Yanks know rotation needs a lift

NEW YORK -- When it comes to the Yankees' second-half pitching plans, all conversation roads lead to one place (Randy Johnson) and one searing question (can they make this fantasy real?).

Despite the front-office's requisite laid-back posture, the Yankees are moving aggressively towards plucking the Big Unit -- if for no other reason than to keep him away from the Red Sox. The New York Times reported on Wednesday that Boston is preparing a three-way deal with the Cubs, sending Nomar Garciaparra to Wrigley in exchange for high-level prospects to then deal to Arizona.

The plot only gets sexier, since Johnson is said to be "totally fixated on the Yankees" according to one major league official familiar with the pitcher's thinking. With his no-trade veto power, Johnson could leverage the Diamondbacks into avoiding the Sox altogether, since his antipathy toward former teammate Curt Schilling is apparently real.

When asked about the unsuccessful phone calls Schilling made to Johnson's cell phone this week, the left-hander dryly said, "there's a reason why I changed my number."

A number of Yankees, including Mariano Rivera, intended to make a similar recruiting speech. But the point seemed moot to Gary Sheffield, if not inappropriate.

"How much recruiting do you have to do if you're the Yankees?" Sheffield told the New York Daily News. "Everyone knows what this team is all about."

Indeed, it was the dark-horse Mets who worked harder at winning Johnson's affection. Both Mike Piazza and Tom Glavine reminded him there's another team in New York, already involved in a compelling pennant race. And while the Angels insist they're not interested in paying Johnson $22 million through 2005 -- having been thus far burned on the $51 million committed to Bartolo Colon -- no one really believes that, either.

"[The Angels] are in right in the middle of it," said a rival general manager. "It's a total bluff, and I still like their chances better than anyone else's."

That might explain why the Yankees are heavily promoting their in-house talent. They're preparing for the possibility that, despite Johnson's desire to come to the Bronx, there isn't enough young, inexpensive talent to tempt the Diamondbacks. With just catcher Dioner Navarro and second baseman Robinson Cano, both playing at the Triple-A level, as his most tradable assets, GM Brian Cashman has no choice but to start softening the fans' disappointment.

"If you look at what's out there, everyone needs more pitching. I still think ours is better than most," Cashman said. "And it's only going to get better."

The Bombers' optimism is a blend of two ingredients. First, Kevin Brown is just a rehab start away from returning to the rotation. Second, Orlando Hernandez is back, having thrown five strong innings against the Devil Rays on Sunday. If the Yankees are unable to acquire Johnson, El Duque, surgically repaired shoulder and all, may become the rotation's B-12 shot.

"When we signed him [last winter], we said, 'you could either help us as a starter or a reliever, but just come back here.' It looks like a great decision for both sides," Cashman said. Indeed, the Yankees still remember Hernandez in a time tunnel, back when he could throw 90-plus-mph fastballs, hide the ball with his freakish leg-kick, and deliver a sweeping, late-breaking slider that was poison to right-handed hitters.

Whether Duque is now 38, as he claims, or has already roared past his 40th birthday, which club officials feel is more likely, no one really seems to mind. Javier Vazquez said, "what I saw from him on Sunday was just awesome. The guy knows how to pitch. He knows what he's doing against every batter."

Hernandez, could eventually land in the bullpen, assuming Mike Mussina, who's suffering from minor elbow inflammation, heals quickly. Brown is the other variable, since he's been on the DL since early June -- a prophecy to those who said the Yankees were taking a risk counting on a 39-year-old pitcher less than two years removed from back surgery.

Brown's lower back did indeed betray him, but the more troubling aspect of his disablement was an intestinal parasite. The normally rugged pitcher lost 15 pounds during the ordeal, not to mention the bite on his two-seam fastball. Considering that Jason Giambi and his wife, Kristian, suffered from the same ailment, Yankee medical officials concluded they all became ill during the team's trip to Japan in late March.

Neither Brown nor Giambi felt sick right away, however. Instead, they began a slow, insidious descent towards mediocrity. Giambi's average fell below .250, and he said, "I felt so tired it was hard for me to stay awake even during the games." Brown seemed mystified, too, as his ERA in May was nearly two runs higher than in April.

The right-hander's frustration finally exploded one day in the bullpen when he said to pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, "How would you like to go out there with the [bleep] I've been throwing?"

Since then, however, both Brown and Giambi have responded to antibiotic treatment and the parasites have been killed. The right-hander will make a start at Double-A Trenton this weekend, after which he should rejoin the rotation. That's when the Yankees hope their other mini-mysteries are finally resolved, too.

Has Jose Contreras found inner peace, now that his family has rejoined him from Cuba? Is Jon Lieber durable enough for a pennant race?

And the trade deadline's most compelling question: just who gets to liberate Randy Johnson from last place?

Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.