The Yankees enter camp this year as the defending world champions for the first time since 2001. That year, they made it all the way back to the seventh game of the World Series. The 2010 Yankees stand a very good chance of also repeating as AL Champions, but they’ll have to fight off a vastly improved Red Sox team to do so. The Yankees didn’t sit on their laurels this offseason. As they did with Jason Giambi and Bobby Abreu a year ago, they let two popular and productive but aging players leave as free agents in 36-year-old Johnny Damon and soon-to-be-36-year-old Hideki Matsui, replaced them with younger players in soon-to-be-29-year-old Curtis Granderson and the fragile Nick Johnson (31), and made a big addition to their rotation to boot, adding Javier Vazquez via trade with the Braves. Granderson and prodigal sons Johnson and Vazquez are joined by fourth outfielder Randy Winn and right-hander Chan Ho Park as the big new additions to this year’s club, but there are still a couple of spots up for grabs on the Opening Day roster, a huge battle to be waged between the team’s top two young arms for the fifth spot in the rotation, and the lingering question of how playing time will be distributed among Granderson, Winn, and Brett Gardner in left and center field. Those battles will be the primary focus of my coverage in the coming six weeks, but for now let’s take a look at the other unfamiliar faces you’re likely to see in camp this spring.
First, is the 25-man roster as I expect it will be constructed on Opening Day:
1B – Mark Teixeira (S)
2B – Robinson Cano (L)
SS – Derek Jeter (R)
3B – Alex Rodriguez (R)
C – Jorge Posada (S)
RF – Nick Swisher (S)
CF/LF – Curtis Granderson (L)
LF/CF – Brett Gardner (L)
DH – Nick Johnson (L)
OF – Randy Winn (S)
OF – Marcus Thames (R)
IF – Ramiro Peña (S)
C – Francisco Cervelli (R)
L – CC Sabathia
R – A.J. Burnett
L – Andy Pettitte
R – Javier Vazquez
R – Joba Chamberlain/Phil Hughes
R – Mariano Rivera
R – Joba Chamberlain/Phil Hughes
L – Damaso Marte
R – Chan Ho Park
R – David Robertson
R – Alfredo Aceves
R – Chad Gaudin
Gaudin may have to fend off some challengers for his spot, though his contract and solid performance down the stretch last year favors him strongly. Thames and Peña, however, will have a bigger fight on their hands as Peña has a few legitimate challengers in camp and Thames arrives as a non-roster player. Including those three, here are the 45 players in camp looking to make their case for one of the final roster spots. They are:
40-man roster hitters (7):
OF – Jamie Hoffmann (R)
The Yankees traded Brian Bruney to the Washington Nationals in December in return for the rights to the first pick in the Rule 5 draft. With that pick, the Yanks had Washington take Hoffmann, a big, 25-year-old right fielder out of the Dodgers’ system who made his major league debut in late May of last year but was designated for assignment in September. Bruney was traded before the Yankees acquired Curtis Granderson, but the Rule 5 draft occurred after the Granderson trade, and Granderson’s past struggles against left-handed pitching are likely why the Yankees decided to choose the righty-hitting outfielder Hoffmann. That puts Hoffmann in direct competition with Marcus Thames and a few others for the roster spot sure to be devoted to a right-handed outfielder.
An undrafted free-agent out of a Minnesota high school, Hoffmann has a power build (6-foot-3, 235 lbs), but hasn’t shown much power at the plate, slugging just .401 on his minor league career with an isolated power of just 118 (for comparison’s sake, Melky Cabrera’s major league career ISO is 116) and a career-high homer total of just 11, set across three levels last year. Hoffmann will take his walks and steal some bases, but he’s not particularly efficient at the latter (68 percent success rate in his minor league career) and doesn’t draw enough of the former to make on-base percentage the focus of his offensive game (his career mark is .355). He has a solid defensive reputation, and has played all three pastures, but his experience in center is limited (81 games career) and he’s spent just 13 games in left, all of them in 2007. Hoffmann did hit .308/.432/.542 against lefties in Triple-A last year, but that performance was completely unprecedented as he’d had a reverse split the previous four years. The Yankees would have been better off using the Rule 5 pick on a compelling arm for the last spot in the bullpen, such as Cleveland’s Yohan Piño. Hoffmann seems destined to be offered back to L.A.
