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Tough calls mark Yanks' team of decade

Tough calls mark Yanks' team of decade

The Yankees said goodbye to the last decade the same way they welcomed it, celebrating a World Series championship with a wild ride down the Canyon of Heroes in lower Manhattan.

It made the perfect bookend for an eventful 10-year period in franchise history, one marked by four American League pennants, playoff appearances in all but one season, the closing of the old Yankee Stadium and the opening of a brand new cathedral across the street.

MLB.com set out to determine the best players, position by position, for each big league team from 2000 through 2009. Panels were created in each Major League city, arguments were entertained and decisions were made.

With three star players playing for the Yankees through the entire decade, some choices were painfully easy. You wouldn't dream of creating a Yankees All-Decade list without Jorge Posada catching, Derek Jeter playing shortstop or Mariano Rivera closing.

But for the remaining choices, MLB.com leaned on experts around the club for help. Offering their opinions and input were former Yankees director of public relations and author/historian Marty Appel, reporter Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News, former Major League catcher and current YES Network broadcaster John Flaherty, columnist Tyler Kepner of The New York Times, reporter Sweeny Murti of WFAN radio and broadcaster Suzyn Waldman of WCBS Radio.

Here is how our committee discussed some of the more interesting choices they evaluated:

First base: Jason Giambi

Was Giambi the Yankees' best first baseman of the decade? Probably not, but his case presented a dilemma of sorts. You could make legitimate arguments for the inclusion of either Tino Martinez or Mark Teixeira, the first basemen on both of the World Series championship clubs.

But while Martinez's three seasons in New York during the decade (2000, '01 and '05) were solid, and Teixeira's impact was important to the success of '09, it is impossible to overlook the contributions of Giambi's seven years -- warts and all.

Yankees All-Decade team
POS Player
C Jorge Posada
1B Jason Giambi
2B Robinson Cano
SS Derek Jeter
3B Alex Rodriguez
OF Johnny Damon
OF Bernie Williams
OF Hideki Matsui
DH David Justice
SP Mike Mussina
SP Andy Pettitte
SP Chien-Ming Wang
SP Roger Clemens
SP CC Sabathia
SU Joba Chamberlain
CL Mariano Rivera
MGR Joe Torre
Giambi hit .260 with 209 home runs and 604 RBIs from 2002-08 with the Yankees, including two seasons where he was limited to 83 or fewer games due to injuries. His glove was abysmal -- Joe Girardi once compared Giambi fielding a ground ball to a bear stabbing at salmon -- but Giambi was never put there for his glove.

The former AL MVP's first two seasons were strong; Giambi's first two OPS marks with the Yankees were 1.034 and .939, which play just fine up against the .948 OPS turned in by Teixeira in 2009. In fact, Kepner points out that five of Giambi's seasons were productive. Meanwhile, Martinez's '01 season (.280, 34 HRs, 113 RBIs) pops off the baseball card, but he was replaced by Giambi the next year and his return in '05 saw him hit 17 homers with just 49 RBIs.

"Although he spent much of his time as the DH, Giambi did play first base for a majority of the decade for the Yankees," Feinsand said. "And even though his time in New York will be remembered most for his steroids controversy, he did post solid numbers during his seven years. Tino's glory days were in the '90s, not the 2000s, while Teixeira had only one year. He'll get this honor in for the '10s."

Giambi never did get the World Series ring that he expected with the Yankees, and he may not be the ideal contender. But as it relates to the Yankees' 10-year span, it was agreed that the "Big G" had to earn the nod by default.

"People tend to sometimes remember the most recent thing, so they'd say, 'Teixeira? Are you kidding? Biggest year I can remember,'" Appel said. "But give Giambi his due. He was the guy for most of the decade. Teixeira's time will still come."

Outfield: Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui and Bernie Williams

The outfield alignment came together after some spirited debate, and this three-man crew appears playable. It is somewhat remarkable -- and a testament to the revolving-door nature of the outfield -- that Damon's impact in four seasons was so crucial, especially after spending so much of the decade as a thorn in the Bombers' side.

Damon proved to be one of the Yankees' better signings of the decade, hitting .285 with 77 home runs and 296 RBIs from 2006-09, and capping his experience with one of the great World Series baserunning plays of all-time, his double steal in Game 4 last year at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park.

Matsui became a logical fit as an outfielder, despite his obvious success as a DH, because the choices of the decade did not present a more convincing option. A perfect Yankee in every sense of the word, Matsui played 916 games for New York after arriving from Japan in 2003, and he hit .292 with 140 home runs and 597 RBIs, despite battling injuries in his later years.

No all-time Yankees team would be complete without mention of Williams, whose best decade was probably the '90s. But he did plenty to help the Yankees win in the '00s as one of Joe Torre's favorite players, hitting .288 with 136 home runs and 576 RBIs in 980 games from 2000-06.

Murti said that he hedged on Williams slightly because his production dropped the last few years of the decade, but he pointed out that even though Williams' numbers from 2005 and '06 aren't outstanding on paper, he was still one of the most reliable hitters on the club in clutch situations.

Paul O'Neill (2000-01) and Bobby Abreu (2006-08) were also given thought for the outfield, but their contributions were deemed too short by comparison through the decade.

Designated hitter: David Justice

This slot presented a very interesting choice once it was decided that Matsui -- who played 634 games in the outfield and 250 as a DH -- would be needed to man one of the team's outfield spots, subtracting one of the decade's most productive designated hitters.

Giambi also could have been the DH, which probably would have entered Martinez at first base, but Giambi just made more sense as the first baseman. Alfonso Soriano laid claim to a lethal bat, but he only DHed seven times for New York and was bested by Robinson Cano at second base, so he was excluded, as well.

