A year ago, the Yankees entered camp with a new manager and coaching staff, but a roster that barely differed from one they took into the 2007 playoffs. Having spent this past October at home while several of their most expensive player contracts expired (including those of Jason Giambi, Bobby Abreu, Mike Mussina, and Carl Pavano), the Yankees enter spring training 2009 with a new look. Just 19 of the 25 spots on the Opening Day roster appear set, and of those 19, four are filled by players acquired this offseason, while two others are filled by players acquired at last year’s trading deadline. The 19 men who will fill those spots are:
1B – Mark Teixeira (S)
2B – Robinson Cano (L)
SS – Derek Jeter (R)
3B – Alex Rodriguez (R)
C – Jorge Posada (S)
RF – Xavier Nady (R)
LF – Johnny Damon (L)
DH – Hideki Matsui (L)
S – Nick Swisher (OF/1B)
S – Melky Cabrera (OF)
R – Jose Molina (C)
R – Mariano Rivera
R – Brian Bruney
L – Damaso Marte
Even among these 19, there are battles to be waged. Xavier Nady, who was acquired along with Damaso Marte in a trade with the Pirates at last year’s deadline, enters camp as the intended successor to Bobby Abreu in right field, but Nick Swisher, acquired from the White Sox in a mid-November trade, is the superior player and seems likely to open the season as no worse than the strong-side of a right-field platoon with Nady provided he can prove in camp that his poor 2008 campaign was a fluke.
Similarly, Melky Cabrera is only among the 19 above because he’s out of options. I didn’t list him as the starting center fielder because Cabrera will spend spring training engaged trying to reclaim the middle pasture from Brett Gardner. It’s not entirely out of the question for Gardner to win that battle in a landslide and for the Yankees to spend the final weeks of spring training weighing the risks of trading or outrighting their former Center Fielder of the Future.
Thus it’s with Gardner that I begin my sixth annual look at the Yankees campers. The Yankees will fill the six vacant spots on their Opening Day roster from among the 45 players below, most likely by selecting a pair of position players (a utility infielder and either Gardner or a third catcher) and four relievers.
Position players on the 40-man roster (4):
CF – Brett Gardner (L)
Organizationally, the Yankees are hoping the 24-year-old Melky Cabrera can win his job back and get back on the path toward developing into a solid major league center fielder (though one could argue that he never set more than one foot on that path to begin with). Down in the dugout, however, Brett Gardner appears to be the favorite to win the center field job this spring. Joe Girardi and hitting coach Kevin Long both spoke highly of Gardner last year. Girardi showed his confidence in Gardner by letting him run free on the bases, resulting in 13 steals in 14 tries in just 42 games. Long saw potential in Gardner’s plate approach and worked with the rookie to involve his legs more in his swing in an effort to make him more than a speedy slap hitter.
For his part, Gardner hit a characteristic .296/.414/.422 and stole 37 bases at an 80 percent clip in Triple-A, showed great range and a strong arm in the field, and despite his initial struggles at the plate in the majors, seemed to focus better in big spots, hitting .343/.351/.457 with runners in scoring position and delivering a pair of walk-off hits. Though he didn’t hit a lick while subbing in left for an injured Johnny Damon in his first big-league stint in June and July, Gardner showed improvement after returning in mid-August, hitting .294/.333/.412 in 73 PA the rest of the way (which was better than Cabrera’s career line of .268/.329/.374) including a robust .357/.386/.476 over his last 13 starts in September. Unless the Yankees go out and sign the still-available Jim Edmonds, this may be the 25-year-old Gardner’s best shot to establish himself in the major leagues. If he wins the job, he should be an instant fan favorite (imagine Bubba Crosby with actual talent) and could be just the second Yankee to lead the AL in stolen bases since they traded Rickey Henderson.
IF – Cody Ransom (R)
Ransom and Dan Giese were the only veteran minor league free agents invited to spring training as non-roster players by the Yankees last year who managed to break onto the 25-man roster during the season and survive the winter to return to camp as members of the 40-man. A year ago, I called Ransom a dark horse in the Yankees’ utility picture based on his ability to play all four infield positions and a little outfield and hit for power. Well, that horse outlasted Morgan Ensberg and Alberto Gonzalez among others and performed well enough after his mid-August promotion to enable the Yankees to part with Wilson Betemit in the Nick Swisher trade without fear of weakening the roster.
