Pitchers and catchers report to spring training today. The words dance about before my eyes. Oh frabjous day! Callooh Callay! (chortle, chortle, chortle).
It's tempting to say it's been a long, cold winter, but that's hardly true. Long, perhaps, but it's been unseasonably mild. Sure there were cold spells, but early January felt like spring, causing me to prematurely anticipate the arrival of today's date. The two feet of snow that was dumped on New York City this past weekend has already melted down to a few inches. The rocks in my new front lawn are already poking their heads out from under the blanket of white. Yesterday I went to work with a fleece scarf wrapped around my chin and neck, only to be greeted by a sunny and mild day come lunch time.
Unlike these many false starts, however, it appears spring is finally here, and though we were spared winter's harsh sting, it still feels like a mighty long time since that infamous double play put the stake in the heart of Yankee fans last October.
This marks the beginning of my second season here at Bronx Banter and while I arrived last March filled with schoolboy enthusiasm, this year my mindset is more one of calloused determination. The change is less the result of my experiences in this space over the past year, which have ranged from good to great to dream-fulfilling, but of a very busy and distracting offseason and the realization that the Yankee roster I've come here to discuss is not as different from the one I spent eight months of last year picking apart as I had hoped it would be.
Much like last year, the Yankees enter camp with their roster essentially set. Barring injuries (which given the Yankee pitching staff are all but guaranteed), the Yankees will open the season with a 25-man roster that looks like this:
1B Jason Giambi (L)
2B Robinson Cano (L)
SS Derek Jeter (R)
3B Alex Rodriguez (R)
C Jorge Posada (S)
RF Gary Sheffield (R)
CF Johnny Damon (L)
LF Hideki Matsui (L)
DH Bernie Williams (S)
R Andy Phillips (IF)
R Miguel Cairo (IF)
L Bubba Crosby (OF)
R Kelly Stinnett (C)
L Randy Johnson
R Mike Mussina
R Shawn Chacon
R Chien-Ming Wang
R Carl Pavano
R Mariano Rivera
R Kyle Farnsworth
L Mike Myers
L Ron Villone
R Tanyon Sturtze
R Aaron Small
R Jaret Wright
DL: R Octavio Dotel
Indeed, Joe Torre has already told The Star-Ledger that he expects to open the season with twelve pitchers, due largely to the size of his hurlers' contracts. As outrageous as this is, it works out pretty neatly. Of the above 25 men, Kelly Stinnett is the only player to have reached his arbitration years who will make less than $1 million in 2006. Chien-Ming Wang, Robinson Cano, Andy Phillips and Bubba Crosby, each of whom will make the league minimum (recently raised to $327), are the only other six digit players listed above.
This style of roster building has its most damaging effect on the Yankee bullpen, but before we get that far, let's take a look at the Yankees' short-handed bench.
The Yankees have expressed their desire to have designated hitter be a revolving position this year, mixing Bernie Williams and Andy Phillips in with resting starters, particularly Gary Sheffield, Jason Giambi and Hideki Matsui. It's a nice thought, but there are two reasons it won't work. The first is that on the days that Williams starts or Sheffield and Matsui DH, the Yankees will take a hit offensively, in the latter two cases because Williams or Bubba Crosby will have to play defense for the resting star. Under this scenario, it's not unreasonable to expect Williams and Crosby to combine to start more than half of the Yankees games. Throw in the games started by Kelly Stinnett, which are a necessity given the nature of catching and Jorge Posada's approaching 35th birthday (August 17), and the Yankees are working with an eight-man line-up assuming they can avoid injury to the rest of their regulars (which, to be fair, is part of the rotating DH plan).
The second problem is that Joe Torre is not Casey Stengel. He's a pushbutton manager who has benefited greatly from having some big shiny red buttons to press in his ten years in the Bronx. Not to say that Torre hasn't had a hand (or a finger, sorry I couldn't resist) in the Yankees' success, but he has a long-established preference for set line-ups and go-to guys. It's almost a sure thing that Torre will eventually settle on an every day (or at least five out of six days) DH. Similarly, he has an established short leash for inexperienced major leaguers. For that reason I've listed Bernie Williamsan established go-to guy, even if the shine has come off his buttonas the Yankee DH, bouncing the player Torre should settle on to the bench.
