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Cubs left at the altar as Yankees change course

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July 1

When Ben Ford went out in Detroit on Wednesday and allowed seven runs in two innings, The Boss finally agreed that enough was enough. David Cone had one win; Roger Clemens, Orlando Hernandez and Ramiro Mendoza were all on the disabled list; Jake Westbrook's two starts produced just four innings, 13 hits, 10 runs and two losses. Ford's start -- which resulted in an ugly 13-7 loss to the Tigers -- was the last straw.

So, when the Cubs called Thursday to accept the Sammy Sosa trade, there was a surprising answer from the Yankees. Instead of agreeing to the deal, the Yankees told the Cubs they couldn't find The Boss. We'll call you later.

Sammy Sosa
Sammy Sosa's big bat remains in Chicago -- for now.

When the Yankees got back to the Cubs, it was to say they had decided to trade for David Justice and were no longer interested in Sosa. As the Cubs hung up, stunned and feeling betrayed, the lesson was clear: it was a victory for the baseball people over the television entertainment people in the Yankees' front office, that the value of Sosa isn't as great as the value of pitching.

"And we're not talking about trading for good starting pitching," says one NL GM. "We're talking about third, fourth and fifth starters or the hope that a two or a three becomes available the last week in July."

In other words, the Yankees would rather protect themselves in the event that a Denny Neagle becomes available -- they don't even think about Mike Mussina or Curt Schilling going onto the market -- rather than trade a couple of prospects and a couple of bodies for a guy who hit 129 home runs in 1998 and 1999. But other than Andy Pettitte, the Yankees starting pitching is so strung out that, forgetting even what Sosa's $18 million-a-year extension would have done to the Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada negotiations, they have to hold their cards for pitching help.

For weeks, George Steinbrenner wanted Sosa, for power in the lineup and power at the negotiating table over a new television contract with MSG. His baseball trust, in whom he relies on when he gets out on the Pettitte Memorial Ledge, kept telling him he should hold his cards. The Yankees wanted to do a deal for B.J. Surhoff, but the Orioles kept clinging to unrealistic demands of Alfonso Soriano and Jackson Melian. So when Cleveland's assistant general manager Mark Shapiro mentioned to Yankees GM Brian Cashman Monday that they'd like to move Justice's contract, Cashman called John Hart within 24 hours and 48 hours later the deal was done.

The Cubs were never aware that the Yankees had parallel ports, and had been led to believe that if they got to a package of either Soriano or D'Angelo Jimenez, Melian, Westbrook and Ricky Ledee that it would get done and Sosa would be out of their hair. The Cubs have been criticized for being too deliberate, blowing the deal and now faced with having to keep a player who doesn't want to be there with a management that doesn't want him. It's more complicated than that because the pursuit of pitching complicates everything. Just ask the Braves. They've been looking for a starter and a reliever themselves.

The search for Doyle Alexander
Arizona has been interested in Sosa, with a package that would have included reliever Matt Mantei, right fielder Travis Lee and two prospects. But when owner Jerry Colangelo met with his staff and asked if Sosa would make them win the World Series, Buck Showalter said, "The teams that are going to be there are the teams with the starting pitching." In other words, they'd love Sosa, but they need a starter to go with Randy Johnson and Brian Anderson.

Of course, there is no Johnson out there, no Cone of '93 of '95; there may not even be an '88 Mike Boddicker, a '96 Jamie Moyer or a '99 Kenny Rogers.

Francisco Cordova, Andy Ashby, Darren Dreifort and Steve Trachsel are all names that have been bandied about; not one of them, however, is a .500 pitcher. "We liked Cordova in the past," says one AL GM, "but he's down three or four miles per hour and we worry he could be hurt." Trachsel has pitched well at times this season, including a 1-0 victory over Pedro Martinez, but one NL manager says, "Our fear is that he succeeds when there are no expectations. When he faces Pedro, he has nothing to lose because no one expects him to win."

Scott Erickson, Hideo Nomo, Kevin Tapani (who has a no-trade clause), Ismael Valdes and Pat Hentgen have all been very good pitchers, but they were a combined 23-34 going into the weekend. You want one of them, or Jon Garland?

If the Reds, Giants or Angels were to drop out of their races in the next month, Neagle, Kirk Rueter or Kent Bottenfield could be available. But if you define an impact pitcher as someone who could start one of the first two games of a playoff series -- and thus could start twice in a series -- is there anyone in that group that you'd want out there in that situation? Maybe Neagle or Pete Harnisch, if the Reds continue to disappoint.

"We've been talking, but it's hard when there are so many teams in on each pitcher," says Braves GM John Schuerholz. "It makes it very hard." Just because the Yankees, Blue Jays, Red Sox, Indians, A's, Angels, Mets, Braves, Phillies, Expos, Cardinals, Reds, Rockies, Dodgers, Giants and Diamondbacks are all sifting through the aforementioned leftovers? "I told (pitching coach) Mark Connor, 'If we're looking for pitching and we're leading the National League in pitching," says Showalter, "what about these other guys?"

The White Sox and Cardinals are shopping for relief pitchers, but one team not in the shopping mix is Seattle. Pat Gillick and Lou Piniella wouldn't mind another reliever, but they at least have a deep staff and know they can't trade for anyone. "Pat's horded Brett Tomko while teams have been calling on him," says one GM. "But he knows what wins."

Perhaps the single biggest addition to any one of the contenders comes in the next few days when Freddy Garcia rejoins the M's after a rehab stint. Garcia is 23 and won 17 games last season -- more than any of those aforementioned pitchers. In his last start before Friday night, Garcia threw 22 of 27 first-pitch strikes with one walk and nine strikeouts. "He should be fresh for the stretch, and that could be important," says Gillick, who adds that his tag-team bullpen is improving.

Oh, yes. Think about this in September. For their primary rival, the A's, the M's could have Arthur Rhodes, Rob Ramsay and John Halama in the bullpen as lefties to face an Oakland lineup that leads the majors in OPS against righties and is last against lefties.

The Indians traded Justice to give them flexibility and some room to sign Manny Ramirez, if they so desire. Hart will analyze the team for two weeks as Charles Nagy, Paul Shuey, Sean DePaula and Ramirez come off the DL, and if they are close enough to make a run at the wild card -- and they went into the weekend four games out -- he will use the cash for pitching. If they fall back, he can market Ramirez and build for 2001. They can use Ricky Ledee in center occasionally -- heightening speculation they will try to get the Mets interested in Kenny Lofton -- and see how they retool.

Let's see ... if they eliminate Ramirez and Justice, can they afford Alex Rodriguez? "This is still about this year, not next," says Hart, who realized this season was going down the drain if he didn't start creating flexibility. It's hard to know what this team is right now, because they've used 26 pitchers (actually 28, because Scott Sanders and Jared Camp worked in a game that was rained out), had four different pitchers designated for assignment at the same time and six times have brought in a pitcher and sent him walking after one appearance.

We are at a time and place in baseball where teams are passing on a man that hit 129 homers in two years and could probably kick Al Gore or George Bush at the ballot, because they're desperately searching for the next Doyle Alexander or Rick Sutcliffe ... or at least the next Bryce Florie.

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