1 New York Yankees You have to go to the back of the rotation to find a question mark on this club

April 04, 2004

Imagine the folly of saying that the biggest weakness for a major
league team is the back end of a starting rotation that consists
of one of the best pitchers in the history of Cuban baseball and
a former 20-game winner. But that is the state of the Yankees and
their fourth and fifth starters, Jose Contreras and Jon Lieber.

"The bottom end of our rotation has a chance to be tremendous,"
says pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre.

It could also be a problem. In his first American League season
last year, Contreras, 32, spent 76 days on the disabled list with
a right shoulder strain, struggling to find a niche between the
bullpen and the rotation. He needs to throw at least 100 more
innings than the 71 he pitched last year. Lieber, who turns 34 on
April 2, is 20 months removed from Tommy John
ligament-replacement surgery in his pitching elbow. As the season
begins, the best insurance policy if either man falters seem to
be Orlando Hernandez, signed in March while trying to find his
lost fastball, or Jorge DePaula, 10-11 in Triple A last year.
Thus the worry, even though, with the Yankees, the specter of a
bailout always looms. If Contreras or Lieber can't get the job
done, the assumption is that George Steinbrenner will pay through
the nose to acquire someone who will.

It's probably expecting too much to think the top three of Mike
Mussina, Kevin Brown and Javier Vazquez can improve on the 55-25
record that Mussina, Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte put together
last year. But is it really too much to think that Contreras and
Lieber could be David Wells and Jeff Weaver, or a little better?
Between them, Wells and Weaver started 54 games. They went a
combined 22-16 with a 4.93 ERA. Pretty darned average, yet the
Yankees still went to the World Series. The big number there
might be 54. Can Contreras and the restructured right elbow of
Lieber give the Yankees 54 starts and eat up 380 or so innings?

"In Cuba," Contreras says, "we played a 90-game season, and I
threw 179 innings one year. Lots of complete games. I can do that
here. It's what I've done all my life."

Contreras thinks he might have hurt himself last year because of
the start-and-stop demands that come with being a middle
reliever, a role he had early in the season. No danger of that
this year. He'll have to be horrible to get dropped from the
rotation with so few options behind him.

Lieber, who threw a National League-high 251 innings with the
Cubs in 2000, says, "My arm feels stronger than it's ever felt,
which is what some guys have told me happens after this surgery.
Kerry Wood puts more strain on his arm than I do, and he came
back fine from this surgery. I know there are people who think I
can't do it, but I love that. That drives me. I think I can go
out there every fifth day and give this team a chance to win."

The Yanks signed Lieber in February 2003 knowing he would spend
all of last season rehabbing his elbow. A fastball-slider
pitcher, he threw eight late-season innings in a rookie-league
game, stunning himself by throwing harder than he ever had. His
fastball has usually clocked at around 91 mph; he says he hit 95
last August. But when his fastball is that fast, it flattens out,
which is why this spring he has gone back to throwing 91 or 92.
"I get a lot more movement at 91," he says. His elbow wasn't a
problem in spring training, but his groin was. He strained it
early in camp, and is starting the season on the disabled list.

Friendly and mild-mannered, Lieber is a little gee-whiz about
pitching for the 26-time world champs. But Yankees broadcaster
and former catcher Joe Girardi, who was behind the plate for
Lieber's 20-6 season with the Cubs in 2001, says the pitcher is
no softy. "Nothing in any game I've seen him pitch ever fazes
him, and he won't be fazed by Yankee Stadium or pitching in a
pennant race," Girardi says. "I love his approach. You ask some
guys their theory about pitching, and they'll give you a
20-minute dissertation. You ask Jon, and he says, 'Hit the
mitt.'"

Ask Lieber about pitching at Fenway Park for the first time in
his career, and he says, "I hope I pitch our first game there
this year." And that's why the Yankees like him--a lot. --Peter
King

COLOR PHOTO: JEFF ZELEVANSKY/ICON SMI TURNING UP THE HEAT Contreras has good credentials, but has had trouble throwing strikes and staying healthy. COLOR PHOTO: EZRA SHAW/GETTY IMAGES RODRIGUEZ

IN FACT

Jason Giambi fanned 140 times in '03, becoming the first Yankee
to lead the AL since Mickey Mantle in 1960.

ENEMY LINES
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Yankees

"This is the team to beat in the AL. Mike Mussina's going to win
18 games, and of their new pitchers--Kevin Brown, Javier Vazquez
and Jon Lieber--Vazquez will be the best. I don't think the
switch in leagues or pitching in New York will change anything;
he's a great pitcher.... You have to put a question mark next to
Brown: He hasn't shown overpowering stuff, and his slider hasn't
been that sharp.... The lineup is a murderers' row if there ever
was one, especially if Bernie Williams can stay healthy. Enrique
Wilson has never been an every-day player, but they'll get by
with him.... Alex Rodriguez hasn't shown the first-step quickness
that you need at third, but that will come because he's such a
good athlete.... The back end of the bullpen is great. Mariano
Rivera's cutter and fastball are in midseason form. Tom Gordon's
fastball has been hitting 94 mph, and he's showing his hard
slider and nasty curve.... The one surprise will be Scott
Proctor. He's been throwing a 91-to 95-mph fastball and hard
sinkers and sliders. Just watch--he'll be huge for their
bullpen."

THE LINEUP
projected roster with 2003 statistics

BATTING ORDER

SS Jeter
DH Williams
3B Rodriguez
1B Giambi
RF Sheffield
LF Matsui
C Posada
2B Wilson
CF Lofton

KENNY LOFTON [New acquisition]
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L 91 .296 12 46 30

GARY SHEFFIELD [New acquisition]
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 8 .330 39 132 18

ENRIQUE WILSON
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
S-R 297 .230 3 15 3

JASON GIAMBI
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L-R 21 .250 41 107 2

JORGE POSADA
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
S-R 41 .281 30 101 2

ALEX RODRIGUEZ [New acquisition]
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 2 .298 47 118 17

DEREK JETER
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 35 .324 10 52 11

HIDEKI MATSUI
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L-R 94 .287 16 106 2

BENCH

TRAVIS LEE [New acquisition]
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L 226 .275 19 70 6

RUBEN SIERRA
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
S-R 304 .270 9 43 2

DESIGNATED HITTER

BERNIE WILLIAMS
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
S-R 81 .263 15 64 5

ROTATION

PITCHER PVR W L IPS WHIP ERA

RH Mike Mussina 7 17 8 6.9 1.08 3.40
RH Kevin Brown 19 14 9 6.6 1.14 2.39
[New acquisition]
RH Javier Vazquez 24 13 12 6.8 1.11 3.24
[New acquisition]
RH Jose Contreras 65 7 2 6.4 1.15 3.30
RH Jon Lieber* 193 6 8 6.7 1.17 3.70

BULLPEN

PITCHER PVR W L S WHIP ERA

RH Mariano Rivera 12 5 2 40 1.00 1.66
RH Tom Gordon 125 7 6 12 1.19 3.16
[New acquisition]
RH Paul Quantrill 169 2 5 1 0.98 1.75
[New acquisition]

2003 RECORD
101-61
first in AL East

MANAGER
Joe Torre
ninth season with New York

(R) Rookie
B-T: Bats-throws
IPS: Innings pitched per start
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
*2002 stats
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 142)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)