Though consideration was given to Gary Sheffield (2004-06), Justice won out after serving as DH for 103 games in 2000-01, as the Yankees went to the World Series in back-to-back years.

"[Justice] was so huge for them in 2000, and while Sheffield was the MVP runner-up in 2004, the Yankees never won a [pennant] while he was here," Kepner said.

Justice belted only 38 homers during his relatively brief tenure in pinstripes, but he made an impact, winning the 2000 AL Championship Series MVP. As Waldman noted, "Paul O'Neill said that the Yankees wouldn't have won in 2000 had it not been for David Justice."

Starters: Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, Chien-Ming Wang, Roger Clemens and CC Sabathia

That's not a bad mix, but figuring out which five starting pitchers should represent the decade was another challenging task in this exercise. Once voters got past Mussina (2001-08), Pettitte (2000-03, 07-09) and Wang (2005-09), there was heavy debate over the final two spots in the rotation. In the end, it was decided -- with some hesitance -- that Clemens (2000-03, '07) and Sabathia ('09) would comprise the back end.

"The problem is that the teams turn over a lot more quickly than they used to," Murti said. "Because of the way the Yankees were building their rotations, they were using patchwork rotations every year. You didn't have the same starting staff more than two years in a row. I'd love to pick guys like Mussina and Pettitte for every year, but you have to begin looking for just a few good years."

Clemens pitched in three World Series for the Yankees, including leading the league in 2001 with a .870 winning percentage during his 20-3 season. The Rocket was 63-26 with a 3.85 ERA in 127 starts during his first stint, and reappeared in dramatic style during the '07 season, trying to put the pitching-strapped Yankees on his back -- John Wayne-style -- for what would be his final big league year.

There was an argument that Sabathia should not be on the Yankees' All-Decade team after just one season. In truth, he certainly deserves to be on the Indians' roster much more, and as Waldman correctly pointed out, "One year and he's in the same class as Mussina?" But the Yankees wouldn't have won that 27th title without Sabathia's 19-win season, and though this brings the revolving argument back to Teixeira over Giambi at first base, Sabathia's presence as the fifth starter eventually was settled upon.

David Wells was considered, but it was important to separate Wells' first New York stint and its perfect game glow from 2002 and '03, when Wells was 34-14 with a 3.95 ERA while battling injuries and controversy. He is remembered to some extent during that time for a start against the Marlins in Game 5 of the 2003 World Series, where he lasted just one inning due to back pain in an eventual Yankees loss.

Randy Johnson also earned mention, though the Big Unit may not look back all that fondly upon his time in New York when he arrives in Cooperstown. Johnson gave the Yankees innings and wins during his two seasons (2005-06), going 34-19 with a 4.37 ERA -- including going 5-0 against the Red Sox in '05, which helped the Yankees get to October.

But his tenure might have been best summed up by Giambi, who commented in the spring of 2007 that Johnson "was a great player. He's an older player. He gave us everything he could. And we won him a ton of ballgames."

Setup man: Joba Chamberlain

If only it was as easy to pick a setup man during that decade as it was to decide upon a closer. Among a sea of choices, it was Chamberlain who used his sizzling fastball and biting slider to finish slightly ahead in what was probably the most difficult decision to make on this roster.

"He was certainly the most exciting, the most hyped and the most electric," Feinsand said. "The fact that he served in that role for a title-winning team clinches it. [Tom] Gordon choked away the ALCS in 2004, and [Mike] Stanton wasn't as good in the 2000s as he was in the '90s."

Chamberlain made 50 relief appearances for the Yankees after bursting onto the scene in 2007, and he had a 1.50 ERA in 60 innings out of the bullpen through the end of the '09 regular season, when he re-appeared in the role for one game to prepare for the postseason and said it was "like riding a bike." The Yankees were 8-2 in his postseason appearances, and all that clubhouse champagne washed away the bitter flavor of the '07 midge game in Cleveland.

With the Yankees considering Chamberlain as a potential No. 5 starter for 2010, there was a tongue-in-cheek suggestion from Appel that maybe -- just maybe -- Girardi would see this roster and reconsider his plans before heading to Spring Training.

"There was something magical," Appel said. "The baseball gods just shined on the Yankees when Chamberlain came out of nowhere. It will be forever memorable to Yankees fans who lived through that year and the following year. I can't help but feel that's really his destiny."

Gordon made the race extremely close, as one of Torre's options who answered the call in setup situations and also tight middle relief spots. Though the seasons did not result in the ultimate prize for the Yankees, Gordon was very effective in getting the ball to Rivera, compiling a 2.38 ERA in 159 appearances, striking out 165 batters and walking 55 in 170 1/3 innings.

"Gordon is remembered for pitching poorly in the playoffs, but he's one of the few free-agent relievers who did what the Yankees expected, at least in the regular season," Kepner said.

Kepner presented this interesting factoid, which brought the argument full circle: Gordon's departure as a free agent to the Phillies gave the Yankees a supplemental round Draft pick, which they used to take Chamberlain from the University of Nebraska. And that, in a way, ultimately helped fuel the formula for a World Series victory.

Stanton also earned strong consideration. Riding out the final gasps of the dynasty years, Stanton had a 3.18 ERA in 224 appearances for postseason teams from 2000-02, consistently appearing in no fewer than 69 games each season and striking out 197 batters in 226 1/3 innings. A 2001 All-Star, the lefty also returned to the team in '05, but was largely ineffective during that year, with both Chamberlain and Gordon overshadowing his services.

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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