Inside the New York Yankees, where once lay only whimsy and excess (and, granted, championships), they're talking "money and flexibility," as in saving some and having some, which is going to take some getting used to.
In a who-are-you-and-what-have-you-done-with-the-Yankees kind of winter, general manager Brian Cashman has traded one of the game's great hitters (Gary Sheffield), been outbid for the next rage (Daisuke Matsuzaka, and by the Boston Red Sox, no less) and now is intent on dealing away the ferocious, perfect-for-The-Stadium left-hander they absolutely had to have for, like, a decade (Randy Johnson).
They're also talking "organizational depth," and meaning it. Sheffield brought three minor-league pitchers. Jaret Wright brought a 24-year-old right-hander. Johnson won't get them close to what they paid for him two winters ago – Javier Vazquez, Brad Halsey and Dioner Navarro, along with a $32 million contract extension – but, they privately admit, that's OK.
Johnson's ERA has risen by more than a run in each of the past two seasons, when he also dropped 20 innings per season. As he approached his 43rd birthday and his back tightened and his mood darkened, Johnson's strikeouts fell and his gopher balls multiplied. Worse, he made three postseason appearances for the Yankees and allowed 10 earnies in 13 innings, which won't get him one of those plaques in center field.
The man has had his day and he'll go to the Hall of Fame for it. He'll win some games again, more if he returns to the National League. But, anymore, he's symbolic of a bygone era in the Bronx, one in which George Steinbrenner got what he wanted, whether it made baseball sense or not, sometimes while dragging Cashman by the ear. Then Cashman made his play a year ago, relocating the organization's epicenter from Tampa to New York and pressing for some sanity.
Steinbrenner still speaks to Cashman daily about baseball, but no longer obsesses about, say, the color of the drapes in the foyer. He can still be counted on to predict World Series titles in the spring and to drop a fat toad reference now and again, and his post-game tramp from private box to Town Car remains one of the must-sees in sports. But, while not exactly harmless, these things carry less weight than they used to, and mostly serve to embolden his bodyguards at the expense of sportswriters.
One Yankees insider described Steinbrenner's organizational influence on Tuesday as "fading," as one would expect for a man going on 77. As a result, the Yankees are beginning to operate more like The Other 29, in spite of what another $200-million payroll and another luxury-tax hit might suggest.
So, in the months following a postseason in which they flamed out badly against the Detroit Tigers, the kind of humiliation that might otherwise have brought impetuous change, almost everyone kept their jobs, including, barely, the manager. They were outspent by the Chicago Cubs and Red Sox and, so far, are getting a run from even the Milwaukee Brewers and Kansas City Royals. They have the resources to go big when they want, of course, and there is speculation their plan to move Johnson suggests a broader plan of pursuing Barry Zito, but a six-year contract for a pitcher doesn't match Cashman's philosophy, even if the Mike Mussina deal ultimately worked out. Now they've looked past what Johnson was to what he is, have found an aging, expensive, injury-prone clubhouse drag who won 34 games in two seasons but never got the New York thing, and no one believes this is a reversible trend. They're determined to get what they can for Johnson and think they can get it fairly quickly, perhaps from the San Diego Padres or the Arizona Diamondbacks, maybe elsewhere, as word of his availability spreads. They'd prefer not to subsidize any of the $16 million left on Johnson's contract, which will further diminish their return, but, again, these are the new Yankees, for whom money and prospects count for something other than gluttony.
As of Tuesday morning, the Diamondbacks and Yankees weren't close to a trade. One Arizona official said a match "isn't likely." By Tuesday evening, the same official had changed the outlook to "a slight chance," a comment on the fluidity of negotiations. The Yankees' plan is to put Jason Giambi to stud at designated hitter, which means they're short a first baseman.
If they're not going to get a passable first baseman for Johnson, they'd like someone they could put in their rotation – along with Chien-Ming Wang, Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte and Kei Igawa – or their bullpen. The hot name is Scott Linebrink, the Padres' versatile right-hander who has made exactly 73 appearances in each of the past three seasons.
The Johnson acquisition would give the Padres a rotation of Jake Peavy, Chris Young, Greg Maddux, Clay Hensley and Johnson, assuming they don't also sign David Wells, which would give them enough 40-year-olds to fill a trainer's room.
Someone will bite on Johnson, who will have to waive his no-trade clause, which last time was purchased by the Yankees for $32 million. He still wins 17 games, whatever the ERA. He still draws a crowd, no matter the result.
Just, apparently, not for the Yankees anymore, whoever they are.
- George Steinbrenner