|Friday, February 7
Updated: March 30, 9:43 AM ET
New York Yankees
By Kieran Darcy
ESPN The Magazine
2002 in review
Derek Jeter had another solid, though not spectacular, year at shortstop. David Wells, a question mark before the season, ended up leading the team with 19 wins. Andy Pettitte recovered from an early-season injury to go 13-5. Mike Stanton was 7-1 out of the bullpen, teaming with Steve Karsay to cover effectively for Mariano Rivera when he was injured.
What went wrong?
More was expected of young 1B/DH Nick Johnson, but he hit just .243. Mike Mussina and Roger Clemens won 18 and 13 games, respectively, but had ERAs over 4.00. Jeff Weaver pitched much worse than he did in Detroit, as a starter and out of the bullpen. And closer Rivera made three trips to the disabled list.
In retrospect, the critical decisions were:
2. Putting Soriano at the top of the lineup. Soriano had a promising rookie season, hitting .268 with 18 homers out of the 9-hole. Manager Joe Torre put a lot of faith in him by switching him to the first slot, and the experiment worked. Soriano was the Yankees' catalyst, raising his average to .300 and leading the AL in stolen bases. The only question is, how much longer will Torre keep him in that slot, considering Soriano's power numbers?
3. Signing Ventura. Scott Brosius retired, and hot prospect Drew Henson proved far from ready for the major leagues. So the Yanks swiped Ventura from their crosstown rivals, and he rebounded from an off-year with the Mets to make the All-Star team. In the first half, he hit .263 with a whopping 19 home runs and 62 RBI. Despite cooling off the rest of the way, Ventura was still a big pick-up.
Looking ahead to 2003
2. The state of the bullpen? Vets Mike Stanton (Mets) and Ramiro Mendoza (Red Sox) are gone, taking tons of postseason experience with them. Chris Hammond replaces Stanton -- he had an amazing comeback year with the Braves in 2002 (7-2, 0.95) after sitting out three seasons, but can he do it again in the AL? The Yanks also acquired Antonio Osuna in the El Duque trade. Osuna was 8-2 with the White Sox last year, but with a 3.86 ERA. And they signed Juan Acevedo (28 saves last season for the Tigers) to a minor-league deal. Karsay is coming off a bad back, and Rivera battled injuries all last year -- meaning the bullpen has a lot to prove.
3. How good will Godzilla be? Hideki Matsui hit .334 with 50 home runs in Japan last year. Don't expect numbers quite so high in the American League. But he should certainly be an improvement over White in left field.
Can expect to play better
Can expect to play worse
A closer look
Some changes could come quite soon. The Yanks continue to try to shed some of their overpriced players, such as Raul Mondesi, Rondell White and Sterling Hitchcock, but without success so far. Even if they do find any takers, owner George Steinbrenner will still likely be stuck paying a good portion of their salaries.
Younger Yankees, such as Nick Johnson and outfielder Juan Rivera, are better trade bait. But moving them would deplete the bench, which is already thin.
What holes might the Bronx Bombers try to fill? The bullpen is a likely candidate. If Chris Hammond proves ineffective, the only lefty alternative on the current roster (excluding Hitchcock) would be Randy Choate. They might also look for a hard thrower who can close, in case Rivera is besieged by injuries again.
The Yankees could also add another outfielder to the mix, especially if Mondesi and White continue to struggle. Matsui can play left or right, so the Yanks would likely look for a good all-around hitter at one of those two positions.
And who knows -- perhaps the Yanks might even go on the prowl for a blue-chip third baseman? Robin Ventura and Todd Zeile can probably fill the position adequately this season, but if the Yanks lose any more confidence in Drew Henson, maybe they'll look for a new prospect at the hot corner.
Consider this team a work in progress. Aren't they always?
Kieran Darcy covers baseball for ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com.