The struggling World Series champions acquired Justice from Cleveland on Thursday for Ricky Ledee and two minor leaguers, ending weeks of trade speculation.
"We had a player who was desirable if they couldn't pull off a Sammy Sosa or Juan Gonzalez deal," Indians general manager John Hart said. "We were waiting in line."
The Yankees had a tentative deal with Detroit for Gonzalez fall through because they couldn't agree to a contract with the outfielder, and their bid for Sosa ended when they couldn't agree on players with the Chicago Cubs.
"We were ready to go, and Sammy was ready to go," said Tom Reich, Sosa's agent. "But there was no trade. They got a guy at a lesser cost, but he's a formidable guy."
The Cubs apparently wanted at least five Yankees prospects, including several considered among the best in the New York farm system.
The speculation weighed heavily on the Yankees, who are 16-26 since reaching a season-high 13 games over .500 on May 9.
"I'm happy, and hopefully this will quiet things down so we can focus on baseball," manager Joe Torre said after the Yankees beat Detroit 8-0. "Hopefully, it takes some of the distractions away so we can focus."
After winning three titles in the last four years, the Yankees are three games behind Toronto in the AL East and five behind Oakland in the wild-card race.
The Indians, who have won five straight AL Central division titles, are 8 1/2 games behind the Chicago White Sox in part because their pitching staff has been decimated by injuries.
Cleveland and New York have combined to win the last five AL titles.
"Traditionally, the Yankees and Indians aren't clubs that can make a deal," Hart said. "But the Yankees have been struggling of late and we've been struggling due to injuries."
Yankees owner George Steinbrenner has been pressuring his "baseball people" to make a trade and questioned Ledee's toughness earlier this season.
A baseball lawyer said the deal ends the Yankees' pursuit of Sosa. If the Yankees make another major move, it would be for pitching.
And Sosa just has to wait.
"I haven't heard anything yet," Sosa said. "The situation was the Yankees and they can't make the deal, for some reason. If another team wants me, they probably are going to have to go through the same process. I'll see what happens."
Cubs scout Ken Kravec, who had been following the Yankees recently, has watched Tampa Bay and Toronto play the past two days. The Blue Jays were reported to be interested in Sosa, but manager Jim Fregosi denied the teams talked.
"I think ultimately Sammy will be traded," Reich said. "This one got real close. But there was a difference of opinion on the players. But I think ultimately there is a deal to make."
The Indians also are looking to add pitching, with starters Charles Nagy and Jaret Wright out with injuries. The deal also frees up money to re-sign Manny Ramirez, who is eligible for free agency after the season.
Justice is making $7 million a year through 2002; while Ledee is making just $240,000 this season and isn't eligible for salary arbitration until after the 2001 season.
"It was simple economics," Hart said. "This ballclub certainly has it's eyes on winning in '00 and absolutely have our eyes on retooling for the '01 season."
Justice, a left-handed hitter who should excel with the short right-field porch at Yankee Stadium, was hitting .265 with 21 homers and a team-high 58 RBI for Cleveland.
"I'm stunned," Justice said. "But business is business. That's the game we play. I'll go there and play hard like I do everywhere. I've never really felt comfortable there as an opposing player."
He will likely be used as either a left fielder or designated hitter.
"He gives us a powerful force, plus he's a good hitter," Torre said. "He's gonna do a lot for us."
Ledee, whose name has been linked in rumored trades for Jim Edmonds, Gonzalez and Sosa, has struggled all season. He is hitting .241 with seven homers and 31 RBI.
"He's never fulfilled his potential as far as the Yankees are concerned," Indians manager Charlie Manuel said. "He's got some pop in his bat and has a chance to be a good bat."
The teams have agreed on a list of 5-6 second-tier prospects of which Cleveland can choose two before Aug. 1. Pitcher Jake Westbrook, who went 0-2 with a 13.50 ERA in three appearances with New York, is believed to be one of the players on the list.