Story of the day: Complacency

Following up on Mike’s last post, I’ve noticed a particular focus on Point No. 3: Complacency. Apparently there’s a concern that the Yankees will be happy having won the World Series last year, and will start the season on cruise control rather than with full effort. Maybe those aren’t the specific accusations, but it’s certainly implied. I’ve never been one to judge a ballplayer’s effort, so maybe I’m just laying down my personal biases here. But I see no reason to think the team will not care as much about winning in 2010 because they hoisted the trophy in 2009.

Even if there is a hangover effect on World Series winning teams, why would a player ever admit to it if questioned? When asked, players will almost certainly respond the way Phil Hughes did a couple of days ago. “Last year was nice, but we have to do it again this year. At the end of 2010, I don’t think anyone will be talking about who won in ’09.” It’s right out of the Crash Davis handbook for dealing with the media. I don’t expect any different from anyone, even if — especially if — there is some mythical hangover effect.

This actually gives me more respect for the beat reporters. While I don’t think the current storyline is relevant, it certainly highlights the daily pains they go through to find one. It ain’t easy chasing down a story in Tampa, especially when all’s quiet on the Yankee front.

Oh noes! The Yankees have issues

As players report to camps in Florida and Arizona, it’s time for all of us to fill the bandwidth with columns about who’s in the best shape of their life, what team has a chip on their shoulder, things of that nature. Another Spring Training staple is looking at what’s wrong with the Yankees, which both Jayson Stark and Jon Heyman did today. Essentially, you can round up both articles like this:

1. They have too many good hitters, and Joe Girardi doesn’t know how to line them up yet.
2. They have two pitchers in their early-20’s, both of whom were named the best pitching prospect in baseball earlier in their career, and they don’t know which one will hold down the all-important fifth starter’s spot.
3. They won last year, so doesn’t mean they won’t try as hard this year?

And that’s basically it. Ah yes … baseball’s back.

2010 Preseason Not Top 30 Prospects

Every year as I put together my Top 30 Prospects list, I always pay a little extra attention to the players in the last few spots. While elite prospects like Jesus Montero get all the attention, the best way to gauge the depth and strength of a farm system is by looking at the No. 10, or No. 15, or No. 30 prospects. The better those players are, the better the system is overall. Potential superstars are nice, but having waves of young talent coming up bodes much better for future success.

Along those same lines, the players that get shut out of a top prospects list can also tell you about the quality of a system as well. Last year I presented six players that weren’t able to crack the Yanks’ top 30, and sure enough two managed to make the leap into the big boy’s list this year. Two others were among the final cuts as well. That group featured some higher upside kids in the lower levels of the minors, however given the hit the farm system has taken in the last 12 months, the pickin’s were pretty slim this year.

Here’s five players (presented alphabetically) that could work their way into next year’s Top 30 if they continue to improve this season. Ages are as of April 1st of this year.

DeAngelo Mack, OF, 23
The Yanks’ 13th round pick last year, Mack dominated younger competition in the NY-Penn League after signing. He hit .306-.372-.513 with 30 extra base hits in 66 games, good for second in the league. By no means is he a spring chicken, but Mack made major strides with his approach as a redshirt junior at South Carolina in 2009. He’s strong enough to hit balls with authority the other way, and he does a good job of being what they call “aggressively patient” (he waits for his pitch, but he’ll jump all over something he likes early in the count). Mack has good baseball skills and athleticism, though he projects best in a corner outfield spot. He could end up being a classic ‘tweener; not enough defense for center, not enough pop for a corner (despite this). He’ll jump to Low-A Charleston to start the season, but should get a bump at mid-season if he’s performing well.

Photo Credit: Rich Glickstein, AP

Melky Mesa, OF, 23
Despite sharing a name, this Melky has almost nothing in common with the departed Melky Cabrera other than his arm strength. Mesa hit .270-.338-.491 with 17 bombs in the season’s first three months last year, though he slumped so badly in the second half that he finished the year with a .225-.309-.423 batting line and 20 homers. He also struck out 168 times in 564 plate appearances, pushing his career total to 306 K in 1,020 PA. Even at his age, Mesa is raw in terms of baseball skills, though he possesses tremendous physical gifts. His insane bat speed leads to huge raw power, among the best in the system, and his top of the line speed is a weapon both on the bases and in the outfield, where he’s a passable centerfielder but an elite rightfielder defensively. Of course, the biggest question mark is Mesa’s ability to make consistent contact, which is kind of a big problem. If he ever improves his approach and learns how to get the bat on the ball with regularity, he’d vault right up the ladder and become a truly elite prospect. Mesa will patrol the outfield for High-A Tampa next season.