That player is, of course, Andy Phillips. Longtime readers know well my affinity for Phillips. At this point my pleas for playing time for the aging rookie might even rank along side the song of the robin as a tell-tale sign of spring for some. Those readers should be advised that Andy's imminent 29th birthday is indeed of some concern. For the rest of you, I'll begin my breakdown of the Yankee campers here.
IF - Andy Phillips (R)
This one's easy:
Those are Phillips's AVG/OBP/SLG figures for the past two seasons at triple-A Columbus. Yes, he's past his prime and has just 49 major league plate appearances (in part due to an elbow injury that robbed him of his age 26 season, but primarily because of Torre's preference for veterans which is again conspiring against him), but those numbers don't lie. This boy can hit. Six of his eight major league hits have gone for extra bases (despite his .167 career average, his major league stats project to 40 doubles and 20 homers over 500 plate appearances, imagine if he played regularly enough to hit .267!). What's more, he's a strong defender at the infield corners, was a full-time second baseman before his elbow injury, and can play the outfield corners in a pinch.
The Yankees reportedly passed on Mike Piazza in part because they wanted to finally give Phillips some meaningful playing time. Obviously I'm dubious, but, much as I myself pressed for Piazza's acquisition this winter (largely because of the expected effect on Jorge Posada's playing time, not Phillips'), Phillips is easily among the nine best hitters on the Yankees' 40-man roster and deserves to play every day.
IF Miguel Cairo (R)
I was one of the few fans or analysts that I can recall who was actually pleased when the Yankees initially signed Cairo before the 2004 season. At the time, Cairo was a welcome alternative to the historically awful Enrique Wilson (59th worst offensive winning percentage all-time among players with 1500 career plate appearances). Months later, he became an even more crucial alternative to Wilson as the two battled for the starting second base job in the wake of the Rodriguez-Soriano trade. Cairo eventually wrestled the job from Wilson and went on to have a career year for the Yankees, which saw him rise to league average (well above average for a second baseman). He then proceeded to be a key contributor in the postseason (.280/.419/.400 in the ill-fated ALCS, one of two Yankees, with Jeter, to hit better in the final four games than in the first three), crediting Don Mattingly for his improvement at the plate throughout.
That winter I made the acquisition of free agent Placido Polanco (who, it should be noted, nearly won the AL batting crown after being dealt to the Tigers last June) my pet project, and argued that the Yankees should retain Cario as a utility man in the hope that his improvements at the plate were indeed the result of a meaningful change made by Mattingly. That all collapsed in the wake of the Womack disaster, and Cairo landed with the Mets where he proved that 2004 was more fluke that fix by hitting .251/.296/.324, numbers far closer to his career averages (.270/.318/.364) than his Yankee performance (.292/.346/.417).
As Cairo's value as a utility man has more to do with his familiarity with other positions than his skill in playing them, the decision to bring him back to the Yankees has little rational basis, especially as the Yankees already have three multi-position infielders already on hand, two of whom are clearly superior players (Phillips being the first), who will make less combined in 2006 than Cairo.
IF Russ Johnson (R)
Johnson is a non-roster invitee to camp once again, but I'll deal with him here because what I wrote about him last year is every bit as true this year as it was then, simply sub in "Miguel Cairo" for "Rey Sanchez." Johnson provides an above-average glove at second and third, can play the corner outfield positions and shortstop in a pinch, knows how to take a walk (.348 OBP against a .264 average in 966 career major league plate appearances), and has doubles power. Add to that skill-set a .292/.377/.480 performance in Columbus last year, which essentially repeated his performance for triple-A Iowa in the Pacific Coast League in 2004 and there's no good reason for Cairo to be pulling down cool mil when Johnson is forced to fight his way back to triple-A. True, Cairo is actually a year younger than Johnson, but Johnson is clearly the superior player.
