The Yankees didn't make any radical changes to their roster this offseason. In fact, of the 21 players most likely to head north with the team, only veteran reliever LaTroy Hawkins wasn't on the team last year. Still, Spring Training 2008 feels like a new beginning for the team. A lot of that has to do with the fact that there's a new Joe running the show. Joe Torre managed the Yankees to a dozen playoff appearances in as many seasons, including six World Series appearances and four world championships. This spring, he's over in Vero Beach, decked out in Dodger blue as that team's new manager. Back in Tampa, the new Yankee skipper is Joe Girardi, who was the Yankee catcher during four of Torre's seasons at the helm, three of which ended in championships.
Over the past twelve years, more than a third of which I've covered either here or at my previous blog, Yankee fans became used to Joe Torre's managerial style, his likes and dislikes, his tendencies, preferences, and pet peeves. Of Girardi's managerial style, however, we know very little. Girardi has been retired for four years, three of which he spent as a broadcaster for the YES Network and one of which he spent as the manager of a newly-gutted Florida Marlins team. Though Girardi's Fish had a losing record in 2006, their 78-86 performance and brief late-season flirtation with the NL Wild Card race was viewed as an unexpected success. Still, Girardi came under criticism for feuding with ownership, overworking his team's young pitching staff, and exhibited an alarming affection for the sacrifice bunt. This offseason, Girardi has often said that he learned a lot from that experience, hinting that his approach as the manager of the Yankees will differ in meaningful ways. Exactly how he'll affect those changes remains to be seen.
We don't really know what to expect from Girardi at any point this season, nor do we know what impact will be felt from the resulting turnover in the team's coaching staff. Mix in the continued emergence of the team's pitching prospects starting with Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, and Ian Kennedy, the continued development (or lack thereof) of Melky Cabrera, and the wide-open front half of the bullpen, and this spring should be unlike any the Yankees have experienced since Torre's inaugural season of 1996, despite lacking the significant roster turnover experienced by the team that year.
While the Yankees once again have the potential to be one of, maybe even the best team in baseball in 2008, the season will ultimately be one of transition. Beyond the introduction of Girardi and his coaches, this will be the first season in which George Steinbrenner's sons Hank and Hal, who emerged from the long shadow of their father's failing health over the offseason, will be in public and practical control of the team. Thus far, Hank has filled his father's shoes as a blustery boaster constantly feeding the media leap-before-you-look quotes, while Hal has worked quietly behind the scenes to support Brian Cashman's team building efforts, though some have said he is as motivated by penny-pinching as by his belief in his GM. This season will also be the last for the original Yankee Stadium, which conjures up a flood of mixed emotions from sadness over the loss of the landmark which, for many Yankee fans, is something of a second home, to cynicism borne from the Stadium's loss of character following renovation 30 years ago and the design flaws apparent in the new stadium, to anger over the mistreatment of the community and the city both physically and financially as a result of the construction project, to excitement over the state-of-the-art structure rising in the Bronx, despite it's already apparent flaws and the damage inflicted by its creation.
On the field, this will also be a year of transition, as the young starters will have to cope with innings limits as they build up their stamina for their first full major league seasons. Those extra innings in the rotation will be consumed by Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina, two long-time Yankees who are likely taking their final tour in pinstripes. Similarly, a long-term fix at first base is being put off one more year as Jason Giambi plays out the final year of his contract. This season also finds the Yankees waiting out the final year of their commitments to Kyle Farnsworth and Carl Pavano, which will leave Kei Igawa as the last barnacle stuck to Brian Cashman's hull. Then again, Cashman's in his walk year as well.
There's a lot of change on the horizon for the Yankees, and a lot of change already at hand. With all of that looming in the background, let's get to the business at hand and take a look at the 69 players Girardi and his coaches will have to sort through in Tampa this spring in order to settle on the 25-man Opening Day roster of the 2008 New York Yankees.
Twenty-One of the 25 spots on the Yankees' Opening Day roster are more or less spoken for as follows:
1B Jason Giambi (L)
2B Robinson Cano (L)
SS Derek Jeter (R)
3B Alex Rodriguez (R)
C Jorge Posada (C)
RF Bobby Abreu (L)
CF Melky Cabrera (S)
LF Johnny Damon (L)
DH Hideki Matsui (L)
R Shelley Duncan (1B/OF)
S Wilson Betemit (IF)
R Jose Molina (C)
L Andy Pettitte
R Chien-Ming Wang
R Phil Hughes
R Mike Mussina
R Ian Kennedy
R Mariano Rivera
R Joba Chamberlain
R Kyle Farnsworth
R LaTroy Hawkins
Though the Yankees haven't made any official statements about Joba Chamberlain's role, it is expected that he'll open the season in the bullpen in order to allow the team to limit his total innings for the season, then shift to the rotation later in the year with an eye toward being a full-time starter in 2009. If that is indeed the case, the player from the above list who has the most tentative hold on his roster spot is Shelley Duncan. Duncan is, after all, a 28-year-old first baseman and corner outfielder who has just 34 games of major league experience and a career .257/.337/.468 minor league line even after his breakout 2007 performance at triple-A Scranton. It's very possible that Duncan simply experienced a considerable jump in production at his typical peak age of 27 and will regress significantly this season and continue to decline gradually going forward. Still, Duncan enters the season as something like the hot hand despite the sports hernia that slowed him in September and the blood clot in his shoulder which was treated over the winter.
