The New York Yankees looked quite vulnerable as they limped down the stretch this year, giving other clubs in the American League East hope that the pinstriped dynasty that has taken charge of baseball might finally be running its course.
Orioles owner Peter Angelos certainly thought so, and rubbed New Yorkers the wrong way with his assessment that the Yankees were lucky to sneak through the postseason and win their fourth world title in five years.
Maybe they were, but they apparently aren't leaving anything to chance this off-season. The signing of free-agent pitching ace Mike Mussina to a six-year, $88.5 million contract assures they will head into 2001 as a prohibitive favorite to win the American League East and a solid bet to extend their string of three consecutive world championships.
The impact of that acquisition will be felt most in Baltimore, where Mussina was one of the remaining cornerstones of a team under reconstruction, but it also will be felt in Boston and Toronto, where a pair of improving teams appeared to be in position to depose the Yankees in 2001.
The talk shows have been buzzing all week in Boston. The Red Sox made a serious run at Mussina, but were outflanked easily by a Yankees team that could offer the veteran right-hander the best financial package and the best chance of getting the World Series ring that had eluded him during his 10 seasons in Baltimore.
The prospect of Mussina and three-time Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez in the same rotation was enough to make Red Sox fans salivate, but it apparently wasn't enough to persuade Mussina to pitch in cozy Fenway Park.
Instead, Red Sox fans are faced with the discouraging prospect of watching Mussina team up with former Boston ace Roger Clemens to assure that the Red Sox are playing only for the American League wild-card spot for at least the next couple of years.
The Blue Jays weren't involved in the Mussina auction, partly because there was no real chance he would move to Canada and partly because they had just ponied up $17 million per year to keep Triple Crown threat Carlos Delgado. They could only hope Mussina would sign with one of the large-market teams outside the American League East, but now face a much tougher fight for the division title in 2001 and beyond.
The Yankees may have shown signs of age during the second half of the 2000 season, but they still were good enough to hold onto a narrowing division lead and defeat two emerging American League powers to get to the World Series. Opponents may have taken some solace in the soft performances of veterans Paul O'Neill, Tino Martinez and Scott Brosius, but it might be premature to write any of them off because of a single-season decline.
The defending world champions will have explosive David Justice for the entire season and still have superstars Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams anchoring the offense. They also have one of the best young catchers in the game (Jorge Posada), the best relief pitcher (Mariano Rivera) and a deep starting rotation that just got much, much deeper.
By comparison, the second-place Red Sox have Martinez at the head of a rotation that includes only one other veteran - recently acquired Rolando Arrojo. The club has high hopes that young Tomo Ohka will be a solid starter, but will try hard to sign one of the well-regarded starting pitchers on the free-agent market - probably either Denny Neagle or Andy Ashby. Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette has made a bid for premier starter Mike Hampton, but he apparently is not interested in pitching at Fenway Park.
The Blue Jays face an even more uncertain future. Pitching ace David Wells won 20 games last season, but the rest of the starting rotation was a combined 39-51. What's worse, the only other pitcher in the rotation with a winning record, Frank Castillo, filed for free agency.
The lineup features four hitters who finished with 30 or more home runs and three legitimate stolen-base threats, so the Jays will put an exciting team on the field in 2001. But no balanced starting rotation may make it difficult to stay alive even in the wild-card hunt.
Mussina's decision to join the Yankees also figures to have a significant impact on the other playoff hopefuls in the American League. Where the Yankees once looked as vulnerable as their No. 3 starter in any short playoff series, they now will be in a position to enter the postseason with Clemens, Mussina, perennial playoff hero Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez and consistent winner Andy Pettitte. It must be nice to be Joe Torre right now.
The Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians are under great pressure to improve their rotations. The Indians were believed to have the inside track on Mussina, but never made a serious play.
The American League West champion Oakland Athletics apparently have lost veteran Kevin Appier to free agency, leaving them with a void to fill if they are to continue their emergence as one the game's top young teams.
The wild-card Seattle Mariners are the only one of this year's unpinstriped AL contenders that doesn't face a potential downturn in the production of the starting rotation, but they appear certain to lose offensive star Alex Rodriguez, which will seriously diminish their chances of returning to the postseason in 2001.
In short, the rich got a lot richer yesterday and - it seems - everyone else got poorer.