FEBRUARY 15, 2004
Aside, Juggernaut Depends On Hurlers
By Steve Lombardi, NetShrine.com

Today, the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers have agreed to a deal that will send 2003 American League MVP Alex (A-Rod) Rodriguez to the Yankees (pending the approval of the baseball commissioner).

The reaction to this deal, in many circles, is that the addition of Rodriguez to the Yankee line-up (even at the cost of Alfonso Soriano, who is headed to Texas in the trade) would give the 2004 Yankees one of the best offensive attacks in the history of baseball.

Given that the Yankees had acquired slugger Gary Sheffield previously this off-season, this position is understandable.  In all likelihood, the Yankee line-up this season will include a string of all-star batters as follows:  Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, Bernie Williams, Hideki Matsui, and Jorge Posada.

With lumber bearers such as those, perhaps the 2004 Yankees line-up should be referred to as “The Deep Woods”?

But, what will such an offense mean to New York’s chances in the standings? 

There have been some mighty offensive line-ups in baseball of recent note.  At times, such an ensemble has meant a first place finish for the team (as in the case of the 1997 Seattle Mariners and 1999 Cleveland Indians).  Other times, teams with superior batting skill have fallen short (as in the case of the 1996 Colorado Rockies and 2003 Boston Red Sox).  Teams often cannot win on hitting alone.  A team needs to have pitching as well in order to succeed.

How do the 2004 New York Yankees appraise on the pitching front?

Currently, the Yankees starting rotation appears as follows:  Mike Mussina, Kevin Brown, Javier Vazquez, Jose Contreras and Jon Lieber.

There is little question around Mike Mussina.  Year in and year out, Mussina is good for 17 to 18 wins and 200+ inning pitched.  He is as sturdy as can be found in terms of big league pitchers.

Newly acquired Kevin Brown (from the Los Angles Dodgers) carries some question marks.  He will be 39 years old in 2004.  Since March of 2001, he has been on the disabled list five times.  His personality has often led to clashes with the media in the past.  This all said, he was among the ten best starting pitchers in the National League last year – and made 32 starts and pitched 211 innings.  If the Yankees handle Brown wisely, there is an excellent chance he can win 15 games for them in 2004.

Javier Vazquez, also acquired this off-season by New York, will be just 27 years old in 2004.  Last season, he was one of the top five starting pitchers in the National League (while pitching for the Montreal Expos).  There is little doubt that he can be a 15 game winner (or more) for the Yankees in 2004.

Jose Contreras, like the aforementioned Brown, is a questionable pitcher for 2004.  He is reported to be 31 years of age; but, many feel he is older than that.  At times in 2003, he pitched brilliantly for the Yankees.  Other times, he did not deal as well.  A Cuban refugee, Contreras may very well “flame out” as have some of his immigrant peers from Cuba (such as Orlando Hernandez, Rolando Arrojo, Ariel Prieto, and Rene Arocha).  Then again, he could be like Cuban migrant Livan Hernandez and be capable of providing 30 starts and 200 innings pitched.   Jose did win 7 games for the Yankees in 2003 (in 18 games).  Based on this alone, it would not be obscene to project that he could be good for 10 wins (or more) for the Yankees in 2004.

Jon Lieber has not pitched in the major leagues since 2002.  He is currently rehabbing from Tommy John surgery.  He will be 34 years old in the 2004 season.  In his last full season (2001) he was among the top twenty starting pitchers in the National League (while with the Chicago Cubs).  In an interview last week on ESPN Radio in New York (1050 AM), Lieber reported that he is on schedule to pitch full-time again in 2004.  He shared that he, in his estimation, was at least 95% of where he was before the surgery – and was throwing 50 pitches in a bullpen session, every three days, for a while now with no ill side effects whatsoever.  Given Lieber’s past performance, as well as the results of others who have come back from Tommy John surgery, it is reasonable to expect 10 (or more) wins from him in 2004 as a member of the Yankees rotation.

In summary, the Yankees starting rotation should be good for at least 65 to 75 wins this season.  As it may take 90 to 100 wins to finish first in the American League East in 2004, the remaining wins needed for New York to win will have to come from their bullpen.

Just as the Yankees have rebuilt their starting rotation for 2004 (with newcomers Brown, Vazquez and Lieber) they have retooled their relief corps as well.

Mariano Rivera will head the pen, as closer, just as he has done for the last seven years.  Also, lefthanders Gabe White and Felix Heredia (both acquired by the Yankees towards the end of last season) will return this season.  They will be joined by right-handers Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill (both acquired by the Yankees this winter).  The last spot in the 2004 Yankee bullpen is open at this time – with many candidates (such as Steve Karsay, Jorge DePaula and Scott Proctor) hoping to land the job.

Rivera is one of the best closers in the history of the game.  For the last three seasons, Paul Quantrill has been among the top ten right-handed relief pitchers in baseball and Felix Heredia has been among the top twenty left-handed relief pitchers in baseball.  Tom Gordon and Gabe White both do an average job, by most standards. 

In all probability, the 2004 Yankee bullpen should be good for at least 25 wins.

All totaled, the 2004 New York Yankees, by fair-minded expectations, including the factor of the addition of A-Rod, should win at least 90 to 100 games.  Will it be more than that?  Can the 2004 Yankees be a team that wins 110 or more games?  It is possible.  But, if it happens, it will be a result of the Yankees pitchers exceeding expectations (especially Contreras and Lieber)  – not the Yankee offense – and that is the scrawling on this scorecard.

Steve Lombardi is the Creator & Curator of NetShrine.com.  Scrawling On The Scorecard appears regularly during the baseball season and sporadically during the off-season.  Steve can be contacted at sots@netshrine.com

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