IF Felix Escalona (R)
Buried in A-ball by the Astros, Escalona was picked by the Giants in the 2001 Rule V draft and picked off waivers by the Devil Rays the following March. Forced to spend the year in the majors despite having never even cracked double-A, he hit just .217/.262/.293 over 157 at-bats in 2002. He was then waived the following May after splitting the first month and a half of the season between the majors and double-A. He finished the year as a part-time player in the Orioles system in double and triple-A. Signed by the Yankees before the 2004 season, he had a fluke season as the Clippers shortstop (.308/.371/.431), followed a more pedestrian effort in the same roll in 2005 (.274/.363/.394). Now 27, Escalona has developed a nice batting eye and can play all four infield positions. Unlike Phillips or Johnson, he may not be an on-field improvement over Cairo, but he should at least be able to match Miguel's performance while earning less than a third of his salary.
Next up the outfielders:
OF Bubba Crosby (L)
Bubba Crosby is the sort of player who makes what I do necessary. A scrappy little white guy who runs fast, plays hard, and wears his socks high, he elicits irrational affection from fans who pay more attention to Manny Ramirez's baggy uniform and casual trots to first base on routine groundouts than his Hall of Fame numbers (never mind that Bubba has admired his three major league home runs with enough flare to make Manny jealous). Fercryinoutloud, he's even named "Bubba!" He's almost a perfect storm of dirt doggery!
Though admittedly and excellent fielder, far and away the best defensive outfielder in Tampa this spring, and the victim of the same short trials that are in danger of costing Andy Phillips a major league career, the 29-year-old Crosby has had just three good months for the Yankees, two of them being March 2004 and March 2005 (Crosby is the rare youngster who has made the Yankees based on his spring training performance during the Joe Torre era, and the only one I can think of to have stuck after having done so). His strong showing last September was a great deal of fun (though at .321/.333/.415, it was almost entirely singles), and given the Yankees' other centerfield alternatives at the time, a welcome reprieve that at least allowed Torre to sure up his defense in the playoffs (though in a twist of bitter irony, it was a defensive play involving Crosby that ultimately cost the team the series), but his minor league numbers (save a fluke season in the hitter's heaven of the Pacific Coast League while in the Dodgers system) don't suggest that there was anything sustainable about Crosby's performance.
Because of his speed, defense and bunting ability, Crosby would be a decent choice as fifth outfielder. The problem is that the Ghost of Bernie Williams is the fourth outfielder.
OF The Ghost of Bernie Williams (S)
Most of you reading this might think that Bernie Williams is a man who doesn't need an introduction to baseball fans of any stripe (let alone pinstripes), but in fact he does. Be warned, the body wearing number 51 is not the borderline Hall of Famer who won four World Championships, made five all-star teams, and claimed the 1998 batting crown. Rather, that charming older gentleman with the grey stubble and doe eyes is the Ghost of Bernie Williams. Be afraid, the ghost may still know how to take ball four (the spirit is strong), but absent a physical being, his power is but a memory (the flesh is weak). Do not mistake the Ghost for the man he once was. It is unknown how long he intends to haunt us, but the hope is that the manager will not disturb him from his place on the bench until he decides to cross over.
OF Kevin Reese (L)
Reese, who is two and a half years younger than Bubba Crosby, is a career .293 hitter in the minors, can draw a walk (.371 career mL OBP), and has seen his power improve to a respectable level over the past two seasons (approximate isolated slugging of between .180 and .200 while leading the International League with 38 doubles in 2005). A corner outfielder with speed who can play center (though it's questionable if he ever should), Reese has no hope of ever starting, but could give the Yankees good at-bats off the bench (as he did in his only two opportunities last year, seeing eleven total pitches in the process of taking a walk and striking out). Sad as it may be, at this point Reese would likely give the Yankees at least as much on both sides of the ball as Bernie's Ghost, but with better wheels and more pop while making the team ten years younger.
