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Yankee ingenuity (cont.)

Posted: Wednesday December 27, 2006 2:52AM; Updated: Wednesday December 27, 2006 3:03AM
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Whatever happens with Randy Johnson and Barry Zito, the Yankees remain interested in the services of Roger Clemens.
Whatever happens with Randy Johnson and Barry Zito, the Yankees remain interested in the services of Roger Clemens.
Heinz Kluetmeier/SI

Perhaps the Yankees would still stick with that very questionable fivesome. But that doesn't sound like the Yankees I know. Pettitte's elbow is iffy, Igawa is unproven in the majors and Pavano provides absolutely zero guarantees. Counting on Pavano would be tantamount to expecting to win at Lotto.

The Yankees will hope they beat the Boston Red Sox and Houston Astros to Roger Clemens. But Clemens is a second-half player at this stage, and there are no assurances he'll return, anyway, not with the other two interested parties willing to let Clemens write his own schedule, to come and go as he pleases.

A person familiar with the situation said Johnson and Clemens are unrelated, except for the irrelevant but interesting fact that they apparently detest each other. But Johnson and Zito may be related.

Johnson appears to be the one who got all this started when he recently told Cashman he might be more comfortable elsewhere. That conversation appears to be the impetus for a great idea.

The Big Unit belongs out west. He assimilated to New York well enough to win a respectable 17 games last season, and what's more, he didn't shove any more cameramen. But he hasn't loved it there.

Johnson is a Northern California native who starred at USC but his main home is in Arizona. Zito is a San Diego native who's played his whole pro career in the Bay Area. But they are as different as can be. Johnson came to New York for the money, while Zito genuinely likes New York.

Zito would be a natural, the kind of theatrical sort who craves the big stage (and actually has some secondary music and acting interests). Besides being as young as about any free agent pitcher you're ever going to see (he's 28) and as durable as anyone (he's never been on the disabled list), he is a major winner when given reasonable support. When the Oakland A's have scored four or more runs for Zito, he is an astounding 85-4, for a .955 winning percentage.

We're not quite to the point of fitting Zito for pinstripes yet. First things first, and to that end, Cashman was hard at work talking to the Diamondbacks, Padres and Giants, who are believed to be the three main players.

Johnson has a no-trade clause and family reasons to want to get back to the Diamondbacks. So they would be the favorite even if they didn't have the type of young talent to get the deal done, which they do. Arizona possesses Micah Owings and Ross Ohlendorf, two highly-touted young pitchers who are within a year of making it to the majors and believed to be on the Yankees' wish list, as well as solid relievers such as Luis Vizcaino.

Talks between the Yankees and Diamondbacks are said to have hit a snag in the last couple days when Cashman named too high a price for Arizona's taste. If any team has done an admirable job protecting its youth, it's Arizona. But it still would be easiest to do a deal with the D'backs.

One person who knows Johnson well thought he might approve a trade to one of the other western teams as well, pointing out that Johnson has a second home in the Newport Beach area, an hour and change from both San Diego and Los Angeles, depending on the traffic on I-5. The Padres have the ever-discussed Scott Linebrink to offer, but not too much else. The Giants have a few decent young arms. But the Diamondbacks are believed to be Johnson's No. 1 choice, and he has a way of getting what he wants.

So do the Yankees. They're just not always immediately sure what it is that they want.

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