Yanks add `Rocket' fuel

Not sitting on 125 wins, champs get Clemens for Wells, 2 others `We're a proactive' club `Rocket' thrilled

lefty stunned by Jays return

February 19, 1999|By PETER SCHMUCK | PETER SCHMUCK,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The New York Yankees apparently weren't satisfied with 125 victories and another big trophy last year. Owner George Steinbrenner seems bent on creating a new Yankees dynasty, and took another giant step in that direction with the acquisition of five-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens yesterday.

The defending world champions sent a shiver through the rest of the American League with a blockbuster deal that sent 18-game winner David Wells, reliever Graeme Lloyd and second base prospect Homer Bush to the Toronto Blue Jays for a can't-miss Hall of Famer who has been named the league's top pitcher each of the past two seasons.

"Roger Clemens is a nonstop Hall of Famer," said Yankees manager Joe Torre. "The last two years, what he's done, it's incredible."

Not any more incredible, however, than what the Yankees have done over the past three years, winning two world titles and putting together one of the greatest single seasons of all-time in 1998.

They were projected as a strong favorite to return to the World Series this year, but that did not dissuade Steinbrenner from pulling off a deal to increase his star-studded team's marquee value. No one ever is going to accuse The Boss of playing it safe.

"It's not an easy choice to tinker with the success we had in 1998," general manager Brian Cashman said. "We're a proactive organization and constantly looking to improve things."

The deal brought an end to a winter of discontent for Clemens, who asked the Blue Jays in November to honor a handshake promise to trade him if the club was not going to do everything necessary to build the team into a pennant contender.

He won't have to worry about that anymore. "I'm just trying to catch my breath after last night's and this morning's events," Clemens said from Houston in a conference call. "They are the champions. I just want to slide in the side door and go to work with these guys and hopefully fit right in."

The Yankees originally stayed in the background when the Blue Jays put Clemens (20-6, 2.65) on the block, so much so that almost all of the off-season trade speculation was focused on the Houston Astros and -- to a lesser extent -- the Texas Rangers. The trade obviously came as a shock to Astros officials, who announced Wednesday that they were planning to make a final push to get a Clemens deal done before position players report next week.

The Blue Jays and Astros apparently were close to a deal in December, but the talks hung up when Clemens' agents -- Alan and Randy Hendricks -- reportedly attempted to make the deal contingent on a one-year, $27.4 million contract extension.

That prompted an angry announcement by Astros general manager Jerry Hunsicker at the winter meetings in Nashville that the club was officially withdrawing from the trade talks, but he was overruled by owner Drayton McLane. Clemens, 36, also announced that he no longer was interested in playing for the Astros -- and withdrew his trade demand -- but Houston remained the apparent front-runner in the Clemens derby until the surprise announcement yesterday morning.

Toronto GM Gord Ash originally hoped to deal Clemens for a package of top prospects, but found clubs reluctant to give up their best talent for a pitcher who would have the right to demand a trade at the end of his first season.

Ash asked the Astros for promising outfielder Richard Hidalgo and pitcher Scott Elarton and made it known that he wanted Yankees outfield prospect Ricky Ledee and pitcher Ramiro Mendoza, but eventually settled for two players over 30 years old and a solid second base prospect.

"This one did the most for us in terms of what we wanted to accomplish," Ash explained. "We put three players on our club for one, even though the one is a premium guy. The other deals were more future-orientated deals."

Clemens did not get a contract extension and did not give up his right to demand a trade at the end of the season, but Steinbrenner is expected to extend his present contract -- which calls for two more years at about $8 million per year.

"I met my match in a guy who wants to win," said Clemens, who is scheduled to report to Tampa's Legends Field tomorrow. "This guy, he settles for nothing less. I enjoy that."

The Orioles don't know whether to take cover or take comfort. The Yankees solidified their starting rotation after finishing 35 games ahead of Baltimore in the AL East last year, but the deal also comes with a potential downside.

The Yankees, who play in a stadium that is tailor-made for left-handed pitchers, traded away one of the top left-handed starters in the game and threw in a quality left-handed reliever. The result is a team with more star power than before, but not necessarily better balance and chemistry.

"It's a bit of a shock," said Orioles manager Ray Miller. "Chemistry is a very important thing. I don't know how much that will be affected. My initial reaction is, `Wow, they're changing that club.' "

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