Yankees add balancing act to mixture Signing of Knoblauch seen as final measure

March 05, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Orioles just became the sixth team in major-league history to go wire-to-wire during the regular season, and the New York Yankees are considered the favorite in the American League East.

How can that be?

The Orioles have made several acquisitions to shore up the pitching staff and the offensive lineup. They figure to get improved production from second baseman Roberto Alomar and several other veterans. They have every reason to think they will be able to maintain the divisional status quo, but the Yankees supposedly have better offensive balance and a deeper pitching staff.

Is it true?

That remains to be seen, but the Yankees moved decisively to streamline the starting rotation and upgrade the batting order. They made a couple of key additions (Chili Davis and Chuck Knoblauch) and performed some addition by subtraction (Kenny Rogers and Dwight Gooden). The result is a team that still has some rough spots, but also has the depth and talent to get over them.

"If people are picking us, it's because they are looking at our lineup," said manager Joe Torre. "Our starting lineup is pretty impressive. I've always been impressed when I look at Seattle's lineup, or Baltimore or Cleveland, when those seventh, eighth and ninth guys can knock your brains out.

"Now, I feel like we've got that kind of lineup."

Knoblauch was the final component. The Yankees gave up top pitching prospect Eric Milton and three other minor-leaguers to acquire him on Feb. 5 and address the only glaring weakness in the offensive attack. The club has a true leadoff man for the first time since Rickey Henderson was traded away during the 1989 season.

"It's not just what he does for us," Torre said. "It's what he does to the opposition. You can only really appreciate that when you manage against somebody and you know how uncomfortable that player can make you."

The offensive lineup wasn't bad to begin with. The Yankees ranked second in the American League with a .287 team batting average last year and second in runs scored (891). They were -- statistically -- the best-hitting team in the American League East, even if the Orioles appeared to have the more star-studded lineup and the Boston Red Sox had a higher combined batting average.

The arrival of Knoblauch should turn the Yankees into the most potent scoring machine in the major leagues. He averaged 121 runs the past three years with a Minnesota Twins team that didn't have nearly the run-production potential that he will have behind him in the Yankees' lineup.

"Hopefully, I'll be a guy who will get on base and score a lot of runs," Knoblauch said. "There are plenty of people to drive them in. I just hope to be one of the guys on base. kind of a catalyst."

Davis also should have a very positive impact. Torre used 14 different players in the designated hitter role last year and got a total of 17 home runs -- 13 of them from injured Cecil Fielder. Now he has a switch-hitter who hit a career-high 30 home runs last year and has averaged 93 RBIs the past five seasons.

Of course, at the level that the Yankees expect to compete, hitting is less than half the battle. The makeup of the starting rotation will be in doubt right up until Opening Day, and Torre concedes that right-handed ace David Cone may need some extra time to come back from shoulder surgery.

The three-man nucleus of the rotation -- Cone, Andy Pettitte and David Wells -- may be as good as any other club's three top starters, but each of those pitchers opened spring training with his physical status in question. Cone had a bone spur removed from his shoulder last fall, Pettitte spent the winter rehabbing a sore back and Wells came to camp in questionable shape.

If that isn't enough uncertainty, the club also is depending on Japanese pitcher Hideki Irabu to become a dependable No. 4 starter after a nightmarish 1997 American debut, and likely will turn the fifth spot over to inexperienced Ramiro Mendoza.

"I think Irabu is going to be all right, I think Mendoza is going to be all right and, hopefully, David Cone will continue rehabbing [successfully] from his surgery," Torre said.

If not, the Yankees have swingman Willie Banks and minor-league prospect Mike Jerzembeck in reserve, but those are not the kind of options that a pennant-caliber team likes to exercise.

"I'd like to know that my starters are ready, but I think that our bullpen could be our strong point," Torre said. "We've got good balance and ability. To me, you have to have one or the other. You have to have a bullpen or a starting rotation you can count on. I think the bullpen can hold things together until we get settled.

"What made Baltimore last year was their bullpen, it really stopped the bleeding. Two years ago, we felt that if we could get past their starters, we could beat them, but that wasn't the case last year."

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