Yankees no longer without a Boss O's freewheeling puts N.Y. into action

Around the AL East

February 26, 1996|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

TAMPA, FLA. — With expectations running high for the Orioles, The Sun begins a four-part series on the other teams in the AL East.

Today: Yankees

Tomorrow: Tigers

Wednesday: Blue Jays

Thursday: Red Sox

TAMPA, Fla. -- Most baseball seasons are decided in October, but the 1996 American League East race may be remembered differently. The real duel took place in December, when the Orioles and New York Yankees engaged in a test of wallets that put both clubs in position to dominate the division.

True to form, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was not about to let Peter Angelos steal the show.

"It seemed to be two very competitive owners that wanted to beat each other very badly," said free agent acquisition David Cone, who benefited from the competition to the tune of $19.5 million over three years. "It's good in the sense that you know there will be no holds barred. If you need a player down the stretch, there's no question these owners will do what it takes."

The question used to be whether Steinbrenner would do too much, especially after he celebrated the club's first playoff appearance in 14 years by running off popular manager Buck Showalter and replacing GM Gene Michael. But that was before he accepted the unspoken challenge from Angelos and began spending frantically to keep pace with the Orioles.

"It was the Angelos/Steinbrenner poker game," said veteran third baseman Wade Boggs, "and it was fun to watch. I'm glad that we jumped into it instead of just letting Baltimore take everybody and running away with it."

Steinbrenner raised eyebrows with some of the dollar figures he was throwing around, but that's nothing new. He has been fueling baseball's salary spiral since the advent of widespread free agency. Perhaps his re-emergence as a force in the free-agent market was inevitable, but it appears that the aggressiveness of the Orioles pushed him back into hyperspend.

Now it's up to the Yankees to take the next step. Their volatile owner isn't likely to be satisfied with anything less than a berth in the American League Championship Series, and even that might not be enough to keep him from making more changes if the ending isn't right.

Everyone knows that. It comes with the pinstripes. And this year, there is more than enough talent -- at least on paper -- to get where The Boss wants to go. It's just a matter of bringing all of the new elements together to create that intangible concept known as good chemistry.

"Potentially, we're very good," Cone said, "but we still have some questions. If Jimmy Key and Dwight Gooden come back to anywhere close to what they've done in the past, we're going to be in good shape. And the best thing, we've got a group of guys who actually want to be here. I don't think that was the case in the past. I've seen a lot of high-profile players ducking this market."

Deep talented staff

Not this year. Cone always has been a New York kind of guy, but the Yankees also convinced starter Kenny Rogers -- perhaps the top left-hander on the market last winter -- to play in the Bronx. The result is a starting rotation that could be as many as seven pitchers deep.

But it might be awhile before that rotation is set because Rogers is expected to miss four to five days after he was hit in the back of his left shoulder blade during batting practice yesterday.

Cone is the ace of the staff. Rogers isn't far behind. Then there's Gooden, Key, 1995 rookie standout Andy Pettitte, veteran Melido Perez and Scott Kamieniecki. There are so many possibilities that the club can afford to be conservative with Key, who is coming back from a serious shoulder injury.

"This is the best pitching I've ever had," said new manager Joe Torre, whose has managed the New York Mets, the Atlanta Braves and most recently the St. Louis Cardinals. "This is terrific. Not only do we have Cone, Gooden and Rogers to help each other, we've got Andy Pettitte, who had a big year and nobody is even talking about him. I like that, because there won't be a lot of pressure on him. Normally, everybody would be asking a guy like that about the sophomore jinx."

Torre appeared to be coming into a tenuous situation when he replaced Showalter, but he instead has been handed a team that should be better than the one that reached the playoffs last year. The Angelos/Steinbrenner derby -- if that's what it was -- only assured that he would be well-prepared for his first managerial assignment in the American League.

"I only benefited by that," Torre said. "Signing David was very big for us. We needed a leader. Jimmy [Key] has been a leader, but with the surgery, we can't count on him coming out of the box. Signing Kenny Rogers also was very important. What that tells you is that the competition doesn't just start on April 1."

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