As they head into their second full week of work down in Tampa, it's obvious the Yanks still have a couple of serious questions to answer. Some will be answered internally, others may require a more creative solution. Let's take a look at the well-known and less obvious problems facing the team, and suggest a couple of solutions.
Problem number one for this team is the bullpen. There's no getting around that. Even with Joba Chamberlain slotted to resume his role as the 8th inning guy, they're still going to need more arms out there. Mariano Rivera is still Mo, until further notice. Beyond those two guys, Kyle Farnsworth can't be counted on, LaTroy Hawkins is an unknown quantity until he takes the hill in a pressure situation wearing pinstripes, then you're left with Brian Bruney, Jose Veras, Ross Ohlendorf, Edwar Ramirez, Sean Henn, Kei Igawa and not much else from last year's roster. I'm hoping Ohlendorf, Edwar and Veras will come through, but you can't count on that. There are a few wild cards in camp, with Jeff Marquez and Mark Melancon being the two popular names, but as Peter Abraham noted
, Melancon has thrown only 6 innings of professional ball, and he's probably going to start the season in A ball.
Free agent options are less-than stellar. The top name still available out there is Armando Benitez. Need I say more? There's always the possibility of a trade, but who to trade for and who can you afford to give up?
This is one dilemma that's beyond me. The Yanks don't even have a marginal left-handed candidate. Damaso Marte is a name I've heard from time to time, but nothing recently. It's going to take a minor miracle for Joe Girardi to be able to piece together the needed innings out of this bullpen as currently constructed.
The second problem I see for the Yanks is starting pitching. They've got 5 starters going into the season in Wang, Pettitte, Hughes, Kennedy and Mussina, with Joba joining the rotation sometime after June (presumably either replacing Hughes or Kennedy, or spelling one or the other to limit their innings). On paper, it might work. In reality, you can't count on it. The Yanks are going to need 10-15 starts, minimum, from someone outside of that group of six guys. Who are those starts going to come from? Kei Igawa and Jeff Karstens seem the most likely candidates, which doesn't bode well for this team. A major injury to Mussina, Pettitte or Wang is going to necessitate a trade, unless the Yanks can find an insurance policy now.
The Sox signed Bartolo Colon to a minor league deal today, and I'd like to thank them for that. Colon is washed up and I'm extremely thankful we won't be seeing him try to overpower hitters with an 85 MPH fastball for the Bombers. Available free agent pitchers are bottom-of-the-barrel types at this point, outside of Kyle Lohse who doesn't want to come to the A.L. and represents only a slight upgrade over the other guys.
I really wish the Yanks could've lured one of the high-risk, high-reward free agents like Mark Prior or Randy Wolf, but they don't represent a good opportunity for a pitcher to rebuild his value, not in the A.L. East. Many Yankee fans are looking to the future to fill this hole, and after last season, I can't say I blame them. The minor league system is riddled with power arms, many of whom could have a meteoric rise through the ranks this season. I'm just a little hesitant to count on unproven rookies as backup for less unproven rookies. I don't expect a deal to be made for a starter before the season starts, but one could happen shortly thereafter if the injury bug bites or something unexpected happens.
Now that we have pitching out of the way, the rest is going to be a breeze. The Yanks will return all of the key cogs to their powerhouse offense of 2007. The only real question in their lineup is at first base where it's expected that Jason Giambi, Shelley Duncan, Wilson Betemit, Morgan Ensberg and Jason Lane will battle it out during the Spring. My personal preference would be a platoon of Giambi and Duncan (If Giambi is healthy) or Betemit and Duncan. I understand why Ensberg and Lane were brought in, but if Shelley is healthy, it should be his position to lose.
The final two problems lie in small areas. Number one is speed. The Yanks don't have a burner. They have four guys who could steal somewhere around twenty bases in Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Johnny Damon and Bobby Abreu, but beyond that, they don't have anything. What they need is a guy who can pinch run late in games and steal a base, if not two. It may seem like a luxury, but one run late in a game can turn a loss to a win, having a guy on the bench who can get himself into scoring position is crucial, especially when we get to playoff time. There is a solution out there, and his price has to be dropping at this point. Corey Patterson has seen every big name center fielder signed ahead of him, he's waiting and I think it's time the Yanks gave his agent a call. He's not an every day player, but he's a much better option as a fourth outfielder than Hideki Matsui at this point in his career. He can provide a left-handed bat off the bench, and the speed they need when Posada leads off with a single in the bottom of the ninth and they need to push that run across. Where he fits on the roster is another matter, but I think he's worth the gamble at this point.
The final area of need is one the Yanks and Yankee fans are loathe to discuss. A defensive wizard to play short as a defensive replacement from time to time. No, I'm not saying Derek Jeter should switch positions, but we've reached a point where we need to have someone on the roster who can flat out play short. It isn't going to be Alex Rodriguez, Wilson Betemit isn't much of an upgrade over Jeter. I think the Yanks need to carry Alberto Gonzalez into this season, and they need to think hard about using him to shore up the infield defense as a defensive replacement from time to time. Giving Jeter a day at DH now and then wouldn't be a bad idea either, keep him from wearing down.
That's really it. The main question lie with the pitching staff, and I don't think we're going to get too many answers for them before the season starts. On offense, a few tweaks could make the team much more dynamic, and turn a couple of one-run losses into wins. We have our "National League" manager back, no all we need to do is give him the tools to get the job done.