Already having been gagged (he is forbidden to speak to the media)
and grounded (the New York Yankees were the lone major league
team not to send an official to the annual winter meetings in New
Orleans last week), Yankees general manager Brian Cashman had yet
another indignity foisted upon him on Sunday by team owner George
Steinbrenner: The Boss announced that he would pick up the option
on Cashman's contract for 2005. ¬∂ Only in the Bronx, where three
years without a world championship provokes high anxiety, could
another year of work at a salary of about a million bucks be
construed as insulting. But just hours after the New York Post
hit street corners with a report that a fed-up Cashman couldn't
wait to bolt the team after next season, Steinbrenner decided
it would be the perfect time to announce that he would
guarantee another year on the G.M.'s contract. Season's
greetings. Fruitcake shipped separately.
As the American League East became baseball's epicenter of
activity last week, those formerly stable Yankees looked more and
more like a bizarro Survivor cast, as if getting off the island
were the goal. First, disgruntled bench coach Don Zimmer quit the
minute the Yankees lost the World Series to the Florida Marlins.
Then manager Joe Torre, heading into the last year of his
contract, said last month that he didn't want an extension, thank
you. Last Thursday lefthander Andy Pettitte, the winningest
postseason pitcher among active players, bolted the only
organization he's ever known for the Houston Astros, a team that
has never won a postseason series. Pettitte's departure prompted
buddy Roger Clemens, who told the Yankees he was retiring after
the 2003 season, to consider pitching for the Astros. Moreover,
according to a Yankees source, closer Mariano Rivera, angry about
the Yankees' half-hearted attempt to keep Pettitte, called an
organization insider to say he was ready to exit when his
contract runs out after next season.
Steinbrenner, meanwhile, boldly moved to refurbish his club with
trades for righthanders Javier Vazquez and Kevin Brown and deals
with free-agent outfielders Gary Sheffield (who agreed to terms
on a three-year, $39 million contract on Friday) and Kenny Lofton
(two years, $6 million), whose presence unceremoniously boots
centerfielder Bernie Williams to DH. When one reporter mentioned
to Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox that Lofton could assist
Sheffield in rightfield with speed and range, Cox, who managed
Lofton in Atlanta, laughed and said drily, "Maybe."
"They'll still be great," one American League G.M. says of the
Yankees, "but it's hard to figure out what they're doing. They're
taking some risks--I hope they keep it up."
Word of unrest in the Land of George played as soothingly as harp
music across the rest of the AL East. There's change in the air
for a division that since Thanksgiving has added four of the
National League's top 12 ERA leaders: Brown; Curt Schilling,
whose trade from Arizona to Boston was the starter's pistol to
the off-season; Vazquez; and Miguel Batista, who signed with
Toronto last Friday (three years, $13.1 million). The Blue Jays,
after an 86-win season, already had added Ted Lilly and Pat
Hentgen to complement Cy Young winner Roy Halladay in their
"The Yankees and Red Sox are like Russia and the U.S. going at
it," Toronto G.M. J.P. Ricciardi says. "We're England. We just
have to worry about ourselves. We may win 90 games and still get
third place. We'll see."
In addition to Schilling, Boston last Saturday signed AL saves
leader Keith Foulke, a made-to-order closer for a stats-minded
organization that doesn't believe in treating its best reliever
like a Ming vase. The durable Foulke, for instance, may be
deployed in the eighth inning of tie games. "He's a weapon," Red
Sox G.M. Theo Epstein says. "There's nobody else who would be a
better fit for us." Boston has also been negotiating a trade that
would send outfielder Manny Ramirez to Texas for shortstop Alex
Baltimore, after a franchise-worst five straight losing seasons,
officially announced on Sunday that it intends to be a factor in
the division, rather than fodder. Not only did the Orioles sign
former AL MVP shortstop Miguel Tejada (six years, $72 million),
but they also professed to have enough cash to sign free-agent
outfielder Vladimir Guerrero and one of the two elite free-agent
catchers, Ivan Rodriguez or Javy Lopez. "Let the Yankees and the
Red Sox knock each other out," says new Orioles manager Lee
Mazzilli, who, yep, left the Yankees' coaching staff last month.
