Abreu deal was Yanks' best in six years

NEW YORK -- It was late June in 2000 when Yankees general manager Brian Cashman decided his dynasty was in danger of collapse. After two consecutive world championships, the Bombers were barely above .500, having lost six of seven and looking nothing like the team that had blown through the 1998 and '99 World Series without losing a game.

This was still the pre-Jason Giambi, Alex Rodriguez, Hideki Matsui, Gary Sheffield era, and Cashman feared his in-house talent wouldn't be enough to take the Yankees to the postseason, let alone another Series. So he picked up the phone and promptly made the best trade of his professional life.

Cashman's acquisition of David Justice from the Indians delivered the Yankees to the Subway Series, where they beat the Mets in five games. A reborn Justice batted .305 after arriving in the Bronx, slugging 20 home runs in just 275 at-bats.

To this day, Justice is the billboard of best-case scenarios -- proof that one trade, one player, can redefine a season. Six years later, Cashman has picked the right horse again, getting Bobby Abreu in time for the Yankees' five-game sweep at Fenway last month and the subsequent sprint for the playoffs.

After watching Abreu go 10-for-20 against his team, Curt Schilling noted the difference between the Yankees and Sox was Abreu himself.

"I told my teammates, 'He's going to be the best player in baseball for the last eight weeks of the season,'" Schilling said.

All Abreu has done is bat .374 in pinstripes, including a four-RBI night in the Yankees' 12-5 thrashing of the Royals Monday. His .460 on-base percentage is fueled by a major league best 113 walks -- all of which come from Abreu's extraordinary discipline and patience in the batter's box.

He averages 4.47 pitches per plate appearance, tops in the majors. Combined with Giambi, who looks at 4.37 pitches per plate appearance (third in the AL), the Yankees are wearing out opposing pitchers at a relentless pace.

In taking four of six from the Tigers and Twins last week, the Yankees forced opposing starters to average 90 pitches in five innings. The driving force is Abreu, who in Giambi's words, "can break down a pitcher psychologically in how fast he can go from 0-2 to 3-2 in the count."

More often than not, Abreu will lengthen at-bats for the sheer pleasure of making a pitcher work.

"I like getting a good look because it helps me and my teammates," he said. "It helps me later in the game, too, because by then I've had a chance to see how the pitcher is throwing to me."

Of course, there's a narrow gulf between patience and passivity, and if there was any criticism in Philadelphia over Abreu's style of play, it's that he was too eager to walk and too reluctant to crash into the outfield walls chasing down a fly ball.

How would that laid-back demeanor look in comparison to the hyperactive Johnny Damon? That was no small curiosity. Before making the swap with the Phillies, Cashman quizzed Larry Bowa, the Yankees' third base coach and Abreu's former manager in Philadelphia, about the possibility of an unwelcome transition.

After all, Yankees fans had spent much of July and August booing Rodriguez until Joe Torre was finally forced to move A-Rod out of the No. 3 spot in the batting order. That would become Abreu's turf, but not until Cashman was assured that his new right fielder could absorb the win-or-else mandate that's like the Yankees' second skin.

Bowa, however, was sure Abreu would grow to love New York.

"I didn't think it would be an issue whether Bobby would fit in here," he said. "He's surrounded by a lot of great players. In Philly, he took a lot of responsibility on himself. If he didn't hit, he felt the team couldn't win."

Abreu was more or less right about the Phillies' plight: He never got to the postseason in eight years with the Phillies. He spoke of coming to the Yankees as a "dream come true; you get here and you realize why these guys win all the time. It's all they think about is winning. It's more exciting here. There's so much passion to win."

Whether Abreu can sustain his production is anyone's guess. The Phillies wondered out loud about the outfielder's declining home run production. More importantly, GM Pat Gillick was so desperate to unload the $20 million Abreu is owed through 2008, he didn't put up a fight when the Yankees demanded Cory Lidle be included in the deal.

In the short term, the Yankees had no problem allowing their payroll to swell over $200 million, especially if it meant finding another David Justice-like lottery ticket. Actually, there was no luck involved; the Yankees knew they had the Phillies backed into a corner, because they were the only team willing to absorb Abreu's salary.

Still, in Cashman's fiefdom, the ends justify the means, especially if it guarantees the Yankees their ninth straight division title.

Abreu says he's ready for the monthlong riot that descends upon the Bronx every October. If anyone can handle stress, it seems, it's Abreu, who is so unassuming and uncomplicated, he's become the anti-A-Rod.

With a smile, Abreu says, "That's me, I don't really say much. It's the way I am."

No wonder Derek Jeter calls Abreu, "the perfect fit" for the Yankees. No issues, no scandals, only base hits. Talk about old school.

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.