IF – Ramiro Peña (S)
Peña surprised everyone by making the Opening Day roster last year despite never playing a game above Double-A, and thanks to the injuries to Alex Rodriguez and Cody Ransom, he held on to that roster spot clean through the end of June, when he was pushed to Triple-A by Ransom’s return and the acquisition of Eric Hinske. Peña is a strong fielder, a natural shortstop who can also play second and third and filled in at all three for the Yankees last year. Unfortunately, he is also a dud at the plate. A career .255/.315/.320 hitter in the minors, he hit right around those marks in Scranton after finally making his Triple-A debut last July. He hit .287 for the Yankees, but with just five walks and eight extra-base hits in 121 plate appearances and his .340 average on balls in play suggests that his solid batting average was largely luck. The Yankees like the 24-year-old Peña and had him play some center field while in Scranton in order to make him a true utility player, but he enters camp having played just seven games in the outfield. It will be interesting to see if he gets any work in the pastures in Florida. He is the favorite for the utility infield spot, but only because of his incumbency and the shortcomings of his competition.
2B – Kevin Russo (R)
If the Yankees want a utility infielder who can hit, Russo might be their man. Over the past two seasons, at Double-A and Triple-A, the 25-year-old Russo hit .318/.379/.424. There’s no power there (he has just 12 home runs in 1,299 minor league plate appearances), but he’s a .300 hitter on his minor league career and, unlike Peña, will take his walks. The catch is that Russo is a second baseman who can spot at third but has played just six games at shortstop as a pro. That’s what kept him in Triple-A last year and is likely to do so again this year.
IF – Reegie Corona (S)
Given Russo’s defensive limitations, this 23-year-old Venezuelan is the camper most likely to challenge Peña for the utility infield spot. Corona was the second overall pick in the 2008 Rule 5 draft, but was returned by the Mariners. Primarily a second baseman, he has played 242 games at shortstop in the minors and spotted at third, first, and even saw some time in the outfield in the Sally League in 2006. Peña is the better fielder of the two, but Coronoa has the upper hand at the plate due to his ability to draw walks. Reegie walked 65 times against 70 strikeouts between Double- and Triple-A last year, and while his .338 career minor league on-base percentage isn’t particularly thrilling, it’s 76 points above his .262 batting average, which is an above-average Isolated Discipline. Over the past four seasons, his OBP has been exactly one point above or below .346. Corona will have to flash that ability to get on base in camp as it’s really his only advantage over Peña. Reegie didn’t hit in his short Triple-A debut late last year, and he has no power (.342 career slugging percentage).
SS – Eduardo Nuñez (R)
The 22-year-old Nuñez has always seemed like the junior version of Peña, a skinny, Latin shortstop who is slick afield and inept at the plate. A career .271/.313/.366 hitter in the minors, Nuñez appeared to have a breakout with the bat in his Double-A debut last year, but, like Peña’s major league debut, it was mostly batting average (.322/.349/.433). Nuñez does have more power than Peña and Corona, but that’s like being the warmest city in Canada. He can also play second and third, but he has no real shot at the major league roster with such a similar player ahead of him on the depth chart.
1B – Juan Miranda (L)
Miranda is a decent hitter, but his .280/.366/.474 career line, which properly represents his skills, is below average for a first baseman, and as a lefty, he’s not what the Yankees are looking for this spring, though circumstances could make him valuable later in the season. He’ll be 27 in late April and is entering the final year of the four-year major league contract he signed after defecting from Cuba in 2006. That contract might seem like a bust, but it only cost the team $2.07 million, and Miranda has hit .368/.435/.579 in his two major league cups of coffee (23 PA). If Miranda has a couple of hot months as an injury replacement for Nick Johnson this year, the Yankees will have gotten their money’s worth.
CF – Greg Golson (R)
Acquired from the Rangers last month for punchless minor league infielder Mitch Hilligoss, Golson, a former Phillies prospect, is a toolsy center fielder with a brutal plate approach that the Yankees are hoping they can fix. Still just 24, Golson is a solid fielder with a strong arm, tremendous speed, and a bit of pop, but he has struck out 737 times in 634 minor league games against just 148 unintentional walks, a K/BB ratio of nearly 5:1. He’s not in camp to battle for a roster spot. He’s here so the Yankees can get a good look at him, and because he’s on the 40-man roster.
40-man roster pitchers (12):
R – Chad Gaudin
A late-season solution to the Yankees’ fifth-starter problems last year, Gaudin would have been the Yankees’ fourth-starter in the postseason had they needed one. A short righty who won’t turn 27 until late March, Gaudin is already on his sixth team and has started just 75 of his 216 career major league games, but he holds some promise as a swing-man/rotation insurance. Gaudin will walk a few too many guys and give up his fair share of hits, but he’s able to limit the damage by getting some important strikeouts with his low-90s heat and signature slider, the latter of which improved after some work with Dave Eiland late last year. He’s a useful arm to have around, which is why the Yankees gave him a $2.95 million deal for this, his final arbitration year. He should open the season in middle relief, and if he’s not needed in the rotation, could emerge as a solid short reliever as the season progresses.
