By Chris Ruddick, MLB Analyst (Sports Network)
2003 FINISH (101-61) - First Place (AL East); lost in World Series to Florida
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: SP - Kevin Brown, 1B - Tony Clark, RP - Tom Gordon, 3B - Tyler Houston, INF - Mike Lamb, OF - Kenny Lofton, RP - Paul Quantrill, OF - Gary Sheffield, SP - Javier Vazquez
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: SP - Roger Clemens, OF - Karim Garcia, RP - Chris Hammond, 1B - Nick Johnson, RP - Jeff Nelson, RP - Antonio Osuna, SP - Andy Pettitte, OF - Juan Rivera, SP - Jeff Weaver, SP - David Wells
PROJECTED LINEUP: Kenny Lofton (CF), Derek Jeter (SS), Alex Rodriguez (3B), Jason Giambi (1B), Gary Sheffield (RF), Bernie Williams (DH), Jorge Posada (C), Hideki Matsui (LF), Enrique Wilson (2B)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Mike Mussina (RHP), Kevin Brown (RHP), Javier Vazquez (RHP), Jose Contreras (RHP), Jon Lieber (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Mariano Rivera (RHP)
MANAGER: Joe Torre
Just when you thought the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry could not get any more intense, leave it to George Steinbrenner to up the ante once again. After Aaron Boone's dramatic home run in Game 7 of the ALCS last year, who would have thought that his offseason knee injury on the basketball court would bring even more pain to Red Sox nation?
After watching Boston almost obtain the game's best player in Alex Rodriguez, only to see it blow up in the faces of the Beantown faithful, Steinbrenner and Yankees swooped in just before the start of spring training and stole A-Rod right from under the Sox' noses, getting him for the free-swinging Alfonso Soriano.
With Boone out for the season, the Yankees had a glaring need at the hot corner. Who better to fill that void than the best shortstop in baseball in Rodriguez, who more than willingly agreed to go to third to play alongside his good friend and Yankee captain Derek Jeter?
Prior to the Rodriguez acquisition, New York had a less than stellar offseason, as it saw Andy Pettitte bolt the team via free agency for his hometown Houston Astros. Pettitte then coaxed Roger Clemens out of retirement to join him in Houston.
The Yankees, whose payroll will reach almost $200 million, countered the losses of Pettitte and Clemens with starter Kevin Brown and Javier Vazquez. The team also brought Gary Sheffield and Kenny Lofton in to patrol the outfield.
With the wholesale changes that went on this offseason, you would think the Yankees were a team that missed the postseason last year, instead of one that won its sixth consecutive AL East title and lost in six games to the Florida Marlins in the World Series. Steinbrenner, though, has not won a championship since 2000 and will settle for nothing less than that this season.
An interesting thing to keep in mind is no team has ever won a World Series with a player who has a $100 million contract. With Rodriguez, Jeter, Brown and Jason Giambi, the Yankees now have four such players in that category.
Even without Rodriguez, the Yankee infield was going to be one of, if not the, most prolific in all of baseball. A-Rod, who is coming off his first AL MVP award, hit .298 last season with an AL-high 47 home runs and 118 RBI. Yankee Stadium, though, is not friendly to right-handed hitters, but Rodriguez will likely still put up better numbers than Soriano.
The two-time Gold Glove shortstop should have no trouble shifting to the hot corner to play alongside Jeter, who will no doubt be aided by the tremendous range of Rodriguez.
Jeter's season last year got off to an inauspicious start, as he dislocated his shoulder in the first game of the season, but returned to hit .324 and scored 87 runs in 119 games. The shoulder injury seemed to hurt him defensively more than anything, as he became more hesitant to go after balls up the middle.
Barring another blockbuster trade, Enrique Wilson will get the first chance to be the everyday second baseman.
Rounding out the infield will be a slimmer Giambi at first. Giambi, who will be starting his third campaign in pinstripes, has been linked to the much-talked about BALCO steroids scandal that has rocked baseball's foundation and will probably have to answer questions on the subject all season.
Giambi fought and played through injuries all of last season, and his numbers showed. The 33-year-old former MVP had his average dip to a career-low .254 and his 107 RBI were his lowest total since 1997. He did manage to hit 41 homers, though, in 156 games.
The Yankees hope that Giambi's surgically repaired left knee makes him more durable in the field, and even then, they must worry about his erratic throwing arm. Giambi does help his infielders with his skill at scooping bad throws from the dirt.
Behind the plate it does not get much better from an offensive standpoint than Jorge Posada, but the 32-year-old backstop leaves little to be desired defensively. Despite his penchant for passed balls, pitchers have been satisfied with the way he calls a game. This year, though, he will have to acclimate himself with almost an entirely new staff.
Posada, a four-time All-Star, set career-highs with 30 home runs and 101 RBI and hit .281 last year to finish third in the AL MVP voting.
The New York outfield will look significantly different once the season rolls around compared to last season, with second-year man Hideki Matsui being the group's senior member.
Matsui burst on the scene last year, hitting .287 and driving in 106 runs, while playing a solid left field for the Yankees. The 29-year-old Japanese legend, who seemed to always deliver in the clutch, also filled in some at center for the injured Bernie Williams. With a year in the league under his belt, his home run numbers should rise from the 16 he hit a year ago. However, they will likely not match the 50 he hit as a member of the Yomiuri Giants.
For the first time in more than a decade Williams will not be the Yankees everyday centerfielder. After the worst defensive showing of his career last season, Williams will be replaced by the older, but more nimble Lofton. The 36- year-old Lofton, who split time with the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates a season ago, can cover more ground than Williams, but the four-time Gold Glove winner has about the same arm as Williams, which isn't saying much.