Ransom belted 22 homers in 481 plate appearances for Triple-A Scranton last year, his third-consecutive Triple-A season with 20 or more homers, then went deep in his first two at-bats as a Yankee. Take those first two taters out of Ransom’s line, and he still hit .268/.375/.488 in 49 PA for the Yankees. At 33, Ransom’s no kid, but he plays solid defense all around the diamond, is a power threat, and will take his share of walks. He’ll also strike out quite a bit, but his career .251/.348/.432 line in the major leagues represents an upgrade on the defensively inferior Betemit (career .260/.325/.437), who was a switch-hitter in name only, and a huge improvement over a potential third tour of duty for Miguel Cairo (still a free agent and a career .266/.315/.357 hitter), no matter how much better Cairo might be at bunting and stealing. It seemed obvious to me as early as September of last year, that the Yankees saw Ransom as their utility infielder for 2009. You can pencil him onto the Opening Day roster.
1B – Juan Miranda (L)
Last year, in his second professional season and Triple-A debut, Miranda emerged as a solid on-base threat with doubles power, something he quickly confirmed in his cup-of-coffee major league debut in September. Of course, with Mark Teixeira around, that won’t get him much more than another tour of Scranton. Given that Miranda will officially be 26 in late April (and quite possibly older than that unofficially), this Cuban defector is unlikely to ever stick in the majors with this organization. The Yankees’ best hope is for him to thrive in his peak-age seasons so that he can be used as a trade chip.
C – Francisco Cervelli (S)
Elliot Johnson, the Rays infielder who broke Cervelli’s arm in a collision at home plate last spring training, really threw a wrench into the works. Had Cervelli spent 2008 at Double-A as planned, he’d be a third-catcher candidate for Opening Day with the potential to push Jose Molina out the door by the All-Star break. Instead, Cervelli spent last year healing and will have to prove himself at Double-A this year, while the Yankees’ playoff hopes ride on the surgically repaired shoulder of Jorge Posada lest they get a repeat of Molina’s dreadful 2008 season. Cervelli played just 21 games for Trenton last year, but hit .315/.432/.384 in them. That high on-base and poor power is typical of Cervelli, a strong defender who turns 23 in early March and could yet emerge as a major league starter. The Yankees hope Cervelli, the leader in their parade of low-minors catching prospects, will advance quickly, but they’d be wise not to rush him out of desperation. He looked completely overmatched in his five major league plate appearances last September.
Pitchers on the 40-man roster (17):
Last year, the Yankees finally figured out that they could assemble a strong bullpen on the cheap with the talent they had on hand in the minor leagues. They also learned that said relievers were fungible and could be swap out for fresh blood from Scranton according to performance. That sort of mixing and matching throughout the season kept everyone fresh and effective and gave the Yankees one of the best bullpens in baseball. I credit Joe Girardi and pitching coach Dave Eiland (who coached in Scranton in 2007) for that achievement and expect they will continue to approach the bullpen that way this year. Thus every reliever who still has options left is listed here rather than above.
R – Jose Veras
After making the 2007 playoff roster, Veras opened 2008 in Triple-A, but after dominating the International League for a month, he returned to the big club to finally shed his rookie status at age 27. Combining his mid-90s fastball and sharp slider with new-found control (2.94 K/BB through August 24), he excelled in the secondary set-up roll until late August, after which his old wildness returned and he walked 12 men in his last 11 innings. In a way, Veras is now where Brian Bruney was a year ago. The problem is that, at 28, Veras is a year and a half older than Bruney and doesn’t have the obvious potential to improve his conditioning and focus on the game, which is how Bruney begat his injury-interrupted breakout season last year. Veras is not a particularly unique talent; the Yankees should get what they can out of him but not hesitate to discard him if it seems they already have.
R – Edwar Ramirez
After allowing six home runs in 21 innings (2.6 HR/9) as a rookie in 2007, Ramirez allowed just seven in 55 1/3 frames last year. The resulting 1.14 HR/9 was still not ideal, but it proved that Ramirez could survive in the majors. That improvement was partially the result of Mariano Rivera convincing Ramirez to rely more on his fastball and be more selective about when he threw his devastating changeup.
Like Veras, Edwar began 2008 in the minors, but after nine scoreless innings in which he struck out 13 and allowed just four baserunners, he got the call, after which he tossed another 14 2/3 scorless frames before giving up his first run of the year on May 31 (on a home run, naturally). Of course, what goes up must come down, and all that strong pitching up front masked the fact that the last four months of Ramirez’s season weren’t quite so pretty. In addition to his 5.31 ERA, Ramirez allowed 38 percent of his inherited runners to score in the season’s final months, and his HR/9 swelled to 1.55 during that span. Early in the season, Girardi seemed to like the idea of Ramirez as an unconventional LOOGY, but Ramirez’s final splits were decidedly conventional, with lefties posting an OPS 65 points higher against him than righties did. Ramirez will be 28 at the end of March and is in his final option year. It’s put up or shut up time for both him and Veras.
