Yankees give up three players in deal

NEW YORK -- The New York Yankees made their first big move
of the offseason, bolstering their rotation by agreeing Thursday to
acquire Javier Vazquez from the Montreal Expos.

In exchange for the 27-year-old right-hander, New York sent
first baseman Nick Johnson, outfielder Juan Rivera and left-hander Randy Choate to Montreal. The deal is contingent on all the players passing physicals.

"It's tough to trade a pitcher like Javier Vazquez, but I think
we have a better opportunity with the situation going forward,"
Expos general manager Omar Minaya said at a news conference in

The Yankees issued a statement acknowledging the trade but said
they wouldn't make any additional comments until after the
physicals, citing major league rules.

"The Yankees are a winning team, and now I will see myself
getting involved in the rivalry of that team with Boston," Vazquez
told the radio station WPAB in his hometown of Ponce in Puerto
Rico. "The Yankees are a team that always wants to win, and what
every ballplayer wants is to win."

Vazquez fills one of the holes in the Yankees' starting
rotation. He went 13-12 with a 3.24 ERA for the Expos last season,
ranking third in the NL in strikeouts with 241 in 230 2/3 innings.

He's three years younger than Bartolo Colon, a free agent that
attracted the Yankees' interest.

"I think Vazquez is one of the better young pitchers in the
game," Minaya said. "When he goes out there, he gives you
everything. He's got one of the higher pitch counts in the game.
That means he wants to be out there."

Minaya had been talking with Yankees general manager Brian
Cashman for more than a month.

"Brian called me right after the season," Minaya said. "I
told him, 'I don't have to trade Javier Vazquez. If you are
interested, be aggressive.' And to his credit, he was aggressive."

New York's rotation, the backbone of its run to four World
Series titles and six AL pennants since 1995, is unsettled. Roger
Clemens retired, and Andy Pettitte and David Wells filed for free
agency. In addition, Wells had back surgery Tuesday.

The Yankees' rotation includes Mike Mussina, Jose Contreras,
Jeff Weaver and Jon Lieber, who hasn't pitched in the major leagues
since reconstructive elbow surgery in August 2002 but hopes to be
ready for the start of the season.

Johnson, 25, played first base for much of last season because
of Jason Giambi's knee injury after starting the season as the
regular designated hitter. While he's regarded as a top hitter -- he
batted .284 with 14 homers, 47 RBIs and a .422 on-base percentage --
he has been injury prone throughout his career.

Rivera, 25, hit .266 with seven homers and 26 RBI in 173
at-bats and has a strong throwing arm.

Choate, 28, pitched only 3 2/3 innings over five relief
appearances for the Yankees last season, compiling a 7.36 ERA. He
went 3-5 with one save and a 3.91 ERA in 54 games at Triple-A

Montreal, which is owned by the other 29 teams, is faced with
payroll limits. Vazquez, eligible for salary arbitration, probably
will get a raise from the $6 million he made last season after
losing his hearing. He is eligible for free agency after next

Johnson is eligible for salary arbitration for the first time
this winter; Rivera isn't yet eligible.

New York will have to find another backup first baseman to spell
Giambi, who had knee surgery after the season.

Meanwhile, the Yankees are pushing ahead on several fronts.

Gary Sheffield, who met Monday and Tuesday with Yankees owner
George Steinbrenner at the team's spring training complex in Tampa,
Fla., worked out Wednesday at the Yankees' minor league complex in
Florida and took a physical Thursday.

Sheffield, a free agent, is closing in on a three-year deal with
the Yankees worth about $39 million. About $15 million of the money
will be deferred, and the deal will include an option for 2007.

In other news Wednesday, left-handed reliever Felix Heredia agreed to a $3.8 million, two-year contract to stay with the Yankees. Heredia was 0-1 with a 1.20 ERA in 12 appearances with the Yankees, who claimed him off waivers from Cincinnati on Aug. 25.

Heredia had a $1.7 million player option for 2004, which he declined. His new deal calls for $1.8 million salaries in each of the next two seasons and gives the Yankees a $2.5 million option for 2006 with a $200,000 buyout.

New York also is trying to re-sign Gabe White, another left-handed reliever. Chris Hammond, signed last offseason as a left-handed setup man, may be traded.

The Yankees also are close to a $6 million, two-year agreement with right-hander Paul Quantrill, who played for the Dodgers last season. Backup catcher John Flaherty has agreed to a $775,000, one-year contract, but must pass a physical for the deal to be finalized.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.