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Yankee ingenuity

Bombers poised to make customary offseason splash

Posted: Wednesday December 27, 2006 2:52AM; Updated: Wednesday December 27, 2006 3:03AM
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The Yankees know Barry Zito is 84-5 when he receives four or more runs of support.
The Yankees know Barry Zito is 84-5 when he receives four or more runs of support.
Robert Beck/SI
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The New York Yankees are a team that will switch plans at a moment's notice, a team that will appear to be lost or losing badly and then will suddenly steal the show. That may be exactly what's happening this offseason.

The Yankees will act like they're in cost-saving mode, then out of nowhere appear with $100 million, or close to it, and win the winter. Don't bet against them now.

After expressing consternation about their payroll for weeks, the Yanks may wind up trading Randy Johnson, then spending the very $16 million that was targeted for Johnson on Barry Zito for 2007, plus $16 million a year for five more years after that.

A person familiar with the Yankees' thinking said that Zito didn't appear to be on the radar until recent days when club officials began talking about how the upcoming pitching landscape doesn't look too favorable, and about how there are precious few pitchers of Zito's ilk headed for the free-agent market in the next year or two. After Carlos Zambrano, the list quickly dwindles, and Zambrano still plays for the Cubs, who are handing out money to players faster than anyone, the Yankees included.

After ignoring Zito for weeks, the Yankees suddenly are thinking about the advantages of youth and durability, two of Zito's strengths. Perhaps another new glance at Andy Pettitte's MRI scared them straight.

Anyway, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman was holed up in his office at Yankee Stadium on the day after Christmas, talking about Johnson with the Arizona Diamondbacks, San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants. And while there are still no assurances of a blockbuster trade, there seemed to be some momentum for it.

If Cashman can make a relatively quick trade involving Johnson -- one baseball official termed the chances "50-50'' now -- he still has to make one more big play. While the Yankees have to date been outsiders in the Zito sweepstakes, some executives envision them entering what has been a four-team field as the prohibitive favorite.

One person close to Zito's father said he believes that, just as was true in the case of another former Oakland star Jason Giambi, the father Joe Zito would like his son to play for the Yankees. Joe Zito and George Steinbrenner have several acquaintances in common. Beyond that, Zito told the San Francisco Chronicle he most wants to go to a place that aims to win multiple titles. That sounds like the Yankees, too.

The person who knows Zito's father and family speculated, "If the Yankees want him, they can have him.''

There seems to be some urgency to the Johnson talks, a quick timetable that fits into this headline-grabbing two-step scenario, as well. The Yankees would like to complete a Johnson deal by New Year's Day, presumably to give them ample opportunity to find a replacement. Zito, who's expected to start seriously sorting through his offers after Jan. 1, is the only logical replacement, a left-hander with a Cy Young award on his resume.

The Zito pursuers so far include the Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners, Giants and New York Mets, who may suddenly turn from the team perceived to be the favorite into a long shot. The idea that the Mets are favored may be something of a misnomer, anyway, as their initial five-year offer for something in the range of $75-80 million isn't in the ballpark of the asking price.

The Mets appeared to be counting on their belief that the culturally-inclined Zito wanted to be in New York over Texas. But if there's a chance for Zito to be in New York with the Yankees, that sort of wishful thinking goes out the window.

Nonetheless, a person familiar with the Mets thinking said he believed they would "stick to their game plan,'' and not be affected one iota by the Yankees' potential presence and press ahead in the hope that the Yankees didn't trade Johnson. Or that if they did, that they stayed with a rotation of Chien-Ming Wang, Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, Kei Igawa and Carl Pavano.


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