R – Jonathan Albaladejo
Acquired from the Nationals for Tyler Clippard following the 2007 season, Albaladejo followed his impressive major league debut from that year by making the Yankees’ Opening Day roster last spring. Initially used in long relief, he pitched well around a brief mid-April demotion, save for one ugly outing against the Tigers, but in mid-May he landed on the DL with a sprained ligament in his pitching elbow. A month later it was revealed that he had a stress fracture in that elbow. After sitting out the rest of the season, he flat out dominated back home in the Puerto Rican Winter League (0.41 ERA, 0.68 WHIP, 9.0 K/BB, 14 SV), showing the same great control and ground-ball tendencies that distinguished him prior to his lost season. Armed with a mid-90s fastball and several strong secondary offerings, the 26-year-old Albaladejo will enter camp at full strength with an excellent chance to make the Opening Day roster yet again.
L – Phil Coke
A late-round pick out of a Stockton, California Community College in 2002, Coke was one of a group of undistinguished 25-year-old starters enjoying a solid season in pitching-friendly Trenton last year, but when the organization promoted him to Scranton and moved him to the bullpen, he became a revelation. Adding several ticks to his fastball and smartly employing his starters repertoire, Coke put up dominant peripherals as a Triple-A reliever, then took his act to the majors as a September call-up. In his first ten major league appearances, Coke held the opposition scoreless over 11 2/3 innings. Two outings latter, his debut concluded with a 0.61 ERA, 0.68 WHIP, and 7.0 K/BB. The only blight on his record was a reverse split, with lefties responsible for most of the miniscule production against him. The Yankees will prepare Coke to return to starting in spring training, in part because it’s easier to move a starter into the pen than the other way around. Don’t be surprised if he winds up as second lefty in the major league pen on Opening Day.
R – David Robertson
A 17th-round pick out of the University of Alabama in 2006, Robertson wasn’t even in camp last year, but made his major league debut before the end of June. After nine dominant outings at Double-A, he moved up to Triple-A. He had to conquer some wildness at Scranton, but did, earning the call in late June. Robertson posted a 1.46 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, and 10.22 K/9 over his first 11 outings in the Show, but things soured after that, as his wildness returned. Opposing hitters hit .364/.431/.545 off Robertson in his next ten outings, prompting his return to the minors at the end of August. Four late-September outings back in the bigs went better. Robertson has great stuff (mid-90s heat with movement, hard slider, nasty curve), but he’ll need to keep his walks under control to get another look. He’ll be 24 in early April, and though he seems unlikely to break camp with the team, he could be among the first line of bullpen reinforcements.
R – Dan Giese
A late-round draft pick in 1999, Giese retired briefly in 2005, only to return to baseball rededicated and post a 2.55 ERA in the high minors over the last three seasons. After making his major league debut with the Giants in 2007, he landed in Yankee camp last spring. Exclusively a reliever to that point in his career, he was moved into the rotation in Scranton with impressive results and made his Yankee debut in June as Joba Chamberlain’s shadow during Chamberlain’s transition to the rotation. Giese (whose last name rhymes with “nice”) later pitched well in two of three spot starts and out of the pen in July and August, but landed on the DL with shoulder inflammation in mid-August and struggled after returning in September. Now 31, Giese is in a tough spot this spring as he’s stuck behind Alfredo Aceves on the long-relief depth chart of a team that’s far less likely to need long relievers than it was a year ago.
R – Steven Jackson
The last remaining player from the deal that sent Randy Johnson back to Arizona after the 2006 season, Jackson is a big righty who utilized an improved split-finger fastball to have a break out season in relief for Triple-A Scranton last year. After the All-Star break, he posted a 0.87 ERA while striking out 26 in 20 2/3 innings against just eight walks and no homers. On the season, he struck out 91 in 79 2/3 innings while allowing just four homers. Jackson, who will be 27 in March, was added to the 40-man in November, which gives him a clear path to a roster spot should he turn in a strong performance in camp.
