Yankees deserve big hand for getting a golden arm


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The easy thing would have been to stand pat. To bring back 24 of the 25 players from last season. To keep possibly the greatest team ever intact.

But think about it: How many successful entities, in any walk of life, remain static? And how could the New York Yankees have duplicated their 1998 magic with the same cast?

The Yankees' stunning acquisition of Roger Clemens for David Wells, Graeme Lloyd and Homer Bush yesterday will be interpreted by many as unnecessary and perhaps even dangerous tinkering.


The trade was brilliant.

The Yankees made it without losing a single prospect. They made it without extending Clemens' contract. And they made it without weakening their major-league club.

Quite the contrary.

The Yankees are better today than they were yesterday.

Better on paper. Better in the clubhouse. Better in almost every way.

Just like that, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman injected his team with a new hunger, a new energy and, oh yes, a five-time Cy Young Award winner.

Clemens is baseball's version of the old John Elway, an elite performer who has never won a championship. Now, he will help the Yankees try to become baseball's version of the Chicago Bulls.

Back-to-back titles and three in four seasons would make that comparison valid, and Clemens will fit right into the Yankees' ultra-professional, super-competitive clubhouse.

One of Davey Johnson's strengths as a manager is keeping his players on edge. Cashman is accomplishing the same thing from a GM's perspective -- with George Steinbrenner's approval, of course.

Change for the sake of change rarely works -- see the 1999 Bulls, the New Coke, Michael Jackson's face.

But to put this in terms Wells would understand, this is Van Halen dumping David Lee Roth for Sammy Hagar. A step up for the band.

Indeed, as successful as Joe Torre has been maintaining the Yankees' focus, this is a team that easily could have grown too comfortable this season, too distracted.

Perhaps that's why the Yankees chose to go to salary arbitration with All-Star shortstop Derek Jeter, even though they lost their case. And perhaps that is the hidden agenda behind this deal.

If a left-hander as valuable as Wells can be traded, no one is safe.

Wells was the Yankees' class clown, tolerated if not always embraced. Yankees tradition seemed to humble him. But did anyone seriously expect a repeat of last season, when he went 18-4 with a 3.49 ERA?

Indeed, Torre predicted Wednesday that Wells was bound to be disruptive this season, saying, "He will not disappear into the woodwork, he is going to be a story."

That's nothing new -- Wells is always a story. He supposedly is in better condition than he was at this time last spring. But would you trust him over a workaholic like Clemens? Of course not.

In a way, you've got to feel sorry for Boomer, who was crushed by the deal. He's finally a good boy in school -- at least by his Cro-Magnon standards -- and he still gets sent to the principal's office.

We underestimated Wells once before, when the Orioles replaced him with Jimmy Key. Indeed, Wells probably is as underrated a competitor as Clemens is overrated. Remember the Rocket bailing out of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series? His meltdown in Oakland in the '90 playoffs? Or even his early exit on a hot day at SkyDome in '97, leading to a memorable Orioles comeback?

Clemens won't get away with such stunts in New York, not with the media lurking and David Cone, Paul O'Neill and Co. enforcing the Yankees' commitment to team. Just as they elevated Wells, they'll elevate Clemens -- if such a thing is even possible.

Clemens is coming off back-to-back Cy Young seasons, seasons in which he led the American League in wins, strikeouts and ERA for a non-contender. He is a five-time 20-game winner. Wells has won more than 16 only once.

True, Andy Pettitte is now the Yankees' only left-handed starter, and Mike Stanton their only left-handed reliever. So? The Orioles don't even have a lefty starter. And the Yankees can always find someone to replace Lloyd.

A more legitimate concern might be the age at the front end of the Yankees' rotation -- Clemens and Cone are both 36, and together they've pitched more than 5,600 regular-season innings.

But Wells also turns 36 in May, and the Yankees still boast four quality starters behind their two aces -- Pettitte, Orlando Hernandez, Hideki Irabu and if necessary, Ramiro Mendoza.

The trade of third-base prospect Mike Lowell to Florida replenished the farm system with three young pitchers. Cashman can turn to Ryan Bradley in the event of injury, or trade for a veteran.

The bigger question, at least from the Orioles' perspective, might be the impact of this trade on the Blue Jays, a team that finished nine games ahead of them last season.

That gap should diminish, if not disappear, as long as the Orioles don't stage another collapse, and the Blue Jays don't trade a starting pitcher -- perhaps even Wells -- for a front-line hitter.

The Jays lost their best power hitter, Jose Canseco. Their closer, Robert Person, is unproven. And they're going with Joey Cora and Homer Bush at second, and Tom Evans and WilliE GrEEnE -- E's intentional -- at third.

Did we mention their manager, Tim "War Games" Johnson?

The Jays couldn't pry outfielder Ricky Ledee or infielder Alfonso Soriano from the Yankees, but at least they've eliminated their biggest distraction. Clemens wanted to play for a World Series contender, and now he'll get his chance.

Damn Yankees.

Brilliant trade.

Pub Date: 2/19/99

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