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Bullpen Roulette

In the city that never sleeps, it seems somehow fitting that the Yankees have no closer. They didn't re-sign free agents Lee Smith or Steve Fart after the season, and they pursued but didn't land Oriole free agent Gregg Olson. So New York will open the season with a closer-by-committee approach. "Part of me wants that," says manager Buck Showalter. "When you leave a carrot out there for three guys, it keeps them all sharp. Also, the guys we're looking at might be able to close two innings."

Showalter, 37, loves to try to outmanage his opponents, and he often does. Therefore it helps him to have a lot of interchangeable parts—and that's largely what this team is made of—so he can tinker with his lineup and his pitching staff. He's not a robo-manager who uses his closer as a crutch, always bringing him in with the bases empty in the ninth and his team in the lead. Instead, he's the rare strategist who will use his best reliever to get out of a seventh-inning jam.

Overall, New York has enough firepower, potentially the best rotation in the AL East and decent defense, so the Yankees will go as far as their bullpen takes them. Most of the pressure will fall on the three men with the carrot dangling in front of them: righthander Xavier Hernandez, 28, who was acquired in an off-season trade with the Astros; lefthander Steve Howe, 36, who until 1993 was more reliable on the Held than he was off it; and righthander Bob Wickman, 25, who until the middle of last season had spent his entire pro career as a starter.

A spectacular setup man the last two years in Houston, Hernandez had a 2.61 ERA and struck out 101 in 96⅖ innings in '93. But middle relief and closing are two different beasts, says Jeff Reardon, 38, who is second alltime in saves (365) and is trying to make the Yanks as a middle reliever. "Closing is a whole new ball game," says Reardon. "Other closers have had better stuff than me, but they didn't have as much up here [pointing to his head] and in here [guts]." Hernandez throws a sinking, running fastball, a slider and a split-fingered fastball, which is his best pitch. He seldom closed games in Houston because the Astros were paying Doug Jones $2 million to do that.

Relying on Hernandez would seem to be a safer proposition than counting on Howe, who hasn't been the same pitcher since he was suspended in June 1992 after pleading guilty to a charge of attempted possession of cocaine. He was 3-0 with six saves and a 2.45 ERA at the time. When Howe returned to the learn last year, he went 3-5 with a 4.97 ERA, struck out only 19 in 50⅖ innings and spent a month on the disabled list with an ankle injury. There's a real question as to how much he has left.

Wickman, on the other hand, has a lot to offer, and as of last weekend Showalter was leaning toward giving him first crack at the closer's job. Wickman has good stuff, and he's a winner (32-19 in the minor leagues, 20-5 in the majors). He won his first eight decisions last year, then lost three in a row and was sent to the bullpen. In relief, Wickman went 6-0 with four saves after the All-Star break. "Every time we see him," says Oriole pitching coach Dick Bosnian, "he throws great."

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JEFFREY BOAN/AP

Polonia returns to the Yanks with 250 career stolen bases.