Photo Credit: Mike Ashmore

Jimmy Paredes, 2B, 21
The speedy Paredes has been one of the system’s bigger sleepers since signing a few years back, but it wasn’t until he received regular playing time with Short Season Staten Island in 2009 that he started to live up to some of that promise. His .302-.336-.410 batting line isn’t eye popping, but his batting average, on-base percentage, and OPS improved every month of the season, as did his slugging percentage minus a slight hiccup in August. Paredes’ best tool is his blazing speed, which allowed him to steal 23 bases in just 54 games, and he’s also versatile enough to play the three non-first base infield spots proficiently. He profiles best at second, where he’ll play every day for Low-A Charleston in 2010.

Photo Credit: Hilton Flores, Staten Island Advance

Jon Ortiz, RHRP, 24
By no means is Ortiz young, but he’s steadily climbing the ladder and will begin the 2010 season with Double-A Trenton. Once a guy reaches Double-A, you can start talking about him as a potential big league contributor. Just ask Chase Wright. Ortiz isn’t a huge stuff guy – he works in the low-90’s with a very good changeup – but he makes up for it with outstanding command and control (273-39 K/BB ratio in 201.1 career IP). The Yankees have built a steady pipeline of relievers in recent years, and Ortiz is just another product of that. Remember, you don’t have to turn into a star to be considered a success. There’s plenty of value in getting 80 or so league average innings out of a guy like Ortiz, who was basically an afterthought when he signed.

Photo Credit: Screen cap’d from here

Gary Sanchez, C, 17
The comparisons to Montero are inevitable, however they aren’t similar players at all. Sanchez can legitimately remain behind the plate long term, and his bat isn’t nearly as good. That’s not meant as a knock on Sanchez, who projects to be a better than league average hitter with very good power for a backstop. He’s raw, which is not unexpected given his age, and like Montero he struggled in his first taste of instructional league. Once he gets some innings under his belt and makes his way to the States, Sanchez will jump comfortable into the team’s top ten prospects. Until then, he’s on the outside looking in. His 2010 season will start in Extended Spring Training before officially debuting with the Rookie Level Gulf Coast League Yankees in June.

Photo Credit: Jorge Arangure, ESPN

Unlike last year, most of these guys are older prospects who project more as role players than starters on a contender, but that’s life. The Yanks’ system isn’t as deep as it was just a year ago, but with a few breakouts from players like the five mentioned above, they’ll be just fine. Remember, the Yanks’ goal isn’t to have a great system, it’s to win at the big league level, and they don’t exactly need any fixes at the moment.

Make sure you check back in tomorrow for the full fledged Top 30.

From Girardi, a primer in Spring Training results

Joba Chamberlain starts his quest to secure the fifth starter spot in the Yankees’ rotation. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Early this morning, Joe — RAB’s Joe, not the guy in charge of the Yankees — discussed how it will be a quiet spring for the defending World Series champions, and in a way, he’s right. When the biggest questions of Spring Training center not around what PEDs the All Star third baseman took but rather over who will be the fifth starter and the 25th man on the roster, the overarching questions aren’t too pressing.

Yet, this is New York, and in New York, the sports media will obsess over that fifth starter. Will it portend a career in the bullpen, heir to Mariano, for the young star that doesn’t earn a spot after 20 innings in March? Will the guy who isn’t starting be The Eighth Inning relief ace? Will reporters and talking heads continue to act as though the 25th man — the not-Johnny Damon of the 2010 team — make or break the Yanks’ season?

Of course, these questions won’t be answered this spring, but that won’t stop everyone with a keyboard from trying to tackle them. I’m sure we’ll be guilty of that sin over the next six weeks too. Even with pitchers and catchers on the field in Tampa, it’s still a long haul until Opening Day.

With that in mind, something Joe Girardi said to the gaggle of beat writers on Wednesday, struck a chord. Somehow, the Yankees are going to have to make these decisions, and it’s nearly impossible to do that based solely upon Spring Training results. It’s too early in the year for players to get into their grooves, and most games pit pitchers against a bunch of AA hitters unlucky enough to have to make a long Grapefruit League bus ride.

