Last year the Yankees tied the White Sox with a big league-leading 242 homers -- the first time New York held or shared the top spot since hitting 240 in 1961.
If a retooled rotation lives up to its billing, they will end their championship drought
As he jetted from city to city this winter, visiting with suitors from a half dozen major league teams on a junket his agent dubbed Carlapalooza, free-agent righthander Carl Pavano reliably encountered one inducement in every hotel suite. "Chocolates," he says. "That wasn't exactly a part of my diet regimen."
Courted from Baltimore, where the Orioles put his picture on the Camden Yards scoreboard, billing him as the club's Opening Day starter; to Boston, where he lunched with righthander Curt Schilling; to Detroit, where he golfed with Hall of Famer Al Kaline, Pavano was one of the off-season's most coveted free agents. As has become routine in recent seasons, however, such a valuable commodity almost always seems to find its way to New York. Pavano, the 29-year-old native of Southington, Conn., which is situated where the Yankees' and the Red Sox' Northeast spheres of influence converge, signed a four-year, $40 million contract with the Yanks.
Pavano joins lefthander Randy Johnson (acquired in a trade with the Diamondbacks) and righthander Jaret Wright (signed as a free agent for three years, $21 million) in the team's second rotation overhaul in as many seasons, this one designed to invigorate a graying starting staff that had a 4.82 ERA last season, sixth in the AL. "The traditions, the history of this team are second to none," Pavano says. "The winning was going to be here, there weren't going to be any question marks."
Despite the ardor with which he was wooed, many question whether Pavano will succeed in the Bronx. He has a 57-58 lifetime record and only twice has cracked 140 innings; both times, in 2003 and '04, he did so in an extreme pitcher's park, Miami's Pro Player Stadium, with an excellent defense behind him. Over his career Pavano has allowed more than a hit per inning and has struck out fewer than six batters per nine. He relies on locating four pitches -- fastball, curve, changeup and slider -- and his stuff isn't overpowering.
Pavano is aware of the legacy of disappointment by New York's recent big-ticket pitching acquisitions -- from Jeff Weaver to Jose Contreras to Javier Vazquez -- but professes to be unconcerned. "It's an adjustment, being here; I'd be lying if I said I stepped in and felt totally comfortable," he says. "But it's an experience where you have to go out and learn on your own."
Like Pavano, Wright is far from a sure bet. Last season with the Braves he was 15-8 with a 3.28 ERA in 1861Ú3 innings -- career bests since undergoing his first shoulder surgery, in 2000. But opinion is divided as to whether those numbers were abetted by the wisdom of Atlanta pitching coach Leo Mazzone or were indicators of a career turnaround. What neither pitcher will have to confront is the burden of carrying a staff, because that falls squarely on Johnson, who welcomes the responsibility.
Each year the Yankees grow creakier and attempt to fight senescence with cash. Their offense, though second in the AL behind the Red Sox' in runs per game (5.5), on-base percentage (.353) and slugging (.458), has regressed with age. Though New York has elite hitters at the top of the order, it will, despite its $200 million payroll, fill four lineup spots from a group that includes designated hitter-first baseman Jason Giambi, first baseman Tino Martinez, DH Ruben Sierra, centerfielder Bernie Williams and second baseman Tony Womack, only one of whom -- the 37-year-old Martinez -- had an OPS (on-base-plus-slugging percentage) greater than .800 last season.
Williams, 36, has deteriorated offensively and defensively to the point that he needs frequent relief. "He's at the age where I'd like to be able to consistently spell him," Yankees manager Joe Torre says. But unless leftfielder Hideki Matsui can shift to center, the Yankees have no better backup option than Bubba Crosby, Colin Porter and Damian Rolls, who entered the final week of spring training competing for one roster spot.
New York's seemingly infinite resources and the strength of its bullpen -- bolstered by the return of 37-year-old lefthander Mike Stanton, whom Torre trusts implicitly -- conceal many of its flaws. But Pavano and Wright must show they can succeed in the Bronx, too. -- Daniel G. Habib