R – Humberto Sanchez
The hard-throwing Sanchez was acquired in the Gary Sheffield trade after the 2006 season with the understanding that he might require Tommy John surgery, which he did in April 2007. After sitting out 2007 and having a second surgery to remove bone spurs from his elbow, he spent most of last season building his strength back up before embarking on a late-season rehab assignment which concluded with two late-September appearances in the majors (one good, one less good). Though he was a starter before the surgery, he always seemed ticketed for the bullpen and did indeed pitch in relief in the Arizona Fall League. The bad news is that he got lit up in the desert to such a degree (12.00 ERA, 2.67 WHIP, 4:11 K/BB) that it caused concern even given the hitting-friendly environment and the fact that he was still working his way back from surgery. Raised in the Bronx, the Dominican-born Sanchez is a local boy worth rooting for, but he’ll be 26 in late May and has a lot to prove at Triple-A this year.
R – Anthony Claggett
Another product of the Sheffield trade, the 24-year-old Claggett had a solid season for Double-A Trenton last year, posting a 2.15 ERA with 55 Ks and just one home run allowed in 58 2/3 innings. The problem was that he walked 4.6 men per nine innings. He’ll have to get those walks down and prove he can do it in Triple-A before he becomes a serious contender for the major league pen.
R – Phil Hughes
Hughes has had so many ups and downs over the last two seasons it’s easy to forget that he’s still just 22 and, with Joba Chamberlain established in the majors, once again the Yankees’ best pitching prospect. Though Hughes struggled early last year, it seems clear that the primary barrier between him and major league success is his ability to stay healthy. A torn hamstring interrupted his rookie season in 2007 in the middle of a no-hitter. Last year it was a stress fracture in one of his ribs that shelved him after just six starts. The circumstances surrounding Hughes broken rib were clouded by Joe Girardi’s obfuscation and Hughes’ own confusion as to when exactly he had broken the bone. That allows us to make some excuses for his poor April performance, which saw him turn in a quality start in his first game, which the Yankees won 3-2 after he had left, and saw a scoreless outing ended early due to rain. After rehab and some solid work in Scranton, he returned in late September having replaced his ineffective slider with a sharp cut fastball and looked sharp in two starts, particularly in an eight-inning duel with A.J. Burnett in Toronto, another game the Yankees won only after his departure. It’s an oft-cited fact that neither Hughes nor Ian Kennedy won a game for the Yankees last year, but half of Hughes’ eight starts resulted in no-decisions, three of which the Yankees won. That’s small potatoes, but it’s something for Hughes to build on.
That said, I’m glad Hughes will be starting the season back in Scranton. He’s young enough that the extra development time won’t hurt him, and he’s only made 11 Triple-A starts in his career. With all of the bouncing around he’s done the last two years due to the team’s desperation and his own fragility, it would do him well to get his legs under him at Triple-A. That said, the Yankees really should find a way to make room for him by mid-year should he begin to dominate down there. It may take an injury for that to happen, but even if it doesn’t, Hughes should properly succeed Andy Pettitte in the rotation next year.
R – Alfredo Aceves
A Mexican League find who made his State-side pro debut last year at age 25, Aceves lacks dominating stuff, but has a tremendous ability to mix his large repertoire, hit his spots, and stay one step ahead of the batter, as he proved in three of his four starts for the big club last September. The Yankees sixth starter until Hughes gets his groove back, Aceves is also a long-man candidate for the major league pen, and could prove to be a very valuable utility pitcher as injuries force the Yankees to shuffle their roster.
R – Ian Kennedy
While Phil Hughes’ poor 2008 season can be partially blamed on injury and ended with redemption, Kennedy’s 2008 was an unmitigated disaster. Torched in his first start and turned into a reliever by the threat of rain in his second, Kennedy finally turned in a quality start his third time out, but sent his manager into a rage by walking five men in 2 2/3 innings in his fourth outing. He pitched better in his fifth start, but still walked four in five innings, and after another poor outing on May 1, he was demoted having walked 20 men in 23 2/3 innings and posted an 8.37 ERA. After dominating in Triple-A he was brought back mid-month, but after a bad start that featured just one walk and a good one that featured four, he pulled an oblique in his third and landed on the DL. The Yankees were in no rush to bring him back, but when they finally did in August, Kennedy was again torched, giving up five runs on nine hits in two innings, after which he told the media that he “felt like I made some good pitches and competed, which is all that really matters.” Not in a pennant race, Ike. He was demoted two days later and was not brought back when rosters expanded in September.
Beyond the walks, what galled Girardi and thrilled opposing hitters about Kennedy last year was that he refused to work in his curveball, making him a two-pitch pitcher with a low-90s fastball that he wasn’t locating and a changeup that had been his out-pitch but was rendered irrelevant given his inability to set it up. Kennedy mixed in a cutter in his August start, but still stayed away from the curve, allowing the Angels to sit on the heater. The good news is that the 24-year-old Kennedy supposedly found a new way to throw his curve in while working with Scranton pitching coach Rafael Chaves in the Puerto Rican Winter League, and dominated the league as a result (1.56 ERA, 0.89 WHIP). If he can carry that success back to the International League this year, he could restore his prospect status and give the Yankees a crowded rotation picture for 2010.
