New York Yankees
By James Quintong, SI.com
George Steinbrenner is not happy.
First, the new labor agreement was supposed to keep down his ever-growing payroll. Second, his Yankees failed to reach the World Series for the first time since 1997 after falling to the eventual champion Angels in the first round of the playoffs. This despite the Yankees winning 103 games, the most since their record-setting 1998 campaign.
Steinbrenner wants answers and results now. That could be the reason he decided not to cut back his payroll and instead spend $53 million to land the top two players on the world market -- Japanese slugger Hideki Matsui and Cuban pitcher Jose Contreras. It's possible the Yankees' payroll will reach $150 million this season. So much for keeping salaries down.
The Boss also criticized Derek Jeter and his "playboy lifestyle" for some of the Yankees' supposed missteps. Never mind that Jeter set a career high in stolen bases last season and improved his defense. The Steinbrenner-Jeter feud may be a bit overblown, thanks to the New York media, but it may be something to fire up his star shortstop. However, Jeter isn't really the most critical problem on the team.
The Yankees showed a few holes last year that could be exposed further this season. The patience at the plate that carried the Yanks during its string of World Series titles disappeared in 2002; it led the AL with 1,171 strikeouts. They also struggled defensively, especially Alfonso Soriano and Jason Giambi, who showed they're much better with the bat than the glove. Mariano Rivera looked human, going on the DL three times and wasn't the same lights-out closer of recent years.
Even with those question marks, the Bronx Bombers are still the class of the AL East, where only the Boston Red Sox pose any kind of threat to their postseason aspirations. What the Yankees do once they get to the playoffs is another question altogether. They have all the tools and talent to win another World Series, but as they discovered through the Angels last year, it doesn't hurt to have a little bit of luck.
The Yankees enter camp with seven starting pitchers for five spots in the rotation. Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte appear to be locks. That leaves the last two spots to be filled by Contreras, Wells, Jeff Weaver and Sterling Hitchcock. This doesn't even include former 20-game winner Jon Lieber, who is recovering from elbow surgery and won't be ready until at least midseason. However, just about everyone in the running likely will get a shot at starting given that Clemens, Wells and Pettitte are all injury prone.
Those who don't make the rotation will help contribute to a revamped bullpen in front of Rivera and Steve Karsay. The relief corps is in a state of flux this spring as stalwarts Mike Stanton and Ramiro Mendoza have been replaced by veterans Chris Hammond, Antonio Osuna and Juan Acevedo. More could be demanded from the bullpen, especially given Rivera's injury woes last year.
Hideki Matsui hopes to follow in the footsteps of Ichiro and become an impact player right away. While Ichiro is a speedy slap hitter with little power, Matsui is a bopper who also can hit for average. Last season, he hit .334 with 50 homers in Japan. While some may argue about the short fences in Japan, Matsui does enter a favorable situation because he is a left-handed hitter who should be able to attack the short right-field porch at Yankee Stadium.
Matsui also has plenty of protection in the lineup that will help take some of the pressure off him on the field, although he'll face tons of scrutiny off of it. His defense isn't anything to write home about, but he's not a butcher, either. Even if he doesn't approach his numbers from Japan, there's still a good chance he'll hit .300 with 25-30 homers -– a far superior upgrade to both Rondell White and Raul Mondesi, who have disappointed in the Bronx and are on the trading block.
Juan Rivera was a solid .300 hitter in the minors and was handed a starting job only to lose it two games later when he fractured his kneecap running into a golf cart. That led to the Yankees' acquisition of Raul Mondesi. However, Rivera was a starter in the playoffs, which shows Joe Torre's confidence in him. Rivera has power potential and can hit for average. He doesn't strike out much but he doesn't walk much, either. If the Yankees can unload Mondesi and/or White, Rivera will get the bulk of the playing time. For now, he'll likely serve as the fourth or fifth outfielder as he's groomed to take over right field in 2004.
Arrivals: OF Hideki Matsui (from Yomiuri Giants as free agent), RHP Jose Contreras (from Cuba as free agent), RHP Jon Lieber (from Chicago Cubs as free agent), RHP Juan Acevedo (from Detroit, signed to minor-league deal), RHP Antonio Osuna (from Chicago White Sox in trade), LHP Chris Hammond (from Atlanta as free agent), 3B Todd Zeile (from Colorado as free agent), C John Flaherty (from Tampa Bay as free agent).
Departures: RHP Orlando Hernandez (to Montreal in trade) , LHP Mike Stanton (to New York Mets as free agent), RHP Ramiro Mendoza (to Boston as free agent), IF Alex Arias (free agent), OF Shane Spencer (to Cleveland as free agent), OF John Vander Wal (to Milwaukee as free agent), INF Ron Coomer (to Los Angeles as free agent).
With all the talent across the board, it's hard to pick against the Yankees to at least return to the playoffs, if not the World Series. The team does have a little better depth than in the past, but you have to worry about injuries, especially among the pitchers. The addition of Matsui just makes the offense that much more potent. As long as Torre is around and there are still resources to plug some holes when needed, the Yankees should find themselves in their seventh World Series in nine seasons. If not, who knows what the Boss has up his sleeve.