The big question for New York this winter is, Who will be within
the blast radius when George Steinbrenner explodes? Said
centerfielder Bernie Williams in the disconsolate New York
clubhouse after Game 6 of the World Series last Saturday night,
"The people in charge designed this team not just to play in the
postseason, but to win. When that doesn't happen, people will be
There has already been a preemptive casualty: Bench coach Don
Zimmer, a frequent verbal sparring partner of the owner's,
announced an hour after the Series ended that he was quitting.
Other members of manager Joe Torre's staff--hitting coach Rick
Down, pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre--might be shown the door.
Steinbrenner's statement in the aftermath of Saturday's loss was
brief and to the point: "Of course I was disappointed," said the
Boss, who convened a meeting of Yankees executives in Tampa on
Monday, "but we will be meeting soon to make whatever changes are
needed to bring back a stronger, better team for New York and our
fans. You can count on it."
The most pressing personnel issue confronting the Yankees is the
possibility that three fifths of their starting rotation will
exit this winter. Roger Clemens is retiring, Andy Pettitte is a
free agent and eager to be closer to his family in the Houston
suburbs, and David Wells has very likely worn out his welcome.
While the team holds a $6 million option on Wells, the front
office is wary of his age (40), indifferent conditioning habits
and F-the-world demeanor. This season those three pitchers
combined for a 53-24 record and a 4.02 ERA, and they accounted
for 59% of New York's starts and 43% of its innings pitched.
This year's crop of free-agent starters is thin, with only the
Phillies' Kevin Millwood, the White Sox' Bartolo Colon and
perhaps the Braves' Greg Maddux qualifying as front-of-the-
rotation options; all will have several suitors. Righthander
Jon Lieber, a free-agent signee in January and a 20-game-winner
with the Cubs two years ago, is expected to return next spring
from Tommy John surgery that has sidelined him since August of
2001, but New York's profligate trades of young lefties Ted Lilly
and Brandon Claussen over the past two summers--for Jeff Weaver
and Aaron Boone, respectively--have drained its farm system of
other potential replacements.
New York also faces the inevitability that Steinbrenner will want
to go after a free-agent slugging outfielder, such as the Expos'
Vladimir Guerrero, to fill a hole in rightfield. Once the Boss
makes up his mind, he will whip his front office into action and
demand delivery. "We're under pressure all the time," says
general manager Brian Cashman. "I don't know how much more
pressure there could be."
The Yankees aren't the only contenders with significant
off-season issues to address. Here are some of the others.
Chicago White Sox
KEY FREE AGENTS: SP Bartolo Colon, SS Jose Valentin, 2B Roberto
Because Chicago has a $4 million option on 21-game winner Esteban
Loiaza and will keep arbitration-eligible righthander Mark
Buehrle under contractual control, expect G.M. Kenny Williams to
try hard to keep Colon and use the division's best rotation to
anchor the club.
Boston Red Sox
KEY FREE AGENTS: 2B Todd Walker, RP Mike Timlin, SP John Burkett
Don't be surprised if Boston shops a big name, such as outfielder
Manny Ramirez, who's still owed $100 million over the next five
seasons, or shortstop Nomar Garciaparra. Why? Next winter
Garciaparra, starters Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe, and catcher
Jason Varitek are all eligible for free agency.
KEY FREE AGENTS: RF Gary Sheffield, C Javy Lopez, SP Greg Maddux,
3B Vinny Castilla
Closer John Smoltz's prediction--"If we do not win it all, this
club is going to change [more] than it's ever changed"--is on the
mark. Lopez and Castilla won't be back, and Atlanta didn't even
really want Maddux last year. Those three earned $26.75 million
in 2003, which could be rolled toward a new deal for Sheffield.
San Francisco Giants
KEY FREE AGENTS: SS Rich Aurilia, SP Sidney Ponson, C Benito
Santiago, 1B Andres Galarraga
Aurilia will return, but G.M. Brian Sabean must supplement a
lineup that, minus Barry Bonds, was below the league average in
home runs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Ponson's
disappointing 3-6 stint may have made him affordable. --Daniel G.