R – Eric Hacker
A late-round draft pick in 2002, Hacker missed the 2004 season due to Tommy John surgery, and the 2006 season due to shoulder surgery. As a result, his progress through the Yankee system has been slow; last year marked the first season in which he wasn’t returning from an injury since 2003. After nine strong starts for High-A Tampa, he excelled in his Double-A debut, posting a 2.76 ERA over 17 starts, though there’s some reason to believe that was largely a product of the offense-suppressing environment in Trenton. Hacker will be 26 in March, and I’m not entirely sure why he was given a roster spot over fellow 26-year-old righty Jason Jones or 25-year-old lefty Zack Kroenke, both of whom also had strong 2008 seasons on the banks of the Delaware and have since become Rule 5 picks, particularly given Hacker’s injury history.
R – Christian Garcia
The Yankees’ third-round pick in 2004, Garcia is another righty starter who has had trouble staying healthy. Garcia managed to make just ten starts in 2006, missed all of 2007 due to Tommy John surgery, and made just 13 more starts this past season. He also suffered a knee injury that required surgery while he was on the shelf due to the TJ surgery in 2007. He spent most of his time last year in Tampa, where he pitched very well in ten starts (2.90 ERA, 60 Ks in 49 2/3 innings, just two homers allowed and a 3.53 K/BB). He’s still just 23 years old, so there’s still hope that he can recover his prospect status at Double-A this year. Proof of that hope was the fact that the Yankees added him to the 40-man in November.
L – Wilkin De La Rosa
A 24-year-old converted outfielder, Dominican beanpole De La Rosa dominated the Sally League in relief in his first full season as a pitcher last year, then moved up to High-A Tampa as a starter and posted a 1.10 ERA in three starts. Altogether, he struck out 125 men in 106 2/3 innings and allowed just two home runs. Garcia probably has the highest ceiling of the six pitchers added to the 40-man in November, but because of Garcia’s injury history, De La Rosa is the one that interests me the most.
L – Michael Dunn
Another left-handed converted outfielder, Dunn wasn’t as impressive at High-A Tampa in his second year as a starter last year as he had been in the Sally League in 2007, but he’s just 23 and has struck out 291 men in 302 innings in his professional career. He could have a future as lefty reliever as soon as this spring.
R – Andrew Brackman
The Yankees’ top pick in 2007, the 6-foot-10 Brackman slipped to the Yankees’ 30th pick because of concerns about his elbow. Indeed, he had Tommy John surgery that August before ever throwing a professional pitch, but the Yankees expected that when they drafted him, which tells you what they thought of his talent. After spending last year getting back up to strength, Brackman made his pro debut in the final season of Hawaiian Winter Baseball, where he got his fastball up to 97 miles per hour, and enters camp ready to assert his status as one of the game’s top pitching prospects.
Non-Roster Hitters (16):
IF – Angel Berroa (S)
“In the land of the blind, the one-eye man is king.” — Desiderius Erasmus
In the case of the 2007 Royals, Tony Peña Jr., whose only discernable baseball skill is his outstanding defense at shortstop, was the one-eyed man and Berroa was the blind. Despite winning the AL Rookie of the Year in 2003 (an award I though he deserved), Berroa has devolved into the rare zero-tool player. He can’t run, he can’t hit, and he can’t field. The 2008 versions of Melky Cabrera and Jose Molina had more to offer than Berroa. Angel caught on with the Dodgers last year due to a small-sample power surge as a 30-year-old in Triple-A and L.A.’s rash of infield injuries, then proceeded to hit .230/.304/.310 for Joe Torre’s club in an inexcusable 256 plate appearances. The Yankees would be best advised to not repeat their former manager’s mistakes and cut Berroa loose rather than letting him lurk in Scranton.
UT – Justin Leone (R)
The Yankees fell so hard for Cody Ransom last year that they brought in another player just like him this spring in Justin Leone. Leone has played everywhere but catcher (he even pitched last year) and offers similar power and superior patience to Ransom with similarly low averages and lots of strikeouts from the right-side of the plate. Soon to be 32, Leone’s a year younger than Ransom and has made 116 big-league plate appearances, all but one of which came with the Mariners in 2004, to Ransom’s 214. Leone has the foot speed Ransom lacks, but his abilities on the bases are inconsistent. Ransom, on the other hand, is the better fielder, which one can deduce in part from the fact that, though he’s ostensibly a third baseman, Leone has spent more time in the outfield than the infield over the last three years. There’s the rub. The Yankees need a good-fielding backup infielder who won’t kill them with the bat (Ransom), not an extra bat who won’t kill them in the field (Leone).