And so per Mark Feinsand, Girardi had this to say about the fifth starter spot:

“I expect two guys to pitch at a very high level. Will statistics play 100 percent of the decision? No. We’ll look at guys, how they’re throwing the baseball, and what we feel as an organization and coaching staff is the best for everyone involved. … It is a healthy competition for the fifth starting spot and I love that. I think that brings out the best in people.”

That is a word of warning from Joe Girardi about Spring Training. We’ll sit here in New York, far from Tampa, and look at how Phil Hughes or Joba Chamberlain perform over 50 or 60 pitches every five days next month. We’ll analyze their lines for a hint of who has a leg up, but the real work will be down in Tampa where the eyes on the ground will be looking at process and not results. The Yankees will look at which pitcher has better command of his pitchers, who is dominating and attacking the strike zone, who is mixing and matching and who just looks better suited for a particular role.

In the end, those roles can change. The fifth starter can become the fourth starter very quickly, and that sixth guy can be pressed into service before too much time has elapsed. That’s just the nature of pitching in baseball. Today, with a blank slate, anything is possible, but even with that Grapefruit League stat line is looking more robust come the end of March, just remember that it’s only Spring Training. Beyond symbolizing the return of baseball after a three-month hiatus, it doesn’t really mean that much at all.

Hoping for a quiet Spring Training 2010

The countdown ends today. Pitchers and catchers officially report this morning. Yes, many players have been in camp for a week now, getting a head start on the month and a half training session. The beat reporters are in full force as well, highlighting what they think will be the big stories of the spring. But for a team like the Yankees, coming off a World Series victory and rife with veterans at almost every position, how many developments can we expect?

Photo credit: AP/Kathy Willens

We’ve all missed baseball over the past three-plus months. From April through October, and even into November, we saw our favorite team play nearly every day. Then, starting November 5, nothing. No first pitches. No home runs over the short porch. No heroically epic at-bats, and no fist-pumping strikeouts. In their stead were a steady flow of rumors that keep us interested in baseball year-round. Now we can put those rumors to rest and start focusing on the reason we’re here in the first place, the games.

Between now and Opening Day, we’ll have to endure a month and a half of training camp. It might sound like a joy — actual baseball, if only exhibition — but beyond the glimpses of games we get on YES, there’s not much to get excited about. In fact, I’d prefer it if the Yankees maintained a relatively quiet camp this year. It would make me feel a lot better heading into Fenway Park on April 4.

Why a quiet camp? Because the Yankees appear all but set. The infield, from catcher all the way around, sports veteran stars. In the outfield only one spot remains contested, and even then it’s not much of a battle. Will anyone care much if Randy Winn gets the bulk of the playing time? Won’t that mean he’s doing something right? Then there’s the pitching staff, in which one spot is up for grabs. It could be Chamberlain, or it could be Hughes. Either way we’ll get to see one of the Yankees young, high-ceiling pitchers in the rotation.

Beyond that the only worries are of the bench and bullpen, and early in the season those aren’t weighty concerns anyway. The Yankees opened 2009 relatively weak in both aspects, only to find them strengths by season’s end. Yes, Jamie Hoffmann might win a spot on the 25-man roster, but even if he doesn’t it’s not a big deal. They’ll quietly ship him back to L.A., or else work out a deal to keep him at Scranton. The bullpen appears even less exciting, as the Yankees basically have all seven slots filled: Mariano Rivera, the loser of the fifth starter battle, Damaso Marte, David Robertson, Al Aceves, Chad Gaudin, Sergio Mitre.

The most controversial issue this spring, it seems, centers on the batting order. Does Nick Johnson hit second, where he’ll get on base for Teixeira and A-Rod, or does the baserunning threat Curtis Granderson hit in that role? If Johnson hits second, does Granderson hit fifth? Does Posada? Where does Nick Swisher fit? Robinson Cano? The question I’m asking: Does it even matter? If it’s worth only one win over 162 games, can’t they afford to try different permutations?

These issues, the only issues currently facing the Yankees in spring training, will not have an enormous impact on the season. That means we should have a relatively quiet spring. If camp isn’t quiet, something has gone wrong. It means both Chamberlain and Hughes are getting lit up. It means Curtis Granderson is 0 for the spring against lefties. It means, and I gulp as I type this, that someone got hurt.

