[1] Can Chien-Ming Wang become a 20-game winner? (NYTIMES.COM) Roster Decisions

Recently Departed

It appears that the New York Yankees are up to their old antics, but it is not necessarily the same. As the new year approaches, the team is once again a turn-style for incoming and departing players. Among the many that find themselves out of pinstripes into the free agency market. Veterans such As RP Scott Williamson and his years of shoulder and elbow injuries, SP/RP Ron Villone, 1B Doug Mientkiewicz, and the biggest topic of conversation in baseball, SP Roger Clemens, who spent most of the time nursing injuries and soaking up a ridiculous 4.5M a month. There were several other players of relative to no significance and will not even be noticed by the most avid of fans.

What appears to be the most significant change between the Yankee’s of 2008 and the team’s of the past ten years is that you do not mention the Yankee’s with every top-tiered free agent on the market. Players like Torii Hunter, Andruw Jones, Aaron Rowand, went signed without even a footnote in a news article. Now that…THAT…is something amazing.

Sticking Around

The team wasted no time in its decision-making process to solidify those on their staff that either had contract extension opportunities are free agents that could be enticed away with lucrative long-term deals. Can the organization finally have realized the grass is not always greener on the other side?

One of the first decisions in the off-season was quick and easy, executing the team option on RF Bobby Abreau’s contract. Abreau did not exactly put up the power numbers he has in the past, but with an above .300 batting average, solid play in the field, and the speed in the base paths, the team simply could not have let him go.

They also could not have worked out a long-term deal this year as they had several all-star caliber (dare I say Hall of Fame caliber) players that needed to be re-signed. The team wasted no time in negotiating and ultimately re-signing Mariano Rivera to a 3-year, 45M contract that guarantees (arguably) the best closer in history finishes his career in pinstripes. The second player that needed a long-term deal was perennial All-Star catcher Jorge Posada; the two sides quickly agreeing on a 4-year, 52.4M that assured he will be behind the plate for years to come.

With LHSP Andy Pettitte who considered retirement, the team and Andy’s agent were able to come to a 1-year contract that avoided arbitration and kept this beloved starting pitcher where he is wanted most, the Yankee organization. In the same conversation of pitchers, I am impressed with the team’s decision to sign RP Luis Vizcaino to a 2-year deal, adding depth to a bullpen that well underperformed for the names that were on the roster.

Lastly, we consider the bizarre scenario that is surrounded Alex Rodriguez. The team repeated throughout the season that if Alex was not going to agree to the contract options on his contract, that they would not negotiate with him during free agency. The biggest reason was the millions they would lose from the Texas Rangers if he did not. Brian Cashman went as far as to say that “it is definitive that they will not negotiate with Alex and will seek elsewhere for the services of a third baseman. Many, including myself, felt that they would make a strong run at Boston Red Sox 3B Mike Lowell, however, the “unthinkable” happened… The Yankee organization went back on their “definitive” statement and negotiated with A-Rod anyways. The difference was the absence of Scott Boras, Alex’s agent. The deal was as astronomical as his statistics, a monumental 10-year, 275M contract.

New Additions

The team has never suffered in the offensive production categories and up till recently (the past 4 years), their pitching staff has been just as solid. The steady decline of their bullpen has been slowly turning around as Mariano Rivera has found his cut fastball which is as dominant as ever (except, of course, against the Red Sox) and the emergence of the flame-throwing Joba Chamberlain who has become the Yankee’s answer to Jonathan Papelbon.

In 2007, the team dealt RP Scott Proctor who had worn out his welcome in the Yankee organization with his less than stellar performance, being traded away for the very young and talented INF Wilson Betemit. In 2008, the team has all ready made a splash with the signing of RHRP LaTroy Hawkins. Hawkins, while with the Colorado Rockies uniform, continued to demonstrate average statistics, never regaining his 2002/2003 prowess while with the Minnesota Twins. However, with the scarcity of quality bullpen help, LaTroy will fill in perfectly with the team. LaTroy will likely be used as middle relief, often going 2 innings or more as a 5th/6th/7th inning guy.

Tyler Clippard, once a promising young pitcher in the Yankee’s organization, the team apparently lost faith in the young gunslinger. They traded him this past December to the Washington Nationals for RP Jonathan Albaladejo. Albaladejo had only 14.3 innings in 2007, all of them coming in appearances from a September call-up. He did, however, post some impressive numbers, going 1 – 1, striking out 12, and posting a 1.88 ERA and 0.628 WHIP.

The team did invite 1B Andy Phillips to spring training in hopes that he matures enough to grow into the position and his potential as well as C Wil Nieves, however with the re-signing of Jose Molina, it appears that this will be to grade the prospect as well as get him valuable experience; If for nothing else, to showcase him if he does play well.

Down on the Farm

Brian Cashman has done a tremendous job with the organization’s farm system when you consider how often George Steinbrenner went to that well over the past 5-10 years, often “trading away the farm” for veteran big-name players that were far past their primes. Not shockingly, 8 of the Top 10 prospects projected In the Yankees’ organization are pitchers.

This past season, we saw both SP Philip Hughes and RP Joba Chamberlain make the jump to the big stage. This year, the likely candidate to join the team early is SP Ian Kennedy, sought to be included in any trade talks that involved Johan Santana. There are several pitchers, including RP J. Brent Crox (closer potential) and SP Jeff Karstens, who will be in spring training and has an outside shot of making the team. Karstens had a cup of coffee in the majors last year, going 2-2 with an ERA of 4.79, walking almost as many batters as he struck out (13 BB, 17 K).

