It’s tough to argue against the guy calling the shots in the personnel department. With a three-year agreement tying him to the team through the 2011 season, the future of the Yanks is in Cashman’s hands. His decisions will determine their course, making him the most important person to the Yankees right now.
2. Hal Steinbrenner
How do you rank the guy who cuts the checks No. 2? He’s not the guy dictating who takes the field for the Yankees. He surely has veto power, and because of this you could arguably put him in the top spot. But Hal doesn’t know how to assemble a bullpen. He doesn’t know who’s coming up through the minors and on what schedule. In other words, he doesn’t know the day-to-day stuff that goes into building a team. Cashman gets the tie-breaker for nuance.
3. CC Sabathia
Right now, CC Sabathia is the most important player on the Yankees 25-man roster (Buster Olney agrees). The Yankees have struggled with their rotation over the past few years, and Sabathia presents them with something they haven’t had in quite some time: an undeniable ace. Cashman said that the Yankees No. 1 priority over the winter was to rebuild the pitching staff, and it all started with CC. His success or failure will likely coincide with that of the team.
Blasphemy! A-Rod above Jeter. Like it or not, though, Alex is under contract for the next nine seasons. He has a full no-trade clause. Even if he didn’t, his contract is pretty much untradeable unless the Yankees eat a significant — yes, that needed italics and bold — portion of it. Remember, the Rangers kicked in $67 million of A-Rod’s remaining $179 million when they traded him in 2004. In any trade scenario, he’d be going from the Yankees, so you can imagine how much money they’d have to eat. He’s here to stay, and like CC his success or failure will be a big part of this franchise.
You might notice that Nos. 3 through 5 have something in common: they’re all tied to the Yankees for the long haul. You can talk about intangible importance all you want, but it won’t make Sabathia’s, A-Rod’s, or Teixeira’s contracts any shorter. That Tex plays first base means he’s blocking a position to which a number of vets switch once they’re unable to man other positions. His ability to hit for the duration of the contract means the world to the Yanks.
6. Derek Jeter
He’s the face of the franchise, and would have been higher on the list if the Yankees weren’t tied up in multiple ridiculously-long-term deals. There will be more talk than most of us can handle about Jeter’s contract situation following the 2010 season, which provides an indicator of just how important he is to the franchise. If his performance declines over the next two years, what do the Yanks do? Tough question to answer. Yet it will could be one of the most important ones the franchise faces in the near future.
7. Jorge Posada
After watching the team struggle last season it was tough not to put Jorge a bit higher. Unfortunately, he’s just a victim of a crowded organization. No. 9 doesn’t nearly do Jorge’s importance justice, as the team will rely on him to man the backstop position until the younger catchers in the system are ready to break in. His bat, which is at a premium for catchers, becomes pedestrian at DH. Combine that with a far inferior bat replacing him behind the plate and the Yanks in a difficult position. Jorge’s ability to stay behind the plate will keep a top bat there for years and years to come if one of Montero/Romine can take over by 2012.
This role was supposed to belong to Phil Hughes, but now it’s Joba Chamberlain who represents the Yankees new crop of pitching talent. He’s emerged as a potential ace, and he’ll try to reach that over the next few seasons. If Joba can place himself atop the rotation with CC Sabathia, the Yanks could have the best 1-2 punch in the league.
9. A.J. Burnett
Like CC, A-Rod, and Tex, this is about the contract. Five years is a long time for a pitcher, and if it turns out poorly it will seem like much longer. I like to say that when you sign a pitcher to a long-term deal you can probably expect to lose about a year due to injury. That Burnett has had just two healthy seasons by age 32 heightens that concern. If the Yanks need to replace A.J. at any point they’ll have a tough time doing so, considering his $16.5 million salary through 2013.
10. Damon Oppenheimer / Mark Newman
The Yanks simply won’t be able to play future free agency periods like they did in 2008-2009. Not only is it unlikely that the talent level will be there, but by signing three long-term deals in 2008-2009 (plus one in 2007-2008 that outlasts them all), management might not be so apt to enter another five-plus year deal. This means that development from within becomes that much more important. The guy who calls the shots on draft day and the guy who manages their path through the system will be of the utmost importance in the coming years.
