Horne to miss 2010 with rotation cuff tear

Let’s hop in the Wayback Machine and visit this post from August 2007. In it, Mike reported that Yankees farmhand Alan Horne had just been named the Eastern League’s pitcher of the year. Horne went 12-4 that year with a 3.11 ERA and 165 strike outs in 153.1 innings, and he seemed destined to be the Next Big Thing in the Bronx. Since then, though, he has suffered through one injury after another and has thrown just 100.2 innings over the last two years.

Today, we learn that 2010 will not be Alan Horne’s year either. He will, according to Chad Jennings, miss all of 2010 with a rotator cuff tear. Dr. James Andrews will perform the surgery — the second shoulder procedure of Horne’s career — on April 9, and his eventual return from baseball is up in the air. “I honestly have no idea until he gets in there and sees how bad things are and what time of repair has to be made,” Horne said. “All of that determines down time.” Horne is now 27 with years of injuries on his record. The clock is definitely ticking and not for the better.

Open Thread: My RAB Fantasy Baseball League Team

We held the draft for our massive 20 team fantasy baseball league last night, which took us about three and half hours to complete. The turnout was very good, at one point I believe we had 19 of the 20 owners present. If you’re wondering what the first three rounds of a 20 team league look like, then click here. I had the second overall pick, meaning the wait between picks was either really short or unbearably long. Here’s my team, position by position…

C: John Baker (17th round, 322nd overall)
1B: Todd Helton (9, 162)
2B: Robbie Cano (3, 42)
SS: Hanley Ramirez (1, 2)
3B: Casey Blake (8, 159)
OF: Jayson Werth (2, 39)
OF: Carlos Gonzalez (6, 119)
OF: Brad Hawpe (7, 122)
UTIL: David Ortiz (10, 199)

SP: Wandy Rodriguez (4, 79)
SP: Cole Hamels (5, 82)
RP: C.J. Wilson (19, 362)
RP:
P: Ben Sheets (11, 202)
P: Brian Matusz (13, 242)
P: Dallas Braden (16, 319)

Bench: Jhonny Peralta (12, 239)
Bench: Carlos Santana (14, 279)
Bench: Josh Willingham (15, 282)
Bench: Edinson Volquez (18, 359)
Bench: Matt Diaz (20, 399)
Bench: Ronnie Belliard (21, 402)
Bench: Jonathan Niese (22, 439)

Obviously, I completely punted the saves category. I figured I was better off grabbing as many starters as possible since they’re much tougher to come by mid-season. Volquez was a straight DL stash with an eye towards midseason. I already slid him into a DL spot and grabbed Luke Gregerson for that empty RP spot. I was hoping to do the same with Erik Bedard, but he went before I got the chance. Santana is another guy I’m stashing on bench, hoping the Indians call up the game’s 10th best prospect sooner rather than later.

Our league counts OBP (and quality starts), so the Helton, Werth, Hawpe and (to a lesser extent) Blake picks are really going to help there. Ortiz was toiling away in the 10th round, and there was really no one else on the board with a realistic chance of 30-100, so I took the bait. Even if he gives me 20-80, I can’t complain. Hopefully Gonzalez’s second half breakout (.320-.384-.608, 12 HR, 11 SB in his last 62 games) is a sign of things to come, and maybe Belliard beats out Blake Dewitt for the Dodgers second base job. He, along with Peralta have multi-position eligibility all over the infield. Diaz could be useful if I’m smart and only play him against lefties, who he annihilates.

I thought my Wandy and Hamels picks were sneaky good in the 4th and 5th rounds of a league that deep. Wandy is on par fantasy-wise with Johan Santana, who went 25 picks earlier. Hamels’ peripherals in 2009 were nearly identical to what they were in 2008, yet his ERA was more than a full run higher, so I’m hopefully that corrects itself. Sheets was a total roll of the dice, but I figured his upside was worth a shot in the 11th round when guys like Kevin Correia and Kevin Slowey and Randy Wells went one round earlier. The idea of a rookie starter in the AL East scares me, but Matusz isn’t like most rookies. Braden, Wilson, and Niese … let’s see what you got.