R – Sergio Mitre
Mitre’s best major league season came under manager Joe Girardi while both were with the Marlins, which was likely the impetus for the Yankees to sign Mitre prior to last year as a post-Tommy John rehab gamble. Unfortunately, the Yanks needed to call Mitre’s hand early after Chien-Ming Wang went down and Phil Hughes was already locked into setup work. Mitre managed just one quality start in nine tries while posting an ugly 6.79 ERA and allowing 1.7 homers per nine innings for the Yankees last year, but he also put up the best K/BB of his career (2.46 due primarily to a low walk rate), which was mildly encouraging.
Mitre just turned 29, but there’s still not a clear sense of who he is as a major league pitcher. He was rushed to the majors in just his third professional season at age 22, jerked between the majors, minors, rotation, and bullpen in each of his three seasons with the Cubs, came down with shoulder problems in May of his first season with the Marlins in 2006, then pitched well for Girardi in early 2007 before elbow troubles drove him to the surgeon’s table, wiping out his 2008. Last year was a rehab year, and now Mitre enters camp hoping to join Gaudin in middle relief, where his groundball tendencies could be useful in double-play situations against righties (righty batters hit just .244/.283/.386 against him last year). That’s an awfully small niche, but there’s some small hope that being two years removed from surgery could allow him to recapture some of his form from 2007, when over his first 17 starts he posted a 2.82 ERA with just five home runs allowed and a 3.10 K/BB. Mitre is out of options and, after having his $1.25 million option declined, was resigned to a major league deal worth $850,000, which means the Yankees will have to outright him in order to let him work on things in the Scranton rotation. Mitre’s career 6.44 ERA in relief isn’t encouraging and there are better, younger arms who deserve a shot at that last bullpen spot should it open up due to an injury.
R – Romulo Sanchez
Acquired from the Pirates for a DFAed Eric Hacker last May, Sanchez is a big (6-foot-5, 260 pounds), hard-throwing righty who will be 26 in late April and combines a fair amount of strikeouts with too many walks (and in his 31 1/3 big league innings with the Pirates in 2007 and 2008 he forgot to bring the strikeouts). Sanchez has bounced between starting and relief in the minors. He spent most of his time in Scranton last year in the rotation, but pitched exclusively in relief in the Venezuelan Winter League, and I imagine he’ll fit better as a reliever in the Yankee organization this year. If so, he’ll be just another big, hard-throwing righty reliever with control problems.
R – Ivan Nova
This 23-year-old Domincian righty hadn’t pitched above High-A when he was taken by the Padres in last year’s Rule 5 draft. After being returned, he landed in Double-A and posted a sterling 2.36 ERA, but his peripherals weren’t terribly strong (1.52 K/BB). He posted a similar K/BB after his promotion to Scranton and wound up with a 5.10 ERA, though it’s worth noting that his ground ball rate halved in the higher league. Nova is said to have three strong offerings (low-90s fastball, change, curve), but lacks consistency and deception, which may be why that stuff isn’t translating into strikeouts. Right now, Nova strikes me as a new version of Jeff Marquez, the groudballing faux-prospect sent to the White Sox in the Nick Swisher deal, except Marquez had better minor league numbers. Given the fact that other teams have shown interest in him, I’m thinking Nova’s value to the team is more as a trade chip than a future major leaguer.
L – Wilkin De La Rosa
The Dominican De La Rosa was converted from the outfield to pitching in 2007 at age 22 and didn’t spend a full season as a starter until last year, when he made three dominant starts for High-A Tampa then had more modest success in 16 starts for Double-A Trenton, where his walk and homer rates spiked and a biceps tendon injury ended his season prematurely. De La Rosa is a strikeout artist who dominates his fellow lefties, which means he has a future as a LOOGY if nothing else. De La Rosa turned 25 yesterday and could start the year in the Scranton rotation, but it’s not out of the question for him to make a Phil Coke-like move into the major league pen later in the year, particularly given that he’s already on the 40-man roster.
R – Christian Garcia
Christian Garcia might be a talented pitcher, but we’ll never find out because he can’t stay healthy. He has appeared in just 31 games over the last four seasons, including just five last year (albeit with a 0.71 ERA in Double-A at age 23). Garcia missed time due to an elbow strain in 2005 and oblique strain in 2006. He missed all of 2007 due to Tommy John surgery, then hurt his knee while still on the shelf. In 2008, it was shoulder bursitis and elbow soreness. Last year it was more elbow surgery (to remove bone spurs and scar tissue). He’s still just 24 and does have that tiny bit of Double-A success under his belt, but he will be on a rehab track in camp, which means his 2010 season has already been impacted by injury.