With Duncan in place and no real soft spot in the lineup save perhaps for Cabrera, who will continue to get every chance to break out, the Yankees could actually get away with having a three-man bench as Betemit can play all four infield positions and provides lefty power (he's a far inferior hitter from the right side), and Duncan can play first or the outfield corners while providing righty power. Johnny Damon, meanwhile, can serve as a backup to Melky Cabrera in center field, which, with Jose Molina as backup catcher, gives the Yankees coverage at every position. Still, with Giambi, Hideki Matsui (who will begin spring training at something less than full strength due to offseason knee surgery), Damon, and Derek Jeter all showing signs of age, it would behoove the Yankees to have an extra man if for no other reason than to give their veterans some necessary rest in blowouts and double-headers. Here are the contenders for that fourth bench spot:
Position players on 40-man roster (3):
IF Alberto Gonzalez (R)
Primarily a shortstop, the Attorney General (even though his namesake no longer holds the post, it's still a great nickname, particularly as it echoes his actual initials) can fill in at second and third, which is his ticket to the majors, as he's your basic good-field/no-hit futility infielder. The Venezuelan Gonzalez came to the Yankees in last winter's Randy Johnson trade with a stellar fielding reputation, though I didn't see anything particularly impressive in the brief glimpses I caught of him in spring training and his September call-up to the majors. He'll spend most of the season as the starting shortstop in Scranton hoping that a repeat of the level at age 25 will result in enough improvement at the plate to raise his stock.
1B Juan Miranda (L)
A Cuban defector who spent a couple of years working out in the Dominican Republic while hoping to land an American contract, Miranda surprisingly fulfilled expectations last year with a decent half-season in the Florida State League followed by a solid showing with double-A Tampa. There's nothing revelatory about Miranda's abilityhe's an immobile first baseman who hits for power and draws a few walks but strikes out twice as oftenbut given his time away from the game, his professional debut was somewhat encouraging. He should be the starting first-sacker in Scranton this year and, if he's able to build off last season, could force his way into the Yankees' middling first-base situation. His official birth date tells us he'll be 25 in April, which means he's probably something like a lefty Shelley Duncan minus the ability to play the outfield.
C Francisco Cervelli (S)
A young switch-hitting catcher who will start the season in double-A at age 22 and has a career .379 on-base percentage, Cervelli is developing into something like a legitimate catching prospect. That said, he currently projects as more of a league-average starter than anything resembling what the Yankees have become accustomed to with Jorge Posada. Cervelli has very little power (in 575 career plate appearances he has just seven homers and triples combined), and strikes out twice as often as he walks. He does, however, have an excellent defensive reputation and, like Posada, was moved from the infield to catcher in the minors (prior to the 2005 season), which should give him both a steeper learning curve and perhaps some extra longevity. If he sees the majors at all this year, it will be as a September call-up.
Non-roster position players (20):
3B Morgan Ensberg (R)
The late-blooming Ensberg seized the Astros' third base job in 2003 at age 27 and hit .291/.377/.530. He then slumped in 2004 only to rebound in Houston's pennant-winning season with to hit .283/.388/.577 with 36 homers and 101 RBIs, making the All-Star team and finishing fourth in the MVP voting. He turned 30 at the end of that season and hasn't gotten his average past .235 since then as both his power and, perhaps as a result, his patience have slowly eroded. Always a lefty-masher, he started to lose playing time as he began to struggle against his fellow righties and was dumped on the Padres for a player to be named at last year's trading deadline. Now 32, Ensberg arrives in Yankee camp hoping to beat out Shelley Duncan as the team's right-handed first-base option despite having played just five professional games at first, a total that includes four minor league games in 2002 and a lone game for the Padres last August. Still, the transition shouldn't be particularly tough for Ensberg, who was a solid defensive third baseman. Ensberg will walk more and strikeout less than Duncan, but can no longer match Shelley's power.
IF Nick Green (R)
Futility infielder Nick Green was purchased by the Yankees from the Devil Rays in late May of 2006 and in his first start as a Yankee, which came against the Mets on June 2, he hit a home run, stole a base, and made several spectacular fielding plays at second base. He then hit .236/.276/.347 over the remainder of his Yankee career, a good match for his career rates, and spent last year in the minors for the Pirates and Mariners save for an 0 for 7 with the M's in September. The 29-year-old Green seemed like a decent gent in his first Yankee stint, but the only reason he should be able to slip past Alberto Gonzalez on the depth chart is if the Yankees want to give Gonzalez another full season of development time in triple-A.
IF Chris Woodward (R)
Woodward was something of a default starting shortstop for the Blue Jays from 2002 to 2004. He then spent two years as "Super Joe" McEwing's replacement with the Mets, playing every position but pitcher and catcher while hitting .246/.310/.347 and becoming inexplicably popular among talk-radio listeners. With the Braves last year, Woodward stuck to the infield and fell well short of his pitiful Mets production. Now 31, he's inferior to Green, which is impressive.
IF Cody Ransom (R)
A long-time minor league shortstop in the Giants' organization, Ransom has spent the past three seasons bouncing around the minors with the Cubs, Rangers, and Astros, slowly shifting over to third base in the process due to his poor defense at short. Curiously, Ransom has experienced a power surge coinciding with his shift to the power position, hitting 49 homers over the past two seasons in the Pacific Coast League. During that time, he's also played all four infield positions and a smidge of outfield, which makes him a dark horse in the utility man picture. Still, he'll be 32 on Sunday and has just 140 big-league at-bats under his belt, his 35 at-bats as a September call-up with the Astros last year being his first big-league action since 2004.