The one guy I was really hoping to get with my second pick was Ben Zobrist because a) he can rake, and b) he was eligible at the two middle infield spots plus the outfield, and I heart flexibility. He went with the last pick of the first round, so I didn’t even had a chance to get my hopes up. Part of me wishes I took CC Sabathia over Cano in the third round, but the second base market was pretty shallow, and I’m hopefully Robbie breaks out in the fifth spot this year.

Once you’re done laughing at my team, go ahead and use this as your open thread. The Devils are the only local team in action tonight, but there’s a new episode of 24 on, and in case you haven’t heard, this will be the final season because the show’s been canceled. It sure was fun while it lasted…

Darvish hints at MLB dreams

Via NPB Tracker, Japanese starter Yu Darvish recently hinted at wanting to one day play in the States, saying “well, I’m planning on climbing the ladder, step by step,” when asked about his interest in MLB. This wouldn’t be that big of deal normally, since he’s not eligible for free agency until after the 2014 season and would need his team to making him available via the posting process to come across the Pacific earlier, but the Yankees are sending a scout to watch Darvish’s start this weekend, and it’s not the first time they’ve scouted him either (Gene Michael went to see him in 2008).

The 23-year-old Darvish has a 2.20 ERA (~3.04 FIP) and a 3.01 K/BB ratio in on 111 career starts for the Nippon Ham Fighters, and his past three seasons were better than any one of Daisuke Matsuzaka’s. He threw close to 750 innings before his 22nd birthday, so they haven’t exactly taken it easy on him. NPB Tracker’s Patrick Newman told us why Darvish will be successful in the big leagues in a piece for FanGraphs. I’m sure this won’t be the last time we hear about this.

AL East Preview: Boston Red Sox

Over the next four days we will preview the teams the Yankees will play most frequently in 2010. Kicking things off is the team they will face on Sunday night, the Boston Red Sox.

Lineup

The Red Sox have quite a different look than they did in the mid- and late-00s. Gone are the days of the best 3-4 combination in baseball, David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez. Now Victor Martinez and Kevin Youkilis will assume those roles. They might not be as intimidating as their predecessors, but they’re both excellent hitters who will provide the bulk of the power in the Sox lineup.

Photo credit: Steve Senne/AP

Among all major league catchers last year, Victor Martinez ranked third in wOBA, behind Joe Mauer and Jorge Posada. That can be an outstanding advantage, but it’s not always the case for Martinez. Of his 672 plate appearances in 2009, just 366 game as a catcher, or 54.5 percent. Even after his move to the Sox he started just 31 of 53 games at catcher. He otherwise played first base, but that becomes more of a problem this season. Not only is Youkilis entrenched as the starter, but the Sox also have Adrian Beltre at third and Mike Lowell as the first guy to back up both positions. The Red Sox will apparently find out if Martinez can handle an entire season behind the plate.

Youkilis ranked fourth in wOBA among major league first basemen, finishing ahead of Mark Teixeira. Youkilis accomplishes this mostly with his plate discipline. His 13.1 walk rate led to a .413 OBP, besting Teixeira’s mark by .030. For Youkilis it was yet another improvement in his wOBA. Since becoming a full-time player in 2006 he’s seen improvement every year, going from .357 to .373 to .402 to .413. Combine that with quality defense — his 9.1UZR/150 over the past three seasons ranks best in baseball — and he becomes an all-around threat. He might not be Manny, but Youkilis is a perfectly capable cleanup hitter and first baseman for the Red Sox.

Jacoby Ellsbury will again hit in the leadoff spot, after posting a .355 OBP in 2009. Though he doesn’t have a lot of power, just a .114 ISO over the past two seasons, he gains an extra base out of many walks and singles. Last year he led the AL with 70 steals while getting caught only 12 times, a stellar 85.4 percent success rate. That means having a runner in scoring position more frequently for not only Pedroia, but also the middle of the order. Ellsbury has come close to 100 runs in each of the past two seasons, and could finally eclipse that mark in 2010.