2B – Kevin Russo (R)
A late-round pick in 2006 out of Baylor, the 24-year-old Russo is a future utility man at best. He’ll hit for a respectable average, draw a few walks, and steal a few bags, but he won’t any of those at an elite level, and he won’t hit for much power. Though he split his time between second and third last year and also saw some work in the outfield, he’s never played shortstop as a pro, which limits his potential even as a utility infielder. Still, he’ll be an upgrade over Bernie Castro at Scranton this year.
IF – Doug Bernier (R)
An undrafted free agent out of Oral Roberts University, Bernier spent his twenties working his way up the Rockies’ system and around the diamond. Primarily a shortstop, he’s played everywhere but catcher and pitcher and made his major league debut as a second baseman last June just before his 28th birthday (he was returned to Triple-A after two games). A weak and inconsistent hitter, Bernier’s only discernable offensive skill is a solid batting eye. He’s organizational fodder and a threat only to Ramiro Peña.
SS – Ramiro Peña (S)
Peña is a good-field/no-hit shortstop from Mexico who struggles to stay healthy. He finally surpassed 100 games for the first time last year in his fourth pro season, but hit just .266/.330/.357 for Double-A Trenton. He should start at Scranton in place of Berroa this year by default, and because, despite the fact that he’s just 23, there’s no point to waiting around for him to improve his hitting. He’s as good a one-eyed man as any other.
SS – Eduardo Nuñez (R)
A lesser version of Peña, the Dominican Nuñez is a year younger, a level below, doesn’t switch-hit, isn’t as strong a fielder, and is an even weaker hitter. For good measure, he had an awful year on the bases last year (14 for 24), while Peña tends to stay put. Nuñez is proof that Peña really is in the land of the blind.
OF – John Rodriguez (L)
Originally signed by the Yankees as an undrafted free agent out of Brandeis High School way back in 1996, New York native Rodriguez spent eight years working his way up the Yankees’ organizational ladder and broke out with a .300/.379/.557 campaign for Triple-A Columbus in 2004. The Yankees wrote that off as a fluke and didn’t resign him that winter. Instead, Rodriguez landed with the Cardinals, with whom he won a World Series in 2005 and hit .298/.378/.434 off the bench over two seasons. Rodriguez spent the last two seasons back in Triple-A, but he just keeps on hitting. Now 31, he could be a useful lefty bat off the bench if the Yankees’ outfield is thinned by injuries or a trade.
OF/1B – Shelly Duncan (R)
A late-season power sensation and fan favorite in 2007, Duncan was an early roster casualty last year when Derek Jeter got hurt, but not badly enough to land on the DL, forcing the Yankees to sacrifice Duncan for shortstop Alberto Gonzalez. After raking for Scranton, he got his spot back in late April, but failed to hit, and was demoted again in early June, after which he continued to scuffle before separating his shoulder on a diving play in the outfield. He returned to action with Scranton late in the year, but lost his spot on the 40-man in the off-season and is back in camp at age 29 as a non-roster player looking up at Mark Teixeira and an overcrowded outfield. Fortunately, we can be sure that Shelley enjoyed his major league career while it lasted.
OF – Todd Linden (S)
The Yankees seem to have developed a thing for former Giants minor leaguers, be it Ransom, Giese, Leone, or Todd Linden. The 28-year-old Linden is something of a Quadruple-A corner outfielder, a .289/.382/.489 hitter in the minors, who has hit .231/.303/.335 in 559 major league plate appearances over five seasons, most recently with the Marlins in 2007.
CF – Austin Jackson (R)
The Yankees’ top non-pitching prospect, Jackson is believed to be the next Yankee center fielder, making the battle between Gardner and Cabrera one in which the spoils will soon . . . well, spoil. The problem is that Jackson’s follow-up to his breakout 2007 season didn’t seem particularly impressive. Fortunately, that can be explained away by the offense-dampening effects of playing on the banks of the Delaware River for Double-A Trenton and by the back injury which slowed him in August and similarly plagued his poor showing in the Arizona Fall League (though in between he was the MVP of the Eastern League Playoffs). Toss out his adjustment period in April and you get a middle-three months in which Jackson hit .290/.363/.464 and made the Eastern League All-Star team. That’s still not overwhelming, but it does find the power that otherwise appeared to have gone missing.
