By Scott Garbarini, MLB Analyst (Sports Network)
2004 FINISH (101-61) - First Place (AL East); lost to Boston in ALCS
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: SP - Randy Johnson, 1B - Tino Martinez, SP - Carl Pavano, RP - Felix Rodriguez, RP - Mike Stanton, 2B - Tony Womack, SP - Jaret Wright
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: 2B - Miguel Cairo, RP - Felix Heredia, SP - Orlando Hernandez, SP - Jon Lieber, SP - Esteban Loaiza, OF - Kenny Lofton, 1B - John Olerud, SP - Javier Vazquez
PROJECTED LINEUP: Derek Jeter (SS), Alex Rodriguez (3B), Gary Sheffield (RF), Jason Giambi (DH), Jorge Posada (C), Hideki Matsui (LF), Bernie Williams (CF), Tino Martinez (1B), Tony Womack (2B)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Randy Johnson (LHP), Mike Mussina (RHP), Carl Pavano (RHP), Jaret Wright (RHP), Kevin Brown (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Mariano Rivera (RHP)
MANAGER: Joe Torre
It's been a rough last six months for New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. First "The Boss" had to witness his club put together the biggest collapse in playoff series history, blowing a three games-to-none lead in the American League Championship Series to the hated Boston Red Sox. Then he saw New York's bitter rivals hoist their first world championship trophy in nearly a century and become the sports world's biggest darlings. As if that weren't enough, the Yankee organization endured further embarrassment during the offseason when first baseman Jason Giambi's admission to using steroids before a federal grand jury investigation was leaked to the public.
It's now been four straight seasons without a world championship for the Yankees, hardly cause for alarm for most teams. But for Steinbrenner and the team's demanding and impatient fan base, it's starting to seem like an eternity. The sense of panic was evident in another offseason spending spree by New York, one even more lavish than its usual standards. Some of the moves were curious (Tony Womack, Jaret Wright), some nostalgic (Tino Martinez, Mike Stanton), but the Yankees did address their most glaring need for a dominant number one starter by pulling off a trade for Randy Johnson. The addition of the Big Unit, combined with the free-agent signing of workhouse Carl Pavano, significantly upgrades a pitching staff whose performance was attributed to last year's postseason demise.
The Yankee lineup, featuring megastars Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Derek Jeter and Hideki Matsui, remains among the most feared in the game. New York's 242 home runs in 2004 tied the major-league lead and its 897 runs scored trailed only the Red Sox for the most in baseball. The offense could be even more devastating this season, providing Giambi is able to rebound from his disastrous injury-riddled campaign of a year ago and Rodriguez goes back to swatting 50 homers like his days in Texas.
There isn't a better left side of the infield, offensively and defensively, than the combo of Jeter at shortstop and Rodriguez at third. Although A-Rod's 36 homers were his lowest since 1997 and his .286 batting average was 20 points lower than his career mark, he was clearly pressing in his first season in the Big Apple. Rodriguez had hit at least 40 homers and drove in 111 runs or more in each of the previous six years. It's likely he'll reach those numbers again in 2005. He also made a smooth transition defensively to the hot corner and is capable of winning a Gold Glove at the position.
Jeter did earn a Gold Glove, his first, at shortstop last year and rebounded from a horrendous April to fall just shy of his fifth .300 season in seven years. The Yankee captain added 23 homers, his most since 1999, and his leadership qualities and makeup are unquestioned.
Womack, 35, resurrected his career and played a key role in St. Louis' march to the World Series with a .307 average and 26 steals last season. He signed a two-year contract to replace the steady Miguel Cairo at second base. Womack, who will bat ninth in New York's formidable lineup, did commit 15 errors last season and isn't as reliable defensively as his predecessor.
First baseman Martinez, a key cog in the Yankees' four world titles in the late '90s into 2000, was brought back to allow Giambi to settle into the designated hitter's role, as well as for his calming clubhouse influence. Now 37, he's not the hitter he was during his first tour of duty in New York, but he doesn't need to be spectacular in this lineup. Expect 20 home runs and a .265 average, solid numbers for a bottom-of-the-order hitter.
Jorge Posada remains one of the game's top offensive catchers, as well as one of manager Joe Torre's most valued performers. The switch-hitting backstop has logged 20 or more home runs in each of the last five seasons and has reached base 40 percent of the time over the last two. His defense is adequate and he handles the staff well.
While Rodriguez's Yankee debut received the most press, Sheffield had the better first season in pinstripes. The slugging rightfielder put together an MVP-type year, driving in a team-best 121 runs and matching A-Rod's home run total of 36. Sheffield put up those numbers despite a nagging left shoulder injury which required offseason surgery. Now fully healthy, he should have another banner year offensively, hitting in the middle of the Bombers' lineup.
The ultra-consistent Matsui nearly doubled his home run total from his first season in the Bronx, going from 16 in 2003 to 31 last year, while again driving in over 100 runs. The Japanese icon, who also led the team with a .298 average, has become one of the majors' most dangerous hitters in the clutch and plays a solid left field.
The Yankees have two bona fide All-Stars on the outfield corners, but center field is more of a question mark with longtime starter Bernie Williams' career on the decline. The 36-year-old Williams is no longer the .300 hitter or Gold Glove centerfielder he was in his prime, but still shows great patience and intelligence at the plate.