2B Bernie Castro (S)
Castro was signed by the Yankees as a minor league free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 1997 and traded to the Padres after the 2001 season for minor league outfielder Kevin Reese. He's since drifted through the Orioles' and Nationals' organizations. Unlike Gonzalez and the three players above, he's exclusively a second baseman, having never played at another infield position in the pros (though he has made a few appearances in the outfield). As a speedy slap-hitter with no power or patience, he doesn't do enough on offense to overcome his defensive limitations.
1B Eric Duncan (L)
Things haven't gone well for the Yankees' 2003 first-round pick from Florham Park, NJ. As a 20-year-old in double-A in 2005, he hit a limp .235/.326/.408. Just being at that level at that age was impressive, but the Yankees inexplicably rushed him to triple-A to start the following season. They also chose that moment to finally move him across the diamond from third to first base, as much due to his poor work at the hot corner as to his being blocked by Alex Rodriguez in the majors. As one might have expected, Duncan was in way over his head and soon landed back in double-A, where he somewhat redeemed himself, providing hope that he would finally deliver on some of his promise in his age-22 season. No dice. Back at triple-A for the full slate last year, he hit just .241/.323/.389. Sure he's been jerked around, rushed, and is still just 23, but even in his best seasons he hasn't been productive enough for first base, having topped out at a .828 OPS as a pro, that coming in his first season split between rookie ball and the short-season New York-Penn League. If there were some truly impressive partial seasons in his past I might continue to hold out hope, but outside of 59 at-bats in the NY-Penn League in 2003, he doesn't even have that to cling to. Now that "Duncan" makes Yankee fans think of Shelley, I think we can finally call Eric a bust.
SS Eduardo Nuñez (R)
In 2006, Nuñez hit .214/.261/.308 between the Sally and high-A Florida State Leagues. Last year he hit .251/.305/.306 in a season split almost identically between the same two leagues. The Yanks likely invited Nuñez instead of his equally punchless Dominican countryman Ramiro Peña, a stellar defensive shortstop who spent last year with double-A Trenton, only because of Peña's injury problems. Nuñez isn't much of a fielder and is going nowhere fast.
3B Marcos Vechionacci (S)
Twenty-one-year-old Venezuelan third baseman Vechionacci appeared in two double-A games last year, but he has yet to prove he can hit even A-ball pitching, which is a shame as he looks like he could win a major league Gold Glove right now. Sadly, his modest prospect status remains tied to his glove alone, which is particularly damning for a player at a corner position.
OF Jason Lane (R)
Lane has a lot in common with Morgan Ensberg. Drafted in subsequent years by the Astros out of USC, both were late bloomers who were key contributors at corner positions to Houston's 2005 NL pennant, but neither has hit since and both were dumped on the Padres late last year. They're also probably the top two contenders for the fourth bench spot, unless new skipper Joe Girardi decides he'd rather have an extra futility man for small-ball purposes. Lane was a power/patience/speed threat early in his pro career, but seemed to peak in double-A at age 24 (.316/.387/.608, 38 homers, 124 RBIs, 14 steals in 16 tries). Since then he's seen his patience, speed, and power leave him in that order. He had enough of the last left to launch 26 homers as the Astros' right fielder in 2005, but he stole just six bags and walked just 32 times that season. Since then he's hit just .192/.295/.375 in the majors, though he did show some signs of life with triple-A Round Rock last year. Lane can play all three outfield positions (though none particularly well) and has stood at first base a few times in the pros, providing flexibility which could be enough to make the Yankees wonder exactly how much power is left in his bat, but at 31, Lane's not likely to recover much of his previous production, which was marginal to begin with. As a righty pull hitter potentially moving from Minute Maid to Yankee Stadium, his outlook is even more bleak.
OF Greg Porter (L)
A 27-year-old career minor leaguer out of the Angels' organization, Porter is a failed third baseman who has experience at the four corner positions. A big dude (6-foot-4, about 225 pounds, though Baseball-Reference lists him an inch taller and 15 pounds heavier), Porter's something of a left-handed Lane at the plate with modest power, no patience, too many Ks, and occasional speed on the bases. That said, he just hit triple-A for the first time in the latter half of last season, just ahead of his 26th birthday, and while he raked in the Pacific Coast League, it was the first time he had gotten his OPS over .840 since rookie ball. He's in camp as a courtesy and in the organization to plug the holes in the Scranton outfield created by the departures of the two Kevins and Bronson Sardinha.
OF Brett Gardner (L)
College of Charleston product Brett Gardner has moved quickly through the Yankee farm system since being drafted in the third round in 2005, but he hasn't developed a lick of power. A .290 hitter with great speed and on-base skills who plays a strong center field, all he'd need to become a solid major league starter would be a doubles power, but he lacks even that, having hit just 43 two-baggers in 1,312 career minor league plate appearances and just six (6!) homers. That won't do. If he was a switch hitter, he would make a valuable fifth outfielder/pinch-runner/bunter as early as the second half of this season, but the heavily left-handed Yankees don't really need another lefty on the bench. He'll spend his first full season in triple-A this year.
