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Pinch hitting: Brock Cohen

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Next up in our Pinch Hitters series is Brock Cohen, a native of Schenectady, New York who now lives and works in the San Fernando Valley where he teaches high school English and humanities. “Even though I’ve recently earned my M.A. in Humanities, write for the Huffington Post, and have been featured on L.A.’s NPR affiliate for my work in education,” Brock wrote, “My proudest achievement to date is converting my then-girlfriend (and now wife) Katie to Yankee fandom during the summer of 2009.”

For his guest post, Brock looked back to the Yankees massive offseason splash of 2008 and wondered: If they could do it again, would they do it the same?

[2]In November of 2008, Yankees fans received arguably their biggest gift since 2003. It had been in 2003 that Rangers G.M. John Hart was kind enough to hand over two-time MVP Alex Rodriguez and $61 million to the Bombers for the dynamic but slightly overvalued Alfonso Soriano and B-prospect Joaquin Arias.

Like in 2003, the gift of 2008 centered on an influx of talent, and like in 2003, the exchange would disproportionately favor the Yankees.

But unlike the heist of ’03, the hot stove of 2008 was a time that many had already forecasted as a rare opportunity to re-tool the still talent-laden, yet flawed, roster on the fly. When the offseason finally arrived, four expiring contracts, totaling over $62 million in annual salary, flew off the books, and the Yankees’ front office went to work.

Brian Cashman and Co. courted lefty ace CC Sabathia for over a month before signing him in late-December. Still needing a righty-workhorse to step in for the retiring Mike Mussina, the Yanks signed mercurial fireballer A.J. Burnett. With the departure of the fading Jason Giambi and his $120-million contract, Cashman went into full stealth mode, plucking All-Star first-baseman Mark Teixeira from the clutches of Red Sox Nation – thus rescuing the switch-hitting slugger from a half-decade-or-more nightmare of patchy beards; crushed, sweat-stained cap brims; and a kaleidoscope of alternative jerseys.

In one offseason, the Yankees had replaced gold-plated aging veterans Bobby Abreu, Carl Pavano, Mussina, and Giambi with a bona fide ace, a talented power arm, and one of the game’s elite first basemen. In filling areas of dire need with stars at their athletic peak, the exchange instantly made the Yankees a better team. In addition, the average age of the incoming player in the 2008 “exchange” was seven years younger. Who needed Channukah?

It was a huge bounty, but there were risks. Sabathia was coming off a season in which he was simply abused, amassing 253 innings. Teixeira came with yet another Giambi-esque deal that would eliminate the possibility of coveted prospect Jesus Montero moving to first base. Even worse, Burnett was a walking code-orange alert, an unsettling throwback to the early-2000s operational model of decadent hole plugging.

And yet, in those cold, dark days of February, 2009, my concerns were massaged away by gauzy visions of CC going nine strong on Opening Day, of an airborne Tex effortlessly snatching a would-be game-winning laser off the bat of an incredulous David Ortiz, and even of a sneering Burnett blazing fastballs past a bailing, flailing Kevin Youkilis. All the money and years would be well worth it because, at some point, there would be rings involved.

[3]Cut to January of 2012 and the benefit of hindsight. As we now know, the Yankees won their 27th ring the following November, taking it to the Phillies in the 2009 Fall Classic. It was the Bombers’ first championship since 2000, and it’s doubtful they could have won it without both Sabathia’s and Teixeira’s monster contributions.

The problem now is that all three players seem to be showing signs of regression. Teixeira’s OPS+ has dropped from 141 in 2009, to 124 in ’10, to 117 last season. Burnett’s ERA+ has also plummeted over the past three seasons while his profanity-laced, flop-sweat-soaked meltdowns have become almost routine. When things continued to unravel for A.J. in 2011, he became the most expensive late-season mop-up man in the history of the Majors. As for Sabathia, the big lefty displayed clear signs of fatigue in the latter part of the season, pitching to a 3.44 ERA in the second half, versus 2.72 pre-All-Star break. CC was still great in 2011, but he has more mileage on his arm over the past five seasons than any other pitcher in the game.

But a look at the big picture tells us that the acquisitions of both Sabathia and Teixeira were worth the extravagant cost and future roster inflexibility. Both played critical roles in the Yanks’ quest for their 27th championship, and their inevitable decline should be perceived as the cost of doing business. And while there were alternatives at the time (waiting for Montero to develop, trading the farm for Cliff Lee, signing Ryan Dempster, Derek Lowe, or Ty Wigginton), it’s questionable that pursuing any of those options would have ultimately lead to a ring.

It’s easy now to speculate that Cashman would continue to stand firmly behind his Tex and CC acquisitions but would leap at the chance for an A.J. do-over. Except here’s the thing: What would have been the ripple effects of Burnett’s absence this whole time? Derek Lowe and his replacement-level sinker in the A.L. East? John Lackey glowering at Derek Jeter after a fumbled grounder? Oliver Perez putting up a two-inning, eleven-walk performance at Fenway?

Even in retrospect, maybe – just maybe – it was the right move to go with all three.

Associated Press photos