Catch-up Ball The struggling Yankees and Red Sox are shopping for help

July 09, 2000

For two weeks the Yankees exhibited the kind of shopping anxiety
normally seen at a mall half an hour before closing time on
Christmas Eve. They waffled between sluggers Juan Gonzalez of the
Tigers (who wasn't interested in them) and Sammy Sosa of the Cubs
(who proved too pricey even for the Yankees, with the Cubs
insisting on five players in return). Meanwhile, every day that
passed seemed to bring another lugubrious Yankee performance
during what would turn out to be a 15-26 funk that dropped New
York behind the Blue Jays in the American League East.

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman briefly interrupted his
search on June 26 to ask Indians assistant G.M. Mark Shapiro how
to deliver a 1999 World Championship ring to Cleveland scout Gary
Tuck, a former Yankees catching instructor. In the course of that
conversation the Indians smelled a customer. They offered the
Yankees lefthanded-hitting outfielder-DH David Justice.

According to one American League general manager, Cleveland had
been trying to trade Justice for two years but "couldn't give him
away, not even for a bag of balls." Justice had recovered from
two off years, though, to hit 21 home runs for the Tribe this
season (albeit with a tepid .265 batting average), and the
Yankees had to have somebody after whiffing on Gonzalez and Sosa.
Well in advance of the July 31 trading deadline, New York made an
impulse buy. Last Thursday the Yankees gave up outfielder Ricky
Ledee, 26, and two prospects to be named in hopes that
Justice--who went 1 for 10 with two RBIs in three games against
the Devil Rays last weekend--can ignite an offense that at week's
end ranked 10th in the league in runs.

Never mind that Justice is a career .225 hitter in 271 postseason
at bats or that he doesn't address New York's vulnerability to
lefthanded starters (8-13 against them) or that the club is on
the hook for $18 million through 2002--a price that scared off
East rival Boston, for one--for a 34-year-old DH apprentice who's
played 150 games in a season only once. What mattered was that
the Yankees admitted a level of urgency never before seen in
their five-year run under manager Joe Torre.

The nearly frantic Red Sox, 9-18 in June and 12th in the league
in scoring, chose the flea market rather than the mall for their
shopping. Last week they added journeyman third baseman Ed
Sprague from the Padres and first baseman-DH (and Frontier League
alum) Morgan Burkhart from the minors.

The Yankees, still armed with prize prospects like infielder
Alfonso Soriano and third baseman Drew Henson, next figure to
address a shaky pitching staff that includes righthanders Roger
Clemens and David Cone (six wins in 30 combined starts) and
righty Ramiro Mendoza (on the DL with a sore shoulder). The
Phillies' Andy Ashby, the Pirates' Francisco Cordova and Jose
Silva, the Astros' Jose Lima and the Cubs' Ismael Valdes have
been mentioned as solutions. As for Boston, G.M. Dan Duquette
said he still is looking to improve the club's production at
first base and DH. The Rangers' David Segui and the Phillies'
Rico Brogna are likely to interest the Red Sox.

So far the only obvious winner is Cleveland. Without Justice and
centerfielder Kenny Lofton, whose $8 million option for next
season the club is unlikely to exercise, the Indians have created
payroll flexibility to recover quickly from an injury-ravaged
season. Cleveland assured itself of being a big player in a
potentially huge free-agent market. "For six years we've traded
to add a player or two," says Cleveland G.M. John Hart, whose
team ended the week 10 1/2 games behind the White Sox in the
American League Central. "Maybe this is the time to save our
resources."

No such signs of capitulation could be found in New York or
Boston, where the shopping season has only just begun.

--Tom Verducci

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES LEFTY LUMBER The Yankees hope Justice will give them a jolt of his power.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)