OF Justin Christian (R)
A non-drafted free agent out of Auburn, the slender Christian is a converted second baseman who has developed into something like a right-handed Gardner without the walks, a super-quick center fielder who can hit for a decent average and run, but not much else. Christian, who will be 28 in early April, has more power than Gardner, but not by a lot, and he has no development time left. He's minor league roster filler who will be rooting for Lane to make the big club in order to open up a spot in the Scranton outfield.
OF Colin Curtis (L)
A fourth-round pick out of Arizona State in 2006, Curtis made it to Double-A in his first full professional season last year, but after hitting .298/.378/.412 in high-A Tampa, he didn't hit a lick in Trenton. A left fielder who swiped his share of bases in college, but has done nothing on the paths in the pros, Curtis will have to do something to distinguish himself at Trenton this year as, at age 23, he's not actually young for his level and has never hit for power in college or the minors.
OF Jose Tabata (R)
The 19-year-old Tabata will likely start the season in the opposite corner from Curtis in Trenton, which means he will be young for his level. Exactly what else he is still remains a mystery. Tabata spent 2007 in high-A Tampa at age 18, which is impressive in and of itself, but his walk rate, his success rate on the bases, and most problematically, his already limited powerwhich is the big question mark in Tabata's futureall took a dip. He has also struck out a bit too much in his two full professional seasons for a player who doesn't hit many long balls, and he spent all of last year in right field despite currently having the offensive profile of a center fielder. Still, he's consistently hit for average (.305 career) and has decent on-base skills and decent skills on base. He's also suffered from a few hand injuries which may have slowed his progress at the plate, most recently breaking and having his hamate bone removed last August, which prematurely ended his season. He's still among the organization's top prospects, in part because he's still a teenager, but the Yankees will be eager to see him make some sort of leap this year while making the leap to double-A.
OF Austin Jackson (R)
Jackson made that leap last year upon being seemingly inexplicably promoted to high-A Tampa. Per Baseball Prospectus's Kevin Goldstein, Jackson's swing was fixed by Charleston hitting instructor Greg Colbrunn just before his promotion. Jackson then hit .345/.398/.566 for Tampa. The big question is if the fix will be permanent. If so, the Yankees have turned a basketball star drafted in the middle rounds in 2005 into one of the top outfield prospects in the game. If not . . . well, there's still time for the 21-year-old Jackson to turn into something valuable. He'll start the season as Trenton's center fielder, sandwiched between Curtis and Tabata.
The last five players below are all catchers. It's important to note that most of these guys are here only to serve as backstops for the many pitchers in camp. In other words, they're mostly bullpen catchers, not guys likely to make a name for themselves in the organization. That's all the more true now that Cervelli has graduated to the 40-man roster, giving the Yankees three catchers on the 40-man for the first time since Dioner Navarro was traded away.
C P.J. Pilittere (R)
Pilittere hit .302/.355/.416 in 2006, but his most telling number that year was 24, which is downright ancient for high-A ball. Making the leap to double-A last year, Pilittere went right back to sucking and he's now a 27-year-old catcher with a bad arm who has hit .266/.320/.360 in his minor league career without sniffing triple-A. Nothing to see here.
C Jason Brown (R)
If Pilittere wants to stick around, he could have Jason Brown's career. Brown will be 34 in late May had has played a grand total of 27 games at triple-A and none in the majors. The Yankees are his sixth organization, though he's been here since 2005. I suspect he'll make the transition to coaching soon. I can't imagine another year on the bench in Trenton is what's driving him at this point. To that end, he may have a very different reason for wanting to be at spring training than the rest of the Yankee campers.
C Kyle Anson (S)
A mid-round pick out of Texas State in 2005, rocket-armed Anson played third base in 2005, missed 2006 entirely due to a knee in jury, and remerged as a Sally League catcher last year at age 24. He walked a lot, but didn't hit much otherwise. He'll have to move quick to salvage a career.
C Jesus Montero (R)
A big Venezuelan teenager, Montero is supposed to have monstrous power (though he slugged only .421 in his pro debut last year), but is unlikely to remain behind the plate. That simple description makes me think of him as something like a right-handed Carlos Delgado, which would suit this team perfectly right now. Unfortunately, he's only 18 and has a long way to go before he's major league ready. He could quickly emerge as one of the organization's top hitting prospects, however, even if he does his slugging as a first-baseman.
C Austin Romine (R)
Ever since trading Navarro after the 2004 season, the Yankees have needed to draft a catcher. Last year, the finally did, taking high schooler Romine in the second round. The son of former Red Sox outfielder Kevin and brother of Angels minor league shortstop Andrew, Austin Romine has a great arm (just look at these throws) and some power in his bat, but has gotten mixed marks on his overall defense. Just a year older than Montero, Romine has made just three pro plate appearances (walk, K, 2B), so we really don't know much about him at all. Check back here next year.
Given those options, the identity of the fourth man on the bench will likely have as much to do with what sort of player Girardi wants to add to the mix as how any of these players perform. If he wants the best major league hitter of the bunch, independent of position, he'll take Ensberg (in addition to his overall stats, Ensberg is a career .329/.463/.588 pinch-hitter with six homers and 20 walks in 108 plate appearances). Having Ensberg in combination with Wilson Betemit would allow Girardi to rest Alex Rodriguez and either Jeter or Robinson Cano simultaneously, which he would be unable to do if he were to take another outfielder. For even more infield flexibility, as well as the ability to employ additional small-ball tactics, he could pass over Ensberg for a futility infielder, which could mean Nick Green or Cody Ransom, as the team would likely prefer to give Gonzalez one more season of development in triple-A.