If these things don’t happen, the beat reporters have a boring spring and we hear a lot of regurgitation of talking points. In this case, I think I can handle it, given the implications of the alternative.

Residents, preservationists want park answers

With the new Yankee Stadium gearing up for its second season of baseball, the Daily News checked in on the city’s effort toward replacing the parkland lost in the South Bronx when the city ceded the Macombs Dam Park to the Yanks. As we know, the old stadium is still mostly standing, and residents are unhappy that replacement parks won’t open until 2011. The city says the stadium will be completely dismantled by the end of the summer, but it will still take at least a year to turn the land under old Yankee Stadium into Heritage Park. That project is approximately a year behind schedule, and as some, but not all, replacement parks have opened, Juan Gonzalez is unsurprisingly up in arms.

Meanwhile, our friends at Save the Gate 2 are still trying to save some of the old Yankee Stadium. While the Parks Department hasn’t accepted the group’s plan, it hasn’t been outright rejected yet either, and because the city’s Design Commission continues to ask the Parks Department for a plan that better commemorates Yankee Stadium, the old gate could still avoid the wrecking ball. These issues could come to a head tomorrow night at 6 p.m. when the Parks Department holds a public meeting at 198 E.161st St. on the myriad issues surrounding the parks. As I know from my work on transit issues, city government moves slowly, if at all.

Open Thread: Know the players by their new numbers

CC Sabathia, Bullpen Coach Mike Harkey and Pitching Coach Dave Eiland watch Phil Hughes throw today in Tampa. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

That’s a great looking photo up there. The pitchers and catchers officially arrived at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa this morning and got right to work. We love to celebrate the return of baseball, even if it’s just for a few hours of bullpen work each day, and over the next few weeks, the team will start to take the field in preparation for Opening Day.

Meanwhile, for number-watchers, today was a big day. The Yanks finally filled in the holes on their active roster, and all of the new guys and some of the old ones have new numbers. With so many non-roster invitees in camp and so many numbers retired, the Yankees have guys wearing everything from 2 to Colin Curtis‘ 98 in camp.

The most symbolic change this year will be the number on Joe Girardi‘s back. For the past two seasons, the Yanks’ skipper has donned 27 in his quest for the franchise’s 27th World Championship. With the trophy secured, Girardi will wear number 28 this year in the hunt for his next trophy. Girardi will be set until the Yanks win their 31st World Series title. Elston Howard’s number won’t come off the wall.

Meanwhile, some of the late-winter additions not noteworthy enough to warrant a press conference as Number 14 Curtis Granderson did picked out their numbers. Randy Winn has 22 on his back. Most recently, Xavier Nady and LaTroy Hawkins had donned Roger Clemens’ old number. Looking to buck with the past, Javier Vazquez has 31, last donned by Michael Dunn. Those 33 Vazquez shirts from 2004 won’t come in handy. Another once and current Yankee, Nick Johnson, has opted for 27. He last wore 36 but didn’t want to fight Edwar Ramirez for it. Kei Igawa, the not-so-proud former owner of 27, will switch to 17, says Bryan Hoch.

On the minor league front, two dueling outfielders have numbers that should tell you about their chances of making the team. Marcus Thames gets the well-travelled 38 — five former Yankees over the last two years, including Brian Bruney and Ian Kennedy in 2009, have worn it — while Jamie Hoffmann has been saddled with 73. A number that high is usually the Spring Training equivalent of a red shirt on the old Star Trek TV show.

Also of note are a bunch of the Yanks’ top prospects. Jesus Montero and Austin Romine will wear 83 and 84 respectively. Zach McAllister and Jeremy Bleich have 80 and 82. The youngest guy in camp, Kyle Higashioka, born in April 1990, will wear 92.

Finally, we have the numbers that are obviously missing from the uniforms this spring. The Yankees have again held back Joe Torre’s 6, Paul O’Neill’s 21 and Bernie Williams‘ 51. Johnny Damon‘s 18 remains on the shelf and so does Hideki Matsui‘s 55. Of those numbers, the 6 and the 51 should probably be retired while the other three can be returned to circulation.

Anyway, here’s your open thread for the evening. Some NBA trades involving the Knicks are going down. NBC’s botched Olympics coverage will be on. In local action, the Nets and Knicks both play at home at 7:30. Be good to each other.