It’s important to remember that Jackson is still fairly raw, particularly as upper-minors prospects go. A former basketball player who just turned 22 earlier this month, he’s a terrific athlete, but currently projects as more of a speed-and-defense center fielder with 20/20 potential than as a future superstar (that is, more Torii Hunter-light than full-blown Carlos Beltran). He’ll star the year as Scranton’s center fielder and could either make another leap forward having escaped Trenton, thus landing in New York before the year’s out, or he could discover that he needs a few years of fine tuning at Triple-A before he’s ready for the Show.
OF – Colin Curtis (L)
A college product who hasn’t hit above short-season ball, Curtis, the Yankees’ 2006 fourth-round pick out of Arizona State, is looking like a bust. Last year, he hit .255/.329/.368 for Trenton, doing his part to help the Thunder’s much-heralded outfield of Curtis, Jackson, and Jose Tabata thoroughly disappoint. A year ago, I wrote of Curtis that, “at age 23, he’s not actually young for his level and has never hit for power in college or the minors.” Well, the only thing that last year changed is that he’s now 24.
C – Kevin Cash (R)
Kevin Cash is only three years younger than Chad Moller and a whole lot worse at the plate. He has a great arm, but that simply makes him a younger, less-productive version of Jose Molina. At 31, he’s a career .184/.248/.285 hitter in 557 major league plate appearances. His career OPS+ is 38. He’s among the worst of a worthless breed. The Yankees should be publicly apologetic for not being able to do better.
C – P.J. Pilittere (R)
Pilittere’s repeat of Double-A last year looked almost exactly like his first try in 2007. His career line at the level is .270/.317/.343. That’s nearly all batting average. Now, 27 he’s unlikely to ever reach the dizzying heights of Kevin Cash.
C – Kyle Anson (S)
Anson could be the next Pilittere. Trying desperately to stay ahead of Austin Romine and Jesus Montero, Anson hit a punchless .241 with High-A Tampa last year at age 25 and now finds his path to playing time at Double-A blocked by Cervelli. The fact that he’s drawn 123 walks against just 114 strikeouts as a pro is all that recommends him at this point, and he seems unlikely to maintain that ratio in the upper minors, if he ever even gets there.
C – Austin Romine (R)
The better defensive backstop of the Yankees duel Sally League catching prospects, Romine turned in a solid season with the bat last year, hitting .300/.344/.437 in his full-season debut at age 19. Conventional wisdom has Montero moving to first base and Romine becoming the Yankees’ catcher of the future. He has a long way to go, but Romine did nothing to disrupt that projection last year and will join Montero in High-A Tampa this year.
C – Jesus Montero (R)
Austin Jackson may be the Yankees’ top non-pitching prospect, but Jesus Montero is the organization’s top hitting prospect. As an 18-year-old in full-season ball last year, he hit .326/.376/.491 with 17 dingers. He has monstrous power and should be a middle-of-the-order hitter soon after his big-league arrival, the timing of which will likely be determined more by his defense than his bat as the former will likely develop more slowly than the latter. The Yankees remain committed to Montero as a catcher, as well they should be given that he could give them a Posada-like advantage over the competition by providing that sort of production from the catching position. The catch (as it were) is that Montero’s big (6-foot-4, 225) and not as smooth behind the plate as Romine. Still, he showed a decent arm last year, throwing out 25 percent of opposing baserunners (though that’s below average for the low minors), and will still be a top prospect if he’s forced to move to first base.
Non-Roster Pitchers (7):
R – Mark Melancon
Like Brackman, Melancon fell to the Yankees in the draft (2006, 9th Round) because of concerns about his elbow and had Tommy John surgery later that year (after just 6 2/3 pro innings). Back in action last year, the former University of Arizona relief ace burned through the system, dominating at High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A, but stopping there due to concerns about his workload. Melancon was so efficient that he pitched 95 innings in his 44 games last year posting a combined 2.36 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, and 4.04 K/BB. Always a top prospect, the soon-to-be-24-year-old has already proven himself at Triple-A and could very quickly find himself pitching high-leverage innings in the major leagues.
R – J.B. Cox
A second-round pick in 2005, Cox was Huston Street’s successor as the Longhorns’ closer at Texas and the Yankees answer to Boston’s pick of Craig Hansen in the first round. Expected to move quickly, he dominated Double-A at age 22 in his second pro season, but 2007 proved to be a disaster as he started the season by breaking his hand in a bar fight, then underwent elbow surgery and wound up missing the entire year. Working his way back last year, he spent most of his time in Triple-A, but didn’t impress, posting a 4.75 ERA and walking more than he struck out. More of a finesse sidearmer and groundballer than a dominant power reliever, he could work his way into the Yankees bullpen picture if he’s able to improve his K/BB rate in Scranton, but he’ll be 25 in may and is no longer one of the organization’s top relief prospects.