If Girardi wants more outfield flexibility, he might take Lane, though it's worth noting that, while Lane can play all three pastures, he's not a strong defender and is yet another lefty bat. The real outside shot here is that Girardi will take Brett Gardner, sacrificing whatever potential Gardner has left as a prospect in order to have a strong defensive replacement in the outfield who is also a threat as a pinch-runner and can drop a bunt or work a walk as a pinch-hitter. If either Ensberg or Lane flat-out rakes in March while the other struggles, that could force Girardi's hand, but barring such disparate performances from those two, I'd expect this to be more of a roster management decision than a performance-based decision, which leaves the spot wide open for the time being.
As for the pitching staff, if Chamberlain starts in the pen, with Kennedy in the rotation, the decision to put four men on the bench would leave three spots in the pen. One of them is likely to be a lefty, so I'll put the lefties first as we proceed:
Pitchers on 40-man roster (16):
L Kei Igawa
The Yankees response to the Red Sox landing Daisuke Matsuzaka, Igawa appears to have been Brian Cashman's most egregious blunder since wresting control of the Yankees' team building following the 2005 season. Inserted into the starting rotation to start the 2007 season, Igawa made just four starts before being banished to the bullpen with a 7.84 ERA. Six shutout innings against the Red Sox in an emergency relief appearance got him one more start, but he was bombed and in early May he was banished to Tampa to work on his mechanics. Back up in late June, he posted a 5.97 ERA in six starts before being bounced back to Scranton and made just two more big-league appearances in late September. On the season, he walked 4.92 men per nine innings, allowed a whopping two home runs every nine frames, and lefties hit .320/.407/.507 against him. In 11 triple-A starts his walk rate was actually excellent (1.98 BB/9) as it had been in Japan, but his home run rate was still troubling (1.32 HR/9) and he still struggled with lefties (.319/.356/.420). There's some hope because of Igawa's solid strikeout rates, but he seems to have missed his brief opportunity to establish himself in the rotation, his splits suggest he'd be a disaster as a lefty specialist, and those home run rates make him a bad fit for high-leverage work of any kind. The result is a 28-year-old stuck in triple-A hoping for a chance to prove something as a garbage-time reliever.
L Sean Henn
After being rushed into three disastrous spot starts for the big club in 2005, power lefty Sean Henn was moved to the bullpen in 2006 and given a late-season audition. He wasn't great in that tryout, but he pitched well enough in spring training last year to beat out Ron Villone for the second lefty spot behind Mike Myers out of camp. Henn got off to a strong start, but his control abandoned him in late April and after a disastrous outing against the Rangers on May 10 (six batters: single, double, walk, grand slam, two Ks) he was farmed out to Scranton in favor of Villone. In total he made four trips on the Scranton shuttle, never making more than five appearances in any subsequent major league stint, the longest of which saw him allow 27 baserunners in just 8 1/3 innings and post a 17.28 ERA. The catch is that, amid all of that, he had a great year in triple-A: 3.24 ERA, 8.10 K/9, 2.43 BB/9 and just one homer allowed in 33 1/3 innings while holding lefties to a .195/.250/.268 line. Now 27, Henn's the leading in-house candidate for the lefty spot in camp, which opens the door for a non-roster southpaw to take the spot.
L Chase Wright
Chase Wright's 2007 season was something like Henn's 2005. Rushed into a major league spot start from double-A, Wright surprised by beating the Indians in the Bronx, then made history by allowing four consecutive Boston home runs in Fenway. That outing was an early frost for this late bloomer, as he walked more than he struck out after being farmed out to triple-A, which suggests he had become bat-shy. Still, Wright's solid showing and splits in his first crack at double-A remain encouraging, and the Yankees were kind enough to get him in a game as a September call-up to prevent that Boston outing from being a lasting last taste of the majors. Exactly where he'll fit amid the organization's many upper-level arms this season is difficult to discern at the moment, though one thing that is clear is that the 25-year-old needs to continue his work in the minors before getting another shot in the big leagues.
R Jeff Karstens
Karstens 2007 season was both less memorable and less successful than Wright's, though it didn't start out that way. Karstens was the pitching sensation of last year's camp, winning the fifth starters spot out of spring training only to have elbow soreness redirect him to the Opening Day DL. His first start off the DL in Boston came the day before Wright's disastrous outing and, though less historic, was actually a worse start than Wright's. His next start came against the Red Sox at home and ended when the second batter of the game, Julio Lugo, lined a pitch off Karstens' shin, breaking his leg. Karstens returned in August and posted a 9.64 ERA in three outings before being sent down for the sake of the Yankees playoff hopes. In September he faced five major league batters, three of whom reached base. Like Henn, all of that masks an impressive minor league performance in which Karstens went 5-0 with a 1.49 ERA while posting a 1.08 WHIP and striking out 47 in 48 1/3 innings between his rehab work (a start each in rookie ball, low-A, high-A, and double-A) and triple-A (3-0, 1.74 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 27 K against 9 BB in 31 IP). Small samples and inferior competition warnings apply, but Karstens is still just 25, so he deserves to be given an opportunity to repeat the feat in Scranton over the course of a full healthy season this year, though he'll have his work cut out for him in attempting to stay ahead of the organization's higher-ceiling prospects such as Alan Horne and Jeff Marquez who will join him in the Scranton rotation.
