Imagine the folly of saying that the biggest weakness for a major league team is the back end of a starting rotation that consists of one of the best pitchers in the history of Cuban baseball and a former 20-game winner. But that is the state of the Yankees and their fourth and fifth starters, Jose Contreras and Jon Lieber.
"The bottom end of our rotation has a chance to be tremendous," says pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre.
It could also be a problem. In his first American League season last year, Contreras, 32, spent 76 days on the disabled list with a right shoulder strain, struggling to find a niche between the bullpen and the rotation. He needs to throw at least 100 more innings than the 71 he pitched last year. Lieber, who turns 34 on April 2, is 20 months removed from Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery in his pitching elbow. As the season begins, the best insurance policy if either man falters seem to be Orlando Hernandez, signed in March while trying to find his lost fastball, or Jorge DePaula, 10-11 in Triple A last year. Thus the worry, even though, with the Yankees, the specter of a bailout always looms. If Contreras or Lieber can't get the job done, the assumption is that George Steinbrenner will pay through the nose to acquire someone who will.
It's probably expecting too much to think the top three of Mike Mussina, Kevin Brown and Javier Vazquez can improve on the 55-25 record that Mussina, Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte put together last year. But is it really too much to think that Contreras and Lieber could be David Wells and Jeff Weaver, or a little better? Between them, Wells and Weaver started 54 games. They went a combined 22-16 with a 4.93 ERA. Pretty darned average, yet the Yankees still went to the World Series. The big number there might be 54. Can Contreras and the restructured right elbow of Lieber give the Yankees 54 starts and eat up 380 or so innings?
"In Cuba," Contreras says, "we played a 90-game season, and I threw 179 innings one year. Lots of complete games. I can do that here. It's what I've done all my life."
Contreras thinks he might have hurt himself last year because of the start-and-stop demands that come with being a middle reliever, a role he had early in the season. No danger of that this year. He'll have to be horrible to get dropped from the rotation with so few options behind him.
Lieber, who threw a National League-high 251 innings with the Cubs in 2000, says, "My arm feels stronger than it's ever felt, which is what some guys have told me happens after this surgery. Kerry Wood puts more strain on his arm than I do, and he came back fine from this surgery. I know there are people who think I can't do it, but I love that. That drives me. I think I can go out there every fifth day and give this team a chance to win."
The Yanks signed Lieber in February 2003 knowing he would spend all of last season rehabbing his elbow. A fastball-slider pitcher, he threw eight late-season innings in a rookie-league game, stunning himself by throwing harder than he ever had. His fastball has usually clocked at around 91 mph; he says he hit 95 last August. But when his fastball is that fast, it flattens out, which is why this spring he has gone back to throwing 91 or 92. "I get a lot more movement at 91," he says. His elbow wasn't a problem in spring training, but his groin was. He strained it early in camp, and is starting the season on the disabled list.
Friendly and mild-mannered, Lieber is a little gee-whiz about pitching for the 26-time world champs. But Yankees broadcaster and former catcher Joe Girardi, who was behind the plate for Lieber's 20-6 season with the Cubs in 2001, says the pitcher is no softy. "Nothing in any game I've seen him pitch ever fazes him, and he won't be fazed by Yankee Stadium or pitching in a pennant race," Girardi says. "I love his approach. You ask some guys their theory about pitching, and they'll give you a 20-minute dissertation. You ask Jon, and he says, 'Hit the mitt.' "
Ask Lieber about pitching at Fenway Park for the first time in his career, and he says, "I hope I pitch our first game there this year." And that's why the Yankees like him—a lot.