R – Hector Noesi
A slender Dominican right-handed starter, Hector Noesi has posted some absurd K/BB ratios in his brief minor league career and holds a career mark of 5.74 (!) thanks to a 9.1 K/9 and minuscule 1.6 BB/9. The catch is that Noesi has been a bit old for his leagues because of something of a checkered history. Noesi hit the DL with a strained shoulder in 2006, served a 50-game drug suspension in 2007, then finished that year by having Tommy John surgery. That meant he was essentially starting over in Rookie ball at age 21 in 2008. Last year was his first in full-season ball, and he spent most of it in the Sally League at age 22. Still, his peripherals held in his nine High-A starts as he walked just four men (four!) in 41 1/3 innings, resulting in an even 10:1 K/BB. Noesi throws a low-90s heater that he can get up to 95 mph and compliments it with an outstanding curve with a big break and a two-seamer, all of which he, obviously, throws for strikes. He should make the leap to Double-A this year at age 23. He’ll be helped by his home park, but we should nonetheless learn a lot about his legitimacy as a prospect now that he’s finally reached the upper levels.
R – Andrew Brackman
Brackman finally got to pitch in the regular season last year after being drafted 30th overall in 2007 and almost immediately having Tommy John surgery. It didn’t go that well, as evidenced by his 5.91 ERA and 2-12 record. The 6-foot-10 Brackman threw just 149 1/3 innings in college due to his basketball commitments and the 34 innings he threw in the Arizona Fall League last autumn were essentially rehab. To say that he might have been rusty to start last year is an understatement. It’s amazing that he remembered how to pitch, and an argument could be made that he actually didn’t. A mid-season visit from organizational pitching guru Nardi Contreras helped reign in his mechanics, and a late-season shift to the bullpen helped him recapture some of his lost velocity and produced superior results. He’ll return to the rotation this spring, likely with High-A Tampa. The Yankees remain hopeful that his mid-90s velocity and hammer curve will produce a valuable pitcher who can move quickly, but don’t hold your breath waiting for him.
R – Mark Melancon
After sitting out 2007 following Tommy John surgery, righty reliever Mark Melancon raced up the ladder in 2008 and seemed poised to be an important part of the Yankees’ home-grown bullpen in 2009, but while he was outstanding for Triple-A Scranton (2.89 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 9.2 K/9, 1.9 BB/9, 4.91 K/BB, just three homers allowed in 53 innings), he looked shaky in three of his four cups of coffee in the majors, walking as many as he struck out and also hitting four batters and uncorking three wild pitches in just 16 1/3 innings. The exception was a four-game stint in late-July/early-August in which he made four scoreless appearances, allowed just one of five inherited runners to score and struck out five in 5 2/3 innings against just one walk (though he did also hit a batter) only to be inexplicably sent down in favor of retread Josh Towers. Melancon will be 25 by Opening Day and has nothing left to prove in the minors, but the Park signing will likely send him back to Scranton to start the year. Hopefully he’ll be back in the majors to stay by mid-season.
R – Jonathan Albaladejo
Acquired from the Nationals after the 2007 season for Tyler Clippard (who emerged as a valuable reliever for Washington last year), Albaladejo lost most of 2008 to a stress fracture in his elbow. Last year he made the Yankees Opening Day roster for the second straight year and stayed healthy, but was largely ineffective, pitching his way off the team before the end of May and making just four more big league appearances before returning after rosters expanded in September. Albaladejo’s minor league track record shows a strikeout pitcher with great control, netting an outstanding minor league career K/BB of 4.30, but with the Yankees last year, he struck out just 21 against 16 walks in 34 1/3 innings, a 1.31 K/9. Control wasn’t an issue in Triple-A, where he walked just three men (three!) in 36 innings, but his strikeout rate was still his worst since he abandoned starting after the 2005 season. Albaladejo is now 28 and entering his final option year. It’s no surprise then that the husky reliever shed 30 pounds this winter; he knows his Yankee days are numbered.
L – Boone Logan
Former White Sox LOOGY Logan has been traded with Javier Vazquez twice now, first from the Chisox to the Braves prior to last season, and now from the Braves to the Yankees. Logan can bring it in the mid-90s from the left side, which is a rarity, but that’s about all he does, thus his 5.78 career ERA in the majors and the .337/.409/.528 mark righties have put up against him in the bigs. The good news is Logan, who broke camp with the White Sox in 2006 having thrown just 5 1/3 innings above Rookie ball, has options remaining, so the Yankees need not throw this particular brand of lighter fluid on their big league fires.
