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Don't expect Yankee dropoff
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
On the one hand, there are the Yankees, and how this could supposedly be The Last Time. Paul O'Neill is likely retiring; Tino Martinez, Scott Brosius and Chuck Knoblauch are free agents; the future of Orlando Hernandez is in doubt; and Luis Sojo cannot go on forever.
But while inevitable changes are coming to this team that has so dominated the sport since Joe Torre arrived in 1996, there is more continuity than many suspect. Importantly, Torre and general manager Brian Cashman will be back, and they provide a ground for George Steinbrenner when he orders them to trade Bernie Williams or Andy Pettitte, as he has the last few years.
The core of the everyday team, all ripened in the Yankee farm system, are in their primes: Derek Jeter, Williams, Jorge Posada, Alfonso Soriano. Nick Johnson could be a Rookie of the Year candidate next year, and management still holds great promise for Drew Henson.
They have Pettitte, Mike Mussina, Roger Clemens, Mariano Rivera, Mike Stanton and Ramiro Mendoza to frame a pitching staff around, with a gaggle of talented young left-handed pitchers -- Ted Lilly, Brandon Claussen, Randy Choate, Randy Keisler, Alex Graman -- for depth and trades.
The decisions are at first base, left field/leadoff and third base. The baseball folks do not think Barry Bonds is a good fit for New York or this team, which should surprise no one, but Torre is enamored of Jason Giambi's talent, makeup, leadership and apparent fit with Jeter, Posada, et al. That would allow them to use Johnson and Giambi at first and DH. If they wish to sign a Johnny Damon, fine, or they can deal for some leadoff hitter, and either re-sign Brosius for a year or two until Henson is ready, or go get a Joe Randa or some other third baseman.
That's not too complicated, helped by the fact that they have such a productive farm system. "What they have ingrained is a team character, and personality," says Mariner Stan Javier. "That's not going to change, not with Joe there, not with Jeter and Clemens, Rivera and Pettitte and those guys. I don't care what these numbers guys think, team concepts are important. Look at us. Look at the Braves and Diamondbacks. It's not just talent. Look at Boston. They had too many chiefs, but no presence that dictates what gets you through those 162 games and seven months."
"Whoever we bring in here will have to fit," says Cashman, who knows Torre isn't going to have it any other way.
But while the Mariners have developed a distinct character and personality, Lou Piniella says "this winter is going to require a lot of work." And right now, no one in Seattle seems to know whether or not Pat Gillick is coming back as GM, or headed home to Toronto. Some feel he may be using Toronto as a bargaining chip, but it's up in the air. If Gillick leaves, Piniella says, "Whoever comes here has a lot of work to do." The popular thought is that Oakland's Billy Beane would be targeted as Gillick's successor for what is one of the best jobs in baseball because of an ownership that in 1992 voted to adopt the Nordstrom's management philosophy, which is to allow good people to do their jobs.
Seattle is not a young team, and Bret Boone, Aaron Sele, Mark McLemore, Stan Javier and Jay Buhner are all free agents. Piniella's not certain Ryan Anderson and Gil Meche will be physically or developmentally ready after missing the year with injuries. That the M's won 116 regular-season games without adding an extra bat or two during the season is remarkable, but Piniella knows he may need one or two outfielders, a third baseman and maybe even a pitcher or two.
"We can be good for several years," says Piniella. "But to insure that will be more work this offseason than it was last winter, building for a 116-win team."
Trades I'd like to see
Just some ideas to think about.
A tough hole to fill
There are at least a dozen teams looking for leadoff hitters this offseason; some, like the Giants, Astros and Brewers, are looking for leadoff-hitting center fielders -- no small task. "The problem is that good leadoff hitters who get on base 38 to 42 percent of the time and can run are more difficult to find than cleanup hitters," says one GM.
Shannon Stewart is available from Toronto. But among the free agents, the list is iffy:
"I think I can get myself back to that .400 on-base guy," says Knoblauch. "I went through a few things, then this season there was the position change. But I believe that I can play another few years and help someone out of that spot in the order. I can still run, so that's an start."
If Beane were to stay in Oakland, Knoblauch could be an interesting replacement for Damon. Or if the Boston pressure isn't too much, Knoblauch could move back and forth between left field and DH with Manny Ramirez.
In the leadoff spot, 2001
On the economic and front office front
No wonder owners would still like to see contraction. "We show our audited books to the public," says one member of Seattle's ownership group. "I don't know why more teams don't, because maybe people would understand the game's finances. Investing in a baseball franchise is a charitable contribution without the tax benefits."
Revenues have doubled since 1995, but the average payroll has also risen from $33,119,081 in '95 to $64,845,222 in 2001. Where in '95 the three top payrolls were the Yankees ($58.2M), Orioles ($48.7M) and Braves ($47M), by this year they had more than doubled at the top: Yankees($112.0M), Red Sox ($110.2M) and Dodgers ($109.4M). And where the difference between the top three and bottom three was $47-58M and $13-15M in '95, this year the bottom three -- the Twins($25.2), Expos ($34.2M) and A's ($34.8M) -- were $75-85M behind the big spenders.
With a war-time economy likely to seriously restrict public financing of stadiums, the corporate sponsorships and entertainment dollars, 2002 will be an economic work in progress if the owners do not shut down the business.
The uncertainty in Florida has GM Dave Dombrowski seriously throwing his hat into the Texas GM picture, along with John Hart; Dombrowski's name has surfaced in Toronto, as well. Friday, Dombrowski told Dave O'Brien of the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel that he is interested in either position because of the uncertainty surrounding the Florida franchise. "What Dave would really like is the Boston job," says one executive. "But who knows what's going to happen there. Word is that if Charles Dolan should get them, Brian Sabean is a lock to leave the Giants and go home to New England." Sabean is the pride of Concord, N.H., also home to Bob Tewksbury, Joe Lefebvre and Red Rolfe. But Dombrowski has made overtures to let people in Boston know he'd like the job, if it becomes available.
Dombrowski and Hart are the front-runners for the Texas job, but Tom Hicks plans to interview at least a half-dozen candidates, including Mets assistant GM Omar Minaya -- who once worked for Doug Melvin -- and Oakland scouting director Grady Fuson. The draft and talent record of Fuson is unquestioned, and he has been strongly recommended by Scott Boras.
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