OF Melky Cabrera (S)
The 21-year-old Cabrera was thought to be the Yankees' center fielder of the future until he was rushed to the majors after catching fire during his first week in triple-A last July. Arriving with a stellar defensive reputation, the diminutive Cabrera (5'11" my foot) was overmatched at the plate, but shockingly even worse in the field. Demoted to Columbus after six starts, he struggled, eventually dropping all the way back to Trenton.
From my perspective the jury's out on Cabrera. Many a young player has been ruined by being rushed to the majors, even if they were quickly returned to the minors. The experience can crush a young player mentally, shattering the confidence that is so important to an athlete competing at so high a level. Looking over his minor league stats, save for a half season in the single-A Midwest League, I can't find any support for his status as a top prospect. Having seen Cabrera's fielding in person, I'm even more dubious.
OF Kevin Thompson (R)
A speedy center fielder, the 26-year-old Thompson cracked triple-A for the first time this past July after tearing up double-A to the tune of .329/.432/.565 in 313 at-bats. Sounds good, but Thompson has a career-long trend of needing two cracks at each new level before catching up with the league. Indeed he hit just .249/.335/.359 in his 209 at-bats with the Clippers last year. What's more, he actually spent the bulk of three seasons in Trenton before mastering double-A (though his .281/.362/.444 in his second double-A season wasn't awful and his continued improvement in his third season there was very encouraging). Still, he doesn't project to make any sort of impact at the major league level before 2007, at which point he'll be 27 years old.
In addition to the players listed above (all of whom, save Johnson, are on the 40-man roster), the Yankees have invited the following infielders and outfielders to camp:
1B Eric Duncan (L)
One of the top prospects in the Yankee system, the 21-year-old Duncan had a rough year in his first season in double-A in 2005, but then rebounded to capture the MVP Award of the admittedly offense-friendly Arizona Fall League with a .362/.423/.734 performance. Having moved from first to third in the AFL, he's expected to return to Trenton to play first base this year. With Jason Giambi's contract extending through 2008, Duncan, the pride of Florham Park, NJ, is right on schedule to assume the first base job at age 24 in 2009.
3B Marcos Vechionacci (S)
Ranked as the Yankees' seventh best prospect and best defensive infielder by Baseball America, Vechionacci spent the entire 2005 season in the Sally League at the tender age of 18. In addition to his defense, he's impressed on the bases and in his strike zone judgement. All of which is encouraging, as he has plenty of time to work on his average and develop power. As indefinite as Alex Rodriguez's contract may seem, Vechionacci will still be just 24 in Rodriguez's option year of 2011.
2B Danny Garcia (R)
A product of the Mets' system who spent 2005 with the Indians' triple-A club at Buffalo, the soon-to-be 26-year-old Garcia has shown a good eye at times, including during a stint on the Mets' bench in 2004 when he posted a .371 on-base percentage despite a .232 average. He hasn't shown any power, however, since graduating double-A in mid-2003, and has never hit for much average. He's also not much of a defensive second baseman.
SS Ramiro Peña (S)
The 20-year-old Peña split 2005 between single-A Tampa and double-A Trenton, failing to make much of an impact at either level.
1B/OF Mitch Jones (R)
Drafted by the Yankees out of Reggie Jackson's alma matter in 2000, Jones is a classic all-or-nothing slugger who finally cracked triple-A at age 27 last season. True to form, Jones hit .268/.347/.507 with 30 doubles and 27 homers while striking out 174 times. He also won the International League All-Star home run derby. Jones' increased time at first base is an indication of the quality of his outfield defense.
OF Chris Prieto (L)
A career minor leaguer in his seventh system, the 33-year-old Prieto made his major league debut with three hitless plate appearances with the Angels last September. Prieto is another guy who will take his walks, but lacks meaningful power.
Finally, before we get to the pitchers, here's a quick look at the catchers in camp. Remember, most of these guys are here simply to give the pitchers someone to throw to. Indeed, other than Wil Nieves, all of the below are non-roster invitees.