R – Edwar Ramirez
Is he still here? Changeup artist Edwar Ramirez was an independent league find in 2006, made his major league debut in 2007, and was a solid contributor in the Yankee pen in 2008, but last year looked more like his rough rookie campaign, which meant roughly 2.5 homers and more than six walks per nine innings, more than enough to outweigh the benefit of his still-solid strikeout rate. His Triple-A stats are still eye-popping (1.94 ERA, 12.9 K/9, 4.71 K/BB and just three homers allowed in 102 career innings), but he will be 29 by Opening Day and now looks like a confirmed Quadruple-A pitcher. Given that he’s out of options, the Yankees may be forced to cut him loose at the end of camp, but then that’s the whole idea of a guy like Ramirez; a large part of his value was tied up in the payroll and roster flexibility he afforded the team. With that gone, he should be, too.
Non-roster invitee hitters (13):
1B – Jorge Vazquez (R)
As a veteran foreign league first baseman who trades on his hitting, Vazquez is an upgrade on Juan Miranda. A .322/.369/.594 hitter in eight-plus seasons in the Mexican League, Vazquez made his State-side debut in Double-A last year and hit .329/.357/.578 in 238 plate appearances despite playing in the pitchers paradise of Trenton. Vazquez has tremendous power (in the 2005 and 2006 seasons combined he hit 64 homers in 569 at-bats), is right handed, was originally a third baseman, and has even seen some action behind the plate. He’ll also be 28 in mid-March, doesn’t walk (Miranda does), and could prove to be more than a little redundant if Jesus Montero doesn’t stick behind the plate.
3B – Brandon Laird (R)
Laird made headlines in December when he was arrested with his older brother, Detroit Tigers catcher Gerald Laird, following a bar fight at a Phoenix Suns game. He’ll be looking to put that unfortunate incident behind him this season starting with his first appearance in major league camp. In a perfect world, Laird is a power-hitting third baseman and a steal from the 27th round of the 2007 draft, but his ability to stick at third base (he’s not terribly athletic) is in doubt, and his power didn’t show up at High-A Tampa last year (.415 slugging, just 13 homers). He fared better in the Arizona Fall League (.333/.406/.633), though the small sample and hitting-friendly environment surely helped. Just 22 and with Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira locked in at the major league corners, Laird can take his time. Indeed, with power-killing Trenton his next logical step on the ladder, he might be better off heading back to Tampa to start the year.
OF – Marcus Thames (R)
Despite his subsequent seven seasons with the Rangers and Tigers, Thames is perhaps best remembered by Yankee fans for homering off Randy Johnson on the first pitch he saw in the major leagues. That’s fitting as Thames’ primary value is his ability to hit for power against left-handed pitching (40 homers in 620 at-bats against lefties career), but it’s also a bit misleading. Thames’ power doesn’t go away against righties (61 homers in 929 at-bats), and while it’s true that 25 of his 101 career home runs have come on the first pitch (more than on any other given count or pitch) and that he has a weak .306 career on-base percentage, he will work deep counts, seeing 3.91 pitches per plate appearance in his career. It’s really Thames’ poor batting averages, not his refusal to take ball four, that drags down his OBP. Thames has 376 career hits and just 197, barely more than half of them, have been singles. He’s not an athletic player. He’s slow on the bases and in the field (though he does have a strong arm), but he has tremendous power, and as a career .491 slugger in the American League, he’s a perfect fit for the Yankee bench given their lefty-heavy outfield picture. Granderson, Swisher, Gardner, Winn, and Thames would give the Yankees a deep and diversely talented group of outfielders. I would be shocked if Thames doesn’t make the team.
OF – David Winfree (R)
Thames presence is bad news for Winfree and Reid Gorecki, a couple of righty-hitting veteran minor league outfielders who otherwise might have only had to outperform Hoffmann in order to fill that righty bench outfielder spot on the Opening Day roster. Winfree was a corner infielder in the Twins organization before moving to right field in 2008. Still just 24, he’s a solid 6-foot-3, 230 pounds and has shown a bit of pop, though not the sort of power his frame or new position would suggest (he slugged .460 for Triple-A Rochester last year and his single-season high for home runs is 19, set in Double-A in 2008). Winfree doesn’t walk very much and is only a career .270 hitter in the minors. Still, there’s something here, particularly if you look at him as a four-corners sub, something like a right-handed Eric Hinske. He’ll likely start for Scranton.
OF – Reid Gorecki (R)
Drafted out of the University of Delaware by the Cardinals, Long Island native Gorecki got his first taste of the majors with the Braves last year. Capable of playing all three outfield positions, he has a bit of pop, will draw some walks, and steal some bases, but doesn’t excel at any of those and has struggled with his batting average at times on his way up. He’s also 29, which puts him on the wrong side of his development curve. If the 24-year-old Winfree still holds some promise, Gorecki is what he is, and it ain’t much, but for minor league depth, the Yankees could do worse than a player with a diverse skill base like Gorecki’s.
