Friday, April 2, 2010

2010 Year in Preview: New York Yankees

It's odd.  I'm ready for baseball to come back.  I miss it, and I'm really looking forward to 2010.  But it's bittersweet, in a way.  It's good to be on top, it's good to be the champs, it's good to know that we are the best and that every team, especially Boston, has to deal with that reality for an entire year.  I'm looking forward to 2010, but 2009 left the sweetest taste in my mouth and I'm not yet ready to let go.   

2009 Season: 

Oh my.  It doesn't get much better than that.  I love the ARod taunting before the pitch, the lull at 0:09 and the way all the hands in the joint go up in the air as mayhem descends on the stadium.  I think I should watch it again, maybe from a different angle.

New York Yankees.  103-59.  AL East Champs.  Swept the Twins in the ALDS.  Defeated the Angels 4-2 in the ALCS.  Defeated the Phillies 4-2 in the World Series to win their 27th World Series title.

Key Departures: 
LF Johnny Damon departed after a long, soap-operatic tango with the Yankees and signed with the Tigers.  DH Hideki Matsui signed with the Angels.  Jose Molina signed with the Blue Jays.  Phil Coke, LHP and Austin Jackson, CF were traded to the Tigers and RHP Ian Kennedy was traded to the Diamondbacks in the Curtis Granderson deal. Traded CF Melky Cabrera, RHP Arodys Vizcaino and LHP Mike Dunn to the Braves in the Javier Vazquez deal. 

Key Additions: 
Signed 1B/DH Nick Johnson to a 1 year, $5.5M deal with a mutual option for 2011 for $5.5M, acquired CF Curtis Granderson in a trade with the Tigers and Diamonbacks, acquired RHP Javier Vazquez in a trade with the Braves.  

Talent En Route: 
In a way, the discussion of the Yankees' talent en route begins and ends with Jesus Montero.  Montero is a consensus Top 10 Prospect in all of baseball, with some lists placing him as high as 3rd or 4th.  We followed Montero's season all last year here on The Bat Shatters, but let's recap for a moment, shall we?

Montero is a 6'4", 225 lb, 20 year old catcher from Venezuela.  As an 18 year old in Low-A Charleston, Montero hit .326/.376/.491, clubbing 17 home runs and 34 doubles in 569 plate appearances.  By any and all standards, this is a stunning debut.  Montero showed the ability to hit for average, get on base, and hit for power at an extremely young age. 

The following year, Montero began the year in High-A Tampa, and in 198 plate appearances hit 8 home runs and 15 doubles, posting a line of .356/.406/.583.  He was then promoted to Double-A Trenton midseason, and showed that he was able to punish better pitching at a similar rate, hitting 9 home runs and 10 doubles in 181 PAs, good for a line of .317/.370/.539.  His season was ended prematurely when he broke his finger when he was hit by a pitch. 

There aren't enough superlatives for Montero's hitting ability.  He is showing an extraordinary ability to dominate minor league pitching at a very young age and might be the best pure hitting prospect in all of baseball.  Scouts have compared him to Miguel Cabrera and Frank Thomas.  The latter comparison seems particularly fitting when you see how both hit off their front foot.

The knock on Montero, and this has been discussed ad nauseum, is that scouts doubt his ability to stick behind the plate long-term.  He isn't particularly quick to release his throws, his blocking ability is average at best, and he's gigantic.  But, as many have said, his bat is so good that it doesn't matter where you put him on the diamond.  I have to imagine that if he showed at least average defensive ability he would be a contender for the best prospect in baseball.

Montero is slated to begin the year at Triple-A Scranton.  The plan is for him to get a full year of work in at catcher, and the soonest Yankees' fans will probably see him is in September when rosters expand.  I expect Montero to make the team out of Spring Training in 2011.  There's no clear open position for him, since Posada will still be under contract, but I expect the Yankees to have him split time between C and DH.  His bat is so good, it doesn't really matter where he plays.

2011 Free Agency and Salary Outlook 
I already covered the offseason potential scenarios over at The Yankee U a few weeks ago, so I'm going to quote myself liberally here. 

"Thanks to the invaluable tool at Cot’s Baseball Contracts, we see that New York already has $144M committed to the 2011 payroll. When you add my proposed $20M to Jeter and $15M to Rivera, and the payroll is already at $179M. From there, you have to factor in raises for Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes, who will become eligible for arbitration for the first time. Using Liriano as a comparison, it won’t be unexpected to see them both pull in $1.5M apiece. This bumps the payroll up to $182M, and I’m going to round it up to $183M to cover raises for Boone Logan, if he’s still around, and for the pre-arb guys like DRob, Aceves and others.  
With a budget of $183M, the Yankees will have, at the most, $17-27M to spend."
The most obvious holes in the 2011 roster are starting pitching and LF. Since I penned my post at The Yankee U, the Yankees' FO put Joba in the bullpen for 2010 and put Hughes in the rotation.  The Twins also signed Joe Mauer to an 8 year, 180M deal and there was much rejoicing.  Thus, I'm going to rework my Scenarios a bit differently this time, focusing on Andy Pettitte.   

If Andy Pettitte retires...
If Pettitte retires, then the Yankees have three starters under contract for 2011: Sabathia, Burnett and Hughes.  If they choose to move Joba back to the rotation, they it would be most logical to assume that they would pursue Lee or Vazquez.  If they leave Joba in the pen, then they might be forced to go with Vazquez and a bargain-bin starter, or sign Lee and use Zach McAllister in the fifth spot. 

If Andy Pettitte returns...
If Pettitte returns on a deal similar to this year's contract (1 yr, 11M), then the Yankees have four starters under contract for 2011: Sabathia,  Burnett, Hughes and Pettitte, and a payroll of around $194M.  In this scenario, they could try to pursue Cliff Lee and max out their payroll.  This would leave them unable to pursue Crawford.  They could also shift Chamberlain back to the rotation for the fifth spot, leaving them with more than enough money to pursue Crawford. 

In all of these scenarios, several things are apparent.  Firstly, the Yankees do not seem likely to sign both Lee and Crawford.  Secondly, having Chamberlain in the rotation affords them far more roster flexibility. Keeping him in the pen is going to mean more money committed to the rotation.  Finally, the Yankees 2011 payroll is already extremely high.  Sadly, I think that Joba will be in the bullpen for the long haul and that the Yankees will need two more starters for 2011.  I'm a Cliff Lee fan, so I'd really love to see them resign Pettitte and ink Lee to a deal.  Having Lee would give the Yankees a ridiculous rotation (Sabathia-Lee-Burnett-Pettitte-Hughes), and it would give them a hedge against the risk of Sabathia exercising his opt-out clause and leaving for some place like San Francisco or Anaheim.  

The Future of the Yankees
The immediate future of the Yankees is very good.  They will field a team that is, on paper, superior to last year's World Series Champion.  They have an extraordinary prospect in Jesus Montero, and several very good prospects in Zach McAllister and Austin Romine. They have a savvy GM who is able to make smart moves free from sentimentality or pressure from ownership.  They have an exceptional pitching staff and some of the best players in the game. The risks with the Yankees in 2010 and beyond is that age and injuries will catch up with them, and that their exorbitant salary commitments in the next five years will prove burdensome.  But for now, Yankee haters everywhere need to fear the rise of another New York Yankee dynasty.  

In the words of Leon from Curb Your Enthusiasm, "Let's do it, baby!"

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