Yanks set to put a hurting on AL

Healthy winter haul likely to help champs overcome injuries

April 01, 2002|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

It was the type of spring to make volatile New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner pound his fist on the desk and virulent Yankee haters dream of an end to seven years of American League domination.

The Yankees, quite literally, were hamstrung by a leg injury to Bernie Williams and sideswiped by the sore rib cage of $10 million free-agent acquisition Rondell White.

Starting pitcher Andy Pettitte and several other pitchers were behind schedule.

Off-season centerpiece Jason Giambi was hitting under .200 with a week to go in the exhibition season and temporarily hobbled by a calf cramp.

Nothing particularly serious, but give the Yankees credit for adding a little suspense to the early weeks of a new season. Then forget about it.

The defending American League champions - for all their various bumps and bruises - will be very close to full strength when they open the 2002 regular season today against the Orioles at Camden Yards.

This isn't some team that's a couple of big injuries away from a sub-.500 season anyway. This is the richest, most-powerful baseball organization on the planet - the reason 29 other clubs want to raise local revenue sharing to 50 percent and levy a draconian luxury tax on payrolls over $98 million. But that's another story.

The Yankees might be a little banged up, but they certainly can afford to be. Did anybody see what they did in the winter?

While the rest of the baseball world was waiting for the years to catch up with their veteran offensive lineup, they went out and signed the most sought-after free-agent slugger (Giambi), brought in White to replace retiring Paul O'Neill, acquired third baseman Robin Ventura to replace Scott Brosius and bolstered an already outstanding starting rotation by bringing back fan favorite David Wells.

"It's a nice feeling to know that the people in charge of making those decisions want to win it as bad as we want to win it," said former Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina, who was last year's centerpiece off-season acquisition.

"They find the holes that need to be filled and they fill them. This organization is at a point where it won't settle for anything other than winning."

That much should be obvious by now, regardless of the broken-bat single (by Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Luis Gonzalez) last November that prevented them from winning a fourth straight world title.

Steinbrenner immediately focused on upgrading a lineup that had been in subtle decline since the Yankees won 114 games in 1998. He identified Giambi as the answer to the club's slipping run production and ponied up $120 million to snatch him from the emergent Oakland Athletics.

The acquisition worked on two levels. It bridged the short-term offensive gap and also took a major bite out of an organization that looked like it had a chance to be the next big AL dynasty.

Giambi has been careful to come in with his head down. This is, after all, a team that won four world titles and five pennants in the six years leading up to his arrival. And the guy he's replacing in the lineup, Tino Martinez, had a pretty fair season last year (34 home runs, 113 RBIs).

The Yankees weren't the offensive powerhouse they had been in prior years - their run totals have declined each of the past three seasons - but it's all relative. They still ranked fifth in scoring in 2001.

"We're just going to try and pick up where they left off," Giambi said. "They were an incredible team before."

Manager Joe Torre has to love the way things turned out over the winter, but he also is hesitant to make too much of the changes for fear of diminishing the accomplishments of the departing players who were such an important part of the club's tremendous success.

"It's tough for me to say that," Torre said. "Having Giambi here is terrific, but having Tino here wasn't too bad and Scott Brosius had some pretty good years for us. Giambi and Ventura have taken the place of two quality people."

Giambi drove in only seven more runs than Martinez last year. Ventura didn't have a far better offensive season than Brosius, though he does provide more upside potential at the plate.

"Last year, we didn't score a lot of runs because guys you expected to hit a lot struggled at times," Torre said. "I'm not expecting us to score a lot of runs this year. We base what we do on pitching.

"But the one thing we can say about our lineup this year, [rookie first baseman/designated hitter] Nick Johnson is a big addition, and Alfonso Soriano has a year more experience and Derek Jeter should be healthy all year. That will have more effect on our offense than replacing two guys."

The pitching staff already was the best in the league, but the Yankees still chose to flesh out the starting rotation with Wells, who arrived in camp a slimmer, more-determined version of the pitcher who was a combined 34-14 during two seasons in his first incarnation as a Yankee.

"George [Steinbrenner] wants to win, and he's going to do whatever it takes," Wells said. "He's ticking a lot of other people off - other owners - but they're just jealous. He puts good people on the field."

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