John Donovan
Wednesday May 11th, 2005

We'd all like to see the Yankees flop around at the bottom of the American League East for the rest of the season, wouldn't we? Never mind the billions and billions of Yankees fans out there. Forget George Steinbrenner.

The rest of us -- the underdog lovers, the ones against using big bucks to buy pennants, the ones who like a little variety in our races, the ones who believe that Yankees fans, most of them, need to just shut up once in a while -- we'd like it, wouldn't we?

Well, sorry.

The Yankees, despite all the dooming and glooming going on, are not done. Not by a Giacomo-looking longshot. No team goes from World Series favorites -- Sports Illustrated, The Sporting News, several USA Today scribes, a lot of folks at ESPN and 90 percent of the seemingly endless list of preseason publications all picked the Yankees to win it this year -- to the baseball glue factory that quickly.

It's true that the Yanks aren't kids anymore. Their bullpen is a mess. The starting pitching has been schizophrenic. Jason Giambi has been amazingly bad. The Boss is threatening people. So how's that different than it was 5 1/2 weeks ago, when everybody with a picker was picking the Yankees?

The fact is, the Yankees still have All-Stars all over the diamond. The talent might be creaky and a little sore at times. But there's still plenty of it.

Randy Johnson missed a start -- the sky is falling in the Bronx! -- but in his first game back he went eight innings, gave up three runs and struck out seven Mariners in a 4-3 win. Mike Mussina was gimpy out of the gate -- he's done, people said -- but in his last outing, he threw a complete-game, four-hit shutout. Even Kevin Brown was OK in his last trip to the mound, going seven innings and giving up five hits in a win. The old guys will be all right.

New Yankee Jaret Wright is hurt, but newcomer Carl Pavano has been fine, and if the Yanks can get more games from rookie Chien-Ming Wang like Tuesday's outing (7 1/3 innings, four hits, three runs against Seattle), things are looking up. New York's isn't the best rotation in the majors. But with Johnson, Mussina and Pavano, it's better than most.

The bullpen, old and ineffective, is a problem, especially in the middle. Tom Gordon looked shaky again in Tuesday's win. But bullpens, as SI's Tom Verducci points out, can be patched together. That will be the Yanks' biggest challenge.

The defense has been a favorite target, too. Friday night, the A's hit three ground balls in the 10th inning of a tie game, none of which were handled cleanly (Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Tino Martinez each muffed a chance). But the infield defense, even with rookie Robinson Cano at second, is actually pretty good. Martinez is a solid first baseman, shortstop Jeter is usually sure-handed (if not particularly rangy) and A-Rod could be a Gold Glove-caliber third baseman.

The revamped outfield is questionable, with transplanted infielder Tony Womack in left and Hideki Matsui in center. But it's probably better than it was with Bernie Williams in center. Matsui is the team's best all-around outfielder, and Gary Sheffield has a plus arm in right.

The Yankees' strength remains their offense. The Yanks are averaging more than five runs a game, and that figures to get better as summer arrives and Matsui (.233 with just three homers so far) shakes his early-season slump. Jeter and Womack provide a smart top to the lineup, and no team wants to face a middle that has the likes of Sheffield, A-Rod and Matsui. Martinez has been hot, too, homering in four straight games and six of his past eight.

Sure, the Yanks have stunk. They've never started this badly under Joe Torre. And the two teams that the Yankees have beaten during their four-game win streak, the A's and Mariners, are terrible right now.

But the Yanks are playing better, and there are more Oakland and Seattle (and Detroit) matchups coming up. Aside from three games against the Red Sox in the Bronx later this month, the Yanks won't have to run up against the East again (they are 9-14 in the division) until late June. By that time, they should have their stuff together.

So bury the Yanks if you want. But if you do, it'll only make you madder when they bang and buy their way into another postseason.

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