Thursday, March 3, 2005

Yankees Hopeful Winter Deals Pay Off

By Diane M. Grassi

According to Yankees management, their offseason work is done with their roster pretty much set as they look forward to Opening Day. Given their decimated pitching corps that they finished with in the 2004 postseason, the Yankees appear substantially better off for the 2005 season, given their pitching acquisitions, but doubts still remain for the long haul in center field and at first base.

Many new faces are showing up at Legends Field in Tampa this spring season, so much so that combining this offseason with last year's offseason, even an avid Yankee fan may have to think twice to name the entire place setting at this point.

While the deal the Yankees made with pitcher Randy Johnson received the most notoriety — as it had been waning since this past July when the deal could not be accomplished and again this past December when the Los Angeles Dodgers begged out of a three-way deal — it will only be a part of the impact of the total player moves made this winter by the Yankees.

And as any well-schooled baseball fan knows, games are not won on paper, with so many intangibles playing a factor in coming out a winner. Given three new starting pitchers in the rotation with several new faces in the bullpen, in a way the Yankees will be starting anew. Randy Johnson will join veteran Mike Mussina along with new acquisitions, Carl Pavano, and Jaret Wright, as well as the returning Kevin Brown.

Not returning to the Yankees rotation will be Jon Lieber, a formidable pitcher for them in the 2004 postseason, Javier Vasquez, sent packing to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the Randy Johnson trade, and Yankees favorite, Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, picked up by the Chicago White Sox.

Now no one can say Randy Johnson is replaceable if he pitches when healthy, but the rest of the rotation remains questionable, given the many past health problems of a 39-year-old Kevin Brown who spent a good portion of 2004 on the DL, as well as the past arm and knee troubles of Jaret Wright. Wright only rehabilitated his career this past season in Atlanta due to the efforts of pitching coach, Leo Mazzone, and is untested in the NY market.

While Carl Pavano has similar stats to Vasquez' prior to Vasquez' trade to NY, he is also untested in a big market town, let alone Yankee Stadium, also having played in Montreal and later in Florida. And given the arm problems of Mike Mussina from last season which had him on the DL for a couple of months, he is not the same pitcher he was a couple of years ago.

But not enough can be said of El Duque who came on for the Yanks at the end of the 2004 season after reconstructive arm surgery in 2003. He won his first eight games after returning to the Yankees just prior to the postseason, but because of his great effort, did not leave enough in the tank for the playoffs. Always a big-game pitcher when healthy, his presence will be sorely missed from that rotation.

Then we come to the infield and the big question about first baseman Jason Giambi. The first priority is for the Yankees to assess his health and his ability to produce this spring. Whether he will be used at first base at all or will be the DH-designate remains to be decided.

As insurance over the winter, the Yankees were able to resume a relationship with first baseman and fan favorite Tino Martinez in a trade with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, whom Giambi ironically replaced after the 2001 season. Tino was signed to a one-year deal with the Yankees, understanding that he would be used in spot roles at first base or as a bench player. Now it could very well be, depending on how Tino looks, that he could be the used full-time at first.

In the long-run, the Yankees can only hope that Giambi returns to the player he once was without benefit of using illegal substances and that his health does not fail again. They plan on remaining mum about his alleged admitted testimony of using steroids, before a grand jury in 2003, and will be especially tight-lipped as the BALCO trial proceeds in March. The best thing Giambi can do for himself and the Yankees right now is to prove he is still an MVP-type caliber player.

The rest of the infield sees changes at second base after the Yankees chose to deal Miguel Cairo to the New York Mets. Cairo did all the Yankees asked of him and more in 2004. He started out as a utility infielder and then platooned with Enrique Wilson at second. Before the All-Star Break, Cairo won out as the starter at second, leaving Wilson as the backup for the rest of the season. He overachieved in fielding, committing only six errors on the season at second, and finished with a .292 batting average with a .346 on base percentage. He proved to be a clutch batter mostly in the two hole in the lineup, and all that for a bargain $900,000.00.

But instead of the Yankees sticking with the affordable and reliable Cairo, they have brought on 35-year old Tony Womack from the National League's champion St. Louis Cardinals. There were questions about Womack's physical problems when he was with the Arizona Diamondbacks several years ago, thus precipitating his being dealt to St. Louis.

After an unexpectedly impressive year with St. Louis in 2004 when he batted .307, Womack will be placed at the top of the Yankees' lineup, shifting shortstop Derek Jeter back to his more familiar second spot in the lineup. Womack committed 15 errors in the field in 2004 and whether his wheels will hold up at the top of the order given his tendency for leg injuries remains to be seen.

Fortunately, Derek Jeter who had a slow and awful start in 2004, but more than made up for it by the end of the season, will play shortstop alongside Alex Rodriguez at third, who made a terrific adjustment as a third baseman in 2004 from shortstop, and should only get better.

Both Jeter and Rodriguez are anxious to get back to the postseason and rid their psyches of the way in which the Yankees lost the American League pennant, in their venomous rivalry with the Boston Red Sox. The only chance they have for redemption will be making sure they get back to the postseason.

The outfield remains the same as it was in 2004 with Hideki Matsui solid in left field and Gary Sheffield returning in right after successful offseason shoulder surgery. The big question mark remains in center field given Bernie Williams' career winding down over the past three years with his physical problems now deemed chronic. It is not a knock against Williams, but the Yankees did not use him enough as a DH over the past year as promised, given the luxury of having Kenny Lofton as a backup. It actually had initially been thought there would be a problem giving Williams enough opportunities at DH since they fully expected to use Giambi in that role.

But as Giambi went down due to illness, replacements Tony Clark and later John Olerud were used just as much for their fielding capabilities at first and required a hitting spot, which cleared the way to use Willliams as a DH after all. However, Lofton saw more and more of a limited role as well as being on the DL himself, necessitating Williams to play in the field on an almost daily basis with outfielder Rubin Sierra used as DH much of the time.

We shall see what Williams has left this season. But given the circumstances, it looms large how much the Yankees could have used the services of Carlos Beltran, and that they did not aggressively become a part of the equation in a contract bid for him.

The Yankees' bullpen has been fortified, and desperately so since the 2004 bullpen had the most collective appearances in all of MLB due to the failed efforts of its rotation. Mike Stanton, a part of all four Yankees' World Championships in the '90s, comes back after a retreat to the Mets the past couple of seasons. He was the long man in relief back then, but this time around will probably be used more discriminately given the choice of the returning Tom Gordon, Tanyon Sturtze, and Steve Karsay, who hopes to be able to contribute as he did prior to surgery in 2003. The Yankees also picked up the services of Felix Rodriguez from the Philadelphia Phillies in a trade for Kenny Lofton.

Most recently, the Yankees worked out deal with the Red Sox in reacquiring the services of Ramiro Mendoza hoping to redeem himself after an injury-plagued 2004. He was the quintessential setup man for Mariano Rivera during the Yankees' last four World Series Championships.

Yet Yankees fans can count on a few more things to still occur prior to Opening Day against the Boston Red Sox on April 3, 2005. They will be welcomed back to sticker shock given the rise in prices at concession stands as well as at the ticket box office.

And as Yankee management will continue to tweak the roster not only this spring, in the early season, and throughout 2005, manager Joe Torre will have his hands full once again in creating a new and working dynamic, with arguably more a roster of all-stars than a proven winning team thus far.

But for now, all will have to settle for what appears on the current roster, without too closely analyzing what is expected to happen by season's end. There are never any guarantees in baseball, only that you can never say never, and especially when it comes to New York's Yankees.

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