Yanks ready to catch gyroball

Originally Published: November 8, 2006
By Bob Klapisch | Special to ESPN.com

Maybe it's the urban legend of his bizarre pitch -- the "gyroball" -- that defies both logic and physics. Or maybe it's that he's young, or Japanese, or a hard thrower, which makes the Yankees remember why they once coveted Randy Johnson.

There are plenty of reasons why Daisuke Matsuzaka has become the centerpiece of the Bombers' offseason plans, but the focus on the right-hander is so great, he's put a potential courtship of Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte on a back burner.

"This is the guy we want," one Yankees official said on Tuesday, referring to Matsuzaka. "I'm not saying we have to get him, but we'd like to."

The baseball world will have its answer on Wednesday, when, by 5 p.m. ET, clubs have to submit their blind bids for the negotiating rights to Matsuzaka and the gyroball, which is said to rotate like a football and move like a slider in slow motion.

The Yankees are believed to be ready to go as high as $20 million for the mere right to speak to Matsuzaka about a contract. It's an enormous posting fee, even by the Yankees' standards, but they're being driven by an unsubstantiated belief that the Rangers will be the dark horses in the blind bidding.

Owner Tom Hicks, they hear, is apparently convinced he needs just one young arm to take control of the West, and further believes his working relationship with agent Scott Boras, who represents Matsuzaka, can divert the pitcher away from the Bronx straight to the heart of Texas.

That scenario would explain why the Yankees appear determined not to be outbid. "At the end of the day, they're the only ones who'll go [to $20 million]," said one insider.

And if the Yankees are successful? Then don't hold your breath waiting for Clemens or Pettitte despite the nostalgic ties to both pitchers. For one, Mike Mussina is on the verge of signing a two-year deal worth $22 million. That's one less spot for the former Yankees hurlers.

Furthermore, the Bombers aren't sure Clemens is necessarily married to the idea of wearing pinstripes again; they're just as convinced he's headed back to Fenway Park if he decides to leave the Astros.

As for Pettitte, who recently said he's considering retirement, a Yankees higher-up said, "we love the guy, but it's hard to take a run at a pitcher who isn't 100 percent convinced he wants to play anymore."

There are other factors that would complicate Pettitte's return. Despite a strong second half of the 2006 season, the long-term durability of Pettitte's elbow, which has twice undergone surgical procedures, is a concern for the Yankees. So are his personal feelings about New York.

The club was under the impression Pettitte was pressured by his family to leave New York after the 2003 season, leading to a three-year commitment with the Astros. Whether Pettitte would face resistance at home about another tour with the Yankees remains unclear.

That question would become moot if Matsuzaka signs with the Yankees and Randy Johnson's recent back surgery is a success. "Then we're looking at four starters [including Chien-Ming Wang and Mussina]," said the official, suggesting the fifth spot may ultimately belong to Jaret Wright. The Yankees have until Nov. 12 to pick up Wright's $7 million option for 2007 (or buy him out for $4 million).

That move may go down to the wire, although industry peers say the Yankees' offseason machinery is running more smoothly than in past years and that the chain of command has been streamlined.

Or, as a rival GM succinctly put it: "[Brian] Cashman is calling the shots now."

That has become evident since Cashman successfully steered George Steinbrenner away from his initial impulse to fire Joe Torre following the Bombers' collapse in the American League Division Series.

Such a reversal would've been unheard of 20 years ago -- maybe even as recently as 2002, when the Yankees were booted out of the playoffs in the first round by the Angels. But Cashman saved Torre's job by convincing Steinbrenner that no one else could manage the number of All-Stars (and the emotional baggage) better than the man who's done it since 1996.

Torre may or may not have full protection throughout the 2007 season, after which his contract expires. But it's clear Cashman is already thinking ahead, having fired bench coach Lee Mazzilli and promoted Don Mattingly to that very position.

The fact that Mazzilli was dismissed underscored Cashman's influence, considering he moved against Torre's closest friend on the coaching staff. In this case, not even Torre could have saved Mazzilli.

Cashman's next crossroads will be deciding where to trade Gary Sheffield -- the Cubs and Phillies are among the front-runners -- and how to make life easier for Alex Rodriguez next season.

A Rodriguez trade has been all but ruled out by the front office; Cashman would still listen to any offer, but has in the meantime told Rodriguez's representatives he should consider himself a Yankee for the remainder of his contract.

"My goal is to win a championship, and Alex is still the best third baseman to get us there," the GM said recently.

Another pitcher wouldn't hurt, either. Fingers tightly crossed, Cashman and the Yankees are entering a blind auction for a Japanese pitcher who's never thrown an inning in the major leagues.

It's unfamiliar territory, which is why the Yankees will ultimately resort to their genetic coding: When in doubt, write a bigger check.

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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