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Don't expect Yankee dropoff

Special to

Oct. 20

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.

Tino Martinez
Tino Martinez hit 34 HRs in 2001, but will the Yankees attempt to re-sign him?

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

  • Colorado trades Mike Hampton to Texas for Pudge Rodriguez. OK, OK, Hampton doesn't want to leave Colorado and never wanted to play in the American League, but maybe can bat the days he pitches. The Rangers have a serious Pudge contract problem, and his stats would be unbelievable in Coors Lite. When Pudge's name was brought, one GM said, "If I were to bet, I'd say Pudge ends up in Baltimore." Now that it's no longer all about Cal, the Orioles can begin thinking about trying to win once again. If I were running the Orioles, I'd be hard after Dmitri Young to get a character person -- and pretty good hitter -- in the middle of their order.

  • The Dodgers send Gary Sheffield to the Mets for Jay Payton, Glendon Rusch and Armando Benitez. The Mets need power, Benitez and Rusch need new homes, the Dodgers need pitching depth and payroll relief and the Mets are hesitant right now to get into any long-term first base obligation because of Mike Piazza's future. Then the Mets could turn around and deal Alex Escobar for Troy Percival.

  • Oakland trades 3B Eric Hinske and RHP Luis Vizcaino to Montreal for OF Brad Wilkerson, LHP Graeme Lloyd and RHP Scott Strickland. Hinske, who hit .282 with 25 HR in Triple-A, gives the Expos a minimum-salaried, left-handed hitting third baseman with immense potential, while Wilkerson can take Johnny Damon's spot as the A's shore out their bullpen.

  • Florida trades Charles Johnson to Toronto for Shannon Stewart. The Jays offered Stewart to Cleveland for Einar Diaz at the deadline and were turned down, and Johnson might accept Toronto in lieu of hitting the free-agent market in this economy. Florida could then trade either Stewart or Clifford Floyd for young talent.

  • San Diego deals Phil Nevin to Atlanta for SS Wilson Betemit and LHP Odalis Perez. The Braves desperately need help for Chipper Jones, especially with Javy Lopez a free agent, and Nevin is one of the best right-handed hitters in the business. Betemit is a future star who could allow D'Angelo Jimenez to play second, but the Braves want to keep winning as long as Greg Maddux, Tim Glavine and John Smoltz are what they are. There's a lot of Jason Giambi talk in Atlanta, however.

  • Mike Sweeney and Roberto Hernandez to Minnesota, with the Royals receiving Joe Mays, David Ortiz, Brad Thomas and LaTroy Hawkins. That would give Minnesota the cleanup RBI hitter and a closer, the Royals get as close to a No. 1 starter as they could find and improve their depth. Now the Twins just have to be willing to take the $14 million in payroll. Puh-leaze ... ? Probably not. They're at $28.7 million already, and even if they get a bump in their abysmal season-ticket base, $40 million may be too much.

  • John Rocker to Boston for Paxton Crawford and Brad Baker. Rocker and Carl Everett ...

    Just some ideas to think about.

    A tough hole to fill
    One of the most interesting free agents next month will be Chuck Knoblauch. He was once one of the best leadoff hitters in the game, once reaching base at a .440 clip for the Twins, yet has fallen to the .350 range the last couple of years. Could he come back? The Yankee people don't know, feeling that he never looks comfortable. Is that New York? "I don't know," says Torre. "But you do see what our team is like when he's getting on base the way he has the first two games of the (Mariners) series."

    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:

  • Knoblauch, LF
  • Johnny Damon, LF-CF
  • Roger Cedeno, LF. "He has tools and is a rotisserie guy with numbers," says one baseball executive. "But he has no intincts, either on the bases or in the field. He's a guy who'll steal a lot for a second-division team, a Jose Offerman who can't hit like Offerman."
  • Kenny Lofton, CF
  • Eric Young, 2B

    "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 (minimum 350 PA; source, Elias Sports Bureau)

                      GS PA   AB  H  HR SB   BA  OBP  SLG
    Catalanotto, Tex. 77 368 332 112  7 15 .337 .398 .485
    Ichiro, Sea.     152 730 685 240  7 56 .350 .382 .454
    Biggio, Hou.     109 510 441 129 16  6 .293 .378 .472
    Pierre, Col.     136 651 591 191  2 41 .323 .373 .404
    Stewart, Tor.    101 465 429 136  8 16 .317 .370 .478
    *Henderson, S.D.  98 443 362  83  7 23 .229 .366 .351
    Eckstein, Ana.   108 509 445 128  3 18 .288 .357 .360
    Vina, St.L       150 687 630 191  9 17 .303 .356 .419
    Castillo, Fla.   131 607 532 141  2 33 .265 .347 .344
    *Cedeno, Det.    126 568 520 153  6 54 .294 .338 .398
    *Knoblauch, NY-A 125 580 504 124  9 35 .246 .336 .347
    *Young, ChiN     145 667 598 167  6 31 .279 .334 .393
    Durham, ChiA     125 579 511 134 16 20 .262 .333 .464
    *Damon, Oak.     152 718 643 165  9 27 .257 .324 .364
    Offerman, Bos.    82 387 345  86  3  4 .249 .322 .322
    Benard, S.F.      75 345 318  86  9  9 .270 .322 .415
    *Lofton, Cle.    121 557 501 131 12 15 .261 .321 .389
    Tyner, T.B.       82 383 359 101  0 30 .281 .315 .331
    Anderson, Bal.    92 416 357  70  7 10 .196 .307 .300
    Womack, Ari.      73 349 323  82  2 16 .254 .297 .341
    Glanville, Phi.   91 433 409 108 10 18 .264 .288 .391
    *free agent

    On the economic and front office front
    Making it into the postseason is important to most of the eight teams. When looking at season-ticket increased from 2000 to 2001, only the Yankees (+10.5%), Mariners (+2.6%) and A's (+50.1%, but that's to a 2001 total of 7066, fourth-lowest total in either league) had increases from last year. The Diamondbacks (-23.9%), Braves (15.1%), Indians (-1.4%), Astros (18.1%) and Cardinals (-0.9%) all had decreases. Incidentally, Montreal had 1966 season tickets, Florida 5800, Minnesota 5564.

    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.

    Sound bites
    Four great discs to help get you through the World Series:

  • John Hiatt, "The Tiki Bar is Open." Best stuff since "Perfectly Good Guitar," and that's a lot considering his genius.

  • Flynn, "On Your Way." To stardom.

  • The Five Blind Boys of Alabama, "Spirit of the Century." Charlie Musselwhite, John Hammond, David Lindley ... and a version of "The Last Time" as well as great Ben Harper and Tom Waits tunes.

  • Buddy and Julie Miller. Emmy Lou Harris meets the Troggs. "That's Just How She Cries" is one of those songs like Flynn's "Million Miles" and Hiatt's "Old Friend" that reminds you why they have replay buttons on your Discman.

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