Mike Stanton and Ramiro Mendoza. They swung and missed with signings like Steve Karsay and Chris Hammond and watched key leads coughed up by the likes of Weaver, Felix Heredia, Gabe White and Jose Contreras. On December 16, they signed former Red Sox closer Tom Gordon for two years and $7.25 million and a day later added veteran setup man Paul Quantrill for two years and $6 million. Together they would form two thirds of the late-inning troika not-so-cleverly dubbed Quan-Gor-Mo by Michael Kay.

Over the course of the 2004 season, Quantrill and Gordon became poster children for Joe Torre's chronic and systematic abuse of middle relievers - the duo finished first and second in the AL in relief appearances and third and fourth in relief innings. Gordon somehow stayed solid, posting a 2.38 ERA and 0.98 WHIP over 159 games during two seasons in the Yankee pen, but he was disastrous in his twelve playoff outings. Quantrill saw his stuff evaporate in the second half of '04 when batters notched a ridiculous .389 wOBA against him (Torre still let him throw 39.1 innings during that stretch).

Veteran Depth

On December 23, 2003 the Yankees gave fans an early Christmas present - more of a stocking stuffer, really - when they signed Kenny Lofton to a two-year, $6.2 million deal. Despite being 36, Lofton had been incredibly productive for the Pirates and Cubs a year earlier, posting a .296/.352/.450, 4.0 fWAR line. Bringing in a superior glove man to get the defensive black hole that was Bernie Williams––his UZR in 2003 was -21.2––more DH time was a good idea in theory, but Torre was never on board. Lofton started just 62 games in center all year and played only four out of eleven in the playoffs. In 2005 he joined the Phillies and batted .335.

On January 12 the Yankees picked up Tony Clark as a power bat off the bench and late-game defensive replacement for the lead-gloved Jason Giambi. Clark was no longer the everyday 30-home run threat he was with the Tigers but he'd OPS'd .772 and slugged 16 round-trippers in just 280 at-bats for the Mets in spacious Shea Stadium a year prior. Unfortunately, the pituitary tumor that sidelined Jason Giambi for most of the year forced Clark to play more games at first than anyone else for the '04 Yanks. He batted .221/.297/.458 before eventually being replaced by the late-season pickup of John Olerud.

Alex Rodriguez: So it Begins

For most teams in most years, the players above would represent several offseasons worth of acquisitions. But as the calendar turned to 2004, the Yankees of a decade ago hadn't even made their biggest move yet.

What if Aaron Boone had never decided to join that pickup basketball game on January 16, 2004 - the one that ended for him in a season-ending torn ACL and for the Yankees in a decade-long saga that's resembled a Shakespearian drama?

As pitchers and catchers reported to spring training, the Yankees were desperately seeking a replacement at third with only bench players Enrique Wilson and Mike Lamb on their roster. They found that fill-in and then some on February 17 when they traded Alfonso Soriano and Joaquin Arias to Texas for the player currently referred to by Yankee brass as Mr. Rodriguez (or "that !@#$!"). After a deal with the Red Sox that would have landed them Manny Ramirez fell through earlier in the offseason, the Rangers agreed to pick-up a third of A-Rod's remaining salary in exchange for netting a cheaper, younger slugger in Soriano.

What A-Rod's meant to the Yankees, both good and bad is too much to cover in a few articles, let alone a few paragraphs. It's important to remember that in a vacuum, the 2004 trade to bring him in for Soriano at two thirds of his $25.2 mil per year salary was one of the best ever made. Before he opted out of his contract during the 2007 World Series and signed his current deal, A-Rod averaged 7.25 fWAR and 156 wRC+ over his first four years in pinstripes, while Soriano seemed to sleepwalk through two seasons in Texas before being dealt to Washington for a modest return.

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