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Sheff prepared for Boss to lean on him

NEW YORK -- Gary Sheffield already is bracing for it.

The first time he goes into a slump, he knows, New York Yankees
owner George Steinbrenner will criticize him in the newspapers and
on the airwaves.

"That's part of it. He already told me that's going to
happen," Sheffield said Wednesday after finalizing his $39
million, three-year contract with the Yankees.

"I don't think he can say anything bad to me that I haven't
said to myself," Sheffield said.

Sheffield's deal, which includes $13.5 million in deferred money and a
$13 million team option for 2007, took weeks to complete after the
outfielder and Steinbrenner agreed to the basics. In the end,
Sheffield dropped his demand to eliminate the deferred money.

He'll be the Yankees' new right fielder. That position was
manned by several players last season for New York.

Sheffield, 35, hit .330 for the Atlanta Braves last season, with
39 homers and a career-high 132 RBI. The seven-time All-Star broke
into the majors in 1988 with the Milwaukee Brewers, and he also has
played for the Padres, Marlins and Dodgers.

Yankees manager Joe Torre thinks that Boston's acquisitions of
starter Curt Schilling and closer Keith Foulke have made the AL
East a tossup. The Yankees have won the division for six straight
seasons.

"They certainly have caught up, at the least, because of the
pitching moves," Torre said.

The signing of Sheffield was another step in the Yankees' offseason overhaul that might see Bernie Williams shifting to designated hitter.

With the Yankees' recent addition of free-agent center fielder Kenny Lofton, Sheffield, and Hideki Matsui already in left, that means there could be no room in the outfield for Williams, a regular in center since 1993 but slowing down at age 35.

"He's aware that he has a possibility of being our DH," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said Tuesday. "Bernie is a professional. If that's the way it goes, he looks forward to the challenge of competing with anybody we choose to bring in -- if we choose to bring them in. He's a consummate team player."

Williams is a four-time Gold Glove in the outfield, but his arm has weakened considerably in recent years. His range decreased once he returned from surgery on his left knee in May.

When the Yankees open the season in March, many of their starters will be older than 30, a group that includes catcher Jorge Posada (32), first baseman Jason Giambi (33), third baseman Aaron Boone (31), and Lofton (36) and Sheffield (35) in the outfield. Shortstop Derek Jeter and Matsui turn 30 in June, leaving Alfonso Soriano (who will be 26) as the only regular under 30.

New York did make a move for youth Tuesday when it completed its trade with Montreal for Javier Vazquez, a 27-year-old right-hander. Vazquez was 13-12 with a 3.24 ERA and 241 strikeouts in 230 2/3 innings last season.

First baseman Nick Johnson, who returned from vacation in Europe and passed his physical to finalize the Dec. 4 deal, goes to Montreal along with Rivera and left-hander Randy Choate.

New York's projected starting rotation now includes Mike Mussina, Kevin Brown, Vazquez and Jose Contreras. David Wells, who is close to agreement on a minor league contract, and Jon Lieber, recovering from elbow surgery, are expected to compete for the fifth spot.