If you beat ’em, join ’em
Jaret Wright beat the Yankees in the 1997 Division Series. Tony Womack’s double helped down the Yanks in the 2001 World Series. Carl Pavano dominated the Bombers in the 2003 World Series. All three joined the Yankees over the winter.
Ace righty Mike Mussina, who has never thrown a no-hitter, won a Cy Young Award or won 20 games in a season, is the only active 200-game winner who has never been on a team that won the World Series.
New kids come up short
When the Yankees dropped the final four games of the ALCS after leading Boston 3–0, their new stars let them down. In those games, Gary Sheffield and Alex Rodriguez went a combined 3-for-34.
Catch ’em if you can
Derek Jeter and Rodriguez know when to run. The two combined for 51 steals last season and were caught only eight times. And newcomer Womack was 26-for-31 for St. Louis.
By coincidence, Pavano ran into Joe Torre at a Florida restaurant before he began his free agent tour. Weeks later, Torre made a final recruiting call to Pavano, who chose the Yankees largely because of the appeal of playing for Torre.
If at first you don’t succeed… GM Brian Cashman tried to trade CF Kenny Lofton to the Giants last July for RHP Felix Rodriguez. Instead, the Giants shipped Rodriguez to the Phillies. But in December the Yankees got him — for Lofton, after all.
Winners join winners
There was a theme to the Yankees' off-season acquisitions. Randy Johnson, Tino Martinez, Mike Stanton, Pavano and Womack have all played for World Series winners. Jaret Wright and Rodriguez also have World Series experience.
Follow that pitcher
The Yankees' trade for Hideki Irabu in 1997 set off a chain of deals through the years. Irabu was traded for Ted Lilly in 2000. Lilly was traded for Jeff Weaver in 2002. Weaver was traded for Kevin Brown in 2003. The Yankees tried to trade Brown after the season, but found no takers.
The mandate in the Bronx never changes: The Yankees will win the World Series or be seen as failures. They have gone four years without a title, and Joe Torre must recreate that old chemistry with a new mix. This group is talented enough to win an eighth consecutive division title but must prove it can win when it matters.
The Yankees last season were the first 100-win team in baseball history without a 15-game winner. Their creaky rotation was ravaged by injuries, and their winter goal was to overhaul it. Did they ever. Randy Johnson, the object of George Steinbrenner’s dreams for many years, will be the strikeout pitcher the Yankees lacked last season, a true ace to shut down any lineup. Johnson will be 42 in September but showed no signs of wear last season. Free agent addition Carl Pavano must make a quick adjustment to the AL, but he can settle in as the No. 3 starter behind veteran Mike Mussina, whose strong finish calmed fears about his elbow. Jaret Wright is harder to hit than the pitcher he replaced (Jon Lieber), but will his shoulder hold up? The Yankees wanted to dump Kevin Brown, who irritated teammates with his surly attitude, his wall-punching incident and his constant injury complaints. Brown, however, will return.
The Yankees had expected their late-inning tandem of Tom Gordon and Mariano Rivera to guide them through last October, but Gordon struggled in the playoffs and Rivera blew the crucial save in Game 4 of the ALCS in Boston. Paul Quantrill led the AL in games pitched but faded late in the season. Determined to get more rest for Quantrill, Gordon and closer Rivera (or “Quan-Gor-Mo,” as broadcaster Michael Kay nicknamed the trio), the Yankees traded for veteran workhorses Mike Stanton and Felix Rodriguez. Stanton is not a true lefty specialist, but he can get right-handers out and has credibility with Torre. Rodriguez has been a top setup man but will have to earn Torre’s trust to carve out a role. Steve Karsay should be healthy at last, but the Yankees can’t count on him yet. Tanyon Sturtze can make a spot start and earned Torre’s trust as a capable late-inning pitcher.
Derek Jeter has another new double-play partner in Tony Womack, who revived his career with St. Louis last season. Womack has good range but made 15 errors last year, second-most among NL second basemen. Jeter won his first Gold Glove, showing more confidence going up the middle a year after his left shoulder injury. At the plate, Jeter excels at beating teams in many ways, from homers to sacrifice bunts, which some say he does too often for a hitter who can be so explosive. Womack could be the leadoff hitter, but Jeter excelled in that role last season. So Womack could bat ninth, serving as a “second leadoff man” when the lineup turns over to Jeter.
Third base seemed to come naturally to Alex Rodriguez, whose exceptional arm and instincts served him well in his first season at the position. Offensively, Rodriguez was capable of much more than he showed in 2004, and a second season as a right-handed slugger at Yankee Stadium may help him use the whole field more. Rodriguez was obviously frustrated last season by balls he hit that did not leave the park, a feeling he never had at the Texas Rangers’ cozy stadium. Tino Martinez returns at first base to help fans forget about the lumbering Jason Giambi, whose offense often could not compensate for his defensive misadventures. Martinez needs only to be a steady presence in the order; there is plenty of thunder elsewhere. The Yankees are desperate to find a way out of Giambi’s contract, feeling embarrassed by his published admission of steroid use. They are convinced he is all but useless as a player now.
Hideki Matsui, a deadly clutch hitter, continued to develop at the plate in ’04, recognizing pitches better and driving more balls with authority. Matsui is a savvy base runner and a solid defender, despite lacking a plus arm or speed. Gary Sheffield nearly snagged the MVP award despite a painful left shoulder injury that often prevented him from catching balls above his belt. Off-season surgery should fix the problem. Sheffield showed a good arm in right field, though he can benefit from occasional games at DH. Veteran Bernie Williams is prone to long slumps, but he compensates with blazing-hot stretches and has Torre’s unending loyalty. Williams outlasted Kenny Lofton last season and remains the center fielder, after the Yankees passed on free agent Carlos Beltran.
Joe Torre relies heavily on Jorge Posada, who caught more games than any other American Leaguer last season. Posada did not produce offensively as he did in ’03, when he was third in the AL MVP voting, and he probably will always take too many called third strikes. But he walks a lot and has power. While he is not considered an elite defensive catcher, he has steadily improved and has a good relationship with the veteran pitchers. Posada will be without his favorite catching instructor, Gary Tuck, who left the team, so his defense will bear watching this season. Backup John Flaherty has the trust of veteran pitchers and batted .373 after the All-Star break last season. Torre could use him more to preserve Posada.
At the height of the off-season steroid controversy, the Yankees explored the idea of voiding the reamining four years and $82 million on Jason Giambi's contract. Early indications were that they would have a hard time doing so, so the the best bet could be to install Giambi at DH and hope he finds some of the form that made him a monster hitter from 2000-2003. Giambi would prefer to play in the field, but Martinez is a far better fielder, and given his reported admission of steroid use, Giambi is in no position to make demands.
Torre enters the first season of a three-year, $19.2 million contract extension that should take him into retirement and the Hall of Fame. Torre has unquestioned respect in the clubhouse, a strong relationship with pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre and a calm hand with owner George Steinbrenner. Joe Girardi will be Torre’s third bench coach in three years, and it will be interesting to see what he contributes to in-game strategy. GM Brian Cashman — in the final year of his contract — does his best to juggle owner Steinbrenner’s many millions and many moods, with extensive input from Steinbrenner’s Tampa staff.
The Yankees know they can hit, and with Johnson and Pavano, in particular, they have drastically improved their rotation. They are a veteran team that understands the demands of its owner, who again has given Joe Torre a collection of talent that has a better chance to win the World Series than any other team in the majors.