The big question for New York this winter is, Who will be within the blast radius when George Steinbrenner explodes? Said center-fielder Bernie Williams in the disconsolate New York clubhouse after Game 6 of the World Series last Saturday night, "The people in charge designed this team not just to play in the postseason, but to win. When that doesn't happen, people will be upset."
There has already been a preemptive casualty: Bench coach Don Zimmer, a frequent verbal sparring partner of the owner's, announced an hour after the Series ended that he was quitting. Other members of manager Joe Torre's staff-hitting coach Rick Down, pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre—might be shown the door.
Steinbrenner's statement in the aftermath of Saturday's loss was brief and to the point: "Of course I was disappointed," said the Boss, who convened a meeting of Yankees executives in Tampa on Monday, "but we will be meeting soon to make whatever changes are needed to bring back a stronger, better team for New York and our fans. You can count on it."
The most pressing personnel issue confronting the Yankees is the possibility that three fifths of their starting rotation will exit this winter. Roger Clemens is retiring, Andy Pettitte is a free agent and eager to be closer to his family in the Houston suburbs, and David Wells has very likely worn out his welcome. While the team holds a $6 million option on Wells, the front office is wary of his age (40), indifferent conditioning habits and F-the-world demeanor. This season those three pitchers combined for a 53-24 record and a 4.02 ERA, and they accounted for 59% of New York's starts and 43% of its innings pitched.
This year's crop of free-agent starters is thin, with only the Phillies' Kevin Millwood, the White Sox' Bartolo Colon and perhaps the Braves' Greg Maddux qualifying as front-of-the-rotation options; all will have several suitors. Righthander Jon Lieber, a free-agent signee in January and a' 20-game-winner with the Cubs two years ago, is expected to return next spring from Tommy John surgery that has sidelined him since August of 2001, but New York's profligate trades of young lefties Ted Lilly and Brandon Claussen over the past two summers—for Jeff Weaver and Aaron Boone, respectively—have drained its farm system of other potential replacements.
New York also faces the inevitability that Steinbrenner will want to go after a free-agent slugging outfielder, such as the Expos' Vladimir Guerrero, to fill a hole in rightfield. Once the Boss makes up his mind, he will whip his front office into action and demand delivery. "We're under pressure all the time," says general manager Brian Cashman. "I don't know how much more pressure there could be."
The Yankees aren't the only contenders with significant off-season issues to address. Here are some of the others.
Chicago White Sox
KEY FREE AGENTS: SP Bartolo Colon, SS Jose Valentin, 2B Roberto Alomar
Because Chicago has a $4 million option on 21-game winner Esteban Loiaza and will keep arbitration-eligible righthander Mark Buehrle under contractual control, expect G.M. Kenny Williams to try hard to keep Colon and use the division's best rotation to anchor the club.