Yanks need starters, not coach


When Nardi Contreras arrived as the Yankees' new pitching coach the other day, he did not bring any 20-game winners with him. He has none hidden in his equipment bag or stashed in his locker.

In fact, the coaches' room at Yankee Stadium is so small it doesn't even have room for equipment bags. Lockers it has -- seven of them -- but they aren't big enough to hide a 20-game winner either.

The coaches' room has a small shower stall, but no established starting pitcher was sighted ducking behind the plastic curtain last night.

Andy Pettitte was the Yankees' starting pitcher against the Chicago White Sox, marking the 20th time in 72 games a rookie has started for New York. Throw in Sterling Hitchcock, who's in his second year in the major leagues but first in the starting rotation, and the Yankees have had 34 of their 72 games started by inexperienced, unestablished youngsters.

"We have the arms here," Contreras said, discussing the rotation that's supposed to hurl the Yankees to a division championship. "As long as we have some quality people, they'll win. They're out there every fifth day. They have the stuff. They can win."

Well, what else is the new pitching coach supposed to say, especially if he doesn't want to become a former pitching coach fast?

George Steinbrenner usually makes the changes in pitching coaches, but this change, according to a member of the Yankees' family, was the idea of the manager, Buck Showalter, who was not enamored of Billy Connors.

But no pitching coach can construct a pennant-winning pitching staff when he's given a band of rookies for bricks. Hitchcock began the season as the No. 5 starter in a five-man rotation, but Pettitte and Mariano Rivera (with Brian Boehringer thrown into the mix briefly) have been rushed from the minors because of injuries to Jimmy Key, Scott Kamieniecki and Melido Perez.

For the first time in his baseball life, Steinbrenner has balked at spending money and prospects for established pitchers. David Cone has not reached Yankee Stadium; nor has Bret Saberhagen or Kevin Tapani or Doug Drabek or Jeff Fassero or Ken Hill.

One may still arrive, but the Yankees may need two mercenary pitchers to catapult them to the top the way they have played.

Jack McDowell is the team's lone veteran starter who has not missed a start. He is scheduled to pitch tonight against Jim Abbott, who replaced McDowell in the White Sox rotation after the Yankees discarded him.

As the link to the two rotations that were so effective last year and have failed so miserably this season, McDowell was asked for his assessment of both situations. The White Sox pitching staff had the American League's lowest earned run average, 3.96, the only one under 4.00, last season. This year the White tTC Sox' ERA 5.32, exceeded only by Minnesota's 5.84. The Yankees have plunged from 4.34, fourth last year, to 5.09, 11th this year.

"It depends on how people step up and perform," McDowell said, discussing the Yankees' youth movement. "You can't have everyone having their normal years and win a pennant. You have your leaders do what they usually do, but everybody else has to step up and do more."

Rookies, of course, don't have a track record to exceed, so no one knows what to expect from them. If expectations are too high, they most likely will fall short much more often than not.

Speaking of expectations, McDowell said, "The expectations were for Jimmy to be Jimmy and me to be me. With Jimmy out, I can't go out and win any more games than I would have."

In the White Sox clubhouse, the question was whether McDowell's departure from the staff with which he won the Cy Young Award only two seasons ago was the underlying cause behind its dismal performance.

One theory has it that the team's young but good pitchers have been unable to overcome the loss of their leader, unable to deal with the increased responsibility.

"Who knows?" said Terry Bevington, Chicago's second manager this season. "I can't speak for each pitcher. If I'm a pitcher with the team and I was 15-5 last year and Jack McDowell leaves, why shouldn't I be 15-5 again? I can't be a 30-game winner making up for Jack. I'm not saying that didn't happen, but I don't know."

Jason Bere, at 24, is the Chicago's youngest starter. After compiling a 12-2 record with a 3.81 ERA last season, he has struggled at 4-8 and 5.87.

"It may have subconsciously happened," he said of the McDowell-absence theory. "But there's no need to step up a notch just because Jack isn't here. You're just moving up a spot in the rotation. I don't think Jack's not being here is an excuse for the way I've been pitching."

Bere suggested that McDowell's walk has had less to do with the pitchers' poor performance than their walks. Last year the staff had the second fewest walks in the league; this season it has the most.

"The walks have been the biggest things," Bere said. "The walks and the big hit right after the walks. Last year it seemed when I gave up the walks, I didn't give up the big double right after. This year I'm getting bitten."

Two pitching staffs, two different problems. The future doesn't appear bright for either.

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