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he New York Yankees would be less than desperate for Randy Johnson had they retained Andy Pettitte, which goes to show that a $180 million payroll doesn't necessarily cure all ills. The Yanks went into Monday with the best record in the American League, the second-best record in baseball. And yet, given the current state of their rotation, a feeling persists they could be facing an abbreviated October unless they obtain Johnson, or maybe regardless if they obtain Johnson.

The Yanks' reign atop the AL in large part because a stellar bullpen has camouflaged a starting rotation torn, tattered, predominantly ineffective and exposed once again last weekend by the Red Sox. Mike Mussina's been out three weeks with a stubborn elbow injury and his return is no given. Back trouble and a parasitic ailment have sidelined oft-sidelined Kevin Brown since June 10. Javier Vazquez, Jon Lieber and Jose Contreras have been trampled of late, particularly Vazquez, whose July earned run average checks in at 7.29. Who would have thought that Orlando Hernandez, 2-0 since returning from offseason shoulder surgery, would emerge as New York's picture of dependability?

If the rotation's so bad how can the Yanks be so good? It's because they're loaded positionally, thrive at home, lead the majors in homers and have overtaxed a bullpen that must eventually reel from the workload. Relievers Mariano Rivera, Paul Quantrill and Tom Gordon have made more appearances than any other AL pitchers. Either it'll catch up with them or they're physical marvels, and the smart money's on the former.

There are two distinctly different Yankee teams, the one that flourishes in The Stadium and the one that plods elsewhere. Of the five main starters, only Brown has an ERA under 5 on the road, where the Yanks' 26-24 record underscores their susceptibility.

Adding Johnson to the staff promises to alleviate a portion of the pain. He remains, at 40, one of the game's dominant pitchers, as affirmed by Sunday's eight-inning, 14-strikeout performance. He's 7-2, 2.65 on the road. And he's more than another six-inning starter, which means the bullpen staples can look forward to the occasional much-needed night off.

It remains to be seen whether the Yanks have the goods to pry Johnson from the Diamondbacks. New York's lean at the upper reaches of the farm system, and Arizona owner Jerry Colangelo is uninterested in dealing his main drawing card to the Yanks for a bevy of long-term projects. He's thinking the D'Backs can resurface as a contender as quickly as next season.

The Angels, another franchise with a keen interest in Johnson, have more to offer and no strained relationships to overcome. Surely Colangelo won't be doing the Yanks any favors after he obtained a verbal contract agreement from pitcher David Wells in 2002, only to have George Steinbrenner pounce and lure him away. If the Yanks pull this off it'll be because they paid a heavy premium. But isn't that almost always the way?

Steinbrenner finds himself in dire need of a top starter, a proven playoff performer, because he alienated his postseason bulldog at the conclusion of last season. The Yanks dawdled in contract talks with Pettitte until he eventually up and fled, signing with Houston. Time on the DL has limited Pettitte's impact with the Astros, but he's still produced when conditions are most difficult, going 4-0 on the road with a 2.19 ERA.

Johnson might be the piece the Yanks need to take a run at another World Series. It's hard to like their chances without him. But there's no question they'd have been better off hunting for Johnson with Pettitte in the fold. Then they might have had a shot at getting their money's worth.

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