Giambi is expected to get the lion's share of at-bats in the designated hitter spot, despite the Yankees' desire to unload his sizeable contract during the offseason. He is eager to put behind his disastrous 2004 campaign, in which a mysterious intestinal parasite and a benign tumor limited him to 80 games and he batted a paltry .208 with 12 home runs, 29 less than his year-end total in both 2002 and '03. Giambi's bat showed signs of life in the spring, but he will face some serious mental hurdles come April. Not only must he deal with possible negative fan reactions regarding his involvement with steroids, but he must overcome whatever doubts of his own abilities which last year's horrid season may have produced.
Martinez will also see time in the DH role, as Torre will insert Giambi back at first base on occasion. Due to his propensity for injury, Williams will also likely receive some at-bats in lieu of playing the field during the course of the year.
Last year's Yankee squad was the first team in major league history to reach 100 victories without a 15-game winner on their staff. That should change now that Johnson has entered the fold. Although he'll be 42 in September, the five-time Cy Young Award winner still remains among the game's elite pitchers, as evidenced by his dominating 2004 season. Johnson led the majors with 290 strikeouts, trailed only Montreal's Livan Hernandez in innings pitched (245 1/3) and his 2.60 ERA was a shade better than reigning AL Cy Young Johan Santana's mark. Plus, Johnson threw a perfect game against NL East champion Atlanta in May.
The additions of Johnson and Pavano to holdover Mike Mussina now gives New York a top of the rotation that can match any in baseball. The cerebral Mussina missed some time with an elbow problem and failed to win 17 games (he finished 12-9) for the first time since joining the Yankees in 2001. His 4.59 ERA, the second-highest of Mussina's career, may also be cause for concern, but his strong late-season finish suggests he will likely remain a top-flight starter. One year after helping beat the Yankees in the 2003 World Series, Pavano enjoyed his best big-league season with Florida. The 29-year-old won 18 games and posted a 3.00 ERA while logging over 220 innings. Pavano's ability to pitch deep into games will greatly aid a New York bullpen which wore down towards the end of last year.
After turning around his injury-ravaged career with a 15-win season in 2004, Wright bolted the Braves and signed a three-year, $21-million contract with the Yankees. That's a lot of money to spend on a pitcher with a lengthy history of arm troubles and a 5.09 career ERA, but Steinbrenner can afford to take such risks.
Wright will form the back end of the rotation along with another brittle righthander, Kevin Brown, whose most memorable performances of last season were breaking his left hand after punching a dugout wall and getting torched by the Boston bats in the deciding Game 7 of the ALCS. Still, the volatile Brown gives the Yankees a very good fifth starter if healthy.
Swingman Tanyon Sturtze will get first crack at filling in one of the starting spots. With the age and medical history of this group, he should see plenty of action. Sturtze's 5.23 career ERA hardly inspires confidence, but he seems to have won Torre's trust.
Although a failure in the playoffs, the bullpen was a real area of strength for the Yankees during the regular season. The unit has added depth this year with the acquisition of fire balling veteran Felix Rodriguez from Philadelphia and the expected return to health of Steve Karsay, who has missed nearly two full seasons with shoulder problems.
Mention of the New York bullpen should always start with Mariano Rivera, still one of the game's most feared and dependable closers. Rivera saved a career- high 53 games and had a 1.94 ERA last season, but has been used sparingly this spring due to bursitis in his right elbow.
The Yanks also boast one of the top setup men in Tom Gordon, who dominated in that role a year ago. The righthander, who held opposing hitters to a .180 batting average and recorded 96 strikeouts in 89 2/3 innings, was named to the AL All-Star squad by Torre. Gordon can also close if Rivera happens to be sidelined for any amount of time.
Like Martinez, Stanton played a big role on the Yankees' four recent world championship teams and has seen better days. The gritty southpaw, who spent the last two seasons with the crosstown Mets, is still an improvement over the man he was traded for, Felix Heredia.
Rodriguez has electric stuff and gives Torre another solid option for the late innings. However, his reputation for not being a big-game pitcher will certainly be tested in baseball's most intense surroundings. Rodriguez's presence may mean a reduced role for veteran Paul Quantrill, who is 36 and became very hittable last season. Quantrill did lead the AL with 86 appearances, the fourth straight year he's pitched in at least 80 games.
The Yankees have a very experienced bench corps, another way of saying they're old. Thirty-seven year-old John Flaherty will again serve as Posada's backup behind the dish, and the club re-signed graybeard Ruben Sierra as an extra outfielder and part-time DH. The switch-hitter clubbed 17 home runs last season and still has some life left in his bat at age 39. Slick-fielding 37-year-old Rey Sanchez was brought in as a backup infielder, while fan favorite Bubba Crosby, veteran Doug Glanville and former Devil Ray Damian Rolls are battling for the final outfield spot. Rolls' ability to play the infield may give him a leg up on the competition.
The Yankees' advanced age and lack of depth on the bench and in their farm system is certainly a concern, but their overall collection of talent makes them a lock to reach the playoffs for the 11th consecutive season. The offense is downright scary and the starting pitching has been significantly bolstered with the additions of Johnson and Pavano. Therefore, New York has to be considered the favorite to capture the American League pennant if its core players maintain good health. With a payroll exceeding $200 million and last season's October collapse still fresh in Steinbrenner's mind, anything less than a world championship will be deemed a failure.