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Sport Sections
Friday, December 1
Offensive questions remain for pitching-rich Yanks

With the Yankees' powerful, almost relentless courtship of Mike Mussina now complete -- a triumph that will pay the pitcher $88.5 million over six years -- it's clear the Bombers have chosen pitching as the weapon of choice for the new millennium.

Indeed, there's no mistaking this ballot: Roger Clemens' 98-mph heat, Orlando Hernandez' leg-kick-to-the-heavens windup and now, Mussina's knuckle-curveball.

Question is: are the Yankees jeopardizing their dynasty by continuing to let the offense decline?

Mike Mussina
Mike Mussina is the first big free agent the Yankees have signed from another team since bringing in David Wells from Baltimore in 1997.
Club officials admit that Mussina's signing will end any further reconstruction efforts for the 2001 team, and that the offense that sputtered for most of last summer will be asked to fuel the engines one more time.

But it won't be easy, since the Yankee production numbers have been shrinking for three straight seasons. Since 1998, the Bombers' slugging percentage has shrunk from .460 to .453 to .450, and their run differential has decreased from 965-656 to 900-731 to 871-814.

Suddenly, it becomes important whether 38-year-old Paul O'Neill still has his bat speed. Suddenly, it matters that David Justice -- who hit 41 homers with 118 RBI -- turns 35 in April and might never duplicate those numbers again. Scott Brosius has dropped 70 points from 1998, when he was the World Series MVP. Only 33, Brosius nevertheless looks so old and worn out, the Yankees are said to be interested in Cuban defector Andy Morales to play third.

Jose Canseco, who found 11th-hour life in his bat after being liberated from the Devil Rays, is no longer a Yankee, and Glenallen Hill, who hit 10 home runs in August alone, will spend most of his time on the bench.

More? Tino Martinez's average has dropped three straight years, all the way to a run-of-the mill .258, while he dipped below 20 home runs and 100 RBI for the first time in his five years in the Bronx.

So, it's not unreasonable to ask the pitching-rich Yankees: who'll drive in the runs? It's true Derek Jeter is still improving, even though his home run and RBI totals dropped off noticeably from 1999. And if Bernie Williams doesn't have Manny Ramirez-like ability to drive in runs, his 30 homers and 121 RBI in 2000 were both career-bests. And Williams did bat .368 in situations described as "close and late" -- not to mention an extraordinary .692 (9-for-13) with the bases loaded.

Still, the Yankees can't survive much longer on this patchwork offense. A club official conceded, "we're trying to get one more year" out of this nucleus before an overhaul to the batting order. Obviously, George Steinbrenner thought it was wiser to pluck Mussina away from the Orioles than negotiate with Ramirez.

That may or may not have something to do with the Boss' personal dislike for O's owner Peter Angelos. There are few greater pleasures in Steinbrenner's life than besting Angelos, whom he has never forgiven for having a nicer ballpark and a higher average attendance totals than the Yankees.

A formidable four
The top four starters in the Yankees' rotation for the 2001 season and their statistics since 1995:
Pitcher W-L ERA
Clemens 88-49 3.34
Mussina 95-60 3.70
Pettitte 100-55 3.99
Hernandez* 41-26 4.00
* First year in the majors came in 1998
Steinbrenner loves beating the Mets, but stealing Angelos' best pitcher gives the Boss a unique, personal thrill. And make no mistake, losing Mussina means the Orioles have no shot of closing the gap on the Yankees -- if they ever did. But now they're beyond hope, struggling for ways to keep Albert Belle focused and Cal Ripken healthy.

Obviously, the O's downward spiral and lack of stability weighed heavily on Mussina. There have been three managers in five years at Camden Yards, not to mention eight pitching coaches in eight years. So who could blame him for running straight into Steinbrenner's loving embrace?

But Mussina still hasn't faced the reality of being merely a No. 4 pitcher in the Bronx, instead of a staff ace. Nor will Mussina enjoy the comfort of Camden Yards, where he posted a 2.90 ERA last season, the second-best home ERA in the American League after Pedro Martinez' 1.84. On the road, Mussina's ERA soared to 4.93.

And while we're asking, did it trouble the Yankees that Mussina slipped under .500 last year for the first time since 1991? Granted, he had the worst run support in the league. But does it worry anyone in the Bombers' hierarchy that Mussina will be approaching his 38th birthday at the end of this contract?

Probably not. If there's any ironclad equation in baseball, it's that the Yankees live for today, and that no one who'll toast Mussina's arrival on Thursday will be around in 2006. That includes Joe Torre and GM Brian Cashman. Maybe even Mussina will be history, too, especially once baseball's economy roars past a $14 million a year salary for a pitcher.

What is certain is that the Yankees have a fine rotation for 2001, and they can now afford to give David Cone a chance to win the No. 5 job -- cheaply, at no more than $500,000 guaranteed. Mussina is durable, he's won many more games than he's lost, and has terrific stuff. In short, he's a clear upgrade over Denny Neagle.

But what Mussina can't do is answer the question that promises to smother the Yankees, starting now: who'll drive in the runs?

Bob Klapisch of the Bergen (N.J.) Record covers baseball for

Mussina, Yankees agree on six-year, $88.5M deal