Aside from nothaving any run-ins with TV cameramen, Randy Johnson otherwise appeared to be invintage form this spring. The ornery 42-year-old lefty snapped at one reporterstanding at his locker, telling him to back away because he was "gettingtoo close"; welcomed his team's latest high-priced free-agent pickup,centerfielder Johnny Damon, by grazing his left forearm with a fastball duringthe club's first batting practice session; and in exhibition games unleashed95-mph heaters and hard-breaking sliders that first baseman Jason Giambi saidwere "as good as I've ever seen." Proclaimed Johnson after an earlybullpen session, "I feel real comfortable."
Those may have beenthe most important words uttered by a Yankee all spring. It has been six yearssince New York won a World Series--aeons in Bronx time--and the drought won'tend this October without a dominant season from the five-time Cy Young winner.Johnson's inaugural year in New York was a rocky one, bookended by his publicfracas with a TV cameraman on Madison Avenue in January and his three-inning,five-run flameout in Game 3 of New York's Division Series loss to the Angels inOctober.
"I felt like Iwas walking on eggshells [at the start of last year]," says Johnson, whobefore the All-Star break had a 4.16 ERA and .268 batting average against--welloff his career numbers of 3.11 and .215 entering the season. "I didn't feellike I had a lot of breathing room. This spring I'm just going about mybusiness."
Says manager JoeTorre, "At the end of our year he understood that a lot of things go onhere, and a lot of stuff that in other cities gets thrown away doesn't getthrown away here. He seems to be more at ease."
Johnson returned toform in the second half, going 8--2 with a 3.31 ERA and cutting his hits pernine innings from 9.4 to 6.8. The transformation was helped by his watchingvideo of himself from past seasons and comparing his delivery on split screens."I've never had that long of a stretch with poor mechanics," saysJohnson, who answered questions about his durability by starting 34 games, morethan any other Yankees pitcher since 2001. "Last year when I struggled, Iwasn't successful in keeping my fastball down and in to righthanders. I watchedvideo and found mistakes: I was throwing at a lower arm angle. My breaking ballwasn't sharp. The location of my fastball was off. I had a flatslider."
Despite a payrollthat will surpass $200 million for the second straight season, the Yankees willneed yearlong excellence from their ace, because questions abound about therest of the rotation. Can 37-year-old righthander Mike Mussina still pitch atan elite level even though he hasn't fanned more than 142 or had an ERA below4.41 in two seasons, and he rarely reached the high 80s on the radar gun thisspring? Will righties Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright, who were a combined 9--11with a 5.28 ERA last year and could start the season on the disabled list, everlive up to the combined $61 million in free-agent contracts they signed beforelast season? Will two of last year's saviors, righthanders Shawn Chacon andChien-Ming Wang, continue to impress in their second seasons in the Bronx?
New York's starterswill likely have more run support than ever. Damon, 32, provides an immediateboost to the offense; while the Yankees ranked second in the league in runs andslugging percentage, their centerfielders were the 28th least productive in theleague, hitting only .243 with a .297 on-base percentage. Lefty-swinging secondbaseman Robinson Cano added five pounds of muscle over the winter and figuresto see his power numbers improve in his second season in Yankee Stadium."As dangerous as this lineup was last year," says Giambi, "there'sno question we're better this year."
But does that meanNew York will fulfill owner George Steinbrenner's spring training promise of aworld championship? Johnson knows that much of the answer lies with him."The games I came here to win are the postseason games," he says."I know that around here, the season pretty much starts inOctober."
Aaron Small (10--0)has the most wins among pitchers with undefeated career records for one team.Tom Filer, whose seven wins for the Blue Jays all came in 1985, rankssecond.
a modest proposal
Slice it any wayyou want, but Derek Jeter (right) is a better leadoff option than Johnny Damon.Jeter had a higher on-base percentage last year (.389 versus .366), was betterleading off innings (.409 OBP versus .365) and, despite Damon's reputation forgrinding out at bats, saw more pitches per plate appearance (3.82 versus 3.72).Jeter is as good a base stealer as Damon (they both have a 79% career successrate) and holds a healthy margin in career OBP (.386 versus .353). Andremember, Damon's numbers are bound to decline at least slightly because he'sleaving hitter-friendly Fenway Park.
projected roster with 2005 statistics
first in ALEast
11th season withNew York
JOHNNY DAMON [Newacquisition]
PVR 91 .
MIGUEL CAIRO [Newacquisition]
16911161.012.19 RH Tanyon Sturtze 263 5 3 1 1.32 4.73
New acquisition(R) Rookie B-T: Bats-throws WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player ValueRanking (explanation on page 59)
coming to a ballpark near you this summer ...
Blocked at hisposition in New York by Alex Rodriguez, natural third baseman Eric Duncan, theYankees' top hitting prospect, made a smooth transition to first base thisspring, which will give him a clearer path to the majors. A first-round pick in2003, the 21-year-old is a sweet-swinging lefty in the mold of his childhoodidol, Paul O'Neill. Duncan tore up the Arizona Fall League this winter, batting.362 with a .734 slugging percentage.
¬†SOUR TASTE Johnson was strong down the stretch--going 8-2 with a3.31 ERA--but flopped in the postseason
CHUCK SOLOMON (JETER)
MLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES (DUNCAN)