Yanks a mystery this year
This year, the Yankees are just one of eight teams vying for the World Series championship.
If the season ended today, the Twins would open the postseason on the road against the Yankees in the first round. Since the Yankees lead the A's for the league's best record by four games in the loss column, I expect this matchup to materialize. Barring a collapse by the Boston Red Sox in the wild-card race, the Twins will have the worst record of the four AL playoff teams and therefore will face the team with the best record in the best-of-five American League Division Series.
Playing in Yankee Stadium in October is always a challenge, but if the Twins continue their current level of play -- 10 straight wins -- they have a good chance vs. the Yankees. The Yanks surely won't be taking anything for granted. Last year they hosted the wild-card Anaheim Angels in the ALDS, and you'll recall that the upstart Angels used the Yanks as a steppingstone to the world championship.
Exactly how good are the Yankees this year? At the start of the season, I thought this might be the best team the Yankees had built in their successful run from 1996 until now. Their key younger guys, like second baseman Alfonso Soriano and DH Nick Johnson, were a year older ... slugging first baseman Jason Giambi was a fixture, entering his second year in New York ... catcher Jorge Posada was poised for further improvement on his All-Star credentials ... and veteran stars like center fielder Bernie Williams and shortstop Derek Jeter were there, as usual, to solidify the lineup and the clubhouse.
True, they've now won six straight AL East titles (a first in their storied history). Still, I don't think the Yankees have the same swagger they've had in the recent past -- except perhaps in 2000, when they lost 15 of 18 heading into the playoffs.
The difference in 2000 is that they were the defending champions, unlike this year. And despite that late-season slump, they went on to win their fourth World Series in five years.
This year, the Yankees are just one of eight teams vying for the prize. This year, any playoff team has virtually an equal opportunity to win the World Series. Sure, give the Yankees a slight edge to advance to the Series because of their playoff experience and probable home-field advantage. But they're no longer the team.
I say this even though New York's starting pitchers look stronger than they looked last September, despite their age. By the time the Yankees played the Angels in the playoffs last year, their starters were worn down. But this year 41-year-old Roger Clemens, 40-year-old David Wells, 34-year-old Mike Mussina and Co. appear to be in better shape.
What's uncertain is the consistency of the Yankees' offense. By his standards, Giambi has struggled all season, except for the month of June, when he hit .373 (including a 1-for-41 slump in late August and early September). Williams and Jeter both missed significant time due to injuries earlier this year. Soriano hit a lull in the middle of season after batting .370 in April, although he's hot again now. He's even edged closer to the 40-40 club (36 HRs, 34 SBs) that he just missed last year, when he stalled on 39 homers for weeks before falling short.
Hideki Matsui has been a good addition, but I still see Bernie Williams as the key. As a switch-hitter batting in the middle of the lineup, his role is huge. He needs to be confident and assertive in the postseason. He has definitely shown that he's capable of producing on a postseason stage (including the 1996 ALCS MVP award).
Major Offseason Renovations for Yanks?
Many observers believe that if the Yankees fail to win the World Series this year, there will be drastic changes in New York's makeup next year. But I'm not so sure. It isn't as easy to revamp a team today. And with the exception of Vladimir Guerrero and Gary Sheffield, there won't be many impact free agents available this offseason. One free agent the Yanks need to sign is their own Andy Pettitte, who has been a mainstay in New York's rotation since 1995. There's been talk of Pettitte going to Texas (either the Houston Astros or Texas Rangers).
Re-signing the 31-year-old Pettitte is especially crucial given the seasonlong struggles of Jeff Weaver (6.03 ERA) and Jose Contreras' arm troubles (though he seems healthy now). Contreras pitched a gem Tuesday night to help the Yanks clinch the AL East: eight shutout innings, nine Ks, one walk vs. the White Sox.
As for manager Joe Torre, he might not return for the final year of his current contract -- but that might be his decision. By his own admission, Torre hasn't enjoyed this season as much as seasons past. The problems started with the controversy surrounding David Wells' book in spring training. Then, when the Yankees struggled in May, Steinbrenner hinted that Torre's job might be in jeopardy. It hasn't been a fun season for Torre, who has never missed the postseason and won four World Series as the Yankee skipper.
If the Yankees win, I see him coming back -- he won't necessarily want to go out in a blaze of glory. I believe Torre will manage as long as it's fun for him. And winning always helps to make the game fun.
No Shame For Royals, White Sox
Now that the Minnesota Twins have clinched the AL Central -- with a 4-1 win over the Cleveland Indians on Tuesday night -- some fans of the Kansas City Royals and Chicago White Sox are upset with their teams. But the truth is that the Twins deserve the credit for winning back-to-back division crowns much more than the Royals or White Sox deserve any blame.
The Twins have won 10 straight and are 17-3 in their past 20 games. They beat the White Sox five straight times after losing two to begin a four-game series in Chicago earlier this month. As I see it, Minnesota won the division -- the White Sox and Royals didn't lose it.
The big move for the Twins this season was acquiring outfielder Shannon Stewart from the Toronto Blue Jays in July. Stewart moved into the leadoff spot in the lineup. This allowed Jacque Jones, who batted leadoff until the Stewart trade, to move into an RBI spot (usually No. 5). That gave Minnesota's makeup a new dimension.
I criticized the Twins all season for letting DH/first baseman David Ortiz go. Last offseason, Ortiz signed a one-year contract with the Red Sox as a free agent -- and he's had a huge year with Boston (.284, 29 HRs, 98 RBI). But the Twins essentially made up for that mistake by trading for Stewart. So kudos to the Twins for making the move they had to make to defend their division crown.
Tough Calls for Manager of Year
While the surprising Royals couldn't quite get to the postseason, kudos are still due to manager Tony Pena. He did a phenomenal job in his first full season at the helm in Kansas City. Even though the Royals fell short, Pena is my AL manager of the year (no, I don't actually have a vote).
Pena is the manager who had the most influence on his team's success in 2003. But also give credit to Minnesota's Ron Gardenhire for guiding the Twins to a fantastic finish. And don't forget Joe Torre, with all he's overcome this year. You can make a case for each in his special circumstances, and each will get his share of votes.
The NL manager of the year is a tougher call.
Dusty Baker of the Chicago Cubs, Felipe Alou of the San Francisco Giants and Bobby Cox of the Atlanta Braves are all deserving. Each has done a masterful job -- Baker and Alou in a new environment -- and it's extremely difficult to separate them.
If the Cubs win the NL Central, that might give the edge to Baker (who led the Giants to the World Series last year). After all, the Cubs lost 95 games in '02! If anyone doubts how good a manager he is, he's proved them wrong (again) this year.
Chat Reminder: I'll answer your questions in an ESPN.com chat Friday at 10:45 a.m. ET.
An analyst for ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan won back-to-back World Series and MVP awards with the Reds in 1975 and '76.
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