Unfortunately, if you are not named Duncan (1B/OF Shelley Duncan and 1B/3B Eric Duncan), than you need to be a pitcher if you expect to make the jump from minors to majors in 2008.

That is not to say that there is not plenty of talent in the Yankees’ farm system, but has more to say about the solidity of the depth chart everywhere except pitching. To add to the woes of the farm, the Yankees just signed OF Jason Lane to a minor league deal and invited him to spring training.

Where to Next?

To say that the bomb squad is back is not only truthful but accurate. When you consider a 1-9 that consists of Johnny Damon, Derek Jeter, Bobby Abreau, A-Rod, Robinson Cano, Jorge Posada, Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui, with Melky Cabrera, Shelley Duncan, and Wilson Betemit coming off the bench, this team appears to be offensively indestructible. There will always be health issues with Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon, but all in all, this is one of the most potent line-ups in baseball.

The potential for trouble starts and ends with pitching. Joe Girardi needs to establish early on whom he can count on to fulfill the starting rotation and bullpen if they plan to stay in the race with the likes of Boston, Detroit, and Cleveland. As it stands today, your starting five is a solid mix of up-and-coming youth (Chien-Ming Wang, Philip Hughes, and Ian Kennedy) and savvy veterans (Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina). On their website they list Joba Chamberlain as the fifth starter, but I do not see anyone who can step up and become the setup man other than Joba. I assume that Luis Vizcaino would be a consideration, as would newly acquired LaTroy Hawkins, but in a division where you are up against the BoSox, my money is on him to be the setup man to Mariano Rivera.

As for the bullpen, beyond Rivera and Chamberlain, there are some real questions. Young RP Edwar Ramirez has shown flashes of brilliance and could turn out to be a fine addition to the bullpen that presently consists of Vizcaino, Chris Britton (who, if shows early on does have the “stuff” to be a setup man), and Hawkins. Additionally, there are several “unknowns” that could emerge, including Ross Ohlendorf who posted a 2.84 ERA in six games and young Jeff Karstens who may prove serviceable at a relief pitcher position until things open up for a starting spot in the future.

The “X” factor is if the Yankees are selected in the Johan Santana sweepstakes. Although recent news suggests that the Twins want nothing more than to trade away Santana, not only to the National League and away from facing him during the regular season, but specifically to the Mets who are contemplating giving up a ton of young talent. Although not impossible, it appears unlikely that the Yankees will go that extra step and give up too much to get him. I expect this team to be in contention for the division regardless of their initial pitching woes… Girardi has a knack of getting young players to perform at “ceiling” level play, early in their careers.

Fantasy Corner

3 Fantasy Keepers:

1. Robinson Cano – He has slowly crept up the charts without too much fanfare, which is surprising, considering the numbers that he established in ’07. Cano is poised at the very least for a 25-100-100 season, taking his career batting average of .314 and making a serious run at “best second baseman” in the AL. It cannot be long before he turns those 41 doubles from ‘06 and repeat performance in ’07 and gets a little more wood behind them.

2. Alex Rodriguez – Fetching, on average, the highest pre-set cost in salary cap leagues as well as landing the most money in fantasy auction leagues, A-Rod continues to demonstrate why he is worth a 10-year, 275M contract. Up until last year, I would have said he was still, fantasy-wise, slightly overrated because he would go significant stretches where produced little to no fantasy points, however, last year was the most consistent season he has had and therefore warrants many a first pick in this coming years fantasy drafts.

3. Chien-Ming Wang – You cannot win 19 games in your first two seasons, be second in Cy Young votes in your rookie year and not have the word keeper attached to your name. This young right-handed pitcher has a nasty sliding that simply leaves batters standing at the plate with their bats on their shoulders. Consider that in both ’06 and ‘07 he did not get the benefit of all of his starts. In ’06, his call-up came later in the spring, missing 3-5 starts and last year he spent time on the D/L. With an increase from 76 SO to 104 SO, you can only imagine that these numbers, including innings pitched, should sky-rocket in 2008.

3 Fantasy Sleepers:

1. Johnny Damon – When your draft finishes this year, you will be so absolutely shocked at how low you were able to draft this 100-25-90-25 guy, that you will often have spurts of laughter the whole ride home. I have been part of several “expert mock drafts” and even though people all sound shocked when he is picked so late, the next time we draft, they do the same thing.

2. Philip Hughes – Battling injuries (two stints on the D/L) and pitch control (29 BB, 58 SO in 72.2 Innings) have placed doubt in the average to above-average fantasy GM. This is when you pounce on him like a lion. Philip Hughes showed why he is so valued in the organization towards the end of the season when he went 3-0 in his last four starts. With a year under his belt, you can bet that his pitch control will improve as his nerves calm down and his strikeouts increase as he invests more time with Jorge and Pitching Coach Dave Eiland.

3. Ian Kennedy – There are reasons why Minnesota wants him included in any talks regarding Santana. He went 1-0 in three starts with an ERA of 1.89, all of which done in September as the team made a serious push for the playoffs. Battle tested from the get-go, this kid is sure to make a fantasy splash come mid-season.

  To view all previous MLB Hot Stove Reports, go to Fantasy Fan-Addicts

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