by Eric Gold, MLB Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It's hard to imagine that in the history of the Yankees, a team that hasn't even taken the field yet would be considered possibly one of the most-feared lineups in its storied franchise and even in all of baseball.
Forget about being a step ahead of the Red Sox. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner wants to bury his nemesis in the AL East. Two and half months after Curt Schilling became a Red Sox, Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Javier Vazquez, Kevin Brown, Kenny Lofton, Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill are all in pinstripes with the Yankees geared for a run to a seventh straight division title.
With the changes the Yankees have made there is no doubt they have the best lineup in baseball with 39 All-Star appearances among their starting nine. However, what is on paper is not good enough and even Steinbrenner knows it, especially after a team with a paltry payroll like the Florida Marlins were able to beat his club in the World Series.
"I have always said, the way New Yorkers back us, we have to produce for them," Steinbrenner said. "The Yankees are in the toughest division in baseball and now, with the team we have assembled, we have to go out and produce on the field."
While the Yankee lineup is incredible, there are some questions about their rotation. The top three of Mike Mussina, Kevin Brown and Javier Vazquez seem solid. However, until last season Brown had battled several injuries, yet he did have a 2.39 ERA, his best since 1998. But how will Brown pitch again in the American League? Earlier in his career, while playing for Texas and Baltimore, Brown struggled at times although he did have a 21-win season in 1992 with the Rangers. Vazquez has not pitched in the American League, except for interleague play.
The back end of the rotation is questionable. Jose Contreras has nine career starts, although he has looked sharp in a number of them. Jon Lieber, coming off elbow surgery, will also get his first test in the AL as he spent the first nine years of his career in the National League. With the departure of Andy Pettitte, the Yankees are without a lefthanded starter.
There are also rumors that the Yankees will sign four-time Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux.
The days of Rodriguez being on a last-place team are over, but new challenges are on the horizon for the reigning American League MVP. Rodriguez, whose deal from Texas to the Yankees was finalized on Monday after commissioner Bud Selig reluctantly signed off on the deal, has never started a game at third base in his major league career. However, now he'll be expected to take over a position that was left vacant following an offseason basketball injury to Aaron Boone.
A-Rod is so desperate to win a World Series that following the season he gave Rangers owner Tom Hicks two teams he wanted to be traded to -- the Yankees or Boston Red Sox -- two clubs destined to be contenders this year. After the deal involving the Red Sox and Manny Ramirez fell through, the Rangers tried to patch up the relationship with their seven-time All-Star by naming him team captain. Everything changed however when Boone got hurt last month. Now Rodriguez is a Yankee and the Rangers are actually paying New York $67 million toward the final seven years and $179 million left on Rodriguez' contract.
But how the did the trade really come about? Before this past weekend, nobody had an inclination that Rodriguez would be on another team, let alone the Yankees, to start the season.
Rangers general manager John Hart said after speaking with other GMs he knew the Yankees contacted several teams about the availability of third basemen. The Rangers and Yankees even pulled off a trade on February 6 with New York getting Mike Lamb as a possible replacement at third, but Hart said Yankees general manager Brian Cashman first was kidding that Rodriguez may want to play in the Bronx as a third baseman.
"When I called him (Cashman) about Mike Lamb, he kind of tongue-and-cheek brought up Alex," Hart said. "I said 'I don't think that's something we would consider. Let's focus on making the deal for Mike Lamb.'
"I got a call back three days later and Brian said, 'This is you and I. We've done this before for a number of years. I'd just like to have a private sidebar conversation with you. If you want to take it any further, that's your call.' We talked about dollars and players, just general philosophy."
Hart said he didn't even take the trade offer to Hicks at first, deciding to sleep on the proposal to think about trading away the game's best player to a perennial contender.
Hart then called Cashman and said he didn't present the offer to Hicks because the monetary figures were way off. Cashman called back and asked if Hart would speak with Hicks, who was at first reluctant to make the trade. Hicks actually said he wanted to be left out of the situation so Hart could speak alone with Cashman.
The two GMs spoke to each other a day or two and Hicks had a discussion with Rodriguez, who acknowledged his desire to play in New York and his willingness to move to third base. The deal would never have come to fruition if Rodriguez didn't consider a move to third to let Derek Jeter play his natural position of shortstop for the Yankees.
"Never when this discussion began was it ever considered he would be moving off of shortstop," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "He is our captain, our world champion shortstop. The whole discussion and thought process that began here was third base for Alex Rodriguez only."
Even though A-Rod has a slightly better fielding percentage at shortstop than Jeter (.977-.973), from what Cashman says it doesn't look like Jeter is moving from his natural position, ever.
"It's not a consideration whatsoever," Cashman said. "You go with the man who brought you to the dance. You don't mess with success. I know there's a lot of saber metric opinions based on statistics. All I can tell you is we keep winning. We might not have achieved the grand prize this past year, but we keep reaching at such a high level."
The Rangers also had to consider who they were getting in return, two-time All-Star second baseman Alfonso Soriano. A 26-year-old who hit .290 with 38 homers and 91 RBI during the regular season in 2003, Soriano saw his production plummet in the playoffs when he struck out 26 times. However, he will come much cheaper than Rodriguez. Soriano is scheduled to make $5.4 million this year and won't become a free agent until after the 2006 season.
Yet, even with the money the Rangers are saving, there are no quick fixes for 2004 and another last-place finish seems certain again in the AL West.
"Obviously this isn't something that we're going to snap our fingers and click our heels and start materializing players with the flexibility we say," Hart said. "We are going to stay committed to the plan. As many young players as we can put out there, we're going to play them."
The Rangers are still left with a brutal pitching staff that ranked last in the majors with a 5.67 ERA. To make matters worse the team lost two of their best pitchers as John Thomson and Ismael Valdes departed via free agency. Kenny Rogers and Chan Ho Park are expected to carry the load for the rotation this season, but the future looks bright in the infield with a chance to rebuild with Mark Teixeira (1B), Michael Young (2B) and Hank Blalock (3B).
In the end what swayed Hicks was his management team deciding the Rangers would be better off making the trade because they could win a championship sooner without Rodriguez than with him. Obviously, the Rangers would have been hampered financially with A-Rod and wouldn't have been able to address other areas of the team.
Because of this I don't think anytime soon we'll see another $252 million contract in baseball.