Photo credit: Steve Senne/AP

Dustin Pedroia didn’t reproduce his 2008 MVP campaign in 2009, but he still turned in a quality season. His BABIP fell to .297, from around .330 in the previous two years. That put his average 30 points below his 2008 level, though he compensated by raising his walk rate by 3.5 percent. If he keeps up that walk rate and sees a rebound in his BABIP, he could be in for another killer season. In fact, if Ellsbury continues improving and Pedroia rebounds to near his 2008 levels, the middle of the Sox order will have plenty of opportunities to drive home runs. We’ve heard concerns about the Sox offense this off-season, but I just don’t see it. As I’ve laid out here, their top four hitters are all offensive weapons.

David Ortiz moved out of the No. 3 spot in the lineup last year, and it appears the move was permanent. He’ll bat fifth to start 2010, though that could change depending on how he hits. If he starts off as slow as he did last season he could drop even further, perhaps all the way to seventh. His value comes mostly from his power, the main aspect that recovered later in the year. From June 11 through the end of the season he hit .264/.356/.549, so his SLG more than doubled his BA. At 34 years old and after struggles in the past two seasons, it’s unlikely that Ortiz ever finds a .400 OBP again, but he can still help the team with his power.

The lineup becomes a question at this point. While Terry Francona knows the players who will fill the spots, he doesn’t know exactly how they’ll be arranged. J.D. Drew is probably the next best hitter in the lineup, but Francona wants to avoid batting lefties back to back. He’ll likely do that, though, since Drew is clearly a better hitter than Adrian Beltre or Mike Cameron. In fact, if Ortiz struggles Drew could find himself hitting fifth. After that Cameron and Beltre will hit in front of Marco Scutaro, the coveted wrap-around leadoff hitter. It’s unlikely that Scutaro reproduces his excellent 2009 campaign, but he’ll certainly present an upgrade over the smorgasbord of shortstops the Sox have trotted out over the past few years.

A fully recovered Mike Lowell could provide pop off the bench, hitting for Scutaro when the team needs a base hit. He could also pinch hit for Cameron in a situation where the team needs a base hit. Cameron gets on base at a decent clip and hits for power, but his batting average always sits around .250. With, say, the tying run on second Francona might be more comfortable with Lowell at the plate. There’s also the possibility that he pinch hits for Beltre, but that would signal that the latter isn’t getting the job done at the plate. In that case, Lowell might be making a bid to reclaim his place at third. I wouldn’t bank on it, though; the Sox signed Beltre primarily for defense, and by most accounts Lowell just isn’t up to speed in the field.

Pitching

Photo credit: Charles Krupa/AP

Like the Yankees, the Red Sox are trying to discard the notion of a fifth starter, instead employing a slew of ones, twos, and threes. In fact, their rotation looks a lot like the Yankees: three ones and twos on top (CC, A.J., and Javy vs. Beckett, Lester, and Lackey), a young but promising starter (Hughes vs. Buchholz) and an older but solid option at the back of the rotation (Wakefield vs. Pettitte). But just because they break down similarly does not mean that the talent and depth is equal.

Last season at this time, commentators lauded the Red Sox pitching depth. Not only did they have a solid starting five, but they also had Clay Buchholz in the minors and John Smoltz on his way to a June debut. Injuries and ineffectiveness derailed that plan, though, and the Sox scrambled for pitching most of the season. This year they’re in a slightly worse spot, though the top of their rotation is stronger wit the addition of John Lackey. He’ll join Josh Beckett and Jon Lester to form perhaps the best 1-2-3 in baseball.

