5.05.2005

Two Teams Out?

Tim-Kurkjian-100x85

These are sleepless nights in Tampa, Florida, and not just in Lou Piniella's bedroom. If the playoffs started today, Yankee Stadium — home of the winningest team in baseball history — would be empty. Last night, May 4, the Yankees lost their 17th game, the earliest date in team history that they have recorded their 17th loss. Even though Yankees GM Brian Cashman is doing his best to show calm during this slow start, this is unprecedented territory for the Bronx Bombers, and word from the front office and clubhouse is that team officials are just waiting for the ax to fall.

"The Bernie Williams and Tony Womack moves are just the beginning," says one team source. "Right now we're waiting to see if George wants to just blow the team up or if we're going to deal for an impact player." But even if the Yankees do want to trade their way back into contention, there are limited options for the team. Only the Royals, Rockies and the entire NL Central not located in St. Louis are currently without hope, which severely limits the players the Yankees could acquire. And that's assuming there are any Yankees that other teams want.

The biggest rumor is the Rockies moving Todd Helton to the Bronx, but it's unclear who the Yankees would offer in return. While Helton has hit an exceptional .310 away from Coors Field, he has only hit 33 home runs on the road in the past three years, in comparison to 62 at home. And even George Steinbrenner's wallet might flinch at the $12 million Helton is owed this season.

Among the surprises who would make the playoffs if they started today are the Baltimore Orioles, the Toronto Blue Jays, the Chicago White Sox and the Arizona Diamondbacks. In fact, this would be the first time in the wild card era that a team from Boston or the Bronx would not be in the playoffs.

Thus far, the commissioner's office claims to be pleased with the emergence of newer teams in the pennant races, but if the playoffs do arrive without these large-market teams, expect more than a few Major League executives to be concerned. "We have no idea what would happen to ratings if the Red Sox or Yankees did not make the playoffs," admits one baseball source. "Many of us worry that this could send baseball back to its post-strike levels. And since the steroid story isn't going away, this is one of the worst crises that baseball has ever faced."

One proposal that has been floating around includes raising the luxury tax threshold and lowering the penalty to encourage the Red Sox and Yankees to acquire more talent for a pennant run. "If the financial restraints were to be removed from the teams with higher payrolls, baseball could once again return to the competitive imbalance that baseball fans have grown to love," reads the proposal. And while it's unlikely that such a plan could be enacted, the player's union would be unlikely to stand in its way: a temporary waiving of luxury tax rules would once again send salaries into the stratosphere.

For now, baseball officials have no choice but to wait and hope that the Yankees and Red Sox get back on track. For without them in the playoffs, the state of baseball could hardly be more dire.

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