2003-01-18 / Sports

Yanks Just Keep On Spending And Spending

Baseball Columnist
By Bryan Hoch

Baseball Columnist

Will Jeff Weaver ever start for the Yankees this season?Will Jeff Weaver ever start for the Yankees this season?

How much is too much? The message is clear: if you’re the New York Yankees, you don’t have to worry about such trivial matters as payroll, roster spots and playing time.

Even with baseball’s luxury tax and revenue sharing agreement in place – measures taken intentionally to penalize a large-market spender like the Bronx Bombers – the Yankees have continued an orgy of acquisitions that began this summer with the generally unnecessary steals of Jeff Weaver and Raul Mondesi from the Tigers and Blue Jays, respectively.

The Yankees eventually found that they didn’t have a spot for Weaver, moving him to the bullpen against his strongest wishes for the pennant stretch drive.

2003 was supposed to be Weaver’s chance to shine in the New York spotlight, but after the George Steinbrenner-pressured signings of Roger Clemens and Cuban sensation Jose Contreras, it suddenly seems they don’t have any room for him now, either.

"I told him when we put him in the bullpen that he's one of the future guys on the ball club," manager Joe Torre said this week. "I think a great deal of Jeff Weaver. I think he'll be a big-time pitcher.''

And why shouldn’t he? Prior to his pickup in midseason, Weaver was one of the premier pitchers in the American League and the ace of the Tigers.

But with the Yankees, a team that has stockpiled starting pitching like a bomb shelter stocks up on K-rations (after Wednesday’s three-way trade that sent Orlando Hernandez to the Montreal Expos, they’ll enter camp with seven hurlers vying for five spots), Weaver might be no better than a middle reliever.

It’s elementary school division: seven simply cannot fit into five without leaving a remainder left over. But the difference is that no extra divisional number on a student’s worksheet has ever caused a disruption in the classroom, moaned to the media or demanded a trade. Torre’s equation almost certainly would.

"Sure, it's nice to say, 'You have eight starters. Start five of them and put three in the bullpen,'" Torre said before Wednesday’s trade. "But you're not dealing with playing cards in the basement here. You're dealing with people."

Who’s the odd man out? Certainly not Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina or David Wells, who are assured the first four starting spots based on their track records and contract status.

With El Duque’s departure, that leaves Weaver, the unproven Contreras and veteran Sterling Hitchcock to fight things out for the fifth spot in the Yankees’ Tampa spring training camp.

Of those three, the early bet is for Contreras to get a handle on the spot – the Yankees wouldn’t have brought him and his 95-mph fastball here to pitch mop-up relief or to pitch in Triple-A. But that certainly won’t please Weaver or Hitchcock.

There’s no one the Yankees can blame for this gluttonous mess except themselves. The analogy of Louie Anderson wildly consuming everything in sight at the Thanksgiving buffet table was used this summer, and again it rings true.

With the signings of Contreras and Japanese sensation Hideki "Godzilla" Matsui, New York’s payroll for 2003 is inching ever closer to $170 million, including $55 million in revenue sharing and luxury taxes.

In a normal organization, that would send up red flags – slice payroll, fly coach, fire the bathroom attendants and hot dog vendors, do something. Not in the Bronx.

"Every year we talk about cutting payroll, and every year it goes up," Torre says.

Even while their eight-into-five problem was firmly entrenched, the Yankees remained on the periphery in pursuit of Montreal ace Bartolo Colon, willing to take on the righthander’s salary if it meant he could be kept away from the rival Boston Red Sox.

After all, it worked with Contreras, prompting Red Sox bigwig Larry Lucchino to call the Yankees an "evil empire."

There’s truly no telling when the spending stops. Maybe it never does.

Bryan Hoch appears regularly in the Wave. He can be contacted at bryanhoch@yahoo.com.

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