Flash back to 2003. Coming off eight straight post-season appearances, those New York Yankees were a proud lot. And, it was with good reason. Their rotation was deep and experienced, headed up by future Hall-of-Famer Roger Clemens. Veteran Mike Mussina plus two seasoned lefties, Andy Pettitte and David Wells, rounded out the top four.
Then there was the number five starter, an import from the Detroit Tigers, a right-hander named Jeff Weaver. A youthful 26 compared to the others, Weaver had joined the Pinstripers during the previous season as part of a three-team blockbuster trade which also included the Oakland A's.
Already making over $4 million per year, Weaver entered that 2003 season amid high promise. However, as Weaver's strikeouts tailed off and enemy home runs began leaving the park at a rapid clip, the situation worsened. As Cardinals fans can attest from early in Weaver's stint in St. Louis, he had trouble containing his emotion when trouble struck and everyone seemed to turn on him.
As his nightmare 2003 season continued, Weaver's results spiraled downward and downward. His pre-All-Star break ERA was 5.20, but rose to 7.77 afterward. As a result, Weaver lost his rotation spot after 24 starts and was banished to the bullpen, where his results were even worse.
With all that talent, the Yankees plowed on, winning 101 games and taking their Division. Weaver was on the playoff roster, but was a forgotten man, not appearing for 18 consecutive days, including the entire League Division and Championship Series.
In Game Four of the 2003 World Series, Weaver was called upon and failed at what would be the critical inflexion point of the Series. With the game tied in the 12th inning, his dramatic home run served up to Alex Gonzalez allowed the Florida Marlins to knot the Series at two games apiece. The Bombers lost the next two contests and have not returned to the October Classic since.
Heading into that disappointing off-season, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman had another serious problem. Almost all the members of his aging rotation were free agents. While Mussina was signed for 2004, Pettitte, Wells and Clemens were not.
At that point, Weaver was not considered part of the solution. He was damaged goods and was quickly dumped on the Los Angeles Dodgers for the considerably older (age 39 in 2004), higher-paid and oft-injured Kevin Brown.
Several parallels with the 2006 Cardinals are evident. Weaver was a common thread, as was a rotation full of short-timers. As free-agent eligibles, Weaver joined Mark Mulder, Jeff Suppan and the Cardinals' version of Mr. Damaged Goods, Jason Marquis, behind ace Chris Carpenter this past season.
Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty wasn't necessarily trying to get his rotation younger for 2007 as was Cashman's stated intent three years earlier. In fact, with Anthony Reyes and Adam Wainwright (both 24 last season) penciled into his top five, Jocketty wants and needs some experience. As a result, he is still trying to retain the services of both Weaver and Mulder.
Though Cashman had (and has) much deeper financial resources than does Jocketty, it wasn't helping him initially in the 2003-2004 off-season. He looked to be in deep trouble as his attempts to reload for the next year backfired. And, I am not even talking about the Weaver-Brown trade.
As the result of several bitter setbacks, Cashman ended up turning over his entire rotation other than Mussina. In a highly-publicized but poorly-rated melodrama, buddies Clemens and Pettitte stayed home in Houston. Wells also returned home, to San Diego as a free agent.
In addition to the Brown acquisition, Cashman acquired Javier Vazquez via trade from the Montreal Expos in December. But that was it. Heading into February, with just a few weeks until Spring Training, Cashman was short at least two experienced starters and perhaps three. The Yankee-watchers were going nuts.
But, Cashman was patient, a most-admirable trait especially considering his Boss, some crazyman named Steinbrenner. He landed two free agents in February - much-ballyhooed Cuban émigré Jose Contreras and low-budget rehabber Jon Lieber. The latter had missed the entire 2003 season, but the Yanks later squeezed 14 wins from him in 2004.
Finally, in March, 2004, Cashman re-signed former Yankee Orlando Hernandez off the scrap heap, a wise decision given the inherent risks with the other five starters. El Duque had been among that season's crop of free agent leftovers that had not yet found a home by the time Spring Training camps opened, his health and age in question.
Hernandez had missed the entire 2003 season following shoulder surgery. The Yankees could afford to be patient with him in 2004 as El Duque did not make his debut until July. His 15 regular-season starts in the second half, during which he went 8-2, gave a much-needed shot in the arm to his club down the stretch.
When all was said and done, despite Cashman's late scrambling or more accurately perhaps because of it, the 2004 Yankees again won 101 games and again took their Division. That was before they fell in that classic seven-game ALCS to the Boston Red Sox, a team of destiny if there ever was one.
Are there Contrerases and Liebers and Duques still available for the taking this off-season?
Jocketty acknowledges the best answers remain right under his nose, as his public stance is that he only has eyes for Mulder and Weaver. And if he cannot retain them, he feels that the rest of the guys already on his roster are just as good as anyone still left out there.
Sounds like stirring words from a great leader expressing confidence in his troops. The reality is that Mulder could be Jocketty's El Duque, his second-half ace in the hole, while Weaver could surely replicate the 2004 success of Lieber or Contreras.
And if Walt doesn't land both of his two targets, here's hoping he quietly and diligently continues to look under every rock in February, March and beyond, just as Brian Cashman did three years ago.
One final point. While there are certain similarities between the 2003 Yankees and the 2006 Cardinals, the bottom line was clearly different.
Cardinals fans readily acknowledge their club won the 2006 World Series because of Jeff Weaver, highlighted by his masterful Game Five performance. That is in stark contrast to those Yankees followers who to this day blame the Bombers' 2003 collapse to the Marlins on Weaver's one and only fateful post-season inning pitched.
Here's hoping both the Cardinals and Weaver realize his return to St. Louis for 2007 and beyond represents each side's best chance of somehow repeating their unexpected and delightful 2006 October performances and that Mark Mulder can become the 2007 Cardinals' version of El Duque.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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