05/20/2008 10:21 AM ET
Yanks' future lacks Rays of hope
Prospects struggle in Minors as Tampa Bay keeps building
By Michael Salfino / SNY.tv
The Yankees had high hopes for young pitchers like Ian Kennedy, but so far the rookies have struggled. (AP)

It's too early to panic about the 2008 Yankees with some needed reinforcements on the way. But you aren't acting like Chicken Little in fearing for the franchise's long-term prospects. Maybe the sky isn't set to fall. But it's alarmingly easy to envision a scenario where this 2008 Yankees team is analogous to the 1964 club that ended a 15-year dynasty.

The Red Sox have superior starting pitching and have had their second phenom throw a no-hitter while the Yankees' "aces of the future" languish. The Sox also have ample financial resources to compete with the Yankees when you factor in the bang they get for their bucks due to their management savvy. Like the Yankees, they also pay "over the slot" for the best amateur draft talent and open the coffers for premier prospects available in the international market.

The Rays are no longer a laughingstock, currently sporting a pitching staff that's already better than the Yankees' and has even better arms set to emerge by 2010 at the latest. By then, Matt Garza could be their fifth starter, with promising young hurlers like Andy Sonnanstine and Edwin Jackson on the outside looking in or traded off for needs elsewhere.

Let's assume the Yankees close the gap by inserting Joba Chamberlain in the rotation, and that Chamberlain pitches well. That leaves them without a future closer, as Mariano Rivera is a power pitcher soon to turn 40. Ian Kennedy is no better than Sonnanstine. While Sonnanstine could be replaced by quality power arms like David Price, Wade Davis and Jacob McGee in the very near future, Kennedy is expected to be the Yanks' No. 4 starter behind Chamberlain, Chien-Ming Wang and Phil Hughes -- two of whom are totally unproven in the rotation.

Tampa Bay has a stable of young position players in Carl Crawford, Evan Longoria and B.J. Upton to build around. They can trade Sonnanstine and Jackson for relief help or convert them to relievers.

The Yankees' 13-year stretch of excellence can be extended in the future either with an infusion of young talent or their old-fashioned way -- via free agency through the use of their staggering wealth.

Before we offer a progress report on their top prospects, many of whom are either hurt or struggling, let's realize that the rising economic tide in baseball has lifted the small-market boats to the point that they can lock up desirable young talent into free agent years.

The Rays have the right to retain Longoria for nine years for, at most, $44 million. This is a guy who has been in the league for literally three weeks. And it's a sign of the times as Mark Teixeira might be the last premium young player to escape into the open market after a mere six years of service time.

If Crawford gets mad at the Rays for exercising his option this November, he might declare for free agency the following year, giving the Yanks a great chance to help themselves while hurting a competitor. And if you don't view the Rays as a competitor now and into the future, you're just not paying attention.

This coming offseason might be the last great chance for the Yankees to reverse their current course. It's going to take a staggering amount of money for the Yankees to land Teixeira and fortify their rotation with the likes of C.C. Sabathia or A.J. Burnett, who can opt out of his contract. Then they're back in business. But consider that Burnett is a guy who is always hurt. Because there are more dollars chasing fewer players, he's very likely to choose to forgo $24 million in 2009 and 2010 for a long-term deal. The Yankees will have to pony up about $70 million for four years for him. Sabathia will likely command $25 million annually over six or seven years, and expect a $200 million price tag for Teixeira.

The Yankees roster needs major fortification. Jorge Posada may never be able to catch regularly again given his age and shoulder woes. Derek Jeter turns 34 next month and can't hit well enough any longer to make up for his tremendous defensive shortcomings. Right now he's on pace to register about 119 fewer putouts and assists than the average shortstop.

Melky Cabrera is underrated but likely no more than a complementary player and certainly not a cornerstone. Robinson Cano is merely good. Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui will need to be replaced soon. Only Alex Rodriguez is a guaranteed All-Star for the next few years.

The Yankees are old. We think of the 1964 team as one that simply expired, but it had an average age of 28.2 compared to 31.4 for the 2008 Yanks.

The best news right now on the farm is Low-A catcher Jesus Montero, who is 18 yet currently sports a .823 OPS. However, there are serious questions about whether Montero can stay at the position; he was 3-for-33 throwing out baserunners last year. If he must move to first, he loses a good bit of his luster.

Also at Low-A Charleston is Dellin Betances, who is piling up strikeouts but has a hard time finding the plate with 32 walks in 47 innings.

2006 third-round pick Zachary McAllister is someone to watch, with 43 K's and just seven walks in 44 innings, including an 11-K, zero-walk performance in his last start.

Highly rated outfielder Jose Tabata is slumping at Double-A Trenton with a .568 OPS and no homers in 144 at-bats. This was supposed to be a breakout year for him after wrist surgery corrected an injury that observers attributed his lack of power to last year. Tabata is young -- he turns 20 in August -- but lacks the size and power to project well as a corner outfielder.

Center fielder Austin Jackson, 21, has been mediocre in Trenton -- .755 OPS after a .964 season in High-A Tampa Bay last year. Jackson has five hits and a homer his last two games, so perhaps he's adjusting.

Scouts think Brett Gardner is a fourth or even fifth outfielder, so we'll ignore his decent sabermetric profile at Triple-A Scranton.

I hear good things about Alan Horne, but he's old (turned 25 in January) and has struggled with injuries, including a partially torn biceps that is just about healed. One AL East scout told me that Horne's stuff is better than Phil Hughes', but that doesn't sound as impressive now as it did in November.

Michael Salfino is a nationally syndicated columnist and analyst and a regular contributor to SNY.tv.
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