R Steven White
Steven White is on the roster by the simple fact that he beat the rush. There's nothing exceptional about this triple-A righty who will turn 27 in June. White got a late start to his pro career after spending a full four years at Baylor, but despite being a power pitcher who entered the minors as a mature college product, he's never dominated his league at any level. Last year he got off to a late start after suffering a neck strain in spring training and pitched well, but not well enough given his competition. With the crush of starters in the upper levels, White's power repertoire (he's a big dude with a mid-90s fastball, but sketchy secondary pitches) would make him good bullpen fodder, though his struggles against lefties (they hit .313/.397/.456 off him in triple-A last year), suggest his value even as a reliever is limited.
R Jeff Marquez
The Yankees first supplemental round pick in 2004 (and second overall pick after Phil Hughes), groundballer Jeff Marquez had a solid showing at double-A Trenton last year at age 22. He'll be part of the Scranton rotation this year and could be a dark horse candidate for a middle relief role with the big club, though he's behind fellow groundballer Ross Ohlendorf in that line.
R Humberto Sanchez
The Yankees knew Sanchez had elbow issues when they made him the primary focus of the Gary Sheffield trade. Indeed, Sanchez was shut down before throwing a competitive pitch in spring training last year and underwent Tommy John surgery in late April. The Yankees weren't terribly surprised, and the surgery gave their other starting prospects time to develop, making what many saw as an inevitable decision to convert the fragile Sanchez to relief an easier one for the Yankees to make. Sanchez will be 25 in late May and will spend most of the season building his arm strength back up, but if his stuff comes back, he could find himself working high-leverage innings in the Yankee pen in 2009.
R Edwar Ramirez
The begoggled Ramirez bewitched minor league hitters over the last two seasons thanks to one of the most devastating changeups in baseball. In 40 innings for Scranton last year, Ramirez posted a 0.90 ERA while striking out 69 men in 40 innings (15.53 K/9), walking just 14 and not allowing a single home run. Major league hitters were less gullible. Though Ramirez struck out the heart of the Twins order in his major league debut and recorded 31 Ks in 21 major league innings, he also walked another 14 (6.00 BB/9) and allowed 6 home runs (2.57 HR/9!) for a 8.14 ERA. The real Ramirez is somewhere in between and hopefully being reunited with triple-A pitching coach Dave Eiland in spring training can help him find the combination that will allow him to set up that changeup properly. If so, he deserves another shot at the majors. If not, he'll be back in Scranton comparing notes with Kei Igawa.
R Brian Bruney
That the Yankees settled Bruney's arbitration case before going to a hearing (falling just short of the mid-way mark by paying him $725,000) would seem to be a good sign for the pudgy fireballer. Bruney made the Yankees out of camp last year and pitched well past the All-Star break with one glaring exception: he walked 25 men in his first 37 innings (6.08 BB/9). That tainted his 2.43 ERA, .220 opponent's average, 44 percent opponents stolen base rate, and mere two home runs allowed to that point. A rough patch over the next two weeks (10.13 ERA) earned him a ticket to Scranton in early August, and he struggled upon his return at the end of the month and into September (11.74 ERA, 3 homers in 7 2/3 innings). It's entirely possible, however, that Bruney was just gassed, as he had thrown just 43 2/3 innings in 2006. He still needs to fix his wildness issues, but at 26 it's still worth having Bruney's power arm available to plug spots in the big league pen.
R Chris Britton
Britton was the something the Yankees received from the Orioles for the nothing of the buyout price of the option year of Jaret Wright's contract. Britton had a solid rookie year for the O's in 2006 at age 23, but never got a fair shot with the Yankees last year despite posting a 2.51 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 9.10 K/9, and 2.20 BB/9 for triple-A Scranton over 57 1/3 innings. One wonders if the Yankees were put off by his attitude or by his weight (at 6-foot-three, he weighs in at nearly three bills); there's no way they could have objected to his pitching. Prior to August 31, Britton was granted just three major league appearances split between two stints with the team across which he retired 15 of the 17 batters he faced. He was unexceptional during his September call-up, but didn't stink up the joint, and he deserves to have an inside track to the major league pen this spring entering his age-25 season.
R Jonathan Albaladejo
Acquired from the Nationals this offseason for Tyler Clippard, Albaladejo is a 25-year-old power righty reliever from Puerto Rico who spent four seasons spinning his wheels as a starter in the Pirates organization before being converted to relief in 2005 and making a successful leap to double-A in 2006. Released by the Bucs in late April of last year, he was signed by the Nationals, caught fire after a promotion to triple-A (coincidentally as a Columbus Clipper), and carried that hot streak over to his major league debut in which he posted a 1.88 ERA, 0.63 WHIP, 7.53 K/9, and 1.26 BB/9 in 14 1/3 innings over 14 appearances. Those strikeout and walk rates are fairly representative of his career minor league numbers. Albaladejo has great control, a mid-90s fastball, good secondary pitches, gets more than his share of ground balls, and is supposedly a few delegates short of a nomination in the ol' coconut (a few writers short of a script?). He just might be the best right-handed bullpen candidate in camp.