C Wil Nieves (R)
I've been a bit hard on Nieves. The guy has consistently hit for average, posting a .294 career mark in the minors. The problem is he won't take ball four and doesn't have much pop either. Now 28, the prospect of Nieves being one Jorge Posada injury away from backing up Kelly Stinnett at the big league level should send a shiver down the spine of any Yankee fan.
C Ben Davis (S)
The second overall pick in the 1995 amateur draft, Davis never panned out for the Padres, making his biggest impact when he broke up a Curt Schilling no-hitter by bunting for a base hit in the eighth inning. That season was Davis's only as a full-timer. Dealt to Seattle that winter, he formed an excessively futile platoon with Dan Wilson before moving to the White Sox in the Freddy Garcia deal in 2004. Davis then lost his back-up job to Chris Widger in Sox camp in 2005, spending the first half of their Championship season in triple-A Charlotte before undergoing Tommy John surgery in late June. All totaled, the 29-year-old Davis inability to hit at the major league level is well established, as is his reputation as something of a jerk, though it's hard to dislike a guy who screwed over Schilling so memorably.
C David Parrish (R)
Another first round pick who can't hit a lick. Parrish was taken 28th overall by the Yankees in the 2000 draft and has yet to post an OPS over .700 above A-ball. Parrish will be 27 in June and is coming off his first full season in triple-A in which he hit a miserable .247/.314/.367.
C Omir Santos (R)
Also known as "Pito," the soon-to-be 25-year-old Santos was the Trenton Thunder's starting catcher in 2005. Guess what? He can't hit either.
C Jason Brown (R)
A career minor leaguer who will be 32 in May, Brown has appeared in just ten games above double-A and spent 2005 in the Yankees' organization with double-A Trenton. A late replacement for the 21-year-old Irwil Rojas, Brown will likely never make it to the show, making his appearance in Yankee camp this spring the closest he will ever come to the major leagues.
C Jose Gil (S)
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.
As for the pitchers, these guys will be catching, an article on MLB.com today suggests that only Johnson, Mussina and Pavano have guaranteed spots in the rotation, with Chacon, Wang and Wright set to battle it out for the final two spots. Of course, Carl Pavano's back could solve that problem by taking Meat out of the picture. Of course, aches and pains are a normal part of spring training. I guarantee you'll be reading about Jorge Posada's sore whatsit, Gary Sheffield's strained whichit, and Randy Johnson's tweaky flubdub in the next week or so and overreacting to each. Still, Pavano is being shut down for two weeks and his injury history doesn't inspire confidence. At least Meat is friendlier than Kevin Brown.
Assuming Pavano's health and the 25-man roster listed atop this post, the Yankees will have four men in the pen who could make emergency starts: Wright, Small, Villone and Sturtze. That said, the Yankees have better options elsewhere in camp.
On the 40-man roster:
L Sean Henn
Henn was unfairly rushed up from double-A last May, bombing in his major league debut against the Devil Rays and then twice more in a second call-up in June. Unlike Melky Cabrera, however, his failure in the cave did not spoil his return to the minors. In sixteen starts for Columbus, he posted a 3.23 ERA and a 2.37 K/BB ratio while holding hitters to less than a hit per inning. Soon to be 25, Henn deserves a second shot should injury or regression (I'm looking at you Shawn Chacon!) open up a spot in the rotation. His experience in the majors last year may even prove to be a benefit upon his return.
R Darrell Rasner
The 25-year-old Rasner was claimed off waivers from the Nationals earlier this week. Thanks, Jim Bowden. Rasner has yet to pitch an inning in triple-A, but did make one brief start in a September call up for the Nats last year, following that with 4 2/3 scoreless innings out of the pen. In double-A Harrisburg in 2005, Rasner posted a 3.59 ERA, an excellent 3.30 K/BB (thanks to a stingy 1.74 BB/9) and allowed exactly one hit per inning.