Injuries are still where the Sox are vulnerable. It appears Josh Beckett’s yearly DL trips have been replaced by yearly bumps and bruises that keep him out of action for a little bit, but which have not necessitated DL trips. From 2002 through 2005 he missed a total of 222 days to the disabled list and another eight with a blister issue. He has spent just 50 days on the DL with the Red Sox, and missed just five days total in 2009. He’d help not only the team, but himself, with another injury free season. He’s a free agent come November, and will be among the most coveted pitchers on the market.

Photo credit: Richard Drew/AP

It appears that John Lackey won’t miss the beginning of his third straight season with arm troubles, but after missing 103 days over the past two seasons he still presents a risk. The Red Sox did insert language into his contract covering them in case he needs surgery on his elbow, but that concerns the future. There’s nothing the Sox can do if he gets injured now, and especially nothing they can do if he doesn’t need surgery. Still, he’s been strong in the past two years after recovering from his injuries. A repeat of last year would be an enormous gain for the Sox rotation.

Wakefield also presents injury concern. He missed 62 days last season, including 48 on the DL, with various back issues. He has spent time on the DL with back issues in each of the past three, and missed 57 days with a ribcage stress fracture in 2006. If he can get through April then Daisuke Matsuzaka might be ready to take his place in the rotation. But, again, Matsuzaka spent most of last year on the DL and has had issues in camp this year. He’ll be out for a month or so to start the 2010 season.

Photo credit: Charles Riedel/AP

The Sox need not worry themselves with Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz. Since returning from cancer treatment Lester hasn’t spent a day on the DL, nor has he missed a start because of injury. He started off slow last year, but if he pitches like he did from May 21 on last season — 156.1 IP, 2.48 ERA — he’ll again head the Red Sox rotation. Beckett might head it in name, but Lester could be the better performer. He should be a lesson applied to all young pitchers. After struggling with a high walk rate in the minor and his first two partial MLB seasons he turned it around in 2008, bringing his mark to below 3 BB/9. The Red Sox exercised patience, and it paid off.

Boof Bonser, Michael Bowden, and Junichi Tazawa represent the next pitchers in line for a starting shot, and none is all that inspiring. Tazawa has the highest ceiling of the trio and performed well last season after a rocky start to his MLB career. If one has to make double digit starts it shouldn’t be a huge problem. But if the Sox have to employ more than one, at once, then they could find trouble with the rotation. Considering their injury potential, they can’t be too happy about that. But with an already deep rotation, it’s tough to find quality depth.

The bullpen is still strong, with Hideki Okajima and Dan Bard setting up Jon Papelbon. Apparently Papelbon understands the issue with him throwing fastball every time and will mix in his splitter more this season. Other than that the Sox have questions in the bullpen, from Manny Delcarmen’s inconsistency to Bonser’a sbility to hold down the long man role. Ramon Ramirez shouldn’t be as much of a question mark, though his numbers did dip after an indefatigable start to last season. If Bard continues to improve he, along with Papelbon and Okajima, could create one of the top endgames in the league.

Adding it all up

Because they were bounced in the ALDS, and because the Yankees went on to win the World Series, I feel like the Sox have been undersold this winter. They approached the off-season with a plan, and a plan I think will work out well for them. The best offensive players on the market came at a high long-term cost, so the Red Sox decided to put their money into defense and pitching, a strategy that might help neutralize the better offenses in the league.

All around the diamond they feature plus defenders. Again, Youkilis ranks first among first basemen in UZR/150 over the past three years. Pedroia ranks fifth among second basemen (and only 0.1 behind No. 4), Scutaro ranks eighth among shortstops (with at least 2,000 innings), and Beltre ranks fifth among third basemen. They added a plus defender in Cameron to go with Drew’s plus defense. And, although UZR didn’t rate Ellsbury as a quality center fielder last season he still could be an asset in left.

If the Sox have a weakness this season it’s their injury vulnerability. One of their Opening Day starters is already on the DL, and his replacement, Wakefield, features a rough recent injury history. Beckett and Lackey have also spent a good deal of time on the DL in their careers, causing a bit more concern. Their depth isn’t good enough to adequately cover more than one injury at a time, meaning health is a huge key for them, more so, perhaps, than for most other teams. Commentators rave about their medical staff, though, so perhaps that will factor positively into their season.

