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Tom Verducci
December 24, 2001
By acquiring four new regulars, including potent yet patient superstar Jason Giambi, the Yankees returned to the roots of their recent successes
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December 24, 2001

Rich Get Richer

By acquiring four new regulars, including potent yet patient superstar Jason Giambi, the Yankees returned to the roots of their recent successes

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Yankee Doodle Dandies—and Dogs

Beginning in 1974, when George Steinbrenner lured erstwhile A's ace Catfish Hunter to the Bronx, the Yankees have signed 85 free agents (including Reggie Jackson, right), with varying results. Here, listed cronologically, are the six best pickups and a dirty half dozen.—David Sabino





The Hits

Catfish Hunter

Dec. 31, 1974

5 years, $3.75 million

Won 40 games total in first two seasons

Reggie Jackson

Nov. 29, 1976

5 years, $2.9 million

144 homers in five years; World Series heroics made him Mr. October

Rich Gossage

Nov. 22, 1977

6 years, $2.7 million

150 saves in six seasons; clinched all three postseason series in 1978

Tommy John

Nov. 22, 1978

3 years, $1.4 million

No other American League pitcher had more wins (62) during his 1979 to midseason '82 stint

Dave Winfield

Dec. 15, 1980

10 years, $23 million

20 or more homers and 100 or more RBIs five times

David Wells

Dec. 19, 1996

3 years, $13.5 million

Won 34 of 48 decisions and pitched a perfect game

The Misses

Dave Collins

Dec. 23, 1981

3 years, $2.4 million

.315 on-base percentage and 13 steals in lone season as leadoff man

Steve Kemp Ed Whitson

Dec. 9, 1982

5 years, $5.5 million

19 home runs. 90 RBIs in two years

Ed Whitson

Dec. 27, 1984

5 years, $4.4 million

Mercilessly booed after starting 1-0; broke manager Billy Martin's arm in a fight

Pascual Perez

Nov. 21, 1989

3 years, $5.7 million

Three victories over two injury- and drug-plagued seasons

Kenny Rogers

Jan. 4, 1996

4 years, $20 million

12-8 in 1996 before surrendering 11 earned runs in seven playoff innings

Henry Rodriguez

Feb. 15, 2001

1 year, $1.5 million

Missed two months with sore back, then went 0 for 8: released in June

The Restructuring of the New York Yankees began five days after that broken-bat bloop by Luis Gonzalez parachuted to posterity behind second base, clinching the World Series for the Arizona Diamondbacks and breaking the Yankees' run of three tides. At 9 a.m. on Nov. 9, about 15 of the team's baseball operations executives and scouts secretly gathered in a windowless meeting room at a hotel in Orlando.

On the table before each of the attendees sat a report prepared by general manager Brian Cashman tracking New York's on-base percentage and walks for the past decade. Cashman had run similar numbers on May 3, when he first sensed the Yankees were losing their knack for taking pitches, drawing walks, getting on base by any means possible and, ultimately, scoring runs. Cashman crunched the numbers again on May 22, again on Aug. 22 and again immediately after the World Series. The final numbers were worse than he'd feared: New York drew fewer bases on balls in 2001 than it had in the strike-shortened 1994 season. The Yankees' 519 walks were their fewest since '91, remembered only by the most knowledgeable baseball paleontologists as the Alvaro Espinoza Era, and their .334 on-base percentage was the club's worst since '92. "This has got to stop," Cashman said firmly to the group.

For 10 hours the executives and scouts sequestered themselves like a jury—lunch was brought in—until they devised a blueprint to rebuild New York into a more patient, more productive offensive machine. Five weeks, two trades and $181 million in free-agent expenditures later (including dollars shelled out for pitching reinforcements and for manager Joe Torre), the Yankees had executed their plan as efficiently as if it were just another room-service order. The big enchilada was free-agent first baseman Jason Giambi, who last Thursday signed a seven-year deal, with an option for an eighth, worth $120 million. As side dishes, New York retained free-agent lefthanded starter Sterling Hitchcock (two years, $12 million), overpaid free-agent righthanded setup man Steve Karsay (four years, $23 million) and corralled leftfielder Rondell White (two years, $10 million). The Yankees also allowed Torre to remain the highest-paid manager in baseball, re-signing him for three years and $16 million.