"We'll be waiting in the wings."
Tampa Bay, on the other hand, retains the look of a poor rube who
mistakenly sat down at a baccarat table with the big boys. The
Devils Rays' signings of outfielder Jose Cruz Jr. (two years, $6
million) and second baseman Rey Sanchez (one year, $1 million)
were mere footnotes in the divisional gamesmanship.
The Yankees started spadework on the deals for Brown and Vazquez
last month when it became clear that their soft-sell approach was
turning Pettitte toward his home in Houston. New York, for
instance, offered Pettitte a two-year contract with an option for
a third year that would have brought the value to $39 million. He
took a guaranteed three-year deal worth $31.5 million from the
Astros. Steinbrenner and Torre never called him.
Clemens, irked by how the Yankees treated Pettitte, indicated
that he would decide next month whether to follow his friend to
the Astros. "It's up in the air," Alan Hendricks, an agent for
Clemens, said on Sunday, "and it's still in the 'unlikely'
Brown, who turns 39 in March, and Vazquez, 28 in July, are
younger than Clemens and Pettitte, respectively, and they
combined for more innings last year and received much worse run
support than the former Yankees did. (Among 91 major league
starters, Brown ranked 81st in run support, and Vazquez was 83rd.
Pettitte ranked second.) Says one NL manager, "If I had my pick
of any pitcher [available] this winter, I'd pick Vazquez first."
But an AL G.M. adds, "[The Yankees'] rotation may look better on
paper than last year's, but everybody's an unknown when they get
to New York. Vazquez pitched in Montreal. What does that prove?"
The AL East now is home to six of the 10 toughest pitchers to
reach base against in the majors last year: Schilling (2) and
Pedro Martinez (3) of Boston, Halladay (4) of Toronto and Mussina
(5), Vazquez (6) and Brown (10) of New York. One former MVP
(Tejada) has already been imported, and two more (Pudge and
A-Rod) may be on the way. No need to wait for April. The race is
Go East, Young Men
Quick, which was the last team other than the Yankees to win the
AL East? Answer: the 1997 Orioles. It's been Groundhog Day in the
division ever since, with the five teams finishing in the same
order each season. That may finally change in 2004 with the
arrival of many new players, several of them All-Star caliber.
Here's a roundup of the key acquisitions so far in what has been
the busiest division in the major leagues during the off-season.
Toronto Blue Jays
TED LILLY, LHP
At 27 he's joining his fifth organization, but he's poised for a
PAT HENTGEN, RHP
Former Cy Young winner ('96) healthy again; went 6-3 in second
half of '03.
MIGUEL BATISTA, RHP
His 3.54 ERA last year was lowest among this winter's free-agent
New York Yankees
JAVIER VAZQUEZ, RHP
Workhorse who threw second-most pitches in '03 gets first crack
KEVIN BROWN, RHP
Ground ball specialist with 2.39 ERA in '03 will get little help
from suspect infield.
GARY SHEFFIELD, OF
High OBP and low strikeouts make him an ideal fit in the Yankees'
KENNY LOFTON, OF
Allows New York to move Alfonso Soriano out of the leadoff spot.
MIGUEL TEJADA, SS
Home run numbers (27 last year) should get a boost in cozy Camden
Boston Red Sox
CURT SCHILLING, RHP
Type A personality loves big-game pressure; eases burden on Pedro.
KEITH FOULKE, RHP
Two-inning closer has wicked change, though he faltered in
Tampa Bay Devil Rays
REY SANCHEZ, 2B
Sure-handed infielder has little pop (career high: three HRs) or
patience at the plate.
JOSE CRUZ JR., OF
Parlayed a so-so season with Giants (.250, 68 RBIs) into a