One thing is for certain: do not sleep on the Sox. They have assembled a very strong team that will battle to the end with the Yankees and Rays for the AL East crown. If they catch the breaks that the Yanks did last season, they could certainly have a long playoff run in them.

Aceves dealing with a lower back issue

Via Anthony DiComo, Al Aceves is battling a lower back issue and won’t make his scheduled pitching appearance tomorrow. The team will keep an eye on him before determining his status for Opening Day. Aceves also missed a total of nine days last August with lower back soreness, so this is something worth monitoring. Boone Logan is the logical candidate to take his place in the bullpen should he miss any time.

Is it too late to get Chad Gaudin back?

The positives of having Joba in the bullpen

Once the Yankees officially announced that Phil Hughes had won what never appeared to be much of a competition for the fifth starter’s job, there was a tremendous amount of backlash regarding Joba Chamberlain‘s role. More than I expected, really. While Joe Girardi has indicated that an assignment to Triple-A remains an option (not just for Joba, but for Al Aceves too), it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that Chamberlain will spend the entire season working out of the team’s bullpen in some capacity.

The Yanks already have two long men in the pen, so in all likelihood Joba will setup Mariano Rivera in short relief somehow. A multi-inning relief role isn’t out of the question, but I find it unlikely. Girardi also maintains that they won’t just hand him his old 8th inning job, but we’ll see. Joba somehow worked his way back into the 8th inning role during the playoffs last year even though he wasn’t pitching all that well. But I digress.

The reason everyone’s upset about Joba spending the year in the bullpen has to do with his development plan. After spending the last two-plus years fighting the completely arbitrary Joba Rules and finally having a developed starter, the Yanks are shelving Joba The Starter. Looking around the league, I see no fewer than 24 teams that would unquestionably be using Chamberlain as a big league starter if he were in their organization, and there’s probably a few more than would be as well.

No matter how much we don’t like the move of using Joba as a reliever in 2010, it’s going to happen. I’m here to provide a little dose of reality, because having him available out of the bullpen this year is far from a negative. Is it ideal? No. But does it have value? Absolutely.

1. He’s still in the big leagues

If you watched any or all of Chamberlain’s 31 starts last season, you saw a common theme. He was too tentative and almost refused to attack the strike zone. That’s something a trip to the minors won’t solve, because you can flirt with the corners in Triple-A and still get outs because the hitters are inferior. The number of innings Joba’s capable of throwing in 2011 is secondary to his learning how to get hitters out, and that’s something he has to do against the best competition he’ll ever face. I discussed this very topic further at TYU.

2. He gets to work with Mariano Rivera

I know Mike Harkey holds the title of Bullpen Coach – he’s the guy that picks up the phone when Dave Eiland calls and the one who waves his hat whenever someone is ready – but Mo is the guy in charge out there. In addition to everything he’s done on the mound, he’s also done some great things just by spending time with his fellow relievers. Mo took Edwar Ramirez and Jose Veras under his wing during the 2008 season, when the pair combined to post a 3.74 ERA (3.99 FIP) and a 10.04 K/9 in 113 innings, and he did the same with Phil Hughes last year. Spending more than six months enrolled at The University of Rivera can be nothing but good for Chamberlain.

3. The Yankees have some serious bullpen depth

Even before the fifth starter’s race was decided, Girardi had the trio of David Robertson, Damaso Marte, and Chan Ho Park available to bridge the gap from the starters to Rivera in the 9th,and we all felt comfortable with that. The Yankees had so much bullpen depth that Mark Melancon, he of the 10-1 K/BB ratio in six outings this spring, was reassigned to minor league camp with 16 days left in Spring Training. Now add Joba to that mix, and you’ve got four bonafide setup men available on any given night. Not that he’s even done so before, but Girardi won’t have to rely and overwork one specific guy, and if the 40-year-old Rivera ever needs a few days off, he has plenty of options to work the 9th in Mo’s stead.

