TAMPA, Fla. -- The New York Yankees have been in camp for about a week now, and you can't look under a base without
turning up some new controversy. So, does this mean that the embattled defending world champions are in danger of self-destructing before the 1997 season even starts?
It might appear so, especially with big-money free-agent David Wells falling behind the club's spring training schedule and first baseman Cecil Fielder holding to a March 15 trade demand, but the Yankees are accustomed to such madness. Owner George Steinbrenner even encourages it.
"I don't like things too calm," Steinbrenner said. "I start worrying about it when it's too calm."
The 1996 World Series title run was born in controversy last spring, when manager Joe Torre dropped $20 million free agent Kenny Rogers from the starting rotation and replaced him with Dwight Gooden. The Yankees went on to win the American League East in spite of a seemingly terrible trade with the Milwaukee Brewers that brought two injured players to New York and appeared to jeopardize general manager Bob Watson's job.
Watson survived to deal again, yet he has not come under any fire for the acquisition of Wells, who broke his hand in a San Diego street fight in January and arrived in spring training with a case of gout. That's because the Wells deal was a byproduct of Steinbrenner's decision to hold off on a multi-year offer to Jimmy Key and to pull out all the stops to acquire veteran right-hander Roger Clemens.
By the time Clemens signed with the Toronto Blue Jays, Key had left for Baltimore and Wells was the best starting pitcher left in the free-agent market. He apparently charmed Steinbrenner in a face-to-face meeting and came away with a three-year, $13.5 million contract that could not be laid at Watson's feet.
The Fielder situation is nobody's fault -- except maybe Fielder's. The Yankees acquired him to beef up the batting order last season and gave him the opportunity to play for a contending ballclub. He thanked them by exercising his right to demand a trade after Torre chose to start Darryl Strawberry in the first game of the postseason.
The Yankees would love to trade him and save themselves at least part of his $7.2 million salary (depending on how much they would have to subsidize it to make a deal), but no one seems willing to assume a significant share of his contract. Fielder can declare himself a free agent if a trade is not consummated by March 15, but he seems unlikely to walk away from all that guaranteed money.
In fact, he arrived in camp Thursday and told everyone he wants to remain a Yankee, even though he has not yet withdrawn his trade demand, which lends credence to the club's contention that the whole thing has been a ploy to persuade the Yankees to extend his contract and guarantee him more playing time.
Regardless of his intentions, the club still needs his bat, especially with the depth of the starting rotation in doubt and the loss of World Series MVP John Wetteland to the Texas Rangers.
"Hopefully, things will get squared away with Cecil and Darryl," pitcher David Cone said. "Then we'll have some sources to make up for the loss of Wetteland and Key."
Steinbrenner, the man responsible for creating that pitching void, doesn't seem concerned one way or the other.
"I'd like everybody in baseball to think our pitching staff is in complete disarray," Steinbrenner said. "We have nothing. We'll just show up."
Pub Date: 2/24/97