These are my top most important Yankees to the continued success of the franchise. This is a look at the team that goes behind just the 2009 season.
1. Brian Cashman
The three of us all agree: The Yanks GM has earned himself the top spot on the list. He will be the General Manager, barring a catastrophic Yankee disaster, through at least the 2011 campaign. His decisions over the next few seasons will shape the next generation of Yankee stars, hopes and dreams.
2. Joba Chamberlain
No one embodies the future of the Yankees more than Joba. His peripherals — 152 K’s, 45 BB’s in 124.1 innings — through age 22 are off the charts. The Yankees are either looking at their future ace for the next 10-15 years or the heir to Mariano. In that regard, 2009 is a big year for Joba. If he can stay healthy as a starter, the Yanks should have a legitimate star on their hands. If he can’t, well, then the $64,000 question surrounding Mariano’s successor beings a lot easier to answer.
3. Alex Rodriguez
Nine years, $270 million left. He is, for better or worse, the core of this franchise right now. Need I say more?
4. Mark Teixeira
When the Yanks inked Teixeira to an eight-year, $180-million deal, they committed their future to a 29-year-old Gold Glove, power-hitting first baseman. He’ll be here well into his decline phase but shouldn’t suffer the chemical- and age-related breakdowns that plagued Jason Giambi. He also represents the Yanks’ new commitment to defense.
5. A.J. Burnett
While CC Sabathia was the real target this off-season, as I’ll mention in a minute, he’s here for three years. Burnett, coming off of a career year, will be here for all five years of his $82 million deal. The Yankees are hoping his injury troubles are behind him. They don’t need — and can’t really afford — Carl Pavano The Sequel. So far, Burnett has looked every bit the bulldog Pavano wasn’t, but arm injuries aren’t necessarily within his control. The Yankees will need him as an anchor for the next half decade.
6. CC Sabathia
Sure, he inked an seven-year deal, but that opt-out guarantees a three-year cameo for Sabathia in New York. Either he’s hurt and takes the money or opts out for the greener pastures of a Barry Zito-less San Francisco Giants team willing to spend money. The Yanks need him now, but in three years, as he hits that decline phase, he should part on good terms from the Bronx. I can’t justify ranking him higher and could almost go lower.
7. Hal Steinbrenner
Joe and Mike both ranked Hal second on their lists, but I think he deserves to be lower. Hal signs the checks and keeps his brother in check. He doesn’t have that attention-seeking drive of his father, and it remains to be seen what the Steinbrenner family will do with the team when George passes. For now, though, he’s Brian Cashman’s boss, and that makes him important.
8. Austin Jackson
It’s tough to put a 22-year-old kid who was just reassigned to Minor League camp — after walloping a Grand Slam nonetheless — to the eighth spot, but much of the Yankee future is tied up in Jackson. With Johnny Damon and Xavier Nady free agents this year, Nick Swisher an unknown and center field seemingly in flux, Jackson could be the future of the Yanks. He can catch and run, and if he can emerge as the hitter he showed he could be in Spring Training, the Yankees will have one less outfield position to worry about for the next, oh, ten years or so. If he falters, the Yanks will have to go to the pocketbook in an effort to lure Matt Holliday east.
9. Jorge Posada
As 2008 showed, as Posada goes so go the Yanks. He’s the only legitimate offensively-minded catcher on the team right now, and while Derek gets the honorific, Jorge is every bit the leader Jeter is. That sounds like a bunch of intangible-minded mumbo-jumbo, but that’s the way it is.
10. Derek Jeter
He could be lower. While New York is Derek’s town, we’re witnessing the long, slow decline of Derek Jeter. There’s nothing wrong about that. After all, he’s 35, and baseball players don’t live forever. What the Yankees do with him after 2010 will set the stage as well for the next few years. A Bernie Williams-like divorce won’t happen, but the Yanks and Jeter will probably not see eye-to-eye on his value right away.
11. Phil Hughes
I was almost tempted to put Hughes and Joba together in the two spot. If Hughes thrives this year, he affords the Yankees so much flexibility, and if Joba can’t stay healthy while Hughes excels, a lot of Yankee pitching question marks would be resolved. Despite a disappointing 2008, Hughes is 22 and starting the year at AAA. He has a ceiling as high as anyone’s, and this year could be That Year for him.
12. Mariano Rivera
He’s a 39-year-old closer whose dominance has long been appreciated. He’s also a one-inning guy who doesn’t contribute as much as the 11 guys ahead of him on the list. In Mo we trust.
13. Robinson Cano
Would the real Robinson Cano please stand up? Cano will either be the Yankee second baseman of the future or gone when he hits free agency. He needs to play better defense; show more patience at the plate; and pick up his game a little bit. The Yanks have no internal options so they will be wedded to Cano for now, but he is in danger of turning into Alfonso Soriano without the power.
14. Damon Oppenheimer/Mark Newman
What Mike and Joe said. These guys have the reins over the future of the organization. Don’t screw it up, boys.
15. Jesus Montero/Austin Romine
Jorge Posada will be 38 in August. These guys better get here fast. If neither of these two pan out behind the dish, the options elsewhere are slim at best. Montero will probably be a big league hitter, but his durability and ability behind the plate are in question. I’d probably expect Romine to catch over Montero, but the Yanks sure could use both in the not-so-distant future.
16. Nick Swisher
Much like Austin Jackson, Nick Swisher could help solidify an outfield that, post-2009, looks dicey. The Yanks have him under their control through 2011. Thus, he earns a spot on the list. He’s probably not integral to the Yanks’ future.
17. [Insert Young Arm Here]
Dellin Betances. Jairo Heredia. Andrew Brackman. Zach McAllister. Take your pick. The Yanks have earned some high praise early on in camp over their young arms. The more of these guys pan out, the more the Yankees’ future looks like that of the Rays. That upstart organization is a lesson in developing from within, and if the Yanks want to compete with them, they’ll need their own source of young, live arms.
18. Nardi Contreras/Dave Eiland
These two — the pitching brains of the organization — go hand-in-hand with 17 (and 11 and 2). They’re here to make sure the Yanks’ young arms fulfill their potential.
19. Mark Melancon
If he can do at the Big Leagues what his Minor League peripherals say he can, the Yanks won’t need to worry about Mariano’s retirement. He’ll be up sometime this year, and then, we’ll get to see what the hype is all about.
20. Joe Girardi
I’m on the fence about Girardi’s spot on the list. If the Yanks don’t make the playoffs this year, he probably won’t be back in 2011. How important can a hot-seat manager be when the fate of the Yanks rests largely on the pitching staff and not on his hands?