2006-03-31 / Sports

Can Pitching Give World Series Success To Yankees?

By Steve Russolillo

Year in and year out the expectations never change for the Yankees. Win a World Series or the season is a bust. 2006 isn't any different as New York will boast a $200 million payroll for the second consecutive year.

Age and injuries have created many questions about the starting pitching. Staff ace Randy Johnson will take the mound for the Yankees on Opening Day, but which Johnson can New York expect? The one who had a 4.41 ERA at the All Star break last year? Or the one who posted an 8-2 record and a 3.11 ERA in the second half of the season.

The argument can be made that Johnson spent the first few months getting acclimated to New York and finished the season much more comfortable. But that doesn't explain Johnson's post season meltdown. Whatever the case may be, the 6-foot-10 lefty isn't getting any younger. He will turn 43 in September and one has to wonder how much he has left in the tank.

Johnson isn't the only old-timer in the Yankee rotation. 37-year-old Mike Mussina will enter his sixth season in the Big Apple. Prior to the 2004 season, Mussina had nine consecutive seasons where he pitched at least 200 innings. But in 2004 he recorded only 12 wins in 165 innings and finished last season with 13 wins in 180 innings. At this stage of his career, the Yankees should expect approximately 11-13 wins and a 4.50 ERA from their No. 2 starter.

The rest of the rotation gets significantly younger, but the questions and concerns don't go away. Will Carl Pavano get healthy enough to look like the Pavano that won 18 games for the 2004 Marlins? Can Jaret Wright pitch like he did for the 2004 Braves, or was he just the beneficiary of former Braves pitching guru Leo Mazzone's expertise? Are Chien-Ming Wang, Shawn Chacon and Aaron Small the real deal or one year wonders? If injuries hit the Yankees hard, who will step up for them this year? The bullpen looks like a much improved unit from a year ago. While the loss of set up man Tom Gordon to the Phillies will certainly hurt New York, general manager Brian Cashman did a great job of improving the bullpen.

Reliever Kyle Farnsworth is expected to be the main set up man to closer Mariano Rivera. Farnsworth features an explosive fastball and had a tremendous 2005 campaign with the Tigers and Braves. The addition of Farnsworth will result in fewer innings for reliever Tanyon Sturtze, which should increase his effectiveness.

Former Met Octavio Dotel signed with the Yankees and hopes to help them in the second half of the season. Dotel is recovering from Tommy John surgery and believes he will be ready to join the club sometime in June.

Cashman acquired lefties Mike Myers and Ron Villone to give the bullpen some much needed depth. Will the new-comers be able to gel and form an effective bullpen in front of the almighty Rivera, or will the Yankees miss Flash Gordon more than they think they will?

The signing of leadoff hitter Johnny Damon adds more firepower to the most feared lineup in baseball. Damon allows shortstop Derek Jeter to slide into the No. 2 hole, a spot he is most comfortable in. The rest of the lineup features one big name after another; Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, Hideki Matsui, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams and Robinson Cano.

The idea of facing the meat of the Yankees order makes every pitcher cringe. At the back end of the lineup, Posada and Williams' numbers may decline because of age, but they are still dangerous hitters at the seven and eight spots in the lineup. Cano has reportedly put on five pounds of muscle and will look to build off his successful rookie campaign.

There is no need to worry about the offensive firepower of the 2006 Yankees. They could join the 1999 Cleveland Indians as the only teams since 1950 to score 1,000 runs in a season. But the pitching staff, especially Johnson, will determine how successful this Yankee squad is. If the big lefty can return to his dominant form and post a 20 win season, he will take the pressure off the rest of the staff.

Aside from the Yankees, the rest of the AL East has certainly improved. On paper, the Red Sox have a dominant one-two punch with Josh Beckett joining Curt Schilling in the pitching rotation. Outfielder Coco Crisp was brought in to help offset the loss of Damon.

The Blue Jays the increased their payroll from $50 million to $80 million with the notable acquisitions of A.J. Burnett, Troy Glauss, Bengie Molina, Lyle Overbay and B.J. Ryan. These acquisitions hope to give the Blue Jays more creditability in their quest to reach the playoffs.

The Orioles signed Mazzone, which should provide a positive impact to the pitching staff. The Devil Rays are a young squad who always give the Yankees problems. New York recorded an 8-11 record against Tampa Bay last year and was embarrassed many times against one of the worst teams in baseball.

Even with the improvement within the division, the Yankees still control their own destiny. This club has World Series aspirations and rightfully so. As the 2005 White Sox, 2004 Red Sox and 2003 Marlins previously proved, pitching wins championships. If the pitching staff can stay relatively healthy, this team will play deep into October for the 12th consecutive season.

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