4. His arm gets a break

The 2009 season was first time Joba has ever pitched a full, healthy season as a pro. His 2007 season was cut short on the front end by a hamstring injury that prevented him from pitching until May and at the back end by his shift to the bullpen. Shoulder tendinitis robbed Joba of nearly a month during the 2008 season, and as a result he increased his workload by 47.2 innings last year. An increase that large is generally considered to be hazardous to the health of pitcher’s Chamberlain’s age, so the move to the bullpen gives him a little of a breather.

Again, having Joba move back to the bullpen this year is less than ideal, especially when he’s now free from pretty much any kind of innings limitation (I doubt they would have let him throw 220 innings, or something crazy like that). Does the move make the Yankees a better team in 2010? Yeah, it almost definitely does, and when the core of your team features four key players that will be at least 36-years-old by the time the playoffs roll around, it’s not the worst idea to try to win as much as possible right now.

Photo Credit: Flickr user crabshack

2010 Season Preview: Help from within

Although they’ll always be known as a team that relies on stars and big name players, the core of the most recent Yankees’ dynasty came from within. The team developed three borderline Hall of Fame players at premium up-the-middle positions (Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte) in under a decade, and that alone would have been a strong enough foundation for perennial championship contender. The Yankees got greedy though, so they went ahead and developed a surefire Hall of Fame shortstop and the greatest relief pitcher who ever lived as well. That’s not just a great run of player development, it’s a historically great run.

After the lavish spending that occurred in the early part of the century, GM Brian Cashman re-emphasized the farm system and player development, and in recent years he’s begun to see those efforts pay dividends. Last year’s World Series roster featured eight homegrown players who made their big league debut within the last five seasons, and six who debuted within the last three years.

The crown jewel of the farm system right now is the man you see above, 20-year-old catcher Jesus Montero. Opinions about his ability to remain behind the plate vary, though most believe he’s destined to move to a less valuable position down the road. His bat will work no matter where he plays, because he compliments top of the line power with a solid approach and the innate ability to get the fat part of the bat on the ball. As a 19-year-old he hit .337-.389-.562 with 17 homers in 92 games split between High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton before a fluke injury (broken finger on his catching hand) ended his season in August, and just before Spring Training he was named the fourth best prospect in the game by Baseball America. The Yankees have Montero penciled into the starting catcher’s job for Triple-A Scranton this season.

It’s unlikely the Yanks would call Montero up for any sort of extended playing time during the 2010 season, but they have several other players on the cusp of contributing, one of whom we caught a glimpse of last season. Mark Melancon, the team’s best relief prospect, walked as many batters as he struck out (ten) in his 16.1 inning cameo, but his minor league track record (2.69 FIP, 8.7 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, 57.6 GB%) screams future success. With a low-90’s fastball and an out-pitch curveball, the 25-year-old Tommy John surgery survivor will be the first arm called up whenever the bullpen needs some help, and there’s a good chance he’ll be this year’s version of David Robertson.

Another player the Yankees are sure to call on at some point is utility man Kevin Russo (left), who has opened eyes this spring with a .276-.353-.379 batting line. A 2006 draft pick like Melancon and Robertson, the 24-year-old broke out in 2008 and has hit .318-.379-.424 since, playing three infield spots as well as the outfield corners. The undersized Russo (5-foot-11, 190 lbs.) has battled hamstring injuries and bad luck in his pro career (a batted ball in BP broke some bones in his face), but he’s the first in line for a promotion when Ramiro Pena falters or the bench otherwise needs some reinforcements.

