Torre energized by A-Rod trade, improved relationship with Steinbrenner
Posted: Tuesday February 24, 2004 1:36PM; Updated: Thursday February 26, 2004 2:40PM
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Tony La Russa
Joe Torre hasn't yet built that dream house on his hilltop property in Hawaii. "We haven't decided if we want to live there two months out of the year or 10 months out of the year,'' the Yankees manager said. "Plus, let's see how this year plays out. It takes about 14 months to build, so we'll just wait.''
Three months ago, Torre seemed destined for a final season in the Bronx and then on to Hawaii or network TV. He was weary after a rockpile of a year with the Yankees in which he remarked that the job had lost some of its fun. He said he didn't want to even talk about a contract extension, thank you very much.
Now Torre is so invigorated it's as if last year didn't even happen. He was clearly energized by the Alex Rodriguez trade -- as was every employee in the Yankees organization, from George Steinbrenner to the parking lot attendants -- and now even Steinbrenner has been chummy instead of cold to Torre. The two of them shared a casual dinner together last week at Steinbrenner's invitation, a significant step forward in their relationship. "I feel good. Really good," Torre said. "This is where I want to be. I enjoy doing this and have the same passion for it. I can't envision not managing next year."
The entire Yankees camp is still riding an A-Rod high, partly because the trade came about so unexpectedly and so close to the opening of camp. Torre, too, is caught up in the aura of having added the best player in baseball. The manager has his share of problems: three-fifths of his rotation carries durability questions, center field decisions could get prickly, and the Yankees still need a sure-handed second baseman to assist their groundball-heavy staff.
But it's easy to be in a good mood when you start doodling possible lineups on cocktail napkins for this team. And just how will Torre align the second coming of Muderers' Row? I decided to give him a little help.
"What about hitting Alex Rodriguez second?'' I asked. I've seen references to statistical studies of lineup combinations that concluded that your best hitter should hit in the No. 2 hole. I like the idea so much that I'm eager to see Barry Bonds hit second, for instance.
Baseball, of course, changes slowly. Little, speedy guys hit leadoff, bat control specialists who hit behind the runner hit second, the best hitter hits third, the best power hitter cleanup, and so on. That, anyway, is the rough outline of how it's been done forever. Times change. We now have the designated hitter, no need for bunting or, in many cases, hitting behind the runner, and power up and down every lineup. So why not hit A-Rod second?
I asked new Yankees hitting coach Don Mattingly about it. Mattingly thrived while batting second behind Rickey Henderson and in front of Dave Winfield. He knocked in Henderson so many times (and while making an out on many occasions) that Winfield used to complain that Mattingly didn't leave him enough leftovers.
"I loved it,'' Mattingly said. "You get pitches to hit there, and in the American League, with no pitcher in the ninth spot, it's really like hitting third anyway after your first at-bat. Sometimes we had Willie [Randolph] hitting ninth, so he was like a leadoff hitter, too.''
I asked Rodriguez about the idea. "The big move for me was from short to third base,'' he said, "so as long as I'm in the lineup somewhere it doesn't make any difference to me.'' No objections from the new guy.
I imagined Torre scrawling Derek Jeter, Rodriguez, Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield in as his first four hitters, all of them having won an MVP or come fairly close. Alas, Torre wanted none of it. He will use spring training to experiment with lineup combinations. (The Yankees' starting position players will start just about every home game together this spring.) But he said he will not try Rodriguez in the No. 2 hole.
"I've got too many other options,'' he said. "Jeter, [Kenny] Lofton, Bernie [Williams] . . . there's a few different ways we can go.'' Williams at or near the top? That caught my attention. So what exactly does Torre have in mind?
Jeter never seemed greatly enamored with the leadoff spot, but Torre said, "He has no problem with it, and he's a great leadoff hitter.'' Steinbrenner signed Lofton to be the center fielder with the idea that Williams would be the DH and Giambi an everyday first baseman, but as one AL manager said, "Won't happen. Bernie will be in center. Joe's not giving up on one of his guys.'' Fair enough, but Torre will have to sell Lofton on being an insurance policy for Williams, a DH against righties when Giambi is well enough to play defense, a pinch runner and pinch hitter -- not exactly what he signed on for.
So what will Torre do with the top of his lineup? Williams is the key. Don't be surprised to see Williams, the former cleanup hitter on four world championship teams, hitting leadoff or second, with Jeter filling the other tablesetter spot. Why not Lofton if both are in the lineup together? Williams is still a better on-base percentage guy than Lofton. In fact, Williams has posted a better on-base percentage than Lofton for nine consecutive seasons -- even last year, when Williams, fighting a knee injury, failed to post an OBP better than .390 for the first time since 1994 (.367).
