When the Yankees met to reassess and retrench after their historic playoff collapse against the Red Sox, some of the voices in the room at the team's Tampa complex warned against overreaction. The Yankees, after all, had won 101 games in 2004, and came within a couple of outs of sweeping Boston in the playoffs.
We'll have an excellent team in 2005, some of them agreed. There is no need to spend tens of millions of dollars and compromise the already weak farm system more than necessary. Let's tinker a little, nothing too drastic.
But it is clear that the more impetuous instincts of George Steinbrenner are in play. He is desperate for a championship, which has led the Yankees to agree to a deal for Randy Johnson and now could have them moving on to try to sign center fielder Carlos Beltran, heaping more salary upon an already incomprehensible payroll. The farm system will continue to dry up.
But in 2005, the Yankees would have a superteam, their best regular-season squad since 1998, when they won 114 games. Should the Yankees succeed in signing Beltran, this is what their Opening Day lineup would look like:
SS Derek Jeter: Has a career .315 batting average.
CF Carlos Beltran: Scored a career-best 121 runs in '04.
3B Alex Rodriguez: At the age of 29, has 381 career home runs.
RF Gary Sheffield: Led the Yanks with 121 RBI in '04.
LF Hideki Matsui: Was second on the team with 174 hits last season.
DH Bernie Williams: Had a .360 on-base percentage in '04.
1B Jason Giambi/Tino Martinez: Could be in a battle for playing time in spring training.
C Jorge Posada: Has hit 20 or more homers and driven in 80 or more runs for five straight seasons.
2B Tony Womack: Had a career-best .349 OBP in '04 for the Cardinals.
It may be that Giambi will face some sort of discipline from Major League Baseball, and if so, the Yankees might attempt to void his contract. But some executives believe it is much more likely that Giambi will open spring training with the team, under enormous scrutiny, perhaps left to fight for playing time against Martinez, the gritty Yankee he replaced after the 2001 season. It's very possible that Giambi, now a symbol of steroid use in baseball, will never come back and be the same player as he was while taking the juice.
But if the Yankees get merely a .250 average, 25 homers and 80 walks out of their first basemen, their offense will be awesome. They'll have power, with everyone from No. 1 to No. 8 in the lineup capable of 20 or more homers, and much more than that from Sheffield and A-Rod and Beltran. They'll have balance: Three right-handed hitters, three switch-hitters, three left-handed hitters. They'll have speed, with Jeter, Womack, Beltran and Rodriguez capable of stealing 25 bases apiece.
The defense will be better -- A-Rod in his second season at third base, the adept Martinez probably playing the bulk of the innings at first, Beltran an upgrade over Williams in center field. In meetings, some Yankees' scouts and executives preferred Miguel Cairo over Womack, but there was a broad consensus on one particular aspect of the debate: Womack is better than Cairo defensively, they agreed.
The Yankees will have depth. If Giambi is good enough to play, then Williams will float between outfield duty and time at DH, with Williams playing left and Matsui perhaps shifting to right to give Sheffield an occasional day at the DH. Ruben Sierra may re-sign, and he was a terrific part-time player in '04. Catcher John Flaherty is the best backup the Yankees have had since Posada took over the full-time job in 2000.
The Yankees' offense and bullpen masked the inconsistency of the rotation in 2004, and even if the Johnson deal is finalized with the commissioner's approval, there would still be questions about every starter. Johnson will be 41 years old and it's possible that he could break down. It's possible that Mike Mussina and Jaret Wright will have arm trouble again, that Carl Pavano will struggle in his adjustment to the American League, and that Kevin Brown will finally be exiled and traded before spring training.
But it is also very possible that Johnson will be great again in 2005 and give the Yankees a dominant, overpowering No. 1 starter. Opponents hit .197 against him in 2004, and in 245 2/3 innings, he had 290 strikeouts. The Yankees' team record for strikeouts is 248, set by Ron Guidry in 1978. In six of Johnson's last seven seasons, he has thrown no fewer than 244 innings.
Johnson would take the pressure off the bullpen, off the offense, off the other starters. Mussina would go into 2005 with a full complement of spring training, something he did not have in 2004 because of a death in his family, and he would not have the burden of being the No. 1 starter. If the Yankees keep Brown -- which seems unlikely -- then he would be the No. 5 starter; last year, they needed him to be a No. 1-type starter. The Yankees' rotation could be very strong.
Mike Stanton, acquired from the Mets, may or may not be as good as he was three years ago, but he has an advantage over Felix Heredia and Gabe White and all the other wannabes that tried and failed for the Yankees: Joe Torre, who trusts few pitchers, actually trusts him. He will give Stanton the ball, and that will take pressure off the other relievers.
And now Torre seems to trust Tanyon Sturtze, who pitched well down the stretch in '04. And then there are Mariano Rivera, Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill. The Yankees are going to have a deep bullpen (and rightly so, considering they will pay nearly $100 million for the pitching staff in '05). Combine the Yankees' offense with strong pitching and there will be one blowout after another, as there was in '98.
Regular-season dominance will guarantee nothing in October. A pre-playoff injury to Johnson or Rivera or Mussina might cripple the Yankees and extend their championship-less streak to five seasons next fall. The Red Sox, with Curt Schilling leading the way, could win again. But the Yankees could steamroll the American League throughout the summer.
The bill for the talent will be enormous, with the payroll perhaps climbing beyond $220 million for 2005. If the Yankees agree to a two-year, $32 million extension with Johnson, as expected, and sign Beltran for perhaps $16 million a year, then in 2006 and 2007, five players -- Rodriguez, Jeter, Giambi, Beltran and Johnson -- would be slated to earn $206 million (with some of the cost to the Yankees reduced by payment received from the Texas Rangers in the A-Rod deal).
Five players. Two seasons. More than $200 million.
The Yankees' payroll will be four times greater than about half the other teams in baseball, and the competitive imbalance will never seem more ridiculous. But this is the flawed financial system that remains in place and Steinbrenner is doing everything in his power to create the best team possible within that system, including the absorption of some $86 million in revenue sharing and luxury taxes for 2004 (a greater sum, incidentally, than the payrolls of 22 of the other 29 teams).
Steinbrenner could pocket tens of millions of dollars and add to his financial portfolio. Instead, he is trying to win another trophy, more rings, more bragging rights, and he is putting together a team that almost certainly will crush opponents. If they snag Johnson and Beltran, they can start printing the playoff tickets in the Bronx.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," is a New York Times best seller and can be ordered through HarperCollins.com.