R – Kanekoa Texeira
Acquired in the Nick Swisher deal as a non-roster replacement for Rule 5 eligible Jhonny Nuñez (who had been acquired from the Nationals for Alberto Gonzalez at the trading deadline and was included in the Swisher trade), The Other Texeira (note the missing “i”) represents an upgrade over the pitcher he’s replacing. A slim Hawaiian sidearmer with a put-away slider, Texeira dominated the Appalachian Rookie League after being drafted in the late rounds in 2006, acquitted himself well as the Sox’s Sally League closer in 2007, and graduated from closing in the Carolina League last summer to turn in 15 strong outings for Double-A Birmingham. Texeira strikes out more than a man an inning, but with fewer walks than Nuñez, virtually no homers (three in 144 1/3 professional innings), and low hit rates. The 23-year-old could start the season at Triple-A and throw his hat into the rotation for the major league pen by mid-season.
R – George Kontos
A fifth-round pick in 2006 out of Joe Girardi’s alma mater, Northwestern, Kontos is a righty starter possessed of a mid-90s heater and put-away slider and correspondingly solid strikeout rates, but also a worrisome fly-ball rate and corresponding predilection for gopheritis. He’s just 23, and made improvements on his curve and changeup with Trenton pitching coach Scott Aldred last year, but there are a lot of talented arms between him and the major league rotation. He’ll need Phil Coke to move to the bullpen and Igawa to move there to break into the Triple-A rotation.
R – Jason Johnson
A diabetic best known as the only major league pitcher ever to wear an insulin pump on his belt (which is visible from the center field camera), Johnson is otherwise unexceptional. A 35-year-old righty starter who has pitched in the majors for eight different teams and in Japan for a ninth in 2007, he doesn’t do anything well. His major league career is based largely on his brief stint as a league-average innings eater for the Orioles and Tigers earlier in the decade. He’s considerably less than that now and has no business being invited to camp for a team with so much good young pitching already in house. Another Dodgers castoff, he like Berroa, is best left as a Joe Torre mistake not to be repeated.
L – Kei Igawa
I supposed if you pay a guy $4 million a year, you have to invite him to camp. That’s the only reason Igawa is here. Yes, he pitched reasonably well for Scranton against last year, but he was brutal in his one shot with the big club and was dropped from the 40-man roster. In two years, he’s gone from Japanese League star to expensive non-roster Quad-A albatross who is owed $12 million over the next three years (through 2011). Unless he makes a miraculous reemergence as a LOOGY, the 29-year-old Igawa’s Yankee career is over. If he pitches more than once in an actual spring training game this year, I’ll be stunned.
R – Sergio Mitre (DL)
The Yankees just love them some TJ rehabbers, don’t they? Perhaps it all stems back to the way Jon Lieber paid off in 2004 after the Yankees paid him to rehab from Tommy John surgery in 2003. Melancon and Brackman could well pay off as players drafted with the understanding that they’d likely require TJ surgery. Then again, the future is far cloudier with Humberto Sanchez, and the Yankees botched the contract for Octavio Dotel in 2006, forgetting to include the option for the year in which he’d actually be good. Last year, the Yankees brought Eric Milton and Victor Zambrano in to rehab in the minors for reasons that I still don’t fully understand. Now, the Yankees have signed Sergio Mitre, the former Marlins starter who had Tommy John surgery last July, to a minor league deal with a club option for next year. A former Cubs prospect who went to the Marlins in the Juan Pierre deal, Mitre was never a high-ceiling starter, but rather a moderately successful sinkerballer, who had yet to put it all together in the majors prior to his surgery. He’ll be 29 next February and hardly seems worth even the minimal commitment, particularly given that after signing he was handed a 50-day suspension for violating the league’s drug policy.
* * *
Given the above and the early positive reports about Jorge Posada’s throwing, my best guess right now is that Gardner will win the center field job. Melky will stick as a reserve outfielder because he’s out of options. Swisher will play almost daily by platooning with Nady in right and subbing for Damon in left (with Damon often DHing in place of Matsui). Ransom will be the utility infielder, and the last four men in the bullpen will be Veras, Ramirez, Albaladejo, and Coke, with Melancon and either Robertson or Jackson likely to force out Veras and Ramirez by the end of May (provided Albaladejo stays healthy, of course).