Yes, Lofton is a better stolen base threat. Indeed, when Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling threw in the bullpen Monday, he worked on a slide step delivery and told coaches, "This is what I do if Lofton's on.'' So Lofton still commands attention. But really, how important is the stolen base in a lineup with this much power? I'll take a guy better at getting on base over a guy better at stealing a bag once a week, which is what Lofton does.
So Torre might have Williams and Jeter at the top of his lineup, followed by the Rodriguez-Giambi-Sheffeld troika -- all of whom are capable of hitting 40 homers and getting on base 40 percent of the time. Ouch. Giambi should get 130 RBIs just by showing up at the ballpark in this lineup. He has the Park Avenue address: a lefty sandwiched by two stud righties and with three guys in front of him whom who all run well enough to score from first on a double or third base on a shallow fly.
The No. 6 and 7 spots figure to have many RBI opportunities and should fall to switch hitter Jorge Posada and lefty Hideki Matsui. If Lofton DHs, Torre might hit him ninth to give him that popular "double leadoff hitters'' device as the lineup turns over again, in which case the second baseman (to be determined) hits eighth. If Travis Lee plays first base, he might hit eighth and the second baseman ninth.
The Yankees never seemed certain where to bat Alfonso Soriano. He hit leadoff often by default, and was not ideal there because of his free-swinging style. Right field was a wasteland, with Raul Mondesi and Karim Garcia swinging at pitches as if they were double-parked all the time. Rodriguez and Sheffield are legit middle-of-the-order hitters who will take a walk and pass the baton. The Yankees' lineup figures to be a work in progress this spring, but just about all of Torre's options are good ones. No wonder he's having fun again.
Why in the world is first baseman David McCarty working out with the Boston pitchers? "Brooks Kieschnick," Red Sox pitching coach Dave Wallace said, referring to the Brewers' unique pinch-hitter/DH/pitcher. "If we carry 11 pitchers, a guy like that becomes really valuable."
McCarty, who pitched at Stanford, has yet to carve out his niche in what so far has been a vagabond career. Spurred by Kieschnick's successful slash role for Milwaukee, Boston gave McCarty a look on the mound during a few side sessions in the bullpen at the end of last season. "He was pretty impressive," Wallace said. "He throws well enough to get people out, put it that way."
Wallace said McCarty will get more recovery time in between throwing days to allow him to rebuild his arm strength. There's something totally retro cool about a guy hitting and pitching in this age of sports specialization. Here's hoping McCarty cuts it at the plate and on the mound -- and more Kieschnick types follow.
New locks on clubhouse doors
Major League Baseball, embarrassed that trainer Greg Anderson drove straight from BALCO headquarters to the Giants' private parking lot and free reign in the team's clubhouse, intends to crack down on a post-9/11 directive to limit clubhouse access. After Sept. 11, baseball was moved by security reasons to keep hangers-on and non-team employees out of clubhouses, though teams tended to ignore the order. Now the idea that the Giants gave carte blanche to a guy who since has been indicted as part of a steroid distribution investigation has redoubled baseball's effort to clean up the clubhouses. Moreover, teams have been ordered to re-evaluate what medicines and supplements they supply players. "We've been told to take a hard look at what is distributed to players,'' one GM said. "What concerns everybody now is the team's exposure from a liability standpoint. So everything is under review.''
Houston Astros pitcher Andy Pettitte, who is working on a book about living a Christian life, clarified a reference in Sports Illustrated about playing pool with Roger Clemens by saying they were in a billiards hall, not a bar. Though the billiards hall does serve alcohol in a bar area, the difference to Pettitte is an important one. Pettitte said he does not frequent drinking establishments commonly considered bars.
"I call myself a Christian," Pettitte said. "I try to live my life the way God wants me to live. I have spoken to a lot of different groups and they've heard my testimony about trying to stay away from a lot of wordly stuff outside of baseball.
"What might sound small or trivial to a lot of people is important to me. I know there are restaurants with bars that I go to, like a Chili's. I'll eat there two or three times a week. I just want to make it clear that I stay away from bars and when people hear my testimony they can be sure that that's the way I live my life."
Pettitte and Clemens, now teammates with the Astros, are close friends who played pool last year in New York while with the Yankees. Pettitte said he has begun working on a book that gives advice, especially to young people, about living a Christian life.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Tom Verducci covers baseball for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.