The Yanks also have young rotation depth in 23-year-old Ivan Nova (3.83 FIP, 1.53 K/BB last year) and 22-year-old Zach McAllister (3.03 FIP, 2.91 K/BB), both of whom will open the season in the Triple-A Scranton rotation and project as back of the rotation workhorses. Jason Hirsh is a little older than those two at 28, but he’s a former top prospect with the Astros and Rockies who has big league experience and has done nothing but get outs since joining the Yanks last season. All three players also double as prime pieces of trade bait should the Yankees decide to go that route. The 24-year-old Greg Golson offers elite defense and speed if a stopgap outfielder is needed, and I’m pretty sure we’re all familiar with the soon to be 27-year-old first baseman Juan Miranda. All but McAllister and Hirsh are on the 40-man roster.

Those are the players that are in the position to help the big league team in 2010, but the Yankees also have several prospects further down the ladder with a chance to make a name for themselves this year. Catcher Austin Romine will finally step out of Montero’s shadow this year for Double-A Trenton, and look to improve on last year’s .347 wOBA with High-A Tampa while handling the rigors of his first full season as a clear cut number one catcher. With a strong all-around package of offense and defense at a premium position, the 21-year-old Romine is the early favorite to be the team’s catcher of the future.

His battery mate every five days will be former Stanford lefty Jeremy Bleich, who despite less than stellar stats at Double-A Trenton (4.40 FIP, 1.76 K/BB) showed great improvement with his stuff last year as he got further away from a 2008 elbow injury. Drafted as a polished finesse pitcher, the 22-year-old’s velocity flirted with 95 last season, and anytime a lefty throws that hard, you pay attention. He’ll look to regain his trademark command this year to get back on track.

Dominican bonus baby Jose Ramirez, 21, took the short season circuit by storm last year when he held opponents to a .161 batting average and posted a 3.46 FIP and a 3.31 K/BB, and he’ll bring his mid-90’s gas and knockout changeup to Low-A Charleston in 2010. Lefty Manny Banuelos emerged as Charleston’s ace last season when he posted a 2.76 FIP and a 3.71 K/BB in 108 innings, earning himself a trip to the Futures Game. Still a year away from his 20th birthday, he’ll jump to High-A Tampa and try to further establish himself as a cornerstone piece for the future. Last year’s top draft picks, outfielder Slade Heathcott and catcher J.R. Murphy, will spend their first full season in the organization proving they were worth their seven figure signing bonuses.

Of course, when it comes to farm system this year, all eyes will again be on 2007 first rounder Andrew Brackman (right), who disappointed in 2009 to say the least. The now 24-year-old posted a 4.66 FIP in Low-A Charleston, walking close to six and a half batters for every nine innings pitched, and his stuff was a far cry from what it was in college. The silver lining was that he continued to miss bats (8.69 K/9) and showed improved control and arm strength in a late season stint as a reliever, which he was able to carry over into Instructional League and again into Spring Training. The Yankees will bump Brackman up to High-A Tampa in part because his big league contract will force him to stick in the Majors for good by 2013, and they’re looking for him to really step up and grab the reigns in a farm system devoid of star power beyond it’s top prospect.

Trades, attrition, and graduation have thinned out the farm system that was rated as one of the game’s five best by Baseball America as recently as 2008, but the Yankees still have a bonafide superstar in the making in Jesus Montero, as well as several complementary pieces just a phone call away from the Bronx. The 2009 draft brought a much needed influx of high upside position players and power arms, while several Latin America prospects and pre-2009 draftees are poised to make the jump from good to very good and possibly even great prospects as they enter into their early-20’s and finish maturing.

The current Yankee team is still built around that same homegrown core from the late-90’s, though they’re surrounded by more star power than ever before. Should they need some reinforcements during the season or prospects to dangle as trade bait, the farm system offers plenty of variety. As the Yankees look to start their next dynasty, they aren’t going to have the luxury of producing five players as productive as the quintet they produced in the 90’s, though it’s possible no team will ever have that much player development success in such a short period of time ever again.

Photo Credits: Jesus Montero via Kathy Willens, AP. Kevin Russo via AP (uncredited). Andrew Brackman via Barton Silverman, NY Times.