Lofton, who hit .296 with 30 stolen bases and a .353 on-base-percentage last year, also gives the Yankees a more conventional leadoff man.
Before the acquisition of A-Rod, Sheffield was considered the Yanks top offseason prize. A Steinbrenner favorite for years, Sheffield has topped the 30-home run mark in five of his last eight seasons and will add some stability in right field that the team has been lacking since the departure of Paul O'Neill.
Sheffield, the nephew of former major league pitcher Dwight Gooden, had perhaps his finest offensive season a year ago, belting 39 homers and driving in 132 runs to go along with a .330 average in 155 games for the Atlanta Braves last season. One could say that Sheffield is a bit of an upgrade from the trio of David Dellucci, Karim Garcia and Ruben Sierra, all of whom patrolled right for the better part of the second half of the season for the Yankees a year ago.
With the arrival of Lofton, Williams will likely be the team's designated hitter. Injuries never let the mild-mannered Williams get on track last year and he hit a paltry .263, his lowest average since hitting a mere .238 in 1991.
Before Williams went down with an emergency appendectomy early in spring training, there was some talk that he could maintain his starting center field position with Lofton handling DH duties.
However, if Giambi's knee flares up, all bets are off on who will play center with the Giambino getting the bulk of the action at the DH spot.
If there is one question mark surrounding the 2004 New York Yankees, it is their starting pitching. Mike Mussina will be the team's Opening Day starter, and is the only real reliable option for manager Joe Torre heading into the season.
Mussina, who is stuck on 199 career wins, is bound to win 20 games at some point, especially as he incorporates his splitter into his repertoire more often. Last season the righthander finished the year 17-8 with a 3.40 ERA in 31 starts. However, his finest moment came during Game 7 of the ALCS, where he held the Red Sox at bay for three innings out of the bullpen.
After Mussina it gets interesting.
On the same day that Pettitte was introduced in Houston, the Yankees completed a trade for Kevin Brown. The 39-year-old injury-prone hurler had one of his better years in recent memory last year, going 14-9 with a 2.39 ERA in 32 starts for the Los Angeles Dodgers. However, the injury bug has been a problem in the past for Brown, but the hard-throwing righty managed to stay off the disabled list last season for the first time since 1999.
Javier Vazquez will slot into the No. 3 spot in the rotation. Vazquez, acquired from Montreal for Nick Johnson and Juan Rivera, was 13-12 last season with the Expos with a 3.24 ERA and 241 strikeouts. The 27-year-old righthander, who has never had to pitch a big game, could become a potential ace, but how he adjusts to the American League, as well as how he responds to the bright lights of New York will go a long way in determining that.
After the top three it gets a little more hazy.
Jose Contreras will start the season as the team's fourth starter, but he is far from a sure thing. The 32-year-old was way too inconsistent last season. He showed signs of brilliance as a starter against the likes of the Detroit Tigers and Cincinnati Reds, but was not as sharp against teams with a winning record. He ended the year 7-2 with a 3.30 ERA in 18 games - nine of which were starts.
The original plan was to have Jon Lieber be the team's fifth starter, but a groin injury will likely cause him to miss the start of the season. Lieber, who missed all of last season because of Tommy John surgery, won 20 games for the Chicago Cubs in 2001, his last full season in the league.
If Lieber cannot go look for lefty Donovan Osborne or right-handed youngster Jorge DePaula to grab the fifth spot at the outset. Osborne, considered a longshot to make the team at the start of spring, will likely get the nod since the Yanks don't have a southpaw starter.
Mariano Rivera returns as the anchor of a much bolstered Yankee bullpen. The great Rivera, who will likely have a new contract in place before the start of the season, seemed to slip a bit during the regular season last year, but still managed to get 40 saves to go along with a 1.66 ERA.
Rivera, though, makes his money in the playoffs and is the best reliever, if not overall pitcher, to ever pitch in the postseason. He was his usual dominating self last season in the playoffs, including a legendary three-inning performance against the Sox in Game 7 of the ALCS.
Getting to Rivera was a problem last year, but it should not be this year, as the Yankees re-tooled heavily in the bullpen.
Torre now has solid late-inning options in righthanders Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill, who each agreed to two-year free agent deals. Gordon, who saved 46 games for the Red Sox back in 1998, will likely be the setup man. Quantrill, who led the league with 89 appearances a year ago, will fill the highly- valuable middle relief role.
Joining those three in the bullpen will be lefthanders Felix Heredia and Gabe White, both of whom were acquired during the season last year.
With Wilson getting the starting nod at second base, the Yankees lose a late-inning running replacement, as well as a utility jack-of-all-trades player off the bench. Miguel Cairo should step into that role.
Ruben Sierra and Tony Clark will provide some switch-hitting pop off the bench, while Travis Lee was brought in to spell Giambi from time-to-time at first. The signing of Lee, who is outstanding defensively, could signal that the Yankees are not so certain that Giambi's knee is 100 percent.
Most teams enter the season with hopes of making the playoffs. For the Yankees just making the playoffs, won't do. Anything short of a World title will be considered a disappointment. There are a ton of question marks surrounding the pitching staff, but if Brown and Vazquez pan out things should go smoothly for Torre, who is entering the final year of his deal. Torre, known for his ability to handle high-priced talent, will have his work cut out for him this season and will no doubt be pressured from up above if this team falters out of the gates. The Yankees and Red Sox will fight all season long for supremacy in the East and will likely square off again in another epic ALCS.