OF – Jon Weber (L)
A classic minor league journeyman, Weber is a 32-year-old corner outfielder who entered professional baseball as an undrafted free agent out of Texas Tech and arrives in his eighth organization, not counting two independent league teams, with a career .289/.365/.473 minor league line and 1,448 Triple-A at-bats on his resume without ever having been to the Show. Don’t expect that to change this year. The Yankees have little need for a left-handed corner outfielder whose power and speed have already begun to fade with age and improved competition. Weber will take his walks and had a big year for Triple-A Durham in the Rays’ system last year, but that last was likely a fluke. He’s here for organizational depth only.
OF – Colin Curtis (L)
The Yankees’ fourth-round pick out of Arizona State in the otherwise strong 2006 draft, Colin Curtis’s brief flirtation with prospectdom already seems a thing of the past. He enters camp as a 25-year-old left fielder who has hit .250/.311/.359 in 1,343 plate appearances above High-A. He’s only there because he finished 2009 in Triple-A. Expect him to be among the earliest cuts.
C – Mike Rivera (R)
One of the many seemingly interchangeable veteran Quadruple-A backup catchers bouncing around the game, Mike Rivera joins his seventh organization at the age of 33. He spent the last four years as a backup in Milwaukee, hitting a solid .260/.333/.423 in just 374 at-bats, yet failing to wrestle the starting job from the exorable Jason Kendall because Rivera is the rare member of his breed who doesn’t have a strong defensive reputation. Rivera, who once hit 33 homers in a single Double-A season, is a nice upgrade on the punchless Kevin Cash and Chris Stewart, but enters camp as insurance against Francisco Cervelli’s struggles, not as a rival for the Opening Day backup job.
C – Jesus Montero (R)
I’m hoping we get an extended look at Montero this spring. The Yankees top prospect had a huge 2009, hitting .337/.389/.562 in a season split between High-A and Double-A at the tender age of 19. Unfortunately, that campaign was ended early when a pitch fractured his left middle finger inside his glove, prompting surgery. Montero’s ability to remain a catcher is likely to become the new Joba debate very soon, as he could start the year in Triple-A and force his way onto the major league roster as soon as the latter half of this year if he keeps hitting the way he has throughout his brief professional career. Montero has a strong arm (he threw out 32 percent of Double-A basestealers last year), but his mobility and mechanics behind the plate are still in question (he threw out just 13 percent of basestealers in High-A before his promotion), and it could well be that his bat will demand he be promoted before he has time to work out those kinks. That is what happened to the Brewers’ Ryan Braun, who couldn’t stick at third base in the majors but is so productive that he’s still among the most valuable players in the game as a left fielder. Montero has similar potential, even if it winds up manifesting itself in right field or at DH. As was often the concern with Joe Mauer, injuries such as his broken finger could make catching too large a risk to take with such an elite offensive talent. Still, the Yankees appear willing to give him every opportunity to stay behind the plate, as well they should.
C – Austin Romine (R)
If Montero moves, Romine would be in line to become the next Yankee catcher. The 2007 second-round pick is just a year older than Montero and more athletic, particularly behind the plate, where he threw out 30 percent of opposing basestealers in High-A last year. He’s nothing special at the plate, but has some modest pop, which could develop as he gets deeper into his twenties, as well as a bit of speed on the bases. He’s also moving fairly quickly for his age and is likely to be the starting catcher in Double-A this year at age 21. If Romine can learn to take a walk, his strong defense and all-around athleticism could make him a valuable starting major league catcher.
C – P.J. Pilittere (R)
In every major league camp, some of the catchers are there just so that the pitchers have someone to throw to. P.J. Pilittere is that guy in Yankee camp. He’s 28 and has hit just .271/.316/.342 in 997 plate appearances above High-A. In a Yankee system stacked with catching talent, he’s organizational filler.
C – Jose Gil (R)
When Jose Gil attended camp in 2006 coming off a .279/.364/.379 performance as an 18-year-old in Rookie ball (where he split time with a 19-year-old Francisco Cervelli), I described him thus:
A converted first-baseman, the 19-year-old Gil is the only legitimate catching prospect in the Yankees’ organization. Very little can be gleaned from his Rookie League performance last year, but the fact that he walked more than he struck out is encouraging.
My how things have changed. Not only is the Yankee system awash in catching prospects (Cervelli, Montero, Romine, Kyle Higashioka), but Gil, still just 23, is not among them. Last year he worked as a backup in High-A and Double-A and drew just five walks against 31 strikeouts. He’s a career .237/.296/.347 hitter in the minors and was a last-minute invitee to camp where he’ll serve primarily as a bullpen catcher.