R Ross Ohlendorf
The right-handed starting prospect who was supposedly the primary focus of the deal that sent Randy Johnson back to Arizona, Ohlendorf emerged as a top bullpen candidate in the second half of last year as he can get his fastball into the mid-to-upper 90s in short stints. Ohlendorf has always had a good sinker and relies on ground balls, but in relief he's likely to improve his strikeout numbers and was last seen working on a split-finger fastball in the Arizona Fall League in the hope of missing still more bats. With just six major league outings under his belt, the Princeton product would seem like a long shot this spring if not for the fact that those outings earned him a spot on the postseason roster last fall. Ollie was rocked in his one ALDS appearance, but that may have simply been way too much too soon for a player who had just months earlier converted to relief in triple-A. The Yanks may want the 25-year-old to get a little more experience out of the pen in Scranton to start the season, but he'll definitely be in the mix in camp and should be in the pen later in the year if not on Opening Day.
R Jose Veras
The hard-throwing Veras missed most of 2007 due to elbow problems, then after just 12 good-but-not-great triple-A outings, came up in September, walked as many men as he struck out, posted a 5.79 ERA, and inexplicably made the postseason roster. His slate wiped clean, the 27-year-old Dominican should be sent back to triple-A and forced to earn his way back to the big club, which he just might do if he can regain the newfound control he showed in Columbus in 2006.
R Scott Patterson
Not to be confused with the Yankee farmhand of the 1980s who went on to star in Gilmore Girls, this Scott Patterson is essentially Edwar Ramirez without the changeup. Plucked out of the independent leagues in 2006, Patterson has posted some sick numbers in double-A over the past two seasons (1.51 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 10.72 K/9, 1.83 BB/9, 5.64 H/9 in 113 1/3 innings) and retired all nine batters he faced in triple-A at the end of last season. The trick is that there's no trick. Patterson is a tall (6-foot-6) dude who gets by low-90s heat thrown at unusual angles with a lot of deception. That's unlikely to translate to the majors, and at 28, Patterson doesn't have much time to add a wrinkle. Still, with those numbers, the Yanks at least have to give him the opportunity to fail at triple-A this year, and if he succeeds there, they have to give him the same shot they gave Edwar last year.
R Andrew Brackman
The Yankees took the 6-foot-11 Brackman with their first-round pick last June with the understanding that he likely needed Tommy John surgery. He did, having the operation in August. Brackman's not expected to see any game action all year, but is already throwing in camp, the start of the long rehabilitation process. Brackman will be 23 when he finally gets back in action next year, but he's a college product and, as we saw last year with Chamberlian and Kennedy, college pitchers can move quickly. He might prove to be a bust, but he could also be in the rotation by age 24. Given the surgery, his long frame, which can lead to inconsistent mechanics, and the fact that his control was iffy to start with, I wouldn't expect him to move quite that fast. He's on this list because in order to get him signed, the Yankees had to give him a major league contract, which automatically put him on the 40-man roster.
R Carl Pavano
Yes, he's still here. Yes, he's throwing down in Tampa. Yes, there are some wacky scenarios that could see him make the Opening Day rotation (the kids all struggle, some guys get hurt and he miraculously doesn't), but no one is honestly entertaining that idea. If he doesn't accept a minor league assignment or end up back on the DL by the end of March, the Yanks may be forced to release him or trade him at bargain basement prices, which, honestly, would please a lot of people both in the organization and reading this blog.
Non-roster pitchers (9):
L Billy Traber
Traber is likely to be the lefty reliever on the Opening Day roster. The Mets' first-round pick in 2000, he went to the Indians in the Roberto Alomar deal, then became one of a slew of Cleveland minor leaguers to undergo Tommy John surgery in the ensuing years, missing all of the 2004 season after a rough major league debut season at age 23 in 2003. After his rehab season in 2005, he became a free agent and landed with the Nationals, who moved him to the major league pen in September, where he finished the season with 7 1/3 shutout innings. Traber continued to pitch well in relief between triple-A and the majors last year with a few spot starts mixed in, and dominated lefties at both levels (.167/.196/.188 with Columbus, .176/.214/.353 with Washington). The catch is that righties slaughtered him in the majors (.380/.341/.528), which makes him a strict LOOGY. Still, given the various interruptions in his development, there's still some hope that a tweak or two could improve his effect on righties (such as the fix Ron Guidrywho is a spring training instructor this yearhad for Mike Myers which as simple as having him move to the third-base side of the rubber against right-handers), and given his long journey to this point, I'm sure he'd embrace a specialist role with a contending team like the Yankees.
L Heath Phillips
Phillips is from Don Mattingly's home town of Evansville, Indiana. He's also left-handed. That's about all he has going for him. A long-time White Sox farmhand, he had a pretty good first full season at triple-A in 2006, but regressed in a repeat last year as lefties hit .319/.377/.488 against him. Phillips has struggled with his weight, struggled with his focus, and throws in the high-80s. His presence in camp says more about the Yankees' need for lefty relief help than it does about Phillips ability to provide it.
