Wednesday: Blue Jays
Thursday: Red Sox
TAMPA, Fla. -- Most baseball seasons are decided in October, but the 1996 American League East race may be remembered differently. The real duel took place in December, when the Orioles and New York Yankees engaged in a test of wallets that put both clubs in position to dominate the division.
"It seemed to be two very competitive owners that wanted to beat each other very badly," said free agent acquisition David Cone, who benefited from the competition to the tune of $19.5 million over three years. "It's good in the sense that you know there will be no holds barred. If you need a player down the stretch, there's no question these owners will do what it takes."
The question used to be whether Steinbrenner would do too much, especially after he celebrated the club's first playoff appearance in 14 years by running off popular manager Buck Showalter and replacing GM Gene Michael. But that was before he accepted the unspoken challenge from Angelos and began spending frantically to keep pace with the Orioles.
"It was the Angelos/Steinbrenner poker game," said veteran third baseman Wade Boggs, "and it was fun to watch. I'm glad that we jumped into it instead of just letting Baltimore take everybody and running away with it."
Steinbrenner raised eyebrows with some of the dollar figures he was throwing around, but that's nothing new. He has been fueling baseball's salary spiral since the advent of widespread free agency. Perhaps his re-emergence as a force in the free-agent market was inevitable, but it appears that the aggressiveness of the Orioles pushed him back into hyperspend.
Now it's up to the Yankees to take the next step. Their volatile owner isn't likely to be satisfied with anything less than a berth in the American League Championship Series, and even that might not be enough to keep him from making more changes if the ending isn't right.
Everyone knows that. It comes with the pinstripes. And this year, there is more than enough talent -- at least on paper -- to get where The Boss wants to go. It's just a matter of bringing all of the new elements together to create that intangible concept known as good chemistry.
"Potentially, we're very good," Cone said, "but we still have some questions. If Jimmy Key and Dwight Gooden come back to anywhere close to what they've done in the past, we're going to be in good shape. And the best thing, we've got a group of guys who actually want to be here. I don't think that was the case in the past. I've seen a lot of high-profile players ducking this market."
Deep talented staff
Not this year. Cone always has been a New York kind of guy, but the Yankees also convinced starter Kenny Rogers -- perhaps the top left-hander on the market last winter -- to play in the Bronx. The result is a starting rotation that could be as many as seven pitchers deep.
But it might be awhile before that rotation is set because Rogers is expected to miss four to five days after he was hit in the back of his left shoulder blade during batting practice yesterday.
Cone is the ace of the staff. Rogers isn't far behind. Then there's Gooden, Key, 1995 rookie standout Andy Pettitte, veteran Melido Perez and Scott Kamieniecki. There are so many possibilities that the club can afford to be conservative with Key, who is coming back from a serious shoulder injury.
"This is the best pitching I've ever had," said new manager Joe Torre, whose has managed the New York Mets, the Atlanta Braves and most recently the St. Louis Cardinals. "This is terrific. Not only do we have Cone, Gooden and Rogers to help each other, we've got Andy Pettitte, who had a big year and nobody is even talking about him. I like that, because there won't be a lot of pressure on him. Normally, everybody would be asking a guy like that about the sophomore jinx."
Torre appeared to be coming into a tenuous situation when he replaced Showalter, but he instead has been handed a team that should be better than the one that reached the playoffs last year. The Angelos/Steinbrenner derby -- if that's what it was -- only assured that he would be well-prepared for his first managerial assignment in the American League.
"I only benefited by that," Torre said. "Signing David was very big for us. We needed a leader. Jimmy [Key] has been a leader, but with the surgery, we can't count on him coming out of the box. Signing Kenny Rogers also was very important. What that tells you is that the competition doesn't just start on April 1."
It wasn't limited to the respective pitching staffs. The Yankees, faced with the uncomfortable prospect of trying to replace team captain Don Mattingly, took advantage of the Seattle Mariners' difficult financial situation to wrest away first baseman Tino Martinez. The Orioles signed veteran B. J. Surhoff to play third base and then made the acquisition they felt would dramatically alter the balance of power in the American League East -- All-Star second baseman Roberto Alomar.
Stanley gets away
The Yankees held their own, but they may regret the decision to let power-hitting catcher Mike Stanley become a free agent and sign with the rival Red Sox. That was the one winter move that defied explanation.
Even though the 1995 club went further than any Yankees team since 1981, Steinbrenner demoted Michael and replaced him with former Houston Astros general manager Bob Watson. He didn't fire Showalter, but showed so little interest in retaining him that Showalter accepted a seven-year contract to manage the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks.
If that wasn't strange enough, Steinbrenner reportedly approached Showalter later to discuss the possibility of his coming back to replace Torre at midseason if the club needed a lift.
The competition is going to be stiff. The Orioles may be the most improved team in the division, but the Boston Red Sox are the defending AL East champions, even if they did benefit from a lot of unexpected good fortune. The Red Sox got 31 victories from two veteran pitchers (Erik Hanson and Tim Wakefield) who were signed as free-agent afterthoughts. If the Yankees can get just one unexpected 15-win performance from a rehabbing Jimmy Key or Melido Perez, they'll be difficult to stop.
"Those are the pleasant surprises you need to have to win," Torre said. "The other surprises you don't want."
New York Yankees
1995 record: 79-65 (second)
Manager: Joe Torre (first year)
New in camp: LHP Kenny Rogers, OF Tim Raines, 1B Tino Martinez, 2B Mariano Duncan, C Joe Girardi, RHP Jeff Nelson, C Mark Ronan, RHP Jim Mecir.
Key losses: 1B Don Mattingly, RHP Jack McDowell, C Mike Stanley, OF Darryl Strawberry, IF Russ Davis, LHP Sterling Hitchcock, LHP Rick Honeycutt, IF Randy Velarde, LHP Bob MacDonald.
What it will take to make the playoffs: What the horse handicappers might call "an even trip." The Yankees figure to be one of the four playoff teams if they get even production from the lineup and a representative performance from their talented pitching staff.
What could go wrong: There may be enough depth to weather some injuries, but the loss of one of the main men in the starting rotation would be very damaging. . . . Steinbrenner could go on a rampage and damage the clubhouse chemistry, but the Yankees can keep him quiet by performing up to expectations.
Projected finish: Second.
Dates with Orioles: April 30, May 1 at Baltimore; June 28-30 at New York; July 11-14 at Baltimore; Sept. 17-19 at New York.