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Friday, November 29
Acquiring Colon remains Yankees' top priority

By Bob Klapisch
Special to

With rumors of their pursuit of Bartolo Colon gusting like winds of war, the Yankees are indeed looking for a younger, harder-throwing ace for 2003. No one disputes that. Question is, will the Bombers be able to pry Colon away from the cash-poor Expos -- and if so, does that mean Roger Clemens' career in the Bronx is officially over?

The Yankees have waited for nearly a month to begin a formal dialogue with Clemens representatives. So far, neither side has attempted to bridge an obvious gap, which is the salary Clemens thinks he deserves as he inches towards his 300th career victory.

Bartolo Colon
Bartolo Colon was a combined 20-8 with a 2.93 ERA for the Expos and Indians last season.

Yankees officials repeat the respectful company line, insisting they want the Rocket to return and win No. 300 in Pinstripes. But privately, they say he'll have to accept a massive pay cut -- all the way under the $10 million a year mark -- to pique the team's interest.

Not surprisingly, Clemens' agents, Randy and Alan Hendricks, are looking elsewhere, trying to drum up market-interest. The Yankees are preparing to move on, too.

They've been in contact with Expos' GM Omar Minaya, asking just what it would take to acquire the 29-year-old Colon. The Bombers rightfully assume that with Colon just a year away from free agency, and with the Expos having virtually no chance of re-signing him after the 2003 season, Minaya would be anxious to make a deal, sooner than later.

The answer is -- yes and no. The Expos, whose finances are controlled by the commissioner's office, are waiting to learn just what their payroll will be in 2003. It's unlikely they'll get much more than last year's $45 million figure, if not a pay cut of their own. In that case trading Colon won't be a luxury, it could be an economic necessity.

The right-hander, who became only the second pitcher in history to win at least 10 games in both leagues in the same season in 2002, is scheduled to earn $8.25 million in 2003. The Yankees would be happy to assume that salary, and in exchange, send the Expos the first baseman (Nick Johnson) and left fielder (Juan Rivera) they need.

The Yankees' appetite for Colon is so real, it's believed they've discussed adding Orlando Hernandez into the deal as well. The right-hander is expected to be dealt before Opening Day, anyway, and his inclusion signifies the Yankees' intention to be the highest bidder for Colon.

So far, Minaya says, "nothing is imminent" and says he's heard from several teams who are interested in Colon. Talks are likely to heat up in the next few weeks and could occupy center-stage at the upcoming winter meetings in Nashville.

The Yankees figure to be especially busy. They are, after all, looking to reload after a stunning first-round loss to the Angels in the AL Division Series, and have yet to make a single roster move.

Call him a workhorse
Bartolo Colon's season-by-season stats over the last five years:
Year Team IP W-L ERA
1998 Cle. 204 14-9 3.71
1999 Cle. 205 18-5 3.95
2000 Cle. 188 15-8 3.88
2001 Cle. 222.1 14-12 4.09
2002 Cle./Mon. 233.1 20-8 2.93

Although it's widely assumed Japanese slugger Hideki Matsui will be in the starting outfield next year, the Yankees still haven't finalized a contract with him. Matsui, who was initially representing himself in discussions with the Yankees, has since hired a lawyer. Although the club remains optimistic about winning any bidding war for Matsui -- which is why Rivera, a once-coveted prospect is now being made available to the Expos -- the process has slowed.

Similarly, the Yankees are taking time to assess their options at third base, where Drew Henson is no longer mentioned as next year's starter. As of last week, he was batting .211 in the Arizona Fall League and led his team, the Maryvale Saguaros, with 11 errors.

As a result, the Yankees are considering giving Robin Ventura a one-year deal -- a prospect which he could find attractive. Agent John Boggs told the New York Post, "hopefully something will happen in the next couple of days. I am optimistic because decisions have to be made."

As a backup, the Yankees have contacted the Royals about Joe Randa, who after batting .282 with 11 homers and 80 RB last year, is reasonably affordable at $4.5 million for 2003. Conversely, the Yankees have decided not to pursue free agent Edgardo Alfonzo, who's been searching the market for a four-year deal for considerably more than the $17 million David Bell agreed to with the Phillies.

But just the other day, agent Peter Greenberg said Alfonzo would be willing to consider a two-year deal, which could possibly re-kindle the Yankees' interest.

Ultimately, however, the Yankees won't even begin to make peripheral roster decisions until they've answered questions about their pitching staff. The club's hierarchy just spent two full days in Tampa, summoned by owner George Steinbrenner and virtually cut off from the rest of the world, as the meetings were consumed by a single, burning issue.

Just who'll be the ace in 2003, Clemens or Colon?

Not even Steinbrenner has the answer -- yet. But he's proceeded with uncharacteristic patience since early October, which is to say, don't blink. The Yankees' offseason engine is about to turn over.

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

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