Oft-injured starter must restore credibility

TAMPA, Fla. -- To say the Yankees' spring training controversy machine is already humming is putting it mildly: Just the other day, a member of the New York Knicks' PR staff text-messaged his Yankees counterpart and (kiddingly, we assume) asked if the Bombers would kindly give up the back page of the tabloids, even for one day.

From Joe Torre's contract to Bernie Williams' boycott of camp (and apparent retirement) to Mariano Rivera's vow to test free agency to Derek Jeter's refusal to have a Dr. Phil moment with Alex Rodriguez -- real Yankees, of course, don't do therapy -- the Bombers aren't just making news, they're giving off that slightly-out-of-control vibe that made them baseball's most irresistible freak show in the late '70s and early '80s.

Sure, most of these tempests will extinguish themselves. Rivera will get a new contract and have another terrific summer. Torre will guide the Yankees calmly and professionally, even without job security beyond 2007. Williams will enjoy a daylong love-in when he's honored at the Stadium this summer, forgetting how offended he was that he wasn't offered a guaranteed spot on the roster.

And despite the skeletal remains of their friendship, Jeter and A-Rod will nevertheless be integral parts of an offense that should score between 900 and 1,000 runs.

What the Yankees don't know, however, is how Carl Pavano will rebound from a series of mysterious injuries. And therein lies one of the most pressing questions of the coming wars with the Red Sox. Just which Pavano do the Yankees have in their midst: the one who's spent the better part of two seasons on the disabled list, or the one who used to crush right-handed hitters with his power, two-seam fastball?

Torre repeats the company line when he says "it's not fair" to assume Pavano is inevitably headed for another breakdown. Somehow, the manager thinks Pavano deserves the benefit of the doubt, even if his own teammates don't agree. Last week, Mike Mussina vocalized the suspicion that's been lurking since midsummer 2005, when Pavano disappeared onto the disabled list -- anyone who gets hurt that often is hiding something.

"The way each thing happened and the timing of each [injury] together, it didn't look good," Mussina said. "From a player's and teammate's standpoint, it didn't look good. Was it all coincidence, over and over again? I don't know."

It was a stunning implication, but it forced Pavano to acknowledge that he had a credibility problem in his own clubhouse. Until that point, the right-hander insisted such divisions were being created by the media. What Pavano needs, of course, is one long, prosperous summer, during which he can re-establish his reputation as a ground-ball specialist, not to mention a pitcher the Yankees can trust.

This much is certain: Torre needs Pavano, now more than ever. Unlike past years, when the Yankees were flush with starting pitching, they have only one real backup plan if Pavano succumbs to another injury or if Japanese lefty Kei Igawa can't make a fast transition to the big leagues.

Behind door No. 2 is rookie Phil Hughes, who might be the best Yankees prospect of the Steinbrenner era. He throws hard, features a nearly unhittable splitter as his out pitch and seems unusually composed for a 20-year-old. But the Yankees are guarding Hughes like an experimental race car still in the developer's lab. The kid, who only pitched at Double-A last year, is still too young and inexperienced to put to the test.

That's why the Yankees cling so fiercely to the hope that Pavano is ready. He spent the winter undergoing intense physical therapy at a sports rehab clinic in Arizona, where a hip dysfunction was discovered and corrected. The flaw apparently caused one of Pavano's legs to be a half-inch shorter than the other. Finally realigned, Pavano says he is ready to rejoin his teammates on an everyday basis.

Is he, though? Just three days into camp, Pavano had to be excused from PFPs (pitchers' fielding practice) because of heavy legs. Even though he participated in his regularly scheduled bullpen session the next day, the fact that Pavano experienced problems so quickly undermined the success of the winter's rehab.

Even though they continue to profess full confidence in the 31-year-old righty, some Yankees officials are hoping for a trade before Opening Day. One executive said, "We signed the wrong guy, plain and simple."

In the meantime, the front office is still investigating the traffic accident that Pavano was involved in last August, when he was on a rehab assignment in Tampa. The pitcher failed to disclose the crash to the Yankees, who later discovered Pavano suffered three cracked ribs upon impact. Even before the facts became known, the Yankees were concerned about Pavano's off-field behavior; he was so frequently seen at the Blue Martini, a popular Tampa club, the Yankees decreed it off limits.

Nevertheless, GM Brian Cashman insists Pavano is an honest ballplayer who's run into a long streak of bad luck with injuries.

"Every one of those injuries has been documented and backed up by our doctors," Cashman said. "The people who are questioning Carl, they're doing the same thing to him that people did to J.R. Richard, and it's wrong. No one believed anything was wrong with [Richard] until it was too late."

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