Klap: Yankee doodle Manny?
By BOB KLAPISCH
Can you envision Manny Ramirez, the American League's most dangerous, late-inning threat from the right side, wearing pinstripes in 2006? None other than Ramirez himself has. The Red Sox' left fielder told friends in the final weeks of the regular season he would accept, if not welcome, a trade to either New York team - an intriguing opening in the wake of Alex Rodriguez's collapse in the AL Division Series.
The Yankees have a long winter ahead, full of critical decisions about their general manager, center fielder and a new setup man for Mariano Rivera. Ramirez's name has never been seriously considered until now, but that may change after another early exit from the playoffs and Rodriguez's .133 average against the Angels.
According to one American League source, the Red Sox are leaning toward one scenario where they'll sign all their free agents, most notably Johnny Damon, but would trade Ramirez for the right return package. The Yankees obviously would need to include a third team to pull off such a monster swap - and don't underestimate the Mets' willingness to do anything to pair Ramirez with GM Omar Minaya, after nearly acquiring the slugger at the July 31 trade deadline. But George Steinbrenner will be just as motivated to find more potent weapons than Bernie Williams (.211 in the ALDS) even Hideki Matsui (who hit .200 and made the final out in Game 5 with the tying run on base).
Ramirez is "definitely ready to come to New York," said the friend, who dined with the left fielder during the Sox' road series against the Yankees. "He likes the Yankees, the Mets, either one, he just wants to be here."
Of course, the Yankees can't begin restructuring until they have a GM in place, and that won't happen until Cashman decides whether to accept a 20 percent pay raise and ownership equity, an offer that's been on the table since July. George Steinbrenner made it clear he wants Cashman back in 2006, but that was three months ago. Yankee sources say The Boss is now just as inclined to name Tampa-based VP Damon Oppenheimer as Cashman's replacement if talks stall beyond the expiration-date on the GM's contract, Oct. 31.
No matter who choreographs the Yankees' off-season, though, there are certain constants that'll remain untouched: Alex Rodriguez will be back (at $20 million a year, where could he go?), Derek Jeter stays put as the team's most marketable commodity and Gary Sheffield will finish out the last year of a three-year pact he personally negotiated with Steinbrenner. And the ageless Mariano Rivera will rescue the bullpen once again.
There's a long list of potential free agents, including Williams, Matsui and Tom Gordon. The Yankees want Matsui, unless the long-shot scenario of Ramirez coming to the Bronx becomes a reality, in which case he's gone. It's hard to envision Bernie coming back, however, unless he's ready to take a massive pay cut and be content with 250 at-bats a year. And with free agent B.J. Ryan looming as Rivera's next setup man, Gordon likely has thrown his final pitch as a Yankee.
Some other free agency issues likely will resolve themselves, including the near-certain retirement of Al Leiter and Tino Martinez. The Yankees must determine whether Jason Giambi is their everyday first baseman, or whether he's better suited as a designated hitter. And if Bernie is gone, or at least in deep background mode, it's not impossible to think of the Marlins' Juan Pierre succeeding him.
Damon, of course, will be available, and while some executives consider it an air-tight guarantee the Sox will re-sign him, the Yankees may actually have a better chance than anyone thinks. One person close to the center fielder said, "The Sox blew their chance to sign Johnny earlier this year" when he was ready to accept a four-year, $30 million offer - practically the same deal he signed in 2001.
Sox ownership ultimately balked, setting the stage for agent Scott Boras to demand a six or seven year deal that'll increase Damon's yearly salary to more than $12 million per. Said one member of Damon's entourage: "It's an even playing field now. Johnny's going to see what's out there."
As for pitching, the Yankees are more limited than they want to admit, considering they owe Carl Pavano three more years at $9 million per and are into Jaret Wright for another two seasons. And besides, they have no real incentive to trade Aaron Small, Shawn Chacon or Chien-Ming Wang.
Question is, though: Who'll tutor them? Pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre all but announced his retirement from the Yankees this past week, hinting he'll take a similar role with the Mariners. That'll make it possible for the Yankees to again mull approaching the Braves' Leo Mazzone, who, through third parties, heard of the Bombers' interest in him over the summer.
Mazzone and the Braves hotly denied the Yankees ever made contact. Technically, that was true; there was never any one-on-one conversation between the legendary coach and any member of the Yankees' front office. But according to one person familiar with the Bombers' interest in Mazzone, they'd be willing to do "whatever it takes" if he decides he's ready to leave Atlanta.