R Darrell Rasner
Astutely claimed off waivers from the Nationals prior to the 2006 season, Rasner has been somewhat snake-bit in his two years with the Yankees. In 2006 he pitched well in triple-A, was called up and put in the pen, had one solid relief outing, then missed most of the rest of the year with mysterious shoulder soreness. Back with the club that September, he had three strong extended outings, two of them starts, all three of them wins, but stumbled in his final start. Last spring he made the Opening Day rotation after Jeff Karstens and Chien-Ming Wang opened the season on the DL. After stumbling in his first outing, he made four solid starts limited only by an inexplicably quick hook from Joe Torre. In his sixth start, he faced two batters, the second of whom broke his hand with a comebacker. He would pitch just 15 rehab innings the rest of the year. Rasner went unclaimed this winter and re-signed with the Yanks. Having lost two years to injury, he's now 27 and has lost some crucial development time. Still, he's done nothing but pitch well when healthy and would make a very valuable spot starter for the major league team should the Yankees find room for him in triple-A.
R Alan Horne
A college pitcher drafted in the middle-rounds in 2005, Horne made the leap to prospect last year with double-A Trenton. In fact, Horne is usually the next name mentioned after the big three of Hughes, Chamberlain, and Kennedy. Given that Horne is 25, has just two pro seasons under his belt, one of which saw him post a 4.77 ERA at age 23 in high-A, and the other of which came in pitching-friendly Trenton (as Steven Goldman explains in this year's Baseball Prospectus, the proximity of the park to the Delaware River tends to prevent fly balls from carrying), I remain a bit dubious, but he'll get a chance to prove me wrong in Scranton this year and could even break in with the big club in relief later in the season if needed.
R Daniel McCutchen
McCutchen chose the University of Oklahoma over the Yankees in 2003, the Devil Rays in 2004, and the Cardinals in 2005, finally coming back around to the Yanks in the middle rounds of the 2006 draft. McCutchen served a 50-game suspension after testing positive for a banned prescription amphetamine in August 2006, but the suspension appears to have been the result of McCutchen failing to file the proper paperwork for his prescription for the ADD drug Adderall. The Yankees converted him to starting last year with excellent results. Though he did most of his work as a 24-year-old in high-A, he was even better in seven starts in double-A, exhibiting good control, cranking up his strikeout rate and suppressing hits and homers. He throws in the low-90s with an excellent curve and slider combination. If he keeps up the pace, he could be knocking on the door in the Bronx by season's end.
R Steven Jackson
The other pitching "prospect" from the Randy Johnson deal, Jackson will be 26 in mid-March and struggled mightily in triple-A last year, showing some improvement only after dropping down to double-A and slipping into the bullpen. Even coming off his strong double-A showing in 2006, Jackson didn't really engender much excitement. After last season he's become downright marginal.
R Dan Giese
Giese is a fun story. Drafted in the 34th round in 1999, he toiled away in the minors for seven seasons with three organizations before deciding in mid-2005 that he'd had enough. Giese retired, sold cars for a while, took a job at and "indoor pitching facility," realized his mistake, and returned to the Phillies' organization the next spring. Rededicated to his craft, Geise moved on to the Giants last year and made his major league debut in September at age 30 after dominating the Pacific Coast League all year. Giese feels like a Scott Patterson/Edwar Ramirez-type, a guy with great minor league peripherals who gave up four homers in 9 1/3 major league innings. I don't expect him to make much of a dent in camp, but it's hard to ignore his 7.79 K/BB ratio in triple-A over the last two seasons.
R Scott Strickland
Strickland was a solid reliever for the Expos and Mets earlier this decade, but Tommy John surgery derailed his career in 2003. After passing through the Astros' organization, he seemed to be back on track with the Pirates triple-A club in 2006, but his strong performance there didn't earn him a call up to Pittsburgh, and last year he experienced what seems to have been another injury-shortened minor league season in the Padres organization. [Correction: per Peter Abraham today, Strickland was picked up by the Yankees last May, but his wife gave birth to twins prematurely before he could report to Scranton, and he took the rest of the year off as a result.] Strickland has thrown more than 40 innings in a single season just once since 2002, which is not a surprising end for a small righty who once threw in the mid-90s.
R Mark Melancon
The Yankees took University of Arizona closer Melancon in the ninth round in 2006 despite the health concerns that allowed him to drop that far. Like Humberto Sanchez and Andrew Brackman, the Yankees more or less knew Tommy John surgery was coming, but figured it was worth the wait for Melancon's talent. Melancon had the surgery in late 2006 and should return to game action this year. Prior to surgery, Melancon had a low- to mid-90s heater with movement, a hammer curve, good command and control of both and high marks for his approach, attitude, and demeanor (what the scouts call "makeup"). He'll be 23 in late March, and if his stuff's still there when he gets back on the bump, he could move quickly.
Wrapping up the pitchers, then, look for Henn and Traber to battle for the lefty job, Bruney, Britton, Ramirez, Albaladejo, and Ohlendorf to scrap over the last two spots in the pen, and the Scott Ericksons and Sidney Ponsons of the world to long for the day when the Yankees weren't one of the most pitching-rich organizations in baseball. While the fourth man on the bench is all but guaranteed to come from among the non-roster inviteesrequiring a space to be cleared on the 40-man roster which could be as simple as placing the rehabbing Brackman on the 60-day DLin order to take Traber north, the Yankees would need to clear a second spot. That could just as easily be Carl Pavano's, as he is likely to be a 60-day-DL candidate himself or otherwise dumped as a sunk cost. Baring those options, a marginal right-handed pitcher such as Scott Patterson or Steven White seems like the most likely candidate to be passed through waivers. That consideration will certainly play a part in Traber's candidacy, as the rest of the relievers mentioned at the top of this paragraph are already on the 40-man.