Giambi, the 6'3", 235-pound former Oakland A's slugger, has a rightfield home run stroke that's ideal for Yankee Stadium and a career .412 on-base percentage, fifth best among active players. "The best part is, the first inning isn't the whole offense now," says Torre, whose lineup last season often sagged in the middle and at the bottom. "We have balance and flexibility." Torre is considering batting shortstop Derek Jeter, centerfielder Bernie Williams and Giambi 1-2-3 in a lineup that most often will employ two switch-hitters ( Williams and catcher Jorge Posada), three righthanded hitters ( Jeter, second baseman Alfonso Soriano and White) and four lefthanded hitters (Giambi, DH Nick Johnson and two other new acquisitions via trades, right-fielder John Vander Wal and third baseman Robin Ventura).

The Yankees turned over five of the nine spots in their lineup and in every case plugged in a higher on-base-percentage player. Giambi, whose .477 led the American League last year, replaces Tino Martinez (.329). The other upgrades are Ventura (.359) for the retired Scott Brosius (.343), White (.371) for the free agent Chuck Knoblauch (.339), Vander Wal (.364) for the retired Paul O'Neill (.330) and rookie Johnson (.407 at Triple A Columbus) for the traded David Justice (.333).

"I knew one thing: Change was coming," Cashman says. "We had gotten away from what made us successful offensively. A lot of the same hitters who were patient weren't patient. We were very 'attack mode' for some reason. Pitching is still the key, but if our pitchers were honest, they'd tell you how difficult it was without runs last season." With 804 runs scored, New York ranked fifth in the league: its .255 average with runners in scoring position ranked 11th.

Even the Yankees' trades were executed seamlessly. They were prepared to dump Justice on Oakland for prospects when, instead, the crosstown Mets agreed to give them a ready-made solution at third in Ventura. The Yankees also determined in Orlando mat they had to trade ineffective reliever Jay Witasick, even if it meant getting low-grade prospects, and wound up shipping him to the San Francisco Giants for Vander Wal. Despite the flurry of moves, Cashman says that because of back-loaded contracts, me Yankees' cash outlay to cover payroll for next year will be the same as it was for last season: about $115 million.

When the New York brass met in Orlando, the two most prominent free agents were Giambi and Barry Bonds. It was quickly determined that Giambi was their man. "It's kind of humbling when somebody just broke the home run record," Giambi says, referring to Bonds's 73-homer season, "and they say, 'No, we don't want him. We want you.' " The Yankees dismissed Bonds for several reasons. At 37 he's seven years older than Giambi. Also, New York was troubled by reports that Bonds was egocentric and disliked by teammates, feared he was a poor fit for the hypercritical fan and media culture of New York, and dreaded the prospect of being mired in the protracted negotiations that are a trademark of his agent, Scott Boras.

The Yankees knew Giambi would be a better fit for New York: an extrovert who had developed into a leader of the youthful A's. What they didn't know about Giambi was his passion for greatness. That changed when Cashman phoned him to begin the recruiting process. During that conversation Giambi said he wanted to become a Hall of Famer. "When I heard that," Cashman says, "my interest shot up another level."

Jason grew up in Southern California listening to his father, John, a banker, tell stories about Mickey Mantle, John's favorite player. When Jason was introduced at a news conference at Yankee Stadium last Thursday wearing his pinstriped number 25 jersey (the digits add up to Mantle's number), he at first teared up and couldn't bring himself to speak. Finally he mustered, "We didn't get 7, Pops, but we got the pinstripes."

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