Who switched on Yankees' money machine?

BASEBALL

January 12, 1992|By PETER SCHMUCK

The New York Yankees are rebuilding furiously. That much should be obvious after a week of intense front-office activity that has turned the roster upside down. But are they rebuilding wisely? That's the $30 million question.

General manager Gene Michael suddenly got his hands on a checkbook and signed outfielder Danny Tartabull to a five-year, $25.5 million contract, a move that signaled to all that the club was serious about trying to compete in the American League East this year.

Then he signed free-agent infielder Mike Gallego to a three-year, $5.1 million contract and traded leadoff hitter Steve Sax to the Chicago White Sox for Melido Perez and a couple of prospects. The wisdom of that disjointed three-way deal is not so clear.

Gallego had a career year in 1991, such as it was. He batted .247 with 12 home runs and 49 RBI. In his five full seasons in the major leagues -- all with the Oakland Athletics -- he batted a combined .232 and averaged four home runs and 32 RBI. Check it out. The guy got a $1.5 million signing bonus.

Sax had a pretty good year himself. He batted .304 with 198 hits and 31 stolen bases, but it wasn't a career year. He batted .332 with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1986 and .315 (with 205 hits) in his first season in New York. He is a proven leadoff hitter who has averaged nearly 40 stolen bases over the past six seasons. )) He is not the kind of guy you trade to make room for Mike Gallego, not when you're only getting a sub-.500 pitcher and prospects in the bargain.

But the Yankees have been intent on trading Sax almost from the day last winter when they handed him a four-year contract extension worth more than $10 million. By the time they succeeded, the potential payroll savings had been largely offset by Gallego's inflated salary.

Michael apparently is not through. The arrival of Tartabull leaves the Yankees with excellent depth in the outfield and leaves open the possibility of another deal for pitching help. Still, the whole rebuilding project seems suspect, which leaves room to wonder who's really running the show.

The club's sudden spending spree appears to be an indication that someone has stepped into the leadership vacuum that has hampered the organization since commissioner Fay Vincent barred owner George Steinbrenner from participating in the day-to-day operation of the team. Is it new managing general partner Daniel McCarthy, or is it Steinbrenner?

Bet on the Boss, who could be coming out from behind the scenes sooner than you think.

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Crowd of Angels: Former Baltimore Orioles pitcher Dave Johnson hopes to win the fifth spot in the California Angels rotation, but he'll have a lot of company at spring training. The Angels also have signed pitchers Pat Perry, Ray Searage, Neil Allen and Don Robinson this off-season and are close to signing John Farrell (who won't be back from an arm injury until 1993) and Willie Fraser.

The Angels also have signed former Oriole Rene Gonzales to a Class AAA Edmonton Trappers contract.

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Arbitrary loser: The arbitration season is upon us, and there already is one big loser. Former Orioles pitcher Pete Harnisch, who ranked fifth in the National League with a 2.70 ERA after being traded to the Houston Astros last year, narrowly missed being one of the two-plus (more than two but less than three years of major-league service) eligible to have his salary determined by an arbitrator.

The major-league labor agreement now allows for the top 17 percent of the two-year service class to apply for salary arbitration. Harnisch was the best of the rest and would have made the cut if the Philadelphia Phillies had not released Rod Booker one day short of three years' service last year.

If the Phillies had kept Booker one more day, he would have been in the three-year class, and Harnisch would have moved into the arbitration-eligible class. That one day could cost Harnisch as much as $500,000 in 1992 salary.

Second Opinion Dept.: Oakland general manager Sandy Alderson was as incredulous as anyone (except me) after his $4.2 million offer to Gallego was outbid by the Yankees.

"They're all set for when Ted Williams comes back," Alderson told Newsday last week. "They have five guys on the right side of the infield."

The search for an explanation for the Yankees' desire to sign a third second baseman briefly centered on a rumor that Sax soon would be going to the A's in a deal involving first baseman Mark McGwire, but Sax was dealt instead to the White Sox on Friday.

"I would not give the Yankees the courtesy of giving them the time of day," Alderson said earlier in the week. "They've got all the second basemen in the American League, and they can keep them all."

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From the home office in Arnold: With the usual apologies to talk show host and future Yankees managing general partner David Letterman, here's a top 10 list of reasons Pete Rose should have been included on this year's Hall of Fame ballot:

10. Gave new meaning to the term 5-10 player.

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