C – Kyle Higashioka (R)
Higashioka will fill the same role as Pilittere and Gil in camp, though he’s in a completely different place in his career. The Yankees seventh-round pick in 2008, Higashioka won’t turn 20 until late April and will be making his full-season debut this year. A strong defender, albeit with an unexceptional arm, Higashioka doesn’t appear to have much power, but he does have a solid plate approach (26 walks against 31 strikeouts in 247 PA last year). That Higashioka is still something of a mystery due to his age and inexperience helps put into perspective the accomplishments of Montero, who is just five months his senior.
Non-roster invitee pitchers (13):
R – Dustin Moseley
A 28-year-old former Reds prospect who was drafted in the first supplemental round in 2000, Moseley has had major league opportunities with the Angels in each of the last four seasons, only to struggle with injury and ineffectiveness. He enters camp coming off August surgery to repair a nerve condition in his right forearm and arthroscopic surgery on his left hip. Moseley is a finesse righty whose fastball hits 90 mph only on his good days. His four-pitch mix and solid control makes him best suited for starting, but his 5.69 ERA in 23 career big-league starts suggests the Yankees would be foolish to bump a homegrown prospect from the Scranton rotation to make room for him.
R – Jason Hirsh
A former prospect by virtue of being a projectable minor leaguer in a barren Astros system, Hirsh had a solid rookie campaign in 2007 after being flipped to the Rockies in the Willy Taveras trade, but a broken fibula ended his season that August, and shoulder trouble robbed him of the first half of 2008 and likely contributed to his poor performance at Triple-A over the remainder of that season. Hirsh’s peripherals bounced back a bit with Triple-A Colorado Springs last year. The Yankees picked him up in a late-season trade for a player to be named later, then watched him peel off five solid starts for Scranton. The 6-foot-8 Hirsh just turned 28 and is more of a finesse pitcher than his frame might suggest, but unlike Moseley, he’s worth keeping in the Scranton rotation as big league insurance.
L – Kei Igawa
The Yankees owe Igawa $8 million for the next two years and paid him $4 million last year without even considering him as a solution for their fifth-starter problems. Now 30, Igawa isn’t even a Quad-A pitcher, he’s just an unexceptional Triple-A starter who posted a 4.15 ERA and 1.41 WHIP for Scranton last year while striking out a pedestrian 6.5 men per nine innings. The Yankees should buy out the remainder of his contract and release him to open up a spot in the Triple-A rotation.
R – Zach McAllister
With Arodys Vizcaino gone via the Javier Vazquez trade, McAllister has become the Yankees’ top pitching prospect. He’s not an ace in the making, but the 6-foot-6 groundballer could be a solid innings eater in the major leagues as early as next year, giving the Yankees an in-house replacement for Andy Pettitte should the veteran lefty finally decide he’s had enough at age 38. McAllister struggled with a bit of arm soreness while with Double-A Trenton last year, but that didn’t effect his overall performance as he posted a 2.23 ERA with a solid 2.91 K/BB, which helped compensate for a reduction in his ground-ball rate. He’ll enter the Scranton rotation this spring at age 22 with a 2.81 career minor league ERA and 3.34 K/9, and if he stays healthy, he could throw enough innings to avoid the need for any Joba-like shenanigans in 2011.
L – Jeremy Bleich
The Yankees’ first supplemental round pick in 2008, Stanford product Bleich is a Louisiana lefty who grew up admiring Andy Pettitte, though is smaller frame and command-based repertoire (average fastball, good curve and change) made him more comparable to a left-handed Ian Kennedy. Last year, in his first full pro season, Bleich pitched well at High-A, but ran into some trouble after being promoted to Double-A Trenton. His strikeout rate with Trenton was solid (8.3 K/9), but he walked more than half as many men, gave up a ton of hits (84 in 65 innings), and posted a 6.65 ERA in 13 starts there. Bleich won’t be 23 until June and will return to Trenton this year hoping to make the case for a mid-season promotion to Scranton. The Yankees are clearly willing to move him quickly, but he’ll have to earn it. If reports of his fastball getting up to 94 mph are accurate, he just might.
R – Ryan Pope
Not to be confused with recent Yankee farmhand Justin Pope, Ryan was the Yankees’ third round-pick in 2007, the first player ever drafted out of the Savannah College of Art & Design. A right-handed starter, Pope has fantastic control (2.0 BB/9 career), but is otherwise unexceptional. He went 5-12 with a 4.78 ERA for Double-A Trenton last year and should return to their rotation this year for his age-24 season.
