A 10th straight division title could be tough

The Baltimore Sun

TAMPA, Fla. -- Maybe it's because they've had the highest payroll in major league baseball during most of the streak. Or maybe it's because the Atlanta Braves won five more titles. Or maybe because it's New York, and only World Series rings count, not divisional pennants.

But, if you haven't noticed, the New York Yankees have won nine consecutive divisional crowns, an American League record and second only behind the Braves' remarkable 14-season run.

And they've done it in the AL East, widely considered baseball's best division.

"It is impressive to win that much in any division. In high school, it's tough to win nine in a row," Yankees shortstop and captain Derek Jeter said. "Our goal every year is to win. We take it in steps, and the first step is to win the division."

Here's some perspective, albeit a bit Big Apples to oranges considering divisional alignments have changed. Still, Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengel made it to 10 World Series in his 12 seasons managing the Yankees from 1949 to 1960 and won seven of them. But his clubs never won more than five consecutive league titles.

No Yankees team had won more than five division titles in a row before Joe Torre's boys began their run in 1998. This year, however, might be their most difficult challenge in a decade.

"It seems like the American League East is getting better and better. You saw it this offseason," Yankees catcher Jorge Posada said. "It's just a matter of playing good ball when it counts. The pitching and Joe Torre and the defense deserve a lot of credit."

Despite offseason speculation, Torre is back for his 12th season in pinstripes. And the defense, led by second baseman Robinson Cano, Jeter and center fielder Johnny Damon, is, at the least, adequate.

Where the real uncertainty enters - and where the fate of a 10th straight East title likely hangs - is with the pitching staff, and specifically the starting rotation.

"That's a major, major concern," one AL general manager said. "They have some serious issues there right now."

Chien-Ming Wang (19-6, 3.63 ERA) was the club's best starter last year, but a hamstring injury will keep him out of the rotation for the season's first month. And even when healthy there are whispers as to whether he can have a repeat performance with such a high hit total (233 in 218 innings) and such low strikeout numbers (76).

Mike Mussina (15-7, 3.51 ERA) continues to be solid, but is 38 and hasn't pitched more than 200 innings since 2003. Randy Johnson, who had a 5.00 ERA but won 17 games, was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks and replaced by left-hander Andy Pettitte, who was bothered by back spasms last month and likely will miss at least one turn in the rotation.

Japanese import Kei Igawa had a rough spring, leaving Carl Pavano, who has won just four games since signing a four-year, $39.95 million deal with the Yankees in the 2004 offseason, as the de facto Opening Day starter.

What could save them in 2007, however, is a lineup loaded with All-Stars, including Jeter, Cano, third baseman Alex Rodriguez, and outfielders Damon, Bobby Abreu and Hideki Matsui. They also have several promising pitching prospects, led by Philip Hughes. And there's always a possibility Roger Clemens could return to pinstripes this summer.

"Unless they do something dramatic, like sign Clemens, make a big trade, if Hughes comes up and is great from the beginning, whatever it is, they need something to happen or they won't go far [in the postseason]," another AL GM said.

Getting to the postseason seemingly has been automatic for the Yankees in the past decade, but staying there for an extended period has been problematic lately. The Yankees haven't made it to the World Series since 2003 and haven't won it since 2000.

"Right now, the biggest difference in why we haven't won versus the past is that we've had a superior roster and a superior team, but in a short series our starting pitching hasn't matched up well," general manager Brian Cashman said. "Detroit smothered us [in 2006] because their pitching was better. That's the bottom line."

But Cashman said the club's days of panicking and trading youth for quick fixes are over. That changed in 2005, when it became apparent to him and the club's legendary boss, George Steinbrenner, that they needed to supplement from within. In fact, this is the first offseason in recent memory that the names coming in (Pettitte, Igawa) were dwarfed by the names leaving the Bronx (Johnson, Gary Sheffield).

The current Yankees like that approach.

"We just needed to make a few adjustments here and there," designated hitter Jason Giambi said. "That's a nice thing that Cash has built here, where he doesn't have to move that many pieces of the puzzle to try and keep the team together."

So Giambi, for one, expects a 10th straight division title.

"I play for the Yankees; I have to pick us first," Giambi said. "I mean, the Boss might string me up if I didn't."


AL East previews

The Sun's Dan Connolly writes about the Orioles' American League East rivals:

Thursday: Devil Rays

Friday: Blue Jays

Yesterday: Red Sox

Today: Yankees

For previous articles, go to baltimoresun.com/sports/baseball

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