11. Austin Jackson
Ajax is on the fast track to the majors, and could make his debut as early as this season if he continues his ascendancy in the minors and the Yanks don’t get the production they need from Melky and Gardner. The more realistic scenario is a 2010 debut, which would time out perfectly with the expiring contracts of Hideki Matsui, Johnny Damon, and Xavier Nady. Jackson is the Yanks top prospect, and he’ll be much needed in the coming seasons.
12. Nick Swisher
Much like Jackson, Swisher’s success or failure could mean a lot for the 2009-2010 off-season. He’s the only corner outfielder under contract for next season, which means he’s going to have to recover in a big way from his uninspiring 2008 campaign. If he does, though, he might save the Yanks some bucks on a big-name free agent like Matt Holliday. If both he and Jackson come through it would be a huge win for the Yanks and their 2010 outfield.
13. Robinson Cano
There aren’t too many second basemen who will content for a batting title, let alone an MVP. There’s Dustin Pedroia, Ian Kinsler, Dan Uggla, and Chase Utley, followed by a pack of guys like Brian Roberts and Brandon Phillips. Robinson Cano has a chance to be right up there with the big four guys; even if he’s at the Roberts/Phillips level it would be a big plus for the Yanks. That means recovering from a poor 2008. He did show some more life with the bat in the second half. His return to 2007 form would mean big things for the Yanks.
14. Phil Hughes
Phil Phranchise was a bit higher on the list last year, but thankfully Joba Chamberlain was able to step up and take his place. Still, Hughes has an incredible ceiling and could be a second low-cost option for the next few years. A 2010 rotation of CC-Wang-Burnett-Chamberlain-Hughes would be ideal for the Yanks. It would mean not spending any more money on the rotation in the off-season, and would give the Yanks another chip from the system. The Yanks won’t live and die with the success or failure of Hughes, but his success would bring enormous benefit.
15. Nardi Contreras
I considered lumping him with Oppenheimer and Newman, but Nardi’s importance is a bit different. He’s charged with developing a system rife with pitching. The Yanks want to win with young arms, and Nardi’s ability to get these guys to the major league level is integral to that plan.
16. Dave Eiland
Once Nardi gets the guys to the majors, it will be Eiland’s job to make sure they keep doing what got them there in the first place. It appears the Yanks have a lot of faith in Eiland, and after hearing how he’s worked with pitchers and managed the bullpen I can see why.
17. Mariano Rivera
It pains me to put Mo this low, but a 39-year-old closer probably shouldn’t be high up on an organizational list of importance. This is not to discount what Mo has meant to the Yanks in the past. He was a big part of the four championship teams and he could be a big part of number 27. Looking into the future, though, Mo’s impact just won’t be as big as the guys ahead of him.
18. Jesus Montero
The Yanks have had big hopes for this guy since they signed him as an international free agent in 2006. Much of his importance lies in his ability to stay behind the plate since the position many scouts have envisioned him playing, first base, is occupied for the next eight years. Still, Montero’s bat can play anywhere, and his development will mean a lot for the Yanks’ future.
19. Mark Melancon
It’s tough to feel bad for guys who play a kids’ game for a living, but the expectations heaped on Melancon are quite daunting. Who, after all, can step into the shoes of Mo himself? No one, yet the hype around Melancon is that he’s the future closer the Yanks need. He’ll never be Mo, but his development into a Jon Papelbon or Joakim Soria would mean the world to the Yanks (and to Joba’s spot in the rotation).
20. Andrew Brackman
After watching him fall all the way through the first round, the Yanks snagged Andrew Brackman with the 30th overall pick in 2007. They took a significant risk, basically knowing he’d need Tommy John surgery. Now that he’s recovered, he’ll have a few years to prove he’s ready before running out of options. Like Joba and Hughes ahead of him, he means having a cost-controlled ace, which not only gives the Yanks another potential top of the rotation starter, but allows them to spend ace-money elsewhere.
Previously: Mike’s 20 Most Important Yankees