R Matt DeSalvo
A slight right-handed starter, the 25-year-old DeSalvo is the Yankees dark horse pitching prospect. Signed as an undrafted free agent in 2003, DeSalvo continues to be overlooked because, much like Colter Bean, he doesn't throw hard. All he does is get guys out. Here's his composite minor league line from three seasons split between single and double-A:
If DeSalvo has a weakness it's that he walks too many guys, which could be trouble for a pitcher who relies on location and deception. That said, it's interesting to note that when his walk rate has dipped, his strikeout rate has dipped along with it, suggesting that his stuff just moves so much that it's hard to keep in the zone. DeSalvo, who's not dissimilar from Chien-Ming Wang in terms of confidence and his ability to keep the ball down in the zone, combines with Henn and Rasner to give the Yankees a handy trio of 25-year-olds who could step into any vacancies that might emerge in the big league rotation. (see also Steven Goldman's interviews with DeSalvo, his Trenton pitching coach Dave Eiland, and former teammate Ben Julianel here)
R Jorge DePaula
Working his way back from Tommy John surgery, DePaula posted solid peripherals in Columbus in 2005, but at age 27 his moment has passed. He's also out of options, though there's a decent chance that he'll pass through waivers and wind up back in Columbus, where he'd be well advised to start working as a swing man as he's dropped several places on the Yankees organizational depth chart.
R Jeffrey Karstens
The 23-year-old Karstens spent all of 2005 in the Trenton rotation alongside DeSalvo. Unlike DeSalvo, however, there's not a lot of reason to get excited about Karstens. Only one thing sticks out about his stat line. Fortunately, it's the most important: his K/BB ratio. At 3.54 in 375 minor league innings and 3.50 in double-A in 2005, Karstens K/BB is promising, but until he can post an ERA below 4.00 in a full-season league, there won't be much reason to get excited.
R Philip Hughes
The top prospect in the Yankees' system, Hughes was drafted out of high school as the 23rd overall pick in the 2004 amateur draft. In 2005, he dominated the Sally League at age 19, going 7-1 with a 1.97 ERA in twelve starts while allowing just one home run and striking out 72 in 68 2/3 innings and posting a 0.90 whip. He then finished the year by going 2-0 in four starts for Tampa with even more impressive peripherals. The only concern about Hughes at this stage of his development is injury. If he can stay healthy, he could be the best starting pitcher to emerge from the Yankee system since Ron Guidry.
R Stephen White
Drafted by the Yankees out of Baylor in the fourth round of the 2003 amateur draft, White cracked the rotation of double-A Trenton in 2005 with dismal results. He'll likely return there this year for his age 25 season.
With six multi-million dollar starters on the 25-man rotation, it will take a pair of injuries for any of the Yankees trio of 25-year-olds to get the call to the majors, but only one starter needs to get hurt in order for a spot to open up in the bullpen (unless the Yankees wise up and add a bench player instead). Here are the contenders for that potential bullpen spot:
From the 40-man:
R Scott Proctor
Despite failing to outperform Colter Bean or Jason Anderson at Columbus, Proctor was the Yankees preferred bubble-reliever in 2005. I'm still not sure why. Proctor throws very hard, but very straight, resulting in solid K rates (7.36 K/9 in 69 2/3 major league innings), but scary homer rates (1.94 HR/9 over the same span). Curiously, when brought in to eat innings, Proctor featured his curve to surprising effect, including in a spot start in mid-August. Indeed, Proctor was a starter through age 25, last making 25 starts with double-A Jacksonville in the Dodgers system in 2002. His only real weakness that season was his ugly walk rate, which he essentially cut in half after switching to the pen. In his two longest outings for the Yankees in 2005, Proctor walked no one in a combined nine innings (his combined line for those two outings: 9 IP, 6 H, 4 R, 3 HR, 0 BB, 5 K). Now 29, Proctor would likely benefit if the Yankees ignored his short-reliever-like high-90s fastball and instead thought of him as a swing man.
