<
>

Matsui, Contreras not quite living up to hype

The Yankees will soon celebrate their first anniversary as the rulers of the "evil empire" -- a designation bestowed upon them by Red Sox president Larry Lucchino. The insult sought two targets: The first was George Steinbrenner's temper -- a bull's-eye, obviously -- and the second was the Yankees themselves for their tactics in signing free agent Jose Contreras.

The Sox were angry because they wanted Contreras, too. So badly, in fact, Boston's negotiating team occupied every available room in the Managua, Nicaragua hotel where Contreras was staying last December. When he nevertheless chose the Yankees, Lucchino unloaded on Steinbrenner, telling the New York Times, "the evil empire extends its tentacles even into Latin America."

Between Contreras and Hideki Matsui, Japan's best hitter, the Yankees would scoop up the most devastating world-wide punch money could buy -- which is exactly what Steinbrenner did. Evil or rich or both, the Boss cleaned out the shelves on his global shopping spree.

No wonder the Sox raged: the Yankees, flattened by the Angels in the AL Division Series, had just bought their way back to the World Series, right? With Contreras and Matsui, the Yankees were bigger, stronger, and more expensive than ever.

This was Steinbrenner's dream, made flesh. He now had the perfect roster -- at least in his fantasies.

The reality, however, has been quite different. Not only are the Yankees far from the American League powerhouse Steinbrenner envisioned, their two trophy-acquisitions have paid mixed dividends.

Contreras spent nearly two months on the disabled list with shoulder problems and has only recently shown flashes of his famed 95-mph fastball. GM Brian Cashman is the first to concede, "we haven't seen the real Jose Contreras yet."

And while Matsui has been, in Cashman's words "a run-producing machine" -- he leads the Bombers with 99 RBI -- he isn't quite the long-ball threat he was with the Yomiuri Giants. Still, the Yankees consider the $21 million they're spending on Matsui over the next three years as money well spent.

"His skills are in a slightly different form than we expected, but it's pretty obvious he's a championship-caliber player," Cashman said. Indeed, Matsui hit his 16th HR of the season in the Yankees' 15-5 win over the Tigers on Wednesday night, and in doing so, caught and passed Jason Giambi for the team's RBI lead.

That's no small plateau, considering Matsui isn't Barry Bonds -- or even Jorge Posada -- when it comes to hitting HRs. Still, he's utterly dangerous in the Yankees' most critical moments. Matsui is batting .327 with runners in scoring position, and bats even higher, .329, in situations considered "close and late."

Cashman also goes as far as to say Matsui is, "just about the best defensive left fielder in the American League." That combination of clutch hitting and grace in the outfield could very well earn Matsui the AL's Rookie of the Year Award -- although the Yankees have a clear-eyed view of the Japanese star's limits.

He's almost invisible on the base paths (just three stolen bases) and is prone to lengthy slumps (.233 in August). No one considers Matsui a franchise player, and Torre wisely gave up the idea of batting Matsui in the No. 5 spot months ago.

Considering his high over-achievement quotient, Matsui's greatest achievement may have been in the nearly-seamless transition to big league pitching. He was untrained for the sinking, two-seam fastball, a weapon rarely used in Japan -- one which theoretically could've ruined a pull hitter like Matsui, especially when delivered by a righty.

Compounding the challenge is that major league pitchers throw so much harder than what Matsui had been accustomed to in Japan.

"That's what I was most unprepared for," he said recently through an interpreter. "It's not just one or two pitchers here who have greater velocity. Everyone does. Even from the (relievers), I see better pitching than in Japan."

Matsui's orientation has been mirrored, in part, by Contreras'. He, too, came to this country unaware of the higher level of competition. Contreras' first lesson came in spring training, in the form of longer at-bats and unfavorable counts. Major league hitters, he learned, were far more disciplined at the plate -- or as Contreras himself admitted, "the pitches I used to get hitters out with (in Cuba), here, they wouldn't swing at."

For all the hype that'd showered over him, Contreras quickly lost his confidence when he realized his split-fingered fastball -- which Cuban hitters would often chase out of the strike zone -- was now ineffective.

By March, Contreras was in a state of medium-level panic, looking for another pitch to finesse hitters with. He phased out his 95-mph fastball, replacing it with a two-seamer which cost him 4-5 mph on the radar gun. Yankee officials, many of whom had never seen Contreras pitch before spring training, were mystified, wondering how their scouting reports could've been so wrong. Where was Contreras' heat?

His season hurtled toward oblivion on May 20, when the Red Sox scored five runs in just 1.1 innings. Contreras' ERA stood at an appalling 15.63, and, as he was on the verge of becoming altogether irrelevant to the Yankees, the right-hander was soon placed on the disabled list.

For the next two months, no one -- not even Contreras himself -- could understand why his shoulder hurt so much. Contreras was homesick, too, and especially missed his father, who has been seriously ill in Cuba. By mid-summer, the Yankees had completely turned away from Contreras, whose absence allowed Jeff Weaver to assume the rotation's No. 5 spot -- a position he has since gifted right back to Contreras.

Until August 24, it might've seemed like the Yankees wasted the $8 million they're paying Contreras this year. But after a full summer of rest -- and personal mentoring from Billy Connors, the Yankees' pitching mechanic -- Contreras shut out the Orioles for seven innings. More importantly, he topped out at 95-mph, prompting Cashman to proclaim, "we saw a glimmer of his real greatness."

Of course, Contreras is still trying to justify the Yankees' faith in him. Even though his record stands at a respectable 5-2 and his ERA has been slimmed to a manageable 4.40, manager Joe Torre admitted it'd be a "long shot" for Contreras to get a start in the Division Series. October is merciless towards the untested.

And that's exactly how the Yankees regard Contreras: talented, improving, but an enigma, nonetheless.

"At this point, I'd give him an incomplete," Cashman said, when asked to grade the pitcher's season. "We haven't seen Jose at his best. At least not yet."

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