Big Unit could be big drain on Yankees' farm system


DETROIT -- Orioles fans should root for George Steinbrenner to trade for Randy Johnson, because it would cost the New York Yankees at least two quality prospects.

They should root for Steinbrenner to sign Johnson long-term, because it could reduce the money available for the Yankees to re-sign free agent Bernie Williams.

And they should root for Steinbrenner to get his man, because such a dramatic move could upset the Yankees' special chemistry and cost them a chance to win the World Series for the second time in three years.

Go ahead, George, pull the trigger!

The Yankees have won 74 of their first 101 games. They already have six quality starting pitchers. And Steinbrenner, their tough-talking, big-spending owner, is running scared.

For the Yankees, the only thing worse than trading for Johnson would be signing him long-term. But if you're looking for an owner to panic by the midnight trading deadline, Steinbrenner is as good a candidate as any.

Steinbrenner is the opposite of the Chicago White Sox's Jerry Reinsdorf, who traded Roberto Hernandez and Wilson Alvarez at last year's deadline and would love to dump Frank Thomas or Robin Ventura this season.

Reinsdorf is the kid who rushes to the store after a birthday party to exchange his gifts for credit. Steinbrenner is the kid who buys every toy in the store to make sure no one else gets to play.

With some justification, The Boss fears that the Cleveland Indians could upset the Yankees in a short series if they added Johnson to a rotation that already includes Bartolo Colon and Jaret Wright.

But he's not seeing the forest for one 6-foot-10 tree.

Powerball! The Boss wants to play Powerball!

Here would be his grand prize:

A pitcher who has been in a funk all season. Joyless in Seattle, Johnson is 9-10 with a 4.48 ERA -- a significant falloff for a pitcher who entered the season with a .646 lifetime winning percentage.

A pitcher who has won only one of five career postseason starts. Sure, Johnson was heroic in the Mariners' 1995 playoff run, but twice he got outpitched by Mike Mussina in last year's Division Series, giving up two homers to Geronimo Berroa and another to Jeff Reboulet.

A pitcher who might be too high-strung to succeed in New York. Johnson hasn't spoken to the Seattle media all season. Try pulling that on the New York tabloids. And if things start going poorly, try hiding from the most demanding fans on Earth.

Those reasons alone should be enough to sour Steinbrenner on a Johnson blockbuster, but nooooo The Boss reportedly wants to sign Johnson, too, the better to justify trading young players like right-hander Ramiro Mendoza and third baseman Mike Lowell.

Johnson turns 35 in September. He has a history of back trouble. He isn't worth the risk of, say, a three-year, $27 million extension, but what the heck? It's only Steinbrenner's money.

Indeed, the league's entire balance of power could shift if the signing of Johnson prevented the Yankees from keeping the enormously talented Williams, a switch-hitting center fielder who has yet to turn 30.

Williams is entering his prime, and Johnson could be starting to decline. Take the left-hander's 4-3 loss to Cleveland on Tuesday night. It was typical of his disappointing 1998 season.

First, Johnson allowed a three-run homer to Manny Ramirez to break a scoreless tie in the sixth inning. Then, he allowed a solo shot to No. 9 hitter David Bell in the eighth, and it proved the deciding run.

Clearly, Johnson's concentration is lacking. And with so many questions surrounding his mental toughness and physical condition, no one knows if he'll ever be dominant again.

Just for argument's sake, let's say that the Indians acquired Johnson today. And let's say that Steinbrenner's other nightmare came true, and the Yankees drew Cleveland in the five-game Division Series.


David Cone, David Wells and Andy Pettitte would give the Yankees a formidable rotation. Hideki Irabu would be a viable alternate. Orlando Hernandez could be the right-handed setup man for Mariano Rivera.

You'd still take that group over the Indians' Wright, Colon and Johnson, newly acquired setup man Steve Reed and closer Mike Jackson.

Wright was a rookie revelation in the 1997 postseason, going 1-0 with a 2.92 ERA in two World Series starts, 3-0 with a 4.72 ERA overall (his one poor start was in Game 4 of the ALCS against the Orioles).

But is he Bob Gibson?

For that matter, is Colon or Johnson?

Colon, second to the Orioles' Scott Erickson in the American League with six complete games, would be making his first postseason appearance. Johnson lost to Davey Johnson's "B" lineup last October after finishing the regular season 20-4 with a 2.28 ERA.

The Yankees would attack those three the same way they attack every pitcher, fighting them each at-bat, running up their pitch counts, forcing them out of the game. The free-swinging Indians wouldn't be nearly as disciplined against Cone and Co.

The pressure on the Yankees to win would be enormous. Boston, with a playoff rotation led by Pedro Martinez, could be just as dangerous as Cleveland. But let's not forget, Steinbrenner's club has won nearly 75 percent of its games.

Ssshhh! Don't remind him.

The clock strikes at midnight.

Send your coach, George! Pick up the Big Unit!


Pub Date: 7/31/98

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