R Colter Bean
Bean is an older, and much larger relief version of Matt DeSalvo. Signed as an undrafted free agent, Bean has long been underestimated because he's a big, doughy, righty side-armer who succeeds with movement rather than velocity. After a uniformly excellent minor league career, Bean finally made his major league debut last April, appearing in just one game as a roster-filler before being returned to Columbus the next day. Back in triple-A, Bean saw a bizarre spike in his walk rate, but otherwise picked up where he left off. For those who haven't already torn out all of their hair over the Yankees continued suppression of Bean, here are the 29-year-old's career minor league rates:
Not to be confused with the 6' 5" reliever in the White Sox organization who goes by the same name but is right-handed and ten months his senior, this 6' 5" lefty relieving Matt Smith finally showed improvement after being moved to the bullpen in his fourth season in double-A, earning a late-June promotion to Columbus, where he continued to excel, posting a 2.60 ERA and striking out 10.73 per 9 IP in 25 relief appearances. Smith's control is an issue, however, as he walked 4.23 per 9 IP in Trenton and has a 4.60 BB/9 on his minor league career. Also of concern is the fact that Smith got lit up in the Arizona Fall League in October.
Incidentally, for anyone in need of more evidence that it pays to be left-handed: Smith and Jason Anderson, who was recently designated for assignment, were born six days apart. Both were drafted by the Yankees in 2000. Both began their minor league careers as starters before converting to the bullpen (though Anderson switched in 2002). Both pitched in relief for the Clippers in 2005. Here are their lines:
490 2/3 IP
*Smith's 2003 season appears to be missing from the Baseball Cube's stats
R T.J. Beam
A 25-year-old righty drafted out of the University of Mississippi in 2003, Beam has yet to pitch above A-ball, but that's about to change. Moved to the bullpen in 2005, he dominated the Sally League and pitched admirably with single-A Tampa, striking out 27 men in 17 1/3 innings. He then went to town on the Arizona Fall League, posting a 10:1 K/BB ratio and a 1.53 ERA in eleven appearances. It seems Beam has finally found his calling.
And, finally, the non-roster relievers:
R Ramiro Mendoza
Signed to a minor league deal by the Yankees prior to last season despite his recent rotator cuff surgery, Mendoza absolutely dominated in 17 minor league innings after being activated in August. Brought up to the big club in September, he gave up a two-out, two-run homer in one inning pitched and never got another call. Should he prove that those 17 minor league innings were for real, however, the 33-year-old Mendoza could vault himself back into the Yankee bullpen picture.
L Al Leiter
Leiter's return to the Yankees 16 years after being dealt to the Blue Jays for Jesse Barfield was evidence of the desperate state the team's rotation was in just after the All-Star break. Wearing the number of former teammate Dave Righetti, Leiter made his second Yankee debut by stymieing the Red Sox at Fenway, but quickly reverted to form, laboring over every batter, going deep into counts and throwing so many pitches that even his best starts lasted just six innings. After Joe Torre repeatedly attempted to push the soon-to-be 10-0 Aaron Small to the bullpen in favor of Leiter, the Yankee skipper tried Senator Al as a LOOGY with mixed results. That experiment continued in the ALDS, proving only that Leiter would have several years left on his career if the entire league was made up of Darin Erstad's. Now 40, Leiter said during the offseason that if he didn't make the Yankees as a LOOGY in 2006 he'd retire. Tino might want to make room at the Baseball Tonight desk.
R J. Brent Cox
Huston Street went from being the Texas Longhorns' closer in 2004 to the American League Rookie of the Year in 2005. His successor in Texas was J. Brent Cox, whom the Yankees drafted in the second round of last June's amateur draft after passing on his St. John's counterpart, Craig Hansen. In 27 2/3 innings for Tampa in the Florida State League, Cox was dominant, mixing in a 3.15 groundball-to-flyball ratio with a K per inning and a .191 opponent's GPA. The Yankees hope he'll continue to follow in the footsteps of Street, who flew through three levels of the A's system in the latter half of 2004, by advancing quickly in 2006 with an eye toward joining the major league pen in 2007 for his age 23 season.