R – D.J. Mitchell
A tenth-round pick out of Clemson in 2008, D.J. Mitchell emerged as a legitimate prospect while making his pro-debut in full-season ball last year. It took him just six starts to prove that he was too good for the Sally League, and he proceeded to pitch well after a promotion to High-A, posting a 2.87 ERA with solid peripherals and just one (one!) home run allowed in 103 1/3 innings. That last was due to his better-than 3:1 groundball ratio, which is Chein-Ming Wang territory. Mitchell throws his sinker in the low 90s, but his curve and changeup are nothing special. His ability to improve on those pitches and continue his success in Double-A this year will tell us a lot about his big league potential.
R – Zack Segovia
A second round pick by the Phillies back in 2002 and a former prospect, Segovia has had a rocky career. He lost the 2004 season to Tommy John surgery, and though he recovered to have a solid 2006 and make a major league start in April 2007, shoulder problems led to a poor showing in the minors the latter year, and his struggles to return from offseason surgery led to his release in mid-2008. The Nationals, picked him up and gave him some big league work out of the bullpen that September, then kept him in the pen in the minors last year, the first of his career in which the majority of his work came in relief. The results in Double-A and Triple-A were solid (3.24 ERA, 2.44 K/9), but another call to the Show didn’t follow despite the fact that the Nats had the worst pitching staff in the National League.
L – Royce Ring
A first-round pick of the White Sox back in 2002 once tagged as a future closer, sidearming lefty reliever Ring went to the Mets in the trade for Roberto Alomar then with Heath Bell to the Padres in what seemed at the time to be a minor transaction. He’s since passed through the Braves’ and Cardinals’ systems, and his last major league stint saw him post an 8.46 ERA in 42 appearances as a LOOGY with the Braves in 2008. Ring’s major league platoon splits aren’t terribly divergent as both types of batters get on base about 35 percent of the time against him, the product of a high major league walk rate (5.5 BB/9). He had a solid season out of the pen for Triple-A Memphis last year, but at age 29 that seems like about all that can be expected from him, solid work at Triple-A and perhaps some erratic spot work in the majors.
R – Kevin Whelan
The last man standing from the Gary Sheffield trade, hard-throwing college-catcher-turned-righty reliever Kevin Whelan has progressed slowly in the Yankee system due largely to his alarming walk rates (5.9 BB/9 in 2007, 6.9 in 2008, and 5.5 last year). The good news is he keeps the ball in the park (just three homers allowed in 105 1/3 innings over the last two seasons) and has the strikeout rates those walk rates might suggest (10.5 K/9 in ’07, 10.9 and 11.4 the last two years). Last year, after some solid work at Trenton (with a relatively acceptable 4.6 BB/9), he got his first look at Triple-A and struck out 22 men in 12 2/3 innings, but also walked 13. So it goes for Whelan. He’s been able to keep his ERA down thanks to those Ks and the lack of homers (2.81 career ERA), but until he can find the plate with more regularity, he won’t be an option for the big club. And that’s news to me.
L – Wilkins Arias
A scrawny Dominican lefty, Arias got a late start to his professional career, joining the Yankees’ Dominican Summer League team in 2005 at age 24. Over the last three years, he’s pitched predominantly in relief and put up good-but-not-great numbers given his age and level. Last year, as a 28-year-old in Double-A, he struck out 66 men in 61 2/3 innings posting a 3.65 ERA and 3.00 K/BB, and he’ll likely make his Triple-A debut this year hoping to get some attention as a LOOGY option, though his lack of a roster spot could be a major hurdle given his age and lack of projection.
R – Amaury Sanit
A small Cuban righty, Sanit pitched two innings for the Yankees Dominican Summer League team after defecting in 2008, then made his Stateside debut last year by dispensing with High-A in six innings and turning in solid work out of the Trenton pen before another promotion to Scranton seemed to find his ceiling. I’m not sure what the Yankees think they have in the 30-year-old Cuban, but the reality is likely somewhat less than that.
R – Grant Duff
Duff was the 939th overall pick in the 31st round of the 2004 draft. A 6-foot-6 righty out of the College of the Sequoias, he moved to the bullpen in 2008 with High-A Tampa and has seen his peripherals improve since, though not so much that his performance at pitcher-friendly Trenton at age 26 last year was anything worth getting excited about. Grant can get his fastball into the high 90s, which means he’ll get a longer look than a pitcher with middling stuff and the same results, but he’ll have to capitalize on every opportunity he gets, which he failed to do in the Arizona Fall League, where he walked more men than he struck out.
So there they are, the 2010 Yankee campers. Looking over this list, I’m disappointed that the Yankees didn’t bring in any veteran utility infielders as non-roster players to challenge Peña and company, but then I remember that last year Angel Berroa actually made six regular-season starts for the Yankees and I’m reminded to be careful what I wish for.