Tuesday, July 6, 2004
Should he force his way out?
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
There are those things that are in the best, or purest, interests of baseball:
The Minnesota Twins winning the 2004 World Series.
Scott Rolen being recognized as the giant he is.
Randy Johnson remaining in Arizona and vowing to pitch the Diamondbacks into 2005 contention before being inducted as their first Hall of Famer.
Few know what conficts are swirling through Johnson's mind, although much has been speculated. Of course, it is frustrating to pitch brilliantly in recording your 4,000th strikeout and get tagged with a loss, or to take a 3-0 lead into the ninth inning and get nothing; ask Tom Glavine, he of the 2.67 ERA and 7-8 record. There may be satellite issues that few understand, and because of his profound respect for history, Johnson wants to get as close to 300 wins as he can.
But there is something superficially offensive about a great player asking out the first time he's on a bad team, in this case one ravaged by injuries. In the last 10 years, Johnson has pitched for six first-place teams, two second-place clubs, one that finished third and now the last-place Diamondbacks. OK, the '98 Mariners were 48-59 when he was traded to the Astros, who finished 102-60 with a huge lift from Johnson.
Johnson's parameters reportedly include some guarantee of postseason play, hence the Yankees and Cardinals making the quality cut, but it may be that only the teams with the three highest payrolls -- the Yankees, Red Sox and Angels -- can afford his contract. It is the mirror image of presidential politics: Only the extremely wealthy qualify.
St. Louis cannot take on Johnson's $16 million in 2005 ($6 million of which is deferred) and re-sign Edgar Renteria, plus maybe more. If the Angels could make the deal with only dealing prospect Jeff Mathis, a catcher, and pitching, they would be financially stressed but owner Artie Moreno would get the splash his franchise needs. If Boston were to do it with some three-way deal involving Nomar Garciaparra, next season they would have less than $20 million with which to fill holes at shortstop, catcher, second base, first base, a No. 3 starter and a eighth-inning set-up man, and that's assuming Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe walk. In that case, the Sox's three starters would open the season at 41, 39 and 38.
And apparently the only way the Yankees can fill Arizona's 2005 needs is to buy the entire island of the Dominican Republic and take every bad contract still on the D-Backs' books (Yankees owner George Steinbrenner has already "re-assigned" scouting director Lin Garrett because he heard his entire organization has fewer prospects than the Falmouth Commodores).
The Diamondbacks are still planning on trying to convince Johnson that they will bring back Richie Sexson and Steve Finley and contend in their I-AA division next season. They can tell him that there is nothing worth accepting in a trade, and that he must honor his contract. Then, too, they would have to deal with the consequences of a miserable artist.
What sickens those who run the Twins and the A's and the Braves and the Cubs is that the Yankees and Red Sox need Johnson because of their own incompetence in drafting and developing pitching. Now that Andy Pettitte is gone, the Yankees don't have a starting pitcher (except for Brad Halsey, whom they want to pitch for a little while longer at Triple-A Columbus) they drafted and developed. El Duque and Jose Contreras were bought as free agents.
Pettitte was drafted in 1990, and since then New York hasn't drafted a starting pitcher who has won six games in a season for them. The last pitcher the Red Sox drafted who won more than seven games in a season for them was Aaron Sele in 1991, and since they got back into their holy war with the Yankees in 1998, in seven seasons, they have 26 wins from starters they drafted and signed: 11 from Brian Rose, eight from Casey Fossum, five from Paxton Crawford and two from Juan Pena.
If they get Johnson, the Yankees' payroll for their pitchers will be between $86 and $90 million, counting players like Gabe White, who they are subsidizing on other teams. Their 2005 six-man rotation would be $84 million if they keep Jon Lieber, with another $25 million committed to Mariano Rivera, Steve Karsay, Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill; Javier Vazquez will be 29 and Contreras will be listed as 33. No one else will be under 34 and Mike Mussina, Kevin Brown and Johnson would be 36, 40 and 41 respectively.
But George can afford it. The Red Sox have a $42 million rotation in 2004 (including Byung-Hyun Kim) that would become $55 million if they acquire Johnson, plus a $17 million bullpen. They ain't livin' long like that if they don't win it all, and, unless they do so this season, a lot of the honeymoon will turn ugly. Fans encouraged to judge everything in relation to the "Evil Empire" will realize that there is a finite amount of revenues available for contracts (like 28 other teams), that three of their four major free agents aren't walking back in that door and talking the Yankee talk isn't the same as walking the Yankee walk.
Understand that other than Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo and GM Joe Garagiola Jr., no one wants Johnson to remain in Arizona more than the Red Sox. Boston GM Theo Epstein is trying to utilize the franchise's wealth to build an organization that develops enough talent to contend and "make the postseason eight out of 10 years." But management, after bungling the deal for Alex Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez after its public courtship, marketed this season as "our year." With Yankee obsession as its basic theme, the campaign has turned many of Boston's fans into mini-Steinbrenners, for whom anything but a world championship is unacceptable, and CEO Larry Lucchino's Yankee fixation has driven the engine.
Steinbrenner doesn't care about the money or luxury tax the way everyone else must. Unlike his Boston counterparts (who have brilliantly and creatively raised revenues dramatically), he does not have more than $350 million in debt to service, nor does he have to continually pour millions into his stadium. Take Johnson and eat Matt Mantei's contract? No problem. He'd have a payroll the size of the Twins, A's, Blue Jays and Brewers combined.
Johnson has a legitimate beef if he believes that ill-advised deals got the D-Backs where they now sit; Curt Schilling, Lyle Overbay, Chris Capuano, Chad Moeller, Junior Spivey and Craig Counsell for Richie Sexson and Fossum has been an unmitigated disaster, and former manager Bob Brenly may have earned some of the blame for blowing out the bullpen because his fierce drive to win every day. Some of the young players may grate veterans with their arrogance. But this is also a very good organization that has a lot of talent on every level -- probably more than anyone in the West except the Rockies.
Johnson is no mercenary. He isn't demanding more money, more years or more perks. He is grappling with history and his biological clock, and none of us know what storm fronts are colliding inside the head of a highly intelligent man. He is an artist and he has worked very hard for greatness, so he thinks differently than most. He watched Derek Jeter play, he knows Rivera and Vazquez and A-Rod and Tom Gordon and Jason Giambi and he imagines what it would be like to play for manager Joe Torre, because every player with respect for the game wants to play for him.
But Randy's also the face of the team that won a World Series in an astounding four seasons. He is a Cooperstown lock as one of the five greatest left-handed pitchers who ever lived. This would be the first time since 1992 that he has pitched in September for a team with a losing record.
Oh well. Maybe he'll go to one of the three highest-payroll teams and the Twins and A's will still meet in the ALCS.