R Jose Veras
The big Dominican rose to triple-A as a starter in the Devil Rays' organization, only to struggle in two seasons bouncing between the rotation and bullpen in Durham at age 22 and 23. After signing a minor league deal with the Rangers organization, he made a marked improvement as a pure reliever in 2005 despite moving to the hitting-heavy Pacific Coast League, increasing his K-rate to an impressive 10.51/9IP, dropping his hit rate to almost exactly one per inning, cutting his homer rate almost in half, and shaving nearly a run and a half off his ERA. Still, there's plenty of room for improvement remaining, especially in his 4.82 BB/9. Then there's the matter of avoiding regression. Curiously, when Veras signed with the Yankees, he made it sound like he'd be replacing Tom Gordon.
L Dusty Bergman
A product of the University of Hawaii-Manoa, Bergman made his way through the Angels system, cracking the big league roster for two innings at age 26 in 2004. After posting consecutive strong seasons for triple-A Salt Lake City in '04 and '05, Bergman was dealt to the Giants in the Jason Christianson deal at the end of the 2005 minor league season. Now 28, Bergman has struck out three times as many men as he's walked in his minor league career and has a combined ERA of 3.31 over his last two seasons (146 2/3 innings) in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.
L Frank Brooks
Brooks is seven months younger than Bergman, but has pitched for twice as many organizations. In fact, he passed through three organizations between the 2003 and 2004 seasons alone, only to wind up back where he started (one of the many Rule V picks drafted away from the Pirates in the 2003 Rule V draft, he was picked by the Mets, flipped to the A's, then claimed of waivers by the Red Sox before being returned to Pittsburgh on the eve of the 2004 season). Drafted by the Phillies out of Florida State in 1999, Brooks first cracked triple-A with the Pirates organization in 2003. A brief turn with the major league club in 2004 saw him struggle with walks and homers, leading to his being waved in the offseason and claimed by the Dodgers, who in turn waived him in mid-April. Landing with the Braves, he pitched well for triple-A Richmond, but was rewarded with just one third of an inning with the big club.
R Matt Childers
Drafted out of high school, Childers was in the Brewers' organization for eight years, picking up a nine-inning cup of coffee in 2002. After signing with the Braves as a free agent before 2005, he turned in his best triple-A season as a teammate of Brooks' with Richmond, earning another brief call-up, this one a mere four innings. Now 27, Childers appears to have maxed out as a quadruple-A reliever, though such a pitcher could be handy should injuries or ineffectiveness decimate the projected staff.
R Kris Wilson
After eight seasons in the Royals' system during which he bounced between starting and relieving while spending significant parts of four seasons with the big club, Wilson, now 29, signed a minor league deal with the Yankees prior to 2005. As a swing man with Columbus he posted a solid 3.06 K/BB ratio (continuing a career trend of good control), but was otherwise unimpressive.
R Mark Corey
The 31-year-old Corey spent parts of 2001-2004 in the majors with the Mets, Rockies and Pirates, compiling a dismal career record (6.02 ERA, 1.61 K/BB, 1.41 HR/9, .286 opponent's GPA) all in relief.
Altogether, the Yankees have a better, deeper, and younger collection of players in camp this year as opposed to last, with several legitimate prospects making their spring training debuts (Hughes, Duncan, Cox, Vechionacci and perhaps Gil). In addition, their trio of 25-year-old triple-A starters should provide excellent insurance for a rotation riddled with question marks and injury concerns. On the other hand, if there's an organizational weakness other than the obvious one at catcher, it would be the outfield, where Melky Cabrera needs to reestablish his prospect status and the major league club is guaranteed to suffer a major drop off in production should any of their three starters hit the DL. Still, on the heels of an excellent draft that focused on college pitching, the Yankees' 40-man roster and list of NRIs shows an increased emphasis on youth, plate discipline and K/BB ratio. There's reason to believe that Wang and Cano won't be the last of the Yankees' burgeoning youth movement.
For those who haven't noticed, links to the stats for all of the above players can be found on the side bar, as can links for the members of the 2005 Yankees who are no longer with the organization